Blade Runner 2049

The one thing a Blade Runner sequel absolutely had to be was visually beautiful: architecture, wardrobe, cinematography, atmosphere. That mission is handily accomplished by 2049. It’s a gorgeous film. Despite the odds of living in squalor or in a dangerously polluted or radioactive part of the planet, the future looks incredibly stylish. If there must be another attempt to film Dune (or a first attempt to film Neuromancer), I would happily trust this team to handle it.

The scenes feel underpopulated even when they are crowded with people. You’d almost think the LAPD station was deserted most of the time apart from the chief, Officer K (Ryan Gosling), and a single doomed forensic examiner. Likewise the story is straightforward and streamlined. It never really feels like a noir, even though several key motifs are there on paper: the eccentric rich, colorful consultants, trips to the underworld, questions of parentage, femmes fatales. Are the institutions corrupt? One is concerned with maintaining the social status quo, the other in obtaining legitimately valuable intellectual property, but neither seems exactly venal in that noirish way.

And sometime in the last hour or so it turns decisively away from noir to a more optimistic, revolution-oriented story. Perhaps the times demand this; it’s not fashionable to accept the noir axiom and thermodynamic law that entropy increases, corruption always wins, and we must take our small victories where we can and duck out of sight before the hammer falls. 2017 audiences are literal-minded and moralistic; depiction of evil unpunished is read as endorsement of that evil. Fiction is a voodoo doll, stuck with pins in the childish hope that the stories we tell will curse our enemies in real life. It’s laughable to think that the writers of noir fiction felt they lived in the best of all possible worlds, or that they believed one detective trying to do good could bring down an empire. This loss of sophistication on the part of audiences explains the ending of Blade Runner and the ending of Blade Runner 2049. But for anyone who doesn’t really care about this film being noir, this doesn’t matter much, and maybe 2017 needs hope more than sophistication, even if that hope is vague and somewhat contradicts the exposition that opens the film.

There are, however, two significant problems that, however much I admired the film’s execution, limited the appeal of its concept for me. The first is that this is yet again the only android story that seems to exist: they’re just like us! Viewed as allegory, this is perhaps the only morally sound approach to the theme: the slave and the master are one flesh, and the one must not be forced to serve the other, etc. If androids represent the working classes and the downtrodden, to emphasize their inhumanity seems to endorse these class divisions. But viewed as science fiction, this is the least interesting direction to take; why not explore the ways in which androids would be unlike us? What could we learn about the way our abilities and limitations have shaped us by seeing the ways those of different types of beings have shaped them? We can still respect them as our equals without taking the condescending position that every android’s highest aspiration is to be human. With the exception of Ex Machina (and probably Futurama), we see this over and over and it’s devoid of further interest.

The other problem is that Blade Runner did not need or even invite a sequel. Its story was complete. Even if you feel it was slightly overrated as a film, there was really nothing more to tell. 2049 continues the story with as much dignity as possible, except that it substitutes for the existential “humanity” of androids in the original a more biological self-determination. Worse, it answers the question no one really needed answered: what happened to Rachel and Deckard? Even if you were desperate for that answer, it’s hard to believe this was the most interesting answer to it. Arguably it has the effect of diluting the original in much the same way that Prometheus and Covenant have diluted Alien, or that (I have to imagine) Love Never Dies dilutes Phantom of the Opera.

Despite the film’s glacial pace, every frame is beautiful enough that the 164 minutes feel like 124 (you know, a reasonable length of time for a movie, especially one with this simple a plot), and most of the performances are quite good. I never quite believed Robin Wright, and Jared Leto is a ham playing a ham, but Harrison Ford is magnetic (if not quite the same character he played before), and I did not regret finally seeing my first movie starring Ryan Gosling. There are even two genuine jokes. So even if it’s an unnecessary film, it’s not an unpleasant one. Let’s just leave it at one sequel, though, huh?

Dreams, fantasies, and middle fingers

I am home. I’m REALLY glad to be home. I watched four movies on my four flights.

One was Don’t Think Twice (not to be confused with Don’t Look Now). It’s the movie where Keegan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs are in an improv troupe in New York and they land auditions for a fictionalized SNL. It was good, though it was also very depressing, because it’s very honest about how shitty I think being on SNL would be and also how shitty not being on SNL would be. My heart goes out to you friends who are making comedy their career. Also I think I hate movies about my jobs, i.e. tech and improv. Tech never feels right onscreen (no, I haven’t watched Silicon Valley yet, I’m sure it’s great) and improv doubly so. Improv just has to be live, I think, or it has to look scripted, or it has to have Greg Proops. It’s so uncomfortable otherwise. You have to be in the room or it’s nothing special.

