Wednesday, August 31, 2011

George Lucas' (Re)Vision

We're just a few weeks away from the release of the Star Wars films on Blu-ray. I had decided months ago that I would not be buying them, when it was confirmed these would not be the original versions of the films. Now that we're close to the release, it's coming to light that they're not going to be the special editions, either. George Lucas has decided to go in and tinker with the films yet again.

This news has sparked off a fresh round of condemnation from Star Wars fans. Most of the entertainment news sites I visit regularly have run their own version of a story about it; here is one.

Yes, Lucas has decided to take the stupidest moment of Episode III (of the entire six-film series, possibly), a moment widely mocked by fans and emphatically dissed by me at the time, and "bookend" Vader's story by echoing it at the climax of Return of the Jedi. I can understand why a man who worships at the altar of Joseph Campbell thinks this change is a good idea, but no thank you. But then, I wasn't buying the Blu-rays anyway.

But rather than focus on any specific change here, I want to talk about the notion of the changes as a whole. There are some (not many, but some) who defend Lucas' right to change the movies as much as he pleases, since they're his creation. And it seems that many fans are willing to concede that point, so long as they're given the option to buy either the original, unaltered films, or the latest Lucas edit.

This new batch of changes has given rise to a splinter opinion -- that Lucas should be free to change Episodes I-IV as he wishes, but should keep his hands off Episodes V and VI, which were helmed by other directors. He may tinker with his own creative product, they argue, but should leave the work of others alone.

Personally, I disagree on all of this. I think George Lucas should leave his filthy hands off the movies, period. And my reasoning comes in the form of a question: what sort of art form do we think movie-making is?

Authors don't routinely go back and re-write their published work. Sure, there are examples of successful writers publishing "unedited editions" of books they were forced to cut down early in their careers, but they aren't actually writing and changing the material after the fact -- they're simply revealing the original vision. Countless writers who have had their novels adapted by Hollywood have remarked on cases where they saw improvement on the source material. George R. R. Martin made such comments about certain scenes in the first season of Game of Thrones; Charlaine Harris has professed her love for characters on True Blood she didn't invent herself in her novels; the list could go on and on. But that's just the way it is with writing novels. You don't get a "do-over."

You know what does get revised after release? Video games. They get patched as a matter of course. I do believe video games are an art form too (of course I do; I'm in the industry), but consider what a video game patch does. It fixes bugs. When it's revising gameplay, it's usually because the gameplay was bad the first time around.

So, Mr. Lucas -- do you think you're making a video game? And are you trying to tell the world that you think you made a bad game that needs to be "patched?"

Of course, with the rise of e-books, we're reaching a point where writers could conceivably patch their books if they wanted to. But I really think you have to ask if this is a case where technology allows people to do things we shouldn't do. You could make the argument that this use of technology isn't destroying civilization; it's not an atomic bomb or anything. But to whatever extent you believe that a civilization is the sum of its art, then I'd argue that retroactively changing art like this is destroying civilization -- an incremental death of a thousand cuts.

Movies are products of their time, warts and all. The good ones are praised because they hold up over time in spite of the flaws, not because they were without flaws. And as this is my primary argument, it applies even to someone who thinks that every change George Lucas has made to the Star Wars films has been an actual improvement.

Not that such a person actually exists. At this point, I believe the best thing that could happen to Star Wars would be the death of George Lucas. The creation needs to be saved from its creator.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Law Review

I missed The Lincoln Lawyer during its run in theaters earlier this year, but recently caught up with it on Netflix. I'd heard some decent reviews for it, and yet was still only expecting so much. It's sort of hard to expect too much from a legal movie, I think. Legal TV series can rely on established characters as the means to tell more unusual stories about unusual cases. Movies have only two hours to set up characters and tell their story, and that story has often been homogenized by the Hollywood studio system.

You might ask then, why bother at all? Well for one, there have been a few great legal films over the years. But in this case (pun not intended), there were some interesting actors in the mix too. I'm not talking about the lead, Matthew McConaughey, or even the major secondary characters played by Marisa Tomei and Ryan Phillippe -- though they all do a fine job. I was more interested in the veteran actors populating the fringes of the story, people like William H. Macy, John Leguizamo, Bob Gunton, Frances Fisher, and Bryan Cranston. Aside from Macy, none really has a significant role in the movie, but they certainly help build a credible and compelling world for this story to unfold in.

The case itself does manage to be interesting, though -- an oily, slick mess worthy of the oily, slick lawyer who is the film's protagonist. I think I'm not giving too much of the game away (though feel free to skip the rest of this paragraph) to say that the defendant in this story turns out to be a bad, bad man. Admittedly, a smarmy lawyer forced to find his own moral compass isn't an original story, but it's one told far less often than other Hollywood legal tropes.

The movie runs along well for a time, and the strength of the cast keeps it afloat even longer. But a less used cliché is still a cliché -- ultimately, you know exactly how this movie is going to end, and I found myself starting to lose interest before it got there. I grade it a B overall. It's good enough entertainment for a Netflix evening, and probably even as good as an average episode of whatever law TV show might be your drug of choice. Probably not as good as a good episode of said show.

Monday, August 29, 2011

It's Time to Get Things Started

The Muppets are slowly having a resurgence in popularity right now. The parody trailers for their upcoming movie have had good buzz around them, and now, last week, comes a cool new album -- Muppets: The Green Album. It's a dozen classic Muppets songs, re-recorded by a variety of current artists.

The results are a bit hit-and-miss, though more hit than miss. The album kicks off with OK Go's rendition of the "Muppet Show Theme Song." (It being OK Go, there is of course a YouTube video to go with it.) It's a bit quirky and strange sounding, but that's the band's style. And it does work for this song.

The hits keep coming in the next few tracks. Weezer is joined by Hayley Williams (of Paramore) for "Rainbow Connection." That's always been one of my very favorite Muppets songs, and it's fantastic here, sweet and emotional. Then there's Denver-based rock group The Fray, serving up the always-fun "Mahna Mahna." Their version is quite authentic to the Muppets' original, but I don't think I'd have it any other way.

Things slide downhill through the middle of the album. Part of it is obscure song choice. Unless you're a fan of Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, you probably don't know "Our World," and My Morning Jacket doesn't do anything to give you a strong opinion of it. Amy Lee (of Evanescence) does a version of "Halfway Down the Stairs" that absolutely ruins the sentimentality of the original; her vocals are alright, but the weird techno-esque soundscape of the cover does. Not. Fit. And later there's "Night Life," by Brandon Saller (from Atreyu) and Billy Martin (from Good Charlotte). I never cared much for this disco-y song from The Great Muppet Caper, and hearing it hard-rocked-up here doesn't make me like it any better.

But then there are more great tracks near the end of the album. Andrew Bird's version of "Bein' Green" is solid -- no Kermit (or even Ray Charles), but still well worth listening to. And Matt Nathanson does a fun take on "I Hope That Somethin' Better Comes Along," from The Muppet Movie.

I just wish the album didn't end on a sour note. "I'm Going To Go Back There Someday" is the last track, a brilliant song from The Muppet Movie that's simultaneously mournful and hopeful. Gonzo sings it in the movie, and it's an unexpectedly powerful scene. The puppeteer behind (under?) Gonzo, Dave Goelz, sang it at Jim Henson's memorial service to even more powerful effect. But on The Green Album, Rachael Yamagata performs the song, and basically substitutes raspy, breathy singing for emotion. It's almost an insult to the original.

Still, the good tracks on the album are very good, and should find a spot in any Muppet fan's MP3 collection. Cherry-pick the album for an A-; buy the whole thing for a B-.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

I'm Afraid It Wasn't Great

This weekend, I went to see the new horror film Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. There were two big draws here:

First, it's written in part by Guillermo del Toro, the writer-director of the very good film, Pan's Labyrinth. That movie is full of unsettling and creepy images and scenes; it seemed to me that if the same man turned his attention to creating a true horror movie (as opposed to a film with horrific elements), the results could be excellent.

Second, it's a remake of a well-regarded 1973 made-for-TV movie of the same title. I've never seen the original. I had to look it up and read a synopsis (after seeing this remake) to learn how closely the new film followed the original. (Answer: sort of.) But many people (including del Toro) talk of how profoundly scary they found this old movie to be. I figure if scares that intense were achieved on a TV budget in the early 1970s, there had to be an excellent core to the tale that could be the germ of a successful remake.

In this incarnation, a dating couple (on a likely path to marriage) has undertaken the restoration of a centuries-old mansion. The man's daughter from a previous marriage comes to live with them, and discovers a previously unknown basement. Tantalizing whispers from a locked up fireplace grate entice the girl to open up a shaft into a dark subterranean pit. Now free, the creatures from below are trying to claim the girl for their own.

