Friday, April 17, 2009

Where Many Have Gone Before - Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

Whee, I'm back!

With The Search for Spock, the Star Trek films seemed to have hit a stride, at least at the box office. Star Trek IV was almost immediately green lit by Paramount with Leonard Nimoy returning to direct. This time, however, Nimoy was given complete freedom to make the kind of movie he wanted and was not given a mandate by the studio as to what the story had to be. Harve Bennett returned as producer and co-wrote the screenplay with Nicholas Meyer, returning to the series after directing The Wrath of Khan. Nimoy wanted to create a lighter, more fun adventure movie where no one would be killed to give the film a greater family appeal. He also wanted to make a time travel story that involved the threat of extinction faced by whales. Combining all those ideas, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was released on November 26, 1986.

I'll give my own quick recap of the plot: Exiled on Vulcan after the events of Star Trek III, Kirk and crew decide to return to Earth to face violations of Starfleet regulations. On their way back, they intercept a transmission from Starfleet warning everyone to stay away from Earth, as a mysterious space dil- uh, probe with a disco ball has entered Earth space and is interfering with electrical systems, among other bad things. Deciphering the message sent by the probe as humpback whale song, Kirk and crew decide to slingshot around the Sun to travel in time and retrieve some humpback whales, which are extinct by the 23rd century. The result of this ridiculousness is that the Enterprise crew is back in the 20th century and the "fish out of water" part of the story begins. Ultimately, the crew recovers the whales, along with a marine biologist who has the hots for Kirk. The whales are able to communicate with the probe and send it on its way. Getting a slap on the wrist for their charges in light of saving Earth again, the Enterprise crew is rewarded with a new starship Enterprise, NCC-1701-A.

Most people, especially those who aren't familiar with Star Trek, refer to this film as "the funny one" or "the one with the whales". Both nicknames give a pretty complete description of the film. It's the funny one with whales. It has a very different tone from the previous movies, especially given the fact that no one dies on screen. The story is pretty dumb and is just a ploy to get the Enterprise crew to 1986 for lots of jokes. Fortunately, the humor carries the film pretty well. There are lots of memorable lines, such as "No, I'm from Iowa. I only work in outer space," "where can we find the nuclear wessels," and so on. Then there are the great situations like the Scotty trying to use a Macintosh, Spock's terrible use of "colorful metaphors" (though Kirk isn't much more successful at them). Unfortunately, the same jokes get old with repeated viewings, and without a strong plot to carry it, not to mention almost no action or real drama, this film isn't one that lends itself to being watched frequently.

One of the best things about this movie from my perspective is that it gives the rest of the Enterprise crew more screen time, so the entire show isn't just about Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Everyone gets plenty of laughs. The only one who really gets screwed is Robin Curtis as Lt. Saavik. For no real reason, she's left behind on Vulcan, even though she is also a Starfleet officer and should probably give testimony at the trial. I know there's some apocryphal story that she's pregnant with Spock's kid, but that's not confirmed in the movie and it seems like the writers just wanted her out of the way. I suppose there was no room for two Vulcans on 20th century Earth? Actually, now that I watch the film again, Sulu seems to get the least screen time of the primary Enterprise crew, like always. Just hang in there Sulu, you'll get your command soon.

As far as special effects go, they're pretty low-key in this film. The only real standout is the very bizarre, early CGI sequence when the Klingon ship travels through time. Otherwise, the model work is pretty basic, but since there are no space battles, the models don't get used much. The music by Leonard Rosenman is fun and adventurous for what it is. There actually isn't as much music played throughout this film as in the others of the series.

Well, that's about all there is to say about this one. It's funny, and that works for the most part, but the plot is silly (not to mention the probe is just a rehash of V'ger), there's no real action, and the environmental message is pretty heavy-handed. 3 nuclear wessels out of 5.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Where Many Have Gone Before - Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)

Within weeks of the release of The Wrath of Khan, the green light was given for the next Star Trek film. Returning as producer and head writer was Harve Bennett. Leonard Nimoy agreed to appear in the new film on the condition he was allowed to direct it. This made some at the studio a little nervous, given Nimoy's previous directing experience was limited to a couple episodes of television shows, including an episode of William Shatner's police drama, T.J. Hooker. Working with the lingering story threads from The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock would chronicle, well, the search for Spock, after his body had been left on the Genesis planet. This makes the film part of the unofficial Star Trek trilogy (Star Treks II-IV), the only group of series films to have connected stories.

This is the Star Trek film I watched the most when I was little. The Motion Picture was way too boring (and I don't think we had it on video), Wrath of Khan freaked me out with the Ceti Eels, and even at a young age, I thought the "save the whales" sub-plot of The Voyage Home was kind of dumb. For some strange reason, my favorite scene in the whole movie was when the Enterprise was destroyed. I got to reenact this scene in those Commodore 64 we had, and to be honest, it was just about all I did in those games. I also reenacted the scene in real life by breaking the plastic engine nacelles off my big brother's die-cast metal Enterprise toy (sorry, Ben!), even though the engines never come off the ship when the Enterprise explodes in the film.

Ha ha ha ha, kaboom!

Need a refresher on the story of the film (what little there is)? Here you go.

Even more than Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock feels like an extended episode of the television show, but that's not really a bad thing considering we've already seen what happens when they try to make a "real" film out of Star Trek. There isn't a whole lot to the plot of the film, but it does move at a pretty good pace until the end. This movie has one of the longest post-climax denouements I've ever seen in an action film, though that's out of necessity. It's not like Kirk could have fought the Klingons on Vulcan while Spock was being restored.

