Sunday, May 31, 2009
The disaster movie cycle was finished by 1980, pretty much killed off for good by AIRPLANE! but it’s not like the films themselves didn’t have something to do with it. THE CONCORDE-AIRPORT ’79 is absurd, THE SWARM is hysterical, BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE is lame, but WHEN TIME RAN OUT… is about as bad as it gets. Any degree of guilty pleasure entertainment that was once found in Irwin Allen productions has vanished, almost as if the deal he signed with the devil was voided somehow and all we’re left with is a blah story, lousy effects and actors who look as if they showed up to work while under threat of a lawsuit. Based on the novel “The Day The World Ended” it was announced under that title several years earlier and while I know very little about the production it feels as if even if there was never a complete script but since Allen had sets built and actors booked he demanded that cameras start rolling in order to satisfy some legal obligation. It may very possibly be the worst film that any of the key figures involved ever had anything to do with.
Set at a resort located on a remote island in the Pacific, WHEN TIME RAN OUT (the ellipses is in the title but I’m going to pass on including it each time) focuses on a group of characters including oil man Hank Anderson (Paul Newman), hotel owner Shelby Gilmore (William Holden) Kay Kirby (Jacqueline Bisset), the beautiful woman caught between the two of them, Bob Spangler (James Franciscus, or as the credits tell us, “And JAMES FRANCISCUS as Bob Spangler”), Gilmore’s son-in-law who runs the hotel on the island and is ignoring warnings about the nearby volcano, his wife Kay Spangler (Veronica Hamel), hotel employee Iolani (Barbara Carrera) who Spangler is having an affair with, her fiancée Brian (Edward Albert) a white collar criminal on the lam (Red Buttons), the cop chasing him named Tom Conti (Ernest Borgnine), a famous married high-wire-act on vacation (Burgess Meredith, Valentina Cortese) and…others but please, I’m getting tired. Concerns that the volcano is about to blow go unheeded and then…it blows. Newman knows that they have to flee to the other side of the island because he’s already been in one of these films but most of the guests/extras angrily ignore his warnings. So the majority of the lead characters take off on a quest through the jungle which will hopefully lead them to the other side where they will find safety and be rescued.
I can’t believe I spent that much time on a summary, even if I did include a lot of the cast, because it never feels like the film does. Nothing in WHEN TIME RAN OUT is credible or exciting. Nothing. It’s so lethargic that it’s amazing the production remembered to put film in the camera at the beginning of each shooting day. It feels like a dud right from the beginning when, compared to the huge fanfares that signal the opening of the various other Irwin Allen productions this one starts with a main title by composer Lalo Schifrin that sounds like even the musicians are falling asleep while they perform it. If you’re ever the host of some kind of movie marathon at your house this is the film you put on in the early morning hours in order to finally get everyone to leave. Directed with pretty much zero flair by James Goldstone whose many credits include the second STAR TREK pilot “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, there isn’t so much as a single shot that could display any sort of personality and certainly nothing that solidifies each of these people in our mind like that cool dolly shot that includes each of the characters in the Promenade when the shit hits the fan in THE TOWERING INFERNO. Written by Sterling Stilliphant (also responsible for INFERNO—there’s a lame retread of his Newman-Dunaway repartee between the same lead actor and Bisset here) and Carl Foreman, even the structure is not merely bad—the angry bit players not wanting to flee a hotel that is having fireballs hurled at it by an erupting volcano is tough to swallow even on an idiot plot-level--but also totally lopsided. It takes practically half the movie for the damn volcano to erupt then when the characters finally set of on their quest to safety it doesn’t seem to spend much more than fifteen minutes or so before we get to the treacherous bridge climax, which, incidentally, goes on forever. You could order a pizza from across town and have it delivered in the amount of time it takes for this massively boring section to play out. So with barely anything else of real incident taking place the film barely feels like it’s even begun before the end credits are shoved onscreen in a “Huh? Wha? That’s it?” manner, just about the most obligatory, nobody-making-this-cares tag imaginable. I guess I should say the special effects which include everything involving the volcano and, since that wasn’t enough, a tidal wave, are beyond lousy as well but by a certain point I’m not even sure how much it matters.
