Friday, February 10, 2012

Star Trek: Enterprise, Season One

Alright, let's get to the rest of this season. It's a mixed bag, but so far the elements and characters I like are slightly outweighing the elements and characters I don't like. I don't dislike it enough to stop watching it, but as Jon K pointed out in the comments of my previous Enterprise post, watching this show in blocks really helps. If I had to wait a week between episodes and then got to some of the dumber episodes of this season, I would've given up in frustration. I'm so happy to be alive during the DVD set/streaming age.

2. Fight or Flight (my rating: 2 out of 5)
This is exactly what I referred to in my post on the pilot: this episode wants to do something bold and in a much different tone than we've previously seen on spin-off Trek, but then Berman and Braga (B&B, henceforth) lose their nerve and default to something we've seen repeated countless times across the previous three series. This episode has the opportunity to really develop the tension and danger of space exploration and culture clash, with some great, stark scenes of Archer, Hoshi and Malcolm aboard the Axanar ship and discovering a dead crew. So First Contact with this race goes horribly wrong, as another Axanar ship assumes the Starfleet crew murdered their people, and Hoshi's difficulty in communicating with them proves almost disastrous. That's some great stuff. But instead of keeping up the tension, B&B instead focus on Hoshi's self-confidence, and it becomes soppy and frustrating. Hoshi seemed quite capable in the pilot, but here she's very much the simpering little girl character that B'Elanna Torres was, only marginally less angry. Hoshi doesn't go for anger, instead she goes right to self-pity, as though her ability to decipher alien linguistics was simply too hard for her to deal with. Seriously? That's, like, her only job. I guess B&B felt that in these pre-universal translator times, they needed an entire episode to justify having a translator on the bridge. Unfortunately, this episode--easily summed up with one dismissive sentence: "Hoshi learns self-confidence... for the first time"--practically makes her a Mary Sue. Or a Wesley Crusher, if you like. Oh, and the way self-confidence manifests itself is apparently to take your pet alien slug and leave it alone with no others of its kind on a totally alien planet. That thing was probably eaten by a hawk or a bat seconds after Hoshi was gone...

3. Strange New World (1/5)
The One Where the Crew Goes Crazy Paranoid on an Alien World. It feels like B&B think they can get away with visiting tropes from TOS simply because, chronologically, this is the first time this stuff happened to a Starfleet crew. As if this negates the fact that they're recycling plots from 35 years earlier. Heavily borrowing from at least three TOS episodes, an entire away team (except for T'Pol, who as a Vulcan will always be plot-conveniently immune to anything that affects humans) succumbs to pollen that causes hallucinations, and it's all paranoia, particularly directed against the Vulcan. The tension between Earth and Vulcan is something I don't mind being explored, but I've seen "The Galileo Seven." I want to mention, too, that one of the things I like about this show is that the exploration mission is smaller, lighter and rougher than the 24th century shows--the crew compliment is something like 80 people--so I like how much more accessible the characters seem to be to one another. But focusing here so much on minor characters like Cutler and Novakovich seems like a mistake when we barely know the main characters yet. I like the moment where Porthos first steps foot on the unexplored world, and Trip jokes "Where no beagle has gone before." Cutesy, maybe, but very human. I want more human moments. I also like seeing some of the inherent problems with the matter transporter. Would love to see more of Travis Mayweather.

4. Unexpected (1/5)
The One Where a Male Crewman Experiences Alien Pregnancy. I don't know what annoys me more: that they're already going for the supposedly funny "man gets pregnant" plot, or the terrible pun in the title. I love the opening, where Archer's cabin loses gravity while he's in the shower. That's the kind of thing that is taken for granted on later series, but which makes sense and is amusing for Enterprise. Another human moment. I dig that. I would point out that it's silly to see a Klingon D7 around a hundred years too early, except that I just have a strong love for those D7 ships... Still, check out the D4 design on Memory Alpha that they didn't use. Neat stuff.

5. Terra Nova (3/5)
The One Where We Find a Lost Human Colony Underground. Still an ancient plot, but the first episode I've so far found really engaging. Part of it is the presence of more interesting actors, like Mary Carver and the always-welcome Erick Avari. But a larger part of it is just the way they handle this plot, with curiosity instead of condescension. Archer's self-doubt is realistic ("If I can't make First Contact with a human colony, I don't deserve to be here"), but not dwelt on to the point of garnering a pat ending. He works it out and then it's gone. He's very thoughtful in this episode.

6. The Andorian Incident (4/5)
Yes, here we go. This is almost everything I want from this show: exploring the characters through tension, more about the Vulcan culture, a deeper look at interesting aliens we haven't seen in a very long time, a grand and exciting plot that revolves around cultural relations and exploration, and Jeffrey Combs. God, I love Jeffrey Combs. After DS9, Star Trek feels wrong without him. I love him here as Commander Shran, the Andorian commando. I think it's fascinating here how the series is willing to question the methods of the Vulcan High Command without using easy racism or some other false mechanism. Worth noting, too, that this episode was co-written by Fred Dekker, the co-writer of two of my favorite movies from the 80s, House and The Monster Squad (which he also directed).

