Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Guest Stars of "Star Trek"

A couple of people noted to me the stellar guest cast in these "Star Trek" feature films I've been reviewing the last two weeks, so I decided to post a run-down of the notable actors from each movie.

"Star Trek: The Motion Picture"
Stephen Collins - Collins would later co-star with Catherine Hicks on "7th Heaven"
Persis Khambatta - Persis was most famous in her native India as an actress.

"Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan"
Ricardo Montalban - Montalban was a well-known actor, having guest starred in many TV series, and famous for roles in "Fantasy Island" and later "The Naked Gun"
Merritt Butrick - Butrick would later guest star in an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation"
Kirstie Alley - Alley would later join hit TV sitcom "Cheers," and star in the series of "Look Who's Talking" films, more sitcoms and eventually a series of reality shows.
Paul Winfield - Winfield is a recognizable character actor, guest starring in a number of films such as "The Terminator" and also an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

"Star Trek III: The Search for Spock"
Christopher Lloyd - Lloyd has a made a long career playing crazy characters on TV shows like "Taxi," and starred as Doc Brown in "Back to the Future."
Phil Morris - Morris has made a career out of guest roles on TV series like "Seinfeld" and "Smallville."
John Larroquette - Larroquette starred in the popular 80s sitcom "Night Court."
Miguel Ferrer - Ferrer's career mostly consists of playing sketchy characters, but he also had an important role in Paul Verhoeven's excellent "Robocop" with Kurtwood Smith.

"Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home"
Catherine Hicks - Hicks, as I mentioned, would later co-star with Stephen Collins in "7th Heaven."
Brock Peters - Most famously, Peters starred in "To Kill A Mockingbird" as well as a lifetime of guest starring in popular TV shows, and a recurring role on "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine."

"Star Trek V: The Final Frontier"
David Warner - Warner has an extensive filmography of voiceover work (notably for "Batman: The Animated Series" as Ras al Ghul) and would appear in the next film, "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country" as Chancellor Gorkon.
George Murdock - Murdock has also made extensive TV guest appearances, including "The X-Files," "Law and Order," "ER," "Batman: The Animated Series," and "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

"Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country"
Christopher Plummer -  Plummer is probably most famous for his role as Captain Von Trapp in "The Sound of Music," and also recently appeared in Pixar's excellent "Up."
Kim Cattrall - Cattrall had previously starred in "Police Academy" and "Big Trouble in Little China." These days, she gets her rocks off playing a cougar on "Sex and the City."
Kurtwood Smith - Smith starred with Miguel Ferrer in "Robocop" and later, famously as Red Forman in "That 70's Show."  He also appeared in "24," "House," "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and "Star Trek: Voyager."
Michael Dorn - Dorn starred as Lt. Worf in seven seasons of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," four seasons of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and four "Star Trek" feature films.
W. Morgan Sheppard - Sheppard has guest starred in a number of TV shows and films, including "Star Trek" (2009), "Star Trek: Voyager," "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and extensive voiceover work.
Christian Slater - Slater gained a reputation as a heartthrob and eventually starred in a number of popular films and guest starred on TV series such as "Alias" and "The West Wing."
Iman - Iman is mostly known for her modeling, but has done some acting work.
Rene Auberjonois - Auberjonois starred as Odo for seven seasons of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine."

"Star Trek: Generations"
Alan Ruck - Ruck's most famous role is as Ferris' pal Cameron in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," and also appeared in blockbusters like "Speed" and "Twister."
Malcolm McDowell - McDowell's made a career out of playing creeps and weirdos like in "A Clockwork Orange."  He's also done extensive voiceover work.
Brian Thompson - His size and intriguing facial structure often typecasts Thompson in villainous thug roles, such as the pilot episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "The Terminator," "The X-Files" and "Star Trek: Enterprise."
Whoopi Goldberg - A comedienne who has starred in many films and TV series, including "The Color Purple," "Ghost" with Patrick Swayze, and "Sister Act."  She also had a recurring role on "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
Tim Russ - Russ had guest roles on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and starred for seven seasons as Tuvok on "Star Trek: Voyager."  He has also had brief appearances in Mel Brooks' "Spaceballs" and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air."

"Star Trek: First Contact"
Alfre Woodard - Woodard has guest starred in a number of TV series and films, including "Desperate Housewives," "Scrooged," "LA Law" and recently, HBO's "True Blood."
James Cromwell - Famously played a farmer in that talking pig movie, "Babe," and has guest starred in a number of films in TV series including "ER," "The Sum of All Fears," "I, Robot," "24" and appeared on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and "Star Trek: Enterprise."
Neal McDonough - Has guest starred in many TV shows and films, including HBO's "Band of Brothers," "Desperate Housewives," and "Tin Man."
Robert Picardo - Picardo starred for seven seasons as The Doctor "Star Trek: Voyager" and guest starred on "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and in TV series such as "The Wonder Years" and "Stargate: SG-1" and "Stargate: Atlantis."
Dwight Schulz - Schulz had a recurring role on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and "Star Trek: Voyager" and starred as 'Howlin Mad' Murdock in "The A-Team."
Don Stark - Stark co-starred with Kurtwood Smith in "That 70s Show."
Ethan Phillips - Phillips starred as Neelix for seven seasons of "Star Trek: Voyager."

"Star Trek: Insurrection"
F. Murray Abraham - Abraham won the Oscar for Best Actor in "Amadeus," a role he lampooned in Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Last Action Hero."
Donna Murphy - Donna Murphy apparently grew up in my hometown.  My sister goes to church with her mother.  She has also appeared in films such as "Spider-Man 2" and "World Trade Center."
Anthony Zerbe - Zerbe has done lots of guest roles, and also took on James Bond 007 in "License to Kill."
Gregg Henry - Henry's done a TON of guest work on TV series and films like "Gilmore Girls," "Firefly," "Star Trek: Enterprise" and "Slither" (with "Firefly" star Nathan Fillion).

"Star Trek: Nemesis"
Tom Hardy - Also had a role with Neal McDonough in "Band of Brothers," and recently garnered acclaim for "Bronson."
Ron Perlman - Perlman has an extensive filmography playing badasses and characters requiring lots of makeup, including "Beauty and the Beast" and "Hellboy."
Dina Meyer - Meyer rose to prominence with roles on "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Starship Troopers."
Jude Ciccolella - Guest starred in numerous TV shows and movies such as "Daredevil," "The Shawshank Redemption" and had a recurring role for several years on "24."
Alan Dale - Dale recently wrapped a recurring role on JJ Abrams' "Lost."  He's had extensive guest work on shows like "The OC" and "24" (with Jude Cicolella).
Bryan Singer - Singer is famous for directing movies like "The Usual Suspects," "X-Men" and "Superman Returns."

"Star Trek" (2009)
Rachel Nichols - Nichols had a starring role in the final season of JJ Abrams' "Alias," and as Scarlett in "GI Joe: Rise of Cobra."
Faran Tahir - Guest starred in shows like "24," JJ Abrams' "Lost," "Chuck" and "Grey's Anatomy."
Tyler Perry - Perry is an accomplished writer and actor, most famous for his role as Madea.
Majel Barrett - Wife of "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry, Barrett played the voice of the computers in every "Star Trek" TV series and many of the movies.
Wil Wheaton - Wheaton starred as Wesley Crusher on "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

"Star Trek" (2009)

Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Zoe Saldana
Written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman
Directed by JJ Abrams

After 2002's "Star Trek: Nemesis" was deemed a box office failure and TV's "Star Trek: Enterprise" was canceled in its fourth season, the incredible run of "Star Trek," uninterrupted production since 1987, came to a close.  Though it was never really in question, fans would wonder: Will "Star Trek" ever come back?

Hell yes.

To give rebirth to its beloved cash cow golden goose franchise, Paramount/Viacom turned to successful TV director JJ Abrams, who had seen massive success with "Felicity," "Alias" and "Lost."  With Abrams came the large group of talented people he worked with on those other projects, and their pitch to Paramount was given the green light... and a $150 million budget, the largest of any "Star Trek" to date.

Charged with modernizing a franchise many deemed "stale" and "old-fashioned," Abrams and co. set about to make "Star Trek" hip and cool again.  It had to be fast, furious, and above all, fun.  The film they craft here is unlike any previous "Star Trek" adventure, like a strange mixture of the character of "Star Trek" and the tone of "Star Wars."

"Star Trek" is both a prequel and a sequel and a reboot.  That's a pretty incredible feat, though ultimately it exists as such mainly in order to please hard-line fans who would never accept a straight-up remake.  It begins aboard the starship Kelvin, which encounters a strange lightning storm in space.  From this storm emerges a massive Romulan ship, captained by a man named Nero (Eric Bana).  Nero savagely attacks the Kelvin, and kidnaps and murders Captain Robau (Faran Tahir), leaving George Kirk in charge.  As George pilots the Kelvin on a suicide run against Nero's ship, his wife Winona is giving birth to their son, James.  George uses the Kelvin, sacrificing himself and ship, to allow the crew (and his wife and newborn child) to escape.

