Classic Review: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Nicholas Meyer’s second ‘Trek’ film equals the first and ends the original series on a dark, chilling, and ultimately hopeful note.

Star Trek VI:  Revenge of the Giant Klingon.

Star Trek VI: Revenge of the Giant Klingon.

Review:  So the previous ‘Trek’ was a failure, falling way short of expectations and coming dangerously close to destroying the franchise.  Thanks to Paramount’s concern over the 25th anniversary of the media property, however, they were given another shot at the silver screen, this time to close out the original series cast’s run.

And it’s so, so good.

After the high adventure and wacky antics of ‘The Final Frontier’, this film delivers a dark, intense detective story, a philosophical political thriller.  Blending the literary influence so well captured by director Nicholas Meyer with series creator Gene Roddenberry’s often on-the-nose allegory, it strikes a nearly perfect balance of intellect, message, and thrills.

It opens with a new ‘Trek’ composer — Cliff Eidelman, never destined to write another note for ‘Trek’, unfortunately — spinning a dark web of sound over space.  We know from the first few notes and the dark, purplish color of the opening credits that we are in for a trip into the dark side.  By the time the music is drawing to an obvious close and the credits are following its lead, we are anticipating a release.  And we get it, in the form of a classic Industrial Light & Magic explosion, complete with disc-shaped shockwave.  Then we cut to the bridge of the U.S.S. Excelsior — Captained by Sulu! — which is soon enough hit with the explosion.  After surviving the wave, the crew quickly finds out that the Federation’s longtime enemy, the Klingon Empire, just had one of its central moons and sources of power destroyed in a freak accident (Chernobyl, anyone?)

Now it’s time for talks.  But legendary Captain Kirk, suggested for the diplomatic mission by his friend Spock, is not happy.  He blames the Klingons for the death of his son, and considers them “animals”.  “Let them die!”  He says.  But now he’s committed.  After meeting the Klingon chancellor, he soon discovers that the Klingon leadership can for the most part be trusted — or can they? — and they start their journey to Earth on awkward but hopeful terms.  Soon however, disaster strikes as Captain Kirk watches his own ship, outside of his control, fire on the Chancellor’s vessel.  With the Klingon gravity controls knocked out, assassins beam over from the Enterprise and murder the Klingon leader… and now it’s Kirk’s fault.  He and Dr. McCoy are arrested, leaving Spock and the rest of the Enterprise crew to solve the mystery and rescue Kirk & McCoy as political turmoil reigns and war looms.  Somewhere, an assassin still remains, possibly on the Enterprise…

The setup is excellent, and the execution, slow-burning until the last twenty minutes, is superb.  Though the film lacks a villain quite as memorable as Khan, Christopher Plummer does a good job playing the antagonist, and makes up in personality what he lacks in the personal touch.  Shatner, Kelley, and Nimoy each turn in their best, most confident performance since ‘Wrath of Khan’.

The political philosophy of the movie is simple, yet very strong for ‘Trek’.  It brings the series full circle, back to the themes that the first television series thrived on.  It’s a Cold War parable, but focuses on the subject of hate and bigotry rather than the conflicting philosophies of the opponents.  In short, it goes after the chief problem that plagued both, in the real world and the fictional universe of Trek.

As the Enterprise crew flies into the glare of a star at the end of this last drama, we are left both tearful and glad that we were along for the ride.  With a such a great last hurrah, it’s a shame they chose to bring back Kirk for the next film, ‘Star Trek: Generations’, only to drop a bridge on him(!).  I’d rather forget about that film, and leave what happens after ‘Trek VI’ an undiscovered country.

Classic Review: For A Few Dollars More

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★★★

Summary:  Just look at the title—it’s more of what you want from your spaghetti westerns.

Nobody makes posters quite this awesome anymore.

Nobody makes posters quite this awesome anymore.

