Saturday, January 19, 2013

Star Trek: Enterprise, Season Four

Well, this is certainly interesting. Frustrating, surprising, and interesting. This final season of Enterprise was not at all what I expected, and I'm sure I'll have a lot to say about that as we go through this together. Let's jump right in. Only 22 episodes left in all of Star Trek.

1. Storm Front, Part I
2. Storm Front, Part II (my rating, both episodes: 1 out of 5)
Okay, well, the second we got back from the Xindi War, we immediately went into the thing I'm most tired of in Star Trek: time travel. So now we're back in 1944 with Nazis and aliens dressed as Nazis and mobsters because The Sopranos was popular and it's all very annoying and very drawn out. The only upside of this long, boring two-parter is that apparently this presses the undo button on everything about this long-running Temporal Cold War subplot, and that I'm all for. Daniels literally steps in and tells Archer that stopping this guy Vosk from completing his time machine and traveling into the timestream somehow undoes everything that he's done and will do, so the Temporal Cold War will, I don't know, never have happened or something. And it's over. It's done. No more of this Suliban stuff, no more time travel stuff, and all of that is completely behind us. So that's the silver lining here; it may have taken way too long to do it, but Enterprise finally drops this shit and gets us the hell away from it. Good call.

3. Home (3/5)
Okay, now the crew gets to go home after successfully averting war with the Xindi and saving Earth from the Xindi superweapon, an event so momentous and important that it will basically have no effect on the rest of the series and, except for a stress dream that Archer has in this episode, we will never see the Xindi ever again. So... something. Anyway, this is Enterprise's version of my favorite TNG episode, "Family," where everyone sort of decompresses and deals with the trauma. I wish it more interesting. We get bits of the xenophobia that's now happening on Earth, and Archer goes into the mountains to climb and get away from everything. The most interesting aspect is that T'Pol invites Trip to her mother's home on Vulcan; I liked some of the stuff on Vulcan. I like T'Pol's arc, even though it leads to her getting married here (to Koss, if anyone remembers him from a couple of seasons ago) to help her mother. I have to say, I don't like Vulcan society where it is at this point. It's very rigid, very corrupt, and I'm surprised by how emotional Vulcans can be. Not openly happy or whatever, but they're often selfish, duplicitous, self-satisfied (even smug) and constantly disapproving. To my surprise, this actually gets addressed this season, building on some of the better first and second season episodes about mind melds. Joanna Cassidy is interesting as T'Pol's mother, T'Les. It's also neat to start seeing Earth's second warp five ship, the NX-02 Columbia.

4. Borderland (2/5)
Well, now we've shed ourselves of the Temporal Cold War and sort of re-established all the characters, it's time for the show to start moving forward with actual missions again. Brent Spiner appears here as Dr. Arik Soong, who apparently was involved in eugenics, secretly raising a group of augments. Now the augments have killed a Klingon crew and stolen a Bird of Prey, which could result in war with the Klingons, so now Archer has to enlist Dr. Soong to help him track those kids down. The augments are kind of silly; they're painfully earnest. They're military geniuses, but they act (and dress) more like an errant street gang from a 1981 movie about, I don't know, post-apocalyptic tribal rapping or something. I kept waiting for a breakdancing competition to break out. Hard to take seriously. And then there's this whole business with some of the crew getting kidnapped by Orion slavers, which is really just filler and a distraction, because I guess Road Warrior Babies and Brent Spiner playing Hannibal Lecter couldn't fill the whole hour. Also, this is the last time we'll ever see JG Hertzler as a (here unnamed) Klingon.

5. Cold Station 12 (3/5)
A big improvement over the previous episode. Here the augments want to steal all the remaining augment DNA from a medical research station, and will kill to get it. The main conflict--Soong's desire to protect and guide his "children" versus their willingness to be ruthless and solve a lot of their problems with murder--is much more immediate. It helps that Spiner is very good in this, and there are some truly tense, suspenseful scenes at Cold Station 12. There's some real issues being addressed: the right to life, interfering in evolution, whether eugenics are ethical. And the ending is actually kind of heartbreaking.

6. The Augments (2/5)
Now it's starting to feel dragged out. It doesn't help that the kids playing the augments are hamming it up, waiting for that Motley Crue video to start shooting. I didn't appreciate the references to Khan and the Botany Bay so much, because they felt less organic and more like "Ha ha, wink wink, am I right, Trekkers?" But Spiner's good; he was a fun guest star to have, though I think they could have made his characterization a little more consistent. This is really where the show goes back to being a prequel series.