The other three were basically the same movie, a male fantasy of omnipotence and of giving the establishment the finger. My least favorite was Taken, which Liam Neeson supposedly assumed would bomb and I could see why. He only pulls it off because he’s Liam Neeson but he is miscast. I know! It’s his iconic role now! But let’s face it. The “particular set of skills” bit is ok, but for me the high point is where he has to tell his daughter “they are going to take you.” Genuinely harrowing. After that it is a big old power fantasy and the awkward spectacle of a dad forced to tell a sheik’s majordomo to purchase his daughter. For kicks imagine this starring Jim Carrey.

Then there’s Escape from New York, a very silly film. Now I know where Metal Gear Solid got its protagonist, but video game Snake is an actual character whereas Snake Plissken is maybe an assault rifle in wrestler pants, or (oh, I get it now!) a snake that occasionally hisses out a belligerent phrase. He doesn’t really do anything other than Be Tough until the last scene of the film, which is where the Fuck You Mr. President happens. The prison city idea felt like it could have been more interesting than it was, but with this many stars — including Harry Dean Stanton and Lee Van Cleef — who cares, really. Dumb but occasionally fun.

Which brings us to Kingsman: The Secret Service. It’s ostensibly “James Bond, but fun again,” and it sort of succeeds, but it has to jam in an awkward training / competition middle act that hopefully doesn’t need to happen in the sequel. Colin Firth is fabulous, and his protege is appealing, and while it wasn’t a great movie it was entertaining enough that I want to see the next one. Question marks in my mind about Samuel L. as the lisping squeamish billionaire in vulgar American clothes who serves McDonald’s as a gourmet meal, and his Algerian right-hand woman; for a series supposedly reexamining the “posh British superspy” idea, it’s a little iffy to make your only POC characters (bar one) the villains. But SLJ is having so much fun and is note perfect (except for that dopey lisp), so if he doesn’t mind then maybe I shouldn’t either.

I certainly did not expect to see Kingsman slaughter a churchful of bigots, or indeed a roomful of the 1%. Most satisfying fantasy purge since Mars Attacks!

James Bond themes, ranked

Recently I found myself lamenting the sorry state of James Bond theme songs in the 2010s, and how overhyped I find “Skyfall” in particular, but after some discussion of the matter I realized I owed it to this most vital and urgent of topics to do my homework and listen to them all again before delivering the definitive ranking. So I did, and here is that ranking. The rules were opening themes with vocals only, meaning we needn’t discuss Dr. No (much better simply to watch it!).

But I will offer special mention, before we begin, to “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. Like the film, it’s something unique and special in the Bond franchise and need not be sullied in some petty contest. Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All the Time In the World” is also peerless, but because it closes the film (with deep irony) rather than opening, it too escapes being ranked. Lucky thing, because between the two of them they’d wipe the floor with a lot of these clowns.

22. “Die Another Day”
There’s the germ of an idea in here, but it’s buried in the detritus of Madonna’s yoga period and bears no relation to anything, as far as I know. I haven’t dared to sit through this film yet so for all I know it’s 100% relevant. The problem is that even if the lyrics fit, the “melody” doesn’t; not only is this a bad Bond song, it’s a bad Madonna song, which is unforgivable.

21. “All Time High”
Anemic and forgettable. I have the same problem with the film, about which all I remember is the trailer, from which the line where Bond asks about a woman’s tattoo (“that’s my little octopussy”) was seared on my preadolescent brain.

20. “Another Way to Die”
The first one on our list that is in the vicinity of being an actual Bond theme. Its stop-start jerkiness is more frustrating than exciting, and though Jack White and Alicia Keys have some good qualities on their own, somehow they cancel each other out. Not the blandest of the Craig themes, but the least successful.

19. “The Man With the Golden Gun”
A stab at rewriting “Goldfinger” by returning to the “watch out for this guy!” genre, and perhaps the only song ever recorded that could make Christopher Lee sound goofy. Lulu does her best, but this is perhaps the only Bond theme too embarrassing to listen to.

18. “License to Kill”
It’s not the worst song, but — despite using the title as the chorus — it’s a little too mellow not just for its lyrical content but also for the film itself, wherein Timothy Dalton gets put through the wringer and Felix Leiter gets fed to sharks.

17. “Writing’s On the Wall”
Sam Smith has a very pretty voice and this is a fairly pretty song. It would sound much better on a Sam Smith album than it does trying to amp us up for a Bond movie. For that purpose, the lyrics don’t cut it, the mood is all wrong (even for the morose, sullen Craig era this is too much), and the chorus anticlimactic. Next.

16. “From Russia With Love”
In revisiting the Bond themes for this ranking I was surprised this had lyrics and qualified for the list. I hadn’t remembered them. You probably won’t either. It’s old and it sounds classy and romantic, which is about the only advantage is has over Sam Smith’s tune. That and being followed by the splendor of From Russia With Love, obviously.