Review:  He’s back—the Man with no Name.  So are the sun-drenched Spanish deserts, trigger-happy gunslingers, close-ups, showdowns, and over-the-top Morricone music.  In short, everything that’s great about this little subset of the Western genre is here in fine form and is, in fact, better than in ‘A Fistful of Dollars’.

The Man with No Name, again magnificently played by Clint Eastwood, has turned bounty hunter and now wanders the west, collecting buck for his bang on the various outlaws of the frontier.  When the opportunity to collect a fortune on the recently escaped, and certainly psychotic, bandit el Indio (Johnny Wels) arises, he sets out after him.

So has the Man in the Black, however.  A rogue colonel turned bounty killer, the Man in Black (known in the film as Colonel Mortimer and played by Lee Van Cleef), carries with him an arsenal of fire arms and is as deadly with any one of them as The Man with No Name.  He’s after Indio for his own reasons.  Inevitably, the two rivals meet up and are forced to work in an uneasy truce together to catch Indio and his gang.

I have to say that l found this film to possess a much stronger story than in the first movie.  Van Cleef and Eastwood have great chemistry together as competing gunslingers.  Even as they work together, they try their best to one-up each other while doing it.  The result is some very entertaining and amusing moments.  The filmmakers also went out of their way to cast the villain, el Indio, in a more sympathetic light.  A series of flashbacks and a key twist at the end make him more tragic rather than purely evil.  It adds a whole new layer to the Leone west, and it is a welcome addition.  Fans of ‘Fistful’ may notice that the Indio is played by the same actor who portrayed the ruthless Ramon from the first movie.  Although this is a bit confusing to people who are new to these films, these are, in fact, two different characters and should not be confused.

Ennio Morricone returns to score, delivering equally impressive yet also much livelier music this time around.  All the staples from the first film (the guitars, whistling, chanting, trumpets, etc.) are here, but he now introduces some new “twangy” instruments and increases the tempo for a more energetic affair.  To coincide with the deeper and more emotionally involving story, he also wrote very atmospheric and touching pieces which, when played during key scenes, really add to your concern for the story and investment in the characters.  One particular “chime” theme is quite moving.

Lastly, the famous cinematography is back.  The close-ups and the panoramas of desert wasteland are here, and they work as well as ever.  All of the ‘Dollars’ films were very impressively shot and, again, it really adds something special and unique to these movies.

‘For a Few Dollars More’ expounds and improves upon the template set by ‘A Fistful of Dollars’. Attacking on two fronts, it finds itself even more violent and yet also much more involving and moving than the first film.  Refining and bettering what made the first film so great, it is, quite simply, what a sequel ought to be.  In my opinion, it truly surpasses the original.

So it seems that we have a new winner for Best Spaghetti Western.  After all, this film pushed aside the legendary ‘Fistful’ to become the archetypical and bar-setting representative of its genre.  Right?  Wrong.  Just you wait…

Classic Review: Blade Runner (Final Cut)

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Brooding, foreboding, brutal, and brilliant.  A culturally significant picture not quite like any other.

I know it's nothing like the film, but my head gets the image of Harrison Ford shooting thousands of robots, as he runs across giant knives, from seeing this poster.

I know it's nothing like the film, but my head gets the image of Harrison Ford shooting thousands of robots, as he runs across giant knives, from seeing this poster.

Review:  Similar to my review of ‘Citizen Kane’, I ask this question: How can I begin to review one of the most influential films of all time?  Many science fiction films, some worth their own salt, have directly taken inspiration from ‘Blade Runner’.  This is, in my opinion and the opinion of many others, Ridley Scott’s magnum opus.  The film’s own inspiration comes from film noir, and of course the dark, hard science fiction of novelist Phillip K. Dick.  It was Dick’s popular work of sci-fi philosophy, ‘Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?’, that formed the basis of the screenplay.  Humanity, in the future, creates extremely close replicas (or, “replicants”, as they are dubbed) of themselves, putting them to work.  Suddenly, slavery is again acceptable, because these androids aren’t really human.  Right?