7. The Forge (4/5)
Wow. The teaser on this episode really gets the ball rolling: the Earth embassy on Vulcan is bombed right in the opening, and Admiral Forrest is killed. The Vulcan High Command finds DNA evidence that the bomber was T'Pau (yes, T'Pau from "Amok Time") and a group of Vulcan revolutionaries called Syrranites, who follow the teachings of Syrran, who has a different interpretation of the teachings of Surak, the father of Vulcan logic. It's here that we really start exploring the corruption endemic in the Vulcan High Command, and I'm glad that this gets explored, because it's been surprising on this series just how imperious the Command can really be. It's also nice because this finally gives Ambassador Soval the chance to come forward and be principled, instead of just being the guy who holds Archer back and disapproves of everything. He really lays it on the line to help Earth and the Enterprise, even going as far as to mind meld to get key information. Finally, this character really steps forward. Archer and T'Pol in the most forbidding part of the Vulcan desert--the Forge--is really neat just to see what the Vulcan landscape is like, including energy storms and FINALLY a Sehlat!

Even with the dodgy fx, that just made me one happy geek. We finally start exploring the idea of the katra, too--T'Pol thinks it's a myth--and more of what we would consider Vulcan ideas. Archer taking possession of Surak's katra is an interesting development, too...

What's important here, too, is that with this episode, Star Trek novelists Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens take direct control of the story direction. Where Berman & Braga have been tiresomely milking a franchise for some time since the third season of Voyager and repeating themselves over and over, the Reeves-Stevenses come into this show and start making it Star Trek again. The show really starts to reverse itself right here.

8. Awakening (4/5)
Continuing into a second episode, I'm not so interested in the Syrranites as a group (though it is interesting that T'Pol's mother would be one of them and it would cause a rift between them, as Syrranites are seen as basically rebels), but more in the Vulcan politics we get involved in on this episode. Robert Foxworth guest stars as Administrator V'Las, head of the Vulcan High Command, and we suddenly get a sense that relations between Vulcan and Earth are very frayed; V'Las wants to wipe out and murder the Syrranites and is even willing to destroy Enterprise and kill Soval to cover it up. He comes across at times as dangerously unhinged, but I like that they introduce the idea that he's following logic to a ruthless extreme. Soval continues to be a suddenly great character. I love the moment he has with Trip on the Enterprise when Trip asks Soval why he would help when he's seemed so remote until now.

Soval: "I lived on Earth for more than 30 years, Commander. In that time I developed an affinity for your world and its people."

Trip: "You did a pretty good job of hiding it."

Soval, genuinely touched: "Thank you."

9. Kir'Shara (4/5)
And the conclusion to this Vulcan trilogy. I love how they're doing mini-arcs this season, and this one doesn't feel like there's a ton of filler--the augment arc seemed draggy. We continue our exploration into what is apparently a more pure Surakian logic, including the mind meld (T'Pau uses it to cure T'Pol's Pa'nar syndrome; apparently the High Command claimed it was incurable merely because they don't want to cure it) and the idea that compassion and logic can intertwine. This is the first step, then, toward the Vulcan we know from the later series and saw through Spock and Sarek. Also: points for Commander Shran appearing. He'll appear a lot this season, and continues to be one of the greatest characters in all of Star Trek. Some major developments in this episode: first, the war between Vulcan and Andoria is averted (V'Las had tried to agitate by claiming the Andorians were in possession of the Xindi superweapon prototype that we saw destroyed last season on "Proving Ground"). Second, the Vulcan High Command is dissolved, which will eventually lead to the Council and a more enlightened path, and which also means that Vulcan will no longer be babysitting Earth, but now sees Earth as an equal in the galactic community. Third, Surak's katra is given to the Vulcan priesthood, meaning greater reforms in Vulcan logic. And fourth, T'Pol is let out of her marriage. Oh, and fifth, there's a tease at the end where--spoiler, I guess, although if you're reading this you probably don't care--we discover that much of what V'Las was doing was an attempt to drive the Vulcans to seek protection from the Romulan Star Empire. An early attempt at reunification, but here through conquest rather than diplomacy. Interesting stuff.

