Friday, May 22, 2009

Star Trek (2009, Jay Jay The Jet Plane)

The phrase retroactive continuity (abbreviated to "retcon") wouldn't be as well known as it is today without the Internet providing a forum for the establishment of phrases pertaining solely to pop culture. Consistency, in this example taking the form of episodic story continuity, is rarely necessary and frequently stifling as an ubiquitous corporate stopgap against creativity even when the benefits are self evident: great television series take time to find their strengths, and in the days of movie serials The Three Stooges didn't have to be plumbers every single time.

The most cursory glance at continuing pop culture franchises over the years reveals virtually zero of them which maintain factual or plausible continuity, which is why nerds work extra hard to create explanations and have them canonized. The best example is comic books, where everything is recorded in print and preserved for all time. That's a lot harder to fix than the relative ease of filming movie or television episode scenes that explain past inconsistencies. Where there is not the fake problem of revealing and justifying inconsistencies for the sake of trivial debate, nerds lovelorn with their franchises write made up stories about their TV pals.

Decades ago, one of the earliest recorded and circulated creations of "fan fiction" was written by fans of Star Trek, from fictional dramatic writing in the vein of their beloved 1966-69 series up to gay and straight erotica, possibly exchanged between hands for the first time at the first Star Trek convention in New York City, 1972. The harder type of fan fiction to pinpoint the earliest appearances of is in which the author inserts themselves into the action. This sort can be found easily on the Internet, and more myopic yet are the stories which radically alter the foundations of their intended tributary characters - in terms of The Three Stooges, not only varying their professions of plumbers or builders or fascist dictators, but making them giraffes. Unlike the Stooges, Star Trek is very continuity conscious and even their fiction writing fans attempt to respect this by having Kirk and Spock step into the girafferizer beam rather than simply having them long necked from the start.

Screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have done something unprecedented in creating the first retroactive continuity feature film script for Star Trek and Jay Jay The Jet Plane has made their fan fiction into a terrifyingly overpraised film which degradingly rewards the ignorance of new audiences and condescendingly patronizes the old.

Hollywood spends a lot of effort today coming up with new euphemisms for the recycling of old ideas. The term "remake" has gradually been phased out in favor of doublespeak which suggests originality, such as "re-envisioning," "re-imagining," "relaunch," "reboot" and "modern update." Even the "prequel" form of sequel has been used to disguise lack of originality or imagination, from "Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd" to the more recent "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." The new Star Trek skews closer to the former except even moreso; a new and dangerous hybrid of every creative loophole combined that ambitiously seeks to destroy the concept of creative integrity once and for all.

In this film the official past events of the original series are changed via time travel to become the new version. To this end, each character from the original show is played by a new actor as the younger version of themselves, effectively rendering the work of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy et all as merely the prototypical groundwork for refinement into our supposedly pristine new incarnation. For further legitimacy, the real Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance as the real Spock ("Spock Prime") to bless his hot young doppelganger on the new franchises we're supposed to assimilate ourselves to. There should be a new "Search For Spock" movie where the geriatric original cast rescues their missing Vulcan from this crappy nightmare reality.

Never have I seen such a wholly unoriginal film beg the question of creative authorship solely to affirm the privilege of corporate ownership over the actual dramatists and actors who give characters life. Captain Kirk, as we may gather from Star Trek (note the regal lack of subtitle) is not the sum of performances from William Shatner and dialogue ascribed to him by writers of the original series and movies, but merely an avatar to be assumed by anyone - in this case some slick TV ready pretty boy named Chris Pine. Eric Christian Olsen may have only been doing an impression of a character created by Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumberer, but at least that screenplay didn't use time travel to erase the events of the original film.

Incidentally, Jim Carrey is playing "Curly" in the new 3 Stooges film, but at least he's a comparably talented physical comedian. What comparable talent is on display here?

