Set Phasers to Awesome: Star Trek

Star Trek movie poster

 

Like the 1966 Corvette a reckless young James Tiberius Kirk commandeers in an early sequence, the new Star Trek is precision-crafted for speed, sex appeal, and total awesomeness. Kirk launches that beautiful machine off a cliff, but thankfully director J.J. Abrams never does the same with the movie. Star Trek (the first in the franchise to go by the perfectly terse name of the original TV series) joins the rarified ranks of the few other modern blockbusters that thrill and entertain (not to mention cost and earn massive piles of money) yet have lasting merit. Make room on the DVD shelf for a new entry in the canon, alongside Jaws, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and Spider-Man 2.

Trek has a long tradition of utilizing the science fiction conceits of time travel and alternate dimensions to playfully subvert its characters and mythos. The original series introduced the Mirror Universe, giving the cast the chance to reinterpret their goodly characters in hairier, eviler alter egos. Two of the best movies brought the Enterprise back in time, first to save the whales in the 1980s (in the lighthearted Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home), and later to witness Earthlings’ first contact with an alien race in 2063 (in the underrated Star Trek VIII: First Contact). Two of my personal favorite Next Generation episodes “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and “All Good Things” tasked Captain Picard with course-correcting an Enterprise skipping through time, no matter the sacrifice. The fun in these kinds of stories comes not just from their brain-teasing sci-fi concepts, but in enjoying new twists on the established characters fans love. But any real innovations were always only temporary, the status quo always quickly restored in time (so to speak) for the next episode.

Anton Yelchin, Chris Pine, Simon Pegg, John Cho, and Zoe Saldana in Star Trekall hands on deck

Thus, the Star Trek franchise has managed to maintain a single (albeit massively complicated) timeline across six TV series, ten movies, and countless novels and comic books. There’s even a niche market in the continuity data itself, as evidenced by popular wikis like Memory Alpha and reference tomes such as Star Trek Chronology: The History of the Future. Such catalogs of the incredibly complex future “history” in which Trek is set are useful not only to obsessive fans, but also to the writers charged with creating new stories that don’t contradict what came before, at least too badly.

A certain degree of renewal was already built right in to Star Trek. When any one premise ran out of ideas, an ensemble aged beyond plausibility, or ratings dipped, the producers could always start over with a new ship, a new space station, or in a new year. The most radical departure yet attempted was the ultimately disappointing final series, Enterprise. The prequel, set years before Kirk would take the helm, got off to a great start with a Starfleet crew a world apart from any we had seen before. As many have pointed out over the years, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry may have modeled Starfleet on the Navy, but the original 1960s series was basically a Western set in space. The 1980s The Next Generation reconceived Starfleet as kind of trans-species peacekeeping fleet, a kind of U.N. of The Milky Way. So, set between Earthlings’ rough-and-tumble early spacefaring years and the later idealistic intergalactic cooperation, Enterprise featured a bunch of cocky cowboys brazenly taking their values out with them into space, baseball caps firmly screwed on heads, and phasers defiantly set to kill. The series seemed poised to be a somewhat obvious but fruitful metaphor for an arrogant, George W. Bush-era United States forcibly spreading democracy where it wasn’t welcome. But its quality (both in writing and in special effects budget) bottomed out in just a few episodes, and even the smoking-hot, well-endowed Vulcan T’Pol (Jolene Blalock) couldn’t keep the show on the air.

Zoe Saldana in Star TrekUhura models the latest in 23rd Century Bluetooth fashions

The entire Star Trek franchise seemed all but dead after Enterprise‘s cancellation, not unlike the no-win scenario Spock devises as a test to torture Starfleet cadets to see how they cope with failure. A cherished part of Star Trek lore is that Kirk doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios, and thus cheated in order to win Spock’s unwinnable test. Paramount evidently learned a lesson from Kirk’s lateral thinking, for the first they they have given the OK to an irreverent new creative team to permanently reboot Trek from top to bottom. Nearly all of Trek’s meticulously maintained continuity (excepting, ironically, the failed Enterprise, set chronologically before any of the events of this movie) has now forever been redefined as belonging to an alternate timeline. At least, that is, until the next reboot. As the heavily-advertised appearance of Leonard Nimoy as the original “Spock Prime” attests, nothing necessarily precludes the reappearance of any beloved original actors or other kinds of crossovers between timelines (anything in possible in science fiction). But Star Trek does mark a very clear end to Star Trek as we knew it.

After 40 years of unreliable quality control and diminishing box office, such drastic measures were arguably essential to preserve Trek as a viable franchise. But I do sympathize with the grumbling of longtime fans upset at scrapping everything and starting over. And this is not even to mention the many writers, directors, and actors that created the no-longer canonical stories. All of which hasn’t disappeared from our reality, and will be enjoyed forever on DVD, but this film does render pretty much everything that came before it as second-class Trek. I can’t help but wonder how all future spinoffs are now going to be handled on a practical level. For instance, if there are to be future comics or novels featuring the characters from The Next Generation, are the physical products going to have to be labelled as taking place in the now-depricated original fictional universe? How does “Trek Classic” and “Neu Trek” sound?

Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto in Star TrekSpock has had enough Kirk and can’t take it anymore

But back to the topic at hand: the totally awesome new movie is packed with glossy art direction, genuinely exciting special effects, fight scenes, chase sequences, and attractive young actors young and attractive enough to strut about on the big screen in their space scanties. Despite all this gloss, it somehow manages to not be totally stupid, which is more than This Dork Reporter can say about your typical summer movie (*cough* Transformers *cough*). However, I can’t help but point out a few, forgive me, illogical plot elements, especially in the mad rush towards the end:

  • Why does Kirk bother firing upon Nero’s ship as it’s being torn apart by a black hole? The Dork Report’s No-Prize answer: maybe Kirk feared Nero would time travel yet again to create mischief in yet another timeline (hey, there’s always the inevitable next reboot in a few years).
  • Starfleet is busy elsewhere in the galaxy, so we see the cadets mobilized into a strike force to confront Nero. So why is the Academy still full of students when Nero’s ship reaches Earth? The Dork Report’s No-Prize answer: maybe they were Freshmen not qualified to do more than merely swab the decks.
  • It’s wildly implausible for young Spock to maroon Kirk on the same planet that Nero did Spock Prime. The Dork Report’s No-Prize answer: nope, I got nothing. I mean, really, come on! (but still, the movie is awesome, just go with it)
  • The hardest plot point to swallow is why Spock Prime does not accompany Kirk back to the Enterprise. Would he really risk the fate of Earth because he thinks it’s more important that Kirk and his young self forge their destined friendship? The Dork Report’s No-Prize answer: yes.

But enough complaining. Did I mention the movie is TEH AWESOME? There’s not one bad performance to drag things down (a notable problem with Watchmen – read The Dork Report review). Despite being tasked with recreating characters beloved by fans for over 40 years, no one attempts an outright imitation or caricature. The most faithful is Zachary Quinto as Spock. Beyond his eerie physical resemblance to Nimoy (maybe not how he actually looked in 1966, but how he might have), he has a fresh take that plays up the character’s internal struggle between emotion and logic. Chris Pine artfully embodies Kirk’s blend of righteous nobility and brash rule-busting attitude without aping William Shatner’s famously hammy style (for which we all, admit it, love him). Karl Urban nails Bones as a seasick pessimist, and Zoe Saldana and John Cho bring welcome sass and physical action hero prowess to Uhura and Sulu, two characters often left on the sidelines. Only Anton Yelchin and Simon Pegg come close to overdoing it. Pegg mugs and shouts, playing Scotty as much more of a mad Scotsman than James Doohan ever did, and Yelchin overexaggerates Chekov’s accent for pure comedy. But that’s not to say both performances aren’t hugely entertaining, just like everything else on display.

Simon Pegg in Star TrekPegg gives Scotty’s accent all she’s got, Captain!

Star Trek goes much much further with Spock’s half-human nature than any of the Trek I’ve seen. Spock was such a key ingredient that almost every version of Trek that followed was obligated to include a similar character: most obviously the android Data (Brent Spiner) in The Next Generation. We are reminded the Vulcan species is not naturally emotionless, as many casual fans assume, but rather a deeply passionate people that holds its warlike nature in check by elevating logic to the level of religion. A purely devout Vulcan would be about as dramatically interesting as a robot (but it must be said that even Spock’s father Sarek (Ben Cross), a high-ranking Vulcan elder, privately admits to being moved by the irrational emotion of love). The aged Spock Prime is practically jovial, seemingly having come to terms with his duality. It’s actually rather heartwarming for a longtime fan to see him at a place of peace with himself.

I have room for one more small complaint: there’s an overreliance on clichéd father issues as easy story shortcuts to define character, for which I blame J.J. Abrams. Both Kirk and Spock are torn between rebelling against and owning up to their respective heroic, accomplished fathers. Abrams also built his TV series Alias and Lost upon the same dramatic crutch, in which seemingly every character is primarily motivated by strained relationships with absent and/or bad fathers (e.g. Sydney, Jack, Locke, Kate, Miles, etc…). One wonders, statistically speaking, how many people in the world actually do have such complicated relationships with their dads. Maybe those that do are just more likely to make their careers writing scripts for Hollywood.

None of the many Trek sequels, prequels, or spinoffs to date have ever reached the mythic status of the original series and its core dynamic duo Kirk and Spock. Star Trek makes a bold bid to reclaim what made the original such a phenomenon: it goes back to the original scenario and characters, and thoroughly remasters, reinvigorates, reinvents, and gives them a swift kick in the ass. It restores the names Kirk and Spock to the realm of legends and icons.


Official movie site: www.startrekmovie.com

The Spirit

The Spirit movie poster

 

At last, finally another entry to The Dork Report’s hallowed pantheon of zero-star unholy cinema atrocities. Frank Miller’s The Spirit is far more than just merely bad. Like the most infamous movie disaster of all, Ed Wood’s Plan Nine From Outer Space (read The Dork Report appreciation), it veers wildly from stunning weirdness to unintentional hilarity, interspersed with frequent stretches of insufferable boredom. But what truly lands The Spirit among the rarified company of true cinematic crimes against humanity is that it is the insane and unhinged product of a uniquely obsessed auteur mind. The only difference is, Miller was handed a great deal more money and resources than Wood ever managed to wrangle.

