Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

I’ll be honest, I didn’t like J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek. I thought there were some fun moments and visuals, but it felt more like a standard summer action movie than the enticement for us to all beam up and explore space. It was like Starship Troopers but without the satire. Perhaps I was just bitter about the casting choices.

While Star Trek Into Darkness is definitely still a high velocity action romp, J.J. Abrams artfully adds some solid questions about war and killing. Kudos. The movie even opens up on Nibiru, a nod to all us crackpot conspiracy minded kooks (and the nods don’t end there).

The movie starts, like the first one, with some strong 9/11-War-on-Terror parallels which had me already judging this film as another boring vengeance driven pro-militaristic summer spectacle. But then right as we’re getting ready to go blow up the bad guys, Star Trek finally emerges from the explosions and lens flares: Scotty resigns, exclaiming they’re supposed to be explorers not a military operation. Then Spock delivers some gems about the morality of war. And we’re off on a fun action packed adventure with some food for thought.

I saw the movie  as a smart sci-fi take on the pursuit Osama bin Laden. How do you pursue someone who is a great danger to the peace? Are there those who profit from such a villain? Where would our space program be if we didn’t spend so many lives and resources fighting terror? Maybe I’m pushing my own agenda with that last one. There’s even a scene questioning the use of private security forces. And everyone might not agree with me on this one, but Abrams pulled a move that would have made Roddenbery proud: having Kronos sit in for Afghanistan. I loved this movie.

However, here are my complaints:

  • I didn’t like how future earth was portrayed. It looks exactly like our society but bumped up a couple decades (taller buildings, flying cars). I know this choice sounds practical, but think of it: Star Trek takes place in a time where humanity has matured. We all get along and work well together. I think that world would look different, especially the bars.
  • I had some problems with the portrayal of women. I remember reading the The Making of Star Trek (nerd alert). Roddenbery originally wanted to make the crew of the Enterprise 50/50 men and women. The studio said this would make people uncomfortable. He tried. Now it’s 2013 and in this Star Trek movie there’s a scene where all the captains of Starfleet are assembled; they’re all men. Come on, really? This is the future. That being said there were some good Uhura scenes. But while weapons specialist/science officer Carol Marcus was a nice addition to the crew, the movie makes sure to throw her in her underwear while having Kirk ogle her. I know this is standard movie fare, and other blockbusters treat women far worse, but it’s unfortunate to continually portray women as objects (at least make them Captains of space ships). However, there is a scene where Spock eyes Marcus jealously which is a nice touch. There’s also a healthy mix of men, women, and aliens in the Enterprise crew.
  • When they beam people up, it looks all swirly. I think they should have kept the old beam effect.
  • There’s no scene after the credits. I thought all movies had these now.
Here’s what I liked:
  • Classic Trek ethical dilemmas!
  • Classic Trek sound effects!
  • Classic Trek references!
  • Klingons!
  • Great performances – Benedict Cumberbatch gives us a slick villain.
  • Lots of standard Trek humor – Thanks, Scotty and Bones!
  • No shortage of cool visuals – I really like the look of the Enterprise, there’s even uniforms reminiscent of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
  • The start of the credit sequence, especially the music.

I saw this movie in 3D. It was cool, but I don’t think necessary. I’m not a 3D fan. I didn’t even like Avatar in 3D. Fast movie cameras (as opposed to a stationary frame), lens flares, and rack focus don’t tend to translate well into 3D. But space, especially in the final credits works well. I’d recommend seeing it with your normal eyes.

MOVIE RATING: Three Vulcan Ears.

BONUS: Before Star Trek, I saw the trailer for Man of Steel. It looks like there’s some fun Jesus allegory being packed into this movie: Superman works on a fishing boat, has a beard, gets arrested… looks good!