There's also one big oopsie in the plot. If it's Vulcan tradition that dead bodies be brought back to Vulcan, why didn't Saavik mention this before Kirk went ahead and shot his friend's corpse at the Genesis planet? I guess the half-Romulan excuse could come up again, but she knew enough about Vulcan tradition/physiology to "help" the reborn Spock with Pon'far (bow chicka wow wow!).

Unfortunately, there's one major element of Star Trek missing from The Search for Spock that was unavoidable given the circumstances of the story: the friendly banter between Kirk, Spock and McCoy. It's kind of weird though, because the film itself is really about their friendship and how far these guys will go to help each other. This does give the other members of the bridge crew more time onscreen, though. Even Sulu gets to say more than, "course laid in, Captain."

Non-Enterprise characters also get a good chuck of screen time. Christopher Lloyd, I think, isn't taken very seriously as the Klingon, Kruge, as most people remember him as Doc Brown from Back to the Future. I think he did a good job in this film, though. He doesn't try to be funny or manic in this film, and it's always cool to me to see comedians successfully do drama (re: Jim Carrey in The Truman Show). Robin Curtis replaces Kirstie Alley as Lt. Saavik, and I think it was a good choice. Curtis does a much better job at not showing emotion than Alley did. Merritt Butrick returns as David Marcus, but his character is less sympathetic in this film. It's revealed that he used unstable "proto-matter" when constructing the Genesis torpedo, and that the Genesis project is a failure. Watching the movie again, I can't help but feel that the filmmakers did this to help justify his death in some way. It's like they couldn't just let it be tragic that he died on the planet he created, they thought he deserved it. Maybe I'm reading too much into that.

While there's less swashbuckling in this film than in Wrath of Khan, the ship combat feels more like what would be seen in an episode of the show, where tactics and technical failures decide the victor rather than two ships just pounding the crap out of each other. There are even more ships and space scenes in this film with the introduction of the Klingon "Bird of Prey" (which was originally supposed to be a stolen Romulan ship, but that was dropped), the USS Grissom (with its bridge chairs covered in pink fabric, an unfortunate choice), and the badass USS Excelsior (which unfortunately doesn't have much a role except for comic relief). The model work in this movie is still excellent, and I didn't notice any bleed-through of the star field through the models that happened in Wrath of Khan.

The ethics of the Genesis project are brought up again, but from a slightly different perspective. It's shown that the non-Federation species are freaking out at the prospect of the Federation having the ultimate doomsday weapon. It makes the Klingon's motivation for wanting to make the Genesis device themselves a little less evil, as they really just want to level the playing field. There is a brief instant of, "hey, maybe the Federation are in the wrong here- oh, the Klingons just blew up the Grissom. Nevermind."

Overall, this is a good film and definitely the best of the odd-numbered Star Trek films. It's focus is on the friendship between Kirk, Spock and McCoy, even though the three don't interact during the film. It has some decent action (the space fights are brief but fun, though the fight between Kirk and Kruge gets sillier the more I see it) with a good dash of humor. The ethical and political ideas brought up are in line with those brought up in the television show. It hasn't aged quite as well as Wrath of Khan, but it's far from the worst Star Trek film. 3 katras out of 5.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

What's Old Is New Again: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951 vs. 2008)

What possesses Hollywood producers to remake classic films? Is it a desire to re-imagine a story for a new generation, to modernize a story and create new fans of the old movie? Or is it simply a way to cash in on the popularity of an old movie and save time on writing? Unfortunately, I think it's much more often the latter than the former.

The original The Day the Earth Stood Still was released in 1951 and remains one of my favorite classic science fiction movies. The story tells of a man who descends from the heavens, delivers a warning to humanity of their condemnation if they continue in their ways, gets killed for his trouble, is resurrected, and returns to the heavens after delivering his message. Remind you of anyone? Yes, the movie is essentially a science fiction allegory for the story of Christ. To his credit, though, Klaatu gets shot twice. Also, the MPAA, nervous about audience reaction, inserted a couple lines of dialogue where Klaatu denies being all-powerful, stating that the power over life and death, "is reserved to the Almighty Spirit."

"You guys suck! What is it, Shoot the Alien Day?!"

The original movie has all the elements of a science fiction classic: a story that uses science to speak about the nature of man and how we can be better (basically an anti-war message), spooky music (excellently composed by Bernard Herrmann), simple, but effective special effects and a robot that can destroy anything. The acting is typical for the 50's, but it's not bad. It's funny to think how trusting the people are, as Helen lets a total stranger like Mr. Carpenter (Klaatu) watch after her son alone. More than anything else, the movie is ultimately remembered for the line, "Klaatu barada nikto!" It's a good movie, and I highly recommend it.

"Know your roles, Jabronis! Gort is here to deliver the Word of PAIN!!!"

This brings us to the 2008 remake, which I like to call The Day Keanu Reeves Almost Killed Humanity Because You Have to Drive a Fucking SUV. The story is essentially the same as the original movie, with a few tweaks to make Klaatu less friendly toward humanity. He comes to Earth already intent on wiping us out, and it's up to Jennifer Connelly and Jaden Smith to convince him humans are ok. The major change in motivation is that Klaatu now wants to wipe out humanity for damaging Earth, which he claims must be preserved as it is one of the only planets that can sustain complex life. In the end, humanity is spared, though at the cost of all electrical devices being rendered useless. Klaatu has to create a massive electromagnetic pulse to deactivate a nanite cloud that's eating through all the people and their creations, you see.


