Capitalism: A Love Story (2009)

Running Time: 120 min.
Director: Michael Moore
Stars: Michael Moore and a cast of crooks

Michael Moore (and his films) are believed to be a “known commodity,” mostly by his enemies rather than his fans. In other words, people who don’t actually watch his movies think they know exactly what they’re going to get from all/any of them, so they don’t bother watching. Conservative circular logic at its finest. They use their favourite (and most effective) ploy of reducing him (or anyone they don’t like) to a caricature; they paint Moore as a fat narcissist liberal who hates everything conservative and particularly that very model of a modern capitalist general, General Motors.

But, you’ll notice, they rarely take on his ideas directly. The reason for this is because although Moore may rub you the wrong way, in point of fact, he’s turned out to be right — and nothing infuriates a conservative more than having to confront this.

So before we get into the movie, let’s address this directly. Yes, Moore is a pretty chunky guy — though since making Sicko two years ago, he’s dropped 70 pounds, and plans to lose another 70. Have you done that? No? Then STFU.

Narcissist? Maybe. He does feature a lot of himself in his films, and I once asked him specifically about that. To summarize his longer answer, he feels strongly that it’s important that he make these movies personal, particularly in the narration. As for the “stunts” as some call them, he prefers the term “citizen confrontation” and asserts that he is acting the part of the audience if they had a chance to speak truth to power. The fact that these events are not always effective or realistic doesn’t make them irrelevant; Moore wants to show that ordinary people can still make their feelings known through such actions, and indeed would be more effective than just him doing it. When he puts crime scene tape around Wall Street, he’s not just making a statement, he’s inviting you to do something similar — because Moore still sees himself as the average joe. Seriously.

Truthfully, it’s the media itself that has made Moore’s image narcissistic. They consistently prefer to focus their stories on him rather than any of the unsettling ideas actually in his films, because then they would have to tacitly acknowledge that he’s factually correct.

So, finally, we get to “liberal.” This term (like “conservative”) has rather different meanings depending on where you are (both physically and politically), but I personally have never thought of Moore as being nearly as “liberal” as his critics allege. He’s much more an angry (but not all that far from centrist) Democrat and pragmatist with honestly mixed feelings about a lot of things, such as guns and yes, capitalism. He actually comes very much from the type of background that usually breeds conservatives, the small-town midwestern, sleepily and happily middle-class and stay-at-home world — and in fact he pines for more Americans to have that sort of background again! He reminds me very much of a lapsed Catholic (though he isn’t one, as it turns out) in that he is very shaped by the middle-class, pretty conservative (small “c”) background he came from, but has seen the ugly underbelly and wants it made right rather than swept under the rug. It’s the fault of the rich and their abusive policies towards the poor and union workers that has turned Moore into an alleged “super-liberal”; had the US maintained a respect for honest work and the middle class, Moore would probably have been at worst the local gadfly at the City Council meetings. Just by looking at him you can tell that he’d be no more comfortable at some Gay Pride-themed SoHo gallery opening than Newt Gingrich would.

So what about capitalism? Does Moore hate it?

I’d have to say “no, but he hates what it has become.” When describing his own upbringing and the world of good capitalism did for everyone back when it was in sync with and intermingled with the love of country and community that feeds and nurtures democracy, young Master Moore was probably capitalism’s biggest fan. It gave him a life and opportunities of incredibly high quality, better in fact than most people have available today — which is part of the point. Life really was pretty good for the majority of Americans, at least by comparison with now, in the late 50s and early 60s.

Along came the Reagan Administration in 1980, however, and they (specifically Don Regan, who was head of Goldman Sachs and then became Treasury Secretary, essentially handing the keys of the vault to Wall Street) allowed capitalism to become a very mean and heartless drunk, slurring his “I love you, maaaan” odes to the rich while ignoring his wife and kids (the middle class and poor, respectively) at home. Like a bad marriage, the family tried to ignore what was happening, tried to put on a brave face for the neighbours, and for a while that worked, but the façade began to crack, the abuse became difficult to hide, but it careened almost always out of control for far longer than you’d have expected and then eventually he drove himself into a ditch. Capitalism divorced itself from both the middle class and reality, gave up its egalitarian ideals and became a meth whore to the rich and powerful, ignoring everything else and letting the house it built (America) crumble.

Twenty years ago, Moore was just a schlub outraged by the poor treatment of workers vs. shareholders at General Motors, and identified the root problem: a de-humanisation of the employees and customers in favour of making the rich richer in the belief that they — the rich — would take care of the little people (this idea is often expressed as “trickle down economics”) by providing them jobs (but nothing else really).

At the time Roger & Me came out, Moore thought GM was some kind of rogue corporation, bending government to their will and putting their endless need for profit ahead of the people’s need for basic survival; 20 years on, Moore has discovered that pretty much all corporations have abandoned the democratic and moral principles of supporting the communities they profit from, and rushed headlong into a feeding frenzy for money that never gets sated, powered by a foolish Congress that gave them not just rights on par with actual people, but rights and access that superseded that of ordinary citizens.

It’s irony at its very finest that the very groups of people who profess to be skeptical of Darwin’s evolutionary theories are largely the same ones who turned capitalism into a pure Darwinian exercise, replacing democracy and patriotism with the worship of profit and a “survival of the fittest richest” mantra.

You read that right, by the way: democracy has been replaced by corporatocracy, and most of us never even noticed. A cynical few will yawn and act unsurprised, but the joke is on them: a “plutonomy,” as Citibank itself described it, will eventually make life very unpleasant for anyone not in the top one or two percent of earners. That means you.

The 2006 Citibank memo that calmly and horrifically describes — to its wealthy clients, until it was leaked to Moore — a system of government that is now solely defined by its ability to produce economic benefit to the wealthy, and even questions how much longer the rich will let the concept of “one man, one vote” stand — is at best a treatise of treason, at worst a victory speech of the triumph over democracy, a war that was won through marketing, convincing people that having an XBox and a plasma TV equaled a higher standard of living.

This is just one of the jaw-dropping revelations that will even shock and surprise lefties who consider themselves well-informed. Have you heard of a “Dead Peasant Policy”? You will in Moore’s film, and you may literally want to grab a torch and head for the mansions when you find out what it is.

Or consider Capt. Ted “Sully” Sullenberger, the hero of the Hudson. He went to Congress to testify about the working conditions of the nation’s pilots. Don’t remember that? That’s because the networks refused to air what he said. When Moore shows you the (stolen) footage of his testimony, and then backs it up with interviews of working pilots, you may never want to set foot on an airplane again (which is not Moore’s intent; he wants you to help him do something about it, not stick your head in the sand).

In addition to these revelations, made up mostly of “liberated” news footage that has been actively suppressed by corporate-owned media, Moore injects a surprising new voice beyond his own, or those of the victims of rampant corporate greed; the Catholic Church. As a practicing Catholic, Moore’s discontent with capitalism as a substitute for democracy has its roots in the Bible, and so he interviews a number of Catholic priests and bishops, who all enthusiastically agree that capitalism runs directly contrary to the teachings of Jesus and the words of God, and is a force of evil in the world (which even Moore is not ready to fully embrace). If this film does nothing else beyond Moore’s usual level of box office, I would love to see this film spark a real dialogue in the mainstream media featuring the religious view of where the West is headed these days, and how its model is something Jesus would run screaming from.

Some critics have said that Moore’s ability to deliver such a huge indictment results in him being less focused, less “entertaining” and less cohesive in this film than in some of his previous ones where the subject was more narrow. With this I must agree, Capitalism as a piece of filmmaking is not Moore’s best work. But it is as important a documentary as anything he’s done, because it shows not only the growth of the corporatocracy, but also how the truths he uncovered in Flint, Michigan 20 years ago have now been exported to every corner of the US, from “condo vultures” in Miami to partying Wall Street executives, from bankrupt California (which is, by the way, one-seventh of the US economy) to the corporate infil-traitors in Washington DC.