7. Breaking the Ice (3/5)
I can forgive the terrible pun in the title this time--referring both to Malcolm and Travis exploring the largest comet ever seen and to a meeting aboard the Enterprise between the Vulcan High Command and the command crew--because the episode is mostly a good character piece. We're seeing now that T'Pol is torn between Vulcan tradition and some kind of longing inside to explore the larger galaxy. We also see that she doesn't quite approve of what the Vulcan High Command does; at this point, she'd never openly rebel against them, but we're seeing a dissonance between the appearance of cold logic and the real difficulties of suppressing one's emotional responses. T'Pol is becoming a really fascinating character, and I want to see this delved into more often. On a technical note, the Vulcan High Command ship is just really cool.
It's especially nice to take a breather here and get to know the crew on a mundane level. The scene where Archer and the bridge crew answer questions submitted by students is a wonderful tribute to the many times NASA astronauts have done the same, even if we do find out some briefly disconcerting facts about what feces can be used for in the future... It's nice, because I did get weary in TNG with the way it seemed like every child was born a genius, and here we get a glimpse of education. I also like how often people actually eat on this show. Like people.

8. Civilization (1/5)
The One Where the Captain Makes It with an Alien Babe. While I do think the idea of the crew secretly interacting with a pre-warp society is an interesting look at what makes the Prime Directive important (though, honstly, you'd think this would've been a good reason for Starfleet to develop cloaking technology much earlier, especially since we've seen with the Suliban that it's already possible), it's pretty much your standard TOS-inspired alien babe romance episode. Yeah, there's a lot of guff about an alien crew doing the same thing but with much more potential to contaminate these people, but that's kind of a ham-fisted attempt to make our contamination less severe in comparison.

9. Fortunate Son (3/5)
Much better than the previous episode at using other characters--here the crew of the Earth freighter Fortunate--to paint the differences between how people can react to adversity. Here we have a crew that has grown tired of constant attacks by Nausicaan pirates and who--unknown to the crew of the Enterprise--has become willing to abduct, torture and murder to survive it. We get a direct conflict between Starfleet values and the reality of being in dangerous situations. Mayweather gets some decent scenes here.

10. Cold Front (2/5)
Some tense plotting, but for fuck's sake, more time travel. Archer gets more involved here with this Temporal Cold War and a Suliban plot to destroy the Enterprise and a crewman who is actually from 1000 years in the future. All of the tension (good editing, too) is unfortunately at the service of a plot that just made me wish it wasn't happening. B&B, stop it with the time travel! There's a great sequence where Daniels, the crewman from the future, shows Archer his holographic temporal map; it's just so colorful. Such good special effects on this show...

11. Silent Enemy (4/5)
I guess this is the inevitable submarine movie episode, but I like the tension here. We never even learn anything about the mysterious aliens who regard the Enterprise as such a threat; that seems like a more realistic kind of First Contact than simply meeting new aliens and shaking hands with them, which could be happening instead. It's neat how this is tied into the first attempt to bring the phase cannons online, reinforcing that the Enterprise was sent out before it was completely ready.

12. Dear Doctor (5/5)
The first really excellent episode of Enterprise, using as a plot device a letter that Dr. Phlox (a great character who really gets a chance to shine here) is writing to a colleague. Sort of like the episodes of M*A*S*H where Hawkeye used to write to his dad. In examining what Phlox's day to day is surrounded by humans and one Vulcan, we also get our first useful and interesting debate on what will eventually become the Prime Directive. Do we have the responsibility to help an alien species along simply because we have the technology to do it, or do we wait for them to find answers through their own ingenuity even if that means letting them die? Phlox and Archer have a real debate about it, a passionate and heated one, and that's more than I've come to expect from B&B. I'm so glad they really explored Phlox as a character as opposed to quirky comic relief.

13. Sleeping Dogs (3/5)
Another tense experience with the Klingons. I love the design of the IKS Somraw.
It's just such a neat design. On a technical level, this show is everything I could want Star Trek to be. Too bad about a lot of the writing... It seems like I saw a lot of this same plot on both DS9 AND Voyager. But I'm really into seeing more of Starfleet's early experiences with the Klingons and how the deep differences between the two cultures leads to the cold war (almost all-out war) in TOS. Also, chronologically speaking, we get our first Klingon babe. A warrior babe, too. And I like how Hoshi is calmed down by T'Pol here so that she can continue her away mission; Hoshi is apparently the character who is always going to be scared and traumatized, so here it's nice to see her just swallow it and get on with her job.

14. Shadows of P'Jem (4/5)
The triumphant return of Thy'lek Shran! I'm amused and enthused that his main motivation here for helping Captain Archer is simply that he owes Archer after the events of "The Andorian Incident." There's more exploration here of what seems to be a real underhandedness to the Vulcan High Command; this series doesn't implicitly trust the Vulcans as the peacemakers of the Federation; here there is no Federation, and despite their protestations otherwise, the Vulcans are just as smug, xenophobic and high-handed as they accuse humans of being. I'm glad they didn't waste time getting around to exploring the implications of what happened at P'Jem, the attempts of the Vulcan High Command to spy on Andoria, and Archer's role in evening the playing field. And I love seeing the trust grow between Archer and T'Pol. They're really becoming...maybe friends isn't the right word, exactly, but there's a trust, a mutual reliance and respect, that you can really see developing there. I like that a lot.

15. Shuttlepod One (3/5)
The One Where Two Characters Get Locked in a Freezer Together. I think the episode would've been more tense (or more unbearable) if they had stuck with Trip and Malcolm slowly freezing to death in the Shuttlepod instead of also focusing on the Enterprise crew trying to discover what accidentally destroyed a ship attempting to dock with it. That's an interesting plot, but if you're going to throw Trip and Malcolm in a room together until you've finally figured out exactly what their characters are, why not just stick with it the whole way instead of dissipating the tension? I mean, we know they'll eventually be rescued, anyway. Of course, we find out they're both pretty boring stock cliches... also, Malcolm's weird dream that the word stinky is somehow both hilarious and an aphrodisiac to T'Pol is uncomfortable and, being honest, the one thing that will ever keep me from really liking this guy. Not invested in Reed. Hey, what's Travis doing?