15. “Tomorrow Never Dies”
I’m kind of shocked to be ranking a Sheryl Crow song this high on the list, but I must admit this is a credible Bond theme. The mood’s right, the lyrics have the right idea, Crow sounds pretty decent. It’s nothing special, but it works.

14. “Live and Let Die”
It’s awkward, isn’t it? Do you hear what I’m talking about? That wordy lead-in that just can’t wait to get to the chorus, but has to set it up like the least funny joke ever? The way the song doesn’t really know what to do with itself after that chorus and just starts noodling around in a vaguely aggressive manner? If this weren’t written by McCartney, how would anyone take it at all seriously? It’s clumsy, daffy, and a little embarrassed to be itself. And yet those two things — the pedigree and the unpredictability — are enough for this to stand out. Barely.

13. “You Know My Name”
One of the few things holding Casino Royale back from total perfection. There’s a brashness and testosterone to this that seemed a daring break with recent history at the time, and with someone other than Cornell on vocals, this might almost have worked. But if there’s one thing that Bond categorically can never be — and Cornell, sadly, couldn’t not be — it’s grunge.

12. “Skyfall”
Vastly overrated, but I admit it’s the only Craig-era theme that works. It’s humorless, turgid, and dull, but the sound is right, it’s grand and voluminous, and there’s nothing out of place. To be Bond it should also have been sexy, but one could say the same of the film it precedes.

11. “Goldfinger”
Also vastly overrated, most recently by me, but when I listened again, I had to admit this is among the dorkiest of Bond themes. Like its film, though, it’s absolutely iconic, to the point where being “good” is almost beside the point. Both are as quintessentially Bond as it is possible to be, even though they are hardly representative of the whole franchise. At least 90% of Austin Powers’ DNA comes directly from this source (and most of the rest is Moonraker).

10. “Moonraker”
Gasp! I know! Ignore the lyrics: this is a gorgeous tune. Let’s just leave it at that and move on.

9. “Thunderball”
Not generally my thing, but I have to admit that Tom Jones hits the mark pretty solidly with this one. McCartney complained a bit about having to write a song featuring the phrase “live and let die,” but that’s nothing compared to working around a non-word like “thunderball”! A good meat and potatoes Bond theme.

8. “Goldeneye”
Here’s where we really get into the good stuff. I find Tina Turner’s vocal here just a little too easy to lampoon, but it’s got all the right elements: sultry, elegant, and dangerous. If the lyrics aren’t making us a little worried that maybe this time someone will actually manage to retire James Bond permanently, the theme isn’t doing its job. I have to wonder a bit about the transition from “watched you from the shadows as a child” to “it’s a gold and honey trap I’ve got for you tonight.” Scandalous!

7. “For Your Eyes Only”
For a Bond theme, this is almost too innocent (though the less said the better about how that tone fits with the movie’s running gag where a teenaged figure skater has a crush on Moore’s 54-year-old Bond), but as a song, this is one of the triumphs of the 80s, riding the line between schmaltzy and transcendent. You know it’s on the good side of that line because when you sing it in the shower, you feel like you’re flying, even if you substitute the irresistible mondegreen “the wild abandoned sodomy.” My ambition is to sing it that way in karaoke and see if anybody notices.

6. “Nobody Does It Better”
We are into unassailable classic territory finally, starting with this Carly Simon ode to Bond’s lovemaking skills (and maybe spy skills too, but let’s not kid ourselves). It makes Bond sound mellower than some of the tunes I ranked lower, but to introduce a film called The Spy Who Loved Me, why shouldn’t it? Ironically, five people do it better, but this is still a respectable showing for 70s Bond.

5. “The Living Daylights”
I’m willing to concede that personal taste and history play a role in getting a-ha up this high; I loved the band, and I loved the film, the first to come out at a time when I was (by my parents’ standards) old enough to watch it. It’s one of the few Bond themes that manages to work just fine as a pop song in sequence on a record (Stay On These Roads, in this case) without sounding out of place or comical, and provide an exciting, driving intro to the film. If I rate it below its immediate predecessor, it’s only because a-ha are a little too cuddly to sound quite dangerous enough.

4. “A View to a Kill”
Duran Duran, like a handful of acts that for some unjustifiable reason have never provided a Bond theme (Bryan Ferry, Portishead, Goldfrapp, and Barry Adamson), were basically born to do this. Half their songs sound like Bond themes as is, and most of the videos from Rio looked like miniature Bond films. A more natural fit of band to Bond you won’t find on this list. Those punching orchestra hits that were all over dance music in the mid-to-late 80s date the arrangement a bit, but it’s a minor complaint. This and “Daylights” will probably always be my favorite Bond themes, but there are three I consider just a touch better if I’m being objective.