One does wish, especially in the early portion of the film, that Moore would zero in on his thesis and not throw everything and the kitchen sink up there; he cuts dizzingly between crying remnants of the working poor and the eviscerated middle class struggling and failing to keep even their dignity as they lose everything they’ve worked for, to his now-old-hat “stunts” to the shocking footage that either never aired or didn’t make it past the right-wing noise machine, to images from his typical American upbringing to the wasteland that is Flint (and a thousand small towns like it) today, to priests calmly telling us that our very way of life is intrinsically evil and ungodly. If Moore were a lawyer, I’m sure he’d get a hung jury every time, and his “citizen confrontations” have lost most of their novelty and effectiveness and now only serve to give his critics something to distract their audiences from the actual points raised in the film.

But his winning, earnest, honest personality (which is precisely what he has, his defamers be damned) does eventually bring the disparate points together, not so much calling for the destruction of everything we know as its reformation; a return to the sensible, community-driven democracy that kept corporations and governments in their place (as servants to the greater good of the public) as it did for a while in the post-Depression America middle 20th century. The film strikes a cautiously optimistic tone regarding the election of Obama as a force for change and good, but doesn’t shy away from noting that Larry Summers and Tim Geithner are part of the same crooked crowd that overdid the champagne during the wealthy’s victory dance and thus wrecked the economy in the first place. Only time will tell if they’ve had a “come to Jesus” moment and are working for the taxpayers now, or if Obama and any noble intentions he once had will ultimately be eaten by the money and power of the corporate dragons he seeks to tame.

Finally, after taking us back to Roman times in the film’s opening and his own childhood in the middle, he ends the film with yet another piece from a simpler time, which is also another piece of previously-suppressed footage: a sickly Franklin Roosevelt, in a never-before aired bit of newsreel footage, calling for and outlining his plan for a “Second Bill of Rights.” The truths and values Roosevelt lays out are simply stunning to modern audiences, and a powerful reminder that America once had truly great leaders who fought hard for the little guy, who considered the dispossessed and the disenfranchised when making their decisions, who weighted the benefit of the many ahead of the benefit of the few when spending their political capital. It’s clear that Moore hopes Obama will be another Roosevelt, but as he sternly warns us at the end, if we don’t get off the couch and reward good behaviour from our leaders, he — and those of us who fight for justice, peace and equality — will likely throw in the towel and let the forces of evil prevail. Why lead the charge if nobody is willing to take a break from playing WoW long enough to write their congressperson?

I will allow that Moore does seriously need to refresh his schtick, if for no other reason to confound his enemies and re-energise his fans. But as a truth-teller, an investigative journalist and a thorn in the side of the corporatists, Moore is still the Elvis of documentarians and we should try to follow his example of looking more at the message and less at the real or imagined faults of the messenger.

Moon (2009)

Running Time: 97 min.

Director: Duncan Jones
Stars: Sam rockwell

If you’re like me, you’ve probably seen a fair few (if not all, repeatedly) of the Great Science Fiction Movies. I’m not talking about your capitalist fluff like Star Wars and Star Trek*, I’m talking about the serious SF movies.





Silent Running.

Blade Runner.

and most important of them all (at least for the purposes of this review), the now-forgotten classic Dark Star.

Duncan Jones, the son of a guy a who starred in another of the all-time great SF movies The Man Who Fell to Earth, has seen these films and many more. But I mention these particular classics not because they’re the first ones that came to mind, but because they have elements in common with each other. The first is isolation and loneliness. All of these films, the protagonist is a person isolated from the mainstream of society in one way or other, often by the vacuum of space.

The second theme is madness. The question of the sanity of either the protagonist or the antagonist is left open. In the case of Brazil or 2001, it’s left wide open.

Finally, we have a fight for one’s own (or humanity’s collective) soul. Now, to be fair, it should be said that a lot of movies have these three elements in varying degrees — but if you were to stick the aforementioned SF movies into a blender, garnish with some Space: 1999 and add a huge extra helping of Dark Star, I believe you would have something very akin to Moon, the film debut of writer/director Zowie Bowie (sorry, Joey Bowie. Sorry again, Duncan Jones).

This is not to say that Moon is unoriginal or a rip-off; I think Jones brings enough originality to the story to make it work, particularly for a generation not as deeply versed in some of the “classics” as maybe they ought to be. But if you’re like me, you will spend a lot of your time noticing little things, ideas consciously or unconsciously nicked from other films.

The main influences are clearly Dark Star, Blade Runner, 2001 and Space: 1999 (and before some wag puts it out there, I’ll add that the budget for this film was clearly inspired by mid-70s Doctor Who). You notice it even before we get to the friendly, calm-voiced computer named GERTY (which is well done by Kevin Spacey, but his voice is so recognisable that you notice it’s Kevin Spacey).

Sam Rockwell (in a much stronger performance than 2005’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) plays Sam Bell, the sole human inhabitant of a mining station on the far side of the moon. The work is mostly automated, but needs a caretaker — and Sam is itching to get home after have served his contract of three long years away from his wife and daughter.

The time has taken its toll on Sam, and one day while out in a rover doing inspections, he hallucinates and crashes, injuring himself badly.

This part of the film is clear. The rest of it is a little murky.

Some time later, Sam wakes up in the infirmary, informed by GERTY that he has suffered injuries and some memory loss. As he recovers he wishes more and more to get back to work, the only thing that gives him a sense of feeling. Finally tricking GERTY into letting him outside the base, Sam returns to the scene of the accident and makes an unsettling discovery — the injured Sam still alive inside the vehicle.

At no point are we as the audience absolutely certain that what we’re seeing is reality, and Jones’ strength here is to keep us focused on that mystery. Is this all a dream of the dying Sam #1? Is the presence of a second Sam an indication of madness? Further along in the film we get a “logical” explanation of how this situation came to be, and we eventually return to what we assume is the real timeline, but we cannot be certain, particularly early on. Watching the two Sams warily interact proves very entertaining and the story unfolds more-or-less logically from there. Eventually Sam(s) realise the truth of their situation, that they are being manipulated. But why exactly, and how can he (they) beat the odds?

I suspect that a lot of the raves given this film are due as much to its obvious borrowing (sorry, homage) to its influences, and due to it being a rare example of a slow-paced story in this genre. There are few explosions or action sequences; largely it is (apart from the first quarter and climax) a psychological play. Plot revelations are drawn out, actions are very constrained, the feel is deliberately claustrophobic, and the minor supporting roles are minimal. Hopefully it will find (and seems to have found) an audience mature enough to be able to deal with the Kubrick-esque pacing and really savour the performance and atmosphere. If Moon is a modest hit, it will be good news for low-budget and serious SF filmmakers everywhere. To be able to take your time and really get into a story will come as something of a revelation to the twitchy video-game generation, for whom “sci-fi” in movies has largely meant huge explosion, whizzy spaceships, thrilling headgear and odd-coloured alien women to romance.

Rockwell gives a fairly low-key performance (for him) as both Sams, doing a very effective job of showing us Sam at various stages of his experience on the moon, and interacting with “himself” quite effectively. The special effects are quite modest (very Gerry Anderson!) but they do the job, and the moonbase while obviously cheap removes us from our own world well enough to allow us to sink into the mind(s) of the characters. Throw in a modest twist to the “us versus them” countdown and you end up with a satisfying story (with kind of an open ending) that doesn’t try to keep you thrilled/amazed/scared/titillated the entire time. For me that’s kind of refreshing, for some leaving the theatre with me I got the impression they were surprised to be so thoughtful after a “sci-fi” movie. Some were just plain perplexed. A few seemed underwhelmed.

Points off for being so completely blatant in his borrowings, but overall Jones has made an effective, well-directed “little” SF film, something the world could probably use more of. The sparse soundtrack by Clint Mansell is as unobtrusive as a fine waiter, and Gary Shaw’s cinematography makes the most of the limited sets (also helping the “moon surface” shots be more convincing). If you’re the type who enjoys discussing movies over drinks after the screening, Moon will probably be the first in a long time to provide you with more than just “what’d you think?” to ponder.

*Apart from “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” which is actually a great sci-fi movie.

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Running Time: 93 min.
Director: Vittorio Di Sica
Stars: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staidla

An old friend is apparently tromping around the art-house circuit in celebration of its 60th anniversary. Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (as I always knew it, but since corrected to its proper title) played here last night and I could not miss an opportunity to revisit it in a theatre for the first time since my first viewing of it at the Rhodes Cinema in Atlanta back in the late 70s (a film mecca I owe so much to, now sadly gone).