Twenty-something years later, James T. Kirk is a rebellious waste of a youth, listless, not having any clue what to do with this life.  One night in a bar, he meets Starfleet cadet Uhura (Zoe Saldana, "Avatar") and, attempting to pick her up, gets into a fight with a number of other cadets.  After getting thoroughly trounced, Kirk is met by Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood).  Pike gives Kirk a challenge: to join Starfleet and do something with his life.  Taking Pike's challenge, Kirk joins up, and on the way to the Academy meets Dr. Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban), a physician headed to space to escape his ex-wife.

Three years pass, and Kirk and McCoy have become best friends.  Kirk is obsessed with beating the supposedly unbeatable Kobayashi Maru test.  To do so, he cheats, as Kirk is wont to do.  In doing so, he runs afoul of Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) who designed the test.  Before the situation can be resolved, a distress call is received from the planet Vulcan, Spock's homeworld.  Kirk, despite being suspended for cheating, manages to get aboard the starship Enterprise along with Spock, Uhura, McCoy, and Captain Pike.  The ship races to Vulcan, and Kirk realizes that the crisis on Vulcan is related to what happened to the Kelvin decades earlier.

When the ship arrives at Vulcan, they find Nero drilling into its surface.  Nero demands Pike give himself up, but Pike has other plans.  He assigns Kirk a mission to destroy Nero's drill and gives command of the ship to Spock.  These two rivals must overcome their differences to recover Captain Pike and stop Nero before he destroys the Federation.

This movie is huge.  It moves at warp speed from one set piece to the next, changing and altering the "Star Trek" universe in massive strokes.  Nero, it turns out, is from the future, and his presence in this film creates "an alternate timeline," which gives the filmmakers carte blanche to make wholesale changes to this fictional universe, reshaping it as they see fit.  This doesn't just include random changes to costumes or ship designs, but the actual landscape of the universe.  The destruction of the planet Vulcan (and the near decimation of its population) has huge implications for the future.

Of course, finicky fans will bitch about changing the backstory and making grand alterations to characters and planets in the universe.  But frankly, that's pretty bullshit.  After nearly half a century, the "Star Trek" universe had become unwieldy and labyrinthine,  contradicting itself at seemingly every turn.  Getting back to basics with a "Star Trek" film wouldn't just be enough.  The filmmakers need the freedom to do whatever they please, otherwise they'd be hamstrung by 40 years of continuity, and the fans would complain anyway. 

This is not to say that "Star Trek" is a perfect film; it's not.  The plot is a bit loose, and somewhat formulaic (Nero's headed for Earth... shocking).  But what "Star Trek" absolutely nails is the characters.  Chris Pine is full of win as Kirk, bringing all the swagger and confidence of Shatner's original, without outright aping Shatner's performances.  The result is a less theatrical, more natural James Kirk, but still one with all those qualities that made him such an endearing character to begin with.  This is not to say that he's a better Kirk, but probably one less ripe for parody.

Similarly, Zachary Quinto is a fine Mr. Spock, and not only because he so incredibly looks the part.  He balances the cold logic and raw emotion of the character rather well.  But this Spock is also one that is much easier to provoke, and interestingly, Spock is the one who the film heaps most of its emotional impact upon.  Quinto's delivery of Spock's narration, describing himself as a member of an endangered species, is hauntingly excellent.  Here, Spock's human mother, Amanda (Winona Ryder), is the focal point for Spock's emotions.  Not only is she the literal source of them, but she is used to trigger them. 

Karl Urban is also a surprise, taking over admirably for the late DeForest Kelley, an actor who had infused the McCoy character with such a charm that I thought it would be nearly impossible to replicate.  And yet, when Urban hisses, "Are you out of your Vulcan mind?!" it feels perfectly natural.  I can't help but grin with nerdly pleasure at his performance here.  Simon Pegg ("Shaun of the Dead") is hilarious as Scotty, John Cho ("Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle" is a serviceable Sulu, and Anton Yelchin ("Terminator: Salvation") gets a few good gags in as Chekov.

Eric Bana doesn't get much to do as the villain, Nero.  We're given snippets of his back story, and Bana plays him a bit looser than the typical "Star Trek" heavy, which is refreshing.  But ultimately, Nero isn't deep enough of a character for us to care much, though he's effective as a threat to the crew of the Enterprise.

As I've said, the tone of "Star Trek" is much different here than in previous films.  There's a colorful sense of fun here that was mostly missing from the latter features and TV series, which strove to be more serious and less corny than the original 60s TV show.  Even the movies starring the original cast were quite different from the TV show that spawned them.  And although this new film doesn't feature obviously styrofoam sets or cheesy acting, it still feels full of the fun spirit of that original show.  While other "Star Trek" films have struggled to integrate humor, this film is the funniest of all eleven films without the gags seeming absurdly out of place.  The action sequences are fast and frenetic, but aren't hard to follow.  A lot of the staples of the old films and TV shows are still there - people calling out that the shields are failing, consoles exploding, sparks flying everywhere, etc - but they're not the focus of these sequences.  In fact, Abrams seems almost eager to get these parts over with so he can move on to other things.

Ultimately, for all its bombast and mayhem, "Star Trek" is about Kirk and Spock.  Leonard Nimoy reprises his role as an older Spock, also transplanted from the future, who realizes that the best thing he can do to help this new timeline and save Earth is to make sure that Kirk and the younger Spock are put in their correct places.  The writers recognize that the relationship between these two is absolutely paramount to the success of any "Star Trek" feature, and incorporate that as an actual story thread. 

"Star Trek" quickly became a $200 million hit for Paramount, and then the most successful "Star Trek" film to date.  Audiences clearly connected with its sense of fun and well-drawn, iconic characters.  A sequel was announced almost immediately and in my mind, it can't get here fast enough.

The blu-ray disc is first-rate in every sense of the word.  Image quality is absolutely stellar, with fine details like skin and cloth texture absolutely jumping off the screen.  This is quite easily the most colorful of all the "Star Trek" films, and that shows off here beautifully, as well.  The surround track is incredible, as well, with deep, full bass and excellent directionality.  This disc is demo material, the kind of thing you put in to show off your system to your friends and neighbors.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"Star Trek: Nemesis" (2002)

Starring Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner and Tom Hardy
Written by John Logan
Directed by Stuart Baird

If 1996 was the apex of "Star Trek" in the modern era, 2002 is probably it's nadir.  It has been four years since "Star Trek: Insurrection" disappointed critics and audiences alike.  "Star Trek: Enterprise" is dropping fast in the ratings, and the "Next Generation" crew is mounting their final feature film, one that would be plagued by production problems and eventually become the lowest grossing "Star Trek" film.

On the Romulan homeworld, a bomb is planted in the Senate, killing the entire political leadership of the Empire.  Forces of the mysterious Reman named Shinzon (Tom Hardy) seize control, and reach out to the Federation, apparently anxious for peace.

Meanwhile, the USS Enterprise diverts to a nearby star system after detecting a strange signature on a planet's surface.  When the crew goes down to the surface, they discover an android nearly identical to their Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner).  Now the closest starship to the Romulan border, the Enterprise is then ordered to Romulus to respond to Shinzon's calls for peace.  When they arrive and meet Shinzon for the first time, the crew is shocked to discover that Shinzon is not Reman at all... he's a clone of Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart).  Picard investigates, not quite trusting his younger doppelganger, and suspects that Shinzon isn't quite being truthful about his peace overtures.

It seems that Shinzon has constructed a dangerous weapon, a larger version of the bomb that killed the Romulan Senate.  With this weapon mounted on his massive war vessel, the Scimitar, he plans destroy Earth and the Federation.  But Shinzon is dying, a result of the method by which he was cloned by the Empire, and needs an infusion of Picard's DNA to save his life.  Planting the android B-4 on an alien planet was a ruse to bring the Enterprise to Romulus in order to steal not just Picard's DNA, but critical intel that will allow Shinzon's ship to penetrate Federation defenses.

"Star Trek: Nemesis" is another entry into the franchise that has lofty ideas, but can't quite seem to make it all work.  Some kind of edict to keep the film under two hours ends up robbing it of most of its best character scenes, and some others are reshuffled into a strange order that somewhat deflates the proceedings.  Problematic also is director Stuart Baird, who was very unfamiliar with the franchise and makes a few questionable decisions as a result.  Digitally altering Michael Dorn's voice for all of Worf's lines, for example, is strange.  It had never been done before, so when they do it here it just sounds bizarre.

The "nature vs nurture" plot is intriguing, and gives the film some of its best scenes as Picard and Shinzon battle.  Particularly, a scene where Shinzon contacts Picard via hologram in the midst of battle, is a fine scene for both Hardy and Stewart, and distills the ideas of the script down succinctly.  The subplot involving the android prototype B-4, also played by Brent Spiner, is meant to mirror the story between Picard and Shinzon, thematically, but it's ultimately rather weak.  Only one scene in the entire film, where Data deactivates B-4 after the crew discovers how dangerous he is, is really worthwhile.

