Friday, July 22, 2016

The Star Trek We Need Right Now; the Official Black Owl review of Star Trek Beyond.

Short non-spoiler version: drop what you’re doing and go see it right now. Okay?  Thanks.

From here on out, spoilers abound; you have been warned!

I am one of those Trekkies who actually really loved Star Trek Into Darkness.  Not at first when I was kind of “well that was pretty good” about it, but as I rewatched and saw the themes opening up, and the multilayered character motivation and allegory come to into focus behind all the kinetic action, I have to say it really grew on me.  Given that, despite the vociferous hate from other fans, I was a little worried when the sequel pulled Bob Orci as writer, director, and seemingly whatever else he was doing.  Replacing him with Simon Pegg and Doug Jung I knew would likely give us a more “traditional” Trek film.  What I did not expect was a movie that perfectly conjoined the best of the new films (now referred to as the “Kelvin Timeline”) and the best of the Original Series.

What this means is still plenty of kinetic action (indeed, I think the film takes less breaths than STID did) while having a less complex subtext, and focusing not on the accusatory allegory but the example of a  better tomorrow.  OK, there’s still some allegory there, but I’ll get to that in a minute.  Let me get the couple of things that didn’t quite work for me out of the way, and then I can dig into the many, many things that did.

The plot itself is pretty pedestrian: a mean alien wants to drop a bioweapon on a big starbase and he exploits the Enterprise to do it.  Pretty straightforward, though Krall’s origin and motivation which left me a little cold initially make more sense as the grander theme of the film unfolds, so I’ll give it that.  Many of the action sequences seem a little too familiar.  Kirk hangs off things again; the Enterprise crash and running through spinning corridors as it spirals and pitches felt strongly like STID.  Just the Enterprise getting beat up for a final time gave me a little pause, but the sequence is so visceral, and much longer than one would think as to make me be willing to accept that.  Indeed, in the process, we get this kind of nod that the Enterprise is herself a character and we’re watching her death, and that’s something I needed for this to work.

There are a couple of places where I felt a few logic gaps: Why couldn’t Edison and his crew fix and launch the Franklin with years to work with when Scotty and Jaylah alone were able to make it work?  I never did quite get the idea how much of The Swarm was manned and how much was automated.  It seems to me there was no way Krall had 80,000 troops (40,000 Swarm ships, two people each) yet every time Spock and McCoy entered one, they found a manned one.  And rather than fighting with the big air fan to blow the bioweapon out into space at the end, why couldn’t they just beam it (and Krall) out into space?

None of these are problems that ruin the experience for me, and perhaps subsequent viewings (only two so far) will reveal some of those answers for me and I was just being dense.  I admit to having fought down a rather nasty stomach virus to see it, and my gurgling belly might have obscured some dialogue.*

Even if not, there’s so much great Trek here, it really doesn’t matter.  We tend to forget a lot of the stories on TOS were fairly standard tales; it was the moral of the story and above all the characters that made TOS more than the sum of its parts.  This film does great things with those characters.  Everyone gets a moment to shine, and some are so deliriously perfect (looking at you Karl Urban) as to make your head spin. 

I found Chris Pine’s Kirk particularly interesting here; he is NOT the Kirk of the Prime Universe, but seems to in this case share the malaise we saw in Christopher Pike in “The Cage.”  That makes a lot of sense given this Kirk’s origin, that he might reflect Pike a little more; Pine delivers it wonderfully, and as Kirk breaks his existential ennui and emerges again ready to go boldly at the end, we buy every minute.  He gives a marvelous performance that never makes you doubt he is the Captain.

The newly introduced Jaylah character is a lot of fun.  Smart, capable, and not once sexualized.  I hope we get to see more of her in the future, or indeed, she might serve wonderfully as a spin off character if Paramount would ever bother to actually market or expand it’s film franchise (sorry, that’s a different rant).**

Again, as short as her presence in the movie is, the 1701 gives us some sleeker lines, and some painful moments that made my stomach hurt for her (maybe it was the virus): the severed nacelles, the cut throat, the helpless saucer burning in.  But, that moment when in her final motion she gets her revenge on Kalara, the alien who betrayed them all and led them into the trap in the nebula, that moment was special.  Kirk said she had a few tricks left, and indeed she did.