Not that he didn’t have to work for it. Miller is one of the best-known (and most ripped-off) rock stars to graduate from the sweatshop that is the comic book industry. He has written and/or illustrated some of the best-selling and most influential series of comics’ modern age, including Wolverine, Daredevil, Ronin, Elektra: Assassin, Sin City, and 300. Much of this work has long been ruthlessly pillaged for raw material for Hollywood’s leveraging of comic book intellectual properties. The unmatched one-two punch of his 1980s Batman graphic novels Year One (with David Mazzucchelli) and The Dark Knight, together with Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, became the basis for Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). That first major comics-to-movie blockbuster not only borrowed Miller’s particular interpretation of the character (itself a highly distilled version of its surprisingly dark history), but also his overall visual style (going to far as to visually quote individual panels).

Gabriel Macht in The Spirit“I’m gonna kill you all kinds of dead.”

Over a decade later, Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil (2003) unfortunately fumbled Miller’s most famous original character, the Greek ninja assassin Elektra. But Miller was soon to cease being merely someone from whom Hollywood stole paid homage. In 2005, Miller jumped media barriers to co-direct a feature film adaptation of his original graphic novel Sin City with Robert Rodriguez. The two crafted an exactingly faithful recreation of the book, essentially treating the original comics as storyboards. Miller’s profile only rose as Zack Snyder pulled a similar stunt with Miller’s 1998 graphic novel 300, producing an even bigger (and slightly controversial) smash hit.

Credit to Miller for absorbing countless lessons from the seasoned indie maverick Rodriguez, enough to helm an entire feature on his own. The Spirit’s visuals are often extraordinarily beautiful, exploiting the thin barrier between animation and live action blurred ever since the largely green-screened Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999) and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Kerry Conran, 2004). Like Sin City, nearly every shot is highly processed to effect a stylized evocation of noir literature and movies.

But together with Miller’s signature brand of stark, chiaroscuro images and purple, pulpy noir dialogue, it doesn’t look or sound anything like the real ostensible real source material, Will Eisner’s original Spirit comics. The legendary Eisner is considered the inventor of the graphic novel. The DVD edition includes a must-see bonus feature: “Miller on Miller,” in which Miller talks of him as a teacher, and took many of his aphorisms as lessons, including the essential sensuality of inking (which Miller took rather literally). Eisner (and others such as Neal Adams) may have inspired Miller in the first place, but Miller’s version of The Spirit in Chucks and cape-like trenchcoat more closely resembles his own creations, especially Dwight from Sin City (Clive Owen in the film) or Daredevil as he appears in the 1990 graphic novel Elektra Lives Again.

This Dork Reporter read Miller’s comics as a kid, and certainly never expected the guy would one day be a bankable force in Hollywood. Looking backwards, it’s plain he hasn’t changed much. His obsessions and preoccupations are now only amplified and enhanced: his modern comics (and now movies) are mostly comprised of homoerotic bone-crunching acrobatic fights (if the entirety of 300 isn’t proof enough, might I refer you to Daredevil’s battle with the naked, big-dicked Bullseye in Elektra Lives Again), voluptuous femmes fatale (no skinny waifs for him), and pulp fiction and film noir-inspired odes to his beloved New York City. Also on the DVD, Miller expounds on all his favorite talking points, from his detailed knowledge of comics history, his love for New York City, and his hatred of censorship (he’s famously prone to castigate the comics industry for weakly censoring itself instead of fighting back against – or even ignoring – Congressional pressure in the 1950s).

Scarlett Johansson in The Spirit“I’ve known some pretty strange women in my time but this one, she’s got the final word on strange.”

I’m not familiar with Eisner’s original Spirit comics, which appeared as inserts in 1940s Sunday newspapers. But from what I understand, Miller took a great deal of liberties beyond jettisoning Eisner’s colorful visual style in favor of his own Sin City look. Miller adds a metaphysical aspect missing in the original, making The Spirit and his nemesis The Octopus both indestructible and quick-healing (perhaps inspired by the character Wolverine, to which Miller had a hand in popularizing in the early 1980s). The presence of Samuel L. Jackson can’t help but recollect M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, an infinitely more subtle examination of the superhero archetype.

The action is set in an unnamed fantasy urban landscape like that of Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1998) and David Fincher’s Se7en (1995): filthy, surrounded by water, soaked by constant precipitation and fog, and in perpetual night until the sun finally rises at the end. Miller’s script conspicuously avoids mentioning the year, but the automobiles and fashions are clearly of the 1940s while the characters employ the cell phones and internet of the 2000s. This is Miller’s home.

The Spirit sports an unusually eclectic cast, with the unknown Gabriel Macht in the eponymous role with much better-known stars Jackson and Scarlett Johansson in supporting roles. The performances range from the distracted (Sarah Paulson as a good girl besotted with The Spirit) to the borderline lunatic (hi, Sam!). One can hardly blame the actors, for surely they were at the mercy of the screenplay and Miller’s rookie coaching. Stana Katic is entertaining as Morgenstern, a gosh-golly gee-whiz rookie cop that goose-steps from scene to scene like a sexy robot. ScarJo rocks hornrimmed glasses like no bad girl before her, but it’s just plain uncomfortable to see her in Nazi fetishwear and jackboots.