The only aspect missing in this brazenly audacious fake fidelity to source material is having the screenwriters appearing in metaphysical cameos to high-five the crew of the Enterprise and make out with Uhura, which would actually fit the new tone of snarky hipster irony perfectly. This is Star Trek 90210, peppered with Family Guy level referential humor that finds young Kirk hiding in the dorm rooms of green-skinned women and young McCoy asking young Spock if he's "out of his Vulcan (sounds like 'fuckin') mind." There are constant references to Trek trivia that anyone with a passing familiarity will catch 90% of, much like anyone with a passing familiarity to the last 25 years of pop culture will catch most references on Family Guy. These references are there to flatter longtime Trek fans while making non-fans feel hip about their viewing choice, rather than guilty about patronizing the purely nerdy.

This splitting the difference for marketing expedience is a stunning example of how homogenized, and therefore how anti-intellectual so many franchises formerly deemed nerds-only have become. I'm not a Star Trek fan, but I know enough about the original series to respect its thoughtful classical storytelling approach to science fiction, expressing moral and intellectual philosophies in the same sensitive humanist manner as Ray Bradbury with a touch of the frontiersman spirit of Robert Heinlein. By contrast, this beautiful young crew of trigger happy space adventurers shoot first and ask questions later in the style of Paul Verhoeven's version of Heinlein's Starship Troopers while Kirk runs from bugs that look exactly the same as that film's. There's no philosophy or even coherent thought in this film, only the same hurried frenzy to throw people from explosions and flash female flesh as the typical violent and misogynistic action movie. Ironically, the women's skirts were a lot shorter on the original TV show and they were still treated with more respect than Zoe Saldana's Uhura, who is now Spock's girlfriend so she can be in a love triangle between him and Kirk (hetero triangle) and whose singular name becomes an in-joke at the same time Orci and Kurtzman can't even remember that "Spock" is MR. Spock's last name.

Star Trek 20090210 pathetically displays an entitlement to the presumption of intelligence simply for bearing the name. Feeble in-jokes-for-everyone aside, the script doesn't even make logical sense. Kirk becomes Captain by directly disobeying orders and stowing away on a ship? The Romulans' highly intelligent Vulcan ambassador couldn't figure out their planet was going to blow up until a day before? Fans should be up in arms, but as with comic book movies, they're really just flattered that their interest is being paid attention to by normal people who won't remember tomorrow or ever care again. With all due respect to Trekkies, stupid people aren't supposed enjoy Star Trek and if they are, there's something obviously wrong.

About the humor. The 1960s Star Trek always had a degree of unintentional camp which has become magnified by the longevity of its icons - characters and ideas which have become ingrained in pop culture as a whole. The 2009 Star Trek is like listening to someone do a "funny" William Shatner voice, not based on their own impression of him but upon every hacky stand-up comic who ever did the "funny William Shatner voice." And then insisting that their version is just as legitimate because there was an alternate timeline created by time travel. John "Harold and Kumar" Cho as Sulu? Simon Pegg as Scotty? This is a respectful revival? This is like one of those camptastic 90s movie versions of an old tv show like The Brady Bunch, or the recent hyper meta-irony of Bewitched with Will Ferrell. Only in the permanent present-tense culture of today can Star Trek necessitate a revival when the latest iteration was only on tv a fucking year ago.

I'd never watched a full episode of any Star Trek show before Trek '09 and the only Trek movie I'd seen was The Wrath of Khan. The only good thing to come from this movie was getting me to finally watch some full episodes of the original show and realize how immeasurably superior even a mediocre one was to this opportunistic cash-in that has tainted everyone exposed.

One of the 1990s Star Trek movies - I think it was Insurrection - had a TV ad which claimed "you don't need to know the difference between a Borg and a Klingon to enjoy this Trek movie!" Apparently you don't need to know the difference between a pen and your ass to write one, either.

