Thursday, April 30, 2009

Nerd Alert

Full disclosure: sometime around 1993 or 1994, I won a Star Trek trivia contest at a convention, the prize being a free ticket to the next convention. So yeah, I'm an old-school Star Trek nerd of a pretty high order - not such a high order that I ever got dressed up as a Borg or went to Klingon language camp. But high enough that I do indeed know at least a couple of Klingon words (Qapla'!)

This is all to say that the new J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie has me feeling apprehensive. The Star Trek franchise is certainly in need of reinvention; Star Trek: Voyager and Enterprise increasingly leaned on the same episodic formulas of The Next Generation, and on references back to the older series - the most popular Enterprise episodes are loaded with references to aliens and storylines from the original shows, signs of a franchise miring itself in the past rather than looking to the future (ironically). But at the same time, I don't know that J.J. Abrams is the guy for the job of reinvention in any manner other than financial - he seems to be more interested in melodramatic plot twists, sex, and flash rather than the humanistic, progressiveness that was the true achievement of the shows at their best.

So anyway, I'm hoping for the best in the new movie but girding myself for the worst. In the meantime I've been catching up on a bunch of episodes from the original series, and here's my extremely nerdy list of my ten favorite original Star Trek episodes:

10. "What Are Little Girls Made Of?": Something of a sentimental favorite, but there's something that I find appealingly Lovecraftian about this episode, in which Kirk contends with a group of androids out to replace humanity with their own superior forms. Featuring Ted Cassidy, Lurch from The Addams Family, as the most ancient android.

9. "The Trouble with Tribbles": Something of an obligatory pick, but it holds up really well - a simple plot elaborated with great dialogue and energy.

8. "Mirror, Mirror": One of the siller story ideas of the whole series (and that's saying something) but played with such confidence that it's entered pop culture - a goatee is forever shorthand for an evil twin.

7. "Where No Man Has Gone Before": The series pilot has a different, colder tone than the series would eventually adopt, but this one also established one of the series' primary theses - that all of mankind's scientific advancements are meaningless without hanging on to our shared humanity - key to the post-Hiroshima age.

6. "The Enterprise Incident": A perverse spy thriller of an episode inspired by the Pueblo incident.

5. "Journey to Babel": A crowded, exciting episode with great intrigue, plus Andorians and Tellarites (remember, nerd here).

4. "Balance of Terror": A suspenseful submarine-esque thriller, joined with the humanistic observation that even the enemy has their reasons.

3. "Amok Time": One of the best Spock episodes features the perfect irony of the coldly logical Vulcan turning into a lustful raging maniac.

2. "The City on the Edge of Forever": Written by Harlan Ellison (if I write that he won't sue me), this one has a literary quality unique to the series, forcing Kirk into a classic dilemma between duty and romance.

1. "The Devil in the Dark": I pick this as the best original series episode because not only is it a terrific, well-crafted narrative, but it's also a perfect distillation of the ideals of the series, that the universe is a big place and that anthropocentrism can get in the way of truth and progress. Not to mention that the Horta, a living rock creature, is a pretty cool idea.

My runners-up:
"The Enemy Within"
"The Naked Time"
"The Galileo Seven"
"Space Seed"
"The Doomsday Machine"
"The Ultimate Computer"
"Spectre of the Gun"
"The Tholian Web"
"All Our Yesterdays"

And my picks for the five worst episodes:
"The Alternative Factor"
"Return to Tomorrow"
"The Omega Glory"
"And the Children Shall Lead"
"Requiem for Methuselah"

(and the one terrible episode that's so bad, it comes back around to become entertaining again: "Spock's Brain")

Monday, April 20, 2009

J.G. Ballard, 1930-2009

James Ballard reached his widest audience with Empire of the Sun, his memoir of his childhood during World War II, but I first discovered him thanks to David Cronenberg, whose film of Crash (the only good movie with that title) led me to the novel of Crash and also to Concrete Island and The Atrocity Exhibition - novels that are cold, detached, filthy, deranged, deterministic. They also represent frighteningly well the second half of the 20th century, that period when machinery and regimentation really took over the industrialized West. Ballard's triumph as a writer was to combine the radical pornographic defiance of William S. Burroughs with the modern post-War environment of parking garages, freeways, and reality TV.