A set of escalating action sequences dominates the second half of the film.  The pacing of it all is a bit staccato, with breaks in between sequences of attack and retreat as the Enterprise and the Scimitar chase each other around a spatial rift.  It's the longest battle sequence in the film franchise, with lots of maneuvering back and forth and the characters attempting to discern what the other is doing.  There's some attempt at strategy, as well, as the Enterprise must present its strongest defenses to the Scimitar, meaning they must maneuver carefully as the ship takes a pounding from different sides.  Visual effects by Digital Domain are top-notch, as well. 

"Nemesis" is a solid film, but problematic.  The fact that a number of the deleted scenes on on the disc feature not only fine character work from the actors, but also are scenes of some importance, is unfortunate.  In particular, a scene with Data and Picard discussing family and mortality should have been left in the film to give more dramatic weight to the climax.  Certain scenes seem thrown in for no particular reason, like a dune buggy chase early in the film.  This scene exists purely so that there's some action in the front half of the movie, but that purpose is totally obvious, even if the scene itself is entertaining.  During the film's climax, Riker (Jonathan Frakes) fights Shinzon's Viceroy (Ron Perlman) in the bowels of the ship.  At one point, the two are fighting over what seems like a bottomless chasm, even though we know they're already on the lower decks of the ship (and beyond that, the design of the ship simple doesn't allow for something so deep).

Still, "Nemesis" gets a lot of things right.  After the absurd jokes in "Insurrection," "Nemesis" tones the humor way down.  There are a few jokes during the wedding scene, and a couple of lines thrown in for levity later on, but for the most part this is a serious picture.  Jerry Goldsmith contributed not only his final score for the "Star Trek" franchise, but also the final score of his career.  It's a solid score, though I'm sad to say not quite as good as his previous entries.  The score's finest moment, strangely, is in the end credits suite, and doesn't even appear in its full form in the film - only on the soundtrack album, which has a completely different end credits suite than the film.

With some re-editing, "Nemesis" would be a great swan song for the "Next Generation" crew.  As it is, it's an entertaining film, but it's disappointing that it comes so close to being much better than it is.

The blu-ray is an intriguing disc.  Unlike the previous films, "Nemesis" doesn't appear to have been scrubbed clean of grain.  It does, in fact, exhibit a rather nice grain structure, giving it the most film-like appearance of these feature films in that sense.  But other problems appear, though I'm not sure whether these are faults of the original production or if they're a problem with the blu-ray transfer.  Colors, for example, seem somewhat desaturated.  After seeing how bold and colorful "Generations" was, it's a little disappointing to see "Nemesis" looking somewhat drab.  I suppose this fits the tone of the picture, but... still.  Also, detail seems to vary.  At times, the picture seems soft; this might be the filmmakers attempting to hide the age of the cast, but I can't be certain of that.  Still, this is the best "Nemesis" has ever looked. 

Soundwise, things are also somewhat uneven.  Though the whole movie sounds crystal clear, bass doesn't really kick in until the second half of the film.  When it does, it rocks the house.  But even the dune buggy sequence in the early part of the film doesn't have the heft of the latter half of the film.

Monday, June 28, 2010

"Star Trek: Insurrection" (1998)

Starring Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner and F. Murray Abraham
Written by Michael Piller
Directed by Jonathan Frakes

That's right, the Enterprise is joystick-compatible.
Remember when I said that part of the problem that drags down "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier" was too much over silliness?  That issue rears its ugly head once again in the ninth "Star Trek" feature, "Insurrection."  While the former film mostly concerned itself with characters getting knocked on the head or one-liners about holding your horses, the latter is filled with bits about making Worf sing, pimples, and I shit you not, a boob joke.

"Insurrection' begins with a bright, sunny day on an idyllic alien world interrupted by weapons fire.  Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) suddenly appears, combating strange aliens in high-tech suits that render them invisible.  After defeating them, he uses his weapon to reveal to the world's inhabitants that they are being spied upon by a hidden observation post above their village - crewed by Son'a and Starfleet officers. 

Word reaches the starship Enterprise that Data is malfunctioning, and Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) decides to ignore orders to stay away.  Upon reaching the alien planet, which resides in a dangerous area of space known as the Briar Patch because of its unusual environmental qualities, they manage to capture Data.  Quickly, they learn that the reason for Data's malfunction was that he was fired upon by the Son'a, which contradicts what they had been told by the Son'a commander Ru'afo (F. Murray Abraham) and Starfleet Admiral Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe).  Going down to the planet to investigate further, they discover the truth about Ru'afo and Dougherty's plan: To transplant the population of the planet, in secret, to another.

It seems the rings of this planet emit some kind of strange radiation that heals the sick and keeps people young - the planet itself is like a fountain of youth.  Dougherty and Ru'afo intend to harvest this radiation, but doing so will ruin the planet's atmosphere.  So they have come up with a plan to remove the people below, and take what they need.  When Picard discovers this, of course, he takes the moral high ground and vows to stop this plan.  He and his crew arm themselves to protect the planet's inhabitants while Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) is ordered to take the Enterprise outside the Briar Patch to blow the lid off this conspiracy.  But Dougherty and Ru'afo aren't about to let that happen.

"Star Trek: Insurrection" is a middling movie, which is unfortunate, after how successful "First Contact" was before it.  Like "Final Frontier," it presents an intriguing premise for the story, but then gets bogged down by the silly humor and lame special effects.  The movie throws too many small action sequences at the audience, trying to distract us from the fact that the script really doesn't develop much of anything.  There's enough real story here for an episode of the TV series, but the rest of the film's runtime feels padded out.

The premise begs for a serious treatment of the idea of forcing the relocation of a settlement of people, something that has led to tragedies throughout human history.  A better script could've made this an excellent "Star Trek" feature, doing what "Star Trek" often does best - present a moral, allegorical story under the guise of a science fiction adventure.  But "Insurrection" doesn't do that.  It throws the idea at us, and then starts throwing jokes and action sequences to help us ignore the fact that it's not really exploring the idea at all.  

The jokes don't really work.  The cast is game, obviously, and seems to be having fun, but the simple fact is that it's just not all that funny.  The cast is having fun because they like working together, but they can't manage to sell all the gags they're trying to throw at us.  A number of the jokes are focused on emasculating Worf (Michael Dorn), the big Klingon warrior.  Why Worf is even in this movie is never explained (he starts to tell us why, and then gets interrupted).  The truth is that he's in this movie because he was in the TV series, so no matter how little sense it makes for him to be here, he apparently must be here.   The producers apparently weren't content with letting him just stay aboard "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine."  One of the funnier bits in the movie is when a boy asks Data if he knows how to play, and Data replies, "Yes, I play the violin."  This is funny because it's the sort of thing Data would say, as opposed to later when he asks Worf if he's noticed his boobs firming up.

The film suffers in terms of its visual effects, as well.  There's a lot of bad compositing work in this movie.  Any scene where there's a window looking out into space or something flying around the planet's atmosphere just looks cheap.  There's one shot of the Enterprise being knocked around by an explosion that might as well have come from the original 1960s TV series, since the ship looks like a small toy dangling on wires.  It's awful. 

The lighting throughout the movie is bright and flat, also making it look cheap.  On the plus side, there is a great deal of gorgeous location shooting.  Of course, none of this is helped by the fact that the image quality on the blu-ray disc is disappointing as hell.  While "First Contact" generally looked excellent, "Insurrection" looks much like the original crew movies did.  Detail has been obliterated.  The Ba'ku costumes look like they should have fantastic textures, but they don't.  Close-ups fare okay, with good skin and costume detail, but anything beyond that looks flat and soft. It's definitely an improvement over the DVD, but disappointing all the same, especially considering how good the previous film looked.

The sound on the blu-ray, however, is first rate.  Jerry Goldsmith's excellent score (truly the best thing about this film) fills the soundstage from all sides.  Sound effects have excellent directionality and bass is deep and hefty. 

"Star Trek: Insurrection" is a mediocre movie.  It's not unwatchable, but it's nothing special.  Bad visual effects and a weak script bring it down.  The quality of the blu-ray disc is sadly lacking, as well. 

Sunday, June 27, 2010

"Jaws 3-D" (1983)

Starring Dennis Quaid, Louis Gossett Jr. and Lea Thompson
Written by Richard Matheson and Carl Gottlieb
Directed by Joe Alves

Best part of the movie?  Lea Thompson in a bikini.
Good god, what a terrible movie this is.  Picking up years after the first two films, Mike and Sean Brody are now adults.  Mike has a job as an engineer at Sea World, which is about to open a new underwater structure.  He's dating Kathryn Morgan, a marine biologist.  During the opening weekend of the new Sea World park, Mike invites his brother, Sean to come.  Sean has been afraid of the water ever since he was nearly eaten by a shark as a child (y'know, in "Jaws 2") but a new girlfriend manages to coax him into the water a couple times.

Basically what happens is that a shark gets into the water park, and begins eating the workers and visitors.  Aaaand it sucks.  The movie was shot in an ancient 3-D process, and looks terrible.  The 3-D effects are few and far between, but when they do finally come, they're atrocious.  Observe.  This only happens a handful of times in the entire movie.  There rest of the movie shot much like previous "Jaws" features, only it makes a lot less sense.  It's nearly impossible to tell what's going on during any of the supposed action sequences in this movie.