3. “The World Is Not Enough”
I have a theory about the ideal Bond theme. It showcases a female singer who is Bond’s counterpart, his anima perhaps, a woman just as capable and devious and deadly as he is, smoky and sexy and maybe just a little bit sinister, a vision of who he would be if he were not so scrupulously dedicated to protecting the interests of his country. Basically, not to cheapen it with this analogy, she’s the Catwoman to his Batman. There may not be a better example of this perfect storm than “TWINE.” Garbage have the same thing going that Duran Duran did, where half their songs sound like Bond themes already, but this song takes the whole thing further. In my mind this song is Shirley Manson (well, the character she’s voicing) talking directly to Bond: “look, if you gave up this whole spy gig, with your skills and mine, we could own this sorry little planet.” It’s compelling, it sounds fabulous, it’s mysterious and sensual. This is one of the few Bond movies I’ve never even bothered to watch, but the theme: it’s a jewel.

2. “You Only Live Twice”
The theatrical arrangement and Nancy Sinatra’s vocal on this are wonderful but maybe just a little quiet and unassuming; it’s early days for Bond and no one knows yet that a Bond theme is “supposed” to thunder into the room like an elephant in combat boots. Based on this elegant, sinuous tune, maybe less is more. It’s modest, and it’s gorgeous, and it way outclasses the film that follows. I’ve heard at least one brilliant cover of this, which cemented my love for it. It’s not the most bombastic Bond theme, but it might be just about perfect.

1. “Diamonds Are Forever”
This one is perfect. It’s got everything “The World Is Not Enough” had, including a singer named Shirley, plus twice the charisma, four times the glamour, and six times the sex appeal. It’s an intriguing intro to the film, it’s got that rolling thunder we expect from a Bond theme, it’s got that Bassey magic, it’s got everything. It’s this song — not “Goldfinger,” not “Skyfall” — that should serve as the template for future themes if anyone knows what they’re doing. It’s timeless: forever, forever, forever.

Carnival of Souls

I watched Carnival of Souls today in preparation for the Rifftrax performance coming out later this month. It was extraordinary.

Yes, the basic story — a woman survives a near-fatal car accident only to be haunted by a mysterious creepy stranger — is lifted intact from the Twilight Zone episode “The Hitchhiker.” But this version expands on that basic premise with so many ideas, motifs, and stylistic moves that I recognized in later works, including Night of the Living Dead (also a Halloween Rifftrax choice), Jacob’s Ladder, Silent Hill, Lost Highway (tons of David Lynch, really), and The Sixth Sense, in addition to odd and poignant lines and moments I can’t remember having seen anywhere else. Mary’s strange dissociative emotions felt oddly familiar and resonant to me, and after a while I realized that they felt, in addition to what they were meant to suggest, like a fantastical portrayal of a certain type of depression.

It’s true we’re not talking about a “good” movie in the usual sense. For a start, almost all the performances were forgettable at best (and unforgettable at worst), though the lead actor herself was actually fairly impressive, which contrast actually helped the atmosphere. This movie is sometimes considered “Lynch before Lynch,” and so much of his weird nightmare-like work is enhanced by eccentric, unnatural acting choices. The plot itself is fairly thin, but this too is perfect for the story being told, which is more about Mary’s emotions and her growing feelings of dread than what little is actually happening to her.

This is definitely a Rifftraxable film, and frankly the guys have their work cut out for them. But it’s surprisingly watchable on its own, and I’m glad I had the chance to see it this way first.

Ghostbusters (2016)

As I’ve written here in the past, the original Ghostbusters is a movie I can’t really perceive objectively. Along with a few other movies I watched as often as possible when I was young, such as The Breakfast Club, The Dark Crystal, Tron, Aliens, and of course the original Star Wars trilogy, sequences from it are burned into my memory as somehow fundamental to the way movies work. There was no way any attempt at remaking this movie could possibly supplant it in my mind.

Complicating matters is that, as we know, the movie has been plagued by premature judgment, with an unfortunately subpar trailer compounding fears that the style of humor would be inferior, and an all-female principal cast obliging viewers to praise or pan the movie on political grounds rather than aesthetic ones. One’s opinion of the film would therefore become not a thumbs up or down on whether it was enjoyable, but a referendum on whether women should be allowed to bust ghosts.

And then the film came out, and people actually started to see it after they’d decided if it would be any good or not, and I got very worried when I saw that every woman I followed on Facebook or Twitter loved the film fervently and unconditionally, and almost every man gave it a half-hearted and mixed review.