The real triumph of his work, though, was the beating heart that permeated it - his was no attitudinal posturing, as his modern successors like Chuck Palahniuk can often fall into - Ballard was a traumatized intellectual, sharing his trauma, both personal and sociological, with the world. And for that, I thank him.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Seeing this movie again for the first time in several years, I finally figured out the two strands of filmmaking that it's attempting (without really succeeding) to synthesize. It's a combination of the bold visual spectacle and brainy, existential concepts of 2001: A Space Odyssey, mixed with the turgid melodrama and flatness of an Airport movie. I mean, it even looks like an Airport movie (above) - if the future contains that much gray and beige, count me out.

That the movie works at all is a tribute to the no-nonsense craftsmanship of director Robert Wise, and especially to the talents of composer Jerry Goldsmith. His score really does most of the movie's heavy lifting to instill a spirit of mystery, romance, and suspense into what is otherwise a movie with a loooot of scenes of our actors' faces staring at very expensive visual effects.

This is also one of the few Star Trek movies to actually feature a high science-fiction concept at its heart - most of the really popular movies are adventure stories, first and foremost, but this one actually poses questions about man's place in the universe, artificial intelligence, and religion when it's revealed that the all-powerful force threatening Earth is actually a 1990s Earth space probe has been transformed into a super-intelligent artificial lifeform seeking to touch its creator. And it would be all a lot more interesting if it hadn't already been done a decade earlier in the original series episode "The Changeling".

The movie's narrative is rushed and sloppy - of the movie's three main characters, Kirk, Spock, and Decker, only Spock has a character arc that's actually coherent and fulfilled, and the 'Voyager 6' idea is anticlimactic - but I still have a fondness for this movie thanks to the basic spectacle and joy of the thing. It's not great filmmaking, but it's still a good example of the intellectual seriousness and grandeur that Trek aspired towards, even with flaws.

Monday, April 13, 2009

April Update

Okay, so I haven't done any posting here in a while, because all of my time has been taken by my current job. So in the interest of putting something, anything up here, I'll just put a scoreboard up of the last two months' worth of movies that I've seen:

First, new movies:

Watchmen: Mixed bag. Some great scenes and performances, especially Jackie Earle Haley and Billy Crudup; some total garbage moments and boring performances. Overall, a real lack of any vision beyond transplanting the whole thing from print to celluloid. 5/10

The Uninvited: Serviceable. 5/10

Gomorrah: Fascinating stuff, and harder to achieve than it might look. 8/10

Two Lovers: Quite good. 8/10

Race to Witch Mountain: I was hoping for fun, I got poorly-made crap instead. 3/10

Three Monkeys: Solidly made, but I have to question what there was to it beyond two hours of miserabilism. 7/10

Everlasting Moments: Interesting to watch, but flawed and repetitive. 6/10

Knowing: Basically the same movie as Signs (which I hated), mostly crap redeemed only by some nifty visuals of destruction. 4/10

The Last House on the Left: Better than it could have been (the performances are actually pretty good, and it's not a pure gore-fest), not quite as good as it should have been (there's a masterpiece to be made of this material that just hasn't been fully realized yet, not in this version, Craven's, or Bergman's). 6/10

Now, old movies:

Gone in Sixty Seconds (1974, H.B. Halicki): 7/10

A Boy and His Dog (1975, L.Q. Jones): 6/10

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961, Val Guest): A really clever demonstration on how to make an epic, globe-spanning disaster movie that nonetheless mostly takes place in a single set. 7/10

The Abominable Snowman (1957 Val Guest): 6/10

The Endless Summer (1966, Bruce Brown): 6/10

Abraxas, Guardian of the Universe (1991): 3/10

Cult of the Cobra (1955, Francis D. Lyon): 5/10

Doppelganger (2003, Kiyoshi Kurosawa): 6/10

Bright Future (2003, Kiyoshi Kurosawa): 6/10

Hell Night (1981, Tom DeSimone): 3/10

The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955, David Kramarsky): 3/10

The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues (1955, Dan Milner): 3/10

Andrei Rublev (1966, Andrei Tarkovsky): The first Tarkovsky film I've immediately loved. 9/10

Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (1975, Chantal Akerman): 9/10

Eliminators (1986, Peter Manoogian): Mandroid, scientist, mercenary, ninja. Together they are ELIMINATORS! 5/10

While the City Sleeps (1956, Fritz Lang): 7/10

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956, Fritz Lang): 7/10

My goal for April: to prepare myself for next month's release of J.J. Abrams's Star Trek by re-watching all 10 of the previous films, plus large doses of the TV series.
Thanks for reading!