I mean, right?

If the influential philosopher Descartes is to be believed, if we think, that is how we know we are a thing.  “I think, therefore I am”, it is commonly translated, though that popular phrase is slightly off, but that’s beside the point.  The point is, how does this apply when so-called strong AI becomes frighteningly human-like?  Do we grant our machines equal rights with us, as a kind of offspring of the human race?  We have not yet devised a machine that blurs the lines between us, so all arguments over this question have remained theoretical.  Currently, we still put artificial intelligence against something called the Turing test, which so far has concluded that true strong AI is years, maybe centuries away, if at all possible.  But in the future that Phillip K. Dick and Ridley Scott transport us to, the Turing test has been passed by the replicants.  The Tyrell corporation, responsible for their creation and management, now has a “Voight-Kampff test”, which initially seems effective at identifying them.  But science marches on.

The film opens with two men in a darkened room.  One, a Blade Runner; that is, a policeman tasked with hunting down rogue androids.  The other, we don’t know.  The Blade Runner is giving him the Voight-Kampff test, but before a solid conclusion can be made, the replicant — ’cause that’s what he is — shoots him dead and flees.  A short time later, a former Blade Runner, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), is called by his old boss and set on the case.  There are four possibly dangerous rogue replicants on the loose, and it’s up to Deckard to hunt them down.  Teamed with Gaff (Edward James Olmos), he travels to meet Tyrell himself, hoping to find that the Voight-Kampff test still works on this latest batch of replicants, of which the rogues are members.  While at the Tyrell corporation, Deckard is surprised to find that they have just perfected — but not released — a type of android that can pass the test.  The first of her kind, Rachael (Sean Young) and Deckard form an uneasy attraction to one another, but Tyrell tells him to avoid revealing her identity as a replicant to anyone — especially her.

Without spoiling the rest of the plot, here’s my summary of the action.  Things are bleak throughout.  Many of the replicants act more human, more alive, than Deckard ever does.  The whole city seems dead, machinist, a necropolis of impostors.  The only people who care to challenge the status quo are — you guessed it — the escaped replicants.  Though their actions are indubitably brutal and hateful against the rest of humanity, it’s because they are escaped slaves without a guide.  Their “father”, Tyrell, is quite wicked.  They find no solace in him.

Now onto the question of Deckard.  If you’ve looked into this film, you’ve probably heard of the common theory that he is himself a replicant.  This is never stated, not even in the Final Cut version that was released on DVD/Bluray.  But it is a quite reasonable assumption.  Gaff, who basically disappears about halfway into the film, would seem to be the actual Blade Runner, the guy in charge of watching over him.  He seems like a guardian angel figure, and doesn’t really take sides.  He seems strangely aware of Deckard’s activities and location at all times, even of his secret romance with Rachael.

The violence of the film is very shocking, especially in the Final Cut.  A man’s skull is crushed with the bare hands of a replicant.  People are shot, stabbed, and otherwise bloodied.  Yet, despite the title and the R-rating for violence, this is not an action movie.  It’s a mystery thriller, a very slow burning, intentionally depressing contemplation.

The cinematography is amazing, and with it, the special effects.  They work in nearly perfect union to create a completely believable, nightmarish, and sometimes beautiful world.  The futuristic technology, remaining without enhancement even in the latest home video release, is seamless.  You will believe a flying car can in fact fly.

Philosophical and unquestionably adult, ‘Blade Runner’ has proven to be an elegant masterpiece.  It’s too bad that most science fiction pictures won’t approach its excellence… but then again, who does?

Not-So-Classic Review: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Stars:  ** out of Four

Summary:  A stunted, mediocre debacle, with entertaining moments, but without an overall sense of catharsis.

To keep people from leaving?

To keep people from leaving?