A side note: I've read where, as the show progressed, some of the writers were hoping to make it clear that T'Pol's own father was a Romulan spy. I'm so glad they didn't do that. I think it cheapens and weakens her character, providing an unnecessary "explanation" for why she had so much trouble with her emotions. I much prefer her as fully Vulcan but imperfect.

10. Daedalus (3/5)
It maybe doesn't come off all the way, but is a very interesting idea. Here we get Bill Cobbs (always like him) as the inventor of the transporter, who comes aboard Enterprise to test a radical upgrade. He's been experimenting with sub quantum teleportation, but tests of the procedure apparently killed his son. What he's actually doing in this episode is looking for his son's lost transporter signal; apparently the son's actually been trapped as an energy signature and Cobbs wants to save him if he can. It's a fascinating science fiction device; they avoid a lot of the "science gone wrong" doomsaying. It's not a Killer Holodeck episode, as it were, or a science scare story, but a story about a tragic mistake made while testing new science. That's another thing this show made stabs at in the first two seasons but never quite carried off. They don't cop out on the ending, either.

11. Observer Effect (5/5)
This is a fantastic episode for any Star Trek series. It's just pure Star Trek. It's very suspenseful, too. Here we have two incorporeal beings observing--by taking over regular characters--the effects of a disease on the Enterprise crew. Apparently this is how their race (the Organians, would you believe?) decides to make first contact with other races: when a ship comes to a planet they know to be infected, they watch how the crew deals with the problems of it. Here, compassion and ethics sort of carry the day, as Trip and Hoshi get sicker and sicker and Archer and Phlox try to save them. It's a great premise for an episode, and one that is actually written very well and in character. Just a great episode of television, something I thought this series was incapable of. Like I said, it really got turned around. By this point, I'm actually sorry that this is the only season left. If the show could stay as good as it is at this point, I would gladly watch another four seasons of it. And to think, after "Storm Front," I never wanted to see another episode of this again. I had to force myself to keep going. What a wonderful surprise.

12. Babel One (5/5)
Apparently the Andorians are also more or less at war with the Tellarites. Aggressive race, the Andorians. God, how I would love for the next Trek series to really explore the Andorians the way we've gotten to explore the Klingons and the Ferengi. Here, the Enterprise is escorting a Tellarite ambassador (played by Lee Arenberg in a very fun performance) to a peace treaty meeting with the Andorian ambassador, but ships are being attacked. Enter Commander Shran (and Talas, my sexy Andorian bride!), whose ship has been destroyed and left adrift by a Tellarite ship. Everyone's ready to go to war with everyone else, but the reality is that the Romulans are using a telepathically controlled ship that is capable of cloaking itself to appear as any other ship--Tellarite, Vulcan, Andorian, even the Enterprise--as the Romulan Star Empire attempts to destabilize the galaxy and hinder further alliances from forming. And we get to see Brian Thompson as a Romulan, which is pretty cool.

13. United (5/5)
Lots going on in a suspenseful, action-filled episode. Shran is onboard the Enterprise and out for Tellarite blood, leading to a great duel between Archer and Shran that actually solidifies their friendship. Trip and Reed are trapped on the Romulan ship, and play a great cat and mouse game trying to disable it while its remote Romulan commanders try to keep its existence a secret and destroy any potential alliance between Tellar and Andoria. This is the middle part of my favorite arc on this series, and some of the best Star Trek in a long time.

Apparently this was the episode that got Enterprise canceled, and it's a real shame. It was a series low in viewers, and after 18 years since TNG began, Star Trek was canceled. It's just frustrating because the creative team on this show were really turning it into great, compelling television again. And you can really only blame Berman & Braga for this, because they just tiredly milked the franchise into the ground, not really worrying about story or making Star Trek great. It was just laziness. They never really turned Voyager into something cohesive; hell, read anything Ron Moore had to say about the show. He's exactly right: no one behind the scenes cared about anything more than the politics of the show and keeping it going because they had regular paychecks and Paramount was making money. That's why Enterprise has mostly been listless and half-hearted; because not enough people on the creative team feel the urgency of making great science fiction television. And that's why the viewer fatigue just set in. Because if Star Trek had always been quality, people would still be watching it every week. Instead it settled into a niche and only rarely got out of it.

