Star Trek (2009)

May 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

Star Trek is the cockroach of science-fiction. I don’t mean for that to sound negative, I’m actually something of a fan. It’s just that if any science-fiction franchise is guaranteed to emerge again even if it hasn’t been seen for a while, it’s Trek, and the results over the years have been quite mixed.

As a child, I was so excited one of my favourite, very colourful shows was coming to the big screen with Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) that I typed up some details about it, glued on a photo of William Shatner, and stuck it to the fridge, compelled to make my own small contribution to marketing. Star Trek hadn’t been seen in ten years, since the cancellation of the original TV series, and the entire cast was reuniting for the film. I was a little confused by what I eventually saw, a film that looked great, had an impressive soundtrack, but told a slow-moving, carefully crafted story about growth. The invading entity wasn’t destroyed at the end, as much as helped along an evolutionary path, and Spock finds himself, finally balancing his two conflicting human and Vulcan sides, even going so far as to press Kirk’s hand and state “logic and knowledge are not enough.”  The man from a culture that finds displays of emotion distasteful finally learns that it isn’t about repression, it’s about balance, and there are appropriate and logical times to be expressive. During the TV series, Nimoy had portrayed the character as barely able to speak about personal matters, but in the next Trek film he’d portray the character as much more comfortable in his own skin.

The film has a five minute sequence of Kirk admiring the newly redesigned Enterprise, as well as several long sequences of the Enterprise pushing through the invading entity, yet remains one of the higher grossing Trek films, because people were so curious to see Trek reborn, and that’s a tremendous advantage. It’s a good film if you accept that it unfolds like some kind space opera: it looks and sounds great, but is also fairly static.

Stop reading here if you don’t want any spoilers or plot details on the new Trek film.

Thirty years later in 2009 (and of course, after various spin-offs to original Trek have all exhausted themselves), a 78 year old Leonard Nimoy is the only original cast member who returns in the reboot of the franchise. The casting choices are excellent, the action sequences and effects impressive, but I do think the old characters are tossed out the airlock in favour of the high-powered entertainment on offer here. The young Spock beats the living daylights out of not one but two people, and doesn’t seem to mind kissing Uhura in front of at least three others. Kirk is confidence personified, when a frontier commander would undoubtedly require other qualities like diplomacy. Scotty is relentlessly chipper, and hangs out with something left over from a Star Wars film that’s fond of crouching on the equipment. Oddly, only a couple of the minor characters who traditionally had little to do emerge as more interesting: Sulu is both smart and capable, and Uhura seems like a remarkable woman who is smart, capable and compassionate. It’s all so relentlessly entertaining it’s easy to forget it isn’t actually about anything — the plot involves a Romulan from the future who rewrites history in his quest for vengeance, so that Kirk doesn’t need to be a character who quickly moves up through the ranks in a variety of assignments, he just needs to kick ass his first time out in space. Even the bridge of the Enterprise is as white as a tennis shoe, as if to emphasize the fresh new start.

I know what you’re thinking — it’s a summer film, and I’m missing the point. Probably true. I’m actually sincerely glad it has been a success, because we’ll get to see more, and hopefully something with a little more substance (I can almost see Leonard Nimoy watching this first film and saying “Well, this is what the kids want these days”), but I do wonder how successful the next film will be with that curiousity factor gone (everyone has already seen what these new actors are like in the roles) and I wonder what they’ll do, given that they’ve provided the two main characters with tidy new origin stories that don’t seem to require a whole lot more. Spock is a tortured and lonely character — no wait, he’s smooching with Uhura! Finally, the next film will have to actually be about something, or it’s simply more of the same. This is probably the irreverent, smashingly exciting rebirth the franchise needed, and I enjoyed seeing these beloved characters given a new lease on life — I just hope it’s a reborn franchise that manages to eventually have something to say.

[REC] (2007)

May 10, 2009 § Leave a comment

[REC] is short for record in this fairly brief, seventy-five minute Spanish horror film, a film that manages to be remarkably entertaining (even if it’s also fairly bloody) borrowing the device of a hand-held camera’s point of view.  A two-person crew from a reality show called “While You’re Asleep” follows a few firefighters late at night into a building where an old woman on the top floor seems strangely afflicted, all her neighbours huddling at the bottom of the long, ornate stairwell, complaining of wild screams.  Within minutes, the situation starts to escalate out of control and the building is quarantined, ominous figures outside every door and window hanging plastic and making threats through a bullhorn.

To call this the stuff of nightmares is something of an understatement — I watched it during the day and I’m glad I did, because I can only imagine how the relentless build-up of suspense would feel otherwise. Cleverly, the film begins with absolutely nothing happening — the host of the show sneaks around a quiet firehouse looking for something interesting and wishing there’d be an alarm. The pace feels a little like sitting at the top of a hill in a go-kart and starting off at a crawl, but finally regretting giving yourself the shove that has you careening wildly out of control by the end.

The word zombie isn’t actually used, in favour of talk of a virus spread through saliva. And, it has to be said the film becomes a trifle predictable, with a couple of those moments when someone creeps slowly into a room to have the inevitable zombie jump on his or her back as soon as they get far enough. But ultimately, the film has a relentless grip on the viewer.

I’m not sure I see the appeal of the zombie genre. I know the original Night of the Living Dead (1968) had a few characters who were alive, but seemed quite dead, emotionally.  At the same time there seemed to be a clear divide between older and younger people, with older zombies consuming and converting the younger people. Night of the Living Dead also has a brilliant final moment that almost certainly sets it above every zombie flick made since then. Maybe it’s fair to say zombie flicks are about a lack of compassion in the world, or maybe it’s just fair to say walking dead people gives us the creeps as something fundamentally wrong, aside from playing on our fears of a modern epidemic. Possibly, we don’t like the idea of the dead coming back and being supremely pissed off because it addresses a necessary disloyalty to previous generations — we all need to go our own way, after all. What I can tell you for sure is that this film will scare the living daylights out of you, and that it was remade as an apparently inferior film called Quarantine, in the United States. Subtitles? Bah, we’ll just remake the film!

Our Man Flint (1966)

May 9, 2009 § Leave a comment

If something is immensely successful, parody never takes long to arrive, and original actor Sean Connery was still playing Bond in 1966 when James Coburn starred as Derek Flint. Flint doesn’t work for the government and has to be talked into a mission to stop a powerful organization from controlling the climate and threatening destruction on a global scale (and, never mind how that has an eerie ring to it over forty years later). Flint knows everything, is followed by women wherever he goes, but declines the briefcase with a hidden knife in favour of his lighter, which has 82 functions — 83 if you actually want to light a cigar. In an amusing twist, he isn’t just a Bond caricature, but a guy that’s even cooler, who’d rather be teaching ballet in Russia than saving the world, which always manages to sort itself out, after all. He even meets “triple-oh-eight” along the way (a Connery lookalike, but with an American accent) and pretty much pummels him and chucks him out the door.

By twenty-first century standards the film is a little slow, but Coburn is a great choice for Flint, and wisely manages to avoid sending it up or winking at the camera. And, unlike the Austin Powers films, Flint actually has some impressive stunts and entertaining (if not too suspenseful) action sequences along the way in addition to a good score by Jerry Goldsmith, probably one of the best film composers who ever lived. There’s nothing utterly memorable here, but it’s a little hard not to enjoy a film that’s both a successful parody and colourful entertainment by itself.

Watch a few clips of the film with the Goldsmith score here, and if you haven’t seen them, check out Coburn in a great Western called The Magnificent Seven (1960) as well as A Fistful of Dynamite (also known as Duck You Sucker), a later Sergio Leone film from 1971.

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