It was as good and moving as I remembered it. As a young man, the twin themes of injustice and male pressure/alienation rang out to me, and they are still there. Now, though, I have the luxury of watching the details more closely; the lay of post-war Italy, the religious statements, the flow of daily life. I notice the music and the cinematography, and marvel even more at De Sica’s brave decision to use non-actors. Just four years after it came out, it was judged by its peers in Sight & Sound’s magazine poll to have been the greatest film ever made, and it continues to list regularly in very high places among critics’ lists of the best movies ever (in the 2002 poll for that same magazine, 50 years later, it placed 45th – meaning that in all that intervening time, only 44 other films have been made that are considered better).

The story it tells is a simple one: Ricci, a poor man with a wife and two children to feed, is desperate for work. When the employment pool finally lands him an offer, he mentions that if he doesn’t get it he’ll be “waiting another two years.” The catch: the job requires him to have transportation, which at that time for people of his status, meant a bicycle. He lies and says he has one to get the job, but actually hocked his some time back. Upon learning the news, his wife sells their bedsheets to pay back the pawn of the bicycle (a wonderful scene that reminds me so much of a similar moment in 1952’s Scrooge). It is at this moment that we first realise we are watching a classic, even if one is seeing it for the first time; the gritty realism of working-class life really hits home here, the pressure ordinary people are under in society from so many different directions, not to mention the foreshadowing of Ricci’s possible future if things don’t go well; his wife has literally bet their marriage on it. If you’ve ever had to put everything you own, every cent in your bank account, on the line in the hope of future reward, this scene will touch a nerve.

De Sica wasn’t the first to do neo-realist “kitchen sink” drama, but in this one and his later Umberto D. he may have surpassed even the inventor of the form, Roberto Rosselini. Everything comes together so well here — the plain-faced working man (Lamberto Maggiorani, an actual factory worker) and his precocious son (Enzo Staiola) who struggles to live up to his tough but loving father; the cinematography of Carlo Montuori that gradually gets grayer and grayer as the moral nature of the story is revealed; the music by Alessandro Cicognini that blends beautifully into the street noises of Rome; the dialogue (in Italian, but Italian is a language that doesn’t depend on subtitles to get its meaning across) and of course the city itself, which demands co-star status just as it did in other films by both Italian and American filmmakers. Rome is more than a location, it is part and parcel of the story being told, whether it’s Ladri di biciclette or Roman Holiday, a Fellini film or an Audrey Hepburn vehicle.

When the precious bicycle is stolen, this simple act causes Ricci’s world to collapse, especially frustrating as he was so close to grabbing the best brass ring a man in his position could hope for; a simple honest job that paid well and where the work was steady. Losing the bike means that even this modest dream is slipping away, and leads Ricci to search throughout Rome, on foot, using what little money he has left, in a desperate attempt to retrieve the key to his happiness. At first he assumes the police will help, and like many law-abiding citizens is rather shocked to discover that they are rather indifferent to such a “minor” crime. We watch as Ricci goes through the stages of loss, and empathise with his plight as he leads us on an increasingly erratic travelogue through post-war, economically-depressed Rome.

By keeping the camera so commonly fixed on Maggiorani’s face, the lack of much in the way of “action” forces us to care about this character and the way the system continuously lets him down; from the police to the church — and ultimately to God and himself — nobody but nobody comes through for him, and the ratio of those who want to help versus those who simply don’t care forms a powerful commentary on the fragility and arbitrary nature of existence. Just today, by sheer coincidence, I happened to see a survey that said around 60% of workers live pretty much paycheque-to-paycheque. The more things change …

The rich tapestry of Italian life gives us a number of colourful supporting characters, from the friend who incompetently tries to help Ricci organise a search to the bike mechanic falsely accused, from his wife Maria to the psychic she trusts (mocked by Ricci at first, he eventually reaches the “bargaining” stage of grief and goes to see her himself, symbolising the end of his rational hopes), finally to the accused thief himself, and of course the young son who must tag along on this descent into hell, trying desperately for his father’s approval. Interestingly, I’ve never met a woman who’s seen the film who didn’t fixate on the boy’s perspective; just another example of the layers this seemingly simple tale contains. Fellini in particular was likely scribbling a lot of notes in the film’s many religiously-influenced scenes, as scenes of incredible similarity turned up in Nights of Caribia and other works.

Ultimately, the film does not lead you to any sort of neat ending, happy or unhappy. Having been rebuffed at his last, best hope for getting the bicycle back (which has now become his life, hopes and dreams), he sacrifices his own moral code and, under pressure and relentless temptation, tries to steal a bike to replace his loss, becoming the very thing he loathes and destroying the last shred of his character. His son rescues him from humiliation and possible jailing and leads the crying, broken man away to face an uncertain — but undoubtedly tragic — future. The impact of society’s failure and the relation of poverty, desperation and crime in the face of life’s inherent unfairness hits you like a one-two punch, and the indefinite ending leaves you reeling.

After 60 years, Bicycle Thieves still resonates, affects and engages its audience — this is what has earned it its classic status. If you can catch a screening of this 35mm anniversary print, do so; but if not, treat yourself and rent it. Watch it without distraction, in a dark room, so the effect of the visuals is not diminished; you may not fully see its greatness at first, perhaps, but this is one of those films that changes you, however subtly, and gives one yet another perspective on this world.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Running Time: 153 min.
Director: David Yates
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Jim Broadbent, Michael Gambon

It’s the beginning of the end for the Harry Potter franchise, and you can definitely feel it.

Before we get too far into this, I should caution readers that, unlike apparently 90% of the moviegoing audience, I don’t read the books. I know, I know — “blasphemer!” — but actually I think I’m much ahead of the game in this regard.

The reason for this is exactly the single biggest complaint I’ve had to listen to, over and over and over, whined incessantly about each of the films since at least the third one: “they left so much out!”

Well yes. It’s a film, not a book. Ask any Lord of the Rings fan about what was left out of the Peter Jackson trilogy, and plan to be occupied with the resulting details for at least as long as the running time of one of those movies.

In particular, Rowling’s penchant for including layers upon layers of detail and plot machinations (along with more than a few red herrings and going-nowhere sub-tales) gives the book exactly the sort of rich texture that readers love and moviemakers cannot possibly accommodate in anything short of a five-hour movie, which would be commercial suicide. Consequently, things get left out. As the hipsters say, “well duh.”

Compounding the problem is the fact that the audience want their magical cake, and to eat it too: they want loads of details (particularly the most important ones), which would normally force filmmakers to stretch out the franchise as they have opted to do with the finale; but they also want the kids to look at least something like the ages of the characters they are portraying. HP fans are seemingly unaware of how much effort and how long a special-effects-heavy epic like each of the HP films take to produce — the child actors are already considerably ahead of their characters’ ages. Harry was 11 years old in the first film, which means he should be 16 in The Half-Blood Prince. Daniel Radcliffe is as I write this about to turn 20 (he and I share a birthday, as it happens!), and the other leads are similarly aging well beyond their alter-egos. Had Warner Brothers opted to make two films each for each book beyond the third, it would have required re-casting the lead roles by the fifth book’s adaption.

So all the moaning about how much of this book is missing is falling on deaf ears with me, in part because (not having read it) I don’t know what I’m missing, and in part because I understand (apparently much better than HP fans) how films are made, and usually (but not always) trust the production team to have a good sense of what parts are the most “filmic” and what wasn’t, given their limitations. This can involve re-arranging events, jettisoning some storylines or even inventing new action to “bridge” between the remaining elements most efficiently. Peter Jackson in particular did a damn fine job of this balancing act in his LotR films, I thought (and yes, I had read the books beforehand for that one!), but Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is hardly the first book adaptation to change dramatically (pardon the pun) from page to screen. Purists need to get over themselves a bit, methinks.

Not reading the books frees me considerably to enjoy (or not) each film as a film, and to be surprised or shocked or whatever Rowling (plus the film creators) intended. I’m also pleased to know that when (or if) I choose to read the books, a wealth of additional layering, detail and general imagination await me. Given the obvious emotional attachment the books engender in their readers (and the consequent strong mixed feelings this film more than the others is engendering in its audience), even if I’d read the books back when they came out I’d have made a strong effort to forget the finer points and just enjoy the ride of this film as a related but not necessarily faithful endeavour.