I personally feel like the decline starts during the final two seasons of TNG, where the producers are more worried about spin-offs and ancillaries and less worried about keeping up the quality of seasons 3-5. They start coasting. Luckily, the right people got on Deep Space Nine, because that show is great and different. But Voyager just never completely gelled, and the movies got lamer and lamer until no one cared. Viewership started to decline, and by the time they got to Enterprise, they weren't treating it like a new series; it was just seasons 22 through 25 of Star Trek, a corporate brand that was running into the ground. All of the stuff going on at the show at this point is great, but 98% of the audience is no longer around to see it because of years of not trying very hard. Everyone's tired of it. And so Paramount shuttered the operation.

Honestly, since I'm off on this tangent now, it's Berman & Braga you can be mad at if you really hate that JJ Abrams movie. What no one seems to realize anymore or wants to be honest with themselves about is this: you all gave up on Star Trek. Just admit that. And I'm not blaming anyone, because Star Trek hadn't been compelling or enjoyable for years. It's because of B&B. They ran it into the ground and didn't care. It was the same thing over and over and over and everyone got tired of it. We've all admitted that many times over. But Paramount didn't step in and say, well, obviously the wrong people are in charge and there needs to be a shake-up to get things going again. Instead they said, well, it's been nearly 20 years, people must be sick of it, let's end it. So the truth is--and again, I'm not blaming the audience, because why should they sit still for a show that's half-assing its way to nowhere--around 2001 everyone said "Ugh, I'm so sick of Star Trek" and abandoned it, Paramount decided people wanted something younger and newer and slicker and more action-oriented, and now those same people who couldn't stand any more Trek a decade ago are, like, angry and hurt that they're not getting more of the same thing they were bored with previously.

Yeah, it sucks. I'd like to see Trek get creative on TV, as much as I enjoyed the stupid-but-fun movie. I enjoyed it a lot, even though I don't really even consider it "real" Star Trek. "Real" Star Trek will be once we get back to our established timeline a little further in the future, which is what I hope and think it will do. Which means I don't have to waste my time being offended by JJ Abrams.

But seriously, it's all Rick Berman and Brannon Braga's fault, and damn them for scorching the earth with their laziness and complacency.

Let's get back to the show now. Rant over.

14. The Aenar (5/5)
Now it's revealed that the telepath commanding the Romulan ship is an Aenar--a race of blind, telepathic, albino, pacifist Andorians--so Shran and Archer need to go to these people and ask for their help. It's especially exciting for me because we get to see a little bit of Andoria itself, which is a planet of ice and snow. I like how it reflects the cold, aggressive Andorian temperament, the same way the harsh desert of Vulcan reflects the hard calm of those people. You can see why they would be at war; the aggressive passion against cool logic. The Aenar are an interesting people, too; I like the closeness that develops between Shran and the girl who agrees to help, Jhamel (although, come on, Talas just died). Archer's plan to find the cloaked Romulan drones uses 128 ships, including the Columbia and Vulcan, Tellarite and Andorian ships, all working together. This is the real beginning of what will lead to the Federation, and it's surprisingly uplifting to see it all in action.

Also, I want to mention that there's one incredible visual in this episode, of Tucker and Reed leaping out of the exploding Romulan drone ship, floating off into space, and being rescued by the Enterprise as it passes over them. This show is suddenly doing spectacle really well without doing it for its own sake.

15. Affliction (4/5)
I'm not a fan of Trip's decision to transfer to the Columbia basically because he's so in love with T'Pol that he can't work with her anymore. I wish they weren't being so tentative about this and would just let them have the romance they tried to awkwardly shoehorn into the previous season. This is the episode that pissed everyone off by offering a canonical explanation for why the Klingons didn't have forehead ridges on the original series. It's still amusing to me that they had to offer one, but it's actually very well explained without seeming too much like the whole point of this episode and the next are just continuity porn. Plus, John Schuck and John Avery are very compelling as Klingons. The whole thing is a virus that developed because a Klingon geneticist was trying to create Klingon augments.

16. Divergence (3/5)
This episode has one of the most genuinely suspenseful moments I've ever seen on Star Trek, with the Enterprise and the Columbia both traveling at warp speed while trying to get Trip back aboard the Enterprise to reboot the warp engines. The solution is to put one ship under the other and have him slide over to the other ship on a cable, and it's really exciting.
It's annoyingly rare in Star Trek that the people behind the show realize there's no up or down or horizontal plane in space, and this was a great moment to use that to its fullest effect.

There's also a subplot in both of these episodes involving Malcolm Reed and Section 31, which Reed once worked for. It would have been interesting to see the show explore Section 31 a little more, like DS9 did, but this show doesn't quite make it as interesting.