Before going on, I need to address the global warming aspect of the film. I think this polarized a lot of people's opinion of the movie, and could have been handled in a way that didn't alienate so many potential viewers. In the original movie, Klaatu couldn't care less what people did to each other or our planet (and yes, he refers to it as "your planet" numerous times). His concern was that humanity's desire to wage war would reach the stars and threaten other planets. Being made during the Cold War, there's a clear anti-war message. In the remake, there are only a few lines given by Klaatu that clearly describe his motivation (along with the couple lines where Klaatu states that Earth is not "your planet"), and if they had been slightly changed or removed, it would have made Klaatu's beef with humanity a lot more ambiguous. This would have allowed the audience to make up their own minds as to why Klaatu wanted to get rid of humans. It still could have been seen as an anti-war message, instead of hopping on the current headlines. When Klaatu wants to meet the smartest man on Earth, I was surprised Jennifer Connelly didn't try to take him to Al Gore.


Anyway, this movie sucks, global warming guilt notwithstanding. It thinks very highly of itself, like the filmmakers made the movie expecting it to be revered as an instant classic. There are lots of slow-motion shots done to make scenes feel more important and epic, but they just make the movie seem pretentious, and I half-expected all the shots that end with the camera zooming in on Keanu Reeves to end with him saying, "woah." The pacing of the movie is really slow compared to the original, adding more to the pretentious feeling. The acting is ok for the most part, except Jaden Smith. Following in the great tradition of child actors like the kid from Phantom Menace, young Mr. Smith really needs some acting lessons. Badly.

"Woah. Oh, by the way, I'm going to kill you all."

However, there are two problems with the movie that really bothered me. First, the ending is rushed and doesn't make sense in light of Klaatu's mission. With no electrity, millions, if not billions of people will still die. Also, people will have to go back to simpler sources of energy, burning wood and coal. I fail to see how this is supposed to be better for the environment. The other problem is that the line, "Klaatu barada nikto" is never used in this remake! That's just stupid. They should have had Klaatu yell it when he activated the EMP.

There actually are some positive bits in this film. Keanu Reeves, being a wooden and emotionless actor, does a good job portraying a wooden and emotionless alien. I like how they show a little more of Klaatu's control over machines and his magic healing goop as nods to the original. The special effects are pretty good, especially Gort as the nanite cloud. They also use the famous Wilhelm scream when one of the soldiers is killed. Yep, that's about it.

As a standalone film, the remake is pretty sub-par. It thinks too highly of itself, and suddenly ends without any real resolution or look at the consequences of Klaatu's actions. As a remake of the original film, it's just out-and-out bad, adding controversy for the wrong reasons, but adding nothing good that wasn't already in the original. And again, they didn't use the line! What the hell? 1 Honda Civic Hybrid (available at your local Honda dealer!) out of 5.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Where Many Have Gone Before - Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

When The Motion Picture (TMP) wasn't as critically well received as Paramount hoped, Gene Roddenberry was taken out of the producer role, but was kept as an "executive consultant". This meant the filmmakers asked him occasional questions about how something should be done in the Star Trek universe, but if they did something he didn't agree with, they just ignored him. New producer Harve Bennett was brought in to create a better (and cheaper) sequel to TMP. Having never seen Star Trek, Bennett watched every episode of the original series and decided that Khan, the villain from the series episode Space Seed, should be brought back for the next film. Also brought fresh into the Star Trek universe was director Nicholas Meyer, who had never seen Star Trek nor directed science fiction. Meyer decided to treat the film more like a naval adventure in the vein of Horatio Hornblower to make it seem more familiar to him. Made on a budget of $11 million (versus $35 million for TMP), Star Trek II went on to great critical and financial success, making seven times its budget in US ticket sales alone, cementing Star Trek as a franchise to be exploited (I mean, milked, er, wait...) for years to come.

In all honesty, I didn't like this movie much when I was a kid. I watched Star Trek III way more often. It was the mind-control bug things. They just creeped the hell out of me. I still won't watch the part where Khan puts the bugs in the guys' ears to this day, just like I won't watch the scene at the beginning of Robocop where Peter Weller gets shot to shit. Plus, I hated watching Spock die. I didn't like the part in III where David died either, but this was Spock, man! Anyway, as the years have gone on, I've come to appreciate the movie more and more until today, when it's easily my favorite of the Star Trek films.

Agh! Oh, shit! Oh, shit! Get it away! AAAGGGHH!!!!!!

Again, I'm too lazy to write a whole synopsis for the film, so here's the story.

Now this is more like it. Star Trek feels like Star Trek again, with a bunch of naval combat thrown in for good measure. Rather than special effects and high-minded science fiction ideas, Star Trek II is about the characters of the Enterprise, especially Kirk, Spock and McCoy, and their friendship. It's also about growing older and facing death, which is hard for all the characters, especially Kirk (and for William Shatner himself, who at first wanted to wear make-up to look younger). It also has a great villain in Khan, played by Ricardo Montalbon, who was written into the movie long before anybody bothered to ask him if he could take a break from recording Fantasy Island.

For the last time, yes, that's his real chest. Ricardo is just that much of a man! RIP, good sir.

What works best for me about this movie is how the characters are brought back to the forefront and definitely operate more like they did in the TV show. Kirk is an arrogant bastard all the way until Spock's death. Spock is still great, but he seems more like part of the crew, where in TMP, it was like the other characters worshiped him. McCoy is probably improved the best since TMP. In TMP, he was just a resentful guy who almost seemed to hate Kirk. In Wrath of Khan, he's back to being Kirk's friend. The rest of the bridge crew also gets more screen time and lines, except for poor Mr. Sulu. He still only gets a few lines, but he'll have the last laugh as Nicholas Meyer makes him the Captain of the Excelsior in Star Trek VI.

That's right, Sulu, you sip that tea. You've earned it.