To my relief, it turned out to be a reasonably enjoyable film. Comparisons I’d heard to The Force Awakens turned out to be solid on a lot of levels. In both cases, the parallels and callbacks to the originals were present but hardly as oppressive as I’d heard. Though this one takes place in a continuity where the original never happened (or was somehow, improbably, successfully covered up 100% by a more competent government than we see here), it never gives the sense of trying to overwrite what came before so much as comfortably slot into the present day and peacefully coexist. The beginning and ending are probably the most predictable parts if you’re familiar with the original, and most of what happens in the middle is almost inevitably what a movie based on this premise has to do.

Though my male and female friends disagree over whether this is the best movie ever made or just okay, they seem mostly united on the worthiness of the cast. I agree: I thoroughly enjoyed all four members of the ghostbusting team and loved the subtlety of the parallels and differences with the original cast. I hate to fall in line with the boring majority on this issue, but yes, Kate McKinnon absolutely stole the show as Holtzmann, often with nothing more than a maniacal sideways glance. She stalks every scene like an almost-feral animal, looking like she wants to lick everything and everybody she sets eyes on, almost casually belting out a stream of scientific jargon, enthusing about the number of uses she could find for an unused cadaver “this week.” I’m having a hard time thinking of a time we’ve ever seen a cooler scientist on the big screen, male or female, and that’s such a welcome thing. The supporting cast is just as great, for the most part, led of course by Chris Hemsworth as the hilarious himbo receptionist, and of the many cameos (including, yes, many of the original leads), only Ozzy Osbourne’s is one you’d want to cut.

Of course, most of the supporting cast are men, and of them almost all are at best cowardly or oblivious, and at worst filled with apocalyptic delusions. I described the average male in this movie as “charming despite massive inadequacy” in a Facebook post, which might explain why some men who have grown sensitive to our portrayal in the 0.25% of films in which we are not overblown superheroes felt miffed. As one of my friends pointed out, “charming despite massive inadequacy” used to be the default for female characters, and the partial shift that’s happened in recent years to “sidelined despite massive superiority” (see Jaylah in Star Trek Beyond for just one recent example of the kick-ass girl who doesn’t really matter to the plot; see also Black Widow in Avengers, and so on) isn’t much of an improvement. The only one here that bugged me a bit was the villain, for three reasons.

The first reason is that I really found the impending demonic invasion in the original film exciting, an ominous counterpoint to the goofy comedy at play. It somehow made more sense to me than the idea of some weird little psycho creating his own ghost-unbusting equipment based on our heroes’ theories, somehow hiding all of it in his workplace (?) and unleashing it on the city to fulfill his delusions of grandeur. The second reason is that the weird little psycho was either the weakest actor in the entire film, totally bland and unconvincing, or he was directed to seem like it. Perhaps, in an age where villains continue to be more seductive than heroes (Loki, the Ledger and Leto Jokers, and even Angry White Vader Fanboy Kylo Ren continue this trend), they deliberately set out to make this villain as banal as possible, someone you’d never want to dress up as for Halloween (though someone is doubtlessly planning to already). I can respect that, even if it succeeded so well it took me out of the movie.

And the third reason is that I wince pretty much every time a TV show or movie, especially a genre one, trots out the nerdy virgin male villain as an almost literal whipping boy. I get where it comes from; we think the internet is reality, and even though all of us are on it, we still have this idea that the meanest people on it have less of a life than we do, as evidenced by the fact that — what? They use computers? It’s a bit outdated as stereotypes go. But even if it were true that behind every single horrible tweet is a downtrodden pasty geek in his mom’s basement, when we look at who generally gets out from behind the keyboard and causes real harm in the real world past high school age, we’re just as likely to be talking about so-called alpha males. They’re guys who love guns and abuse their wives, or maybe they’re husband and wife teams. Or maybe they’re just rich white charismatic sociopaths, which even describes some of the worst internet trolls. So for the villain of this movie to be so clearly at the bottom of the food chain almost lends credence to his persecution complex. Fortunately, Melissa McCarthy’s character gently but firmly skewers said complex by matter-of-factly responding to his only-I-know-my-suffering complaints with, “no, people dump on us all the time too.” Whatever the truth is about the villains of the world, it’s true that almost all of them are still men of one stripe or another, and that the systematic, institutionalized “bullying” women experience daily has made almost none of them into homicidal maniacs.

It’s hard for me to imagine this film achieving the same iconic, quotable status the original has, just as it’s hard for me to imagine The Force Awakens becoming as quotable as Star Wars. But quotability is, shockingly, not the highest virtue a film can attain. As much as I love Murray, Aykroyd, Ramis, and Hudson, most of their dialogue could probably have survived being spoken by other actors; it was a tight script with the potential to stand alone. Here, the comedy often came not from the lines themselves but the performances of the ensemble; the hemming and hawing and underplaying of the lines undercut their crisp quotability, but that delivery was also what made them funny (apart from “that’s gonna leave a mark,” which probably hasn’t been funny since Animaniacs was on). Most of Holtzmann’s genius, as I’ve mentioned, was physical and vocal; “I think they’re dead” is not funny on paper, but absolutely hilarious in context coming out of McKinnon’s mouth.