17. Bound (4/5)
Alien babes. Here the Enterprise is approached by Harrad-Sar, an Orion pirate who wants to cooperate with Starfleet in a mining operation. Harrad-Sar is a fantastic character, one I like to think we'd have seen again in a fifth season; he's an amoral but charming pirate, and sort of larger than life. Of course, there's a double cross, and lots of amusing scenes with three Orion women he's given to the Enterprise and who cause all kind of lustful havoc aboard the ship. There's an interesting idea here, that the Orion women give off a pheromone that can make men highly suggestible, which Harrad-Sar admits basically puts women in charge of Orion society; the men are the real slaves. I would've loved to explore this idea further.

18. In a Mirror, Darkly, Part I (3/5)
Okay, I was not all that excited by another trip to the Mirror Universe. I don't know why Star Trek can't let this concept die, but here we are, with everyone acting evil and their ludicrous evil hair and evil makeup. What is nice is that we don't exactly have an instance here of crossover; it just takes place in the Mirror Universe. They can't really cross because, of course, "Mirror, Mirror" was first contact. Where the episode really starts to get interesting is that Starfleet is at war with the Tholians, and this leads Archer to, actually, a sequel to original series episode "The Tholian Web." Remember how the USS Defiant disappeared in that episode? Well, guess where it ended up.
That's right: in the claws of the Tholians in the past in the Mirror Universe. And when Archer and crew steal it, then things get... well, surprisingly nice.

19. In a Mirror, Darkly, Part II (4/5)
Archer steals the Defiant, and oh my gosh, how nice to be on that Constitution class bridge and hear those wonderful sound effects from the original series. The crew even puts on original series uniforms (Archer's in that old green wraparound fave, the fatshirt). And we see this ship in battle, destroying enemy ships. Because, jeez, if you've got it, how could you resist showing this thing in action on an episode like this?
It's just kind of glorious. It's a real love letter to the original series, which is how I know B&B weren't so heavily involved in the story direction anymore, because those assholes hate the original series. Majel Barrett is even the voice of the Defiant computer. Archer fights a freaking Gorn. As much as I don't care about the Mirror Universe, this was totally the way to get me involved: by basically doing a big crossover episode with the original series. That was just too good to pass up. So the whole thing is basically inconsequential--it has zero bearing on the "real" canon universe--but it's a fun ride.

20. Demons (4/5)
We're really getting towards the end here, and it's just too damn bad. I'm sorry it's going out. Here we have a xenophobic Earth faction of terrorists called Terra Prime who are trying to stop a formal alliance between Earth, Vulcan, Tellar, Andoria, Denobula, Coridan and Rigel (the first step towards a United Federation of Planets). They basically end up taking over a Mars station to turn a deflector array into a weapon with the intention of isolating Earth and kicking out any alien interference. It's realistic that this would happen, and another of the many steps they've taken away from Gene Roddenberry's idea that all humans in the future are basically flawless. Peter Weller is quite good as the Terra Prime leader. There's an interesting subplot, too, with an alien child who was created out of T'Pol's and Tucker's genetic material in order to discredit the widely-held belief that their biologies are incompatible and scare humans with the idea that they will eventually be bred out and disappear into an alien gene pool.

21. Terra Prime (4/5)
It's an action-packed finale--I consider this the real finale, which I'll discuss in the next entry--with some great character moments. It's interesting to see T'Pol as a mother, however briefly, and there's a very sad, emotional climax for her and Trip that I quite liked. I like to think that from that moment on, they were just together. There's also, I should mention, a great arc on these two episodes for Travis Mayweather, who finally gets something to do, since he's been all but forgotten. I think it's here where Manny Coto, Mike Sussman and Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens really had to end their show. This is the real finale, and it ends on a somber but hopeful note, and after a wonderfully optimistic speech from Captain Archer that is the real goodbye to these characters and their voyages. And god damn it, I wish there were another three seasons or more of this show, the show it should have been all along.

22. These Are the Voyages... (2/5)
While I didn't hate it, I'm certainly with the group of people who feel that Enterprise threw away its season finale. B&B came in on the last one, reminded everyone who was really in charge, and turned it into a Next Gen episode. The whole thing basically takes place on the holodeck or aboard the Enterprise-D, and during the TNG episode "The Pegasus," when Riker was struggling with whether or not to admit to Captain Picard the truth about that lost ship. As inspiration, he watches the final mission of the NX-01, which takes place six years in the future from the episode we just watched.