 

Review of Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun

Rising SunRising Sun by Michael Crichton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ll say this, I found the book hard to put down. Rising Sun kind of comes across as a bizarro version of Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel, with John Connor playing the role of the robot, and the Japanese substituted for the Spacers. Don’t worry, Asimov fans, I didn’t ruin anything; they have completely different endings.

The question this book posed to me: is it racist to criticize a country for its business practices? After finishing the book, the answer is no, but with a big asterisk. While I found the insight into Japanese culture and business interesting, at times I felt the Japanese were painted with a broad brush. Not all the Japanese characters came across the same way but there are few blanket statements thrown around which made me wonder if the author was writing to stir up some prejudice. However the book is equally critical of the United States (and rightfully so, Crichton’s concerns for the future of American business seem to be playing out, although not with Japanese-American relations as the culprit). Every time the Japanese are characterized as aggressive or ruthless (or racist), Americans are characterized as lazy, stupid, and not capable of caring about the future (and also racist). Is the wise elder hero in this book, John Connor, an American fluent in Japanese culture is supposed to be symbolic of the greatness that happens when these two cultures work together? Maybe it takes a bit of independent thinking to keep the distracting undercurrents of Crichton’s bias in check, but by the end of the book I was genuinely interested in finding out more about Japanese culture.

Maybe since I’m reading this in 2013 the book comes across less as xenophobic paranoia as it does as the beginning of a discussion of two cultures meeting. But I thought some good points were raised. There is a lot to be said about the brain drain happening in the United States as well as the high level of crime (none of which Crichton blames on any other country). And while I’m no fan of nationalism, is it healthy for foreign countries to economically manipulate the government of another country? For the U.S. as a villain in this scenario, check out Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins.

But wait, is Rising Sun an essay on Japanese-American relations or are we reading a murder mystery? While at times it’s hard to answer this question, we are reading a murder mystery, which reads like a suspenseful movie as Crichton is gifted at doing. But he does have an annoying knack for building up tension then as you’re waiting to read what happens next, BAM! you get hit with a character unleashing pages of exposition on either Japanese culture, business relations, or how video cameras work (all things Crichton urges us to further read in his bibliography). Don’t get me wrong, I think the extensive research Crichton packs into the story makes it all the better.

If I have any issue with how a group of people are portrayed in this novel, it’s women. We have a murder victim who got off on being beat up, we have a couple more prostitutes, we have an adorable toddler, we have a nasty career driven ex-wife not interested in being a mother.. a cleaning lady… a beautiful computer savvy grad student who’s unaware of her beauty… come on… seriously… Forget questions of Japan bashing, what’s Crichton trying to tell us about women? In fact, I think the book would have been more suspenseful and engaging if the main detective were a woman.

But all in all, the book held my attention and got me thinking. Like all noir detective stories, there’s good mixed with the bad.

View all my reviews

Good Old Sci-Fi Cartoons: Star Trek and Return to the Planet of the Apes!

As I’ve been recovering from my cold, I’ve drifted from watching Dragnet re-runs to Star Trek: The Animated Series and Return to the Planet of the Apes. I like these shows. The 25 minute drama is the perfect length. Why don’t we have more of these today? So many hour long shows tend to either drag things out or for some reason feel that they don’t have enough time and have to cram six stories and twenty main characters into forty seven minutes. Or they miraculously pull of both of these pet peeves.

Return to the Planet of the Apes has a trippy 70s animation style, that some label cheap, but I think is quite effective in creating that bizarre/nihilistic/kooky “Planet of the Apes” vibe. I’ve embedded the youtube video of the first episode at the bottom of the page.

Star Trek: The Animated Series I might dare to say is more enjoyable than the live action show, which makes sense since it involves many of the same writers as well as lots of the original cast. The Filmation animation is also kind of trippy, adding to an enjoyable offbeat sci-fi feel.