Mike's brother Sean appears in maybe three or four scenes in the entire movie, making his presence entirely unimportant.  The script is pretty slight, moving from pointless scene to pointless scene with some water skiing and screaming thrown in for good measure.  Because it was filmed in 3-D, most of the movie is flat-out ugly.  When it's not washed out under atrocious amounts of grain, the picture is soft or even out of focus, and a few scenes are so poorly lit that it looks like a couple of funky colored splotches on black backgrounds.

I suppose I have to give the filmmakers some credit for at least attempting something slightly different from the past two movies, by enclosing the whole thing in a water park.  But the truth is that no matter how good the idea might be, the execution is terrible.

"Surrogates" (2009)

Starring Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell and Rosamund Pike
Written by Michael Ferris and John Brancato
Directed by Jonathan Mostow

In the world of "Surrogates", people live their daily lives through the use of robotic bodies controlled via computers linked to the brain.  This technology allows the disabled to walk, or to let anyone have the body they've always dreamed of having.  It means soldiers never die in battle, and that murder has essentially become a thing of the past.

Bruce Willis stars as FBI agent Tom Greer.  It seems that someone has attacked a couple of surrogates with a weapon that destroys not only the robots, but kills their human operators, something that's supposed to be impossible.  Greer and his partner, Peters (Radha Mitchell) quickly uncover a conspiracy that could end the lives of millions of people across the planet.  Soon enough, Greer's surrogate is destroyed, and he must venture out into the real world for the first time in years. 

The original "Surrogates" graphic novel is an intriguing piece of science fiction, set in a future where human beings have almost no interaction with each other outside of the use of surrogates.  The world was incredibly detailed and well thought-out.  The movie version inexplicably ditches nearly everything that made the book interesting, including the futuristic setting.  The film posits that these advancements in robotics exist now, in our time... but nothing else. 

Beyond the fact that the world of "Surrogates" in the movie doesn't make much sense, neither does the ultimate plan of the story's villain - Dr. Canter (James Cromwell), the inventor of surrogates.  Canter has decided that his creation has become an abomination and mourns the loss of "real" human life.  In the book, the plan was to force everyone to disconnect and start living their lives again.  In the film, Canter is actually planning on killing everyone using a surrogate, in the name of allowing the human race to live again.  It's pure nonsense.  His entire character is predicated on the idea that he wants people to start living their lives for real, except he's perfectly willing to kill those people.

The acting is, either ironically or on purpose, I'm not sure, robotic at best.  I suspect this is just poor performances, since even when he steps out of his surrogate shell, Bruce Willis isn't putting much effort into anything.  Rosamund Pike has a couple of scenes where she gets to emote, but otherwise mostly seems there just to look pretty.

There also isn't much action in "Surrogates," which would fit perfectly fine since there wasn't really in the book, either, except that the movie seems to want to be an action movie.  But the action sequences it presents aren't even all that great.  A motorcycle chase partway through (which was filmed outside my office in Lynn) is fairly decent, but nothing is particularly impressive or special.  It's unusual from a director like Mostow, who even though he's yet to create a film with a great story or characters, has proven himself capable of constructing fine sequences of mayhem. 

"Surrogates" is pretty disappointing all around.  The graphic novel, on the other hand, is a fabulous read, and presents a lot of intriguing ideas about human interactions and how society would change if we were suddenly able live vicariously through strong, beautiful robot bodies. 

Saturday, June 26, 2010

"Star Trek: First Contact" (1996)

Starring Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner and Alice Krige
Written by Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga
Directed by Jonathan Frakes

Everyone knows where to look except Worf, apparently.
1996 could probably be considered the height of the "Star Trek" franchise in terms of sheer output.  Not only were there two simultaneous TV series ("Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and "Star Trek: Voyager") but also a series of successful novels, comic books and toy lines and a new feature film, "Star Trek: First Contact" starring the cast of the "Next Generation" TV series.  By the mid-1990s, the franchise had become, without a doubt, one of the most explored fictional universes ever created.

Though "Star Trek: Generations" was fairly hit-or-miss, "First Contact" presents a far more focused, well-crafted experience.  Something of a sequel to a storyline that had run though the "Next Generation" TV series, "First Contact" brings back the most popular villain that show had given rise to: the Borg. 

Now captain of the new Enterprise-E, Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) is suffering from nightmares about his experiences aboard the Borg ship six years prior (chronicled in the excellent "Best of Both Worlds" two-parter).  It turns out these are not normal nightmares, however: the Borg have once again invaded Federation space, headed directly for Earth (as so many "Star Trek" feature film threats seem to...)

But instead of being ordered to join the fight, the crew is shocked to learn that the Enterprise has been sidelined to patrol the Neutral Zone.  When news of the battle turns sour, Picard defies orders and takes the ship to Earth, using his unique ability to sense the Borg consciousness to turn the tide of battle.  Just when they think they've won, however, the Borg throw a desperate curveball: an escape vessel creates a time rift and travels to the past, where Earth is unable to put up a fight against them.  Picard and his crew manage to take their ship back in time as well.  Stranded in the past, they realize the Borg plan was to disrupt First Contact - the historic meeting between humans and aliens for the first time.

On the planet's surface, the crew discovers Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell) inventor of the warp drive.  But he is not as history paints him.  Instead, he's a drunken womanizer who, after the Borg attack damages his vessel, is more than willing to give up on attempting humanity's first faster-than-light spaceflight.  Meanwhile, it seems the Borg have managed to infiltrate the Enterprise.  While Picard battles his old nemesis through the corridors of his ship, Riker (Jonathan Frakes) must work on convincing Cochrane to make his historic flight in time to save the future.

"Star Trek: First Contact" is easily the best of the four "Next Generation" movies.  Like Leonard Nimoy before him, cast member Jonathan Frakes managed to wrangle directing duties on this entry (though he at least had the benefit of having directed some of the television episodes prior) and manages to do quite a bang up job.  Of course, Frakes would never again manage to direct anything as good as "First Contact" and now makes a living teaching directing and managing a furniture store in Maine (with the occasional TV directing gig).  Anyway, Frakes gets good performances out of his stellar cast, constructs moody atmosphere aboard the Borg-assimilated Enterprise, and throws in some excellent action sequences to boot.  The pacing of the film is spot-on, as well, with no single sequence outliving its welcome before we move on to the next.  Alternating back and forth between the Earth-bound storyline and the ship-board adventures works well at keeping things fresh.

Like "The Undiscovered Country," some fans have taken issue with the level of thematic darkness in the film.  Picard, often portrayed as an almost infallible moral authority, here finds himself succumbing to very human desires for vengeance.  Some of this material had been covered in earlier episodes of the TV series, but it had become obvious that Picard would never truly recover from the wounds inflicted on him. 

The Borg Queen (Alice Krige) is also a source of some controversy.  Previously, the Borg had always been depicted as a pure collective consciousness, and yet here they have a decisive leader, and one who exudes a creepy sexuality.  Personally, I've never had a problem with this character.  She fills a certain dramatic role in the film, to give the villains a focus for the audience, especially those who are less familiar with the TV series.  Plus, it's hard to fault Krige's extraordinarily creepy performance, and an awesome makeup job, as well. 

The Borg themselves get a big-budget makeover.  No longer actors painted white with some tubes and plastic bits sticking out of black unitards, the Borg are far more detailed and frightening here.  And of course, the best part of having a movie franchise and a TV franchise running at the same time is that you get to share things between them; the new Borg makeup and sets would appear throughout the rest of "Star Trek: Voyager."  (This very movie would also get a specific sequel episode in the prequel series "Star Trek: Enterprise" which creates a sort of interesting time-loop for the entire Borg storyline.)

Jerry Goldsmith delivers another excellent score, bringing back notable motifs from his previous entries, like the Enterprise theme and the Klingon theme now used solely for Lt. Commander Worf (Michael Dorn). 

On blu-ray, this movie looks way better than any of the previous ones (and frankly, some of the subsequent ones).  Sharp details and excellent color are the name of the game here, and it's the best-looking "Trek" flick thus far.  It exhibits some of the digital noise reduction issues that plagued earlier movies, but not nearly as much.  Hell, you can see the spots on Patrick Stewart's skull, here.  If this movie could look better, it wouldn't be by much. 

"Jaws 2" (1978)

"Jaws 2" (1978)
Starring Roy Scheider, Lorraine Gary and Mark Gruner
Written by Carl Gottlieb and Howard Sackler
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water... or something.  "Jaws" is a classic.  A finely crafted adventure tale pitting man vs beast on the ocean.  It had tense action sequences and interesting, iconic characters to anchor the story.  "Jaws 2" is a fairly basic retread of some of those same story beats, but without the interesting characters to really give the movie any real life or substance.

"Jaws 2" once again pits Roy Scheider's Martin Brody against a killer great white shark off the waters of the fictional island of Amity.  It's been some time since the events of the first film, and Brody has settled into a comfortable life as the chief of police on Amity.  His family has integrated well into the community, and things are generally going well for the island.  That is, of course, until a series of deaths leads Brody to believe that the waters of Amity has once again been invaded by a killer shark. 