New to the crew is Lt. Saavik, a Vulcan played by Kirstie Alley. She's a bit strange for a Vulcan. She noticeably becomes agitated during the Kobayashi Maru test and later cries during Spock's funeral. I've read that she's supposed to be half-Romulan, explaining her trouble with suppressing emotion. That's fine, but when did a Vulcan and Romulan knock boots? I thought the two species didn't get along so well. Also new are Dr's. Carol and David Marcus, David being Kirk and Carol's son. Neither one of them is essential to the plot, but they do help Kirk recapture the feeling of youth and starting over at the end of the film.

The other great improvements of Wrath of Khan over TMP are the better pace and the fact that there's finally some damn action going on. People get shot with phasers, ships shoot at each other to pieces and there's an explosion that later collapses, forming a star system(!). Also, there's some dramatic weight with Spock's death. While I couldn't have given two shits about Lt. Ilia or Cmdr. Decker in TMP, Spock is a beloved character, and his death had meaning, again especially for Kirk. Yes, I still get misty eyed at the end when Kirk collapses onto the floor with Spock dead on the other side of the Plexiglas wall.

"No, Spock, I don't want to play one last game of Paddycake."

Speaking of Spock's death, Nicholas Meyer intended to not give any hope for Spock's return. The movie originally ended with Spock's coffin-torpedo being shot into orbit around the Genesis planet. Fade to black and credits. As you can imagine, this didn't go well with test audiences. Harve Bennett decided to go back and add the last shot of the torpedo on the planet along with Spock doing the "Space, the final frontier..." speech at the end of the film. Even before this, though, Leonard Nimoy, who only agreed to be in this movie on the agreement that Spock would die, started regretting this decision and worked with Bennett to include a couple of bits to give fans hope, one being the mind-meld with McCoy where Spock simply says, "remember" as well as Kirk, after Spock's funeral, stating Spock's often used line from the series, "there are always possibilities." This edited ending went over much better with audiences, and I have to say I agree. The original Star Trek crew just wouldn't be the same without Spock.

Another element that was different from the TV series and TMP was the costume designs and military attitude of the Enterprise crew. Gene Roddenberry was totally opposed to these, as he didn't want to militarize Star Trek, but I have to side with the filmmakers. I think it was always confusing as to what the Enterprise's function was in the original series. I know they were exploring the galaxy, but why exactly? If you understand them in a military context, they're searching for and neutralizing threats before those things can become threats to Earth. They even used military ranks in the original series. I think it's just the next logical step to put the crew in military uniforms. At least they look way better than the pajamas worn in TMP. "We're going to explore the galaxy now! Everyone put on your 'jammies!"

My earlier comment about the movie not being about special effects was not meant to say the special effects are bad in this movie. Far from it, the combat scenes between the Enterprise and Reliant are still awesome to watch, even today. I desperately wish they'd go back to using models in science fiction movies, rather than crapping CGI all over the screen. The one goof I was able to pick out with the models was how sometimes the composite shots weren't done quite right, so you can see the stars through the ships. This doesn't happen all the time, but I did notice it once or twice.

Negatives? I suppose there are a couple I can think of, but they're total nit-picks. The first is hitting viewers over the head with the Moby Dick references in Khan's mad desire for revenge on Kirk, especially how Khan quotes the book a lot. They even show a copy of Moby Dick on a shelf in the Botany Bay. We get it! Also, the shield prefix code deal seems kinda silly. I think they wrote themselves into a corner and were just trying to think of some way Kirk could get a chance to fire back after the Enterprise got seriously f-ed up.

And I mean seriously f-ed up!

There are a couple negatives other people point out where I defend the movie, though. One being why Scotty brings his nephew to the bridge instead of sickbay. Why? It's for dramatic effect! The other one people point out is how Kirk and Khan are never in the same room, starship, or even on the same planet during the movie. As we see in the beginning of the movie, Khan can lift Chekov one-handed and easily took over the Reliant. If Khan had gotten on the Enterprise, that would be it. Kirk would be completely fucked (maybe even literally in the ear by a mind-control worm. Hi-O!) The only way Kirk could win was through tactics. As Kirk himself says in the Director's Cut of the movie, "we're only alive because I knew something about these starships that he didn't."

As you can see from my gushing, I love this movie. I only wish the other movies in the series were this good. First Contact makes a good effort, but I'll get to that in its own time. What else is there to say? Five Genesis torpedoes out of five.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Where Many Have Gone Before - Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Following the abrupt cancellation of Star Trek: The Animated Series in 1974, the Star Trek franchise sat in the cooler while Paramout Pictures tried to figure out what to do with it. The original television series became a hit in syndication during the 70's, so it was eventually decided to create another TV series as a flagship program for the launch of Paramount's own television network. Star Trek: Phase II was to chronicle the next five-year mission of the U.S.S. Enterprise under the command of James T. Kirk. All the original cast were to return, except for Leonard Nimoy, who no longer wanted to be associated with Star Trek. Several scripts were written for the new show, but when Star Wars became a phenomenon in 1977, Paramount executives decided to adapt the story for Star Trek: Phase II's first episode, In Thy Image, into a feature film. Released in 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a financial success, if not exactly a critical one. Nonetheless, the movie made enough money for Paramount to finance further movies and television series, turning newer generations into the big ole' nerds we are today.

The first time I remember watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture was at my godparents' house when I was little. All I really remember was thinking how boring the movie was, except for the wormhole sequence, which struck me as unintentionally funny. Chekov saying "toooorrrpeeedoooooeees aaawwaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay" in super slo-mo still makes me laugh to this day. I've caught the movie a couple times over the years on TV with additional footage (I'll get to that later), and I have seen the director's cut once already, but I needed a refresher for this article.

If you want a plot "summary" (or rather, read entire the story in excruciating detail), here you go.