Review:  So this is going to be a short review.  It’s not a remarkable movie in either direction, good or bad.  It’s just stunningly mediocre.  It has its fun moments, and its bad moments, and its moments where you just can’t wait for the movie to end.   Despite my terrible comment on the original poster’s tagline — which was created early on in production, when the studio still had high hopes for the movie — it isn’t unwatchable. Unfortunately, it has earned such a bad rap all around that I feel like I have to keep it in the ‘Not-So-Classic’ category.   It’s not a classic.   It’s not an utter failure either.

This was original ‘Trek’ star William Shatner’s only directed entry of the series.  He had a huge scope for the original story, and obviously inspired great confidence in the studio, as is evident by the early marketing campaign.  Judging from some of his novels, including some he had also intended to become ‘Trek’ films, the action-idea was probably too ambitious.  I’m trying to be fair, here, to counterbalance some of the anti-Shatner backlash that the film generated.  I think he, and the rest of the production team, really thought they were going to make a winner.  Unfortunately for Shatner and company, the scope proved to be too much.  The studio couldn’t afford to pay for the special effects needed.  So instead of inspiring ‘Star Wars’-like thrills, it inspired confusion and disappointment in Trekkies everywhere.

The story, though odd, does have a vein of potential.  The idea was to put the Enterprise crew on a spiritual quest, an encounter with God.  In the end, they only found a counterfeit, but I believe the intention — though vaguely captured, at best, in the final film — was to show that the true God was way beyond anything the Enterprise crew could fathom.  This strikes again at the philosophical richness of ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’, which ironically also failed to communicate its original story in a fulfilling way.

The characters and the execution leave a lot to be desired.  The film is far too comedic, going into the realm of slapstick and not showing the restraint of the previous installment.  Things feel disrespected, dishonest, and pretentious.  Some of the moments — such as Uhura stripping naked and dancing to distract a couple bad guys — are completely out of place.  The “villain”, Sybock, is overwrought and unconvincing.  We never get the needed sense of pathos to sell his character right.

A disappointment, really, after an impressive trilogy preceding it.  Shatner feared he had killed the franchise.  In fact, he may have, had it not been for the studio supporting a sixth picture due to the then-upcoming 25th anniversary of ‘Star Trek’.  And that film fixed everything.

Classic Review: A Fistful of Dollars

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★★1/2

Summary: (From the trailer) “A Fistful of Dollars is the first film of it’s kind, it won’t be the last.”

With an introduction like that, do you really need a title on the poster?

With an introduction like that, do you really need a title on the poster?

Review:  The desert sun shines high as a mysterious gunslinger (Clint Eastwood) wanders into a dusty border town torn apart by the power struggle between a band of bandits and a sheriff who, frankly, isn’t much better.  Driven by a vague morality and empowered by being “quick on the draw”, the mysterious gunslinger takes on both factions of the fight in a battered array of violence, deception, showdowns, and retribution.

While not the first “spaghetti western” (western films made by Italian production companies), this is the film that truly defined the genre.  Essentially a remake of the classic Akira Kurosawa samurai film, Yojimbo (itself based upon an earlier American novel), this movie transcends its influences to deliver a bold new take on the American West, one vastly different from American-made westerns.  Gone are the clean shaven, morally sound cowboys and their polar opposites found in the villains; gone are luscious and beautiful landscapes of the true American West; and gone are the traditionally orchestrated pieces, saloon piano music, and country-western “sing-a-long” tunes that guided heroes on romantic exploits.

Instead we are shown the West as imitated by the harsh, barren landscapes of the Spanish desert, filled with gunfighters, all seeking a profit, whose label as “good” or “bad” depends on little more than who they’re shooting at (and trust me, there is quite a bit of shooting).  It’s a grittier, more action filled affair.

Clint Eastwood’s performance fits this new atmosphere like a glove.  In his breakthrough role, he talks tough, plays rough, and looks intimidating as the “Man With No Name”, his appearance complete with the famous cigars and poncho.  Johnny Wels, as the rifle-toting main villain, Ramon, is quite memorable as well, despite the actor being relatively unknown to American audiences.