And once again... no one believes him.  As the deaths and disappearances mount up, Brody is still unable to convince anyone in town that something terrible is happening in the water.  After he creates a panic on the beach by firing his gun into the water at what he believes to be a shark, Brody is unceremoniously fired by the Amity town government.  Undeterred, he continues his investigation until he finds out that his sons, Mike and Shawn, are day-sailing out in the water near where a diver has been critically injured.  Brody commandeers a police boat and heads out to save them and to confront the shark menace once again.

"Jaws 2", as I said, is a fairly basic retread of the first film, but with some of the stakes increased.  More people die in this movie, and more people are at risk in the climax as Brody races to save a dozen teenagers stranded at sea and being picked off by the shark.  The movie lacks Steven Spielberg's expert touch crafting both characters and set pieces.  None of the interesting ideas posited in the film is really explored; the shark is injured early in the film, ostensibly to give it a more visual personality to discern this shark from the previous one, but we only see it in brief glances anyhow. 

While we spent much of the first movie getting to know Brody, Hooper and Quint and developing a relationship between them, in this film we are asked to care about a group of teenagers who banter back and forth like... well... teenagers.  Their relationships are already set and nothing happens to change any of them.  The teens are also mostly interchangeable, since none of their personalities is particularly different from any of the others.  So Brody is the only developed character at all in the entire film, which is a huge burden to put on a single actor, even if it's as one as watchable and likable as Roy Scheider. 

The shark attacks aren't as visceral or entertaining as the original, with plenty of shots of the shark just sort of ramming boats and people screaming as it swims past. 

Still, while it can't match the classic status of the original, "Jaws 2" is a mildly entertaining sequel.  Things would get far, far worse in the next two films.

Friday, June 25, 2010

"Star Trek: Generations" (1994)

"Star Trek: Generations"
Starring Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner and Malcolm McDowell
Written by Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga
Directed by David Carson

"I really wish you hadn't just pointed out that huge plot hole..."
I'm not particularly certain why this movie exists.  Studio executives wanted the cast of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," the biggest hit in the history of first-run syndicated TV shows, to take over the feature film aspect of the franchise now that their show was winding down after seven seasons.  But they weren't content to simply switch over.  No, they deemed it necessary to have a 'passing the torch' type story to bridge the two movie franchises.  Personally, I think it's unnecessary; the kind of fan-wank that only serves to make the ultra-hardcore fandom jizz their pants a little to sell more tickets.

"Star Trek: Generations" opens with Kirk (William Shatner), Scotty (James Doohan) and Chekov (Walter Koenig) attending the christening of Starfleet's newest pride, the USS Enterprise-B.  Kirk is obviously uncomfortable with this idea, and is constantly reminded of the fact that he's old and retired by how everyone treats him with reverence and for the press he's only a source of pictures and soundbites.  On the ship's shakedown cruise, they receive a distress call from a small caravan of ships transporting refugees to Earth.  It appears they've been caught in some kind of energy distortion.  The Enterprise-B warps in to the rescue, despite being undermanned and lacking things like tractor beams.  When Captain Harriman (Alan Ruck) proves himself incompetent for command, Kirk immediately springs into action.  Scotty is able to rescue a number of the refugees including two special passengers, Soran (Malcolm McDowell) and Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg), but the Enterprise herself becomes trapped in the distortion.  Kirk races down below to complete a critical repair that will allow the ship to free herself, but is caught in the distortion when part of it tears off a section of the ship. 

Flash forward 80 years, give or take, to the crew of the USS Enterprise-D, under the command of Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart).  Just as Picard receives word that his brother and nephew were killed in a fire back on Earth, the ship answers a distress call from a Federation observatory under attack by Romulans.  When they arrive, most of the observatory crew is dead, but they manage to rescue Dr. Soran.  The crew quickly realizes that Soran isn't quite on the level, and are unable to stop him from destroying a star and kidnapping the ship's chief engineer, Geordi La Forge (Levar Burton).

Picard goes to Guinan for answers, and she tells him that Soran is trying to get back into the Nexus, the energy distortion from the beginning of the movie.  It seems that he can't simply fly into it with a ship, so he is attempting to alter the course of the Nexus by destroying stars and changing the flow of gravity in space to lure it to a location where he can safely enter it.  Picard, of course, vows to stop this.  Eventually, Picard himself is sucked into the Nexus where he meets none other than James T. Kirk, who was not killed aboard the Enterprise-B, but was transported into the Nexus.  Together, they must leave the Nexus and stop Soran from destroying another star, this one orbited by an inhabited world with millions of lives at stake.

"Star Trek: Generations" is a mess of a movie.  Parts of it don't really make much sense at all.  For example, Picard flat-out asks why Soran can't just fly into the Nexus with a ship, and Data (Brent Spiner) replies that every ship that goes into the Nexus is destroyed.  But this doesn't really mean anything, since we end up finding that Kirk has been in there the whole time.  Beyond that, when the two of them leave the Nexus, they're told that since time has no meaning within it, they can appear any time or place they wish.  Picard for some reason chooses to go back to just a few minutes before Soran destroys the star instead of going back further and simply arresting Soran before any of this ever happened.

The producers also saw fit to destroy the Enterprise-D in this movie, apparently thinking that it wasn't what they wanted to see in these movies.  But the way they go about it is practically nonsensical.  The ship is destroyed by an "old" Klingon ship, and we're given the excuse that they've found a way to fire through the Enterprise's defenses.  This shouldn't even matter since the Enterprise outguns the other ship anyway, and should've been able to pound the hell out of it.  Instead, the Enterprise fires back once while the crew sits around trying to come up with some complicated plan to save themselves.  The writers try to hide the fact that this sequence is utterly stupid by throwing in lots of dense technobabble to make it all sound very impressive (something the TV show got a little too good at).

Let's talk for a minute about those writers: Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga.  It's hard to fault them.  By all accounts, they were essentially given a lengthy laundry list of things that had to happen in the movie, and then attempted to construct a story around all of these elements.  It's a wonder they managed to come up with the Frankenstein's Monster of a script that they did.  To their credit, the audio commentary for this movie is a fascinating listen, since they pick apart every single problem they find with the movie and apologize for it.  The two would more than make up for this film with the finale for the TV series, "All Good Things..." and the next film, "Star Trek: First Contact."

And then there's Captain Kirk.  As I said before, I don't believe this movie needed to be a crossover.  His presence in the movie simply doesn't accomplish much, and ultimately his demise is fairly unsatisfactory.  What a satisfying end for this character would be, well, we already saw that in "The Undiscovered Country."  I was fine letting Kirk retire... Why do we need to drag him back just to appear in a handful of scenes and then kill him by rather unceremoniously dropping him off a cliff?  Sure, he dies saving millions of lives, but the whole thing could've been avoided if Picard (or the writers) had been thinking a little bit more logically.  Where's Spock when you need him?  Shatner apparently wasn't too thrilled with his character's demise, either, since he resurrected him for a lengthy series of novels.  The opening sequence is a nice little bit, but it becomes obvious that Scotty and Chekov are only there because Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley said, "No thanks."  The dialogue seems suited for those characters; Chekov even ends up the one in Sickbay tending to the wounded! James Doohan is clearly struggling with the more technical language of the TNG writing style, which is unfortunate. 

"Star Trek: Generations" does a lot of things right, however.  Patrick Stewart is a fantastic actor, and it's great watching him interact with... well, pretty much anyone.  There are a number of well-written and well-performed scenes throughout the movie, which is interesting because while they're great on their own, the entire movie itself is fairly mediocre.  It's an instance in filmmaking where the parts are greater than the sum whole.  The film is also quite attractive, visually.  The lighting and usage of color in this flick are excellent, and I find myself wishing that the rest of the TV series had looked this good.  The visual effects are top-notch, though I'm disappointed that stock footage was used at a key moment in the film's centerpiece action sequence (the battle between the Enterprise and the Klingon ship). 

On blu-ray, this flick looks leagues better than the original series movies.  Whether that's a result of less digital tampering or due to the film's younger age, I'm not entirely certain.  Still, details are sharp and colors look excellent.  The reds, yellows and blues of the TNG crew's uniforms never looked better (and never would again, since the costumes for the next three movies were entirely different).  The sharpness of the image reveals issue with makeup (Brent Spiner's android skin looks kinda gross in closeups) but overall, this is the best this movie has ever looked.  

"Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country" (1991)

"Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country" (1991)
Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and Deforest Kelley
Written by Nicholas Meyer and Denny Martin Flynn
Directed by Nicholas Meyer

After "The Final Frontier" left many filmgoers disappointed, Paramount wasn't sure they wanted another "Star Trek" feature.  After all, the crew was now noticeably middle-aged.  How believable was it for them to continue having wild adventures in outer space?  Not very.  Thus, preparation began for a prequel film which would recast Kirk, Spock and the others as young Starfleet cadets.  It would take nearly 20 years for that idea to come to fruition, since it was shelved when studio execs were convinced to give the original crew one last go.