Star Trek: The Animated Series is available on Netflix Instant Watch: http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/70208521?strkid=841741966_0_0&trkid=222336&movieid=70208521

You can also watch episodes on Bing video. Here’s an episode ”Yesteryear” which almost had me at tears: http://www.bing.com/videos/watch/video/yesteryear/17uj19hoi 

“Yesteryear” is also cool because Mark Lenard returns to the role of Sarek. That dude is all business.

Make no mistake about it, these cartoons are made for kids, but that doesn’t stop this 35 year old from watching them. Star Trek in particular doesn’t seem to dumb down its stories for youngsters, but merely simplifies things. Some of the concepts in the shows I’ve seen so far offer a lot for conversation. I’d give examples but I’m lazy. But seriously, I think simplifying the stories for kids actually improves the storytelling, cutting out a lot of boring fuss we adults get in our programming. Also, animation allows for the stories to be more imaginative and not fall prey to budgetary restrictions. There, I have justified my right to enjoy these cartoons as a childless 35 year old.

One of the glaring omissions from the Star Trek show is Chekov (and pants on women… miniskirts are huge in space—but that’s another blog post). Poor Mr. Chekov has been replaced by a big alien with three arms. I was curious about this, so I took my investigation to the internet and I came across this cool site: http://www.danhausertrek.com/AnimatedSeries/Q_and_A.html

In response to Chekhov’s absence, danhausertrek.com replies:

The reason Chekov wasn’t on the Animated series was money. As many of the original actors as possible were brought onboard to reprise their roles by providing the voices of their animated versions. At first, Filmation planned on not having George Takei and Nichelle Nichols come back to do their roles again. But when Leonard Nimoy learned of their exclusion he said that he would “… not be a party to this if two of the minorities who contributed to making STAR TREK what it was when we were on television cannot be incorporated.” It was due to Nimoy’s stand that Sulu and Uhura’s characters made it into the animated series. Unfortunately with that many star voices, the budget simply didn’t allow for Walter Koenig to return as Chekov.

But, in the STAR TREK universe, it is reasonable to assume that Chekov went away to receive further training to prepare him to return to the Enterprise as the ship’s Security Chief, which he did in STAR TREK: The Motion Picture which takes place in 2271. This is only a conjecture based on the available facts.

Way to go, Leonard Nimoy! But I still feel bad about Walter Koenig/Chekov. But not too bad. He just got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame this week, which brought me to this page: http://bhcourier.com/star-treks-walter-koenig-receive-hollywood-walk-fame-star/2012/09/10. This article mentions, Koenig (Chekov) actually wrote an episode of the animated series “The Infinite Vulcan.” It’s Season 1, episode 7 if you want to watch it on Netflix Instant Watch or you can check it out on Bing: http://www.bing.com/videos/watch/video/the-infinite-vulcan/17u0j42gq. So it feels like there’s some harmony in the universe. Here’s an interview with Koenig about the animated show, in which he sounds kind of understandably bummed about the whole thing: http://www.startrek.com/article/walter-koenig-remembers-the-infinite-vulcan.

Further reading of http://www.danhausertrek.com/AnimatedSeries/Q_and_A.html yields such interesting facts as James Doohan (Scotty) supplied the voices to 55 other animated characters. Fascinating, Captain.

Here’s the first episode of Return to the Planet of the Apes!

Netflix Instant Watch Recommendations from a Man Home Sick

It was hot in Los Angeles. I was working the day watch out of Frauds division, Bunko section. The boss is Captain Lambert, my partner’s Bill Gannon, my name’s Friday…

For the last couple days I have been stricken with a cold. Feverish, lethargic, my body wants to do little else but watch Netflix instant watch from a beach chair pointed at my computer while I sip copious amounts of water.

Recently I have been a fan of the 1967 version of Dragnet. These crisp, tight, always entertaining no matter how boring the tedium of day to day police work, 25 minute shows are addictive. I really like the 25 minute drama. The Twilight Zone also knocks it out of the park with 25 minute stand alone stories. You don’t get a lot of fluff or an excess of characters you do with some hour long shows that rely on B and C story lines to fill out the time.