The good points: it's genuinely suspenseful. If Trip Tucker has to die, at least it gets to be a heroic sacrifice and he even gets to go out getting the last word in. Commander Shran is all over the episode, and we meet the adorable daughter he apparently had with Jhemal. It's optimistic about the impending creation of the Federation. Each character gets a good moment to say goodbye, even though mostly they're just talking about Trip. And it ends in a way that actually makes me glad I got to know these characters and makes me wish for more. I lament the years I didn't get to spend with them, which is a total turnaround from the way I felt about this series.

The bad points: it feels like a fuck you to the show. It's not satisfying as a conclusion. It doesn't really care about that. It undercuts the drama to make these scenes simply pieces in Commander Riker's (and Counselor Troi's) holodeck observations. Tucker's death feels forced simply to add suspense and drama, and has no real value. I think it's bullshit that he and T'Pol aren't together anymore, especially after the emotional conclusion of the previous episode; it seems like plot contrivance, so they don't have to write a big scene of T'Pol reacting to Trip's death, because B&B (who wrote the episode) aren't interested in these characters anymore. And much of the episode is barreling towards Archer's big speech to the assembled audience at the signing of the Federation charter, and then we don't even get to hear the speech, ostensibly because it just doesn't matter to the decision Riker makes for himself (which itself contradicts how "The Pegasus" goes down), and fuck the fans who wanted it to end that way. Also, I feel bad for Jonathan Frakes that this was a whole opportunity for people to point out how much puffier and heavier and older Riker looked as compared to the actual TNG episode.

But mostly, it's just a disservice to the show, the makers of the show, the cast, the characters, and the audience. I get that, on the one hand, this was B&B saying goodbye to the collective 18 years of Star Trek the Paramount brand and, for a little while, American institution. But it was also an offhand way of saying that Enterprise, as a series, just didn't matter because it wasn't as popular. Like I said, it's a fuck you. They couldn't even let the series go out as itself. There's no sense of closure or significant character development because ultimately what we see has no real consequence except as sideline filler for a decade-old Next Generation episode. There's not even a conclusion to the Enterprise story. It's poorly handled. There's no resolution. The message seems to be "Hey, wasn't it great when we were popular and everyone loved Next Generation? Let's pretend that never stopped." Mainly because B&B never acknowledged that it did.

And here we are at the tragic ending of a show that, against all expectation, had suddenly started to remember the wonder and grandeur and excitement of space travel, of exploration, of an optimistic future. It was becoming colorful and smart and engrossing and exciting. It was on its way to being something that was purely Star Trek but with its own voice.

And then it was cut short and Rick Berman and Branon Braga decided to act like none of that had ever happened. I hope those two are never allowed to produce any Star Trek ever again.

Too bad. 25 seasons of Star Trek, and it ends with a whimper and a throw-away.

I sincerely hope we get back to Star Trek again. I think we will. I just think it's going to take a while longer.


Friday, January 18, 2013

Les Miserables

Oh, holy shit.

I'm trying to come up with a word to describe my feelings about this movie, and the word I keep coming up with is "ordeal." This was an ordeal. This was less a film than an endurance test. What do I get for surviving it?

I know there are a lot of people loving this movie, but I'm definitely not one of them. Some people have found the film uplifting and transformative. I found it almost completely unbearable. I'm not saying it makes me smarter than anyone else, I'm just telling you: I will be perfectly happy to never experience this flick ever again in my life. If you loved it, hey, good for you. I'm glad you found a film to love when, frankly, so many films are unlovable in this day and age. But it's just not for me at all.

Granted, I have zero experience of the musical. Maybe I'd like the film more if I'd loved the musical for years, although I think if you have to already have that going in just to appreciate it, the film hasn't done its job. I do know people who went into it without really having experienced the musical and who came out loving it. I don't know what they saw in it. I'd love to hear from them. I found it remote, ugly, emotionless, and lacking in humanity. There were glimmers now and then, but mostly it was... grotesque.

This film is critically flawed on nearly every technical level. The direction is awful. It's an ugly film to watch; even just looking at it is a nightmare for the eye. So much cutting; the camera sweeps over everything, but can't hold a shot for more than a few seconds before cutting to another angle, another close-up... everything's in close-up. It's just heads singing at each other. There's almost no interaction between the actors. Nothing registers because the camera is just sweeping over everything or close in on the actor's heads with handheld shots. It's never still. I think that's a real problem. I felt like I couldn't look at the goddamn thing. It's really hard to get to know characters when we can't even just slow down and look at them for a minute or two. The camera doesn't invite you in to the drama, it just insists on itself. It is so goddamn insistent about its own perceived greatness.