Just to clarify: the film was previously released on VHS in an expanded version that I rented several years ago utilizing the cut that ran on TV which ran 141 minutes. The running time shown in reference sources for the theatrical version lists it at 121 minutes but this DVD runs 109 minutes. Since the version that ran in theaters has not been seen for literally decades there’s no way to say how this version is different, if the 121 minute listing is an error, or even if the film was cut down after it’s initial screenings but since no one cares about this title there’s no record of it that I could find. (Warners has stated that the materials needed to put together the expanded cut on DVD do not exist) There’s no way that I would want this film to be longer but in fairness even if this was the cut that originally played in theaters it feels in every way like a condensed version of something longer. Some of the characters and settings are present so briefly that there’s no time for them to make any impression—hell, it feels like a few of the alleged leads barely get twenty lines of dialogue and one of them even dies offscreen. I actually remember a few things that aren’t present in this cut and while their inclusion would make it more of a complete film, it would still be awful (“This movie is terrible.” “Yes, and such small portions.”).
There’s very little good to say about any of the actors and by a certain point it feels like I’m just shoveling the dirt on more. Paul Newman (who apparently once told Larry King this was the one film he ever regretted making, only referring to it as “that volcano movie”) obviously doesn’t have any interest in this and the only real characterization he displays is due to the cowboy hat he wears during the first hour. William Holden, as part of the least dramatic love triangle in cinema history, almost has no reason to be in the movie, since he bares no responsibility for the calamity like his TOWERING developer and has almost nothing to do during the second half. Accounts have him drinking heavily during production and it’s almost as if he or somebody else decided that he would be in the movie but would never have to actually do anything. Most of the other actors don't get very much screen time and Ernest Borgnine, whose character gets seriously burned, has to spend much of his role with his face covered. James Franciscus gets a chance to chew some scenery as this films Richard Chamberlain equivalent and I can believe that most of the younger, less-famous actors are genuinely trying to make their parts work since they have something to lose but none of them get any chance to make much of a difference. I’ll gladly say that the various women in the film like Bisset, Hamel and Carrera (a personal longtime favorite—I’d rather talk about her, even though she doesn’t get to do much here) at least look terrific so, hey, there’s something good that I can say about the movie. Having women like that around usually helps a little.
But that’s the thing. I freely admit that I’m the guy who can sometimes find something good to say about practically any movie (well, not one directed by Michael Bay) but WHEN TIME RAN OUT is pretty much my limit. Even the font used during the opening credits is boring. I don’t want anyone to think I’m taking this stuff too seriously all of a sudden but there’s just not much entertainment value here on any level, just a test to locate the most hardened film geeks by seeing who can sit through the entire thing. All right, that includes me and I freely admit that, wanting to see this piece of crap looking as good as possible, I willingly bought the new DVD from Warner Brothers (no special features, not even a trailer) so maybe I have no right to complain about anything. And, just to say it once again, at least Barbara Carrera looks nice in it. I should just go watch another film that she appears in.
Saturday, May 30, 2009
“I feel the weight of the future bearing down on me. A future I don’t want.” A thought that I find myself identifying with sometimes, it’s something that Nick Stahl’s John Connor reveals in voiceover near the beginning of TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES a movie that I’ve recently been reminded of after seeing the latest in the series, TERMINATOR SALVATION. I get the feeling there’s suddenly a consensus out there that the third film was some kind of misfire, something this new one needed to correct and my first thought honestly was, did I miss a meeting? When did everybody jointly decide that it was a bad film? Weren’t people relatively entertained when it came out back in 2003? Sure, it’s not up to the first two classics directed by James Cameron (great films, but not necessarily beyond reproach) and there is a slight feel that it’s being made for the simple reason that a bunch of producers still own the rights as opposed to a need to further the story. But since somebody was going to make it, director Jonathan Mostow, helmer of BREAKDOWN and U-571, takes the absolute right approach. He seems fully aware that there was no way he could ever match the cultural impact that T2 had when it was released in ’91, no way that he could further the art of special effects like Cameron and his team did. It’s not an epic on the level of what we expect from that director and there’s nothing in it as iconic as numerous images from either of the first two films but in a variety of ways it succeeds at being, for me, a genuinely enjoyable science fiction-action film. It’s made by a craftsman with an intelligent approach to his story, as opposed to McG who doesn’t seem to have a single interesting idea, preferring to concentrate on shooting his film with expired Kodak stock to give it all a bleak, ‘cool’ look as opposed to focusing on the story which is pretty terrible (I’ll bow out on comparisons with THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES which I only saw a few episodes of before giving up due to boredom). TERMINATOR 3 takes the mythos, not without a number of holes to begin with, and attempts to continue the tale in interesting, unexpected ways. SALVATION is just a piece of hackwork with seemingly no reason for being beyond that somebody still owned the rights.
