Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Castaway

Not only had I never seen Castaway before, I have some how managed to avoid spoilers about the ending, which I am going to spoil here in a minute, so if you want to remain a virgin, you should quietly slip out the back now. Most of what I knew was Wilson the Volleyball and that was pretty much all from parodies and cultural references in other locales. So I pretty much had a clean slate going in other than my usual expectation of tossing a coin to decide whether I will like a Tom Hanks movie. I did like Castaway, for what it is worth, but I was surprised by the ending.

It surprised me because I had forgotten Hollywood could be so cynical. Essentially, Hank’s character, Chuck, survives for four years stranded on a deserted South Pacific island with nothing but a volleyball and a photo of his wife in a locket to keep him company. It was fascinating to watch Chuck slowly degenerate mentally and emotionally during his ordeal, even to the point he treats Wilson as a child would a stuffed animal or doll. What is even more amazing is to realize the bulk of said deterioration is demonstrated by Hanks as the onlt human actor for the longest time on screen. No wonder he wound up with his umpteenth Best Actor nod, although I believe he lost out to Russell Crowe that year.

But here is where things turn strange—for Hollywood at any rate. There is this big build up that the only reason Chuck is staying alive is to get back to his true love. At one point, which is awkwardly addressed in the past tense twice, Chuck decides to give up and hang himself in order to end his physical and emotional pain. His plan fails and something tells him there is a reason he needs to stay alive. So he redoubles his determination to do so. Eventually, he is able to build a raft and escape the island. So hard times pass at seas, including losing Wilson, before he is rescued.

You would think we would headed for a happy ending here. We are not. Everyone thought Chuck was dead and have moved on with their lives. His sweetie has remarried and does not even have the nerve to show up to greet him when he gets stateside. Instead, she sends her new husband. That is a low blow I can barely put into words. The two eventually do meet back up and have a bittersweet reunion in which you almost think several times she might dump the husband we already do not like because he is an interloper as far as we are concerned, but she does not. Chuck drives off into the night because he knows life has passed him by.

He finally delivers the package that he was trying to when his plane crashed four years previous. Country singer Lari White, cameos as the recipient. There is a brief flash there in which you think the two of them see sparks flying, but they do not. The movie ends with Chuck at a four way crossroads wondering where to go from here. It is left up in the air why there was a dire need for him to stay alive. He figured it was because his wife was waiting for him and you really wanted to see that right before the credits rolled. No such luck. Hollywood took a slice from real life. Just because you suffer does not mean there is something good on the other end. Those feelings of having a higher purpose are not messages from on high as much as maybe indigestion. You will probably wind up, as Chuck did, wondering what the heck all that crap was for.

The best part is the movie ends there rather than with Chuck going on every talk on television, landing a book deal, and selling the movie rights before eventually replacing Jeff Probst as host of Survivor. All that most certainly would have happened, but the movie’s ending made sure you never got a hint it would. I found it amazing the film would end on such a downer ending.

Castaway appeals to my sensibilities even if the ending does not accurately reflect the enriching possibilities that now lay before Chuck in our celebrity obsessed world. maybe we are supposed to believe Chuck is too humble a guy for all that. I do not know, but Castaway works on all other levels.

Rating: **** (out of 5)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Rambo

Sylvester Stallone, perhaps because his advancing age is prompting him to be more reflective about the characters that made him a superstar, has tried in recent years to give a sense of spiritual closure to both Rocky Balboa and John Rambo. I think he did a much better job with the final film in the former franchise than the latter.

I will be the first to admit Rambo is a noble effort. Of all the sequels, it is the closest in tone to the far superior to any of them original. Rambo is now a grisly old man living isolated in te Thai jungle. He has lost touch with virtually every shred of his humanity when approached by missionaries with a request he take them upriver into war torn Burma on a humanitarian mission.

He refuses at first, but is convinced by Sarah, played by Julie Benz, to go along with it. When he is forced to kill a boatload of pirates in order to save Sarah, the other missionaries shun his further help. Sarah, however, appears to have reawakened something inside him with her sweet dedication to humanitarianism.

Predictably, the missionaries recaptured by the Burmese army as they massacre a village. The missionaries’ pastor visits Rambo and asks him to help guide mercenaries the church has hired to rescue the missionaries. Imagine passig the offering platearoud for that on Sunday morning. Just go with it. I did.

Rambo joins up with the mercenaries even though they are not thrilled with the idea of the old man tagging along. There is an effort made to differentiate Rambo’s new attitude with the guns lining mercenaries, but I think it comes too fast to be plausible. When they come across the massacred village, they all vow revege. Rambo drops back into old form ashe helps liberate the missionaries from a prion camp, then kills 268 Burmesesoldiers, including disemboweling the sadistic commander.

It isa brutally abrupt end to a very abrupt movie. It is niety minutes log, but feels far shorter. I feel that way because Rambo’s journey back to accepting his humanity is an ambitious undertaking that is completed far too quickly. Weare supposed to accept minimal contact with missionaries over a few days has had this profound impact on his psyche when it is established he only had one conversation with sarah the entire time. Wesay that conversation. It as not much. I guess rambo is acheap date.

But who a I to question anyone else’s spiritual epiphanies? In the end, Rambo is motivated to return home to Arizona tosee his elderly father. Taking the previous films into account, he presumably has not seen hisfather in nearly thirty years. It makes for a nice sense of closure.

Stallone wanted to make Rambo his Unforgiven. I do not think hit a mark that high, but he did do a good job. Rambo just does not have the juice to be as poignant as Stallone intended, But it is the best we can expect from him. That is all we can ask for.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Rambo: First Blood, Part III

Rambo: First Blood Part III is a solid action film that is victim of circumstance. It carries on the tradition of the dirty, rotten atheist Soviets as the ultimate in unredeemable, one-dimensional villains, but it does so in 1988, a time when the Cold war was thawing and we were not quite so quick to demonize those behind the Iron Curtain.

The soviets were also rapidly losing the war in Afghanistan. While I certain applaud the war in Afghanistan as the backdrop for the movie--they were not many Hollywood productions calling attention to the conflict--it did come too little, too late. These days, one’s perspective is altered as well wondering how many of the Afghan rebels who fought alongside became northern Alliance allies to the united states and which became sympathetic to the Taliban.

See? Bad timing.

Otherwise, part three is the most enjoyable of the three action movie sequels to the original psychological thriller. At one poit, it hel the Guiness Book of World Records title for the most violent film ever, with 236 separate acts of violence ad 110 people killed onscreen. The title has since been handed off--to Rambo, the fourth and final film in the franchise.

For whatever reason, the violence does not bother me as much here as in part two. I am not certain why. Much of it, particularly some sadistic torture scenes and a self-cauterization, done by Rambo, are some of the most graphic I have seen in a big budget movie. Perhaps it is because the movie presents the plight of the Afghans, something I had been watching on the even news for years by the time the movie was released, resonated with me more than revenge fantasies about Vietnam. There seems to be more of a point to it here rather than the bloodlust satisfaction of the last one.

Thankfully, this is the last time we see Trautman. Again, he is bursting with pride over how screwed up he has made Rambo, assuring him he needs to go on this mission to find stolen Stinger missiles because he is awar machine, not someone who needs to be seeking inner peace and redemption in a monastery. To his credit, Rambo refuses, but is drawn into the conflict once Trautman is captured by theSoviets. Rambo rationalizes he has to rescue his former CO because he would do it for him, even though Trautman sat on his hands when he got captured I the previous film.

The rescue gets personal win the Soviets slaughter a camp of Afghan rebels will a helicopter that Rambo manages to take down unbelievably with a bow and arrow. What follows is two--count ’em, two--assaults on a prison fortress, an exciting battle sequence in dark, underground caves, and a take duel before it is all over and Rambo and Trautman can ride of into the peaceful local of beautiful…Pakistan.

I think this film hits all the marks the best since the original. It isa good action movie, not too dumb, not too serious. Its heart is in the right place and it gets stabbed through with a knife in the name of freedom. What more could you ask for--besides better timing?
Rating: *** (out of 5)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Rambo: First Blood, Part II

Rambo: First Blood, part II begins the slide away from serious exploration of what combat can do to an ordinary man towards implausibly violent revenge fantasies against America’s Cold War enemies. Rambo survives a parachuting accident, jungle hazards, explosions, gruesome torture that ought to have cooked his brain cells to a cinder, and about two million bullets, all while being betrayed yet again by his country.