Dragnet is full of hilarious moments, sometimes unintentionally (like what Sergeant Joe Friday won’t do for a cigarette), but after watching a couple dozen of these jobbies, I think Jack Webb (the creator) had a slick sense of humor. Two episodes in particular made me laugh out loud. I love the character actors. The Big Fur Burglary has a really funny actor playing the Furrier. And The Senior Citizen has a great guy playing an elderly cat burglar who’s never short of a comeback.

Here are the links of the episodes on Netflix instant watch:

The Big Fur Burglary
http://movies.netflix.com/WiPlayer?movieid=70088799&trkid=3326878 

The Senior Citizen
http://movies.netflix.com/WiPlayer?movieid=70088814&trkid=3326878

Star Trek Book Review: Uhura’s Song by Janet Kagan

I just finished reading Uhura’s Song. I really enjoyed this one. The story involves the crew making first contact with a cat like people in hopes of aquiring the cure for an AIDS like epidemic that threatens the Federation. Because of a couple thousand year old grudge, the cat people have trouble being able to help. The crew treats the cat folk with such respect, patience, and thoughtfulness, it’s really kind of sweet and at the same time comes across as a practical way to handle people who have something that you need. What I like about Star Trek and what this book beautifully illustrates is that there is a future where the adults have finally taken over. Sure the universe has its problems, but the humans a couple hundred years from now seemed to have learned from our mistakes and progressed. The book was a long read for me. Even at 370 pages, it took me a couple weeks, but I enjoyed it. I felt like I went on a camping trip with some old friends.

I’m embarassed about admitting this but I really like media tie-in books like this. It’s fun to see an author explore an already established universe. That being said, the new characters and the introduction of the cat people and their culture weave together well with the stock elements of Star Trek.

Sure, I could complain about a couple things (like where did the crew shower and go to the bathroom on the alien planet?), but why bother. It’s a fun Star Trek book.

Review: Jon Carter

I just read on Time.com that Jon Carter currently stands to be the biggest flop in movie history. 

Well, since Mr. Carter worked hard to save the people of Mars, I feel the least I can do is throw this Civil War veteran a kudos. I loved this movie. I wanted to find it hilariously bad. I bought my ticket with the distinct intention of mining a five minute set of its alledged awfulness. But I really enjoyed it. It was a well crafted fantasy. It looked great, the action was exciting, the plot–while maybe complicated and elusive at parts–was interesting, the performances and special effects merged together seemlessly, and it was a genuine story with a beginning, middle, and end as well as a few little surprising turns. How many movies these days just seem like a bunch of scenes mashed together? Most of them (unless they’re adapted from a book, like Jon Carter was–what’s up with that?).

Jon Carter reminded me of one of my favorite movies as a kid, Flash Gordon, the one with the Queen Soundtrack, which I would repeatedly beg my upstairs neighbor to watch on his VCR. For a large part of my childhood I grew up without a VCR. If I wanted to watch a movie I had to wait for it to come on TV, wait in line in the rain at the movies, or wait for Dominic to invite me upstairs. The Reagan Years were tough for everyone.

I also enjoyed Jon Carter because it reminded me of an old film I made, Hamlet, Prince of Mars:

 

Movie Review: The Avengers

While The Avengers had a heroic cast and some funny scenes, overall I didn’t like it as much as the rest of the planet. Here are some things that bugged me:

  • The Avengers? More like The Avon Ladies… Why are the dudes wearing so much make-up? Well, I know steroids and human growth hormone can cause pimples so maybe that’s why Captain America looked like he had more paint on his face than the side of a ship. And everybody’s going for 3-D effects these days so maybe Tony Stark’s eye liner were just supposed to make his peepers pop. But Captain America and Iron-Man, more like Captain Mascara and Eye-Liner Man.
  • Why did Loki just hang out when Iron-Man and Thor were fighting over him? He made it all the way from Space but he can’t make it to the highway from the middle of the Pine Barrons? He had the perfect chance to escape!
  • The whole movie is about Loki and aliens trying to take over the planet. But who does Nick Fury answer to? A small cabal of people who have taken over the planet. People often tell me that at least they aren’t aliens. Do we know that? Avengers, free us from the tyranny of the council!
  • During the big fight at the end where Manhattan is being laid to waste, Iron-Man flies over downtown and what do we see? Light and moderate traffic on the Verrazano and the Staten Island Ferry operating on a normal schedule.

What I liked about the movie:

  • At the end Iron-Man and Hulk take off in the same car. Hopefully they’re going to finally catch the Zodiac Killer. Anybody else see that movie?
  • The last scene after all the credits. The whole movie I wanted to grab the camera and just keep it locked in one position. Nice still frames are missing in most action movies and camera moves are overused to add to the action. That scene after the credits was perfect.

Star Trek Book Review: Q Squared

I just finished reading Q Squared, a Star Trek: The Next Generation novel by Peter David, and boy are my arms tired. I couldn’t put it down! I loved this book.

I have to admit, while I was a steady fan of Star Trek as a child, I have recently come to terms that I might not have enjoyed it as much as have been searching for a kooky teenaged identity. Don’t get me wrong, I love space movies and think Star Trek’s great, but whenever I think of Star Trek: The Next Generation I feel a little embarrassed for spending so much time with it and not really liking it, like asking a girl you don’t like to the prom just so you can go. I know, kind of weird, but here I am. While I liked certain aspects of the show, in hindsight it all seems kind of boring. I can’t think of any of the characters (save maybe Data and Dr. Pulaski–what can I say, I’m a contrarian) that I would want to hang out with in Ten Forward: Picard seems cold, Riker–a kind of dullard/dollar store Captain Kirk, Counselor Troi is just weird, Beverly Crusher sighs too much, Wesley has too perfect skin for a teenager, and what’s Whoopi Goldberg doing there? Not exactly a formula for adventure, as was evidenced by the heavy stock of unread Star Trek books in my teenaged bedroom.

Well, I have seen the error of my ways. Q is always a fun character and Peter David writes him well. The story is about Q and a young petulant member of the Q Continuum who wreaks havoc on three different universes (as well as Kirk’s Enterprise). The whole book read like a well done Star Trek film on par with The Wrath of Khan. It has it all: intersecting multiple realities, humor, steamy sex (at least in my imagination), a love triangle, Worf looking like a fool, suspense, space action, and a dose of speculative theology. There’s a lot happening here and Peter David weaves it all together into a fun read.

After finishing it, I’m left hungry for more Star Trek: The Next Generation books. Anybody have any suggestions? Make it so.

Sherlock Holmes vs. Tintin

Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law on their way to the prom.

I just got back from a 9:15am showing of The Adventures of Tintin in 3D.  The last time I was at a theater this early was to wait in line.  I don’t understand why they make these new 3D movies.  It was cool and all, but the images seem dark and a little muddy through the glasses.  And while the picture seemed to have a some nice depth, I was never moving my head to dodge things and any kind of frenetic movement seemed a little distorted.  How about handing out a pair of glasses that help me see the plot a little better?

I also recently saw Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.  Now, I don’t have a masters degree in literature but I think I have the capacity to follow a story pretty well and these last two movies seemed kind of hard to get a firm grip on what exactly was going on.  Is that the deal with modern action movies?  Why do so many plot points have to be introduced? If I understand the end of Tintin correctly I don’t understand what happened during the preceding 2 hours or so.