16. Fusion (2/5)
The One Where the Telepath Gets Mind-Raped. I'm more interested in the Mind Meld, which they imply here has fallen by the way in the Vulcan past; how does it get reintroduced in Vulcan society to the point where it becomes a part of Vulcan life in the next century? But, as usual, B&B are weirdly caught up in one of their apparent favorite plots: a woman gets raped, but, you know, mentally. I was up for more exploration of T'Pol's disconnect with the rigid Vulcan High Command--here through a sect of Vulcans who don't deny their emotions--but once again Berman plays the rape card. Disappointing.

17. Rogue Planet (2/5)
The One with the Heavy-Handed Environmental Message Made Through a Conscious Manifestation of Nature. Predictable and familiar. Interesting to see the Boy Scouts have survived into the 22nd century. I'd ask if they finally got rid of the very important homophobia part of Boy Scouts, but as we learned from TNG, gay people don't survive into the future.

18. Acquisition (5/5)
I remember when this was originally on. I didn't watch it, but I remember fans getting really pissy about having Ferengi on the show when a first season episode of TNG established that no one even knew what the Ferengi looked like. I guess they skirt it here by never revealing the name of the alien race to the Enterprise crew, but fuck it, who cares when the episode is funny as hell? After that terrible outing on Voyager, I really enjoyed seeing the Ferengi as I came to love them on DS9. And with these actors playing the characters--Ethan Phillips, Clint Howard, and Jeffrey Combs--of course I was going to love it. I love the talks between Archer and Jeffrey Combs' Krem about the drive for profit: "That kind of thinking almost destroyed our civilization"; "You should've managed your businesses better!" I also think it's hilarious that T'Pol may have been the inspiration for Vulcan Love Slave.

19. Oasis (2/5)
The One Where Falling in Love with an Innocent Alien Girl Leads to a Remarkable Discovery About Her Reality. Egregious reuse of a plot from a pretty damn good episode of DS9, even oddly featuring Rene Auberjonois (looking good with a goatee).

20. Detained (3/5)
The One That's an Allegory for Japanese Interment Camps in World War II. Thank Christ, Travis gets something to do other than be so enthusiastic about flying the Enterprise. That really helps this episode along, and so does finally adding some conflict to the Suliban, illustrating the difference between peaceful Suliban and the fanatical Cabal. Also, fun to see Dean Stockwell show up on an episode. Well, anywhere, really, but I dig seeing him and Bakula together again.

21. Vox Sola (2/5)
The One with the Misunderstood Telepathic Space Spider. Too specific, maybe. But it's the requisite episode where a consciousness appears to be destroying the ship but really needs to talk through crewmembers so that people understand it's really just a scared creature that wants to go home. It opened up a whole discussion between Becca and myself about what to call the strange substance Archer, Trip and others get trapped in that looks like it's made out of cables and cum. My choice was alien cumslaw. Sorry, but that really is the only memorable thing going on here. Oh, and Archer's really into water polo, which I find kind of adorable.

22. Fallen Hero (3/5)
This is my favorite plot thread: this idea of T'Pol becoming more and more critical of the Vulcan High Command. Here she meets one of her heroes, Ambassador V'Lar, and has to come to terms with both her disappointment and growing disillusionment with Vulcan politics. Fionnula Flanagan is good here as V'Lar. I like how she responds to humans with more patience and curiosity than we've previously seen in Vulcans. The episode itself is not quite as exciting as it pretends it is, but it is neat to see the Enterprise push warp 5. I also like that V'Lar sees a hopeful future for Earth and Vulcan by seeing the trust and respect between Archer and T'Pol. Their developing friendship is another favorite plot thread. I'm also amused here by the beginning of a short plot thread (making steps towards real serialization) involving the desperate need for a vacation among the crew.

23. The Desert (2/5)
The One Where Two Characters Have to Survive a Desert Crossing. They're really getting Archer and Trip shirtless a lot... another way Archer is like Kirk, I guess. First and most importantly, this episode stars the Main Man, Clancy Motherfucking Brown, so that gets it in good with me. It's interesting how Archer's exploits are becoming legendary throughout the galaxy, so that his liberation of the Suliban prison camp in "Detained" mistakenly paints him as the savior of thousands. It's a good hook, but I started to zone out once Archer and Trip started escaping across the desert. In the end, it's really more about the Prime Directive and whether or not Starfleet should side with governments or help people fight against their oppressors, but it doesn't quite get into it enough to make an impact.

24. Two Days and Two Nights (1/5)
The Tropical Vacation Episode. Though it is amusing to see Trip and Malcolm get rolled by a couple of shapeshifters, mostly this is just a tired retread of "Captain's Holiday," but a hell of a lot less fun. Takes itself a mite too seriously, though the subplot with T'Pol having to try and wake Phlox from his Denobulan hibernation to treat a wounded Travis is hilarious. I also like Hoshi here; she goes down to the planet, picks up a few languages, picks up an alien dude, has some sex and then goes back to work. Where has confident Hoshi Sato been this whole time??? We need more of her. Archer's whole middle-aged love story mystery intrigue plot feels as outdated as it is boring, like a show from the 80s. The whole thing about Tandarans possibly trying to get revenge on Archer comes out of nowhere, does nothing, and then goes away. Does that ever come back, or is this another of the many Star Trek plot threads that just gets dropped? I also appreciate that T'Pol seems to think Elizabeth Cutler is as useless as I do--after all, she did almost kill T'Pol in that cave back in episode 3--but I feel bad saying that since the actress who played her died of an undiagnosed heart condition almost immediately after making this episode.