Just to nit-pick, there are some funny things going on just to convenience the plot. The most obvious one is that the Enterprise, a ship currently undergoing massive alterations, is the only Federation ship within range of Earth that can intercept V'ger. That's awfully stupid of the Federation to only leave one disabled ship hanging around their most important star system. It's like having a sign saying, "C'mon in, Klingons and Romulans! The door's open!" The other bit of silliness is with V'ger's name. It calls itself V'ger because it got space dust or something over its nameplate, blocking out the "oya" in "Voyager". How did the probe learn English, and why didn't the machine race clean up Voyager before building the huge ship around it?

The biggest problem with this movie is that it's too slow, earning the film the nickname, The Slow-Motion Picture. The pacing problem is systemic of taking a plot that's meant for a 42-minute television show and stretching it over two hours. Padding the script with reaction shots instead of meaningful character interaction doesn't make the film go any faster. The fact that the character interaction is limited leads to my second problem with the movie, which is that the film doesn't really feel like Star Trek to me. Given that new characters were introduced to the crew and that it wasn't known until the last minute if Leonard Nimoy would be in the film, it feels like the Enterprise crew could have been exchanged with anyone else, and it wouldn't have affected the movie much. Kirk doesn't have the same swagger he did in the show. McCoy is more hostile than bitter. The rest of the bridge crew is relegated to extended cameos. I would be willing to bet that when Alan Dean Foster originally wrote In Thy Image, it wasn't a Star Trek story.

Damn it, Sulu, you need to react harder! We've got another hour of stuff to look at!

This film wants to be 2001: A Space Odyssey in the worst way. It opens with music played against a (mostly empty) screen. It moves along at a snail's pace. It even ends with a human evolving into a higher state of existence. All that are missing are some pointy-eared apes beating each other with animal bones on ancient Vulcan. It's just too bad Star Trek isn't really about high-minded science fiction. What the TV show did well was preaching racial and political tolerance and occasionally having a monster that just needed its ass kicked. Asking about the meaning of life and presenting allegories of man's search for God, not so much.

It's not all bad, though. The story itself is pretty good outside the context of Star Trek, even if it doesn't "challenge my intellect" like the trailer promises it will. Artificial intelligence is a mainstay of science fiction stories. I like the idea that facts and logic are not enough for any sentient being, and that love and faith (either in a literal god or something else) are needed. I don't subscribe to the idea that enough knowledge will eventually make a machine sentient, though. We have databases at my job that would have become self-aware (and probably suicidal) long ago, if that were true. The special effects are well done too, especially the newly integrated CCI effects for the Director's Cut. They make the picture feel more grand than it is. Even though not much is happening, it feels like not much is happening on an epic scale. Plus, the Enterprise is still the coolest looking, if not the best designed, spaceship ever. Why do they expose the command center and propulsion system?

Among nerdier detractors, The Motion Picture has earned another nickname, Where Nomad Has Gone Before. These folks claim that the plot of the film is a retread of the original series episode, The Changeling. Having just watched The Changeling, I can definitely see the parallels between the two. Both the TV episode and the movie revolve around the idea of an Earth probe, launched during the NASA era of space exploration, returning to Earth with seemingly malicious intentions, especially toward organic (imperfect) life. So yeah, they're pretty similar, but there are also some key differences between the two. In The Changeling, Nomad's origin and its mis-identification of Kirk as its creator are revealed early in the story. In The Motion Picture, V'ger's true identity isn't revealed until the very end. Also, while Nomad was simply a "villain of the week" for Kirk to defeat (with logic of all things), V'ger was a being returning to its creator in search of a new purpose in life.

Much like the movie itself, this is getting long and boring. This film definitely fits the pattern of odd-numbered Trek movies not being very good. Rating: 2.5 wormholes out of 5. I'll just close this out by mentioning the redesigned Klingons. I'm not sure why they felt the need to change them from their appearance in the TV show, but watching the movie again, I can't help but notice how the Klingons look like the Wolf-man with male-pattern baldness.

Wolf-man: were-wolf or were-klingon?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Albums of '08 - Miniviews (Part 2)

Here's part 2!

Ice Cube: Raw Footage - I know, I know. Ice Cube? Yeah, I can't really explain why I got this, but he was in NWA! Cube's rhymes are fine, but there's something about most modern rap beats that doesn't appeal to me. It sounds overproduced or something. I like the simpler beats of Grandmaster Flash or Run-DMC. So yeah, not that great.

Favorite Songs:
  • Hood Mentality
  • Jack N the Box

Joe Satriani: Professor Satchafunkilus and the Musterion of Rock - Not that the title gives it away or anything, but this album catches Joe in one of his "weird" stages. Therefore, I don't like this one as much as his more straightforward albums like Crystal Planet or Supercolossal. Still, it's Joe Satriani, so at least the guitar parts are technically really good.

Favorite Songs:
  • Overdriver
  • I Just Wanna Rock

John Hiatt: Same Old Man - Now here's some good acoustic, country-flavored music. Over his career, John Hiatt has slowly moved from a very 70's sound (he was called the American Elvis Costello at one point) to a more folk-blues sound. If you're hoping to find anything like his old material, or any prominent electric guitars at all, this isn't what you want. This is really good music for driving or waiting out a slow afternoon, though. John still has his very unique voice, and damn if these are some honest love songs.

Favorite Songs:
  • On with You
  • Cherry Red
  • Same Old Man

Judas Priest: Nostradamus - Wow. I knew this was going to be over-the-top and cheesy, but I wasn't prepared for this. It was fun for a few decades, guys, but maybe it's time to call it a day. Good to know Rob Halford can still hit those testicle-exploding notes, though.

Favorite Songs: I can't think of a single one that doesn't make me laugh for the wrong reasons.