So, finally, to the point: given my particular perspective, did I think it was good? The answer is yes, quite emphatically. Indeed, I have to say I enjoyed this one more than at least the last three outings (which, as films, were mostly convoluted messes, particularly Order of the Phoenix). On most occasions beyond the first film, the makers chose to try and cram as much of the books as possible into an impossibly tight timeframe, resulting in half-developed plotlines, rapid-fire editing, intros and outros of myriad characters without any reason to pay attention or care about them, jibberish passing for plot exposition (usually relayed breathlessly) and good old confusion abounding.

That’s not to say there wasn’t plenty to like in the recent films; I enjoyed most of Goblet of Fire, only being annoyed by the introduction of a new, bland character who’s only (and obvious) job was to get killed off at the end (Cedric Diggory) and the poorly-edited and badly-rushed Quiddich World Cup sequence that starts off the movie, which prompts questions from non-readers like me such as “if they’ve had Floo Powder all along, why on earth are they using a train to get to Hogwart’s?” to which readers roll their eyes, sigh in an exasperated manner and attempt to relate all the additional detail in the book that smoothes over this obvious plot hole.

Likewise, Prisoner of Azkaban and Order of the Phoenix in particular are (in my opinion) almost unwatchable god-awful mish-mashes of incoherent plotting and superficial vehicles seemingly made primarily to trot out yet more dead-end characters and give employment to nearly every A-list British actor on Earth, despite usually good performances from the array of regular and guest stars and (at least since the fourth film) decent direction. In both movies, there is so much hinting at so much more going on, every line dripping with forced attempts to make it say all the dialogue that wasn’t there. The tantalizingly strong auxiliary characters (like Gilderoy Lockhart, Cornelius Fudge and “Mad-Eye” Moody among many others) and the bewildering locations and elements are often wasted in a hodge-podge of editing that tries desperately to keep the film together but fails for the most part, even loaded as each film is with beautiful sequences, good-looking casting and Rowling’s own (and very charming) sense of the ritual of growing up.

For The Half-Blood Prince, someone somewhere (presumably director David Yates) finally put their foot down and did the right thing: cut the book unmercifully in the name of making an actual, workable, coherent, enjoyable adventure film. From my perspective, they succeeded at last, and one can only hope that they will use the extra “breathing room” the stretched-out finale will give them to do more of the same: treat the novels as a guideline, not the script itself, and craft a meaningful film instead of a picture-postcard of the most visual moments from the story.

That’s not to say it was flawless: quite a number of characters seen in previous films get pretty short shrift in this one, some to the point where I have to wonder why they were included at all. Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) in particular serves no real function in the story, except to lose yet another pet (which, again from my perspective, is about all this guy ever does!) and provide a locale for Slughorn’s big moment (which really could have happened anywhere, and indeed the convoluted way Potter gets Slughorn to Hagrid’s hut is one of the only really off-key notes in the movie). Other characters so important in the plots of previous films are given barely-even-cameos in this one (for example, Neville Longbottom or Argus Filch and so on), reminding us that they’re still there, but leaving us wondering why nothing significant seems to happen to them anymore. Even most of the professors are reduced to a single line or two, even ones (like Maggie Smith’s Professor McGonnagal) who seem to be important to the plot of the book, but just seem like drop-ins in the film.

There’s not much point in recapping the plot here as most film reviews usually do; everyone reading this likely has a deeper understanding of the story than I do. But this time, I was easily able to follow the sequence of events without feeling like a girl outside the Boy’s Private Clubhouse, and very much enjoyed the more relaxed pace of the film. This allowed me to take note of the evolving acting of the three leads, the truth (very well) infused into the scenes of the kids coming to grips with getting older and raging hormones, and the general affection the characters have for each other as well as that the actors have for their alter-egos. I remember well my own growing-up years (where I looked and acted not all that unlike Ron Weasley) with much affection and it’s obvious JK does as well; her handling particularly of the complexities of teen girls is very on-the-mark, but she gets the male chemistry just right as well. It was smart to explore this more fully than the way similar feelings and depth got butchered in Goblet of Fire.

Jim Broadbent, without question one of Britain’s greatest actors ever, steals every scene he’s in as retired Professor Slughorn, called back into service by Dumbledore (who gets some much-needed fleshing-out in this one) as part of an elaborate scheme to undermine Lord Voldemort’s plans and prepare Harry for what is to come. Broadbent has to play his character in two time periods separated by 40-50 years time, and pulls it off not just convincingly but marvellously. Ironically, Broadbent’s performance is so high-calibre that it has the unintentional effect of making Alan Rickman’s Snape look utterly ridiculous in all but his most menacing moments. One line particularly well drolled-over by Snape got cascades of laughter from the audience, the opposite of what was seemingly intended.

Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy finally comes into his own in this film, which is as much about him as it is about Dumbledore. His climatic scene shows at last all the ability and complexity that Felton has had to keep well under wraps as the previously-cartoonish Malfoy. Likewise Evanna Lynch’s Luna Lovegood (happily returned from the previous film) gets to be a bit more than just a refugee from Twin Peaks as well. We also have time to see how Fred and George Weasley are getting on with their joke shop, something I would have thought would be cut for more “important” scenes, but give the film a nod of homage to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and generally add some much-needed levity to the increasingly-darker series. Kudos of the opposite kind must also go to Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, who plays his uncle Ralph Fiennes’ character Voldemort/Tom Riddle as a young boy straight out of The Shining. The resemblance works well and the kid is appropriately creepy.

Sadly, some characters go the opposite route, getting more cartoonish. Rickman’s Snape has already been mentioned, but Helena Bonham Carter is completely wasted in this film as a cackling, half-mad imbecile, and even all the members of the Order of the Phoenix descend into poor caricatures of themselves. Add to this the number of seemingly-gratuitous cameos of Hogwarts regulars and the shallow interpretations of red herrings like the Dean Thomas character (not to mention the forced-feeling injection of more minorities, albeit still in utterly inconsequential parts), and you get a small army of add-ons that actually detract from the good work done by the main cast. Whether this is a crime to lay at the feet of the writer, the director or the editor I can’t say, but even as someone who doesn’t know the deeper meaning/destiny/importance of these characters, I can see that they cry out to either be expanded upon or discarded.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is, I’m pleased to say, worth your money. It’s the first film in quite a while for this series to mostly work well on all levels, and I shouldn’t forget to mention the very strong cinematography, art direction and music which added greatly to my enjoyment. If possible, try to forget the book and give this movie a try on its own merits. You may not love it as much as the muggle devotees, but at least you’ll understand why it has such broad appeal — indeed, this “chapter” of the saga is best compared to The Empire Strikes Back in terms of where (and how) the story has developed (a connection I’m not sure most Potter fans are old enough to make!).

Star Trek XI (2009)

Running Time: 127 min.
Director: J.J. Abrams
Stars: Christopher Pine, Zachary Quinto, et al

So I did in fact go to see the new Star Trek film on opening weekend after all, thanks to an invite from some friends (I had planned on catching a matinee after the hype died down a bit). As a long-time “Star Trek” (the original and animated series only) fan and a former professional movie critic, I tried to come to the film with several different mindsets going on at the same time.

First, as a TOS “Star Trek” fan, I expected not to like this. Sure, the casting looked good, but even the trailers had a few “continuity” errors (Kirk drives a stick all of a sudden?) which added to the trepidation.

I also approached this as someone who didn’t really identify with the Braga/Berman era at all, and was glad it was over. To be sure, I’ve watched a number of episodes of each of the various spin-offs from “TNG” to “Enterprise,” and couldn’t warm up to them. I more-or-less gave up on the film franchise after the seventh one (Generations) and saw the remaining three films on cable (and thought they were all crap). I didn’t know much about this Abrams guy, but it was new blood and that’s often a good thing.

Third, I tried to approach this new film as a film, or perhaps as someone who had heard of “Star Trek” but didn’t “grok” it (heh) might see the movie. As pure entertainment.