25. Shockwave (4/5)
The One with the Time Travel Cliffhanger. This episode opens with a spectacular teaser: because of a technical error, the Enterprise instantly destroys a mining colony with 3600 people. It's breathtaking and pulls you right into the show. It's realistic that an error like this could occur, but it's also horrifying and devastating. Watching the crew have to put this into perspective--as well as the reaction of the Vulcan High Command, who want to revoke Archer's captaincy--is enough to pull me in, but instead of doing something interesting with that guilt or exploring it any meaningful way, Crewman Daniels comes back and there's more about the Temporal Cold War and a Cabal plot to sabotage the ship (again), and it's just frustrating how close B&B actually come to making a show about people and then decide it's too uncomfortable and go to one of their stock situations. And, of course, it has to be time travel...

And that's where we end season one. This was a long damn post... they probably all will be. Right now I'm pretty split on this show; there are things I don't like and things I do. I wish there were different people in charge of this show who really wanted to go and do something interesting with all of this potential instead of just making sure a franchise gets milked. It seems like all of the really interesting people involved with Star Trek--Ronald D. Moore, Ira Steven Behr--are just out of the game and onto other things. This show was on the air the same time as the much, much superior Farscape, which is a great example of how a science fiction series can gain forward momentum and be really vital and alive. Here... well, this show might be really good without all of that Star Trek getting in the way, if you follow me.

As it is, I'll stick with it out of completeness' sake and because I like some of the characters and the premise and the special effects and the makeup and the atmosphere and the production design. But someone's got to do something about all of that hackneyed writing.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Loathsome Humans

The annual 50 Most Loathsome Americans list is finally up on The BEAST.

A couple of bits I was especially happy with (not in Ian Murphy's list order):

:: Michael Bloomberg: "A neo-feudal lord who bought his political power and then used his 'army' to put down a peasant uprising."

:: John Boehner: "The most infuriating thing about Boehner playing 'fiscally responsible' politics over the debt ceiling was that the debt ceiling isn’t a limit on how much we can borrow, it’s a limit on how much incurred debt we’ll pay back — which is like saying that the responsible thing to do is to use your credit card and not pay the bill."

:: Herman Cain: "The first ever book tour to run for president [...]"

:: Eric Cantor: "A man who makes Congress’s 5% approval rating seem confoundingly high [...]"

:: David Frum: "As Bush’s speechwriter he gave us the “Axis of Evil,” and now he wants us to believe that, in comparison to today’s insane Tea Party set, he represents an endangered levelheadedness of Republicans past."

:: Newt Gingrich: "[...] compared to his record as Speaker, his personal life seems ethical by contrast."

:: Christopher Hitchens: "With his undoubtedly elegant prose, Hitch provided more support to Islamophobes than a Lowe’s 2 x 4."

:: Arianna Huffington: "Publisher of some of the most profoundly stupid, anti-scientific tripe this side of Deepak Chopra’s magical asshole."

:: Steve Jobs: "Got rich lifting other people’s ideas; got richer by melding marketing with spirituality to sell environment-destroying status symbols made by Chinese children to oblivious, cultish prigs. He was a paranoid tyrant who abused his employees, exacted totalitarian control over iPhone apps under the puritanical guise of protecting kids from teh pr0n, and he even ruled over a private Apple security force — which has actually raided people’s houses."

:: Kim Kardashian: "So outraged over the Casey Anthony verdict that she forgot her dead dad helped O.J. Simpson get away with murder."

:: Frank Luntz: "[...] would market kitten leukemia if the price was right."

:: Frank Miller: "The Stephenie Meyer of comic books, Miller has all the literary & political depth of a masturbating squirrel."

:: Rupert Murdoch: "Fox News is no longer a propaganda arm for the Republican party; it’s the brain, fanning the flames of extremism, and exploiting white middle class prejudice to the point of economic cannibalism."

:: Barack Obama: "A post-constitutional demagogue who ran on closing Guantanamo Bay, and ended up signing away Americans’ right to trial. But you can’t blame him for it. Really. Because he’ll be out of office when it begins. The guy is literally ordering flying robots to murder people throughout the Arab world — Americans even — but if you call him a fascist people think you’re in league with Glenn Beck or Lyndon LaRouche. [...] In too many ways, his first term may as well have been Bush’s third [...]"

:: Sarah Palin: "Owes her entire rise to national prominence to the fact that Weekly Standard schmuck Bill Kristol met her on an Alaskan cruise and wanted to bang her."

:: Ron Paul: "More free market Muppet than man, Paul’s libertarianism is a deeply schizophrenic ideology wherein personal freedom trumps everything — especially personal freedom. Whether it’s regulating women’s uteri under the pretense of 'state’s rights,' defending sexual harassers, or hypothetically voting against the Civil Rights Act, Paul’s positions display bewildering lack of intellectual coherence. Most grating (aside from his horrifically racist and homophobic eponymous newsletter, or that he’s a doctor who doesn’t understand evolution), he’s managed to posture as an economic populist, despite the fact that his Randroid quest to eliminate government is the stuff of which oligarchies are made. But he would, like, totally legalize weed, dude."

:: Rick Perry: "A deluded Christian who hates women and science unless there’s a paycheck from Merck involved."

:: Ayn Rand: "Despite being a long-dead idiot, Rand continues to exert a mystifying control over the minds of America’s Social Darwinist dolts with her misanthropic 'philosophy' of unbridled greed."