And then again, who knows? Maybe a generation of kids who are turning 10 this year will see this fun, funny, breezily confident, perfectly charming, and more than adequate new Ghostbusters movie and it’ll make the same impression on them the first one made on me. “Aquariums are submarines for fish” might be the new “I collect spores, molds, and fungus.” “Safety lights are for dudes!” might be their “Back off man. I’m a scientist.” And a new wave of girls AND boys might grow up thinking it’s perfectly normal for four women to save New York City when all the men around them are (like me, I dare to hope) charming despite massive inadequacy. There are far worse possible worlds I can imagine.

Star Trek Beyond

I’ve just finished “Dagger of the Mind” in my trek through the original series, which I’ve never really watched before. The premise concerns a penal colony run by a supposed expert in the field of rehabilitation and the humane treatment of criminals. It turns out (and I’m sorry to spoil this 50-year-old television show for you) that his latest rehab treatment involves locking people’s memories away so that they experience pain when they try to recall them, and replacing those memories with a bland subservient new personality. Like many of the original series episodes I’ve watched so far, it has intriguing ideas, though the follow-through is lacking. It seems to pit the Starfleet idea of ideal society against an experiment in social improvement that turns out to be cruel and unusual. This also describes a lot of the Next Generation episodes I remember watching as a kid: one vision of society against another. How do you find common ground? How do you work out the conflicts? I was never the biggest Star Trek fan, but I see the appeal of an SF series grounded in this kind of exploration.

I’d hoped Beyond would see this sort of storytelling return to the Star Trek universe, but of course it didn’t. None of the movies really have spent any time doing that — it’s what a TV series is for. This wasn’t a big deal when they were reuniting the original series cast and the Next Gen cast for their movies; they’d had lengthy runs on TV doing reasonably intelligent stuff, so the movies were more a series of victory laps than anything else. But this new cast haven’t had a TV series to back them up, so they’re stuck doing big-screen blockbusters.

Buried down in the mix of this one is an idea of sorts. We’re told the Federation believes in cooperation, while Krall, this year’s antagonist (not a jazz pianist, surprisingly), believes that it’s competition and constant struggle that keeps a species strong. His goal, therefore, is to kill everyone aboard a large artificial planet with a biological weapon. I was hazy on how this would advance his cause; it seemed as much about revenge for his own perceived obsolescence as anything philosophical. But it’s possible I just missed the explanation, since Krall at times approaches Bane-esque levels of incomprehensibility. It seemed strange to me that Krall, a military man, would exhibit such disdain for the idea of order and cooperation, since these are generally important characteristics of a functioning army, and that all of his flunkies seemed in perfect sync at all times, rather than competing among themselves to illustrate his principles. Perhaps even more disturbing is the “old saying” Scotty uses to convince his new friend Jaylah that they’re better off working together, about how a stick in a bundle won’t break. The word “fascism” literally derives from the word for a bundle of sticks, and it’s for this exact reason. You get the feeling that Krall and the Federation really could find a lot in common if they’d only sit down and chat over a glass of Romulan ale.

Watching the original series has also made it more difficult for me to continue to appreciate the new cast. I’m sorry to say Quinto’s Spock is the biggest bummer here. Nimoy is truly a force to be reckoned with in the original series, a genuine badass, hard as steel and no bullshit allowed, one hundred percent committed to the role, and still coming off as compassionate and humane whenever it’s called for. It’s not Quinto’s fault that he hasn’t got Nimoy’s facial structure and that he looks like a pale puffy little kid in that unfortunate haircut, but it’s true. Nevertheless, he could be a lot better if the writers stopped confusing him with Data; you’d think a gag where he pretends not to understand the idiom “horseshit” (and then understands it perfectly a few lines later) wouldn’t get past a guy like Simon Pegg, but you’d be wrong. So that’s sad. Chris Pine fares a little better, but the truth is that, at least early on in the original show, Shatner was every bit the leading man he thought he was. From what I’ve heard about how much he bugged the rest of the cast, I’m even more impressed with his acting, because the charisma and affection just pour off him on camera. We may think of him as a caricature now, but he’s just hypnotic in that first season. Chris Pine never really gets a chance to be hypnotic because the stunts never let up. Poor Yelchin, Cho, and Saldana are perfectly appealing, but there just isn’t much room in the script for them to do much. Apart from Pegg, perhaps only Karl Urban shines at all, whose Bones is entertainingly cranky and pessimistic in a sea of earnest faces.