The Killers: Day & Age - This album is in strong competition with M83's Saturdays = Youth for the most 80's sounding album of 2008, and that's why I love it. Don't get me wrong, I still really enjoy Sam's Town, but it's cool to hear The Killers go back to a sound that's heavier on the synthesizers. There's a Latin sound that pops up from time to time as well, which is pretty cool.

Favorite Songs:
  • Human
  • Spaceman
  • I Can't Stay
Linkin Park: Road to Revolution: Live at Milton Keynes - As Linkin Park is one of my guilty pleasure bands, it's good to have a live album with most of the good songs from their first two albums. Jay-Z also makes an appearance for a couple mash-ups at the end of the show, which was a nice surprise.

Favorite Songs:
  • One Step Closer
  • Breaking the Habit
  • Jigga What/Faint

M83: Saturdays = Youth - Coming from France, this is the other contender for the most 80's sounding album of 2008. Seriously, if I didn't know better, I'd swear this was the soundtrack to some seminal teen 80's movie. As it is, it's really good, except for the track Midnight Souls Still Remain, which is eleven minutes of two notes slowly repeating. Can we say filler?

Favorite Songs:
  • Kim & Jessie
  • Skin of the Night
  • Graveyard Girl

Metallica: Death Magnetic - All I can say is, it's about damn time. It's been almost 20 years since the last good Metallica album, and they mostly delivered. The only problem is this album is the latest victim of the "loudness war", where the tracks are mixed so loudly (except the bass, of course), that the sound clips and gets distorted. I read a Guitar Player interview where James Hetfield acknowledged this was intentional. Reading that made me think of the scene from Metalocalypse where the producer is yelling at the band, "you guys are fucking deaf, you know that?! Can you hear me?!" But hey, they jettisoned Bob Rock (unfortunately, not into the heart of the Sun) and are playing thrash metal with solos again!

Favorite Songs:
  • That Was Just Your Life
  • All Nightmare Long
  • My Apocalypse

Murder by Death: Red of Tooth and Claw - This an interesting band. They almost sound like they walked out of the Old West carrying electric guitars... and a cello. The album itself is a tale of brutal people living brutal lives in a lawless time. It's better than I make it sound. In fact, until Black Ice and Stay Positive came around, this was a lock as my favorite album of the year. If you want to hear something unique, I highly recommend you check it out.

Favorite Songs:
  • Fuego!
  • Ash
  • Spring Break 1899
My Morning Jacket: Evil Urges - I've never heard an album with a more eclectic sound. It moves from an imitation of Prince to alternative to country to mid-70's AM radio to straight-ahead rock and back to alt-country. The weird thing is that it all works. To quote the end of the album itself, "AAAGH- ok, cool."

Favorite Songs:
  • Thank You Too!
  • Librarian
  • Smokin' from Shootin'

Nine Inch Nails: Ghosts I-IV - This is another one I haven't listened to much, but then again, there's not much to hear. It's very ambient music that works great when coding or reading, but not something I really listen to intently.

Favorite Songs:
  • 28 Ghosts IV

Nine Inch Nails: The Slip - The 2nd Nine Inch Nails album of 2008, this one was released for free online. At least the price is right! I kid! I kid! It's pretty enjoyable, and thankfully there's only one really political song on the album, Letting You. As a side note, I wonder if Trent Reznor feels embarrassed at all about Year Zero, since Obama was elected. I kinda doubt the HBO deal for the TV series will go through now.

Favorite Songs:
  • 1,000,000
  • Discipline
  • Lights in the Sky

Oasis: Dig out Your Soul - A lot of people hailed this album as a return to form for Oasis, but I have to question that. To me, most of the album just kind of slumbers along, and it seems Noel Gallagher forgot how to play lead guitar. It's not bad, just not really interesting.

Favorite Songs:
  • Bag It Up
  • The Shock of the Lightning
  • I'm Outta Time

The Offspring: Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace - The Antichrist returns! Yes, this album was produced by Bob Rock. Fortunately, it almost completely overcomes the horribleness of Rock and offers some pretty good music. It's only dragged down a little by some out-of-place ballads and a closing track that couldn't be more of a ripoff of Green Day if it tried. Hopefully, The Offspring don't shackle themselves to Old Scratch for the next 20 years.

Favorite Songs:
  • Half-Truism
  • Trust in You
  • Hammerhead

Rivers Cuomo: Alone II: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo - Ok, so I lied. This one's a compilation, but it's a compilation of unreleased material. How's it sound? It's still pretty good (basic three-chord rock with some nice acoustic songs), but if Rivers mines any deeper for an Alone III, he'll probably come up with more turds than gold nuggets.

Favorite Songs:
  • I Was Scared
  • I Don't Want to Let You Go
  • Can't Stop Partying

The Roots: Rising Down - Now this is interesting. The Roots is a rap group that plays live instruments. It definitely gives a very different sound from the sampled (and usually pretty bad) tracks that sit behind most rap these days. Also of note is that this is more like Sociopolitical rap, rather than party rap or "I'm so awesome" rap. Pretty good stuff.

Favorite Songs:
  • Rising Down
  • Criminal
  • Lost Desire

Scott Weiland: "Happy" in Galoshes - This is Scott Weiland's 2nd solo album, and I think he works far better as a solo artist than he did in Velvet Revolver. Something about that supergroup never clicked for me. This album sounds closest to STP's Tiny Music..., though even that's still not a close match. The only thing to avoid on this album at all costs is his cover of David Bowie's Fame. It's terrible, but the rest of the album is good stuff.

Favorite Songs:
  • Missing Cleveland
  • Blind Confusion
  • She Sold Her System

Sigur Ros: Med sud i eyrum vid spilum endalaust - Try to say that five times fast. It's Finnish, in case you were wondering. This was an album I bought on iTunes one night while cruising through the new music. I don't usually buy music with naked dudes on the cover, but it seemed interesting, and that's what I'd still call it. Note: I used the non-naked cover in case anyone is reading this at work. Also, I didn't want to hunt around character map all night, so the accents on the words are missing.