The plot is the most successful of the myriad rescue American POW left behind in Vietnam movies prevalent I the ’80’s. the movie racked up box office of over $ 300 million worldwide, making it the most successful film in the franchise. It was een cited by Ronald Reagan as an example of American heroics defying the evil Soviet empire.

That, by the way, is a ridiculous notion. Rambo is apolitical. A man completely jaded by politics of all stripes. But I cannot deny the blind jingoism of the film. The Soviets and Vietnamese characters a completely one-dimensional, pure evil stereotypes. Only one, Col. Padovsky, even has any lines in English at all. Rambo: First Blood, Part Ii is a pure fantasy in which Rambo single handedly wins the unfinished Vietnam War whether the American government wants him to or not.

They do not, by the way. Or at least the CIA does not. The entire operation to find POW is a public relations stunt to appease those who believe American prisoners are still alive in Vietnam. Rambo supposed to go in, take pictures of what is supposed to bean empty camp, and prove there are no Americans left. Rambo’s status as a decorated war veteran and former POW himself is supposed to lend credibility to the discovery the camps have long since been abandoned.

I guess we are supposed to just ignore Rambo got out of prison early after shooting up an entire town, killing cops in the process. Surely that would have no effect on his credibility, right?

Rambo finds the camp full of prisoners and rescues one who has been literally hug out to dry. His contacts abandon him when they discover what he has done and the battle is on. This is the point at which Rambo becomes an invincible super warrior, surviving torture and everything else the entire Vietnamese and half the Soviet army throw sat him as he liberates the camp and makes it back to safety in Thailand.

There is a minor, completely implausible love story brewing between Rambo and his Vietnamese contact, Co. She exist solely to rescue him from Padovsky, then conveniently get killed in order to make sure rambo ends up aloe at the end. Rocky and Adrian, this ain’t.

At least the speech at the end in which Rambo expresses his anger America does not care about the soldiers who sacrificed for them in a losing war is far easier to understand than the one that ended First Blood. Trautman isstill pretty much a jerk about it all, even though he is still impressed Rambo can survive anything. Thanks exclusively to his training, of course.

The movie racks up a total onscreen body count of 67, 57 of which are killed by Rambo directly. I thought the violence was way too gratuitous to be really enjoyable, but I do not have revenge fantasies about Vietnam considering my young age. I am willing to concede the whole “we get to win this time” may resonate with those old enough to remember the sting of “losing” Vietnam.

Or maybe not. I cannot fathom how the movie can seriously salve anyone’s wounds. It is so far fetched and really quite cruel to families who still have missing loved ones from the war. Of all the Rambo film, this is the one I am least likely to willingly sit through again.

Rating: ** (out of 5)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

First Blood

First Blood is the first film of the Rambo franchise and sticks out among the rest as a psychological thriller rather than a straight action flick. It is the only one that does not glorify the violence. Rambo is not the invincible super warrior single-handedly defeating the declared enemies of the United States, but an emotionally disturbed soldier who cannot deal with having fought and been ‘defeated” in an unpopular war.

The film starts out with Rambo, a former Army Special Forces member, going to visit a comrade from his old unit. He learns that his friend has died a particularly horrific death, having been eaten away by cancer caused by exposure to Agent Orange. We do not learn until later this means Rambo is the last man left alive from his old unit.

Rambo enters a small town and is picked up by Sheriff Teasle, played with redneck glee by Brian Dennehy. Teasle spies Rambo’s shaggy hair and army jacket and assumes he is a trouble making drifter. He urges him to leave town. After a minor tussle, he arrests Rambo for carrying a huge pig sticker asa concealed weapon.

The police unfairly brutalize Rambo because he is generally uncooperative. Their actions, particularly an attempt to dry save Rambo, cause a flashback to a torture experience from Rambo’s POW experience. He assaults the officers and breaks out of the police station.

The hunt is on. Rambo becomes the crazed survivalist he is trained to be. Once, when he tries to surrender after killing a cop in self-defense and another when he nearly killsa young hunter before he realizes the kid is not his enemy. Otherwise, he is almost running on autopilot defending himself from the cops and National Guard. We are supposed to be rooting for him, but he is so screwed up, I was really hoping he would be locked up before he wipes out half the authorities in the Pacific Northwest.

Rambo’s only ally is Col. Trautman, his former commanding officer. He speaks of Rambo’s murderous skills with such admiration, you realize that not only isRambo’s emotional state largely his fault, he appears to be proud of the fact. Subsequent films will not present his character in any etter light, either.

The rampage explodes throughout the now deserted town and ends in the empty police station with Trautman confronting a sobbing Rambo. He relates a heartbreaking story about how he is the only one of his unit left alive. He wishes he had died in the jungle, too, because he cannot even hold down a job selling French fries eve though e was a hero in Vietnam.

At least it is heartbreaking if you read it in the script. You cannot makes heads or tails out of the semi-coherent ramblings onscreen. Sylvester Stallone cannot enunciate to save his soul during highly emotional scenes in ay of his movies. I cite this as the worst example. It is a shame, too, because the tearful outburst lays out his motivation for his violet actions throughout the movie.

I like First Blood. Sometimes it borders on becoming exploitation film, but then I compare it to the live action comic books the sequels often are and then it feels like a masterpiece instead. It is not a fun movie to watch, but it is worthwhile to see the damage that can be done when you remove the humanity from the soldier and then turn him loose into society.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Friday, June 18, 2010

Planet of the Apes (2001)

The only reason I am going to waste any blog space on this travesty is because I am a completes. I vowed a week’s worth of Planet of the Apes posts and I aim to fill out the full seven days, too. But I absolutely despise this movie. Hate, hate, hate it. Much of my animosity has to do with my fondness for the original, but there are several other reasons.

First, the film languished in development for thirteen years. Pre-production actually began in 1988 when Oliver Stone was to produce a script entitled Return of the Apes with Arnold Swarzenegger starring. Just on the surface, that sounded like a good project. Creative differences scuttled the that plan. Over the ensuing decade, the movie moved from Sam Hamm to Chris Columbus to Jams Cameron to Peter Jackson to the Hughes Brothers and finally, Tim Burton.

Ugh. Any movie that spends that long in development is bound to be awful. It proves there is not a good, obvious vision for the story. Look at Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as a fine example of what nearly twenty years of development will do for a film. But add to that the horrible idea of hiring Tim Burton to direct and you have a mess.

Do not get me wrong about Burton. I recognize he is a fine artist when he is in his element. But his element is twisted fantasy with a dark sense of humor. I have fond memories of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, A Nightmare Before Christmas, Ed Wood, and Sleepy Hollow, but he cannot do science fiction to save his goth soul.

It pains me to admit it because Burton more than anyone else gave comic book based movies legitimacy with 1989’s Batman in spite of the fact he snobbishly announced he had never read a comic book in his life. I was afull fledged comic book fanatic at the time, so I was part of that group always upset that comic book based movies were usually terribly campy. Batman was the best we had ever seen thus far, so we overlooked its many flaws up until the genre really started soaring with Sam Raimi’s spider-Man series and Chris Columbus’ X-Men along with Chris Nolan’s Batman rivival that blew Burton off the radar. We were finally free to admit he did not do a very good job with the Caped Crusader all those years ago.

He also bombed out with Batman Returns, Mars Attacks! and, of course, Planet of the Apes. He understands that, too. He went on record back in 2001 as saying he would rather jump out a window that direct a sequel. With him gone, Mark Wahleberg and Helena Bonham Carter also expressed reluctance at reprising their roles. The movie was a hit, but a sequel was DOA. Thank heaven for small miracles.

Second, I did not go for the story. It did not flow for me. Leo, the astronaut, is a cynical loner like George Taylor, but when he crashes on the planet and sees the humans used as slaves, he immediately opts to lead a rebellion. I thought Taylor’s complete self-interest was more plausible. For whatever reason, the bleeding heart routine of Ari was too much for me. I preferred Zira’s slow realization that humans had value. The confrontation between the humans and apes did not strike me as epic as the original film, either, although it was meant to be even bigger. Further proof less is more.

I understand it is difficult to produce an exciting movie when we already know the revelations it is supposed to reveal. You have to make it big and exciting to compensate while trying to honor the original, yet do something different at the same time. It is a tall order. I was probably destined to dislike the film from the beginning. That is certainly what happened. I will give major kudos to the make up department, however. The apes looked fantastic.

Then there is this:Finally, the ultimate proof the movie is awful. The film was released on July 27th, 2001. I had just moved to Virginia beach to attend law school five days before that. I was so busy getting acclimated to a new place I never saw it while it was in theaters. Knowing my attachment to originals, I was skeptical whether I would like it ost critics were savaging it, anyway.