“You’re John Connor, aren’t you,” says Claire Danes’s Kate Brewster to Nick Stahl early on, a point where I knew that the film wasn't going to go in the direction I was expecting. The conceit of the story—that things are correcting themselves to what they were supposed to be anyway is something I only half buy. There is the issue that I can’t get over the fact that a little of it feels like somebody, not Cameron, desperately figuring out how to add to the story without seriously violating what’s come before. But the nature of there being some events that are truly, genuinely out of our control in this life that go beyond simply stating “No fate but what we make” does feel like a more mature way of looking at things that simply making every film lead a Luke Skywalker/Paul Atreides/Neo/James Kirk it-is-your-destiny-to-be-great icon. John Connor does have his fate, it’s just not what he wants. These ideas come together in a production that is obviously very expensive yet it still manages to feel like they shot it in various points all around the outskirts of Los Angeles where a lot of direct to video cheapies have shot over the years. The feel that Mostow never tried to do anything more than offer a continuation to what has come before does have its drawbacks because it feels like the film never strived to be any better than it is. On the other hand, maybe this kind of focus makes it a stronger story than it would have been in other hands, as opposed to just being a demonstration of all the cool shots the director can do. More importantly, it got me to still care about the whole TERMINATOR story, even if the timeline of the whole thing doesn’t make a lick of sense. It knows what we want from a TERMINATOR film—questions about the nature of our own destinies in a cool science fiction context while still giving us, yes, lots of action with robots and Arnold Schwarzenegger fighting each other.
That action, particularly the truck chase, is all extremely well-executed and, a rarity these days, we can even tell what’s going on throughout. It’s an extremely dark film if you really think about it—actually, you don’t even have to think about it very long—but, almost most importantly in this context, it still remembers to be an enjoyable summer popcorn movie. In my mind I’m continually thinking about bringing up a comparison to SALVATION in these regards but that movie really doesn’t deserve all that much attention. It’s a bad, pointless story directed by somebody with no particular talent beyond his own enthusiasm and just over a week after seeing it I’ve forgotten whole chunks of it already. I just can’t look at the future war as being anything other than tantalizing backstory and this wasn’t the movie to convince me otherwise. It definitely doesn’t seem worth having a few more movies made about it and frankly at this point I don’t care if that happens anyway. With very little fat, the narrative of RISE OF THE MACHINES occurs during an unexpectedly brief span of time, making me wonder if there could have been a few other narrative balls tossed in the air (somebody else might have done more with the plot point of all internet and TV being out) and it feels a little like it’s missing a big action setpiece, not that I have an idea of what or where this could be. Maybe this has as much to do with my own expectations that these things are always going to be two hours and change by now but this film, seeming intent on B-movie leanness, resists such bloat. It knows exactly the story it needs to tell and when to get off stage, an admirable quality in summer films these days.
Watching it, I can’t help but feel compelled to joke that Arnold was probably more interested in getting back to his trailer between takes to prepare for his run for Governor (supposedly he intervened to have the production moved from Canada back to L.A.—no way that wasn’t calculated) but he actually seems very much on his game here, maybe fully aware that this was the last time so he might as well dig in and make it count—when he tells Claire Danes “Don’t do that,” it’s his best moment in the film. He also gets plenty of the expected jokey dialogue with even one callback to COMMANDO for old times’ sake. As the T-X—screw it, let’s just call it the Terminatrix—Kristanna Loken is definitely striking. I don’t know if there’s much logic to her response to discovering the blood of John Connor early on but it does display a certain degree of frisson and she definitely seems to have the right attitude to making the role as cool and effective as it needs to be. Nick Stahl and Claire Danes, the two nominal leads, are both interesting casting due to how they don’t seem to be the type for this sort of film and their idiosyncratic nature together is ultimately very effective and might have been interesting to have seen them continue in other entries, not that anyone had any interest in doing so (Hey, good job in our movie! Now get the fuck outta here so we can recast the roles!).