The trick of bringing in the real world death of Leonard Nimoy by making Prime Spock’s death organic to the arc for young Spock was inspired.  Not only does this film give us that acknowledgement, they manage to give us that image as a nod to all of the classic crew from “The Final Frontier” and I will admit, my eyes filled with tears both viewings.  Such a nice way to honor the originals, living or dead.  I hope they do as well honoring Anton Yelchin in the next one.

Other callouts to earlier Trek included a reference to Apollo from “Who Mourns for Adonis?”; actually seeing a universal translator work the way it would have to; and an again completely organic reintroduction of the Beastie  Boys’ song “Sabotage.”  Look, I don’t care if you like it or not, but I love the tie between Kirk and the Beasties.  No one batted an eye at “A Tale of Two Cities” or all the Shakespeare that shows up throughout TOS (and a nice Bard-drop in here as well!); 300 years from now, our culture will be as classic to them as Dickens.  I like that.  Also, the use of “Sabotage” is so utterly perfect on every level, thematically right through to the stunning visuals accompanying it.  I grinned like an idiot the whole sequence.

Speaking of the visuals, just wow.  From the Enterprise’s new warp effect and fascinating angles from which to shoot her, to the simply stunning concept, design, and appearance of Yorktown station, this movie just looks beautiful.  If someone doesn’t get an Oscar for effects or production design, there’s a real problem.  Yorktown alone could be the setting of a thousand sci fi stories.  Rumor has it they designed 50 new aliens for the 50th anniversary; it shows.

Here ends the basic movie review.  However, I have something I really want to talk about here.  I mentioned it took me subsequent viewings to appreciate Into Darkness more, and I found my second viewing of Beyond gave me the theme I didn’t really think was there the first time.  I could be wrong, maybe very little of this was intended by the writers, but I’m about to argue why Beyond—though a good but not the best Star Trek movie—may be the most important movie of the year.

The theme of unity and Humanity pulling together with the aliens of the Galaxy to form the Federation, and why that is a good thing is obvious.  Scotty’s grandmother’s aphorism about a twig in a bundle; the calls for unity; how team and family will win the day.  We see diversity in all those aliens, beings of all genders, and finally the subtle inserted husband for Hikaru Sulu which works so well.  The villain Krall argues against unity, feeling there must be strife and conflict in order to grow.  He can’t get over the wars he once fought on behalf of humanity and now has become a monster wielding ancient alien technology to bring darkness back into the Federation’s light.  I was initially a little “meh” about yet another rogue Starfleet Captain, but I began to think about the nature of this one.  A soldier who could not accept peace, was willing to employ the tools of others, but never join or enlist them, just to force others, to do his bidding.  He felt he had been wronged, and could not let go, and was scared of what an open future meant. 

That establishes him as the same type of bad guy as Admiral Marcus from STID.   STID is, let’s face it, a 9/11 movie.  It’s about a Democracy losing its way and employing the techniques of terrorists out of fear in the name of safety.  Beyond picks up with Kirk’s speech from the end of that and declares that we don’t have to feel that angst anymore, that we can—together—move on toward the future.

The United States has been in a state of angst over the events in 2001 for 15 years.  Can you name a blockbuster movie in the last decade that hasn’t dropped a building (or dozens, Zach Snyder) for effect?

Star Trek Beyond is declaring an end to the post-9/11 era.  It’s telling us it is time to stop being ruled by our fear and pain, and move forward.  The lighting in the movie goes from dark rooms and displays to the twilight greys on the Franklin, to a final confrontation in the light (yet the villain vanishes away in the darkness he cannot escape).  We are shown that unity is humanity’s strength as each member of the Enterprise crew brings their specific talent to the table to save the day; not homogenous, but together and celebrating their differences.  The movie talks about “adventure” and “fun” and getting past all the darkness to reach out because “there is nothing unknown; just that which is temporarily hidden.”

There’s even a scene where three aircraft are speeding toward buildings full of people, and our heroes in the USS Franklin physically interpose themselves in the path to keep it from happening.  This is not a movie where buildings fall to tap hidden fear.  This is a movie where heroes save the day, not with ease, but with cooperative will and unified just cause.