The Octopus is a mad scientist conducting all sorts of medical atrocities in the name of mutating himself to godlike powers. He deems one of his misfired experiments as “just plain damn weird,” a phrase apropos of the movie itself. It’s oddly slapstick, and often outright silly. Unexpectedly, it’s much less violent, or rather, gory, than 300 or Sin City. It’s also slightly more playful in narrative terms; the Spirit’s noirish voiceover often brazenly breaks the fourth wall by speaking directly to the camera.

And finally, some trivia gleaned from the credits:

  • This comic geek thought I recognized a contribution by frequent collaborator Geof Darrow (Hard Boiled and Big Guy & Rusty the Boy Robot), and I was proved correct in the end credits.
  • The end credits themselves, designed by Miller, are stunning.
  • Miller is also credited for the storyboards, which must be something to see.
  • Miller cameos as a decapitiated cop, the head of whom The Octopus wields as a weapon. He also appears in Sin City, Daredevil and RoboCop 2, for which he wrote the screenplay.

Official movie site: www.mycityscreams.com

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Battlestar Galactica: Caprica

Battlestar Galactica Caprica poster

 

UPDATE: Read our revised and expanded review of the Caprica pilot, written after the pilot aired on television.

The recently concluded series Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) was critically acclaimed and much beloved by a relatively small group of fans and critics that appreciated the sexy, brainy show’s bleak, pessimistic view of humanity. It will certainly live forever as a classic achievement in television, but the common consensus is that it failed to reach the wide audience it could have. Executive Producer Ron Moore told Variety “‘We had viewers say that if they were able to trick their wives or girlfriends into watching Galactica, they loved it. But with the name Battlestar Galactica screaming science fiction,’ he adds, ‘there was just such a high hurdle to get female viewers to even try it.'” So comes Caprica, a prequel ostensibly engineered from the beginning for greater appeal.

The series proper will not air until early 2010, but in an original move, its unrated (read: blood ‘n’ boobies) movie-length pilot episode premiered day-and-date on DVD and digital download. It preserves some of the signature vernacular of its parent series: technobabble like “Cylon” (Cybernetic Lifeform Node), the trip-on-the-tongue “gods damn it,” the infamous euphemism “frak,” and even racial epithets like “dirt eater.” The character of Bill Adama (Edward James Olmos in Battlestar Galactica) appears as a young boy. Some of the same core themes are still present, particularly religious intolerance and families coping with catastrophic disaster. But there are significantly worrisome signs that indicate a fatal miscalculation on The SyFy Channel’s part (worse than their astonishingly stupid rechristening from “Sci-Fi”): Caprica hinges on two men and three annoying teens, relegating its only two adult female characters to the sidelines.

Eric Stoltz and Esai Morales in Battlestar Galactica CapricaCaprica, like Battlestar Galactica, holds that there are no Surgeon General warnings in space

It may very well be the case that many women were discouraged from checking Battlestar Galactica out, but it’s also true that the show featured a bevy of significant, complex women: self-destructive firebrand Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff), president of all humanity Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), Dick Cheney-esque war criminal Captain Cain (Michelle Forbes), and conflicted Cylons Three (Lucy Lawless), Six (Tricia Helfer), and Eight (Grace Park). So far, at least, Caprica includes only two lead female roles, neither of whom figures strongly in the plot: Amanda Graystone (Paula Malcomson, from Deadwood) and Sister Clarice Willow (Polly Walker, from Rome). But maybe this makes a kind of sense. The core dynamic is classic storytelling: industrialist Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz) and lawyer Joseph Adama (Esai Morales) become entangled in a plot, while coming from opposing philosophical points of view. If one of them had been female, the viewer might naturally expect a romantic subplot. Caprica’s creators may have avoided this kind of distraction, but the downside is that the primary narrative conflict is between two men, and the only two female characters are solely defined by their relationships to their men and kids. Daniel and Amanda’s daughter Zoe (Alessandra Toressani) is killed in a terrorist attack, but we never see the icy Amanda mourn as we do Daniel. Her character is simply Daniel’s wife, nothing more. Sister Willow, at least, is revealed by the end to be more than she seems. Here’s hoping we see Amanda and Sister Willow significantly expanded in future episodes.

Another thing Battlestar Galactica got right was to sidestep altogether the trap of child characters. It was an adult show, for intelligent adults. Caprica obviously also didn’t learn from a lesson from Jericho (2006-2008), a generally smart show whose weakest characters were a pair of teens that were thankfully written out. Out of Caprica’s trio of incredibly annoying kids, at least two die but unfortunately come back.

Eric Stoltz, Paula Malcomson, and Esai Morales in Battlestar Galactica CapricaWait, there was a woman in Caprica? Let’s hope poor Paula Malcomson actually gets some scenes in the full series

The first 10 minutes pack in a huge download of information, especially for someone not already versed in the fictional Galactica universe. Certain key points are reiterated once things slow down later, but a new viewer tuning in cold might get the sense they were supposed to be versed in all this stuff already, instead of just getting teased with a barrage of info to be unpacked later. When a title card reads “58 years before The Fall,” Galactica fans will catch the reference to the sneak attack by the Cylons that nearly eradicates their human creators.