:: Mitt Romney: "The Schrödinger’s cat of American politics, Mittens is simultaneously on both sides of every issue, and no one truly knows his position until he opens his mouth. He’s so incapable of honesty that he’s even lied about his own name. Morally dissonant, too, much of the seed money for Bain Capital — which made Mittens millions by gutting companies, killing jobs and raiding pensions — came from an El Salvadorian family that financed death squads in the ’80′s, but when it came time to do business with Artisan Entertainment, Romney refused because they produce R-rated movies. [...] so damn white he makes Justin Bieber seem like Gil Scott-Heron."

:: Jerry Sandusky: "When asked point blank by Costas if he’s sexually attracted to children, his stalling echolalia about ‘enjoying’ children made Michael Jackson’s denials seem plausible in retrospect."

:: Rick Santorum: "So far in the closet, he’s standing next to your dad’s stack of vintage Playboys. Seriously."

:: Tim Tebow: "[...] likely just another self-loathing homosexual. And he’s sanctimonious as hell for a guy who works exclusively on the Sabbath."

:: Donald Trump: "Besotted by his own garish ignorance, The Donald stumbled into a depth of buffoonery last year which made Gary Busey seem respectably grounded."

:: Anthony Weiner: "Weiner represents everything that’s wrong with the Democratic Party: the craven inability to act and the pathetic ability to fold under pressure. With one errant keystroke, he bestowed upon Andrew Breitbart a wholly unfounded air of credibility."

The Wicker Muppet

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Film Week

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

One of the best animated films ever made, hands down. A simple, personal story told with the kind of elegance that American animation has completely brushed aside in favor of gimmicks and pop culture references. I was surprised how well the rotoscoping actually worked, because the character design is so stylized and the backgrounds are so line-heavy, that the rotoscoping serves to give the characters a sort of physical depth instead of trying to make them look more human. It avoids that Bakshi-esque uncanny valley thing. The story matches the visuals; this is a great movie about people, not a movie about its technique. It's enhanced by its technique. This is also a fairly adult movie, and when I'm saying that I'm saying it's a mature love story about adult characters, not the anime fan version of "adult," which means enough sex and violence to grab a 12 year-old boy's attention. **** Too bad it probably won't win the Oscar it deserves. Neither did The Triplets of Belleville, Persepolis, The Secret of Kells or The Illusionist...

I liked it. I can't remember if I'm supposed to hate this one, or...? I don't know, I've yet to read the book or see the Swedish film, so I had no experience with the story. What I saw was a handsome, well-shot movie full of good actors that was something of a lower-key Bond flick (starring Bond himself) that was surprisingly well-paced for a David Fincher movie. I dug it, it entertained me, and that's all I can ask. And to be honest, I went into this fully expecting to despise this movie. So it was a nice surprise. I'd like to see Fincher make the other two. I'm sure I'll get to the non-American version that has more integrity or whatever the story is eventually. ****

Well, it's certainly no Bring It On: All or Nothing. *

Wow. What a dull, frustrating movie. And you can't really dismiss it, because it's a fairly well-acted film and it is absolutely beautiful to watch. The cinematography, the special effects, the music... it's breathtaking. But the story doesn't live up to it. Once you get past the thuddingly obvious symbolism (father = nature, mother = grace, the two are conflicted but equally important, the masks fall off of our life when we die) and shot after shot of watching Sean Penn meaningfully looking at buildings (you needed an Oscar winner for this?), there's nothing there to connect with. I wasn't engaged on any level other than the beautiful visuals. And even then, I kept thinking things like "Um, do we really need to literally see the creation of the universe in order to understand the scope of this kid's brother dying at age 19?" This movie is so caught up in its own sense of profundity, director Terence Malick's apparent belief that he's being very artistic and saying Very Important Things... it becomes windy and ridiculous. For something so big, I feel like I shouldn't be able to sum up the entire thing so simplistically. It's not really pretentious or dumb, it's just so simplistic in what it wants to say and so driven to say it that it doesn't show us anything else. It's not really bullshit, either, it's just... it's not a good or fulfilling movie experience. It also needed more dinosaurs. More dinosaurs and less creepy, David Lynch's Dune-style whispering on the soundtrack. I kept wondering if the kid was going to grow up into the Kwisatz Haderach. Sadly, he does not. A beautiful achievement on a technical level, but completely cold and detached in every other aspect. It's not human. **

With any luck, no. Zero stars.

WAR HORSE (2011)
Ugh. Look, you know just from the fact that Spielberg directed it what kind of shit it's going to be. I have seriously run out of patience with this man. Right away it starts with that signature shot of a kid looking at something and being REALLY AMAZED and FULL OF WONDER, and then it just goes downhill from there with Spielberg's trademark emotional pornography, manipulation, twee moments, and typical bullshittery. I mean, maybe it didn't work for me because I'm not one of those people who thinks that horses are the most specialist, most magicalest, most noblest animals on the earth, and that the connection of specialness is automatically there even when a director takes it as a given and makes no effort to portray it at all (oh, and they're at their most inherently magical when they're doing burdensome tasks for humans, also). But really I'm just sick of Spielberg's manipulative, pandering, misogynist, boy-worshiping crap. *

How does this movie get away with saying the key to winning is undervaluing players while totally ignoring that the Oakland A's also had, like, two of the best baseball players in the league that season? Barry Zito and the other guy... Hey, I'm a dilettante, and I know this shit. They won awards! *

Fuck this movie and everyone involved in making it. The only reason this seems to exist is so that War Horse wouldn't be the most manipulative, emotionally fake bullshit nominated for Best Picture this year. Extremely False & Incredibly Dull. Oh, and with the single worst performance by a child that I've ever seen in a movie, much worse than the kid in Where the Wild Things Are, even worse than that kid in Mac and Me. Zero stars.