Favorite Songs:
  • Gobbledigook
  • Inni mer syngur vitleysingur

Slipknot: All Hope Is Gone - Here's some angry music for those teenagers to blast out their car stereos! Actually, I really enjoy it too. They finally let their guitar players play out more, and their drummer kicks ass at the double bass pedals. The singer, Corey Taylor, is also one of the better screamers in metal today. Good stuff. Crank it up!

Favorite Songs:
  • Sulfur
  • Psychosocial
  • Vendetta

Trivium: Shogun - I haven't given this a full listen, but I can already tell I don't like it as much as their previous, ripped from the headlines effort, Crusade. The main difference is that on Crusade, the singer didn't do his screaming very much, making him sound like a young James Hetfield. On this album, he does more screaming, which unfortunately to me sounds more like he's having potty problems than sounding angry. I have to at least acknowledge the title track for its epic sound.

Favorite Songs:
  • Shogun

Weezer: Weezer (Red Album) - This is Weezer's third or forth (depending on what you think of the Green album) attempt at a comeback album, and I think it's more successful if only because Rivers Cuomo gave up the reigns and let the other guys write some of the songs. In fact, two of my favorite songs on the album were written and sung by the bassist (Scott Shriner) and drummer (Patrick Wilson). I'd be interested in a Scott Shriner solo album. Rivers' songs are still stuck in the "I'm a teenager at heart" mode, which is either endearing or pathetic, depending on your point of view. It works for me.

Favorite Songs:
  • Dreamin'
  • Cold Dark World
  • Automatic
Whew, well that's it! Hope you enjoyed. The Star Trek retrospective will be starting soon.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Albums of '08 - Miniviews (Part 1)

Here are mini-reviews of the albums I bought that were released in 2008. I'm not counting compilations of previously released music. I'll also list my favorite songs from each album, up to three. Enjoy!

AC/DC: Black Ice - I love me some AC/DC. They're one of the most consistent (some would say repetitive) rock bands of all time. If you've ever heard any of their songs on the radio, you know exactly what this sounds like: straight-ahead, blues-based rock and roll. I'll just come right out and say I think this is their best album since Back in Black. What qualifies me to say that? I own all their albums, even the not-so-good ones like Fly on the Wall (which had too much 80's sound) and Who Made Who (which was mostly recycled material, as the album doubled as the soundtrack for Stephen King's film, Maximum Overdrive). The only thing I don't like about this album is that the song Black Ice doesn't really sound like an album closer the way songs like Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution or Night Prowler do. The album just sort of ends. Otherwise, this album rocks!

Favorite songs:
  • Big Jack
  • Anything Goes
  • Wheels

Ashes Divide: Keep Telling Myself It's Alright - Despite the fact they were fronted by Tool's Maynard James Keenan (not because of his voice, I just think he's too bizarre), A Perfect Circle's first two albums are two of my favorite albums from the early 2000's. After A Perfect Circle disbanded, guitar player Billy Howerdel struck out on his own and created Ashes Divide. Their first album picks up where A Perfect Circle left off, and I love it. Plus, Billy's singing sounds almost just like Maynard's, so it's like nothing was lost (except for any connection to Tool)!

Favorite Songs:
  • Denial Waits
  • Defamed
  • Enemies

Beck: Modern Guilt - To be honest, I haven't actually listened to this album all the way through yet. It's a shame too, because I like Beck and producer DJ Danger Mouse, whom you might know from the music of Gnarls Barkley and the 2nd Gorillaz album.

Favorite Songs:
  • Gamma Ray

Buddy Guy: Skin Deep - This is another album I haven't heard completely, but shit, it's Buddy Guy. A great blues musician if there ever was one. A piece of trivia: Buddy Guy is one of two popular musicians I've seen live, the other one being Van Halen on their final tour with Sammy Hagar (awesome show!).

Favorite Songs:
  • Show Me the Money

Common: Universal Mind Control - This album is all over the place. Some songs I like, and some songs, I can't hit the fast forward button fast enough (think "featuring Kanye West"). I got suckered into buying this album after seeing the Zune ad featuring Universal Mind Control dozens of times on Cartoon Network. Too bad the rest of the album sounds nothing like the title track. Ah well.

Favorite Songs:
  • Universal Mind Control
  • Make My Day (feat. Cee-Lo)
  • Everywhere (feat. Martina Topley-Bird)

Crystal Castles: Crystal Castles - Chip-tunes and a girl screaming into a microphone. Sounds like a recipe for the worst techno ever, right? Well, it kind of is, but it grew on me. It's weird how Alice Glass' shrieking can compliment the melody of these songs (she actually only does the screaming bit on about half of the songs). This album is definitely not for everyone, but you should at least listen to samples to experience it.

Favorite Songs:
  • Untrust Us
  • Crimewave (Crystal Castles vs. HEALTH)
  • Love and Caring

DragonForce: Ultra Beatdown - These guys cannot be serious with this shit. They epitomize everything people laugh at when it comes to cheesy metal: long songs, crazy fast guitars, dumb lyrics about "rising to meet our destiny" or other such nonsense, and strangely uplifting melodies. You've gotta have a real tolerance for cheese to listen to this stuff. Fortunately for me, I'm not called "le fromage" for nothing (no one actually calls me that).