We then cut directly to the decadent V Club, implying its late-Rome-like decadence to be one of the direct causes of the coming Fall. A fully immersive virtual reality simulation not unlike The Matrix, the V Club is full of teens dancing to dated techno, hot lesbians, simulated human sacrifice, and a fight club. Its banality betrays a failure of imagination not just on the part of Caprica’s teens, but also on the filmmakers. A rebellious generation creates a virtual world in which they can do absolutely anything they want, and all they can come up with is a single nightclub that only spins techno from Earth’s 1990s? No gay boys want to make out? Nobody wants to fly? Nobody wants a body made of jade?

The titular Caprica is the capital of twelve planets colonized by humanity. We only caught glimpses of its future on Battlestar Galactica, so there is plenty of unexplored territory for a new series to fill in. Its fashions resemble 1950s America, perhaps meant to capitalize on the popularity of the Showtime series Mad Men. We’re supposed to agree that Caprica is a corrupt, decadent society on the cusp of collapse. But how, exactly? They’re playing god(s) by delving into dangerous technological areas like robotic weapons and artificial intelligence, or at least a means of recording a human individual’s consciousness into a computer. They’ve designed virtual reality systems capable of simulating any desire. The society is racist to the core; Taurans (from the colony Taurus) are called “dirt eaters” and associated with organized crime (although to be fair, the latter actually is true – they seem similar to the immigrant Sicilian mafia in 1920s America). Like Michael Corleone in the Godfather trilogy, Joseph is ostensibly an upstanding citizen forced to compromise with his heritage. Unable to completely extricate himself from the mob, he tries to raise his son as a Caprican, to the consternation of his grandmother.

Alessandra Toressani in Battlestar Galactica CapricaZoe, genius hacker, goes clubbing in The Matrix

This society’s most dangerous trait is its ingrained religious intolerance. The population is almost uniformly polytheistic, and intolerant of the minority monotheists. Underground militants have formed the Soldiers of the One, a cult that believes in a combination of monotheism and anti-science. Their representative Sister Willow manipulates terrorist tot Ben (Avan Jogia) to stage a bombing.

The biggest addition to the Battlestar Galactica mythos is a deeper look into artificial intelligence. Like the Terminator franchise, I appreciate Caprica’s emphasis that developing artificial intelligence is a separate pursuit than building robots. Too many science fiction stories seem to equate the two, including Battlestar Galactica itself in its final episode. The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet’s humanoid robots have minds of its own, but what about being robots makes them so, as opposed to immobile computers? Blade Runner’s replicants and A.I.’s boy robots look human first, and it is never asked what exactly makes them sentient beings (unless the question is how we anthropomorphize things that outwardly seem human). Artificial intelligence is almost always automatically evil in movies such as Terminator and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is rarely inherently innocent, as in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Caprica features two disturbing scenes of a human consciousness waking up trapped in a crude robot body. That’s called overegging your pudding. Also creepy: the advances made by Zoe lead directly to Daniel’s clumsy warrior robots becoming the effective killing machines christened Cylons.

Speaking of, how could a luminary in the robotics business not know his own daughter was a genius hacker? A particularly hard-to-swallow bit of technobabble is the repeated statistic that the amount of data encoded in a human brain comprises only 300 megabytes. Apparently working on her own, Zoe comes up with the solution to preserving a human mind in a computer: supplement that 300 MB of data with the digital detritus that person has left behind: medical records, playlists, email, searches, etc. Her breakthrough allows Daniel to resurrect Joseph’s late daughter as well (although we don’t see how he obtained her 300 MB worth of brain matter). The resultant duplicate quickly goes insane, so Zoe is somehow special, the only digital human mind that doesn’t go mad.

Some awfully big events are revealed in the DVD edition’s deleted scenes: Adama learns early on that Zoe was involved in the bombing, adding an extra dimension to his interactions with her father. Also, boy bomber Ben’s mind was also successfully uploaded into the V Club by Sister Willow, suggesting that Zoe might not be so unique after all, and that her scientic breakthroughs may have been in part developed by the Soldiers of the One. Both of these strike me as great layers of complexity that would have only added to the story.


Official movie site: www.scifi.com/caprica

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Quarantine

Quarantine movie poster

 

Quarantine, remade by director John Erick Dowdle (co-written with brother Drew) from the Spanish movie REC (2007), follows in the now-firmly established horror fauxmentary tradition. Previous entries Blair Witch Project, Diary of the Dead, and Cloverfield are all ostensibly comprised of found footage recovered from cameras found at the scenes of horrific disasters. Quarantine’s only wrinkle is that, unlike its predecessors, this pretense is not explained as such on screen. Quarantine’s conceit is that we’re watching raw footage, edited in-camera, abandoned by the late characters themselves. There are no implied, unseen survivors that picked up the pieces.