Finally, I am not just a geek, I’m also a nerd. Which means I have enough scientific understanding of physics and space and black holes and whatnot to be annoyed with every sci-fi movie or TV show to some degree, because they never get the science right. I won’t dwell on this part too much, as others have done a better job of dissecting this aspect, but it should be mentioned that this film did try to get at least one aspect sorta-kinda right (hint: silence can be very dramatic), and I applaud that even as I raspberry them for the other much more egregious science-sins. I will even freely forgive them making a “bang” noise when the ship enters warp speed, even though it wouldn’t in “real life.” For the most part SF films should really try harder than they do to get this stuff right, but we’re highly conditioned to “bang” noises that accompany explosions or massive displays of power, so we’ll forgive them that one and ignore the entire ludicrous concepts (as seen here) of warp speed, teleportation, ray guns and so forth.

If you’re going to read any further, I have to issue a spoiler warning, since this film is still in cinemas as I write this. We’re going to get into the plot, twists and all, so be forewarned.

So, they asked after all that, how’d ya like the movie? 🙂

My summary review (the kind of brief and incomplete platitude you get when you ask “how are you?” to someone) is that Star Trek is good fun, well worth the money, a kick in the ass to a franchise that had gotten very stale, and on the whole faithful to the heart and soul of Roddenberry’s ideals and (more than I expected) to the TV series.

Once the excitement of the initial viewing fades away, however, there are some pretty serious flaws in this thing that bug the heck outta me. But overall the good outweighs the bad, more so for younger people than diehards like me.

The main Good Thing is the casting. Every one of the leads does a good job capturing the spirit of the character (and actor) they are portraying, in particular Karl Urban as Leonard McCoy/Deforest Kelly (let’s face it, these people are inseparable from their characters on this show). I was thrilled to get hints of McCoy’s backstory (sadly just hints) as we discover the origin of the nickname “Bones” (which is not the obvious one you’d think — a contraction of “sawbones” that has traditionally been used for military doctors for centuries — and thus felt a bit contrived to me), and I thought Urban stole every scene he was in.

Almost as good was Zachary Quinto, an inspired choice for Spock who passes both the look test and (in my opinion) studied hard the *early* Spock we saw in the pilots and first episodes of the TV show (as this *is* meant to be early representations of these characters, right?) and nailed it pretty well.

Zoe Saldana plays Lt. Uhura, who is given an expanded role in this movie, and I think I would have encouraged her to be just a bit more soulful, but her part is more surprising than important to the story so her actual performance is secondary (blatant spoiler: she is Spock’s love interest — surprise! — in what is sure to be the most controversial aspect of the film). In terms of what she actually does viz the plot, it’s pretty much the same thing as the original Uhura — make a dashboard full of coloured lights look good.

A fellow of my acquaintance, comic actor Simon Pegg, shows up late to bring us his Montgomery Scott. His take on the young engineer (which leads back to some directorial comments I’ll save for later) is different to the others, in that he doesn’t really try to ape James Doohan’s portrayal much at all (other than putting on a Scottish accent), but still does capture the mischievous nature of the character and will be accepted going forward.

I’m a bit compromised here as I know the fellow and generally like his work, but I have to confess that a) his Scottish accent is a bit variable and occasionally absent (most non-Scots won’t notice this, however) and b) someone should have slapped a wig on him. Pegg’s pretty bald, and Scott … you know, wasn’t. If you’re going to take the care to give Quinto the regulation Moe Howard/Beatle cut (Vulcans, apparently, never change hairstyle — ever!), then I do not believe that we make it to the 23rd Century without a cure for male pattern baldness. Put a fucking wig on, Pegg. That goes for the otherwise-very-enjoyable Anton Yelchin as Chekov too.

In some ways, John Cho as Sulu had the toughest job. Sulu was a secondary character to start with, and never got that many lines or plots in the original series, so Cho has to remind us of him while having very little screen time or dialog to work with. I thought he did well with what he had, and hope Sulu gets more of a plotline in the next film (and oh yes, you read it here first, there will be a second film!). I’m still trying to figure out why a ship with teleportation needs to skydive Kirk, Sulu and the obligatory Red Shirt (guess what happens to him!) down to a mining platform (okay this bit has been explained, but how did they avoid burning up when entering the atmosphere? Again, magic won’t cover this one!) where they fight with … swords and fists? (good catch, Ebert!), but at least it gave Cho an extra scene.

Which leads us back to Kirk. At the risk of stating the obvious, Chris Pine is no Shatner, and that’s both good and bad (but mostly good, at least for him). His performance is a star-making turn to the point that he will probably bed as many women-of-suspicious-origin in the next few months as Kirk did in the TV show. Oddly, he does the worst job of the entire cast at channelling his predecessor (beyond having a passing resemblance) — I can only imagine this was a deliberate choice on Abrams’ part — and only pays lip service to the Shatnerian qualities of the character (yes, “Shatnerian.” Look it up).

Of course, Pine is far too busy running, jumping, fighting, hitting on women, and particularly dangling off slick platforms and/or being choked (repeatedly!) to bring much subtlety to the performance, and I suppose in that sense he is Shatnerian (heh), but I was disappointed that Pine didn’t at least incorporate a little of that Trademark. Halting. Speech. in his performance. Just a touch, man, is that too much to ask?

The second Good Thing about the film (and the thing that forgives most of its flaws) is the clear and unmistakable love of the original show Abrams, his writers and cast put into this. There are plenty of references that the general public will recognise, a lot of one-liners only the hard-core will smirk at, and a healthy littering of homages to the original TV series. This gives the movie a charm and familiarity even as we are asked to follow Abrams to somewhere a bit “new,” and saves Star Trek from being just another space action movie (albeit one with iconic characters in). Abrams is in my view (based primarily on this film and Cloverfield) not really a very good director, but he has a very clear idea about what he wants to see on-screen and won’t let a little thing like physics or sense get in the way of that.

His obvious choice to let the actors themselves incorporate as much or as little of the original characterisation as they see fit and re-use of some of the same ideas as his earlier work speaks of some laziness on his part, as though he was satisfied that the look and feel were sufficiently new and didn’t care if they got everything exactly right. How one could work diligently to make sure the music was just right (and it is) and yet do something flatly impossible (in any century) such as build a starship on the ground for the sake of a nice-looking matte shot is the kind AADD sloppiness that probably works in his favour with the target market (ie, AADD sci fi fans).

The final Good Thing about this film is that it covers a lot of ground and concepts, just as any good sci-fi movie should. After an initial sequence covering Kirk’s (alternate) birth story, we jump around from Iowa to Vulcan, to San Francisco for some Starfleet stuff, then off to deep space, Delta Vega, black holes and back and forth with epilepsy-inducing rapidity. I’m old and used to the slower pace of the TV series and previous movies, but the rapid-fire editing didn’t bother me as much as I feared; most of the time (note: most), the quick gasps of exposition were sufficient for me to follow the tale and of course younger viewers are very much used to the minimal-information-maximal-action style of today’s movies and TV. But I do have to pause here to give out my first Film Flaw:

Brickbat #1 – Steady the Fucking Camera Already!!

Probably because I have sensibly skipped most recent “high action” flicks like The Fast and the Furious etc., the overwhelming use of what I call “shakycam” is highly annoying to me. There are moments when the effect is quite desirable: when a torpedo hits your ship, for example, and the theatre (or your home stereo) is capable of complementing this with powerful Dolby 7.1 surroundsound, you want “shakycam” to add visual punch. I get that, and enjoy it when applied judiciously.

The problem is that Abrams uses that technique nearly continuously, so much so that non-shakycam sequences are actually noticeable, which is bad. In their effort to make the CGI effects and such look more realistic, Abrams decided on the same unrelenting “documentary” feel that made Cloverfield hard (for me) to watch and is what prevents sensible people from ever seeing The Blair Witch Project more than once. Shake, wander, lens flare, jitter, handheld — the entire universe of Photoshop cam effects are present and accounted for. Does this make those sequences more realistic? Perhaps. But the “amateur/handheld” feel has a different effect on me; it reminds me that this is artificial, that it’s a deliberate move, and thus disturbs my suspension of disbelief greatly.

That said, the film does finds time to touch on many of the fundamental pieces of Roddenberry’s philosophies, from the role of Starfleet to the struggle of progression in civilisation and how we balance logic and emotion in that. New-Age Trekkies will be pleased. Next, let’s look at something that I get the distinct feeling is less important with younger fans than it is with me:

Brickbat #2 – The Plot is PATHETIC!