Overall, the movie was a disappointment, failing to live up to the (possibly unfair) expectations I'd had for it. It wasn't a total loss, though. The little girl, Bailee Madison, is an excellent young actress. Her character really is the protagonist of the film, and she is its true star (despite the presence of Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce). Other horror films have included children and put them in jeopardy, but offhand, I really can't think of another example of a horror movie where the child really is the main character like this. (Even The Sixth Sense really shares main character status between a child and an adult; and that movie is arguably not horror in the sense that this movie is.) In any case, this choice works completely, thanks to the casting of a great young actress.

The first chunk of the film is effectively scary. While the menace was mostly left to the imagination, coming across just as evil laughter and raspy whispers, it definitely made my hair stand up. But ultimately, we get to see more. (And hey, minor spoiler alert on the rest of this paragraph if you want to bug out.) These eight-inch tall demons have a creepy character design to them, and the movie does show them doing serious damage... yet it's just hard to ever take an army of Lilliputians as a serious threat, no matter how evil they look. The whispers were far more scary.

In fact, to make this evil seem credible, the script has to make the characters quite dumb to fall into their clutches. While it's true that nearly every horror movie has an obligatory "seriously, you're doing that?!" moment, this movie is built almost entirely from them. What starts out scaring you ends up making you constantly ask, "these are your choices in this situation? Wow, really?"

In short, it starts out with promise and then flies right off the rails. I'd call it average overall, though the solid performance of Bailee Madison inclines me to nudge it a bit up the scale. I'd rate it a C+. A horror aficionado might indulge the urge to check it out (now, or later on DVD), but others need not apply.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Sense-ational

The Sixth Sense was in the upper echelons of my Top 100 Movie list when I first made it many years ago. Since then, it's become fashionable to crap all over M. Night Shyamalan. Alright, I give you that The Happening was pretty lame. But it seems to me like some people are pretending they never liked Shyamalan's movies just because his first major one was so damn good.

It was good, right? The level of Shyamalan venom these days has almost made me wonder. So I decided to watch The Sixth Sense again and judge for myself.

I will admit that a lot of my instant love of the film came from the circumstances under which I first saw it back in 1999. I knew absolutely nothing about it. I was in San Diego to work Comic Con, and one night after the dealer room had closed, one of our volunteers found out that none of us had seen The Sixth Sense yet. I can't remember if it had opened the weekend before and we'd missed it being on the road somewhere else, or if it had opened the night before, and he was so affected that he could talk of little else. Either way, his message was clear: "drop everything, we're going to see The Sixth Sense." "But didn't you just see it?" "I'll go again! Right now!" It seemed impossible that a movie could live up to that kind of hype.

But it did. And then I understood why this volunteer had been so keen to get others to the movie, and so eager to see it himself for a second time. When I returned home from Comic Con just a few days later, I rushed out to watch it for myself for a second time. And perhaps more importantly, to see how others reacted to seeing it for the first time.

No one today could ever have that kind of experience seeing The Sixth Sense for the first time. Everybody knows the subject matter, the famous "I see dead people" line, the fact that there's a twist ending. Most people probably even know what the twist is before they see the film -- it's achieved an "I am your father"/"Who is Keyser Söze?" level of status in the collective consciousness. And this can only diminish the impact of seeing the movie. Fortunately, the movie works on multiple levels. It keeps on giving.

The first time I saw it, I was wowed largely because I was fooled. Most people were. I know like one person who really did guess the ending, but let's be honest -- very few of the people who claim to have done so really did.

The second time I saw it, I was wowed largely because I saw how I was fooled the first time. The movie "plays fair" at every turn. Every important scene has dual interpretations, one that supports the truth, and one that supports the mislead. It's such a carefully constructed piece of writing, I enjoyed it the second time just as much as the first, enjoying the craftsmanship.

Today, all that trickery is gone. (Although I maintain that it never felt like a trick to me.) And now I find the movie just as enjoyable on a third level -- as perfectly executed horror and emotional drama. The story of young Cole Sear is truly harrowing. This young boy has been tormented every day, from birth, by horrifying specters that assault him emotionally and physically. He has no one to confide in or help him cope; the few times he's tried to communicate his plight, he's just ended up more ostracized and worse off. And he's suffering through all this at what, age 10? 12? If you have a nurturing bone anywhere in your body, your heart goes out to him.

Meanwhile, you have his poor mother, frayed to the last of her wits. She's struggling as a single parent, working two jobs to make ends meet. She would do anything for her son. But something is clearly troubling him and he won't tell her. She can't help. And then at one point, she's even suspected of causing the trauma in his life. Again, you'd have to be heartless not to sympathize.

This is the true backbone of The Sixth Sense. And it works thanks to the phenomenal performances given by these two actors, Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette. Yes, M. Night Shymalan crafted an impeccable script, but his greatest triumph with this movie was finding and casting the child actor that could make it all work. Maybe the only child actor. And the whole movie works because this relationship between mother and son works.

These two actors achieve something so incredible that it's easy to overlook other amazing performances in the movie. Olivia Williams has the toughest job in the movie, playing Malcolm's wife Anna. She has to play a truth in every scene that the movie is trying to hide from the audience. The performance has to be honest and not give the game away. And it does. She seems a stone-cold bitch the first time through the film, and a suffering tragedy every time after.

Donnie Wahlberg. Holy crap! Utterly unrecognizable in this role, and another triumph for Shyamalan in finding and casting him. Sure, today, he's known as an actor -- and if you've seen his work, you know he's a good one. But at the time, he was a former New Kid on the Block, and nothing more. He delivers such an intense performance, in just a couple minutes of screen time, it's unbelievable. Traumatized, petrified, damaged -- again, a performance that would be the highlight of any other movie that is just one of many great performances here.

And then there's Bruce Willis. He's the star of the film, so it's perhaps weird to say that it's easy to overlook him in the movie. Yet his work is so reserved, so subtle, and so razor precise, that's the truth of it. It's no surprise to me that Shyamalan would go right back to him and cast him again for his next film.

To make a long story short (too late), this movie was no flash in the pan, no fluke. It's still one of my very favorites, an unreserved A.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Concluding My Musical Trek

Today, I conclude my series of reviews on the Star Trek: The Next Generation Collection -- Volume One. The third and final disc of the set presents the efforts of three composers who each worked on only one episode of the series. The scores for their episodes are presented in their entirety.

First up is Fred Steiner. This long-time composer worked on the original Star Trek series, in fact creating most of the music for those classic episodes. When The Next Generation started up, one of the supervising producers was also a classic series veteran, and thought to bring in Steiner for regular composing work on the new series. Steiner's Next Generation work was very much in the style of those classic episodes, and thus did not mesh at all with Rick Berman's "wallpaper" mentality. Steiner was never offered another episode after his first.

But that one episode of music is a treat. That was "Code of Honor," in which negotiations with a backward world go sour when Tasha has to fight the wife of the sultan-esque leader. Admittedly, this is one of the cheesiest episodes in a first season with more than its share of cheesy episodes. But the thing is, "Code of Honor" really felt like it could have been an episode of the original Star Trek, and so how fitting that it had music that sounded like that series too. The music is loud and bombastic. Every cue ends with a crazy, trilling musical sting. Every action cue has ascending horn crescendos. But the thing is, it's all just fun to listen to. If it weren't for the quality of the recording, you might not know it wasn't written in the 1960s. Okay, so nothing here will stick in your head like the classic "Star Trek battle music" that any Trekker could probably hum from memory. Still, the score for this episode is the highlight of the entire 3-disc collection. I grade it a B+.

Don Davis is up next. Today, he's best known for providing the music for The Matrix trilogy -- a really solid score, in my book. On Star Trek: The Next Generation, he seems to have been a struggling up-and-comer, brought in to score "Face of the Enemy," in which Troi is kidnapped and surgically altered to appear as a Romulan for the purpose of escorting defectors out of Romulan space.

Sadly, the most flattering thing I can say about this score is that if you really strain to hear it, you can hear hints of The Matrix score playing in the horn section. I mean, you either have to know that film's score up and down, or have just listened to it, but it is there. Sort of. Occasionally. For the most part, it's just vanilla texture of the kind Rick Berman surely asked for. The Romulans don't even really get a discernable theme amidst the muddy strings and absent percussion. It's a grade D+ score, I'd say, one I'll seldom listen to.

Lastly, there's John Debney, who after one episode of The Next Generation would work on Deep Space Nine and then go on to film scores. He's not on the composers A-List today, but he works steadily. His score for "The Pegasus" is featured on this collection, from the episode in which Riker's old commanding officer comes to the Enterprise with a top secret mission to locate the wreck of their lost ship.