Where's Finnegan?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

My Little Chickadee (1940, Edward F. Cline)

WC Fields and Mae West are in some ways so similar that their star comedic team-up doesn't work. They never exactly compliment each other, hearing one and then the other speak is like listening to an elderly couple whose mouth ligaments are turning to mush. Their big moments and gags are usually at arm's length, even when in the same room they tend to be at opposite ends of it. West wrote the story as a starring vehicle for herself, and when she's moving her own plot along the film is truly hers. When Fields shows up, it's a Fields movie. He's just too good not to bring everything to a halt. These are two self contained shticks. West is visibly fighting for attention in her own movie and sometimes seems off in her own schizophrenic universe when rolling her eyes and delivering her double entendres not to her leading men but only herself. There's also a horrendous saloon stage song which backfires in trying to prove she's a triple threat.

The breezy pace of the script is commendable, especially for a vanity project partially hijacked by another star. Also great is the supporting cast, especially The Wicked Witch of the West herself Margaret Hamilton as the meddling gossip getting in West's way. Donald Meek is funny as the fake preacher who "weds" Fields and West after they meet.

Ironically, West wrote the screenplay as a vehicle for herself and a handsome leading man as her foil. With Fields fostered upon her, she's second banana in what was supposed to be her comeback film after several disappointing post-Hayes Code pictures that neutered her sultry wordplay, which was already pretty vanilla by today's standards. Joe Bob Briggs wrote that West is less a female sex bombshell than a drag queen in the body of a female and that's evident whenever she's attempting seduction. The Wild West setting of Chickadee is perfectly tailored for West since, to be frank, her girdled pillowy bosom and posterior were probably the best that the average cowpoke was likely to see before reaching Dodge. Universal decided to give Fields co-screenplay credit for the contribution of one scene - at a bar, natch - further screwing West, for whom the film wasn't nearly as big a hit as for Fields. Even the title was one of Fields' catchphrases, what else could she have expected? If not for him she might've gotten away with calling this one "The Wild West." After Chickadee her film career was virtually extinguished for decades until a cameo in the 1970 big studio camp folly Myra Breckinridge and her own folly in the comeback/celebration/trainwreck vehicle Sextette, completed one month before her death in 1978.

Chickadee is best recommended for fans of both stars and West fans in particular. As swan songs go this is a good summation of her strengths, weaknesses and cheap good natured cheekiness. Who else would consent to having THE END laid playfully over her butt?

Friday, May 8, 2009

Angus (1995, Patrick Read Johnson)

The trailer to Angus seemed immediately mature to me as a ten year old and the young leads much older. There was also the then-hip Green Day headed ensemble kidz punk and "alternative" music soundtrack provided by the executive producer of the film and the band. This is a highly neglected film although the starting price is $17 on Amazon for the VHS, indicating that those who found the film at the time fell in love with it or at least liked it a lot. Charlie Talbert's starring debut came from being discovered telling a joke at a fast food restaurant in a Wendy's, which he mentioned when appeared unscheduled at a rare New Beverly Cinema screening. The breezy script and dialogue make the film fun if not true to life, at least as true to life as any Hollywood teen movie gets and handily the most sensitive movie so much expense was taken with. This was the "fat kid" teen movie before the genre really took off with guys like James Van Der Beek, who also has his debut playing the smirking football bully and was about to break out as a heartthrob playing both football players and sensitive filmmakers. Angus is both mature and sensitive as possible for a movie on this scale when the cold robotic irony of Juno youth movies increasingly detached from emotion.

The breezy script and dialogue in particular are on their own make Angus witty, and although this is an old fashioned underdog story the world comes to life by having many true to life disappointments, bad circumstances and characters who come off as genuine people many times because sometimes can't depend on each other or can only do so much. There's a lot of funny one-liners and original lingo that feels natural from great young actors in every role and each of them feel fully formed from another. The sweet or sad moments never dip into insincerity even when they're corny and the limits of PG-13 swearing are worked around in hilariously creative ways. Ariana Richards, the rugrat of Jurassic Park fame, is the object of Angus' desires thwarted by Van Der Beek, and along with his nerdy sidekick (Chris Owen, another stellar actor for his age) they form an archetypical cast of characters whose plot together is essentially a sitcom, and yet their little exchanges that drive things forward always feel parsed from reality. As a balancing act between the presumed needs of a "teen movie" and a heartfelt plea for tolerance amongst teens, the results are commendable.