That woman on the poster with the chalk-white skin and the black facial stripes is Jaylah, an alien survivalist who leads the crew to the resources they need to save the day. She’s my favorite character in the film, mainly because I like that archetype — the ninjalike commando with scant respect for protocol or authority — and because it’s fun that she likes “classical music” with “the beats and shouting,” meaning Public Enemy. Even so, she feels a bit grafted on to a thin plot that didn’t really need her; the crew could have found those resources on their own, and though her tech helps them win one of the pivotal fights, it wasn’t much more than a tactical advantage. I’m glad she was there, but I wish she’d had more of a reason to be.

This is the third Star Trek movie in a row to be about a terrorist seeking misguided revenge, and I really hope they find a new story next time around, one that makes better use of their characters and actually bothers to explore an idea among all the motorcycle stunts and explosions. If they don’t, they’ll probably still have an entertaining movie — which this generally was — but then why call it Star Trek?

American Graffiti and Animal House

These two movies have a lot in common. Both are set in 1962, though one feels more like 1957 and the other like 1972. Both are coming-of-age stories featuring teenagers on the cusp of the college experience, rapidly losing their innocence but not their cheerfulness. Both place a luxurious classic car, borrowed from a brother or a best friend, in great danger as a major plot point. Both feature lots of period music, some of it gorgeous, some of it corny. Both are heavily, even primarily concerned with getting their male protagonists laid or the next best thing. Though the females are appealingly spunky and game for almost as much mischief as the boys, they are firmly regarded as secondary characters; the ending montage of “so-and-so went on to do such-and-such” title cards — also a feature of both movies — excludes almost all the women. Weirdly, both movies have the most likeable male character become the object of a 13-year-old girl’s affections (and it’s implied in one of them — guess which — that he takes her virginity). The remaining similarities are summed up in the fact that both movies were written at least in part as nostalgia pieces recalling the events and atmospheres of the writers’ youth. So of course the adults are bumbling when they’re not actually morally dubious; of course there are pranks and mayhem aplenty; of course there’s underage drinking, scary people from the other side of the tracks, and all the rest.

One more thing they both have in common is that they will no longer be free on Amazon Prime after today, which is why I watched them back-to-back in the space of two days.

I felt as though I should have liked the freewheeling, devil-may-care, amoral, slapstick Animal House a bit better than the more buttoned-down, sentimental, choreographed American Graffiti, but maybe it was that very expectation that led me to feel the reverse. Lucas’s ode to drive-in diners, cruising, drag racing, and figuring out what you really want out of life was a surprisingly appealing watch. The constant soundtrack worked perfectly. The shots were gorgeous in composition and color, the acting guileless and natural. If everyone was just a little too domesticated and prim, including the street gang, well, fine. And it’s hard not to like a movie where absolutely everything is either “bitchin'” or “boss.” I have to figure John Hughes really paid attention to this movie.

Animal House, on the other hand…well, mainly it just felt uneven, half-finished. No one is very domesticated or prim — maybe the rich rival frat? kinda? — but it’s hard to get a handle on what they’re like because everyone is such a caricature. Presumably we’re supposed to root against the Dean and the fascists running the rich frat, but from all the evidence we can see the Delta Chi house really is full of barely redeemable reprobates. They’re slobs, of course; they spend almost no time in class if their grades are anything to judge by; they don’t respect women any more than your average stereotypical frat (at least new pledge Tom Hulce listens to the angel on his shoulder who tells him not to fondle the girl who passed out after stripping off her bra, prompting the devil on his other shoulder to call him “you homo!”); they love black music but are afraid of black people (knowing that the scene where the “menacing” black men “steal” the boys’ white dates got Richard Pryor’s stamp of approval doesn’t make it much more comfortable to watch in 2016); they have no respect for other people’s property; they’re not even particularly charitable or kind to anyone unless they have something to gain by it. They admit the “wimp” (Tom Hulce) and the “blimp” (Stephen Furst) to their ranks not because they welcome and embrace outsiders (see Revenge of the Nerds) but because they need the money and don’t care enough to say no. We like these guys, but mainly because their opponents are so cartoonishly malevolent and dysfunctional (I kept expecting another gay joke about the frat brother who stays limp during handjobs from two separate girls, but apparently it’s just an impotence joke), and because we’re privy to their mental states. If American Graffiti led to Sixteen Candles, this must have led to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, another film about a kid who is actually kind of an asshole but who is appealing only because he talks to us the most and because he has the innocent face of Matthew Broderick.

Animal House ends weirdly, with what is supposed to look like a grand Rube Goldbergian reiteration of the theme “don’t get mad, get even,” but mainly ends up looking like a desperate mess. The revenge of the Animals turns out to be a series of slapstick gags, each stunt somehow more pointless than the last. You don’t wonder how they planned it so much as why; it doesn’t accomplish anything from a plot point of view and they can’t even get out of it comedically without a series of freeze-frames for the title cards. It’s just a big chaotic “ta-da!” punchline for a movie that up to that point seemed to be headed for some kind of narrative climax.