But I eventually bit the bullet and rented it in the spring. Law school was taking its toll. Throughout the first semester, a law student is lucky to have time to catch his breath and learn anything more than the first name of half his classmates, much lesssettledown for some entertainment. When the opportunity presented itself, no one complained. Watching grass grow was preferable to applying the rule of perpetuities to archaic real estate transactions. Heck, I even watched Enterprise--on purpose!--without complaint.

But I could not stand Plasnet of the Apes.

There are plans afoot for a new five part series starting with a movie called Caesar. The idea sounds reminiscent of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. A scientist develops a super intelligent, talking ape who becomes enraged when the scientist’s wife is killed. Caesar begins to despise humanity, particularly their abuse of simians, and plots a revolt. Said revolt should lead to a planet ruled by apes throughout the rest of the proposed series.

I have not heard much else about the project and I am curious whether the lukewarm reception of Terminator: Salvation may give production companies pause about relighting multiple movie deals. Odds are, I will not be too thrilled about t either way.

Rating; ** (out of 5)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Battle for the Planet of the Apes

Battle for the Planet of the Apes is almost embarrassingly minimalist in sets and casting. The former can be rationalized by the setting being a post-nuclear war Ape City and a completely destroyed forbidden City of radiation humans who will eventually become those bomb worshipers of the 40th century. The casting is a little harder to defend. Perhaps they broke the bank hiring the legendary John Huston to play the lawgiver. Outside of movie star Roddy McDowall, the cast was made up of television stars like Claude Akins and diminutive singer Paul Williams as apes. But come on--it is Sheriff Lobo and the guy who wrote “Rainy Days and Mondays.” Surely you cannot really say that is a big step down from television stars James Franciscus and eric Braeden of previous films?

Okay, so you can. Regardless, Battle is a worthy conclusion to the original penology in spite of its movie of the week feel. Considering the next step in the franchise was a television series more in tune with this film than the one that started it all, it could be considered a logical step. I will address that tomorrow. For now, let us wrap up the original movie series.

It is ten years after Caesar lead a simian revolt. It appears someone panicked in the interim and a devastating nuclear war ensued. Caesar is nonplussed. He is happily married, has a kid named Cornelius, and is presiding peacefully over both apes and humans in what will become Ape City. Enter Aldo, a thick headed gorilla who does not believe humans and apes can coexist. It his intention to round them up and kill them all so apes will rule what is left of the world.

He has to be the Aldo Cornelius spoke of from the Sacred Scrolls in Escape , but he does not fit Cornelius’ story. Aldo was not a slave and he was not the first to say “no” to a human. I am not certain if this is supposed to mean Cornelius and Vera traveling back through time may have altered the future or if it is just retconning. I am just going to chalk it up to the latter rather than go into another mind numbing discussion about the physics of time travel. I am a Calvinist, folks. If it is meant to be, it will be. ’Nuff said.

Caesar develops pangs of not knowing his parents, so his human assistant says he can go into the Forbidden City and find recordings of their testimony from Escape. Caesar travels there and catches the attention of radiation scarred humans living in hiding. They are not as advanced as their counterparts in the future. In fact, they are awfully bland. I blame it on the low budget. They begin plotting a confrontation with the apes.Meanwhile, Caesar watches his parents’ testimony and learns of earth’s eventual fate. He determines to change it by encouraging peaceful coexistence. It should be noted this is the first time in all five films either ape or human seriously suggests peaceful coexistence as a way of life. Savor the optimism. It only lasts about twenty minutes.

While Caesar is away, aldo pumps up the other apes with his plan to get rid of the humans. Cornelius overhears him and pays the price. He is mortally wounded when AAldo chops of the tree limb the child was hanging on. Caesar is heartbroken, but has to join in the battle with the radiation scarred humans. Said battle looks like a high school staging of a Mad Max movie.

Aldo wants to kill all the humans while the killing it good, but it is revealed he is the one who caused Cornelius’ death. He has broken the most important law: ape shall not kill ape. Caesar takes the opportunity to turn all apes against Aldo’s plan, but the humans are not exactly keen on Caesar’s leadership, either. They are still second class citizens and do not like it. Caesar is not very hopeful for he future even though the radiation scarred humans have bee defeated and the other humans have no violent intentions. And well he should. Back in the Forbidden City, the remaining radiation scarred humans are about to send off a doomsday bomb when their new leader suggests they do not waste it. It should be revered instead as the Giver of Life. In the final scene, the statue of Caesar tears up six hundred years in the future. Even though apes and humans live together in peace at the time, it is clear the future is inevitable.

This all makes you wonder what other catastrophic event occurred between Battle and POTA to erase so much historical knowledge. We definitely see that even benevolent apes like Caesar do not care much for humans. Aldo is a supremacist like just about everyone in the distant future is to become. What happens to divide the two so much that in 19 centuries humans are primitives, apes are kept in the Dark Ages about the past by the keepers of the Sacred Scrolls? There was never another movie planned to address the issue, so it is left up to the imagination. Considering my general aversion to prequels, I suppose I should be happy it was left that way. I will betthere is some fan fiction out there, though.

Rating: * (out of 5)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

The fourth film in the Planet of the Apes series is easily the worst. It is terrible in all respects, not the least of which is how badly it was filmed. It the darkest film I have ever seen, not in terms of tone, but the lighting period. It literally look like Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was filmed by candlelight. The movie is also disturbingly violent. It takes a lot of gruesome violence to bother me, so I am not only impressed the film made me flinch, but that a number of changes had to be made before the wide release because test audiences found the original cut even more upsetting.

I think movies like this are handicapped right out the gate because they are telling a story we have gotten hints of in the past and therefore have already imagined how it turnes out. Thereal deal is never better than the power of our imagination. This is why I have come to the conclusion prequels are a bad idea virtually all the time. Who cares about the road trip when you have already had a better time at the destination? The question has a double importance when you consider the road trip was as bad as Conquest.

The story plays out in a variation of what Cornelius told the presidential commission in Escape from the planet of the Apes. According to Cornelius, the progression of apes from pets to slaves to masters took several centuries. At the time, the movie producers assumed the Apes series was going to be a trilogy. When Fox ordered a fourth film, the story was retconned into taking less than twenty years for apes to come out of the jungle and into power. But hey, the continuity problems are the least of it.

A plague does occur sometime in the late ‘70’s which kills off all the cats and dogs. Humans begin taking apes as pets to replace them. Eventually, the complex tricks the apes are trained to do become menial, but beneficial tasks. I cannot blame people for taking that logical step. Who would not want a monkey butler? That would be totally cool. By 1991, the United States has become a fascist regime based on a privileged leisure class living off the enslaved apes.

This makes no sense on the surface. No explanation is given why the country became fascist other than the slavery of the apes. Something needed to be thrown in there as a catalyst; a war, harsh economic times, or some sort of natural disaster which prompted citizens to give up their freedoms for security. But we got nothing like that. Americans have apparently embraced fascism because they liked the idea of oppressing apes, so they gave up their own freedoms in order to do so. Or something like that. There is not even so much as a throwaway line to explain any of it, so your guess is as god as mine.

Armando is still looking after Milo even after he has grown into a young adult. Milo has to fake being a regular, dumb ape, but through an unfortunate series of events, he gets captured and enslaved by the government. When he sees the brutal training, torture, and sometimes execution his ’brothers’ suffer through, he changes his name to Caesar and becomes a revolutionary. He and the other apes eventually revolt. They go on an incredibly violent rioting spree against the humans.

Originally, the film ended with the apes beating the head bureaucrat of ape control to death in the street. Audiences reacted negatively, so it was changed to have the sliver of optimism presented when Caesar proclaims that humans and apes ought to live in peace although he does announce this is the beginning of the planet of the apes. One is left to wonder the emotions you are supposed to feel about it. As in the previous film, you are not too thrilled either side won. You do not like what humans have become, but you know the apes are not going to fare any better in the long run.

If I did not enjoy the fifth and final film in the series, I would have said the series should have stayed a trilogy. Considering how much I disliked Escape, it probably should have only been two movies, but what can you do? I will cover the final film tomorrow and explain why I like it in spite of its flaws. It is enough of a good movie to make me forgive Conquest.

Nevertheless, I cannot write up a review on Conquest and not talk about the impossibility of Caesar beginning the ape rebellion. Caesar is the son of the only talking apes in the 20th century because his two talking ape parents traveled to 1973. Thus, Caesar established the line of talking apes which eventually begat his parents. A casual loop has been created with no discrenable origin point. What was the catalyst for apes gaining the ability talk? You cannot even attribute it to an aftereffect of the plague which killed off the cats and dogs since it has been established twaddle to Caesar’s presence in the past.