Determined to give the cast an appropriate swan song, Nicholas Meyer returns to the franchise, having proven himself by giving the franchise its two most successful installments, namely "Wrath of Khan" and "The Voyage Home."  What he crafts here is a fine political thriller set in space, with old foes confronting racism and differing political ideologies.  This film was produced as the old Soviet Union was falling apart, and the parallels are fairly obvious, but only serve to give the film greater depth and meaning to the proceedings.

The Klingon moon Praxis explodes at the outset of the film, an industrial accident that pollutes the atmosphere of the Klingon homeworld and decimates their economy.  With the empire predicted to fall apart after this catastrophe, Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner) reaches out to the empire's old enemy, the Federation.  Captain Kirk, despite his hatred of the Klingons for killing his son, is ordered to escort the chancellor through Federation space to a peace conference on Earth.  Partway through the journey, however, the Enterprise seemingly opens fire on the chancellor's ship, and two men in Starfleet uniforms board the vessel and assassinate him.  Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy are arrested for the crime, and tried and sentenced to manual labor for the rest of their lives.

Spock, now in command of the Enterprise, must piece together exactly what happened in order to prove Kirk and McCoy's innocence before the assassins can strike again the rescheduled peace conference.  What he uncovers is a vast conspiracy that includes not just high-ranking Federation officials but Klingons and Romulans as well.   It all culminates with a confrontation in orbit over the peace conference as the starships Enterprise and Excelsior attempt to stop the assassination of the Federation president. 

This is a thrilling entry into the "Star Trek" franchise, throwing a bit of mystery and intrigue into the mix, and telling a serious, allegorical story filled with interesting characters.  Captain Kirk's hatred of the Klingons comes to the forefront here, and though fans will decry his overtly racist attitude towards them, it all makes sense in the context of the story - a Klingon murdered his only son, after all.  That sort of thing tends to have an effect on a human being.  It not only provides a necessary dramatic thrust for us to care about Kirk, but also figures into the plot when his words are used against him in court. 

Christopher Plummer joins the cast as General Chang, the villain of the piece, and brings a necessary dramatic weight to the proceedings.  He works well off of Shatner, and his theatrical roots get good play from Chang's admiration of Shakespeare.  Kurtwood Smith appears as the Federation president, and though he doesn't get much opportunity to shine, he seems appropriate to the role.  Kim Kattrall, later of "Sex and the City" also joins as the Enterprise's traitorous helm officer, Lt. Valeris.  She works fine enough, but the nature of her role means she can't emote much, so she does her best to deliver her dialogue without emotion... but also without sounding flat or bored.  Vulcans are a tough role to play, so props to her for not botching it like some others have (I'm looking at you, Jolene Blalock).

The visual effects are top notch, thanks to Industrial Light and Magic.  The final battle is one of the best of the franchise, with lots of damage inflicted spectacularly on the Enterprise.  It's quite well intercut with the scenes on the planet below as the assassin prepares to kill the president, giving the entire sequence a tension that could easily have gone the other direction.  But under Meyer's skilled hand, the whole thing is just vastly entertaining.

Presentation on the blu-ray disc is, again, problematic.  While this movie probably looks the best of the original "Star Trek" films in HD, it still has issues.  Digital noise reduction rears its ugly head once more, which leads to washed out details.  However, it's not as much of a problem as it was in the earlier movies, which leaves "The Undiscovered Country" looking pretty awesome compared to the DVD version.  Particularly impressive are the scenes in the Klingon prison, where costumes exhibit a lot of excellent detail.  Colors are boldly saturated throughout, and contrast is excellent across the board.  Still, this transfer could definitely be better. 

"Star Trek V: The Final Frontier" (1989)

"Star Trek V: The Final Frontier" (1989)
Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley
Written by William Shatner and David Loughery
Directed by William Shatner

Poor William Shatner... After two successful directorial outings with "Search for Spock" and "Voyage Home" for co-star Leonard Nimoy, Shatner got his turn at the helm with "The Final Frontier."  The results are an intriguing, well-intentioned mess.  Though often reviled amongst the fandom as the worst "Star Trek" feature, I have quite a different feeling about it... and sort of a weird obsession.

"The Final Frontier" opens with the franchise's only pre-credits sequence (at that point), on the planet Nimbus III, where a revolutionary named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) is raising an army.  He quickly gains enough power to lay siege to the capital city, Paradise, and take hostages - representatives of the Federation, Klingon and Romulan governments.  Meanwhile, on Earth, the crew of the Starship Enterprise is enjoying shore leave while their ship is refitted and repaired.  Despite the unfinished work, the Enterprise is ordered to Nimbus III to deal with the hostage situation.  A Klingon vessel captained by an ambitious man named Klaa, wishing to engage the legendary Captain Kirk in battle, makes his way there as well.

After infiltrating Paradise to rescue the hostages, the truth becomes known: Sybok only took hostages as a ruse to gain control of a powerful starship.  His men capture Kirk, Spock and the rest of the away team and board the Enterprise.  Sybok, it seems, has a strange power, something like mind control that he uses to hold sway over the Enterprise crew.  He orders the ship to head to the center of the galaxy, where they will encounter the Great Barrier, and beyond it... Eden.  Kirk, Spock and McCoy must escape the ship's brig and signal for help before Sybok takes the Enterprise on a suicide mission.

The problems with "The Final Frontier" aren't conceptual, for the most part.  They lie firmly in the execution.  The concept is pure "Star Trek" - the crew goes on an adventure into the unknown; throw in a few action sequences, some Klingons and a bit of philosophy and you've got yourself some classic Trek.  Where it fails is when the behind-the-scenes shenanigans began to tear it apart, and Shatner isn't a powerful enough director to hold everything together.  He certainly has lofty goals; his directorial style for this movie is ahead of its time, and yet still unappreciated.  He shoots most of it with long takes on hand-held cameras, which is admirable and comes across nicely.  He also sought to bring back the more militaristic feel of "Wrath of Khan," so some of the dialogue is a bit more technical, and in the production design, you'll see Starfleet security men slapping ammo cartridges into their phasers and the like. 

The great failings of the movie, however, are in its forced humor and pacing troubles.  The movie spends too much time in its first half not doing much of anything.  A number of scenes could be cut from the first half of the movie, to its benefit, notably a ridiculous scene in which Sulu and Chekov are lost in the woods.  What was funny and irreverent in "The Voyage Home" here seems tired and stupid.  There was a lot of pressure from the studio on Shatner to "make it funny," but the problem is that there isn't a lot of room for humor in the story Shatner is trying to tell.  Beyond that, much of what makes it into the movie is flatout silliness and even some slapstick which stands out from the rest of the movie, which is entirely serious, like a giant sore thumb.  One of the worst examples comes later in the film, when Scotty, immediately after saying that he "knows this ship like the back of my hand," knocks himself out by walking into a pole.  Frankly, the joke would be funnier if he didn't hit the pole, given James Doohan's delivery of the line.

Other problems with the humor come down to lines that are more cheesy than funny, like Spock telling Kirk (who is riding a horse) to "hold your horse" and, believe it or not, a fart joke at Spock's expense.  The thing is that these bits stand out so wildly from the rest of the film, they could actually be easily removed to improve the pacing and tone of the picture by leaps and bounds.  A half-hearted romantic subplot between Scotty and Uhura could be ditched as well, with absolutely no detriment to the final product whatsoever.

Another problem: visual effects.  With the usual effects house, George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic, occupied with work on "Ghostbusters II" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" for 1989, Shatner was forced to contract the work elsewhere.  Unfortunately, his choice doesn't work out at all.  The effects work by Farren Associates is just plain awful, not only looking cheap, but absolutely amateurish.  For a movie in 1989, shot on this budget, to have effects this bad is almost unforgivable.  It would certainly be an easy fix, now, to go back into this picture with modern CG effects and spruce it up a bit.  Pretty much the only satisfactory effects in the movie as it exists are stock footage shots from "The Voyage Home" at the beginning.

The effects problem comes to a head in the climax of the movie, where pretty much everything falls apart.  Shatner's original idea to have Kirk and Spock actually descend into Hell to rescue McCoy from the Devil is, of course, silly.  A much more "Star Trek" idea that he finally settled upon, that the thing claiming to be "God" is actually a trapped energy creature, is far more satisfying.  Still, the idea there was that the creature would suddenly give rise to several rock gargoyles which would give chase to Kirk.  The effects here proved unworkable, and Shatner was forced to edit around this footage and settle on a floating blue head that chases Kirk around the planet.  It's kind of lame, and not particularly threatening.  It also doesn't make much sense that it would be destroyed by the guns of the Klingon ship.

So what does "The Final Frontier" get right?  Well, this is some of the best character work ever done for Kirk, Spock and McCoy.  The depth of their relationship with each other is rarely displayed in better form.  In fact, that depth is central to the film, thematically.  At the outset of the film, Kirk tells Spock and McCoy that when they're around, he knows he's not going to die.  "I've always known," he says, "I'll die alone."   Ultimately, Kirk comes to believe he'll die down on that planet, but Spock informs him that even though they were separated, he was never alone. 