It’s also a movie that’s clever enough to have just about the last line that Schwarzenegger’s Terminator has be a blatant STRANGELOVE reference and it gets points for that as well. TERMINATOR 3 didn’t need to be made, at least not for any reason other than to make money, but since it was it fortunately wound up in the right hands. The latest entry, on the other hand, probably also wasn’t made for any reason other than to make money and it wound up in the absolute wrong hands, something that seems to be happening these days more and more. I don’t want to hate movies that get released in the summertime, I’m just feeling more and more disconnected with them, a troubling thought when we haven’t even gotten to June yet (that makes me think of the future I don’t want). Since everyone already knew when TERMINATOR 3 came out that Schwarzenegger was clearly going to move onto other things (no comment) at least his last starring role was one that allowed us to remember why we enjoyed his movies in the first place. At least as far as Hollywood goes, he managed to go out on a high note.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
I’ve always had a slight soft spot for SWEET LIBERTY, Alan Alda's comedy about filmmaking, which probably has mostly to do with a pleasant memory of seeing it way back when it was released way back in May of 1986 (the same day as TOP GUN, for those who care about such things). Combined with that is a genial tone through the whole thing, giving it a feel of a film that was pleasurable for everyone to work on and everyone in front of the camera seems happy to be there. This doesn’t make it good, just pleasant—looking at it again after many years I don’t get much out of it other than that pleasantness along with a few smiles here and there. There are far worse things than that, but it would be nice if SWEET LIBERTY had maybe a little more bite, as well as more laughs.
Michael Burgess (writer-director Alda), winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his Revolutionary War tome “Sweet Liberty”, is about to have a film made from his book in the small burg of Sayville, North Carolina (actually, the film was shot out on Long Island) where he lives and works as a college professor. Though his life is already preoccupied by his relationship with girlfriend Gretchen Carlson (Lise Hilboldt) and crazy mother (Lillian Gish, in her nineties when this was made), things are made more complicated when no sooner has the production arrived and he has met screenwriter Stanley Gould (Bob Hoskins) he realizes that the film made from his book is actually going to be a teen comedy because teens love defying authority and, after all, the American Revolution “was the ultimate rebellion”. Michael does his best to change the film, dealing with jerk director Bo Hodges (Saul Rubinek), chameleon leading lady Faith Healy (Michelle Pfeiffer) whose resemblance to the real person causes him to be attracted to her instantly and egotistical leading man Elliott James (Michael Caine, in the second of two ’86 releases in which he is named Elliott), among other distractions. As Stanley tries to teach Michael the reality of how movies really get made, all of these different forces battle for attention in his life until finally, as the Wikipedia plot summary tells us, “Michael is forced to sabotage his own film to try to gain some truth in his life.” Which means that whoever wrote this summary got more of this plot development than I did.
That’s the thing. Though it’s a very mild, genial piece of work, SWEET LIBERTY never seems to have much of a point or opinion about anything that’s going on beyond just a smile and a shrug from Alan Alda who seems happy that everybody has turned up and seems to be enjoying themselves. There’s a valid satirical idea in the reasons why this book is being turned into a teen romp but the tone is all wrong for that satire and never makes much sense on a comical level either (it reminds me that I need to watch S.O.B., a film where the joke would make sense, again). Alda the director seems to get a kick out of how phony moviemaking is, by tilting up at the end of a take of the movie being shot to show where the fake snow is coming from, a joke that was probably hackneyed back in the fifties. And very few of the details he presents about the process make very much sense whether it’s how the cast and crew, even the big names, all arrive in town on a single charter bus or the complete lack of any studio executives overseeing the shoot. Compared to this, the recent SMOKEJUMPERS arc on ENTOURAGE is a model of realism. If it’s a teen comedy, why is there a love story between the characters that Caine and Pfeiffer are playing? Would such a hack director really want to make this book into a movie (in fairness, Saul Rubinek is pretty funny in the role, even though his part never makes much sense)? Why do we spend so much time on the pointless rivalry between the stuntmen and the townsfolk who reenact the battles? Why is there an entire subplot about Michael’s crazy mother looking for her long-lost boyfriend? The way scenes are arranged feels pretty haphazard much of the time with little sense of pace or rhythm to them. Alda doesn’t really bring much style to any of this—showing the local marching band which welcomes the production by playing “Hooray for Hollywood” gets smaller and smaller as the musicians get more interested in the celebrities is as close to an actual cinematic idea as the film gets. There’s also Bruce Broughton’s incessantly peppy score, very 80s, which sounds like it was designed to play under bouncy montages more than it has anything to do with this movie. You’ve probably heard it before and still haven’t gotten it out of your head. I know I haven’t.