In layman’s terms, Caesar is distant ancestor of himself. It is a little more distant, but similar to the episode of Futurama in which Fry traveled back in time wanting to meet his grandfather. While waiting for him at a bar, he meets a woman. After a few drinks, hey decide to sleep with each other. After having unprotected, Fry learns the woman is his grandmother. He got her pregnant and therefore he is his own grandfather. It just cannot happen since there is no distinct origin point for Fry.

If you think about it too much, the whole series will be ruined for you.

Rating: ** (out of 5)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Escape from the Planet of the Apes

Escape from the Planet of the Apes is second only to the original in critical praise. For this, I am baffled. It is not the worst of the bunch. That would be tomorrow’s installment. But the continuity errors and silly attempt to place Cornelius and Zira into modern society was just too much for me. It is just too much of a radical departure from the previous films for me to get behind.

Quick summary: Cornelius, Zira, and Milo manage to salvage Taylor’s spaceship and escape before the nuclear bomb from BTPOTA explodes. They are thrown back in time to 1973 where Cornelius and Zira eventually become media celebrities and targets of suspicion from the government while Milo becomes the victim of an overzealous gorilla. They decide to hide the truth about Earth’s future, but the truth is eventually forced out of a now pregnant Zira. The president orders the baby terminated and the two sterilized, so they go on the lam. Both are eventually killed by federal agents, but their was safely stashed away in a zoo to prevent the feds from killing him.

First off, the set up is completely illogical. We are expected to believe Cornelius, Zira, and a new chimp named Milo scurried off after Brent and Nova left them in BTPOTA to the sunken remains of Taylor’s spaceship. In spite of originating from a pre-industrial society, they knew how to repair the ship, get it flying, and somehow caught some sort of wave from Earth’s destruction in order to be thrown back in time to 1973. They managed to get airborne in a manner of a few days at most. Heck, I cannot even figure out how they got the astronaut boots on considering chimps have an opposable toe that could not be crammed into a human boot.

But let us just assume Cornelius the archeologist and Zira the veterinarian could have combined brain power with Milo, who was, n all fairness, considered to be the most brilliant of the three by Zira, could pull that off. The continuity errors before and after ruin the overall arc. Under testimony before a government commission, Cornelius reveals the history of the plague that killed off all cats and dogs, but left apes with a growing intelligence. He told of how they became pets, then slaves, and then one day, one named Aldo spoke the word, “No!” Thus the rebellion was born which eventually toppled humanity.

But Cornelius was just as clueless about the secret history of the world as everyone else in the future. He could not have learned all this from the Sacred scrolls. One might speculate Zaius possessed such knowledge and gave it to Cornelius and Zira after the events of POTA, but there is no proof of that. Subsequently, Zira says it took centuries for apes to go from pets to slaves to rulers. According to the sequels, it only took a couple decades. Perhaps that could be chalked up as estimations of time incalculable because of the intervening nuclear war. But the most irreconcilable point is the day aldo refused to serve is an annual holiday in the far future. If that were true, then every ape should know humans were once dominant. Yet they did not.

See/ this stuff just bugs me too much to enjoy it.

If one is not a stickler for continuity, I can see how the film would be enjoyable. It can be both funny and horrifying at times. When society embraces Cornelius and Zira, they reciprocate hilariously. Zira models the latest fashions, joins the women’s liberation movement, and discovers a taste for alcohol. Cornelius makes an effort to become a bon vivant. It all comes unraveled when Zira accidentally reveals she used to dissect humans as part of her study. Under drugs (What, no waterboarding?) she reveals all. To our society, it sounds like Nazi war crimes of Josef Mengele. To Zira, it was animal research.

Like in other Apes films, it is difficult to sympathize with anyone. Cornelius and Zira are intentionally deceptive. They had to assume the moment they arrived in the past the two of them must have set off the historical chain of events leading to the rise of the apes. Cornelius accidentally kills a man who teases Zira. The government agents are stereotypically evil, so no surprise there. Really, Earth’s destruction is so far into the future, the urgency of getting rid of the baby is like freaking out over the sun burning out in another five billion years. Why the rush, particularly when Cornelius and Zira are beloved celebrities? these days, the public would anxiously await the birth. Some magazine would shell out big bucks for exclusive rights to publish them. I doubt there would be a mob waiting to kill it for the alleged human downfall which will not take place for centuries.

Even after all that, it is disturbing to see Corneliys and Zira die in a hail of bullets at the end. The Apes series liked to leave the audience with something tragic to think about, but the other two films left food for thought. The massacre of the two main characters was just gruesome. In particular, Zira drowning “her” baby in order to cover up the real baby is safely in seclusion at a circus run by Armando. Armando was played by the late, great Ricardo Montalban. He and the baby will return tomorrow for theworst of the Apes movies as the world plunges into dystopia sooner than Cornelius ever let on.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Beneath the Planer of the Apes

I have two incredibly lonely cinematic experiences. One, I think Timothy Dalton made a great James Bond. Two, I think Beneath the Planet of the Apes is the best of the series. You have no idea how vilified I am for holding these two beliefs. But an intense, humorless Bond is a good idea and post apocalyptic stories are my thing, so there.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes certainly has its flaws. The most glaring is the absence of Roddy McDowell as Cornelius. This is the only live action Apes project besides the 2001 Tim Burton travesty in which McDowall does not play the main monkey. Interestingly enough, scenes featuring McDowall as Cornelius are edited into the beginning of the film and most promotional materials feature him as Cornelius. Every move has been taken to hide the fact it is not McDoawll under the makeup. Cornelius was played by David Watson, about the most anonymous actor to ever play a main role.

The other problems are some serious logical flaws. Why would NASA send another astronaut to find out what happened to Taylor when his mission was a deep space flight intended to take centuries? The first time Taylor removes himself from suspended animation is seven hundred years after the mission launch. Surely there was no need to send John Brent after him.

There is also no scientific reason to believe humans would be radiation scarred mutants with extraordinary powers thousands of years in the future. The detrimental effects of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki generally had no lasting effects beyond the population that survived the bombings in the first place. That was fact was well know even in the late 1960’s when BTPOTA was written. Perhaps multiple strikes of warheads far advanced of those from 1945 could have a different affect or maybe the metal powers are to be considered a natural part of human evolution. It is not clearly stated, but it is implied nuclear weapons are considered the “Givers of Life,” so it is reasonable to assume bad science is the explanation. Of course, you then have to wonder why only some humans were affected while the rest became mute savages with no idea about past Earth history.

Speaking of bad science, it is laughable to consider one tiny nuclear weapon that looks more like a bronzed toy rocket to be a doomsday device that acan destroy the entire planet. One could argue that all life on the future Earth was confined to what used to be the New york area and therefore all life was destroyed, but the next film in the series contradicts that idea and several others, for that matter. I will get to those tomorrow.

The budget for the film was cut dramatically from the original POTA. The cut corners are not evident with the mutants. The make up work there won an oscar. But many of the ape extras wore masks rather than make up. It is embarrassingly obvious even in the long shots of the extended battle scene at the end.But I can overlook all that just because of the fun absurdity of it all. Radiation scarred mutants living among the underground ruins of Manhattan, pacifists solely because they do not want to get their hands dirty, sing hymns to a nuclear bomb as their creator. How can you not appreciate that someone sat in front of a typewriter somewhere and thought that was a great idea?

The film tries, bless its heart, to take as serious a look at religion as its predecessor, but cannot quite pull it off. The big problem is there is no opposing viewpoint to counter the bad aspects of religion presenting. The gorillas are complete morons pushing for a holy war against whatever is out there in the Forbidden Zone without ever taking the time to figure out if it is something they want to mess with. As for the mutants who worship the nuclear bomb, well, they are just nutty. It is already well established neither religion is worth following, so we are watching a holy war in which we do not sympathize with either side. But that sense of nihilism has its appeal for me. Brent is more idealistic than Taylor, but he does not care about enslaved humanity anymore than Taylor did. The human slaves are dealt with in a much more cursory manner here than in POTA, so I do not really care about them, either. The mutants are hideous religious fanatics, so I do not like them, either. The holy warrior gorilla army that decides to invade the Forbidden Zone is a bunch of violent idiots who demonstrate their ignorance repeatedly throughout the course of the story. Who did not laugh themselves silly when they toppled the nuclear bomb and several died right there of radiation poisoning?