Speaking of wild goose chases the whole way Tintin and Haddock trash North African homes, small businesses, and infrastructure during a well orchestrated 3D chase can’t help but remind me of the U.S.’s recent foreign policy debacles.  There’s even a bit where Haddock attempts to blow away an enemy with a bazooka but fires it backwards and blows up a damn.  Isn’t that what happens when we send our armed forces traipsing onto foreign soil?  Do stories like this reinforce that its OK to go to far away places in a personal pursuit and make a mess as long as we find the coordinates to some buried treasure?  Don’t get me wrong, it was a great scene, it just made me think how the stories we tell illustrate who we are.

Which is probably why I liked Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.  Despite not really getting all that was going on, having Sherlock Holmes fight a war profiteer was pretty cool.  And the connections to today’s security state, War on Whoever, and military industrial conspiracies seemed to agree with my own anti-war crackpottery.  Does a movie have to have a taste of my politics in order for me to enjoy it? It seems having an action film with a dash of something to think about does make it more engaging.

Or did I enjoy following Holmes across Europe more than Tintin flopping about the Atlantic because I had low expectations for Sherlie and heard great things about Belgium’s Best Boy Reporter, excuse me Britain’s Best Boy Reporter (Is he still Belgian in the movie?  I couldn’t tell.  And isn’t the dog supposed to talk?). Or maybe I just felt awkward sitting alone in a theater at 9:15am watching a cartoon.  I saw this at an Arclight theater, where a person comes into the theater and welcomes you.  In this case the woman welcomed just me, a 34 year old unshowered man.  To a cartoon.  She asked me if I had any questions.  I wanted to ask if she was judging me.  Soon after a man with a son and daughter came in. I felt even more alone and kind of like Lee Harvey Oswald.

And I think I counted one female character in the whole two hours. Whoops, make that two.

I don’t mean to pick on Tintin, the movie looks beautiful.  The motion capture and computer animation are successful at creating a new world (albeit one that would also be easy to create with carpentry, costumes, and paid extras) and daring stunts (I don’t think these could be made without computers). I think one of the reasons most of today’s action movies fall flat is the blending of live action and CGI manufactured stunts (for example Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls and Captain America).  I think Tintin comes out on top compared to previous efforts.  And the voice actors and animators work well together. The movement of the characters is impressive.  But at the end of the movie which cues the audience to anticipate the sequel, I felt like I didn’t gain anything.  And with good movies I usually leave with something, whether its simple appreciation, a new nugget of thought in my head, or a sigh of relief that our heroes have made it out alive.  My first thought when Tintin was over was whether or not I could keep the glasses.  I had to return them.

But I liked Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.  I’ve heard a lot of criticism that the portrayal of Holmes is a modern take on the character. I’m no Holmes expert, but I recently read a couple of his short adventures and Robert Downey, Jr.’s Holmes seems pretty well done.  The character in the stories seems a little more playful than the cold calculating detective I expected, and Downey seems capture this aspect of Holmes really well.  It’s Watson, played by Jude Law, that seems to be a little skewed.  He comes across as a bit of a grouch in the movie compared to the enthusiastic cheerleader/jovial skeptic in the stories.  I think I just can’t stop picturing Watson as Martin Freeman, who does an entertaining job in the British series Sherlock.  Without rubbing it in the audience’s face, A Game of Shadows plays with the idea of a repressed homosexual relationship between our heroes, which is played sweetly and unrequited by Holmes.  But after reading a couple stories I might have directed Watson to be a little more smitten, in literature he’s the one always saying how great Sherlock is and writing about him in his diary. One glaring deviation from the books is the way the film dances around Holme’s fondness of a 7% solution of cocaine taken intravenously. Early in the film, Holmes is mentioned to have been eating some coca leaves.  That’s a modern, yet slightly backward, revision of the character.  I guess a hero in a mainstream action movie who shot up coke would be less concerned with Professor Moriarty and more concerned with parent groups.  But overall the swashbuckling and fast talking Holmes charmed me over.

Sherlock Holmes vs. Tintin: Sherlock wins!

Whoever it is, I bet it's not a woman!