The movie is a romp, a joyride, one that does not ignore the dangers in the world, but tells us there’s a better way to confront them than with fear and darkness.  It’s the antithesis to all those dark, angst ridden blockbusters that have become so normalized.  This movie is happy, this movie takes us from the shadows to the light, this movie dares us to do better.

This is a movie that wants us to move past all our angst; and that’s exactly what I—what we all—needed right now.  With all the hate and vitriol in news and entertainment, Star Trek Beyond challenges us to be more and sets the example as to how.

As good as it is a Trek movie, Beyond is so much more important to who we are as a people right now, as TOS was a fairly entertaining space show in the 60’s that proved to be more than the sum of its parts when we needed it then. 

We need more like this; we need more movies that encourage us to go Beyond.

*Indeed! Subsequent viewings did point out to me that only Krall and two minions were actually beings (and for that matter the survivors of the Franklin) and all of the drones and their pilots were automated.  Makes me almost wonder if they had Ruk down there somewhere.

**Not even a novelization? Really?

All images property of Paramount Pictures, no infringement is intended.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Can we please stop remaking “The Dark Knight Returns”? The Official Black Owl review of “Superman V. Batman: Dawn of Justice

Just so you know, spoilers ahead!

There are a couple of different ways I want to talk about this film, because like its predecessor, Zach Snyder and Christopher Nolan’s “Man of Steel,” there are some babies here I don’t want to see go out with the bathwater, but man is this a troubled movie.  First though, I want to talk about it just as a movie, the second in a continuous series of films, bringing a specific version of the DC Comics universe to the big screen.  So, I am going to judge it on those merits first. Then we will get around to what this person (now much older) thought of it.

Later on you'll see this kid and his Granddaughter

It’s not an awful film.  The production design is fantastic, and the cast is possibly the best assembled in a long time in any superhero film.  When the “Batfleck” controversy first popped up, I said he would be the best thing about this film—for better or for worse—and I was right.  Cavill completely personifies the look of Superman, even without trunks.  I had a lot of misgivings about Gal Gadot, but she certainly looks the part of Wonder Woman.  And, the best thing about Man of Steel, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, is back for the sequel.  (Though, would have been nice if she didn't have to get saved three times.) Good stuff.

However, it is definitely a Nolan film; bloated, overlong, filled with clunky dialogue, and desperately in need of an editor.  There’s probably a really good 100-120 minute film slogging around in these 150 minutes.  At times this film confuses “convoluted” for “complicated” especially in regard to Lex Luthor’s plan.  I love the idea he’s behind a smear campaign against Superman and has been pushing Batman into darker territory,   However, in trying to show you how cool it is, there’s a lot of extra fluff.  Luthor specifically mentioned at one point some “red ink” and notes to help push Batman over the edge, but as part of the tension building leading up to the capitol explosion, Wayne calls for records on his wounded employee, and upon seeing the notes Luthor is talking about mentions seeing them for the first time.  It’s a non-sequitur in a sea of non-sequiturs.  Scenes don’t play into each other, and the result is a sequence of events rather than a plot. 

What the film really suffers from though is being made in the wrong sequence.  This should not be the second film in a series, but rather the fourth or fifth.  For example, the movie tells us Superman is a trusted hero, and that’s why Lex needs to discredit him; where was Superman a trusted hero?  All we know is the Superman who DIDN’T save Metropolis from Man of Steel, (a fact viscerally driven home again in the beginning of this film).  I need the movie in the middle that shows me Superman gaining the trust of the people.  Batman is 20 years into a career beating up bad guys, and is cynical and brutal, likely lost a sidekick, and not nearly so protective of human life.   Interesting but not if I am supposed to take this series on it’s own merits. It is not an interesting character development if you don’t show me a sane Batman at some point.  Now, Zach Snyder loves telling stories out of sequence, so perhaps this all plays in subsequent films which will fill in the gaps; but I don’t have that yet, I only have Man of Steel and this film.  There is no gravitas when Superman sacrifices himself to stop Doomsday; I haven’t seen a reason to care about this emo alien.  Superman died; so what?  You are TELLING me that’s a big deal, but never SHOW me.  And that is the biggest flaw here.  This movie repeatedly tells and does not show.  The short montage of Supergrim Superman saving people with a look on his face like he’s already tired of all this shit doesn’t show me the hero who is later slandered into people fearing him and Batman wanting to literally kill him; it kind of makes Supes out to be a jerk.