There are only a few instances where the film stops swirling around itself and gives us some powerful scenes of characters just singing their emotions, and in those instances, the film makes a real connection. Anne Hathaway is going to win an Oscar for her "I Dreamed a Dream" performance, played in one unbroken take, and she deserves to. (The scene's so good it makes up for the fact that she totally overplays her death scene.) It's a great glimpse into what the film could have been: a moving drama of humanity, rather than the giant mess it is.

The story itself just isn't there. It's not a story. It's amazing how much it's not a story. It's not a narrative, it's not anything. It's a collection of vaguely-related scenes, and even though the film feels 36 hours long, it's not enough. I feel like I'm watching Highlights of Les Miserables. We keep jumping around, and the film wants to pull so many threads together and none of them seem related. One minute we're watching this intense drama of Jean Valjean trying to escape the injustice of Javert, and then it's suddenly revolution in the air, and then suddenly we're in this terrible Nelson Eddy/Jeanette MacDonald movie because Eddie Redmayne saw Amanda Seyfried across the street for five seconds and is now madly in epic love with her.

It presents itself as an epic. It insists that it is. But the scope is very small. It's not big, it's just loud. And long. Very, very long. And it still feels at times like entire acts are missing. It's not a story so much as a collection of performances being performed at one another.

The tone of the film is all over the place. It wants to be both a musical and a gritty historical drama, but it doesn't work. It never mixes together. Some of the songs are so silly and precious that they would only work in the stylized reality of a musical, but director Tom Hooper wants to show all of the dirt and suffering and blood and shit that surrounds these characters and this time in history. Any potential lightness or comic relief is jarringly out of place and drowned out by the dirge-like songs and grotesque weirdness. It's like an empty Tim Burton movie; he doesn't know how people work, either. And any potential drama or seriousness is killed by another scene of Sacha Baron Cohen wandering around in a bizarre parody of a Dickens character.

The actors all seem like they're in different movies, and they're often directed as if they were, too. Hugh Jackman is in a musical. Russell Crowe is in a music video. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are doing the most grating panto. Eddie Redmayne is... I don't know what the hell he's doing.

Let's talk about the cast.

Hugh Jackman is mostly excellent. It's great to see him in a musical, and he sings well. Russell Crowe is... well, he's kind of jarringly hysterical at first, but as the film goes on, I think he gets better. Or maybe I got used to him. I think he's got some really great moments. The two of them deserved a better movie. And Anne Hathaway has one incredible scene.

Sacha Baron Cohen is a nightmare. His accent is purposeless and all over the map. He's not funny, he's not creepy, he's just annoying. Is he just going to get it through his head one day that he's not Peter Sellers? And Helena Bonham Carter continues to just play Jack Sparrow in everything. I fucking hate her, especially in movies like this. They're both terrible.

Amanda Seyfried is pretty. She was better in Mamma Mia!, a movie I fucking hated, but at least she could sing. Here, she's doing this Disney princess trill that's cloying. Eddie Redmayne can't sing at all. Talk about trying too hard. He makes Russell Crowe sound like Pavarotti. I take back the Eddy/MacDonald comment from earlier. These two are like the Eddy/MacDonald parodies Wayne and Wanda on The Muppet Show, with all of the pomposity that was supposed to be punctured as a joke in those sketches. I kept hoping Crazy Harry would wander in and blow something up. They're so painfully earnest. Too bad Samantha Barks gets wasted as Eponine; I'm unfamiliar with her, but she could actually sing. And Aaron Tveit can actually sing, too; he should have Redmayne's role, because Redmayne singing is a trial harder to get through than Redmayne acting.

The film is much more interested in thundering, raw emotion than in clarity. Unfortunately, the emotion just doesn't connect. Everything is too much, too loud, too in your face, too aware of itself. If this thing had just slowed down and told a story, it probably could have been something. Instead, it's just a lot of yelling and crying and shooting and other noise, and everything is drowned by the mad assault on your senses and cloying Cockney children and unearned emotional smugness.