THE HELP (2011)
White stereotypes meet black stereotypes in a heavily stereotyped version of the 1950s/1960s South. Every white person in this movie is a cartoon bigot, totally underdeveloped, or so naive that they come across as retarded. Every black person in this movie is a pidgin-English-speaking, kindly piece of magic who suffers valiantly through degradation. There is literally no more character development than that. Don't worry, though: Emma Stone (with hair so bad she should have sued someone to get out of this flick and acting at just-slightly-lower-volume-but-still-over-the-top-even-though-she-knows-this-isn't-a-comedy-right?) somehow manages to make the case that racism actually hurts white people more than it hurts black people, and gets a writing deal out of it, not exactly solving racism (though the movie seems to think it has, rather dismissively, in a feelgood comedy sort of way), but at least personally gaining something at the expensive of the dignity of everyone around her, and that's... something? And then somehow people feel warmed by this oversaturated mess, actually manage to not puke while watching the beleaguered black characters fawn all over this apparently special person as though she's saved all black people from oppression for ever, and pretend it's a triumph that Viola Davis can get an Oscar nomination for playing a maid in 20-fucking-12. Zero stars. Zero fucking stars.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Star Trek: Enterprise: The Pilot Episode

Well, here we are: the first season of the (to date) final series of Star Trek.

For space reasons, I'm going to focus here on the pilot episode and then do the first season in the next couple of days. This really does (mostly, or at least significantly) feel like starting over with a completely new show. This isn't a spin-off of a well-established universe; it's that universe from a different angle.

The idea of going back in time to see the early voyages of a pre-Federation ship called Enterprise is a very interesting one, especially after having spent so much time in the 24th century with diminishing returns. I'm interested here for the same reason I was interested in the JJ Abrams movie, in that it was an attempt to go back to a time when exploration was more dangerous, more exciting, more visceral. It's an excellent premise, but, as I get through the episodes, one that this series has a hard time grasping completely.

I'm going to come out right away and say I blame Rick Berman and Brannon Braga for every failure of nerve involved. These guys have been up Star Trek's ass for so long that they are completely trapped in a formula they either can't get out of or are unwilling to. So despite the premise and the possibilities it offers (leading to a sometimes very effective paradox where the technology needs to be stripped down but the special effects are better than they've been on any previous series), there's too often a retreat back to formula. Where Star Trek could've been reinvented here as both space opera and serious science fiction, I think the creators just weren't willing to go far enough. I've always blamed Berman for turning the whole thing into Berman Trek, no matter what lip service he kept paying to Gene Roddenberry's vision, just doing what, ultimately, only he thought was appropriate for the series. (And if you guys think the Prequels are bad, just wait and see what Rick McCallum is going to do to Star Wars when George Lucas dies--I've always maintained that, despite hoping for the best.)

I think another problem with starting this show in 2001, just one summer after Voyager ended, is that you had four basic types of Star Trek fans in the audience.

1. The obsessives who were going to complain about anything the show did no matter what it was.
2. The continuity fetishists who were going to freak out every time the series seemed to deviate from what had been established--I honestly blame Rick Berman and Co. for that, because they spent so much time playing up to those people with published chronologies and stories that sometimes only existed to establish canon, despite the fact that even Gene Roddenberry felt there was too much continuity obsession on the original series when he tried to reinvent it for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
3. Cat ladies and gentle intellectuals who really just wanted to see Chakotay and Janeway meaningfully hold hands or Picard and Q play chess or Worf and the EMH get involved in a discussion on the merits of Gilbert & Sullivan vs. Klingon opera. They're the reason why we got the same six plots over and over on Voyager, because they found comfort in the routine and weren't any more interested in being challenged as viewers than Berman and Braga were in challenging them.
4. People who were just tired of so much damn Star Trek.

I don't know which part of the base had the highest population, but I suspect it was 4. A lot of people who have ever mentioned this show to me (my Mom, a lifelong Trek fan, included) were just sick of it and didn't feel the need for more. I certainly felt that way; when this show premiered, I had just started at NIU, literally the same week as the premiere. I only watched two, maybe three episodes before giving up, because I was worried about classes and in the process of moving into my apartment at the time. I hadn't been keeping up with Trek for almost a decade by that point, maybe more, and though I was intrigued by the premise, I just couldn't be arsed to keep up.

What I'm saying is, I'm not surprised this show failed. It would've failed no matter what it did. It was inevitable.

So now, here I am, 10 years later, hoping for the best. I think I have a decent understanding, sight unseen, of the factors that led to Enterprise's cancellation. So let's just go to the episodes and see what the series itself manages to do narratively.

1. Broken Bow (my rating: 4 out of 5)
Not a home run, but a solid premiere. It establishes not only the premise (Starfleet in its earliest days of exploration, before the United Federation of Planets), but the tensions of the world we're going to be (hopefully) invested in. There are certain things that the writers are just going to have to avoid, but on occasion it forces the writers to be a little cleverer with their solutions. Here we see first contact with the Klingons (Tiny Lister, first Klingon ever; not bad), the first mission of the Enterprise NX-01 (the first warp 4-capable Starfleet vessel), and the tension between a humanity that can be rather brash and demanding and a Vulcan intellectualism that can too often be condescending.

Some touches I like:

:: The design of the Enterprise itself is wonderful; hints of the iconic saucer design, but light and not as bulky as some of the TNG-era ships. Also, we don't have to worry about the concept of families aboard the ship, an idea that TNG never pulled off and which, honestly, the show seriously ignored whenever convenient. "Hey, let's go fight the Borg with all of these assimilation-ready children crawling the ship!"