The hints at a larger DC universe are nice, even if brief.  Wonder Woman, who is well presented for the 20 or so minutes of screen time she has, has well, 20 minutes of screen time, and is barely more than a cameo.  The future Flash appearance, tied to the as yet unexplained (but I am willing to wait) vision Bruce Wayne has of the coming of Darkseid is as fast as the speedster himself. The fact there’s an Aquaman action figure in stores for his 9 seconds of footage leaves me scratching my head.

Actually, the fact there are action figures in stores aimed toward kids at all leaves me scratching my head.  This is a dark, brutal movie.  In the first 15 minutes we get at least three gunshots to the face, a city falling on thousands, a little girl crying at the fire her mom was in, and a slaughtered African village.  I don’t mind “grown up” super tales, but this is a movie that had really earned its PG-13, and still had two hours and fifteen minutes to go.  We see people branded, immolated, crushed, shot, their faces sliced open with spears…and that’s just what Batman’s up to.  There’s also bare knuckle fight club, legs crushed off, mothers going to be flame-throwered, and a suicide bomber.  In a dream, Superman executes prisoners with heat vision and rips Batman’s still beating heart from his chest.  This is not about Batman and Superman punching bad guys, this is a brutal cacophony of violence.   Nothing here should be marketed to kids. I am again not against violence in a superhero film, heck, I really like Snyder’s Watchmen.  But this is Superman and Batman and toys for four years olds are in stores, including dress up gear so YOU can go around your neighborhood and brand your friends or rip out their hearts. Here’s where I have to stop talking about the movie as a movie, and start discussing Superman and Batman.

Here’s everything you need to know about Batman: he’s still a little boy who never ever wants to see anyone die. That’s it, everything else about him is driven by that.  Not here.  Here, like the mistaken Tim Burton before, this Batman racks up a body count.  Here’s everything you need to know about Superman: if he were a human born to the Kents and had no super powers at all, he would still be out there doing the right thing and inspiring others to do that as well.  Here, he is nothing but burdened by his powers.  Henry Cavill, who was amazingly charismatic in “Man from UNCLE” is not allowed to enjoy being Superman for even a moment, and does nothing but question if he’s actually helping.  Now, I don’t need the raw “gee whiz” of Christopher Reeve (though, it would certainly help), but at least give me a reason to like this guy other than I am supposed to because he’s Superman.  This is a deconstruction of Superman and Batman, taking the elements of the mythology and showing how awful they would be in the real world…
…just like “The Dark Knight Returns.”  And here is the fundamental devil in these details.  DKR, which came out in the 80s the same time Watchmen did, like Watchmen, is a deconstruction of the superhero myth.  It shows us why those impossibly good superheroes can’t really be impossibly good. It is a fine literary criticism of the superhero genre for that, just like Watchmen was.  However, rather than leave it in the dystopian future realm of a one-off story, the fact fans like me (and yes, I am guilty) loved it so much meant WB has gone back to that well again and again.  Now, for 30 of Batman’s 77-year history, we’ve been deconstructing the poor psychotic bastard and not let anyone put him back together again.  Both film and comic have now done that with Superman as well.  Here’s a hint, Superman IS the impossibly good hero who can’t exist in the real world.  That’s the point: The aspirations he allows us to imagine, inspiring us to be more (I’ve talked at length about that here).  Man of Steel and this movie are like Watchmen, and I don’t think I need that anymore, I think I’ve had enough.   I know I sure as hell don’t want that out of a Superman movie.  If you’ve made a Superman film that you can’t take a ten-year-old to, you have failed.  If you make a Superman film that doesn’t fill the audience with hope,  you’ve failed.  If you give me  Superman who doesn’t reflect  the best we SHOULD be, rather than mixed bag we are, then you’ve failed.

I know, you’re sitting there saying, “Dan, it’s 2016; George Reeves and Christopher Reeve and heroes who stick happily to their moral code are a thing of the past and can’t be done for a modern audience.  No one wants to see that.”

Cap and I call “bullshit.”

So, for me as a Superman fan, this movie fails.  As a Batman fan, there’s some stuff to like, and Affleck pulls it off.  As a Wonder Woman fan, it leaves me wanting more, which I suppose is success. 