I'm not really familiar with Debney's film work, so I don't have a base for comparison. I can only say that unfortunately, his score for The Next Generation is like those of Dennis McCarthy and Don Davis. Bland, to a degree where you question why the producers bothered commissioning original music every episode when they could have easily tracked the same music across multiple episodes and no one would ever have known the difference. It's not actively bad music, just uninteresting outside of the episode for which it was created. Grade D.

So, now that you've waded through three days of Star Trek music posts, we're back to my original synopsis -- this collection is one just for the Trek enthusiasts and music completists. There are highlights that are very enjoyable, especially the Fred Steiner music. Overall, though, the collection rates a C+.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Break On Through

I recently watched The Doors, the Oliver Stone film about... well, The Doors. Of course, it's actually more about lead singer Jim Morrison. And when you get down to it, it's really about watching Val Kilmer portray the man. At least, that's the vague consensus I'd always heard about this movie -- Kilmer's the best part.

I didn't come to the movie as a massive fan of the band. There are several songs by The Doors I like quite a bit. Others I find too long-winded. (I'm not much for 4-minute instrumentatal bridges that free the singer up to slip backstage and get high.) Most of their music probably falls between those two extremes.

But whatever I think of The Doors music, I certainly find it more engaging than this movie. I just didn't find it to have much going on to set it apart from other artist biography movies; it pulled from the same bag of tricks that all these movies reach from -- behold the tortured, misunderstood, genius, self-destructive artist. If you've seen Pollock, or Nowhere Boy, or anything along those lines, you've basically seen this movie. This version comes with more drug trips.

It's true, though -- Val Kilmer does give a very good performance in this movie. As I'm not a major afficiando of the band, I can't speak to how credible an "impression" of Jim Morrison it seems, but it is a deeply committed, strong performance. He's a real standout in a cast that includes Meg Ryan, Kyle MacLachlan, Kevin Dillon, and Kathleen Quinlan -- though this is in part due to those other parts being fairly underwritten to focus on the force of nature that was Jim Morrison.

I'd be curious to hear the opinion of someone who is more a fan of the band. I could see them appreciating the material more, and yet simultaneously being put off by the rather negative portrayal of Morrison. There are moments it feels like it's going beyond a "warts and all" portrayal, to reach a literally larger-than-life place; was he really this big an ass?

One performance alone is rarely enough to make me like a movie, and this movie is no exception. I rate The Doors a D.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Jay Gets a D

Today I'm moving on to disc two of the Star Trek: The Next Generation Collection -- Volume 1. If you missed my write-up of the first disc, here's what the heck I'm talking about.

Disc two of the set features music by Jay Chattaway. He was originally brought on to the series for one episode, "Tin Man," filling in on an occasion when Ron Jones had asked for time off. Sadly, this was probably the final nail in the coffin for Ron Jones' relationship with Star Trek, because I gather the producers liked what they heard. Partway through the next season, they brought Jay Chattaway on full time.

Some of the best Jay Chattaway music (including that "Tin Man" score) has appeared on previously released soundtrack albums, leaving slimmer pickings for this compilation. In fact, Chattaway manages to out-McCarthy Dennis McCarthy here. The Chattaway material on this disc is largely shapeless and bland, with one episode not even distinguishable from another. A real disappointment.

But there are a few good moments if you sift through the disc. The album begins with music from "Remember Me," and as it was only Chattaway's second contribution to the show, he hadn't quite fallen into the norm. There's a nice, punchy cue used for the climax of the episode.

There are a few tracks from the episode "Darmok," including some interesting tribal overtones in the scene where Picard and the alien captain swap stories. (Similar instrumentation peppers a cue from "Journey's End.")

Some interesting tracks come from "The Inner Light," one of the series' best episodes. The memorable, melancholy flute melody is presented in its entirety. There's also a fun, vaguely Rennaissance Festival-esque track used to score the alien village.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album ranges from bland to disappointing. You won't be able to tell the difference between the vanilla music for the episodes "The Host," "I Borg," and "The Chase."

Two other scores just represent missed opportunities. "Relics" brought the character of Scotty onto The Next Generation, but the musical samples here barely use the iconic, classic Trek theme. (I imagine this was at Rick Berman's bone-headed request.) Then there's "Starship Mine," an episode conceived of as "Picard stars in Die Hard." I wistfully wonder at the kick-butt score Ron Jones might have delivered as I listen to the drab Chattaway music that could have fit any episode.

Regrettably, I found the Jay Chattaway material to be the biggest disappointment in this collection. Maybe that's in part because the Dennis McCarthy material delivered a bit above my expectations. In any case, this disc is a grade D+ snooze.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Gat-about

My favorite science fiction movie (unless you count Back to the Future -- and I don't consider it to be primarily sci-fi) is Gattaca. I didn't need to watch it again to confirm that. But as soon as I mentioned FlickChart, the film started cropping up a lot. More than one of my friends told me about difficult match-ups involving Gattaca and some other movie. In each given scenario, it was an easy choice for me: Gattaca all the way.

Still, talking so much about the film made me want to watch it again. So I did.

Here's the short synopsis, in case you haven't seen it. (But if you haven't, go do so. Now!) In a not-too-distant future, genetic engineering has become the rule of society. Parents with money select any number of advantages to be engineered into their child from birth, and all of society has become a rigid class system favoring the genetically superior. The main character of the story is a man of natural birth, denied his dreams in life because of his genetic code. So he conspires with a genetically superior man who became confined to a wheelchair after an accident; by stealing the other's DNA and masquerading as another person, he'll have the chance to pursue his dream of voyaging into space.

I think that in a way, Gattaca has a lot in common with Pleasantville. Pleasantville is a story about about denying the potential within yourself. Gattaca is a story about other people denying that potential. A different side of the same coin, but I feel it makes for an equally compelling movie. And the fact that the protagonist's dream is to become an astronaut is icing on the cake for a space enthusiast like me. (And seems somehow even more poignant today, in this post-Space Shuttle world.)

The visual design of a movie is very strong, especially for a movie made on a limited budget. It presents a spartan future that seems loosely inspired by what the 1950s thought the future would be like. Sets are cavernous and sterile, yet have interesting accents to catch the eye. One particularly nice touch is the spiral staircase in the protagonist's home that looks like a DNA double helix.

The strong vision and strong script is then realized with strong actors. Ethan Hawke is excellent as the "de-gene-erate" with inferior DNA. Jude Law is the crippled specimen that Hawke becomes, playing a fun and wonderful character arc even though the story is mostly focused elsewhere. Uma Thurman's role in the story is primarily as a love interest, though she too brings depth to her role that expands the film. The cast is rounded out with more great actors, including Alan Arkin, Tony Shalhoub, Xander Berkeley, and Dean Norris. And there's Ernest Borgnine too, in a small, fun role.

Gattaca is a full meal -- a feast for the eyes, and food for thought as well. A grade A film in the true, thought-provoking sci-fi mold.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Dennis the Unmenacing

Late last year, I wrote about the perfect intersection for Star Trek fan and score enthusiast, The Ron Jones Project -- a 14-disc box set compiling all of that composer's fantastic work for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Now, La-La Land records has decided they too will help expand the library of music from that series by releasing Star Trek: The Next Generation Collection -- Volume One. It's a set of music from five other composers who worked on the show. Though its "mere" 3 discs pales in comparison to the epic Ron Jones collection, it's still a great sample of work from throughout the seven-year run of the show.

And frankly, a sample is the better way to go, in this case. As a musical score fan, I can tell you that the thing that made Ron Jones' work on Star Trek so phenomenal is that he really wouldn't "play ball" with what the producers wanted. Rick Berman, the producer at the top, literally (and famously, in music fan circles) said that the music of the show should be like "wallpaper," never calling attention to itself and shapelessly filling in the silence. It's a wonder Ron Jones survived for nearly half the series' run, flying in the face of that philosophy with almost every episode he worked on.

As I said, this collection features some work from other composers. The first disc is devoted to Dennis McCarthy, who wrote more music for Star Trek (across TNG and all the later spin-offs) than anyone else. Disc two is the work of Jay Chattaway, the man who would ultimately replace Ron Jones after he was let go. Disc three covers three other composers who each worked on a single episode, filling in for various reasons for the two regular composers.

I picked up this 3-disc set because I'm a huge Star Trek and music fan, even knowing not to expect as much from it as I did the Ron Jones set. But I had reason for hope due to the nature of the compilation. Unlike the Ron Jones set, which featured complete episode scores (all of them), this set included both a few complete scores and some single tracks from other episodes. I figured that somewhere in seven years of the show, there had to be a few tracks that violated the "wallpaper edict," and I assumed those would be curated for this release.