Everything pointed to the idea it all had to end with the destruction of everything because you do not want anyone to win. In other words, Taylor was right all aong to be cynical about humanity in the first place. Since he learned to not think much of apes, either, the only logical conclusion was to have him be the one to destroy it all. I loved that part. I know very few people that do. Hollywood cannot make that kind of ending any longer--heck it was rare then--but I appreciated the gutsy move. I am certainly do not have enough loathing of the world to destroy, but I can see why someone in Taylor’s position would.

The interesting tidbit about the end is that it wasnot the original idea. Taylor, Brent, and Nova originally escaped before the bomb blew, went back to Ape City, freed the humans, and brought in a nw era of peace. Centuries passed until a mutated gorilla emerged from the underground tunnels and shot a dove. Symbolic and dark, but nowhere near as good as the one they went with as far as I am concerned.

Tomorrow, takes a turn towards the less amusing absurd. Yet for whatever reason, it is remembered more fondly than BTPOTA. Go figure.

Rating: **** (out of 5)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Planet of the Apes (1968)

In an effort to both explore more science fiction and keep the eye from becoming nothing but Star Trek and soft core erotica, I present Planet of the Apes Week. All this week, I am going to post about the movie series, its themes, its spin offs, and its impact on culture. I have to confess that, while I have seen every filmed adaptation and spin off, including the short lived animated series, I have never read Pierre Boulle’s original novel, Monkey Planet. I should probably track it down at some point, assuming there is an English edition readily available. But I have not done so as of yet, so there will not be any commentary on the novel. I have never read his other famous novel, The Bridge on the River Kwai, but I have enjoyed the classic movie’s treatment of the nihilistic horror of war. I will give him props as a fantastic writer.

If I cannot start with the novel, I must start with the original movie. I am aware the film varies widely from the novel. The apes have a modern society in the novel. They drive cars, fly planes, etc. the protagonist, Col. George Taylor, is interested in helping his fellow man enslaved by the apes in the novel, but is a cynical, self-absorbed man only interested in saving himself and Nova in the film. As I said above, I cannot comment with any authority which is better. I can only go with what I know.

The movie was written largely by Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone fame. His hand in the script is evident considering the famous O. Henry twist ending. As is usually the case with Serling’s scripts, it is a stew of social commentary on the issues of nuclear war, science v. religion, human rights, animal rights, and probably a half dozen other topics film critics have “discovered” in it over the years. Deconstructive criticism can be employed to the point at which it defies all logic, so I am careful how far I go in ripping scripts apart. The following is what I got out of the film. Your mileage may vary.

The two main characters which make the film for me are Taylor and Cornelius. I certainly do not wish to take away from the characters of Zira and Dr. Zaius. Both are important, but in supporting ways. They are there for Taylor and Cornelius to play off.

I identify most with Taylor. He is a cynic tired of the social trappings of man. He is a loner who considers himself to not be a part of any group. That is the primary reason he chooses to go on the deep space mission from which he will never return. Not only is the trip as far away from humanity as he can possibly get, there is a certain amount off peace in his voice as he records his suspended animation has lasted seven hundred years, so everyone he ever loathed back home is long since dead. Taylor never changes his attitude. When he first meets the mute human population, his first instinct is to gloat over how easy they will be to rule. Even onnce he is captured and treated like an animal, he feels no sympathy for his fellow humans. His only interest is in Nova. One gathers his interest in her is little more than carnal. Of course, the final scene displays his disdain for humanity in all its ugly glory.

To a much lesser degree, I identify with Cornelius. Some have claimed he is a persecuted skeptic. But it is never really made clear whether he whether he follows the sacred scrolls because he believes in the religion or if he does so out of a desire to keep his job as an academic. He is obviously a truth seeker in the sciences, but it is only a stereotype that those holding religious views are blocking scientific progress.

It is easier to view Cornelius as a faithful scientist when compared with the conniving Dr. Zaius. Zaius is put in the awkward position of serving as head of scientific research and being the chief defender of the faith. The latter will always wind up being more important. Recall the lengths Zaius was willing to go to: lobotomizing Taylor’s fellow astronauts, attempting to geld Taylor, and destroying Cornelius’ findings that man once ruled the Earth while apes were the animals. I have seen that sort of attitude from religious leaders in regards to issues both scientific and social. I have been in Cornelius’ shoes when trying to wade through which course to take.My roommate and I had a big debate over the issue of science v. religion after catching POTA one night in 1999. We were both what you could best classify as existentialist Christians, meaning we both adhered to the tenets of conservative Protestantism (But I am a Calvinist; he was not) yet see no reason to attribute supernatural explanations when a rational one will do. The debate was not much at that point Dr. Zaius, as Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith should have emphasized his duties for the former, not the latter instead of the opposite.

After having attended a Christianity university, I did get a different vibe from haring scene this time around. It probably helped bring tht about that I studied law and participated in debates in which many debaters were in Dr. Zaius’ position. Namely that logic says one thing, but your religion says something else. Which do you choose? With a sinful nature excused by grace, it is not quite the dire matter many Christians make it out to be. I thik most notably there was a question of the role of religious belief in public policy. Where is the line between theocracy (which is bad) and pursuing an agenda fittin your religiously influenced morality (which is acceptable.) I used to think that line was clear, but after hearing people in the 21st century state that abortion should be a captial offense, women ought not to be in law school, and slavery is fine because the Bible never condemns it, one starts to question the value of letting fundamentalist adherents of religion anywhere near a ballot box, much less public office. For one inclined to cynical skepticism anyway, it becomes easy to say there should not be any debate over science versus religion. Keep the latter private and let the chips fall where they may.

The debate has gone on since the beginning of time and always will, going in cycles of one side dominating or the other. I certainly do not expect some obscure blog post to add anything valuable to the discussion. But it is interesting to think about such things, particularly when I have been on both sides at one time or another. I have seen rationalism dominate at the University of South Carolina and fundamentalist dogma dominate at Regent University. I dare say most students at either would never expose themselves to the other and even though I have expressed an obvious contempt (Strong word. Bemusement, maybe?) for the latter, I think there has been some value in being exposed to it. As soon as I figure out what it is, I will let you know.

The subsequent films in the series were not quite so complex in their social commentary. Each generally dwelt only on one big theme that was introduced in POTA, so i am going to save further analysis for the appropriate film. Tomorrow, I will talk about my favorite of the series, Beneath the Planet of the Apes with its cynical view of religion and the value of humanity.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Evil That Men Do

The Evil That Men Do sticks out prominently in my mind. Most likely, it is because I first saw it late one night on Cinemax back when I was way too young to be watching something like it. What can I say? I was never a sheltered kid. How else could I become so jaded today?

It does truly pai me to list a Charles Bronson movie as the worst film I have ever seen. Pre-Death Wish, Bronson’s tough guy act was the best in Hollywood. See The Battle of the Bulge, the Dirty Dozen, The Valachi papers, the mechanic, and Mr. Majestik as evidence. But as he got older, the budgets became smaller, the scripts worse, and the movies seedier. The Evil That Men Do from 1984 is a sad example.

There are loads of problems with the film, but they can all be boiled down to good intentions poorly executed. Did is say poorly? I meant tragically.

The film is about a Welsh doctor who becomes fascinated by torture. He uses his medical skills as a torturer for hire for any fly by night dictator who has the money. When a journalist friend of retired CIA assassin known only as Holland (Bronson) is tortured to death by the Doctor, (Not a typo. That is what he is referred as the entire film.) Holland agrees to come out of retirement and kill him.

The script is adapted from the novel by R. lance Hill. It is far less exploitive than the filmed version. Remember this was the time period when Hollywood and the music industry was behind Amnesty international’s effort to prevent the United States from supporting brutal Latin American dictators and looked the other way when tortured their own people because they were battling communist elements, real or imagined. There were good efforts to attract attention to the issue. This movie is not oe of them.

For one, it is gruesome without creating a sense of sympathy. In the first few minutes, the journalist is brutally tortured to death by slow electrocution. It is difficult to watch and the only act of violence done in earnest. Later, you are either beaten over the idea with further torture when Holland watches video interviews of survivors describig torture they suffered or cheap special effects like when Holland throws a henchman off a balcony with a fire hose wrapped around his throat. It is hilarious obvious it is a dummy hanging limp. Even the Doctor’s inevitable death at the hands of a mob of villagers is fake and anticlimactic. You do not get sense of justice out of it.