Evidently in the original story both Angus' mother and father were alive and both were gay, including Kathy Bates' truck driver mom. Readers of the original short story must have felt disappointed. The awkward nature of Angus' home life survives in a watered-down form, but often the awkwardness of home life is what makes the story of a young person feel real. Whether test audiences were polled for the reshoots or a nervous New Line did it first there's really no excuse when you came that far during the first round of filming. Ween even wrote a song for the movie referencing a gay truck driving mom that had to be cut! Bates is typically good and has a great standout monologue about how her son has to be brave at school which I recalled really touched me. George C. Scott, whose scenes apparently required the most reshooting after the gay parents edits, is also quite good as the kindly grandfather.

This is a rare great movie for anyone in its awkward-years target demographic, alternately tasteful in the depiction of teenage life while pleasurably crude in the way teenage outsider humor must be to evoke laughs when times are hard. Highly deserving of DVD release and further rediscovery! What's the holdup??

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Hardcore (1979, Paul Schrader)

"Turn it off! TURN IT OFF!!! was a favorite catch phrase of movie riffbot Tom Servo in the halcyon days of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and that made me curious about Hardcore years before I knew who Paul Schrader was. His apparent mania to guiltily document the sordid side of secret sex lives middle class recently reached crescendo with the brilliant Auto Focus (2003) and dates all the way back to 1979 with George C. Scott on a square haircut Midwesterner's classically righteous pursuit to rescue his daughter from the desert den of sin and flesh, Hollywood's porn then-"industry." Schrader's personal Calvinist upbringing which forbade him from movies until college and he grew up observing the town and people of Grand Rapids, filmed here on location in family dining rooms marshmallowed by the coziness of rigidity. If the reactions of George C. Scott are not Schrader's own, he certainly knew guys like that and Scott embodies them perfectly.

The feeling of clinically observing the worst behavior of society that featured heavily in his screenplay for Taxi Driver is here again, yet feels less passionate even in revulsion. This story has been told in the movies before, most tackily and prominently in Joel Schumacher's 8MM (which critically raises the pornographic stakes to death snuff) and Scott's big moments of shock and horror register impact when they should, and he gives the impression of a man about to rip apart everything around him.

For the best example and thus the one featured prominently in the advertising campaign, see when he watches the porno film featuring his daughter. This scene is the centrifuge of the entire movie and is rightfully featured on the poster in simple evocation...

The depiction of the "porno" "industry" may as well have been from 1959 instead of '79 for all of its relevance to today's capitalized Porno Industry. The "film" of Scott's daughter is literally that, a 16mm quickie made to be played on a projector in a booth in Times Square for a quarter. "Actors" and "actresses" didn't even have to give names. When Travis Bickle nearly makes a date out of going to such places in Taxi Driver it was still the year Deep Throat had only just been released and Johnny Carson's name dropping was beginning the long worming of pornography into mass media middle class consciousness, bringing us to where we are today - porno "actresses" on late night talk shows and sharing decorating tips on the Style network.

Hardcore wasn't made at the worst possible time to document the porno industry, but close. Porno's skeeviest conditions have already been exploited dramatically so many times in the past 30 years that Schrader's wide eyed wonderment at the offhandedness with which sex can be documented is severely dated. His screenplay does not have else to offer in color or plotting, either. Peter Boyle fails to register as the PI who investigates for Scott. When Scott finally finds her and emotions should climax...Well, Scott was reported to have fought with Schrader during filming and it's not just his character who wants the scene to be over with so he can go home.