One is often too busy “drinking it all in” on action-and-sfx-orgies like this one to really think too much about the plot, but even as I was sitting there I had more than the usual number of “wait a minute …” moments. Now, this is hardly the first time a Trek plot had some problems, but most of them could at least be followed. This one is damn near incoherent, and that’s not just my opinion — I dare you to try to get anyone just out of the theatre to explain in a meaningful way the whole “revenge of Romulus” plot in a manner that makes sense. Hint: they won’t be able to, in part because the SFX, pacing, non-linear editing and general cacophony distract one from the details, but also because the details don’t make a lick of sense. It is *required* reading to pick up the comic-book prequel, Star Trek: Countdown (!!) in order to follow the actual storyline, and even then there is a fertiliser truck’s worth of incredulity to spread around. You can download issues of this digital comic onto your iPhone, which would be helpful before going to see the film. Pity they don’t tell you this.

Here’s what else the movie doesn’t tell you: ironically, the character that “died” first in the original movies (Spock, in Wrath of Khan, though he is reborn in the next film) lives far longer than any of the other crewmembers (a feature of both his Vulcan heritage and rebirth, apparently). Very late in the 24th century, Spock is still alive and still active as a diplomat in the Federation (this is the time period “Next Generation” was set in, and the comic features plotlines involving those characters).

All of the above is not referenced in any way in the film.

Spock goes on a mission to stop an “imminent supernova that threatens the galaxy” (science-nerd note: bullshit!), planning to use “red matter” (a complete Macguffin, but never mind) to create a black hole to “absorb the explosion” (more bullshit!), but he fails (!!) and Romulus (home planet of the Romulans, duh) is destroyed, but Spock’s ship gets sucked into the black-hole-now-worm-hole (coughBULLSHITcough) along with the Romulan miner-ship Narada.

Really, Starfleet couldn’t find anyone other than a 200-year-old Vulcan to handle this job??

The captain of the Narada, a Romulan miner named Nero, is enraged by the destruction of his home planet. He and his crew shave their heads and tattoo themselves in mourning, and vow revenge on Spock, but somehow (MAGIC!!) Nero came out of the wormhole 25 years before Spock’s ship will, though he doesn’t know this quite yet. In a fury, the Narada attacks the science vessel USS Kelvin, on which are Kirk’s father George (as first officer) and his very pregnant mother Winona Kirk (played by Jennifer Morrison). The attack completely alters the timeline from that point forward, creating the “familiar but quite different in places” alternate timeline in which the entire movie takes place (so that’s why Chekov has curly hair!). George Kirk sacrifices himself and the ship to buy the crew of the Kelvin (including Winona) time to escape, and Nero discovers that Spock’s ship will emerge from the wormhole in 25 years, so they wait for it (!!).

Now, before we go any further, ask yourself this question: Imagine you are Nero, and you have just been flung into the past in your very advanced technological spaceship because of the traumatic destruction of your home planet and its people. Do you:

a. Head to Romulus, show off your ship as proof of your claim you are from the future, and help the Romulans to escape their terrible destruction, or do you

b. Sit around for 25 years and wait for the guy who didn’t save your planet to show up so you can extract revenge?

Yeah. It took me a while to notice this gaping huge plothole, but there it is. But sit tight, it gets stupider later on …

This is the point at which the Star Trek movie actually begins. Apart from a painfully brief and thoroughly confusing bit of flashback, much of Spock’s mission, the reasons for its failure and the timeslip are just glossed over in a too-short interlude before the explosions and killing start up again. We sort of gather at the end of the first scene in the movie that Nero (played very TNG-esque by Eric Bana, quite correctly in light of the hidden backstory, but if you didn’t read the comic book seems very out-of-place) is in the wrong time period, but not much else.

We take a break from that to watch Kirk and Spock grow up in their wildly-different worlds. Kirk is a snotty tearaway seen driving a Corvette (in the 23rd century!) using stick (!!!) and seemingly deliberately trying to kill himself, while Spock is the picked-on über-nerd his fan base will strongly identify with (constantly catching logical flak because his mother — played by Winona Ryder, well hello there stranger! — is human). Jump forward ten years or so (because apparently nothing else of interest happened between 11 and 21 years for these two), where Kirk is being a snothead at the local bar (trying to hit on Uhura, whom he doesn’t yet know) and Spock is turning down a spot in the Vulcan Science Academy. Both are persuaded to head for Starfleet training (this is where Kirk meets McCoy), and then we jump again another three years and now Kirk and McCoy (and everyone else who are completely unaged from three years earlier — tell me, did you look exactly the same at 21 as you did at 25?) are pals (a bonding we don’t get to see), Uhura is still unattainable and the Kobeyashi Maru test referenced in Star Trek II is brought to life. This is one of the most purely entertaining bits of the film, at least for a diehard Wrath of Khan guy like me.

Suddenly there’s a problem on Vulcan, so we all have to get on the Enterprise and go zooming off, because apparently Starfleet doesn’t have anyone else but a ship full of green cadets and Captain Pike (very different from the TV version, older for a start and more of a father figure to Kirk — in the TV series they’d never met until Spock’s court martial — damn that alternate timeline!).

Herein we get to the nub of what’s wrong with this movie, and it’s surprisingly not the huge chunks of missing backstory, the implausible physics or the hackneyed time-travel thing: the problem with this film is that it’s just a series of (very, very well-done and enjoyable) set-pieces that don’t hang together at all. The car sequence is well-done (though silly), the bar fight is well-done, the brief pre-ship Starfleet sequence is well-done (and funny), and many of the ongoing set-pieces (the parachuting to the mining platform, the Delta Vega sequence, the climax and so on) all click beautifully as individual scenes, but often don’t connect together or serve the story very much, even after the plot settles down and becomes linear in the storytelling.

The film’s addiction to action sequences also gets in the way of deeper understanding. In particular, the scene on Delta Vega (Kirk has been marooned there by Spock — they don’t get on well at first, which is a brilliant idea) could have been a perfect opportunity to slow the film down for a bit, chew over all that’s been revealed so far and — particularly once Old Spock shows up — act as a intermission/prelude to the non-stop eye-candy orgy that’s coming. But no, they have to make it an action sequence. A particularly ridiculous one too, I might add (think Star Wars ep V meets Jurassic Park). If this was the moment where they were paying homage to the original’s sometimes campy moments and dodgy special effects, then they got it spot on. Otherwise, it’s pretty embarrassing.

So by an amazing coincidence (MAGIC!!), young Kirk happens to stumble across Old Spock, who (we discover in the one-and-only moment of true stop-everything-here’s-some-plot-exposition goodness) finally came out of the wormhole 25 years after the Narada, was duly captured by Nero, and deposited on this planet so he could watch helplessly as Nero — in revenge, remember — destroys the planet of Vulcan and its six billion inhabitants (and this does in fact happen — a lesser film would have made this the whole focus of the movie). Somehow (MAGIC!), Spock inherently understands that all this has altered the timeline, that “his” past has now never happened and that this young Kirk in front of him is a somewhat different version of his (now long-dead) friend. You’d think that would get a reaction, but this is Spock we’re talking about (Spock is, however, the only one who calls him “Jim”). Leonard Nimoy returns with the same casual elegance as he always had (and some nice “aging” makeup!), but I wish he had enough of his youthful vigour to squeeze out more — ahem — “logical” explanations of what’s going on.

Having just been responsible (indirectly?) for screwing up the universe’s entire timeline, Old Spock quickly sets about deliberately messing with the future (!!!) by letting Kirk in on what’s going to happen and by manipulating him to influence events in a particular direction. This strikes me as very UN-Spock, but hey he’s 200+ years old now, who’s to say. Let it go.

Old Spock and Kirk journey to the conveniently-nearby Starbase Outpost, where they meet Scotty. Spock again manipulates the future by revealing to Scotty the secret of “teleporting to or from a moving target,” the very thing young Engineer Scott was famous for inventing (in the “original” timeline) — normally I’d assign another (!!!!) to this, but I’m almost out of exclamation points and besides, they did something like this before in Star Trek IV, so that makes it … um, okay? Let it go.