Other elements are done for the dumbest of reasons. The doctor’s sister is a fifty year old lesbian for the sole purpose of having her and her girlfriend make love on a bed Holland is trapped beneath. A film like this needs comic relief, but not marx Brothers level absurdity in that vein.
Another problem is the casting. Bronson was 61 at the time. His age was showing. Holland was played as an a quiet, unassuming man who was prone to extreme acts of violence when provoked, then would go back to his normal demeanor. His dramatic shift supposed to be a shock, but it came across more as a guy who is sufferi mood swigs after a stroke.

The Doctor is played starkly against cast by Joseph Mayer. He was a British actor who most often played the stereotypical stiff upper lip type, usually with a comedic twist. You would expect to see him as an English professor dating one of The Golden Girls, not attaching jumper cables to a dissident’s genitals while wearing an executioner’s mask. He just does not work here.

Other changes are just sloppy. In the novel, the Doctor is a Nazi protégé of Josef Megele who has escaped capture into the modern day. Presumably, the Doctor’s background was changed to fit better with Maher’s age, but the story element that the Doctor was eing pursued by the Mosad was left in. it is true the Mossad could still be hunting the guy anyway, but it makes less sense to me he is a bored doctor who gets his jollies torturing people than an escaped Nazi who honed his craft on concentration camp inmates decades before.

You get the idea. The filmmaker’s heart might have bee in the right place, but where his mind was is anybody’s guess.

Rating: * (out of 5)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Star Trek: Nemesis

If you want proof trek had run its course in the Rick Berman/Brannon Braga era, look no further than Star Trek: Nemesis. Seriously, if you look any further, you will have to watch episodes of ENT. That show was not fit for human consumption.

I am not fond of Nemesis. I will get to why in a minute, but I am not alone. There was a profound lack of enthusiasm for the film. It premiered on Friday, December 13th 2002 (I am not a superstitious soul, by the way) behind Jennifer Lopez’s Maid in Manhattan. It was the only trek film to not premiere at number one at the box office. It wound up the lowest grossing trek film, earning a little less than $ 44 million.

As the ultimate insult, several cast members, including LeVar Burton and Marina Sirtis, have gone on record as saying they did not like the film. Consider how tightly Paramount controls all news coming out of the trek office when considering the significance. Nevertheless, Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, and Brent Spiner have all praised the film, so there must be some virtue, right?

Let me add my personal twist before answering the question. Nemesis was the first Trek film besides The Motion Picture I did not rush to see. It was released during exam time in my second year of law school. Chalk it up to my being frazzled by briefs and oral arguments, but Nemesis did not inspire the enthusiasm in me most trek did. Granted, I was also at a Christian law school in which the largely vanilla study body thought enjoying science fiction was one step below practicing witchcraft, so I had to keep my enjoyment on the down low. It was tough. Insurrection had been released on my birthday in 1998. I went to see it with a couple friends and we made a day of it. Nothing like that could ever happen at Savonarollas at regent.

Anyway, I finally watched Nemesis on DVD quietly one night on DVD. I did not like it. I wanted to like it. This was going to be the last hurrah for TNG and I wanted it to go out with a bang. But just could not pull it off. Nemesis failure comes down to three problems: continuity errors, Brent Spiner’s vanity, and logical flaws.

It is easy to name who is responsible for the continuity errors. Director Stuart Baird had never seen an episode of TNG when he agreed to direct Nemesis. Word has it he kept referring to LeVar Burton as Laverne, which may explain why Burton has publicly stated he hates the film. (Troi’s sexual assault may explain Sirtis’ frank assessment.) It is never a good thing to hand over a project with years of continuity and an army of dedicated, nitpicking fans over to someone completely unaware of what has gone before.

I am a bit more forgiving towards screenwriter John Logan. He claims to be a ardent Trek fan. At the time he was hired to write the script for Nemesis, he was coming off gladiator with Russell Crowe, which I consider one of the best movies of the decade. Baird’s biggest hit until this point had been US Marshals with Tommy Lee Jones. Not a bad movie by any stretch, but not the resume builder one would hope for in the director of a science fiction epic.

Rick Berman also took part in the script, which is never a good thing. I am not entirely certain which of Nemesis’ failings can be pinned on him, but history says it is a lot.

Brent Spiner, a good friend of Logan’s, shares writing credit. T makes sense. Yet again Data is a central part of the story just like every other TNG era film. Spiner’s creative hand makes much of data’s involvement wish fulfillment along similar lines to William Shatner in The Final Frontier. I will give Spiner some credit for understanding more characters than his own. Granted, many members of the cast were phoning in their performances here, but I do not think that was Spiner’s fault. All that said, his hammy singing of Irving Berlin, his double role as data and B4, and the clear attempt to copy the drama of Spock’s sacrifice in The Wrath of Khan I the climax all have Spiner’s ego written all over it. Data has always been my favorite character, but even I thought his role here is obnoxious.

Let us talk of continuity. There is not any. In the previous two films, the rationale for getting Worf involved have been embarrassingly flimsy. Here they do not even bother with one. He is back to serving on the Enterprise even though he is supposed to bean ambassador. Wesley is back, too, as a lieutenant. What happened to him traveling other planes of reality instead? It does not matter, I guess. Is it not also strange Lwaxana is not at her daughter’s wedding? Not that I miss the character. I am just being logical here. Where are Sela and Spock? Tomalok? This is not the Romulus we knew.

To bad Nemesis does not have a shred of logic within it. How did Shinzon get a hold of B4? How could he be so certain the Enterprise would be the ship to respond to B4’s signal? Considering the trouble they had with Lore, how did he know they would not just destroy the pieces rather than put them together?

For that matter, Shinzon himself is dumb. He was cloned from Picard. Okay, I can accept that, although it is getting incredibly implausible how special Picard supposedly is. The Romulans are disappointed with him, so they dump into slave labor as a five year old child. He winds up among a race of beings called Remans, which we have never heard of. They are also slave laborers. In spite of all this, they manage to build state of the art ship right under the Romulans’ noses and muster enough power to take over the empire. I cannot buy it. They do not have the resources or secrecy to do such a thing. I sense the Sparta us homage, but it does not work when you are talking about an interstellar empire.

While all this is going on, Picard is racing dune buggies on a desert planet while being shot at by primitives. I really cannot add anything to that.

I will say the film ends on a fairly high note. The final battle is a bit overwhelming because so much is going on at once, it is hard to focus on one thing. The space battle is drawn out and busy. The fistfight between Riker, who is really getting too old and paunchy for such a fight to be plausible, reminds me too much of Kirk and Soran battling it out. Grumpy Old Men in Space, as it were. Less time should have been spent on those two sequences and more dealing with Picard and Shizon. Maybe he would have come across as a better villain if they had. Since the dynamic between the two is not fleshed out well, I have time think about how stupid it is that Shinzon got to the lofty perch he currently enjoys..

I wish I could ay Data’s sacrifice is as meaningful as it should have been, but it just is not. Perhaps it is because the situation mirrors Spock’s effort to save his friends from Genesis so much. You cannot top that, so why try? Like I said, data is my favorite character, so I make the best effort to cut the sequence slack. But Data’s death does not resonate. I do consider the continued existence of B4 a contributing factor. It smells of a cop out--a way to bring Spiner back as another android in need of learning about human culture. It is worse than Spock injecting his soul into McCoy before doing his thing.

The TNG move franchise definitely ended on a sour note. Of all four movies, First Contact is the only one I can ever see myself voluntarily sitting through again. Even then, I am only marginally enthusiastic. I do not feel there is a great sense of finality here even though the fate of several characters is set. Why, if you are going to send beloved characters off into the sunset, do you and the movie over to a director who knows nothing about them? It is going to result inexactly what we got-- an unsatisfying movie that limps to the finish line. It is highly disappointing, but still a notch above the illogical mess that is Insurrection, but that is not saying much.

Rating: ** (out of 5)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Star Trek: Insurrection

The general rule of thumb that odd numbered treks are terrible is in full swing for Insurrection. There are so many problems with it, reviewing it is giving me horrible flashbacks to watching The Final Frontier again for that review. Unlike The Final Frontier, Insurrection’s problem is not serving as a vanity piece for William Shatner, but being a contrivance, morally hypocritical, and illogical piece of fluff. How it dud not kill the franchise is beyond me.

I should have known something was amiss by the plot description. The Federation teams with an alien race called the Son’a in order to secretly remove the population of a planet so they can exploit the rejuvenating powers of some natural radiation phenomenon. So we have Avatar a dozen years earlier. The Federation does not make it a habit to exploit the resources of other people even in a time of war, as this was. Normally, the federation would be right there preventing the Son’a from such an act, not aiding them. Right off the bat, the whole philosophy behind Trek is thrown out the window.