Indeed, that's what happened. But the results were still mixed overall. I'm going to jump to the end here and tell you that unless you are a Star Trek fan, and a real music nut, you probably won't want to buy this set. I'd grade it a C+ overall, which might -- might -- be good enough to recommend a single-disc CD, but the $35 price tag for the three discs is probably steep enough that only the real soundtrack fans should spring for it.

That said, I'd like to explain what you do get in this collection in more detail, and I feel the best way to do that is to break my review into three parts, one per disc. So if you love film and television music, I suppose you're in for a treat! If you don't, brace yourself for two more days in the near future where my blog probably won't interest you much.

First up, Dennis McCarthy. As I said, he wrote more Star Trek music than anybody, and he didn't achieve that by breaking the rules. He's by far the composer I like the least on Star Trek. I can't blame him for putting his head down and doing a job, but his music is rarely anything you'd want to listen to outside of the show itself. Fortunately, this album does highlight the rare exceptions.

The complete score to his first episode, "Haven," leads off the album. Not a very great hour for the show, but a pretty solid suite of music. Listening to it, I realize that Dennis McCarthy probably has it in him to be a composer I would enjoy; this music clearly comes from an early exploratory period before he started toeing the line. His work here has richer orchestration, more dramatic spikes, and several playful embellishments suiting the comedic aspects of the episode. (Well, the parts that were supposed to be funny, anyway.) He even makes use of a recurring theme that I've read was intended for the character of Jean-Luc Picard. It pops up one or two other times on the disc, appearing in early episodes before it was dropped at the producer's request.

There's a single track from the climax of "Hide & Q" that's really solid. It's the sequence where Riker, bestowed with the powers of a Q, tries to give gifts to please his crewmates. The track starts with religious liturgical parody (with Q's entrance), has some tender emotion for the gift of Geordi's sight, and even some fun and primal material for Worf's potential mate. Again, this was early in the show, before McCarthy "learned" not to include such flourishes.

The highlight of the Dennis McCarthy disc is a 7-minute suite from the late first season episode "Conspiracy," in which body-snatcher-esque crayfish possess members of Starfleet Command and try to take over the galaxy. It was a truly out-of-character episode for the show, marked by rather unbelievable gore for 80s television, and an atmosphere of darkness and mistrust you'd never see again on Star Trek until Deep Space Nine found its legs. Whatever rules McCarthy had been following, he rightly dumped them to deliver an unusual score fitting the unusual episode. It's dark and sinister, fun to listen to, and I wish the composer had done more work like this.

The rest of the McCarthy disc is pretty dry. Even hand-selecting tracks from dozens of episodes, the CD producers couldn't really find enough truly interesting McCarthy material to fill a disc. There's a nice bump in the road for the episode "Elementary, Dear Data," a jaunty little theme he composed for the Sherlock Holmes adventure on the holodeck. Other than that, it's just a real snooze. I remain amazed (not in a good way) at how McCarthy is able to write action music cues that don't have a sense of action at all. There's a suite from the episode "Time Squared" that sounds like his work on the film Star Trek: Generations -- exactly the sort of uninteresting "wallpaper" Rick Berman asked for.

I'd call this disc a C+. There are a couple of B+, as-good-as-Dennis-McCarthy-gets tracks you can cherry pick for your shuffle play, but mostly it's music to fall asleep to. Not the reason why I sprang for the collection -- that'll come soon when I continue my review of this collection.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Best Worst Movie 2: The Trollening

If you read my write-up on Best Worst Movie, you must surely be asking yourself, "so... did you actually watch Troll 2?"

<Balki> Well of course I did, don't be ridiculous! </Balki>

I mentioned in discussing Best Worst Movie that Troll 2 doesn't feature a single troll. Here's what it does feature. A family of four takes a vacation to the tiny farm town of Nilbog, trailed by the older sister's immature boyfriend and his three stupid friends. The young boy of the family is haunted by visions of his dead grandfather, come to warn him that the residents of the town are all goblins in disguise. The goblins wants you to eat some of their food, which will magically convert you into a strange green pudding that they in turn will eat. (They can't just eat you directly, silly -- they're vegetarians!)

It's every bit as stupid as it sounds and more. It has preposterous and unearned plot developments. The characters seem to be competing in a "who can behave most stupidly" competition -- and it's a dead heat. It's all backed by a truly lame synth soundtrack. By any measure, this is a grade F film.

The theory goes, of course, that it's so bad it's good (SoBIG). Indeed, sometimes it is. But for me, comparing it to The Room, it isn't as consistently SoBIG. The movie is more often unintentionally stupid rather than unintentionally funny. And not all of the actors are cringe-inducing; a few of them really are trying to be good.

However, I must acknowledge that while this movie may not deliver the goods (bads?) consistently, there is one scene in it that is the indisputable SoBIG champion -- the most hysterically awful, awfully hysterical thing ever committed to film. It involves a witch seducing a dumb jock with an ear of corn. I'm not kidding. It's unfathomable that anyone involved with the movie could ever have thought for one moment that this scene would be anything but a laugh riot. Even if everyone was insane enough to believe in it on the page, I can't imagine that on the set, as they were throwing buckets of popcorn on the actors, that nobody stopped for a moment to ask "what the hell are we doing?" Or that the editor, when he was layering in the "You Can Leave Your Hat On" sound-alike, didn't have a moment of clarity and suggest maybe this didn't belong in the movie.

But don't take my word for it. Watch for yourself:



This is the highlight of Troll 2. If you're into bad movies, you'd probably enjoy watching the rest. But in any case, The Room remains king of its ignominious hill in my book.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Once I'd seen The Room, Netflix had become aware that I was willing to watch notoriously bad movies. Netflix has also been plying me suggestions for documentaries. Put those two things together, and you get an interesting recommendation: Best Worst Movie.

Have you ever heard of Troll 2? I hadn't. Made in 1990, it's another movie "lauded" in some circles as the worst movie ever made. Certainly, it sports a dazzling pedigree. It's rated 0% at Rotten Tomatoes. It ranks in the bottom 100 at IMdB; in fact, before people latched onto it as "hilariously bad," it was in fact the worst rated movie there.

The protagonist of Troll 2 is a young boy of around 12. And now, as an adult, the actor who portrayed him decided to make a documentary film about it. And it stirs up a surprising variety of thoughts in just 90 minutes.

Literally, the first five minutes of the film takes place in a dentist's office. I wondered briefly if Netflix had sent me the wrong disc. Then I began to resent the filmmaker's slow burn to the obvious reveal: this dentist of today was an actor two decades ago, featured in Troll 2. So not the best note to start the film on.

But things turned around quickly. This dentist, who portrayed the father of the family, along with the young boy now grown and making this film, both came across as likeable people. And they "got it." As they take you around the country to fan screenings of Troll 2, they have no illusions. "Yes, our movie was terrible," is their message. "But it makes people laugh now, and that's great with us."

You learn about the strange pedigree of the film. It has nothing at all to do with Troll, the movie you would think was its predecessor. In fact, there isn't even a single troll in Troll 2. It was made by an Italian director, Italian writer, and Italian editor -- all certain they knew what life was like in America circa 1989. One fan of Troll 2 describes the result quite wonderfully in the documentary: it's as though aliens from another planet saw a human film, and then tried to make one of their own.

The documentary takes you through this modern day cult reaction to the movie, and you see that it can have a very positive impact. We meet another actor from the movie, who was an actual mental patient at the time, and today is recovered, yet still not fully settled with himself. When he goes to a Troll 2 screening and receives rapturous applause from hundreds of adoring fans, it's clearly a positive force in his life.

Then you get another side to the tale, as the documentary turns to those Italian filmmakers I mentioned. It's culture shock in pure form: they clearly think they made a good movie, one they still stand behind. The director himself basically says, "if you don't get it, screw you" -- and part of the movie seems to be his journey toward a new attitude: "maybe you're laughing when I didn't mean it, but I still made you feel something, and that's good enough for me as a director."

After that, the movie took me on a guilt trip. We meet the woman who played the mother of the family, and she seems like a complete loon. She seems like she might currently be a mental patient, and she looks like she's been through the skin stretching procedures in Brazil. And she thinks that her movie holds up today along Casablanca. She thinks it's timeless, filled with wonderful performances, and has a deep message about the importance of family. "Wow!" you the viewer delight, "This is hysterical!"

Except then you follow the dentist as he goes on a tour to some science fiction and horror conventions, and discovers that outside of these fan screenings of Troll 2, no one knows who the hell he is. And it clearly gets to him, and it's sad. You're made to realize that he really does wish, deep down, that he could have been an actor, and that this Troll 2 cult following was a wave he was riding to recapture lost youth. When it was the crazy skin lady with the delusion, you were laughing. Now it's this poor dentist you really liked. Not so funny now, is it? Shame on you.