Kirk and Scotty (but not Old Spock) beam back onto the Enterprise into one of the handful of purely-comical scenes which is very amusing but also shows up a serious design flaw (more about that later) and we’re back in the thick of the ongoing attempt to stop Nero, who (having succeeded completely with his evil plan for revenge — I think that’s a sci-fi first isn’t it?) has decided to now destroy all the Federation planets (bwa ha ha!), and is still in need of stopping.

Kirk, on the direct advice of Old Spock, tricks Spock into giving up the captaincy of the Enterprise (Pike is being held hostage, forgot to mention that sorry) and assumes command. Spock, having moments ago been ready to (literally) kill Kirk, does a 180 and offers to help, and with newcomer (and whimsically funny) Scotty given — completely insensibly — carte blanche over the engines (was there no chief engineer before?), we’re off to something of a predictable confrontation and (rather hollow, really) victory over Nero.

This review is already longer than the screenplay of the movie its reviewing, but I have one more brickbat to give out:

Brickbat #3 — Design consistency? What’s that?

One of the reasons I hated the last Trek TV series (“Enterprise”) so very much was that even though that show was set 50 years before the original “Star Trek” TV show, everything was (of course) newer and cooler. This is because designers (apparently) hate doing actual retro, as in homework, as in thinking about what the 1960s set of the Enterprise would look like if it were actually 50 years earlier. They did this again (perhaps accidentally, I will grant) in “The Next Generation,” where the Enterprise of 70 years post-TOS is a cornucopia of beige and touchscreens which while definitely more modern than the old show, nonetheless painted a vision of the 23rd century where taste is as rare as unsynthesized Earl Grey tea.

The “new” set for the bridge of the young Enterprise is of course nothing like any of the sets that have come before it, a glitteringly clean white-and-blue affair (and a nightmare to keep clean!). Very nice, but if I’m supposed to believe that this bridge came at least a decade or two before the bridge seen in TOS, then Houston, we have a problem.

Adding to that is of course (and again) the inability of the visual team to make the exterior of the original Enterprise or other ships look more primitive than they did in the 60s or even in the movies of the 80s. I guess most people don’t care and maybe I shouldn’t either, but I grew up watching historical recreations on the BBC and “period detail” was of paramount importance then, and that feeling transferred to me and applies even to relative periods of the future. In other words, a story set in X-50 years should look more primitive and cheap than a story set in X, even if X was made first and X-50 was made later.

It’s too much to ask from Hollywood, apparently …

Worse still — and really unforgivable as this is within the same very high-budget film — once you leave the bridge and living quarters of the Enterprise, the rest of the ship’s interior looks for all the world like a sewage plant. The “clean white everything” look apparently costs big bucks, because Engineering is as full of bare pipes, stark lighting and minimal tech as the back room of your local Costco. It’s one thing for Engineering to have a different aesthetic than the Bridge (though they’ve usually shared a common sensibility), but this engine room looks like it’s from an entirely different movie! And don’t even get me started about the “Yoyodyne” design of the Romulan ship’s interior, right down to the random puddles of murky water!

Oh, and while we’re ranting, will someone please explain why almost every threat to earth in all the Star Trek movies have to take place within view of Starfleet Academy in San Francisco? When Nero decides to blow up the Earth — which for some reason (MAGIC!) requires drilling a hole to the core to put the Red Matter in, you couldn’t just explode the Red Matter on or above the surface — he just happens to choose the exact same spot where the whales were released in Star Trek IV? Right next door to Starfleet?? Really???

Most incredibly of all, the film seems to end triumphantly — the crew is complete, everyone’s pals, Earth is saved, Nero is destroyed, etc. — but in fact if you think about it, the film ends horribly. No attempt is (or will be) made to restore the timeline back to where it “should” be (and remember, Old Spock has plenty of knowledge and experience on how to do this!), the planet Vulcan remains destroyed (but Romulus will now be spared — I think — because now everyone knows the future fate of that planet), which means the crew failed their first mission!

Spock’s race (six billion people!) and planet is all but wiped out (Old Spock leaves to start a colony with the few remaining survivors), and the past we (the audience) all know and love is gone. Nero’s revenge is complete and untouched, and though the future is now more “wide open” than it was because the “original” continuity has been wiped, we won’t see these “new” versions of the characters grow into the ones we remember.

I might add on a personal note that even all this time after 9/11, watching someone deliberately set off a (kind of bomb) that kills indiscriminately and leaves only a smoldering ruin behind was a little hard to watch. The imploding Vulcan was just a little too much like the collapsing towers for my taste. Effects are getting too real, I guess …

None of this, even with all the extensive nitpicking I’ve done, takes away from the overall effect of the movie: good, funny (and the funny is much appreciated), well-executed space opera that gives us plenty of big-screen, expensive-looking thrills and laughs that will entertain and amaze you, especially if you don’t think about it too hard. So, “boldly” go see it, and let me know what you think; I’d be very interested to hear.

ADDENDUM: Just thought of this yesterday — at the end of the movie, we are left with two Spocks, both of whom are known to the Federation (and thus living proof that time travel works) and one of whom has extensive knowledge on how to manipulate time and history. But the Federation are just going to let Old Spock go off and start a Vulcan colony? Oh I don’t think so …

Stone of Destiny (2009)

96 Min.
Writer/Director: Charles Martin Smith
Stars: Charlie Cox, Billy Boyd, Robert Carlyle

Here’s a story you don’t see all that often: a true account of a daring raid for national pride and glory that’s set after WWII. Charles Martin Smith (best known for his role in “American Graffiti” but like his co-star Ron Howard more of a writer/director these days) has fashioned a stylish-looking, involving tale of Scotland’s most famous heist (or as they might say “liberation”), the repatriation of the “Stone of Destiny,” a rock with historical ties going back at least seven centuries (and, legend has it, back to Old Testament biblical times — this is the stone which Jacob is thought to have used as a headrest).

“People of Scottish ancestry” is probably not an identifiable target market in demographic terms, but in fact such people are all over the world, and most will walk with a little more swagger in their step after viewing this, particularly if it’s marketed properly. On Christmas Day in 1950, a motley (and yes, rag-tag) group of nationalistic college students led by one Ian Hamilton executed the greatest “student prank” of all time: breaking into Westminster Abbey in London and making off with the “Stone of Scone,” a huge (and heavy) sandstone rock that had been used to crown Scottish monarchs since around 847AD, and was stolen from Scotland by Edward I in 1296. He built a special coronation chair that incorporated the Stone in its base so that all future monarchs would also (by tradition) be crowned Kings of Scotland as well as England.

The movie is based on Ian Hamilton’s memoirs and seems to stick pretty closely to what really happened (or as close as movies with any sense of dramatic tension get, anyway), which is refreshing. As with most true tales, there’s a bit of unresolved business (because life isn’t really all that neat and tidy), some cowardice to go with the bravery, some seemingly-ridiculous or implausible moments (but they did happen!), and more “running about for nothing” than you find in neatly-scripted fictions. I was surprised at how funny much of the heist and its planning was, but hindsight helps such things ring true. As the instigator of a few “adventures” in my own life, I could relate to the missteps and foibles of the plan and its executors, and the youthful fervor of Ian Hamilton (played by Charlie Cox, who is English but does a good job with the Scots accent).

Genuine Scottish nationalists might bristle at the “gloss” Smith has given the film (loving landscape shots, shorthanded Scottish character types), feeling it a bit superficial — particularly in its lack of any criticism of the English — but particularly for adult moviegoers, “Stone of Destiny” has the right mix of action and detail, nostalgia and laughs. The reaction to the gang’s bold move back in Scotland is particularly well-handled and will likely bring a lump to many a patron’s throat.

Looking back on one’s youth is often a risky business, but though the stunt may have ended up coming for naught (the Stone was quickly recovered and sent back to Westminster, though it is currently “on loan” to Scotland until the next UK coronation), Smith’s affectionate look back at a great slice of modern Scottish history should give audiences young and old a wee grin on their faces.

This review originally appeared on Film Threat.