Cloverfield (read The Dork Report review) never provided a convincing psychological motivation to explain why its cinematographer would keep his camcorder running throughout his desperate flight from toxic alien creatures swarming across Manhattan. A much more intelligent examination of an obsession to capture everything on video came from the less expected source of none other than the zombie godfather himself, George A. Romero. His underrated Diary of the Dead (read The Dork Report review) features a group of young film students with pretensions to becoming great documentarian filmmakers, and what better subject to document than their own first-hand experiences during a zombie outbreak? Although Cloverfield had significantly greater budgetary resources at its disposal to create eerily realistic images of Manhattan crumbling beneath the feet of a Godzilla-like monster, Quarantine follows in the more modest footsteps of Diary of the Dead in striving for greater psychological realism.

Scott Percival in Quarantineground floor, coming up

In story terms, the justifications for Quarantine’s characters to keep filming continually evolve as their circumstances worsen. Like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (read The Dork Report review), Quarantine features members of the press as main characters. The first full 12 minutes are devoted to reporter Angela Vidal (Jennifer Carpenter) and cameraman Scott Percival (Steve Harris) shooting a television news segment on a local fire department. By the time an emergency finally arrives and the duo hitches a ride along to the scene, we’ve become fully endeared to the bubbly, spunky reporter and the charmingly filthy firefighters. As the routine investigation turns into a confrontation with a feral-seeming elderly woman, Angela senses the opportunity to score some sensational footage. It’s clear she fancies herself a more serious reporter.

Later, as the elderly woman is revealed to be patient zero for a new highly contagious disease, the Los Angeles Center for Communicable Disease quickly quarantines the building, cutting off all their communications and falsely reporting to the public that it has been evacuated. The trapped tenants are a random assortment of Los Angelans: an opera tutor and his hot young live-in protégé, a veterinarian, a cleaning woman, a mom and her baby (whom we meet again near the end of the film, in horrifying transformed fashion), toy dogs, an immigrant couple, and… what’s missing? That’s right! If this is L.A., where are all the unemployed actors?

Building manager Yuri (Rade Serbedzija) keeps conveniently remembering exits (including a back door and a basement entry to a sewer), but all are blocked. By this point, Angela has morphed into a righteous crusader wanting more footage as proof of the city’s outrage against justice and human rights. But when the virus spreads to most of the people trapped in the building, the power goes off, and panic truly sets in, Angela’s motivations switch to pure survival. The camera now only proves useful as a source of light, and anything captured on video happens by chance as they frantically navigate through the corridors. Then, in true horror movie fashion, things get even worse. In a scene rivaling the nail-biting basement sequence in Silence of the Lambs, Angela and Scott find themselves barricaded in a pitch-black attic with their camera’s lamp broken. The remainder of the movie is seen through the greenish haze of their night-vision filter.

Jennifer Carpenter in QuarantineIn true horror movie fashion, Angela (Jennifer Carpenter) sheds layers of clothing throughout her ordeal

While Quarantine may seem to tip its hat to horror tradition as protagonist Angela sheds layers of clothing over the course of her ordeal, the movie is actually quite subversive in showing her lose her spirit. Atypically for a horror movie protagonist, she is no plucky survivor that defeats the menace. She pretty much just breaks down.

Quarantine may be yet another in a long line of zombie flicks, but I would argue its true genre identity is as an urban nightmare. Cloverfield relived 9/11 in the form of another Godzilla and its highly toxic babies, and Guillermo Del Toro’s Mimic envisioned swarms of giant cockroaches breeding in abandoned subway stations. Quarantine touches on another deep anxiety of urban dwellers: a viral contagion born of city filth. The entire outbreak plays out in the confines of an aging tenement building (with what seems to be a clothing sweatshop hidden in the back), a place many city slickers might recognize as home.

What made Quarantine the most frightening for me in particular was not the gore or the booga-booga scare factor, but rather the disturbing plausibility of its fictional disease. In reality, all we hear about are the dangers of diseases like HIV jumping from bushmeat to humans, and the avian or swine flu incubating in impoverished nations where people live in close quarters with animals. What about those of us living in developed, supposedly civilized cites, full of dogs, roaches, rats, and yes, a certain number of crazy nutjobs?

A hyper-evolved form of the rabies virus is the most plausible pseudo-scientific explanation I’ve yet heard for zombies, especially compared to the vaguely described Venusian radiation in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (read The Dork Report review). Like the “superflu” in Stephen King’s The Stand and the distilled “rage” virus in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, this strain of rabies was genetically engineered by a lone terrorist holed up in the attic of the tenement. An ominous clue is dropped halfway through the film about an unaccounted-for tenant living in the attic. When we finally meet him, he appears to have been infected for quite some time. Blind and emaciated, he scrambles around in the total darkness of his former home and laboratory (scattered with disgusting medical photos and newspaper clippings about Doomsday Cults). The creepy figure is played by the unusually tall and slender Doug Jones, most recently seen as the Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four and Abe Sapien in Hellboy. I worked on the official website for Guillermo Del Toro’s marvelous Pan’s Labyrinth, for which Jones was interviewed about his experiences playing The Faun and The Pale Man; for someone that so typically plays monsters, he’s a super-nice, funny, and charming dude. I skimmed through the bonus features on the Quarantine DVD, and it’s a crying shame that he apparently wasn’t interviewed.