Or wait a minute! Not shame on you, shame on the director -- this punk kid of Troll 2 now turned punk director of Best Worst Movie. He's totally exploiting his fellow actors! And yet, they all agreed to be exploited. Oh hell, what am I supposed to feel watching this documentary?!

So, a pretty impressive array of thoughts and feelings for one breezy documentary about a horrible movie. And make no mistake -- Troll 2 looks absolutely dreadful. As for Best Worst Movie, though, I think I'd rate it a B. It's a film with shades of Trekkies, and yet also something truly distinct.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Revisiting Paradise

Early last year, I wrote about two unsettling documentary films, Paradise Lost and its sequel. The films dealt with the murder of three young boys in an Arkansas town, and the three teenage boys convicted of their murders, dubbed the "West Memphis Three." The documentaries paint a compelling and chilling picture of a gross miscarriage of justice. It seems abundantly clear that the wrong people were convicted for the crime, and on prejudicial and circumstancial evidence.

The documentary filmmakers have been at work on a third installment in the series, to debut at a film festival this later, and then run on HBO starting next January. As of today, they have a new ending for their film. The West Memphis Three have been released from prison.

Though it seems the right thing was finally done, it's hard to look on this as anything like justice being served. For one thing, the lives of these three are still irrevocably ruined. True, not as awfully and finally as the lives of the three victims, but they nevertheless have spent half their lives in prison. And they're not even truly vindicated now. The legal technicality on which they've been released is not an exoneration. As I understand it, their "Alford plea" requires them to plead guilty and take credit for time served, even as they simultaneously maintain their innocence. They've done nothing wrong, but had to accept the penalties of saying they did in order to go free.

Even if they had been exonerated, they'd still be unlikely to ever settle into anything like a normal life. The moniker "West Memphis Three" will follow them forever, brandly them falsely as killers. On news sites such as CNN, that ran stories about their release, the comments threads were dominated by people ignorant of the facts of the case, who likened this situation to the recent Casey Anthony saga, lamenting "still more people getting away with murder." (And they weren't talking about the actual killer in this case, who remains at large and unconfirmed -- and probably always will be.)

I'll close by recommending one more time to check out at least the first of the two Paradise Lost documentaries. Before, watching it was sure to just leave you with an unfulfilled sense of outrage. Now at least there is some rough semblance of a happy ending in the matter.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Pin Down

Until recently, I'd never seen the movie Kingpin. This may be hard to believe, since there was a time there when it seemed like Comedy Central was playing it three times a week, every week for a year and a half. It's been in my Netflix queue for a while too, never bubbling to the top.

After a lunch time conversation, a co-worker decided that Kingpin needed to line jump. He brought in his copy of the DVD for me to watch. As the DVD sat there on my desk at work, and then later on my counter at home, it prompted an interesting array of comments. Some people told me they thought the movie was really funny, and they were sure I would enjoy it. Others thought the movie was pretty terrible, and that I should just give it right back and not waste my time.

My opinion fell somewhere between the extremes. If I was expecting another raucous, funny Farrelly Brothers film to rival There's Something About Mary, I didn't get it. But if I was expecting to sit there for just under two hours in stony silence, I didn't get that either. And yet, it might be that the best thing to come of this film is that it's where Woody Harrelson met Bill Murray, which would pay off a decade later in the most awesomely funny part of the awesomely funny Zombieland.

Bill Murray is definitely the best thing about this movie, and since his character bookends the film, the middle chunk really starts to drag. Woody Harrelson is at his funniest when he's playing a more eccentric character (see Cheers, Zombieland, etc.), but here he's really the straight man to the not-as-funny Randy Quaid. It's not that Quaid is bad. He's just not as funny as I imagine other actors would have been, even Woody Harrelson, had he been cast in the other role.

It's not a bad comedy, all told. It's just disappointingly average for featuring some talented actors. I rate it a C+.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Embrace the Dark

In 1999, The Matrix came along and blew the minds of a legion of movie-goers. But a small slice of them, like me, were somewhat less impressed -- just one year earlier, we'd seen Dark City.

Both movies follow a protagonist with a growing awareness that the world he lives in isn't real. Both are aided by a wise outsider with the ability to infuse the hero with vast knowledge in an instant. Both are pursued by ominous forces fighting to maintain the status quo. Both develop the ability to manipulate their false reality. Okay, so The Matrix has kung fu, wire stunts, and "bullet time" -- and I'm not saying that isn't neat. But basically everything else The Matrix has, Dark City had better. And first.

I recently watched Dark City again, part of my Top 100 Movies project, and found that my enthusiasm for the film hasn't waned in the slightest. But I do recognize today that that enthusiasm is somewhat unlikely. I don't particularly like the film noir genre. I've trashed several film noir movies here on my blog. Make no mistake; Dark City may be a sci-fi film, but it is equally (and maybe in greater part) a film noir.

Style is the centerpiece of the movie, permeating its every aspect. The tone is bleak. The color saturation is dark. The sun never shines in Dark City. The costumes are austere.

The character design of the adversaries, the Strangers, deserves special mention. Every element of them is perfectly ghoulish, from their gaunt and pale frames, to their evil black outfits, to their unsettling manner of speech ("...yes?"), to their odd names, to their wicked teeth chattering. Off-hand, I can't think of a movie villain I've ever found more chilling. I mean, Darth Vader scared the crap out of me when I was five years old, but if I'd seen one of these guys at that age? Scarred for life.

The actors playing the Strangers may steal the show, but the main cast is great too. Rufus Sewell is a compelling hero, even in a low-key performance. Jennifer Connelly is the perfect femme fatale for the genre. William Hurt plays the detective role with palpable exhaustion. And Kiefer Sutherland... well, I won't lie, I'm still not quite sure what's going on with his strange... breathless... speech. But it's the very definition of what actors call a "bold choice," and it somehow totally works in the context of the movie.

Remove the awesome stylized trappings, and I can't pretend that there's much to the story beyond a typical "hero's journey." But in 90 short minutes, the movie takes you on that journey perfectly, and even finds moments to reflect on the nature of the human soul. What makes a person who they are?

The finishing touch is a stellar, wall-to-wall musical score by Trevor Jones. Aside from a few night club scenes featuring "source cues," I believe that every last second of the film is scored. The music never fails to heighten suspense, accelerate action, amplify unsettling moments, and generally magnify every sensation the movie invokes. It's a feast for the ears to match the feast for the eyes.

Dark City remains high on my list, an absolute A.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Ape Soundscape

In my recent review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I neglected to mention the musical score composed by Patrick Doyle. Let me correct that oversight now by saying that it was another wonderful element in an enjoyable movie. In fact, I recently picked up the soundtrack album myself, and it's in heavy rotation on my iPod.

Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes re-make was a big disappointment, but the one truly great element of it was Danny Elfman's amazing score. The work Patrick Doyle has done on this new film feels stylistically connected with Elfman's work -- and even in occasional moments, with the original film's score by Jerry Goldsmith.

It's a loud, in-your-face score. Noisy brass. Frenetic strings. And of course, the percussion. The more action oriented the cue gets, the more the percussion pours it on. It starts right from the beginning of the album -- literally in "The Beginning," the first track, and continues over the first several cues.

The soundtrack does slow down a bit through some of the early tracks, representing the more quiet and emotional chunk of the movie. On film, this music supported the sentiment wonderfully; on the album, it's not quite as strong without the visual support. Listening to it straight through can lull you into a bit too sedate a mood; but if you play the album on shuffle, it's easier to appreciate any one of these slower songs mixed in with the more driving action cues.

And the deeper you get into the album, the more that material comes. It begins with a slow burn in a number of great, suspenseful pieces that slowly builds the tension. One track is an especially great example of this, despite its goofy name, "Cookies." (If you've seen the film, you'll recall the scene.)

As the story barrels on into act three, the music goes pedal to the metal. An ominous choir with eerie synthesized processing arrives in "Caesar's Stand," and then the percussion drives up to maximum for two pivotal (and lengthy) action cues, "Zoo Breakout" and "Golden Gate Bridge."

If you're a fan of movie soundtracks, this is one to make sure to add to your collection. It's one of my favorites to come around in a while; I'd rate it an A-.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Unlocking the Forbidden

Though my last attempt to view a so-called "classic sci-fi film" ended miserably, I decided to roll the dice on another one. More people would probably consider this one a classic anyway: Forbidden Planet.