But Insurrection has far more fundamental flaws. The biggest of all is the darn thing makes no sense whatsoever.

First things first, I understand the need to get Worf involved. But he is on DS9 at this time serving in an important tactical role on the station at a time when it had a pivotal role I a war zone. The idea that he would leave that to be a part of a marginally important diplomatic function on the Enterprise It is a small nitpick, but the rationale for Worf’s involvement is even flimsier than that for First Contact, so it merit’s a mention.

Second--and speaking of contrivances--why is Data, the operations officer of the Federation flagship, part of a cultural observation team on some Podunk planet other than to have some excuse to involve the Enterprise? Data has demonstrated a profound misunderstanding of cultural trappings. This is definitely not his thing. If he was there for some technical assistance, I might could see it, but he is not he is an observer. It is definitely not his forte.

Third, when Data goes wild after being shot because he has gotten too close to the truth, his actions expose the Federation observer base. Said base is on a cliff directly overlooking the Ba’ku village. How did the federation manage to put it therewith no one noticing. It is cloaked, yes, but would not some change in the landmarks be noticeable? Why not put the thing miles away is case the cloak failed? They already did that once in the TNG episode, “Who Watches the Watchers?” Did they not learn anything from when it got all wee weed up then, too? Better yet, why not put it in space/ it is not like the technology is not advanced enough to pull that off.

Third, the plot data uncovers is dumb. The Federation/Son’a team is going to beam out the Ba’ku in the middle of the night when they are all asleep to a floating holodeck in order to relocate them to another world. Not everyone is going to be asleep no matter what time of the night they get beamed out. There are night owls, insomniacs, people using the bathroom, having sex, whatever. I see a slight flaw in the cunning plan.

Fourth, you will never guess where the floating holodeck is hidden. It is in a lake very close to the Ba’ku village. It is submerged in the lake even though it has displaced no water. It is also invisible, so I do not see what the point to submerging it in violation of all laws of physics is to begin with. What is even odder is the Ba’ku, who have eschewed all forms of technology, have built a complex device apparently for the sole purpose of draining the lake. Or, in movie terms, there to give the illusion there is some mystery element to the plot when it is really a straight morality tale about, I dunno. Removal of Native Americans, maybe?

Which brings me to the fifth problem--we have seen this scenario before in “Journey’s End.” The big problem there is our heroes were on the opposite side of the moral quandary in that episode. You may recall the Enterprise. Was called upon to remove some Native Americans off a planet which had been ceded to the Cardassians. Picard was ready to remove them by force, even going so far as to scold Wesley for opposing the action. Picard told him his first priority is to follow orders.

In Insurrection, Picard takes Wesley’s exact position without the slightest hint of hypocrisy or explanation about why he has changed his mind. I would even go so far as to speculate the Picard of the television series would lecture the Ba’ku about hogging the healing radiation for themselves thereby offering a chance for compromise between all parties. But here, he channels Janeway and her wet finger righteous indignation which contradicts last week’s Janeway righteous indignation.

If I wanted to be snaky, I would say Picard was not interested in helping the Native Americans, but as al about aiding white settlers, but that would be unfair. Funny, but unfair.

Sixth, Picard and his rebelling crew went about saving the Ba’ku in the stupidest possible manner. Why lead them on some long march to the caves when they could Justas easily been beamed there by the Enterprise or taken there in several trips of the captain’s yacht? because we need false drama, that is why.

Seven, say, how come these Ba’ku hardly age, therefore staying at childrearing age for centuries, yet there are not more than six hundred of them? Considering how one had the hots for Picard, they obviously enjoy nookie. Is that not strange?

Finally, why did the Son’a add a self-destruct device to their Collector? It is a device that will ensure their race’s survival. Would that not logically dictate it should have all sorts of fail safes and defenses to keep it from being destroyed? I guess the Son’a were following the general role that everything in trek must have a self-destruct.

There are all sorts of other minor continuity problems that cause cracks within the plot, but there is no pint in listing all of them. Insurrection is a poorly thought out, poorly executed action movie full of the typical cliché. Picard even quips he is getting too old for this sort of thing as he and the main bad guy battle on the Collector in the typical hero battles the villain a top a burning villain climatic scene. If I am not mistaken, I believe some of the blue screen is clearly visible behind them as they scuffle. It was just left in there. Insurrection might have made for a decent two part episode with better care given to crafting it, but as a movie, it fails miserably.

Rating: * (out of 5)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Star Trek: First Contact

Star Trek: First Contact is my favorite of TNG movies. Okay, that is not saying much. It is all downhill from here. But I will say this in spite of the risk of having pointy objects thrown at my head: if given a choice between watching The Wrath of Khan or First Contact again, I would choose the latter. So there is where I side on that debate.

Let me preface my review by acknowledging First Contact has the same inherent logical flaws every time travel story has. I could have mentioned it yesterday, too, but I was already beating up on Generations badly enough. When dealing with time travel stories, you just have to overlook some things for the sake of drama. If Picard could go any time and place he wanted from the nexus, why did he go back to right when Soran was about to fire his missile instead of, say, a few days prior and nab him in the hallway or something? Answer: that would not make for a good movie. Ironic, since what he did do did not make for a good movie, either, but the point is valid.

Likewise, the time travel of First Contact causes some problems. One even negates the flimsy rationale for Picard’s return to battle Soran right before the missile launch. It is never stated, but you could argue Picard did not want to go back in time too far so as not to pollute the time stream. Yet here he and his crew are cavorting around in the mid-21st century, revealing the future to Cochran and Lilly, and generally leaving their mark on one of the most pivotal events in history. So much for being inconspicuous.

Another glaring time travel problem is why the Borg think stopping first contact is the best plan. Why not go back to prehistoric times and conquer earth then? Or, since they failed in this attempt, go back in time over and over again correcting the fatal flaw in their current plan until they get it right. See/ you have to assume whoever came up with the time travel plan is extremely shortsighted in order to enjoy the movie.

Speaking of ignoring stuff, First Contact ignores all post-”Best of Both Worlds” interaction with the Borg. Picard has not recovered from the emotional damage of being assimilated six years prior. Starfleet is wary of his reaction to dealing with the Borg, so they opt to keep him as far away from Earth’s defending force as possible when another cube attacks. I think this is a much more reasonable response to Picard’s assimilation than the all is forgiven, now lead the task force against the rogue Borg that occurred subsequently to Picard’s recovery. Normally, I am a stickler for continuity, but the course correction makes more sense.

The change does make for a much different Picard than in the television series. I can appreciate some fans do not like it. In the series, Picard was unwilling to use Hugh as a genocidal weapon against the Borg even after they had done so many terrible things to him. But in First Contact--heck, in the rest of the movie series--Picard is far more cruel and reckless. He is almost psychopathic here. In the next film, he will go rogue in contradiction to the moral stance he took in “Journey’s end.” In Nemesis, he will return to being psychopathic and far out of character. But those are discussions for later.

Let me say I do not have a problem with his behavior here. As I said above, it makes sense after his ordeal. First Contact offers a rationale for his actions, excessively brutal though they may be, the later two films do not.

All that nit picking and rationalizing aside, the movie itself is quite good. It is darker and more than just about any previous Trek television episode or movie, which I think is a nice change of pace. I suspect Gene Roddenberry would have freaked, but I generally like everything in Trek that goes against his worldview. the dark tone and violence have a purpose here. It is all about the survival of humanity on the broadest level and Picard’s wounded psyche on the smallest. Compare that to how poorly Nemesis was executed; a dark tone just to be edgy and excessive violence for the sake of being violent. I can make the distinction more clear on Wednesday.

Some high points:

First, he Borg are as menacing as they were back in "The Best of Both Worlds.” It is tough following up a story that well done with another Borg invasion story, but First Contact does it well by introducing a much more claustrophobic feel. Whereas we were fretting over the inevitable assimilation of Earth on a grand scale in “The Best of Both Worlds,” it is the mindless zombie attacks of individual drones in the confined space of the Enterprise that ratchets up the attention--apart from the personal plight of Picard, of course. It is masterful that one can take essentially the same plot and make it frightening twice.

Second, the Borg Queen is a great villain. She was a necessary addition to make the Borg Collective’s comparison to an insect hive complete. Her appearance is enhanced here because it is the only appearance with true menace. Subsequentl7, the Borg became property of VOY and were overused to the point of cliché. I never really got the sense of menace out of her later appearances, even when Alice Krige reprised the role on television.