I hated this movie. I hated it so much. I've never been so happy to see an incoherent film lumber eventually towards an unsatisfying ending. I highly do not recommend it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

Apparently they do Simpsons theatrical shorts now? I thought it was okay. A little derivative, but well-animated. It was interesting that the cartoon had no dialogue and didn't rely too heavily on pop culture references... ***

Excellent Danish film about court politics, romance and idealism at the court of the mad King Christian VII of Denmark. Set during the Enlightenment, when Denmark had yet to follow the rest of Europe in a fit of progressivism, it tells the story of three people--the mad king, his reluctant queen, and his idealistic personal doctor--against a backdrop of frustrating politicking. Mads Mikkelsen is quite good as the doctor; Mikkel Folsgaard is excellent and sympathetic as a king with severe emotional problems who is misunderstood and virtually ignored by a council that regards him only as a figurehead to ensure their continued power. I don't know if it's strictly historical, but it's an excellent story and beautifully filmed. It's engaging and affecting; it doesn't forget that there are human characters at its center, people who try to change history and are shaped by circumstance, rather than ciphers of ideas. ****

I liked this film about the hunt for bin Laden, but I admit, I wasn't especially entertained or gripped by it. It's a docudrama, not a story, and as such there aren't really characters, but people who move through it and whom things happened to. It's well-filmed and edited, visceral and engrossing. I don't know about the torture debate or the vigilantism the film is being charged with, necessarily; I don't think the film is endorsing torture or showing us that torture worked (as some, including Glenn Greenwald, have charged) so much as just showing us this was a fact of what happened. The torture scenes are visceral and troubling enough that I really don't see how anyone could look at them and say that this is an endorsement of torture; it seemed really to be there to show Jessica Chastain's troubled reaction and later becoming inured to it as a fact of her job... I don't know, there's not really enough to the film for me to see a moral stance in either direction. Same thing with the vigilantism. Could we have taken bin Laden alive and tried him as a criminal? I still think so, but the film doesn't bother with the idea, probably because our government didn't seem to. Even when he was campaigning in 2008, Obama was talking about killing bin Laden, not capturing him. I think those are questions for a different movie, though. Zero Dark Thirty doesn't fail in raising them because it's not a movie about about that. It's just the facts of what happened, with no propaganda and no political discussion. And it's engrossing, but it's not great filmmaking. ***

Surprisingly likable movie that I expected not to like. Bradley Cooper, in his best performance (he's an actor I don't care for), plays a man just getting out of a mental institution who becomes involved with his father's weird sports superstitions, his shaky family, and a woman with problems of her own who may or may not be able to help him get his ex wife back. It raises a lot of interesting questions about what constitutes mental health, I think; certainly Cooper has rage issues, but is he any crazier than his father (Robert De Niro), who has OCD problems and has turned the smallest habits into mysticism that he believes affects the outcomes of sports games? It's surprising, too, how the film takes these oddball characters and turns its material into a conventional romcom that hinges on winning the big game. But it's a very likable movie that I found easy to relate to (what with my anger/emotional issues). Jennifer Lawrence, though...I haven't been convinced. Five movies now, and I just don't see the talent everyone keeps going on about. This movie worked for me in spite of her performance, which is a testament to the script and direction considering she's the big romantic lead. I'm sure that's just me. It's David O. Russell's best film since Three Kings, I think, but that might just be me, too. ***1/2

ARGO (2012)
Wonderfully entertaining and gripping film about the "Canadian Caper," in which an American CIA agent and the Canadian government got six American diplomats out of Tehran during the hostage crisis by pretending to be location scouting a Hollywood movie. It's an interesting bit of modern history that makes a fantastic movie, one of the best of the year. Ben Affleck has directed three great, entertaining films now, and I hope he really focuses more on directing instead of going back to acting in nine duds a year. It's a taut political thriller and a hilarious satire of Hollywood (Alan Arkin and John Goodman steal it), and very involving. The third act is especially great; Affleck raises the tension to an almost unbearable level, so much so that you are genuinely relieved by the ending, almost uplifted. That man knows how to manipulate an audience for effect. Great cast. I already want to see this again, and I think I'll probably see it many more times in the future. ****

Monday, January 14, 2013

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Song of the Week: "The Blue Lamp"

Well, now I can't quit with the Heavy Metal soundtrack. It's because I'm reading Dune and thinking of early 80s sci-fi and all the weird, fascinating music that went with it. Weird that I've never had Stevie Nicks up before; I used to hear her album Bella Donna all the time as a kid.