As a template for later spaghetti westerns, this movie, of course, features the famous (some would say infamous) spaghetti western music and cinematography, both of which have been satired and imitated over the years.  Composer Ennio Morricone delivers a fresh style for the score.  Combining Spanish-themed melodies, male chanters, whistling, electric guitars, and trumpet solos, as well as more traditional orchestration at times, Morricone creates a groundbreaking and surprisingly cohesive score, one that his later scores, and those of other Italian westerns, would draw from.

Then there is the camera work.  Most people are familiar with the famous “close-up” shots on the eyes during shootouts.  It’s become such a cliché and has been parodies so many times that most people don’t realize how affective it is when creating suspense.  Leone used a variety of shots, often alternating between close-ups and long-distance shots.  He used the contrast to build tension in many of the film’s scenes. In short, it works wonderfully and really adds a new dimension to the movie.

In conclusion, ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ is everything a spaghetti western ought to be.  Some would call it shallow, violent, and lacking in morality.  I call it refreshing, and so do quite a few other people.  This film not only defined its genre, but it influenced movie making as a whole.  Films as diverse as ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and ‘Kill Bill’, draw influence from this film.  With such a unique style and influence, one would argue that this is the best of the spaghetti westerns.  Then the sequels came …

Elements Of The Screen: Yakkity-Yak, Don’t Talk Back (Dialog And Assumptions Thereof)

Hey, there’s a new ‘Elements’ article up!  Sweet!  Go check it out.

Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen

Note from James:  Yet another film I neglected to review, but this one was intentionally skipped.  Yeah, it’s so bad, I didn’t even want to talk about how bad it was.

Stars: *1/2 out of Four

Summary:  Almost a solid half of a terrible film, paired with half of a decent film.  Stupidity and adrenaline fueled conflict collide, and the result is very messy.

This poster, according to leading scientists, is 100% more awesome than the entire advertised film.

This poster, according to leading scientists, is 100% more awesome than the entire advertised film.

Review:  Okay, so Michael Bay’s first hit ‘Transformers’ wasn’t all that great either, but seriously?  That film at least had some good, fun moments.  Watching this film is like being hit over the head with a crowbar, while being tazered, while trying to snort mace, while playing with an Optimus Prime action figure.  With multiple elements involved, you would think that at least one would be enjoyable, but nooooo!  They all suck, except of course the Optimus Prime part of the equation, which would be awesome if you weren’t snorting mace, being tazered, etc.

But, Optimus Prime, voiced by original voice actor Peter Cullen, is awesome! Sadly, he isn’t the dominate element of the film, and is thus lost in a sea of failure.

The cinematography is awful.  It definitely didn’t help matters at all.  There are moments, individual shots (the longest shot was about, maybe, 8 seconds long) that are cool, but the hyperkinetic camera movement is both dizzying and forgettable.  The super-fast-hyper-handheld-cam really did work for the ‘Bourne’ movies, but it cannot possibly work for ‘Transformers’.  Ever.  Ever!

I didn’t give one “damn” for all the characters on screen, except for Bumblebee and Optimus Prime.  That’s 2 out of about 30 characters.  Everything about the story seems cheapened.  Last time I checked, ‘Transformers’ was a franchise beloved by children everywhere.  Why, then, did it enter the filmmaker’s minds to plug the film with unlikeable characters (and I do mean unlikeable) and stupid sexual jokes?  It not only alienates the family audience but makes the emotional core of the film — yes, there is one, just buried deep — worthless.

Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!

Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!

The musical score, which impressed me in the first film, is lacking here.  Surprisingly, though, it is merely mediocre and not utterly atrocious.

The CGI was good, sure, and the action at times was cool (when I could see it!), but I didn’t give six pence to watch a movie that I didn’t care about.  Why did I see this movie?