:: I love the NASA-inspired blue jumpsuits; the members of Starfleet finally seem first and foremost like astronauts.

:: There's a sense of wonder about exploration--strange new worlds, new life and civilizations, etc--that was too often missing from the previous three series, which approached exploration as kind of routine.

:: I like the way the technology is a combination of what we have here in the 21st century and what's to come on TOS, but without being self-conscious or showy about it.

:: The alien makeup is incredibly good, much better than I've come to expect from Michael Westmore. A race like the Suliban feels truly alien instead of a guy with a vagina on his forehead.

:: I like seeing the Klingons; my understanding is that the series will eventually explain why the Klingons on this show look like the Klingons on TNG instead of the Klingons on TOS, although why a canonical explanation is needed is the kind of continuity fetishist BS I get really tired of. Science fiction fans really do lack imagination sometimes...

I also like the language barrier here between the humans and the Klingons; I'm glad the show is taking things like that into consideration.

:: That the crew have to improvise on the fly and that warp technology, phasers, and matter transporters can't be taken for granted. The look on Archer's face when they use the transporter to rescue him is priceless.

:: In keeping with the somewhat more adventurous, swashbuckling, space operatic additions to Star Trek, Captain Archer is a nice throwback to Captain Kirk, who himself was in the tradition of the "science hero" of the 1930s, the man who is part scientist, part conqueror, and part two-fisted man of action. Time will tell if he's got the romance part, too, but he's certainly a man of action and curiosity. Without the Prime Directive to play a major role in every lazy plot, Archer is more free to leap into the action, which I like. I'm not saying there can't be smart plots, but I am sick of Voyager using the Prime Directive as a hindrance for plot convenience (especially considering how thoughtful and interesting Janeway was when the series began...). And I appreciate the casting of Scott Bakula, one of my favorite actors; Quantum Leap is one of my favorite TV series of all time, so the science fiction connection is nice.

:: Character-wise, I don't hate anyone yet, but I'm suspicious of Malcolm Reed. He's got a little bit of a Julian Bashir-in-Season-One vibe. Trip is kind of a stock character, but I dig Travis Mayweather and how excited he is about piloting the Enterprise. I also think Hoshi Sato is extremely fucking cute. Dr. Phlox is a neat, fun character I look forward to seeing more of.

:: Yay, Porthos! Nice symbolic touch, his being a beagle, and the Captain bringing him on an exploration voyage.

:: Jolene Blalock is very interesting as T'Pol; I think it's to her credit that she plays the character straight despite the fact that she's obviously on this show for the same prurient reasons that Jeri Ryan was on Voyager, and like Ryan she rises above the obviousness. Still, seeing her and Trip Tucker have to rub each other down to avoid contamination... we get it, this is the "sexier" Trek series. But I hope we get to explore more of the Vulcan culture through her, simply because they've always fascinated me and getting to see her interact with the Vulcan Council has a lot of potential. It's the same reason I always wished they'd focused more on Tuvok on Voyager, because I think the Vulcans are endlessly fascinating.

:: It can't be said enough that the special effects on this show are really, really good.

:: The Suliban are a neat idea that don't really live up to their potential here. They're kind of scary because, at this point, humans have never experienced something like them and they just seem so dangerous.

Unfortunately, the Suliban bring me to the one thing I just flat out didn't like, which is that the plot hinges on a concept called the Temporal Cold War, where someone from the future (I have my initial suspicions which will probably turn out not to be right) is commanding the Suliban Cabal. It does raise the question (which could be interesting) of what happened to the Suliban that they're commanding from the future, since this is the first we're ever hearing of them in Star Trek and I have to assume they're not much of a power in the galaxy in the next hundred years, when TOS takes place.

But what really gets me here is that, ugh, this is more time travel! After Voyager (and, frankly, the Mirror Universe crap on DS9), I am so beyond tired of time travel as the go-to plot device on Star Trek. I really hope this doesn't get overused, because I'm just done with that whole routine.

Even with the hiccup, it's a good platform to start on. Makes me want to see where it goes.

Oh, and a note on the theme song: the first time I heard it, it was just silly (and ugh, listen to it, of course it's a Diane Warren song). The opening title sequence looks like someone's YouTube tribute to the history of flight and space travel. I'm not saying that there couldn't be a Diane Warren song that you could use as the theme of this series without being fairly silly, but did it have to be the song Rod Stewart sang over the end credits of Patch Adams? The saccharine tone of that awful movie comes through in every note. Still, you get oddly used to it, and at some point I came to accept it, and now I'm just disappointed they didn't get Meat Loaf to sing it and Jim Steinman to arrange it because, like I say, if you're going with cheese, at least shoot for the whole damn wheel.

I think this show probably lost 15% of its audience during the opening credits. There's setting the show apart, and then there's scaring the people you already have.

Well, I'm here now. Like I said, next few days, I'll have the first season post up. Let's go boldly.

Karen Handel Resigns from Komen

Good. This is what I said needed to happen, and it has. It's one small step on what's going to be a very long road to regaining credibility. (Maybe stop letting Ari Fleischer pick your VPs, too.)

I think she's still deluded. In her statement she says she still believes "our decision was the best one for Komen's future and the women we serve." But remember again that her decision involved making funds available for financially struggling women to have breast cancer screenings conditional on political ideology. So, no, I don't think that was the best decision you could have made for any women anywhere ever.

Call me crazy, I just don't think that's how charity works. I'm pretty sure Jesus would agree.