When Sybok attempts to sway Spock and McCoy's allegiances away from Kirk, he's unable to do so. The scene in which he forces Spock and McCoy to confront their pain and guilt is one of the best in the entire movie, or even the series.

And though it may seem silly at first, the question "What does God need with a starship?" is simple genius.  When confronted with a being claiming to be the Almighty, it's only Kirk who demands proof.  This is what leads to the revelation that this creature isn't God at all.  It's Kirk who realizes that blind faith isn't the answer, that you should question what you're told and make decisions for yourself... and that brotherhood with others is as close to finding God as you'll probably ever get.

Jerry Goldsmith returns to the franchise, having previously scored "The Motion Picture" and delivers a knockout.  The music in "The Final Frontier" is definitely one of its best qualities, and I've been clamoring for a complete score release for this one for years.  Goldsmith's sweeping, majestic arrangements are beautiful and his action material is first-rate and exciting.  His Klingon theme returns, and a five-note motif that dominates this score would return in "First Contact," and to a lesser degree in "Insurrection" and "Nemesis."

So "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier" is a problematic, messy movie... but it has the makings of a great one.  20 years after its release is too late to make it any more than a solid one.  To truly fix it, parts of the climax need to be radically altered, something which just isn't possible anymore.  Still, with some editing and new visual effects, it could be punched up considerably.  As it stands, the film is really just a collection of awkward humor and bad special effects littered with some really great scenes.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

"Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" (1986)

"Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" (1986)
Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley
Written by Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer
Directed by Leonard Nimoy

"I love Italian.  And so do you."
The third part of the loose trilogy of original crew "Star Trek" movies, "The Voyage Home" is an interesting diversion from the usual adventures of Kirk and company.  This is the closest any of the "Trek" flicks have come to broad comedy, and ditches the idea of the crew facing a villain from the previous two flicks.

A mysterious probe makes its way through Federation space toward Earth, leaving ships and space stations neutralized in its wake, overwhelmed by the power of its transmissions.  When it arrives in orbit of Earth, those same transmissions begin wreaking havoc on the planet's environment, vaporizing the oceans and blotting out the sun with thick cloud cover.  The President of the Federation sends out a distress signal, warning off any who would approach the planet.

Meanwhile, Admiral Kirk and his crew are returning from Vulcan with the resurrected Spock aboard their captured Klingon ship when they receive the distress call.  Spock analyzes the call of the probe and determines that the probe is actually attempting to communicate with humpback whales, a species that has been extinct on Earth for hundreds of years.  Kirk makes the dangerous decision to take the ship back through time to retrieve humpback whales and bring them to the 23rd century to save Earth.

They arrive in San Francisco in the mid-1980s.  With their ship damaged and low on power, the crew splits into teams to achieve their objectives: to repair the ship and to find and steal two humpback whales for transport to the future.  Kirk and Spock find the perfect specimens at a local marine center, and develop a relationship with Dr. Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks, who would later co-star in the WB series "7th Heaven" with Stephen Collins, who played Decker in "Star Trek: The Motion Picture").  At the same time, Scotty and McCoy must construct a tank aboard their rickety Klingon ship to hold the whales using 20th century materials, Sulu must find transportation, and Chekov and Uhura are tasked with collecting dangerous radiation particles from a nuclear reactor to repair the ship's warp drive.

Of course all of these situations lead to lots of "fish out of water" style comedy.  Kirk and Spock deal with not understanding the complexities of human language.  Listening to Spock awkwardly attempt to insert swears into his normal speaking patterns is a damn riot, as is Kirk's attempts at making historical references to fit in.  Each of the crew gets a chance to make fools of themselves in ridiculous scene after ridiculous scene.

The highlight, of course, is Chekov, the Russian crewmember, standing in an American city during the Cold War and asking passersby where he might find the "nuclear wessels".  Beyond just how silly Chekov's accent is, realize that the ship's communications and navigations officers are having trouble asking for directions.  Genius.

The movie moves along at a peppy pace, with silliness and witty dialogue whipping by pretty quickly.  Still, the movie has some faults.  Leonard Nimoy's direction is more assured, and the fact that a majority of the movie is shot on location helps keep the film from looking cheap, like the Genesis planet did in the previous movie.  He throws in a bizarre, abstract special effects sequence for the time travel.  It's cool, but sort of wild and doesn't fit with anything else in the movie, so it stands out.  Leonard Rosenman's score is a failure, lacking any gravitas and mostly coming off as obnoxious carnival music.  Sure, the movie is pretty lightweight and isn't the kind of project, say, Jerry Goldsmith would probably go for, but Rosenman's work here is just lame.  Consequently, Rosenman would rip it off wholesale for his work on "Robocop 2".  Ugh.

The movie's environmental message can also be delivered a bit heavy-handedly.  The movie doesn't beat you over the head with it, but a couple of scenes come across as slightly preachy.  But it's a solid message, the kind of "Please, be reasonable..." thing that "Star Trek" so often excels at.

After losing Spock in "Wrath of Khan" and killing Kirk's son in "Search for Spock," it was probably a smart move to end this story with a bit of a lighter tone.  The comedy here is well done, performed by a cast that's extremely comfortable with each other.  It's a lightweight, entertaining comedy/adventure.  Sure, some of the jokes are pretty dated, but it all still works. 

The blu-ray disc suffers from the same problems as "Search for Spock" before it, and a few others.  All the hazy outdoor photography leads to a lot of softness overall in the picture, which helps keep all the actors from looking like bizarre wax robots.  Sadly, it also mutes the colors somewhat.  Scenes taking place on Earth in the future, such as the Federation Council chamber have deeply saturated colors.  But the streets of San Francisco look pretty bland.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"Star Trek III: The Search for Spock" (1984)

"Star Trek III: The Search for Spock" (1984)
Starring William Shatner, DeForrest Kelley and Christopher Lloyd
Written by Harve Bennett
Directed by Leonard Nimoy

After "The Wrath of Khan" delivered massive returns on a smaller budget, Paramount immediately set about crafting a sequel.  With the ending of the second film left wide open for it, and fans clamoring for it, the crew of the starship Enterprise embark on a mission to save their friend Spock, who lies somewhere between life and death due to the rejuvenating effects of the "Genesis" technology.

The film opens with the Enterprise returning solemnly to Earth, severely damaged from its battle with Khan.  The damage goes deeper, however, as the crew mourns the loss of Spock.  However, a visit from Spock's father, Sarek, proves that there's still a chance to save Spock by returning with his body to the planet Vulcan and undergoing an ancient ritual of renewal.  To do so, Kirk and his crew must defy their orders, steal the Enterprise and go racing off into restricted space to recover the body of Spock.

Meanwhile, a rogue Klingon commander named Kruge (Christpher Lloyd) has learned of the dangerous Genesis technology and, thinking that the Federation would use it as a weapon against the Klingon Empire, also makes his way to the Genesis Planet.  There, it finds the USS Grissom, a science vessel whose crew includes Kirk's son, David Marcus (Merritt Buttrick), and Spock's protege, Lt. Saavik (Robin Curtis, taking over for Kirstie Alley).  Kruge destroys the Grissom, stranding Marcus and Saavik on the planet's surface, where they discover the reanimated body of Spock, regressed into adolescence.

"The Search for Spock" forms the second part of a loose trilogy of films that concludes in "The Voyage Home."  Nicholas Meyer, writer/director of "Wrath of Khan" steps aside to let producer Harve Bennett script, while series star Leonard Nimoy steps in as first-time director.  The film lacks some of the snappiness of its predecessor, and Nimoy does a solid job as director, if not a spectacular one.  The film's best and liveliest sequence is when Kirk and crew bust McCoy out of the brig and steal the Enterprise.

Scenes taking place on the Genesis planet are obviously shot on a soundstage.  While location shooting would've gone a long way toward keeping these scenes from looking fake and cheap, it also would've been nearly impossible to shoot the apocalyptic planetary destruction at the film's climax.  Nimoy traded realism for consistency, which I guess I can accept.

Shatner gives one of the best performances of his career, especially later in the film when he's helpless to prevent the death of his own son, whom he'd only just met a short time before.  The script apparently called for Shatner to sit down when hearing the news, but he missed the edge of the chair and stumbles.  Nimoy kept the cameras rolling, and Shatner kept on performing, and the result is golden, and pretty much the best moment in the entire film.

Christopher Lloyd is a serviceable villain, chewing the scenery like it was covered with melted cheese.  But he's no Khan.  That's a stigma that would stick with every "Star Trek" film to date.  Khan is the high water mark both filmmakers and fans compare to.  Publicity leading up to the release of each "Star Trek" film would find writers, directors and cast members proclaiming, "We've got the best villain since Khan!"  Whether this ends up true or not is often open to interpretation; personally, I enjoyed Alice Krige's performance as the Borg Queen in "Star Trek: First Contact" and Christopher Plummer is excellent as General Chang in "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country."  But none of them are Khan.  Certainly not Malcolm McDowell's wimpy Dr. Soran in "Star Trek: Generations" or F. Murray Abraham's whiny Ru'afo in "Star Trek: Insurrection."

It's also worth nothing that comedian John Laroquette has a cameo appearance as one of Kruge's Klingon goons.  He's the one Kirk promises to kill later (and then reneges on).