In place of a musical score, Quarantine features a complex sound design built around an eerily creaking, groaning old building. It also forgoes other standard movie pleasures, being a gruesome, depressing, and punishing experience. In that respect, it’s similar to how the nauseatingly (literally) bleak Blindness (read The Dork Report review). In contrast, the sublime Children of Men (read The Dork Report review) is the rare movie nightmare set at the brink of the end of humanity that nevertheless carries a spark of uplift and hope.


Official movie site: www.ContainTheTruth.com

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Los Cronocrímenes (Timecrimes)

Los Cronocrímenes Timecrimes movie poster

 

A grotesquely costumed, knife-wielding creep on the Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes) theatrical poster promises an exploitative slasher pic along the lines of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. To some degree, considering the degradations made upon a breathtakingly beautiful girl alone in the woods, it is. But Nacho Vigalondo’s Spanish science fiction puzzler is a friendlier sibling to Shane Carruth’s Primer (2004), a much more brain-spraining chronological conundrum. Both are rare science fictions that rely on a complexity of ideas rather than special effect eye candy. Vigalondo’s different take on the sci-fi tropes of time travel (more on that later) makes Timecrimes a little easier to follow.

The film opens with Héctor (Karra Elejalde) driving home from grocery shopping with the hatchback of his car ajar, leaving a string of groceries behind him (yes, it’s a metaphor). He and his wife Clara (Candela Fernández) are outfitting a country home as a retreat for the stressed-out insomniac. We never learn what exactly ails him, or what kind of job affords them such a lifestyle. Little do we realize that violence and chaos is already roiling in the bucolic woods around them. Their neighbor turns out to be a research institute developing a rudimentary time machine. The device is not due to be tested for weeks, but unnamed staffer El Joven (Vigalondo himself), is hanging around the facility to tinker with it without permission.

Karra Elejalde in TimecrimesTimecrimes’ pink boogieman

Héctor encounters an unconscious nude woman (Bárbara Goenaga) in the woods, and finds himself pursued by what he assumes to be her assailant. Taking refuge at the institute, El Joven volunteers to hide him in an apparatus that resembles a hot tub prepared for a milk bath. From Hector’s point of view, the doors open mere moments later, but he finds himself several hours in the past. Even though Héctor is the first person to ever travel through time, El Joven seems pretty unamazed that the machine works. He’s also assured of the rules: Héctor must be sure to stay out of the way as his future self comes to the time machine, after which there will once again only be one Hector in the world. Meeting himself and/or altering events (say, preventing his future self from ever passing back to the past), would cause a cataclysmic paradox.

El Joven never specifies what exactly the results would be, but anyone familiar with Doctor Who, Star Trek, and the aforementioned Primer would know that a temporal paradox could rupture the space time continuum, reverse the polarity of the neutron flow, be really socially awkward, or… whatever. More illustrative is the paradox at the heart of the Terminator films: the evil artificial intelligence SkyNet sends a cyborg back in time to kill Sarah Connor, before she becomes the mother of SkyNet’s mortal enemy John Connor. Future-John also sends his best friend Kyle Reese back in time, ostensibly to protect his mother. As David Foster Wallace pointed out in his vicious critique of Terminator 2: Judegement Day, the paradox is that both time travelers cause the unwanted future to occur: Reese sleeps with Sarah and becomes John’s father, and the wreckage of the cyborg becomes the technological basis for building SkyNet.

Nacho Vigalondo in Timecrimesdirector Nacho Vigalondo apparently wrote his pitch meeting into his script

Héctor originally acts impulsively and attempts to contact his past self by phone, and then in person. He makes a series of calamitous errors, and eventually comes to realize that he must shift his strategy to ensure he not disrupt what has already happened to him, but will be everybody else’s future. El Joven only sticks Hector into the time machine in the first place because a copy of him that already went through told El Joven he had to do it. Hector kidnaps and abuses La Chica to recreate the perverse scenario the past version of himself encountered. He commits a perverse crime against her, but not for his pleasure (to anyone not aware of his predicament, his behavior is psychotic).

But the increasingly crazed Héctor tries one last time to change events. He travels back in time again, creating a second temporal loop-de-loop, a third duplicate of himself, and more proliferating walkie-talkies than I was able to keep track of. Héctor only seems to realize near the end of his ordeal that everything is clicking into a predetermined sequence of events, regardless of his direct or indirect interference. Eventually, a calmness comes over him, and he simply sits down and waits for events to finish playing themselves out, knowing there is nothing he can do. So Timecrimes’ notion of time travel is not actually like that in Star Trek or Terminator, but more like the television show Lost, whose rules stipulate that there is only one unalterable timeline. There is no such thing as a paradox.

Karra Elejalde and Bárbara Goenaga in TimecrimesLa Chica unknowingly helps Héctor out of two different car crashes

Héctor’s time loops are straightened out by the end, with only one version of himself left in the world. But his misadventures in time have left a trail of destruction behind him similar to his spilled groceries in the beginning of the film. La Chica lies dead in his garden, he’s crashed two cars, and the police are coming. La Chica’s necklace is in his pocket, and he’s sure to be found guilty for her death. Perhaps worse of all, a working time machine site idle at the top of the hill, waiting for more mistakes to be made.