I found two aspects of the film to have the most impact. First was the visual effects. This movie was made in 1956, yet has effects that would have still been impressive 30 years down the road. Yes, the spaceship is shaped like a flying saucer and looks super cheesy in a way that tells you exactly when the movie actually was made, in the same way that shag carpeting tells you a room was furnished in the 1970s. But the quality of effects is pretty amazing if you can overlook the content of those effects.

The other aspect is the performance of Leslie Nielsen as the commander of the spaceship. I am aware that Nielsen was a well-regarded serious actor before the 1980s arrived and he became better known for deadpan humor. And yet I'd never seen it myself in action. It's truly an amazing thing to behold. I kept expecting him to make a joke. Really, his behavior in this movie was not that different from his behavior in a movie like The Naked Gun -- it's all a matter of context.

But as far as the overall quality of the movie? Meh. It's not terrible, but neither is it great. I wouldn't put it on any "best movie" lists, though I certainly would put it high on a "most influential" movies list. This movie clearly inspired a lot of science fiction that would follow, particularly the Star Trek television series. In fact, the whole film plays like an average episode of the original series -- no "Amok Time" or "The Doomsday Machine," but neither a "Spock's Brain."

I'd call it a C-, all told. Probably something sci-fi fans should see to better "know their roots." But it's certainly not anything to show a non-sci-fi fan. They won't get it. (Even if it is based on Shakespeare.)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Pleasant Experience

Time for another "watched it again because I'm re-building my Top 100 Movie List" review. The film in question this time was Pleasantville, a wonderful, sentimental movie that made a huge impression on me when I first saw it in theaters. I'm pleased to report that if anything, it made an even bigger impression on me watching it now.

In case you haven't heard of it, Pleasantville is the story of a young high school student, a child of divorce, who keeps his troubles at bay by enjoying reruns of a "Leave It to Beaver"-style show from the 50s: Pleasantville. Through the intervention of strange old man, he and his older sister are sucked into the world of the show itself. As they begin to have a profound effect on the integrity of the fictional world, it begins to change them too.

Visual effects play a huge role in the storytelling. The world of Pleasantville is black and white. But when the two siblings arrive and start meddling, it slowly begins to colorize. At first, it's just a lone flower in the middle of a bush. But soon, every scene is a dazzling mixture of black-and-white and color elements. Even now, over a decade later, the effects seem flawless. They're such a wonder at times that they might overwhelm the story... if they weren't so integral to the story.

And that story is perfect. It begins as a comedy, mining every corner of a fun and light-hearted premise. But then things turn deeply tender and poignant, as the movie's true message asserts itself: hiding beneath the surface of every person is more than they ever show to the world -- but they shouldn't hide any of it. It's a universal message I think anyone could be inspired by, but I find it a particularly personal message myself.

To be blunt, I find it a beautiful metaphor for coming out of the closet -- and not because the movie is trumpeting the "rainbow of colors" inside everyone. Make no mistake, I don't imagine that writer-director Gary Ross had a "gay agenda" in making this movie. The subject is not addressed directly in the movie at all. But as someone who spent too much of his life hiding this major part of myself, I couldn't help but be moved by this story.

If it's not too late to steer away from soapbox territory, let me move on and praise another perfect element of this movie, the cast. Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon play the siblings transported into the TV show, and both handle the comedic and dramatic elements expertly. In the sitcom world, their parents are played by William H. Macy and Joan Allen; the former is brilliant as a stalwart resistant to change, while the latter breaks your heart as someone frightened by change in herself. Jeff Daniels and J.T. Walsh are residents of the town, similarly on opposite ends of the spectrum, and just as superb in their roles. Don Knotts is the mysterious TV repairman who sets the film in motion. There are even pitch perfect turns from actors who would come to be better known later in their careers, Jane Kaczmarek and Paul Walker.

To make a long story short, yes, this movie is still top 100 material. It's top 10 material for me. An absolute grade A gem.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Earth Survey

Many years ago, I read the debut novel from Christopher Rice, A Density of Souls. He's just a couple years younger than I am, and was in his early 20s at the time he published that book. Then as now, I dreamed of one day getting my own novel published. I expect I read the book almost hoping not to like it. I imagine I thought it would boost my own ego to know that the only reason he got published as such a young age was that he has a famous writing mother, Anne Rice; knowing he'd gotten published with a "bad book" would in some warped way bolster my own writing ambitions.

Instead, it turned out to be a rather good book. (And I've since come to understand that the greatest obstacle at the moment to my grand career as an author is my own lack of buckling down and actually doing the writing.) In a distant recess of my mind, I resolved to check out future books from Christopher Rice, once he got around to writing them. That recess must have been quite deep, because it's a decade later and he's written four more novels since then. In any case, I finally remembered that old mental note and decided to read his newest effort, The Moonlit Earth.

This novel is a bit of a mystery thriller revolving around a woman whose younger brother appears to have been involved in a terrorist attack, and has since gone missing. She's determined to get to the bottom of his strange behavior and exonerate him, but finds even more mysteries within her own family the more she digs.

To whatever degree Christopher Rice has a reputation, it's as a gay writer. He's been out since he published his first book, and I understand that each of his books includes a significant gay character. This book is interesting, in that the fact the younger brother is gay is somehow both pivotal to the plot and entirely incidental. I don't think I can really explain how that works without revealing more of the plot than I care to, but suffice it to say that it's a skillfully navigated dichotomy.

A less successful dichotomy is that of the two mysteries at play in the novel. The story starts out with a grand mystery of grand scope -- what was the reason behind this terrorist attack? There's a strong personal element too -- how was the brother really involved in it? But by the final act of the story, those mysteries have been supplanted by the characters' own family history. There's a mystery in their past as well, and solving that becomes the more important issue in the book. The transition between these puzzles isn't quite smooth, and can't help but feel like a reduction in scope as things move from a global to a personal stage.

But this latter mystery is just as compelling in its own way. You do become invested enough in the characters to care about the drama of their past being exposed. I was still interested in seeing how it all ended even after the book had made it clear that the things I started out being interested in weren't the most important things. Rice has a brisk and easy to read style of writing that pulls you quickly through his tale. I never marveled at a clever word choice or ingenious sentence, but I also never questioned the characters as real people. It's believable writing, if not showy.

I rate The Moonlit Earth a solid B. Christopher Rice has definitely made his own way, a separate writer from his mother, and I plan to check out more of his books.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Firefly Flashback: Serenity (The Movie)

Now we come to the most miraculous chapter in the story of Firefly, the feature film Serenity. Some way, somehow, Joss Whedon managed to convince a studio (Universal) to fund a not-lavish-but-not-cheap sci-fi movie based on a TV show that ran only 14 episodes. Well, okay, the quality of said show (and enthusiasm of its fans) surely did some of the convincing too... but the point is that it's hard to overstate just how improbable it was that a movie continuation of Firefly would ever happen. But it did. And it's good. Really good.

One of the most impressive things about the movie (to my writer sensibilities) is how perfect the first 5-10 minutes are. Following the original series pilot and the FOX-requested "second pilot" episode The Train Job, this marks the third time Joss Whedon has had to find a way to introduce all the characters and the premise of the universe. And while I might argue it isn't handled quite as deftly as it was in the two-hour Firefly pilot, it is handled much more quickly here, and without sacrificing clarity -- both "musts" for a feature film.

We start in a school room setting, where we're quickly told about Earth-That-Was and the Reavers, then segue directly into Simon's rescue of River, showcasing their relationship and giving the background on what was done to her. And then that segues into the introduction of the Operative, the villain who will be chasing them. And from there, it gets even more sophisticated, with one of Joss Whedon's trademark "one-ers," a single camera shot that takes us through all of Serenity, showing the full geography of the ship and quickly introducing us to every character on board. You know who the pilot, the engineer, the doctor, and so forth all are, because you see them doing those things. And it's all done in an entertaining way, with quick pacing and plenty of humor, for those of us Firefly fans who already know all this stuff and don't need the re-introductions. Really savvy writing; exposition is nigh-impossible to do this well.

This is just the first of many great balancing acts achieved by the script. We get a thrilling chase sequence in the opening act, the kind mandated in a "mindless action movie," but it's hardly mindless here; it shows the threat of the Reavers, establishes the character of the crew in general (and Mal in particular), and showcases the signature Firefly blend of adventure and humor. At the end of the film, we get a desperate "last stand" sequence so well set up that you really do believe any one of the characters could die. And in between? Fist fights, space battles, and everything else you expect in an action movie, but intelligently presented and motivated by the plot.

That plot manages in just two hours to give us closure on several dangling threads from the series. We learn what the experiments on River were really all about, and why the Alliance wants so badly to re-capture her. We learn the truth of the Reavers. You laugh. You cry. You cheer. You're stunned into silence. (When I saw it in theaters, there was an audible gasp following the infamous "leaf on the wind" line... and then stone silence.)