It all makes sense, though, when I consider that John Landis directed this. I had the same problem with the abrupt ending and uneven tone of American Werewolf in London, and I had the same trouble seeing what everyone loved so much about Blues Brothers. Neither of those films really does as much for me as they seem to do for their fans (though some of the Werewolf sequences are really haunting), so I dunno — maybe Landis and I just don’t mix.

And, really, I suspect both movies are better than the one I was about to watch before I noticed they’d be unavailable soon: The Da Vinci Code. I know it’s gonna be bad: the question is whether it’ll be fun bad or boring bad. Wish me strength!

Checking in

So yeah. It’s been a while.

I’ve been watching loads of things, but not much that’s inspired me to take the time to write a full entry. Here are a few I remember offhand.

Accatone: Eh. Even in Italian I can tell the acting can’t have been that great.

Chi-raq: Terrific. I wouldn’t have thought you could really pull off a modernized Lysistrata, much less transplant it to Chicago’s gang wars, but it works like crazy. Larger-than-life movie musical show-stoppers shift seamlessly to raw, emotional confrontations, really moving even when they’re rendered in rhyming verse. I’m coming late to Spike Lee but I’m glad I did.

Dollhouse: 3 or 4 episodes in. I’m enjoying it.

Downton Abbey: Not as pointless as I’d expected, though it still seems like a bit of a relic. I’m amazed a show like this can still get made.

Man of Steel: The first hour or so is really remarkable. After that it starts falling apart rapidly, with what seem like random cuts, fuzzy motivations, miscastings, and interminable, confusing fight sequences. Still not quite as bad as people said it was.

Oedipus Rex: The Pasolini version. Bizarre and remarkable, but desolate and almost pre-human.

Only Lovers Left Alive: I would have loved this small-scale vampire movie when I was in college, and I love it now for different reasons, but I’m not sure I would have been into it during the years intervening. I might have more to say about this later, but for now, two fangs up.

Pushing Daisies: So goofy, almost too cute, but really fun. Looking forward to watching the rest.

Star Trek: 4 episodes in, I think? The same themes recurring: perfect harmony disrupted by the wildness of our emotions and desires and failings. Humans elevated to near-omnipotence, needing to be brought down. It’s starting to get repetitive, but I’m sure it’ll branch out soon.

The Twilight Zone: Feels truly ancient now, more than half a century later. Still highly watchable.

I also wanted to comment that a while back I had occasion to throw on “The Doctor’s Wife” and was shocked at how unmoved I was. I still think it’s brilliant, but I just couldn’t get invested in anything that was happening or care about any of the characters. I don’t know if that’s Neil Gaiman’s fault so much as that I’m finding Moffat’s Who oddly difficult to rewatch right now, particularly the Matt Smith era. Maybe it’s just that, as with the Eccleston era, watching it feels a bit like watching a “lame duck” Doctor; knowing Eccleston was already gone prevented me from getting too invested in his Doctor, while knowing Capaldi’s the current guy makes the Smith era feel oddly sealed off. And yet I don’t have the same reaction to going back and watching Tennant. Very weird. Of course, the Doctor I feel most like watching right now is Pertwee, so go figure.

Creature (1985)

Obviously, the world’s most blatant ripoff / blend of Alien and The Thing (both the John Carpenter version and the original “space carrot” film). I’ve wanted to see this movie since I was probably 12 years old, but I can’t remember why. I think I read about it in Starlog magazine or something, or maybe I was intrigued by a Movie Guide review that (probably) warned of nudity and rated it a Turkey.

Boobs: check. Turkey-quality: check, but against all probability there’s some random talent involved. Some designers who went on to work on Aliens provide some not-entirely-awful work here — the fog and lightning are nice, there’s an almost-convincing Nostromo interior in one set, and the titular creature, though rubber-dinosaur material, could have been worse, if only slightly. Also, Klaus Kinski is in this for some reason, maybe because he got to grope Simone from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.

Make no mistake: I am not recommending that anyone watch this movie unless they have a penchant for hopelessly 80s awful sci-fi, and even those people should at least make time for Lifeforce first. But 12-year-old me is very happy that I finally got around to this piece of crap, even though he would probably have had nightmares.

Crooklyn

Just finished Crooklyn on the train and I was SO confused by the aspect ratio switch for the visit to the suburbs.

I have to say, though, it makes a good case for how overrated the idea that a film is only worthwhile if every scene appears to be part of a totally unified narrative structure. All of the incidents contributed to the mood and to character, even if they weren’t all crucial to some idea of plot. The more tightly structured the plot is, the more obvious and boring it seems. I had no real idea where this was going and it was all the more enjoyable for that.