Favorite Songs (and I use the word favorite with tongue firmly planted in cheek):
  • Heartbreak Armageddon
  • The Warrior Inside

Gnarls Barkley: The Odd Couple - Speaking of DJ Danger Mouse, here's his 2nd collaboration with rapper/singer Cee-Lo. I don't like this as much as their first album, St. Elsewhere, but it's still just the ticket for a rainy afternoon. Strangely, Cee-Lo writes the most emo lyrics I've ever heard a black guy sing. It's like he's a skinny white teenager trapped inside a husky black guy. Not that I mind, though, and the production is good!

Favorite Songs:
  • Charity Case
  • Blind Mary
  • Neighbors

Guns N' Roses: Chinese Democracy - I cannot believe how much I like this album. I mean, sure, I like Appetite for Destruction as much as the next guy, but I thought the Use Your Illusion albums were way to bloated, and I figured Guns N' Roses was finished after most of the musicians left. However, there's a lot of energy in this album. Part of that is probably due to the fact that many different musicians played on the album, so the sound of the album constantly changes. Some of it sounds like it could have been recorded in 1991, while some of it sounds like, well, Buckethead. If you can stomach Axl Rose, give it a listen!

Favorite Songs:
  • Chinese Democracy
  • Better
  • Catcher in the Rye

The Hold Steady: Stay Positive - This is what you would call bar music. It's kind of like Bruce Springsteen, but not as long-winded. Singer Craig Finn doesn't so much sing as he tells stories about small town life while the band plays along. The music is great, and the lyrics are clever and funny. This is definitely one of my favorite albums of the year.

Favorite Songs:
  • Lord, I'm Discouraged
  • Magazines
  • Joke about Jamaica
Ok, I think that's enough for tonight. I'll continue this sometime, probably tomorrow, but you know what happens when I make promises.

Movie Madness - The Dark Knight (2008)

Proving that Batman as a movie property was alive and well, Christopher Nolan was brought back to make another film in the same serious vein as Batman Begins. Considering Batman Begins was a reboot for the franchise, all the Batman villains were available for use, so the next obvious choice was the Joker. However, more than any other sequel in the franchise, the Dark Knight served as a direct continuation of the preceding movie, following Batman's mission to take down the mob in Gotham City.

The hype for this movie at the time of its release was almost unimaginable. A big part of it was due to the untimely and unfortunate death of Heath Ledger. I made sure to see the movie opening weekend. During the two-and-a-half hours I spent watching the movie, I must have checked my watch at least five times. That wasn't a good sign. After leaving the theater, I spent the drive home trying to convince myself I liked the movie. I've since watched it twice on video, but everything that irritated me about the movie in the theater still bugs me.

I'd recount the plot, but that'd take this entire post, which is one of my problems with the movie. I can understand trying to play up the mob element of the movie as a reason for the Joker to show up, but come on. This is Batman, not the Godfather. How much detail do we need about the mob and the police's efforts to stop them? The whole 15 minute sequence of Batman kidnapping the Chinese executive was completely unnecessary. Excluding all the mob stuff, the plot becomes this: The Joker attempts to blackmail Batman into revealing his identity. Batman doesn't do it, so the Joker executes a really complicated scheme in order to kidnap Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes, Batman's squeeze from the first movie. Rachel dies in an explosion, and Harvey's face is scarred, driving him to become Two-Face. Batman eventually catches the Joker and kills Two-Face when Two-Face attempts to kill Gordon's son.

The best performance of the show belongs to Heath Ledger as the Joker. His manic, anarchic take on the character is really creepy and fits the movie well. He's like a more invincible version of the killer from the original Dirty Harry with clown makeup. It's funny to think back and remember that Ledger was a controversial choice when first announced. I myself thought, "really, the guy from the gay cowboy movie?" One thing in particular I like about the character in this movie is his lack of back story. He just appears as some criminal force of nature. Even with all this praise, I still have to say I prefer the Jack Nicholson Joker better. He at least incorporated humor into his madness, while Heath Ledger's Joker insists he's not crazy. Whatever, man. You're the one in the clown makeup. Why so serious, indeed.

Christian Bale still annoys me as Bruce Wayne/Batman. He physically fits the part, but his Batman voice just grates on my ears, especially because he talks more as Batman in this movie than he did in Batman Begins. At least they finally made a costume that allows him to turn his head, as explained in one of the more self-aware scenes of the movie. Another point that bugs me about Batman in this movie is how his gadgets start to become more far-fetched, incorporating a lot of the "computers are magic" bullshit that makes me laugh when I'm watching 24. This Batman can't wait for the Bat-signal; he turns every cell phone in Gotham into a sonar transmitter, somehow.

Aaron Eckhart does a good job as Harvey Dent, but I think it was unnecessary to introduce Two-Face in this movie. I've read that originally, Harvey wasn't supposed to become Two-Face until the third movie, but the writers didn't think the Joker had enough of a character arc to carry the film. I guess I can't complain that Two-Face was in the movie, but I thought it was too convenient to kill him at the end. It might have made the third movie more interesting if somehow Two-Face escaped from Arkham, and the police had to cover-up his crimes to protect Dent's reputation.

I don't think anyone else in the movie really stands out. Maggie Gyllenhaal is even more of a non-person as Rachel Dawes than Katie Holmes was. When I first saw the scene where Rachel is killed, all I thought was "hmm, sucks for Bruce and Harvey." Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman all do perfectly fine jobs with their characters, being the solid character actors they are.

Ultimately, the reasons I don't like this movie much are because it's too long and takes itself way too damn seriously. What Batman boils down to is a guy who dresses up in a rubber bat costume (or in the comic books, a cloth bat costume with his underwear on the outside of his pants) and fights criminals. As much as I like Batman, I don't take him that seriously. Still, this movie is technically well made, and I have to give points to Heath Ledger for his creepy Joker, even if he did inspire a lot of bad Halloween costumes. Two-and-a-half school buses out of five.