Is it absolutely perfect? No. Inara and Book have rather marginalized roles in the film -- particularly Book (whose mysterious past is teased again, to be left unrevealed). The fanboy in me wishes that Mal's contact after the bank robbery could have been Badger, just for one more connection to the show. And then there's Mr. Universe, a rather weird character who crosses over to annoying in my book, in that he feels like he's intruding on the poignant funeral moment at the end of the film. (Seriously, this guy gets "billing" next to major characters we've loved throughout the series?)

Still, these quibbles aren't sufficient to make a dent in the A grade I give the film. It's on my top 100 list. I've let that list fallen so far out of date that I couldn't tell you exactly where it falls, but I don't have to wait on my eventual update to know for certain this would still be on there. This unlikely additional chapter in the Firefly saga is one of the best -- even if it does make you wonder in a bittersweet way how all these plot revelations might have spooled out over a season or two of the show itself.

Ah, Firefly.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Mike Wazowski!

I hadn't watched Monsters, Inc. since its original run in theaters. Hard to believe, but that was a decade ago; that's more than enough time for me to forget exactly why I liked it and only remember that generally, I did. So as part of the "sprucing up the top 100 movie list" project, I decided to give my DVD copy a spin.

I must confess that by about 15 minutes into the film, I was beginning to think "wow, I may have just been totally blinded by this movie the first time around." It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either. I don't think I'm normally so impatient with a movie, but Pixar films are typically just 90 minutes long. To be this far in and be thinking, "I guess this maybe wasn't so charming, so funny, so great..." Well, it was a disappointing feeling.

Then the character of Boo shows up. And from there, the movie shifts into high gear. Somehow, this charming little girl -- actually voiced by a two-year-old -- was the last spice in the recipe to make it all click. Suddenly, the movie really is charming and funny, and sweet, heart-felt, whimsical, clever -- countless other things.

Billy Crystal and John Goodman give excellent vocal performances, and have a wonderful interplay with one another -- a particularly impressive feat when you consider their voices were recorded separately. There are also great turns by Steve Buscemi, James Coburn, and of course, Pixar-staple John Ratzenberger.

I don't count this against the film in any way, but I found it interesting to see just how far Pixar has advanced computer animation in the last decade. You can tell that the new boundary they were really pushing at the time was "hair." The fur on Sully realistically moves in the wind, gathers snow, and more. But this film was still before The Incredibles, Ratatouille -- Pixar films with major human characters, that required them to tackle the frontier of "skin." Boo's animation is an absolutely believable embodiment of a toddler, but her look is closer to a plastic toy than a person.

I rate the film an A-. It's still wonderful, but didn't quite blow me away the way I remember the first time around. Maybe that's because of the even better movies Pixar has done in the decade since, and maybe that's not entirely fair, but there it is.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Hilly Reception

I used to be a pretty big fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I'd like to think I still am; they just got canceled. But the thing is, in a way, they are still making new episodes. Most of the folks behind MST3K have taken their act to the internet and set up RiffTrax. It's a web site where they release virtual DVD commentaries that continue the MST3K tradition of skewering bad movies. Just pop in the DVD, purchase the RiffTrax commentary, sync them up, and enjoy.

Unburdened by the problem of getting broadcast rights for a film (as they needed to for MST3K), the RiffTrax gang has been able to take on bigger, more recent targets. But they still take on classic movies from time to time, and because those movies are often easy and cheap to license, they still release "episodes" -- special Rifftrax DVDs that let you watch a movie with or without their commentary. Netflix has many available, and I recently checked out the RiffTrax version of House on Haunted Hill.

This is a classic Vincent Price movie, in which a group of random strangers are invited to stay overnight in a haunted house to claim a cash reward. A primordial reality show competition... with ghosts. Made in 1959, I'm convinced this movie must have looked dated even at the time, hokey and cheap. It's also filled with all the excesses of classic filmmaking that often try my patience: over-acting, languid pacing, bad editing, and more. If I were just reviewing the movie, it would probably get a D- or something.

But of course, those very elements that make the film so terrible make it prime material for the RiffTrax treatment. The awkward pauses are places to insert jokes. The hammy acting is ready to mock. And the RiffTrax gang is in very good form here. I laughed out loud several times during the film, even just watching alone on my couch. It was only after the movie that I even stopped to think how impossible I'd have found watching it without the commentary. It was an enjoyable experience.

I don't know if it's quite right to rate "Rifftrax: House on Haunted Hill" as though it itself were an actual movie, but I'm going to do so nevertheless: B+. If you ever liked an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, treat this like one of the better ones.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Firefly Flashback: Objects in Space

Objects in Space is the final (sniff) episode of Firefly. Many fans regard it as one of the best episodes, and I certainly felt that way the first time around. The first several, actually. But watching it recently, it didn't quite do it for me as well as before.

Make no mistake, I'm not saying it was a bad episode. Nor am I even saying it was "bad for Firefly." In fact, I'll go ahead and give the game away and tell you I'd rate it an A-. So what is it that I'm bagging on?

The very thing that once made me lovelovelove this episode, actually: the character of Early, the bounty hunter. Oh, he'll still entertaining. Still a worthy opponent for the crew of Serenity -- clever, chilling, comical, and menacing all in turns. My problem is that I now find him to be just a little too eccentric.

Joss Whedon wrote and directed this episode himself, and has a lot to say about it in the commentary he recorded for the DVD. Basically, he was playing around with a lot of existentialist philosophy in this episode, exploring the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre. "Is the room still her room when she's not in it?" kind of stuff. And it is at times funny and thought-provoking. Even at the same time, occasionally.

But at other times, it's also just plain weird, and feels like it would be better suited to a stage than a TV show. For example, the whole exchange: "Are you Alliance?" "Am I a lion?" Or the simple fact that Early is so open-minded that for a split second, he seems to actually believe that River turned into the ship. It strikes me as just a little too weird, weird for weird's sake.

Still, there's no denying the effectiveness of most of this episode. It includes some of the most profound moments of the series. There's River's anguish at feeling unwanted, and joy at the end to find acceptance. There's the horrifying moment when Early calmly threatens to rape Kaylee. There's Simon's heroic confrontation of Early (even if it does mess up River's plan).

So, like I said, an A- overall. Not at all a bad note to end the series on, if it had to be that way. But fortunately, there was another chapter a few years later -- the movie Serenity.

Firefly is certainly the best "only one season" TV show I've ever seen. It's one of my favorite series, period. Watching all the episodes again offered as many thrills as watching them the first time around, and I'm sure in years to come, and watch them all again many times more.

Monday, August 08, 2011

A Real American Hero

Another new movie that I'd originally had no interest in was Captain America: The First Avenger. I've soured pretty thoroughly on superhero movies over the past couple years, picking and choosing only a few to see. But here, as with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, there was a lot of good word of mouth to convince me to make an exception here.

One reason I maybe should have been considering it anyway was the director, Joe Johnston. Besides helming October Sky, a just-brushing-the-bottom-of-my-top-100 movie, he was also the director of The Rocketeer, one of the small handful of superhero movies I've actually liked. Captain America even seemed like it could have a bit of Rocketeer flavor, both being period stories set in decades past.

Well, it's no Rocketeer, but Captain America wasn't too shabby. The main problem for me with the movie was that it just took a long time to get rolling. Things are slow right from the first scene, a modern-day opening that exists only to set up next summer's film, The Avengers. If the film were truly stand-alone, this material not only would have been cut, it probably never would have been filmed.

Then there's the captain's origin story. I never could just relax and enjoy it because of two major problems, and so I found that to be slow-paced too. First, there's the story itself. Basically, a scrawny guy takes steroids and instantly becomes a superhero. It has to be a period piece, because for this day and age, that's a really screwed-up message.

But the bigger problem for me was the way the movie depicted our pre-steroidal hero, by using CG to Benjamin Button Chris Evans' head onto another body. I mentioned in reviewing Rise of the Planet of the Apes that the moments where my mind rejected the CG were few and far between. In Captain America, it never worked for me. Every scene of wimpy Steve Rogers just looked wrong. The head would move independently of the neck, or look obviously rotoscoped into the image, or be oddly blended into the shoulders. The look of the artifically sunken jawline seemed to change from one scene to the next. In my opinion, bad visual effects don't always get in the way of telling a story, but they certainly did here.