EDIT 10:14 AM: AP didn't have Karen Handel's full statement. She also says this: "I believe that Komen, like any other nonprofit organization, has the right and the responsibility to set criteria and highest standards for how and to whom it grants." And she's right. I totally agree with that. Any charitable organization has the right to set standards for itself.

But she prefaces that with this: "Neither the decision nor the changes themselves were based on anyone’s political beliefs or ideology." And that is bullshit. There is no other reason to defund Planned Parenthood outside of political beliefs or ideology. Even if you really want to stick with the weaselly claim that you don't want to associate yourself with PP because they're under investigation, you're still partnering with George W. Bush on health endeavors, and it can't be said enough that he was afraid to set foot in Switzerland because he knew he would be arrested for his many and extensive war crimes.

It's about abortion, don't pretend it isn't.

So, yeah, Komen has the right to set its own standards. But like a lot of whiny right-wingers, Karen Handel seems to think that having the freedom to make decisions or to say stupid things should also be above scrutiny. Remember when Natalie Maines said she was ashamed that Bush was a Texan, and then Toby Keith made it his mission to go after her on stage every night, and then when people criticized him for it, he said "freedom of speech, y'all" as though we were all infringing on his First Amendment guarantees for doing to him what he was doing to Natalie Maines? That's what this is.

Yes, you have the right to set charitable standards. You even have the right to be a weasel and lie about it, if you really want to embarrass yourself that way.

But we have the right to criticize your decisions and to choose not to associate our charitable donations with someone who think it's wrong to help cash-poor women get breast cancer screenings if they're doing it in a building where someone may have had an abortion.

Handel: "What was a thoughtful and thoroughly reviewed decision – one that would have indeed enabled Komen to deliver even greater community impact – has unfortunately been turned into something about politics. This is entirely untrue. This development should sadden us all greatly."

Bullshit; it's politics. That's all it ever is.

Dear right wing: go fuck yourselves.

UPDATE 10:41 AM: Also, Michele Bachmann said today that she's sad she won't be running for President because she was the perfect candidate for America. Oh, Republicans, you're just saying all kinds of stupid shit today.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Noir Drag

Tonight's episode of Castle was a real slog to get through. Setting half the episode in the 1940s with the same actors playing different characters... jeez, between Nathan Fillion's shitty Brooklynese-by-way-of-backwoods-Florida accent and the pure tedium of watching the umpteenth cartoonish TV take on noir, this episode almost had me questioning why I even started watching this show in the first place. I know they're bending over backwards to try and keep the mystery about Beckett's mother's murder going and to keep Castle and Beckett apart, but this was just too much of a stretch. I really don't want to be that guy who doesn't like one episode and then starts writing off a show...and I'm not, really, but wow, what a steaming pile this was. An overreach. First episode I just flat-out hated and wanted desperately to end. This was the equivalent of one of Star Trek: The Next Generation's killer holodeck episodes. Or one of those episodes of Matlock where Ben eats some bad chili and then dreams he's a lawyer in the Old West.

Do not do this again. Please, I pray you, do not do this again.

Big Filmmakers Don't Challenge Themselves

I just read that director Joe Johnston's next film, Not Safe for Work, is budgeted at $2.5 million.

It's got a bit of a slick action plot--a young paralegal is trapped in an office with a killer who is performing corporate espionage--but I was more interested in the budget.

I like Johnston and most of his films. This guy, after spending years at ILM as a special effects producer, has directed (among others) The Rocketeer, Jumanji, The Wolfman, Captain America, Jurassic Park III and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. He makes mainly special effects-oriented B-adventure pics. Nothing wrong with that; I put him on the same level as guys like Joe Dante and Richard Donner; guys who make solid entertainment but who aren't ever really going to be taken seriously as filmmakers. Guys who make great, enjoyable flicks.

What's interesting is that I've also just seen War Horse, another joyless piece of Spielshit from Hollywood's most overblown hack. It's like every other movie he's made since the entertainment media suddenly decided (around 1993, but especially post-Private Ryan) that Spielberg was an Important Filmmaker. He used to make enjoyable flicks, too. (You guys can shit all over George Lucas as much as you want, but at least he never got pretentious about the kind of movies he was making; sure, sure, you didn't like The Phantom Menace and you whined about it until the end of time, but at least he never remade Battleground and claimed it was the most important tribute to that Greatest Generation claptrap.)


My point is, I wish more filmmakers in Spielberg's position would challenge themselves to work in a different set of confines. Remember, as everyone has always said, the best thing that happened to Spielberg while making Jaws is that the shark never worked, and it forced him to be creative. Can you imagine what that would look like now, with his over-earnest sense of direction, his inability to let enough hot air out of a story to tell it in a lean and interesting manner (nothing under 2 hours, ever), and the ability to just CGI-shoehorn a shark into anything he wanted? It would be awful and you know it. War Horse awful. AI awful. Private Ryan awful.

Whatever Joe Johnston does with this movie, good or bad, I'm just interested to see someone step out of their comfort zone, strip their approach down, and just make a fucking movie. I don't think Spielberg is remotely capable of doing something similar. I'd like to see more filmmakers challenge themselves to do something smaller, go back to basics, step away from their computers and just make a fucking movie.

Scorsese could do it, maybe. Maybe. But definitely not Spielberg.

Kristen Bell Mondays

Thanks to the many people who made sure I saw this last week!

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Song of the Week: "Rich Girl"

One of the banes of Becca's existence is that I love a disturbingly high number of Hall & Oates singles. I've never sought out a single one of their albums to listen to, but the singles I love, I LOVE. I can't believe I haven't had these guys up once since I started doing Song of the Week in late 2006. So here's one for 2 in the morning on Sunday...