There's a certain theory amongst "Star Trek" fandom that the odd numbered movies all suck.  This is untrue... or at least exaggerated.  While many fans (especially those who gather online) are given to wild hyperbole by declaring some of the films "unwatchable" or "garbage," this is simply ridiculous.  Certainly, some of them are lesser than others.  After eleven movies, the "Star Trek" franchise ranges from mediocre ("Star Trek V: The Final Frontier") to genre classic ("The Wrath of Khan").  It is true that the odd numbered ones tend to be a bit weaker for some reason, but none of these movies is bad on the level of an Uwe Boll picture.  "The Search for Spock" is neither mediocre nor a genre classic, settling somewhere in between as an engaging and entertaining space adventure, if not top-notch.

The film has been released on blu-ray, as part of the six-movie original crew box set and as a "trilogy" box set with "Wrath of Khan" and "Voyage Home."  Unlike "Wrath of Khan," "Search for Spock" hasn't been remastered at all since the beginning of this decade.  At the time, the standard thinking when remastering a film was to scrub it clean of grain since at DVD resolution, this would come across as a cleaner, sharper picture.  Unfortunately, when HD rolled around, it was quickly discovered that what this does was white-wash a film to the point where everything is left looking sickly unnatural.  People look like odd wax or plastic figures that move.  Sometimes, the effect obliterates fine detail like the texture of clothing or objects.

This is unfortunately what happened with these original "Star Trek" movies.  While "Search for Spock" doesn't look terrible, it certainly could look much, much better.  Watch just about any scene in the first hour of the film, and try not to be almost creeped out by just how fake everyone looks.  Sure, the image is sharp, and the colors incredibly bold (check out the red Starfleet uniforms, awesome!) but the whole thing has a bizarre plastic sheen to it that just seems totally unnatural.  The picture is a definite upgrade from its DVD counterpart, but I can only hope that sometime in the future, Paramount sees fit to give these movies a proper remastering.

"American Psycho" (2000)

"American Psycho" (2000)
Starring Christian Bale, Chloe Sevigny and Willem Dafoe
Written and directed by Mary Harron

Whoa.  What a sick, twisted vision this movie is.  Equal parts satire, black comedy and slasher flick, "American Psycho" is a hilarious romp through the sex and coke party that was the materialistic 1980s. 

Christian Bale stars as Patrick Bateman, on the outside a wealthy Wall Street douchebag who spends his waking hours grooming his personal appearance and making sure that his symbols of status are the best around.  He hangs out at swanky bars with his Wall Street douchebag friends, doing drugs and saying crass things about women and trying to get into swankier bars and restaurants.  He's ostensibly engaged to a young woman named Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon) but he marginalizes her at every turn, sleeping with other women whenever he feels like and hiring and abusing prostitutes to boot.

But what makes Patrick Bateman so sick and twisted... at night, when no one's around... he'll murder a homeless man (and his dog).  He'll murder the prostitutes that he hires.

Hell, he'll murder one of those other Wall Street douchebags if it suits him.

You see, Patrick Bateman isn't a real person.  He tells us as much in his chilling opening narration, saying that he doesn't feel real emotions, that he doesn't care about other people, not in the slightest.  But something is happening to him: his bloodlust is growing.  Night after night, he commits murder, and his ability to hide it from those close to him is slipping.  When a detective comes around asking about that Wall Street douchebag, Bateman starts to lose it entirely. 

The star of the show here is absolutely Christian Bale.  He flat out owns every scene, with an inspired and hilarious, energetic turn as Patrick Bateman.  Imagine taking those scenes in "Batman Begins" in which Bale, as Bruce Wayne, puts on the air of the disinterested drunken playboy, amp it up with a lot more sarcasm and add a dash of murderous intensity, and you've got Patrick Bateman.  A scene where Bateman prepares to murder that Wall Street douchebag while going on about the evolution of Huey Lewis and the News is hysterical, and simultaneously chilling.  His descent from douchebag yuppy to full-blown murderous nutjob is likewise hilarious, but also deeply disturbing.

Watching Bateman freak out over things like not having the best business card in the room, or being upset that a murder victim has a nicer apartment than he does throw Bateman's character into harsh light as a comment on our culture of materialism.  At least Bateman's supposed friends are regular douchebags.  Sure, they care about their business cards, too, but they're not thinking about killing someone over it.  Bateman, on the other hand, supposes a dangerous undercurrent to obsession with wealth and status; that is, what would we do in order to have and be the best?  To what lengths would we go?  At what point does one give up their humanity, their compassion, for things?  And not even just things... Those things have to be shown off and approved of by others. 

The end of the film is a blood-soaked, depraved few moments that lead into a rather intriguing twist.  Did Bateman really commit all those murders we saw, or were they just delusions in his head?  Is he an "American Psycho" because he's a sick, twisted, murderous freak... or because he can no longer tell the difference between reality and fantasy?  The original novel leaves this question open to interpretation, though the film seems to lean toward the latter.  Still, there's enough ambiguity to leave the ending both intriguing and moderately unsatisfying.  Bateman's end narration is truthful, however: there is no catharsis.

"Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (1982)

"Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan"
Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and Ricardo Montalban
Written and directed by Nicholas Meyer

"He's dead already!"

Man, I tell ya... 1982 was a good year.  Not only was yours truly born in June of that year, but check out all the great movies that came out:

"ET: The Extra Terrestrial"
"Blade Runner"
"Creep Show"
"First Blood"
"Fast Times at Ridgemont High"
"Rocky III"

And of course, "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan."

Picking up some years after "Star Trek: The Motion Picture", a genetically-altered super-genius escapes exile on a dying world, and seeks revenge on the Starfleet officer that marooned him there: James T. Kirk. Khan learns of a secret scientific experiment called "Genesis," which has the power to destroy and create entire worlds. Commandeering a Federation starship, Khan steals Genesis and uses it as the bait in his ultimate trap to destroy Kirk.

Kirk has settled into a dull life with an unfulfilling desk job at Starfleet Academy along with the rest of the crew of the USS Enterprise, training the next generation of Starfleet. While undertaking a training crew with a ship filled with inexperienced cadets, Kirk and his crew are drawn into a battle of wits with Khan and his followers.

Nicholas Meyer made a taut, suspenseful thriller in space. 'The Wrath of Khan' is filled with well-crafted set-pieces and crackling dialogue delivered by a cast with excellent chemistry. The cast also deals deftly with the themes of aging, retirement and death. Shatner and Montalban get to chrew the scenery with infectious energy, while still bringing enough depth to their characters to be genuinely engaging. The battle between Khan's intelligence and Kirk's experience is engrossing and highly entertaining.  What makes it all the more intriguing is that Kirk and Khan never meet in person, even though their interactions are so intense. 

It may have been shot for considerably less money than its predecessor, but "Wrath of Khan" is exciting, fun, and at times, quite visually stunning. The climactic starship battle in a nebula is striking, with visual effects that still hold up rather well nearly 30 years later. James Horner's score exhibits less philosophical wonder than Jerry Goldsmith's work on "The Motion Picture", but is excellent in its own right, to the point where Horner would reuse much of it in later hits like James Cameron's "Aliens."

On blu-ray, "The Wrath of Khan" doesn't get quite the five-star presentation fans might have been hoping for. Perhaps as a result of its lower budget, the film's transfer is inconsistent, at times appearing murky and soft. The opening Kobayashi Maru sequence isn't the best way to start off, with soft visuals and soupy-looking grain patterns. I've read that numerous sequences in the film were actually shot in soft focus, so how much of an effect this has had, i can't say. At best, the transfer looks very natural with deep blacks and bold colors. There are no signs of any kind of print damage like scratches or dirt, so it's a very clean transfer.

Overall, it's a definite improvement over the previous DVD releases, it's just not up to the level of other catalog releases like Warner's "2001: A Space Odyssey." Whether a better restoration can be done, who knows? This may be the best this movie will ever look, or maybe it needs a full-on, frame-by-frame 4K scrub like the James Bond series.

The audio is also serviceable, with some excellent bass and surround work. Dialogue can be a bit tinny, a result of the recording technology at the time. There's one scene that seems to alternate between on-set dialogue and ADR recording that's almost laughable, and it only gets worse as the releases of this movie get better and better. Still, everything comes through with admirable clarity and quality, as much as one can expect from a somewhat low-budget feature from the early 1980s.

It's a little hard to recommend "The Wrath of Khan" on blu-ray, not because the film isn't excellent but that it may simply not be as much of an upgrade over the DVD as one would hope. If you don't already have "Khan" on DVD, then by all means, pick up this blu-ray. If you're looking to upgrade from the DVD, go ahead and pick up the blu-ray if you can get it at a reasonable price. It might be years before another blu-ray edition hits shelves, if ever. All the special features from the previous 2-disc DVD are ported here, along with new HD features. This is also the theatrical version of the film, as opposed to the longer director's cut on that DVD. But none of that footage was especially necessary, and in fact featured some rather terrible acting from a bit player, and a less solid take of a familiar scene for the benefit of a few added lines of dialogue.