Fortunately, as with any superhero origin story, this section of the film only took up the first 30 minutes or so. And once "Captain America" arrived, the film finally found its footing. Chris Evans made a likeable hero. Hugo Weaving made a delicious villain. Tommy Lee Jones brought his patented brand of no-nonsense folksiness to a fun and funny supporting character. And Stanley Tucci made a full meal of his light snack of a role. All that is probably no surprise, but it was nice to see the performances all come together.

The story wasn't especially deep, but it certainly was exciting enough. It served well to hold several good action sequences of different types -- chases, assaults, aerial acrobatics.

In the end, I didn't like this as much as The Rocketeer. But for a superhero movie, I thought it a pretty good effort. I rate it a B-.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Rise to the Occasion

I had seen the trailer for Rise of the Planet of the Apes a few times before other movies this year, and had almost immediately dismissed it. No interest in seeing that, I thought. But then a funny thing happened. Several of my friends told me it was pretty high on their must-see lists. And the critics had their say, and widely praised the movie. Next thing I knew, I was heading to the theater last night to check it out.

It's true! It's actually a rather good movie! It pulled me in during the first half with a surprisingly heartfelt story. James Franco's lead character is a researcher trying to find a cure for Alzheimer's Disease, and the scenes between him and his father, played by John Lithgow, really provide a strong emotional anchor for the film. At the same time, both father and son form a bond with ape Caesar, a brilliant motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis. The visual effects for the animation aren't always 100%, but they're usually more than convincing enough to make you forget about the technical wizardry and invest in the character. I could imagine that some of the audience were starting to get impatient with all the sloppy sentiment, wondering when the ape rampage would begin, but I myself was surprisingly pulled in by what was just a good drama.

But of course, the rampage does eventually begin. And that delivers too. Again, the effects aren't always 100%, but they're always good enough that whenever I'd "catch myself looking," I'd forget again just a moment later. Personally, I found the first half to be a better drama movie than the second half was an action movie, but that's not by much. There's a great extended sequence set on the Golden Gate Bridge that delivers pretty much everything you want in the climactic scene of an action movie.

Things do get bogged down just a bit in the middle, as the movie tries to bridge from drama to action; it does feel like we spend a bit too long with the "imprisoned Caesar" storyline. Still, I got more than I was expecting from the film -- worlds more than I'd have ever thought from that trailer I saw a few months back. I rate the movie a B+.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Firefly Flashback: Heart of Gold

Well, some episode of Firefly has to be the "worst" one. Sorry, Heart of Gold, but you're it. You're not a "bad" episode. You have plenty of good jokes, an interesting guest character (Inara's friend), and a couple of solid scenes that give insight into the main characters. It's just that your premise is kind of goofy (our heroes defend a frontier whore house? really?), and things don't quite gel the way they usually do on your show.

Here's what really does work for me in this episode:

This is our longest look at Jayne "in his element." And I don't just mean whoring himself senseless (though that applies too). This episode is all about a prolonged gunfight against a foe who can't be negotiated with or tricked. Jayne lives for this stuff, and this episode is the most use he ever gets of his extensive gun collection.

It's a great episode for the Inara/Mal relationship. We see that as good as Inara is at constructing and presenting a mask, it's still a mask with real feelings hidden behind it. She gets her heart broken in this episode, and announces her plans to leave Serenity as a result. (One has to imagine what would have changed her mind, had the show continued. Instead, she follows through on her threat/plan.)

There's a fantastic scene where Wash and Zoe discuss having children, and the extra complications that come with that because of the life they lead. And it's an especially melancholy scene to watch if you've seen the movie.

But here's what doesn't work for me in this episode:

The friction over the difference between a "companion" and a "whore" doesn't really play. I can buy off on the concept; I just don't think the writing does justice to Inara's character here.

The villain of the episode is a bit too cartoonish. He doesn't actually have a mustache to twirl, but when he's threatening to rip a baby out of its mother's womb, he might as well.

Several guest characters in the episode die in the climactic battle, and much is made of their deaths. There's even a funeral scene near the end to go with it. But it all feels a bit hollow compared to the far more effective death in the immediately preceding episode, The Message.

If there's a silver lining in the cancellation of Firefly (and it's damn hard to find one), it might be that this episode is as bad as the show ever got. Like I said, it's really not bad -- a B in my judgment. Many TV shows, even a few TV shows I watch on a weekly basis, manage about this level of quality on average; for Firefly, this was "bottom of the barrel." That's pretty gorram good.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Blair With Me

As I've mentioned, I've recently been in the midst of trying to remake my personal "Top 100 Movies" list. As I've been doing this, I've come across a number of movies that I just don't remember as well as I'd like. I have a memory of liking them, a sort of warm glow when I think about the movie, but I can't remember enough specifics to know where to rank them.

The Blair Witch Project is sort of one of those movies. Actually, I remembered the movie rather well. But when I built my Top 100 list for the first time around 7 or 8 years ago, I actually ranked the movie near the top of the heap -- at #6. Beginning my new list by taking stock of the old one, I thought to myself, "there's no way I truly thought this movie was that good, is there?" I decided to revisit the movie and see for myself.

It has become a bit of a thing to join in the backlash against The Blair Witch Project. And it's understandable. This is basically the forefather of the modern "it's real, man!" movies, and paved the way for a lot of later crap that wasn't nearly as well done. I say that can't be held against the original.

But I also have to acknowledge that my original love for the movie was absolutely colored by the circumstances in which I saw it. It might be hard to believe now that anyone was ever gullible enough to think this might be actual found documentary footage, but I'll be honest with you: for a short window leading up to the release, I did. This was part of the masterful marketing campaign leading up to the release of the film. Sure, by the time it had actually arrived and I was getting to really see the film, I knew the truth... and yet that little seed had already been planted. "What if it is true? I mean, of course it's not. But what if it was? How cool would that be?"

What's more, I saw The Blair Witch Project for the first time while I was on the road at a summer game convention, working for Decipher. I banded together with a bunch of co-workers and volunteers to scour the city for a theater actually showing the movie -- it was still in limited release at the time. It had the atmosphere of a "film they don't want you to see," and that made you feel even cooler about finding a way to see it.

Basically, everything I have just described was attempted again just a couple years ago with Paranormal Activity, and far less effectively. It certainly informs why I liked the movie so much the first time around. But can the movie now stand on its own today?

I say yes, it can. I will readily acknowledge that the film isn't without flaws. Some of the character behavior buckles under scrutiny. (Mike kicked the map in the creek? Seriously? Heather decides to go back and unwrap the creepy twig bundle bound with strips of her missing friend's shirt? Seriously?!) Also, while I firmly maintain that "less is usually more" in a horror movie, I do think there are moments where that principle is taken just a bit too far in this movie. (When Heather is running through the woods and shrieks "What's that!!!!", the camera whips to the left to capture... absolutely nothing. Not even a flicker of movement.)

But despite these few blemishes, I still find the movie chock full of good stuff. It's pull your feet up onto the couch, don't go to bed right after the movie's over fun. Josh's disappearance is a chilling highlight, and his tortured moaning from the forest on the next night even more so. (Is it a ghost? Has his tongue been ripped out?) And I still love the ending, in the basement of the crumbling house. It's perfectly set up in the interviews at the top of the film, in that it's just one detail among many that you don't ascribe great importance to when you first hear it. It's a stark visual image that still makes my hair stand up when I see it.

Yet I don't want to pretend that even these moments are triumphs of savvy writing. The fact that the film works at all is a testament to the three actors who portray the doomed filmmakers -- Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams. The "script" for this movie was really just a sequence of events that the actors improvised around. I mentioned earlier that I may question some of their behavior, but I never question their emotion. The exhaustion, the hopelessness, and most of all the panic and fear -- I believe every minute of it. Heather Donahue is especially good in her role, ratcheting up the tension a little more in every new scene.

I should probably also briefly acknowledge two stories from my past that definitely "prime the pump" for me to love this movie.

Once, at age 14, I became lost in the woods at night while on a hiking trip. Alright, to be fair, I was only "lost" for about 30 seconds, and I was within earshot of about 20 people who could have come to my aid if I'd decided to go into full panic mode. So you'd be well within your rights to claim that this doesn't count. But I can still easily access the intense feeling of total panic I felt in those few moments, and this movie can too.

Secondly, at a much younger age, I once had a misadventure in an empty house. I won't bore you with the particulars of the story. (That's code for: "I'm too embarrassed to tell you.") But once again, it's a memory that brings up some raw emotions, and the abandoned house climax of this film reaches that feeling too.

So, wrap that all up in one (creepy, twig bundle) package, and I rate the movie an A- today. I still love it, even though I can now more readily acknowledge it has some flaws. That does kick the movie off the lofty perch it held on my old top 100 list, though I'm fairly certain it will still retain a spot somewhere on the new list once (if ever) I complete it.