The DVD also includes Vigalondo’s excellent short film 7:35 de la Mañana (7:35 AM), in which he exhibits his prowess with the slow reveal of narrative information.


Official movie site: www.loscronocrimenes.com

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Religulous

Religulous movie poster

 

Standup comedian and occasional b-movie star Bill Maher remade himself into a satirical political pundit on the cable TV shows Politically Incorrect and Real Time. He most famously spoke truth to power when he defied the conventional wisdom after 9/11 and correctly stated that one thing the perpetrators were not were cowards. Not surprisingly, he was swiftly fired by Comedy Central. Had he stopped there, his arguable legacy would have been to blaze the trail for the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to crossover from the gutter of comedy to mainstream political punditry. Maher’s peer Al Franken went even further, from heckler to actual political participant.

But Maher was not content to stop there. His latest incarnation is, for better or worse, the popular face of a growing movement against organized religion. Unlike the rational scientist Richard Dawkins (mostly rational, that is; his recent statements against children’s fantasy literature like Harry Potter reveal him to be at best a killjoy and at worst a censor) and the even more strident Christopher Hitchens, Maher uses comedy and outright mockery to advance the cause of atheism in the sometimes disturbingly theocratic American society. This Dork Reporter is on his side, but isn’t sure Maher and his movie Religulous is really what atheists need to combat the encroachment of church upon state. As Michael Moore is to liberals, so too may Maher be to atheists everywhere: is he really the best spokesperson?

Bill Maher in ReligulousA Jew and a talk show host walk into a bar… oh, you’ve heard this one?

Religulous teams Maher with director Larry Charles, also responsible for the high-concept low art Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) and Brüno (2009). While Borat and Bruno fall on the fauxmentary end of the continuum, Religulous skirts with being an actual documentary but stops short of pretensions to impartiality. Maher and Charles talk their way into enemy territory like the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, the Creation Museum in Kentucky (a temple to the denial of basic science that would be hilarious were it not such an astounding celebration of willful ignorance), and the Truckers’ Chapel in Raleigh. Maher and Charles may have used subterfuge to gain access, but the finished film is open about their deception. The filmmakers openly brag over such stunts by proudly including footage of the Holy Land Experience’s publicist freaking out at the presence of a bunch of godless liberals armed with a camera. All of this attitude is actually not necessary; the film is at its best when Maher allows his interviewees to simply talk their way into deep graves (which most of these intolerant ignoramuses do with great gusto).

My biggest issue with the movie is its use of satirical editorial juxtaposition that on at least one occasion is outright racist. I agree it’s fun to snicker at clips of cheesy old biblical movies, easy to mock the nauseatingly confused “former homosexual” Pastor John Wescott of Exchange Ministries with snippets of gay porn, and chuckle at the bald scam being run by José Luis de Jesús Miranda, a Puerto Rican claiming to be the direct descendent of Jesus Christ. But Maher refers to African American preacher Pastor Jeremiah Cummings’ gold jewelry as “bling” and intercuts footage of a comically stereotypical pimp. Wescott is obviously in deep denial, and Cummings and Miranda are despicable crooks out for nothing but their own profit, but such cheapshots are uncalled for.

Bill Maher in ReligulousAnd on the third day, Jesus went to Orlando

In the midst of all this fervent madness, it’s somewhat surprising that the Catholic Church and even the Vatican itself come across as the most enlightened. Maher is kicked out of the Vatican proper, but meets with the supremely sane and rational Father George Coyne, head of the Vatican observatory. Coyne is one man of the cloth, at least, that does not deny science or celebrate ignorance. Maher also strikes interview gold with the hilariously outspoken former Vatican scholar Father Reginald Foster.

The plot thickens! Maher does not actually self-identify as an atheist. As he told The Onion’s A.V. Club,

I’m not an atheist. There’s a really big difference between an atheist and someone who just doesn’t believe in religion. Religion to me is a bureaucracy between man and God that I don’t need. But I’m not an atheist, no. I believe there’s some force. If you want to call it God… I don’t believe God is a single parent who writes books.

Whether Maher positions himself as an atheist or merely a crusader against oppressive organized religion, he takes a kind of gleeful pride in it. Smug atheists can be just as insufferable as holier-than-thou theists. Even before becoming a self-appointed voice against religion, Maher had become somewhat infamous for louche behavior (dating and sometimes marrying strippers, frequenting the Playboy Mansion, etc.). His outspoken opinions and tabloid-ready behavior probably don’t help theists take him seriously. I imagine most fundamentalists picture atheists as being like Maher: proud, condescending, and shirking of the responsibility of religious-derived morals (in other words, not having hell to motivate them to not sin). What I think believers need to understand is many people arrive at atheism only after protracted periods of difficult soul searching, and aren’t necessarily smug about it.

Religulous may be preaching to the converted, but it can’t ever hurt to keep the pressure on those that would oppress and exploit others by claiming to have the ear of God.


Official movie site: www.religulousmovie.net

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