It’s not a terrible movie.  But it’s something I never need to sit through again, unless it’s to edit it myself.  I do hope someone here learns a lesson and when Superman pops out of that coffin (c’mon, can you telegraph THAT any more loudly?) he’s found a sense of humor in the afterlife.  A new respect for truth and justice.  A desire to SHOW me he’s a hero, and that he can inspire us all to do better rather than just TELL me. 

I don’t need funny, I don’t need corny, but I sure do need Superman.

And so do we all.

Friday, March 18, 2016

I may have been wrong about some Star Wars.

I tweeted about this the other day, but felt I wanted to play with the concept a little more in depth.  Let me start out by saying that I don’t hate Episodes I-III the way a lot of my generation does.  When I say my generation, I am talking about people who saw at least one Episode of the OT first run in a theater.  We have a tendency to express a lot of displeasure with the Prequels.  Though I enjoy them, I recognize issues (though, don’t forget there are plenty of issues with the OT), and one of the ones I hated the most was the absolutely horrendous performances by Hayden Christiansen and Natalie Portman in portraying Anakin and Padme’s relationship.  Bad dialogue, cardboard performances; I even recently posited they should do a cut of II and III where they actually replace the live-action Anakin with the animated version from The Clone Wars.
More believable.

But, I had a thought the other day that makes me wonder if perhaps I—and many other critics—have missed the point all along.  There might be something much deeper going on that makes both the dialogue and the performances exactly what they should be, and improve the quality of the prequels in its acceptance. 

And if there are younger other fans out there saying, “well of course!” please pardon my ignorance and allow me to proselytize to others.

Let’s take a look at Anakin Skywalker.  Here’s a kid who was a slave.  The only person he was ever really able to get close to was his Mother, and though granted certain autonomy, lives under the constant threat of a violent death if he displeases his exploitative master.  From this socially isolated environment, he is taken in by a group of Warrior Monks where he spends the majority of his time in meditation, combat training. Add to this he is constantly reminded by people around him that he’s different for starting the training late, only around because Yoda wanted to help Obi-Wan fulfill a promise, and oh MIGHT be the person who will fulfill some ambiguous prophecy from the distant past.  Aside from his friendship with Obi-Wan, the only person who has really shown him true kindness aside from his month and Qui-Gon is Padme.  However, the Jedi have spend a decade telling him he CANNOT have that connection, that those links and relationships are forbidden. 

How could he possibly pursue romance like a normal human being?  He must be emotionally stunted, completely unpracticed in dealing with the opposite gender, and still fixated on this one girl who was a pre-pubescent crush who over a decade has probably been promoted in his mind to an impossible reality.  Of course he’s awkward, wooden, obsessive, and immature.  He has no idea how to be anything else.

Then there’s Padme.  Here’s a girl who when she should have been finishing an education and hanging out at the local Naboo Boy-Band Concerts was actually in a position requiring her to rule a planet.  Ruling a planet that was already suffering racial discord (humans versus gunguns) and then suffers invasion and war.  After liberating her world, she becomes a Senator to the Republic, likely to replace that nice Senator Palpatine who is now Chancellor.  She never has a childhood.  She’s spent her life a target enough to need look-alike hand maidens who act as secret service and decoys.  Those would be the people with whom she is closest, virtual twins who she sees die in her place periodically.  What does she know about actually carrying on a romance?  Ascension guns up the side of Theed Palace do not prepare a 15 year old girl for having a normal relationship. 

Along comes Anakin, and Padme sees he’s clumsy in his approach to her, and here finally is someone she does not have to put on airs for, or act like a Senator, Queen, or Liberator.  She can just be Padme, and even she isn’t really sure who that is. 

Finally in Episode III, they know it must all come to an end.  Padme is pregnant, and huge gowns and clever waistlines will not hide that fact forever.  Eventually someone is going to ask who the other parent is.  Eventually, either Padme or Anakin are going to have to give up everything they have and are and make a choice.  And that terrifying change is gestating in Padme with every minute.

So, Padme and Anakin’s conversations and romance are clumsy and poorly worded.  Their love seems to be aping what real romance would be; perfect, that is perhaps exactly what it should be.  How else should we really expect two people who must be completely socially retarded (in the literal, clinical sense) to be?

Maybe this was exactly right all along.

And I don't think I can blame Lucas for this Lazer Boner.