Third, Lilly. It is rare for a guest character to play such a pivotal role. It is ever rarer s ill for 24th century characters to have their condescending attitude towards people from the past thrown back at them. It is Lilly that straightens Picard out more than anything else.

Finally, Cochran. As a history buff, I enjoy learning that an historical event is not what conventional wisdom says it was. The crew fawn repeatedly over how great Cochran is going to be in the future. He is a legend, right up there with the greatest scientists ever. But the reality is he is an old, perverted drunk who does not care about making history. He just wants to be rich enough to keep himself in booze and bimbos. That just tickles my cynical tuckus.

What is bad? Not much, actually. Data turns traitor yet again, or at least appears to when seduced by the Borg Queen. His ‘betrayal’ is this unnecessarily long, drawn out process in which he even fires near misses at Cochran’s ship to prove. That seems like an enormously risky just to create false drama. I also think Worf’s involvement is awfully contrived, but not as badly as it will be in Insurrection. Yes, the Defiant was built to fight the Borg, but does it not seem strange that DS9’s big dogs would not take the ship into the fray rather than Worf and some second stringers? It has to be that way for the sake of the movie, but still…illogical. As is the idea the Vulcans never detect the Enterprise because of the moon’s gravitational pull. Yes, the moon moves the oceans and hides starships.

First Contact is the only real highlight among TNG movies. It is not a perfect film by any measure, but its flaws are not so overwhelming they ruin the experience. Heck, even the sequence in which Cochran looks at Riker and says, ’so you’re all astronauts on some kind of star trek?” does not ruin it and line prompted the first audible full audience groan I have ever heard in a theater. True story.

Rating: **** (out of 5)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Star Trek: Generations

Cutting to the chase: what went wrong with Star Trek: Generations?

The reasons Star Trek: Generations falls flat are almost unmanageably numerous to list. The best way to sum it up succinctly is to say it tried to copy all the elements of Star Trek III: the Search for Spock except for the one element which made that movie decent--Spock.

Think back to my review for TSfS. I said the film had ambitious goals, but felt small, almost like a two part episode There were serious dramatic moments like the death of Kirk’s son and the destruction of the Enterprise, but the emotional impact of the losses were muted by poor writing, probably because the screenwriter came from television.

Flash ahead to Star Trek: Generations we have epic theme of finding nirvana along with the passing of the torch from one generation to the next. We also have the need to kill off the legendary James T. Kirk and destroy the 24th century era Enterprise. Along the way, Picard’s dearest family is killed, all against the backdrop of a mediocre villain aided by Klingons. The script is based on a story by Rick Berman and written by Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga, all from television.

It is not difficult to see why history repeated itself. .Star Trek: Generations feels small. Not only is the story more suited for a two part episode of the series, it would not rank as one of the better ones. I enjoyed Leonard Nimoy’s return as Spock in “Unification” more than this. If you need further confirmation about the general, bad television feel of Star Trek: Generations, then realize it was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation--and lost to “All Good Things…,” the series finale thereat it.

But let me be fair. There are plenty of “small’ movies that are good. I just said yesterday Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was good in spite of its subdued feel. The real problem is the lack of emotion. The film offers up a number of what ought to be heart tugging moments; Kirk’s apparent death at the beginning, Picard’s brother and nephew’s death, Kirk and Picard’s wish fulfilment within the nexus, Kirk’s actual death, and the destruction of the Enterprise.. We do not get to absorb the emotion of any of those events before another one gets thrown at use. The story is going from point a to B to C without any enthusiasm. It shows on the actor’s faces, too.

Why should it not? The film was doomed to be that way from the beginning. Leonard Nimoy was offered a role as Spock and the chance to direct with thestiulation he had to shoot the script as is. If therreason for that stipulation was anything other than Berman’s ego, I would love for someone to tell me what it is. Nimoy refused to either appear or direct under the circumstances. He said the lines Spock was given could have been said by anyone. His appearance would have nothing more than an effort to ’get Spock in the film.” Nimoy’s instincts must be correct. Spock’s lines were given to other characters with seemingly no trouble. Creative restrictions convinced Nimoy to not direct.

You could remove Scotty and Chekov from the film, too, without losing much. They are every bit as disposable as the barely metioned Sulu and the completely ignored McCoy and Uhura. The two serve only to care about Kirk’s “death” after he isdrawn into the nexus. It is pickig nits, but I call onestrike against the sequence for Scotty being there. It causes a continuity error from “Relics” in which Scotty believes Kirk has come to rescue him from thedyson sphere when he actually witnessed Kirk’s death. “Relics” was only two years prior to Star Trek: Generations. There is no excuse for creating acontiuity error like that.

The TNG crewdes not get off any easier. Half the cast is wearing uniforms borrowed from DS9 cast members. Joathan Frakes’ in particular is horrible. He had to borrow Avery Brooks’ unforeseen though it was clearly too big for him. There wasa grumbling among the cast during the seventh season prodyction money was going to DS9 rather than financing a good send off for them. Here is your best proof thatwas not only true, but did not end when theseriesdid.

The production looks like it was flying along by theseat of its (borrowed?) pants, too. The naval ship in the holodeck was so freshly painted, Worf gets some on his uniform as he is climbing back aboard. Soran’s platform at the climax is nothing but a thin metal fire escape. I can understand Paramount’s caution with spending money on a cast previously untested at the box office, but the nickel and dime production is embassarassing.

Bits are chopped out awkwardly, as well. The most notable is a torture scene involving la Forge in which Soran injects nanotech in him order t simulate heart attacks. The deleted scene is on the DVD and I will agree it is unnecessarily gru4some. Its absence does not detract from the story. What is left in does not clarify that La Forge is being tortured at all, however, and lines by Soran and Crusher regarding ’his heart not being in it” and pulmonary damage are rendered meaningless, but not edited out.

Regardless of problems with other characters, the main focus is on Picard and Kirk. It is a dramatic convention that if you want us to care about characters, you have to make us like them, then do horrible things to them so we sympathize. It is difficult to like Picard because there is not much appealing about him. We are told everyone respects him and is loyal to a fault because of it, we just shrug and accept it. I often think others have an emotional connection to him unwarranted by his behavior, but let us say for now we like him.

When he loses his brother and nephew, he is terribly upset, but not so much by their loss as emotional connections, but because the Picard family line has ended. It is a matter of ego. So when Picard enters the nexus and his wish fulfillment is kids, we cannot believe it. We should not, either. When his son asks him to help put together one of his Christmas toys, Picard rushes him off and soon goes trotting after Kirk. That marks the end of Picard’s angst over the family line ending without offering any real resolution. What a cold fish. Or is it bad writing? Both?

The more glaring problem is with Kirk. He never connects with Picard, even when he is no loger distracted by the nexus’ fantasy fulfillment. What is his fantasy? To captain the Enterprise forever, right? No, it is to marry his lost love, Antonia. Who is Anotinia? You got me. She was created solely for the movie and is never even seen. If Kirk’s fantasy true love is never going to be seen, why not make it Carol Marcus or even Edith Keeler instead of someone we have never heard of before? Carol or Edith would resonate. We would recognize those are lost loves Kirk would like a second chance with. Instead, we are left wondering who the heck Antnia is.

That is not the best part, however. Kirk’s death does not measure up. The irony is they went back and filmed a new death scene when test audiences did not like the original. In the original Soran shoots Kirk fatally in the back. In the new, Kirk falls off the platform. It is not an improvement. It was not even fun, as Kirk’s last words sum up his life. I am left with a feeling of, “That is it?”

So is it fortunate or not that we get little time to dwell on Kirk’s death as the Enterprise is subsequently destroyed? I would like to forget both, so I do not care to dwell on the question. The original Enterprise was as much a part of TOS as any character. It was not so with TNG. There was always a sense if the ship was destroyed, the crew would just get another one and bebop right on along. So why should we care, particularly when we not only have Kirk’s death to think about, but be agry about the lsck of meaning in his passing?

The bottom line is that trek is getting rid of the two in order to give Picard the captain’s spotlight and a spiffier ship next movie. Either Kirk’s death, noer the ship’s destruction is meant to end an era so much as allow for what Berman evidently thought was bigger and better things in the future. If so, he very much had the wrong idea.

I will giveStar Trek: Generations one kudo for the comic relief of Data. His emotional issues come and go a bit too conveniently, but I laughed out loud at several points even while rewatching the film for this review. Otherwise, this thing is a dud solidifying the notion odd numbered treks are bad into the next generation.

Rating: * (out of 5)