The Islands Project (2008)

Running Time: 102 Min.
Canada 2008
Director/Writer/Star: Michael Stadtländer
One of the world’s top chefs decides to take a unique summer vacation  — driving from Ontario to the obscure islands of British Columbia in a biodiesel bus-cum-mobile-kitchen, preparing exquisite outdoor dinners using local ingredients, local themes and local farmers. He calls it “The Islands Project.”
From the start, we can see that chef Michael Stadtländer is a happy — but quirky — guy. He lives on Eigensinn Farm where he grows almost all of the ingredients (from livestock to plants) that will go into his occasional, but $300-or-so-per-person, eight-course plein-air dinners for select gourmands. The farm has earned a rep as one of the top dining spots in the entire world thanks to this approach, but Stadtländer (who also wrote and directed this documentary) seems happiest when he is able to share this experience beyond the farm. Once “The Liberator” (his hippie kitchen-on-wheels) arrives in Canada’s west coast, he wastes no time finding and visiting farms and farmer’s markets scattered across Vancouver, Quadra and Cortes Islands, meeting artists and farmers, picking berries, discovering new foods and local delicacies, and consulting with locals (and the occasional celebrity-chef pal) to get ideas for his haute cuisine dinners, which are usually outdoors and always use unusual themes (a “table” made of stacked deadwood, plates made out of wooden starfish, or a dinner on a floating platform in the middle of a lake) that present challenges to him and his assistants.
The meals are, of course, extraordinary, creative and delicious-sounding, and are run not unlike a field military exercise. Stadtländer commands totally, directing not just the cooking but the furniture (helping make it if need be!), lighting, atmosphere and decor as required. The only rules for the variety of fare at these meals is that it must be ecological, sustainable and edible. If the film has a flaw, it’s that there isn’t enough footage of the dinner conversations themselves, or reactions to specific dishes. Also omitted is almost any mention of any “failed experiments” or unexpected surprises. The chef prefers to teach us all (including the locals) what might be called “food respect”; how to cook these incredibly fresh, home-grown items and how best to enjoy them within their natural setting, the outdoors.
Oddly enough, the highlight of the film are actually cutaway interviews Stadtländer does with farmers, fellow chefs and the occasional oddball. At the beginning of the film, we see him buying a disused console TV (one of those big honking 70s jobs), whereupon he hollows it out leaving just the front face, creating his own “TV show” on the road. These funny bits keep the mood light and break up the “go to an island, gather foods, prepare them, wow the natives” cycle of the dinners.
The final dinner takes place on an uninhabited island, so the entire “set” for the dinner must be constructed from found elements, a perfect complement to the dinner of found ingredients and visiting guests. This “vacation” looks like a hell of a lot of work to us, but Stadtländer seems content when it’s all done and time to go back to his farm. If you’re a “foodie,” you will enjoy this (even vegetarians, though there are scenes of meat being made if you catch my drift); if you’re an environmentalist you will love this; if you are both, this movie is one prolonged orgasm of sheer sensual pleasure.

This review originally appeared on Film Threat.

Squeezebox! (2008)

Running time: 92 Min.
Directors: Zach Shaffer, Steve Saporito
Stars: Michael Schmidt, Mistress Formika, Debbie Harry, Rudy Giuliani
There was this really great party, it went on every Friday for seven years throughout the 90s, it was very rock-n-roll and very ambi-sexual (with an accent on the sexual), and if you missed it you really missed out.
That’s the premise (strongly supported by the evidence) behind Squeezebox!, a gay event held at an otherwise unassuming bar in a overlooked corner of downtown Manhattan back when Mayor Guiliani was more concerned with shaming graffiti artists and cleaning up Times Square than fixing the really big problems NYC had at the time. Every Friday night for seven years in the middle of the 90s, a mini-revolution was brewing — gay performers (in drag or not) who actually sang (not lip-synched) punk, New Wave and plain ol’ rock-and-roll songs to an audience of hip people of various persuasions who weren’t bothered by misfits and united through their love of really good times. Led by promoter Michael Schmidt and hosted/championed by drag queen Mistress Formika and transsexual punk legend Jayne County, Don Hill’s bar was transformed into a pure, sexy, loud, in-your-face Republican nightmare, like a real live Rocky Horror Picture Show happening in your own basement.
Thanks to hours and hours of videotape from the club’s heyday and interviews with patrons, celebrities and employees, the energy, excitement and love poured into Squeezebox is messily recaptured. It’s not just men in dresses singing “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” it’s people, given permission to be totally free and totally themselves, living those songs. This is where the Toilet Boys and Hedwig and the Angry Inch were born; this was where high fashion designers came to be schooled on what really looked good; this was a club where “normal” was one of the few things never allowed in.
The performances are generally very good, the interviews are usually hilarious and candid, and the filmmakers do a particularly good job at setting the context for this rebellion against the Guiliani adminstration of the 90s (with a surprising amount of help from Guiliani himself, being quite the douchebag we all found out he was later). By the time I got the Duelling (Tallulah) Bankheads performing A Flock of Seagulls’ “Telecommunication,” I was wishing for a time machine so I could be amongst the squalor and decay of the kool kids too.
There are few flecks of flaws amongst the gold of this documentary: the curious omission of any mention of an earlier gay bar that had attempted the same idea, and an overlong rehashing of the Stonewall Rebellion (the target audience for this film is more than passing familiar with this, guys), but don’t let these nitpicks stop you from having a raucous, raunchy, occasionally gross but always delightful time in the now-immortalized world of Squeezebox!. With this movie, you really can do the Time Warp again.
It’s just a jump to the left …
This article originally appeared on Film Threat .

Before Tomorrow (2008)

Running Time: 93 Min.
Directors: Marie-Hélène Cousineau, Madeline Piujuq Ivalu
Stars: Madeline Ivalu, Paul-Dylan Ivalu
As the tall man behind the desk at the BBC might say, “and now for something completely different.” Before Tomorrow is not the sort of film you routinely run across, even amongst the cognoscenti of the film-fest circuit. It’s an all-Inuit (“Eskimo” in American) cast, shot in Nunavut, using native language (subtitled in English or French) and a full-on tragedy (which is distressingly rare these days). It’s a historical slice of life that even most Canadians rarely get to see, never mind the rest of the world, yet the tale is told more with emotion than words, and the language barrier melts away like the snow in spring.
The story is set in 1840, when the Inuit were still extremely limited in their contact with the white settlers further south. Their world was incredibly small, from a tiny village off to nearby islands to hunt. The small society works well thanks to the values of shared work and reward; everyone, even the kids, have jobs to do. We join the tribe in summer, at the end of a hunt. They are in a celebratory mood, having recently acquired some needles and cups from white traders they encountered (in exchange for allowing the women to sleep with them) as well as having abundant food for the winter. They decide to dry their catches on a remote island, away from predatory animals. Ningiuq, an old woman in the village, volunteers for the duty, which means being alone for several months. Her dying friend Kutuguk wishes to come along as a last request, knowing she will die there, and her young grandson Maniq also insists on going, hoping to learn from his beloved grandmother more of the skills to become a man, as well as to look out for the two women.
Shortly after their isolation begins, Kutuguk dies, foretelling the tragedies to come. The months pass and Maniq is learning much, but Ningiuq cannot help but wonder on their seriously overdue reunion with the tribe. As the first snows threaten, she decides to make the trip back herself, and discovers a horrible scene: the entire village has been wiped out by disease, brought to them by the white traders. Ningiuq and her grandson are alone in their world. From there, the story turns to the struggle to survive, overcoming the adversity of winter and Ningiuq’s struggle with her own dark thoughts. She can protect the boy for now, but what future is there for them without the support of their community?
When she senses her own death approaching, she knows she must act boldly to save them in a world where help is never coming. She calls out to her (long dead) husband to guide her in an impossible situation.
The slow pace of the film, reflective of the speed of life in that era, may bore the more cynical in the audience, but if you can get into their world and their mindset, every movement, every facial expression, every story Ningiuq relates to her grandson takes on deep meaning. The acting is so effortlessly authentic, in perfect harmony with the remote locations and passing seasons, that putting yourself in their mukluks is easy if you wish it. If you’ve ever wondered on the survival of people in such remote and inhospitable locations as these, Before Tomorrow brings their struggle to life and reveals the strength in such a fragile society. It’s a remarkable bit of First Nations filmmaking that should be seen far more widely in the world than the mostly-Canadian distribution it will get.

This article originally appeared on Film Threat .