I could go on with lots of criticisms, but I still don’t really mind the film. It’s breezy enough, I smiled at a few points watching it even now, like when Caine tries to get Alda to switch seats with him on a rollercoaster so he can sit next to Lois Chiles, which I remember being the one clip always shown on TV. Overall, it goes down easy. But if Alda wanted to make something lighter than THE FOUR SEASONS it’s almost as if he went too far in the wrong direction because there’s nothing more to take away from it in the end other than, “Oh, those wacky Hollywood folk,” even though every now and then there’s a slight indication that he may have had something more in mind. When we see Alda’s character lecturing a class at the beginning he asks them, “How do you discipline a large, freedom loving society?” and I suppose what the film might be about is the struggle to maintain discipline in your own life against what the madness of the world offers (the sweets of liberty, as it were). It almost feels like something could have been done with the idea but instead everyone involved preferred to just hang out and have a nice time off in the Hamptons instead. There seems to be so little conflict in the principle love story that Alda doesn’t even bother to drag out a crucial moment at the end. Everything’s going to turn out all right and he’s not going to make you sweat for it.
At least everyone seems to be in a good mood, which helps a lot. Alda’s character never seems all that upset by what’s being done to his book, no matter what he says in dialogue, seeming perfectly content to go get ice cream with his girlfriend instead. I guess when you think about it, there’s not very much at stake anyway. No surprise, Michael Caine gets the biggest laughs as the lecherous star, given some particularly good dialogue (“The perfume of their skin, it’s so intoxicating. I told my wife I’d never even look at other women if only I could cut off my nose.” “What did she say?” “She said I was aiming too high.”) and running with it. Pfeiffer does a good job as well with a difficult role, making her much more likable than she might otherwise have been. Bob Hoskins seems determined to steal every scene he’s in and is very enjoyable to watch. Lois Chiles of MOONRAKER, playing the wife of the college president, brings an added comic spark whenever she turns up. Linda Thorson of THE AVENGERS pops in for a few scenes as Caine’s suspicious wife. Familiar faces John C. McGinley, Dann Florek and Leo Burmester play a few of the townsfolk. As the main love interest Lise Hilboldt (probably most recognizable as Perry White’s secretary in SUPERMAN) never seems to stop beaming, even when she’s supposed to be upset. She’s not all that good, but as a person she honestly seems nice enough which kind of sums up my response to the entire film.
“Not a bad time, huh? A pleasant little interlude. A dance. A diversion,” offers Bob Hoskins near the end, which pretty much describes SWEET LIBERTY as well. I suppose I should be more hostile to it but a film this good-natured is sometimes difficult to get all that worked up over. There are scraps of material here that could have been part of a better movie but it’s not much of a surprise that it didn’t do very well at the box office (a shocker, but TOP GUN actually did better). I paid only five dollars for the DVD, a full-frame job by Universal who clearly didn’t care about this title very much. I don’t really feel like I wasted my money and maybe some spring afternoon off in the future I’ll want to see some of it again. It’ll probably still be just as pleasant and underwhelming but there are some days in life when that’s just the sort of movie you want to be reminded of.
Sunday, May 24, 2009
I had a bit of a week. The details aren’t important and they’re of no interest to you anyway, but let’s just say I had a bit of a week and leave it at that. So instead of collapsing at home on Friday night, I decided to make my way over to the New Beverly for the Charles Bronson double bill, a welcome way to get my mind off things and far preferable to certain films opening this week nationwide. (Yeah, I’ve seen TERMINATOR SALVATION and don’t have very much interest in writing about it. You probably shouldn’t have very much interest in seeing it.) The two films come from the early 70s and, both released by United Artists, can possibly looked at as a few of the very best of his star vehicles. They’re also just different enough to make pairing them not repetitive at all. One can be looked at as a steadily paced look at Charles Bronson as a screen presence, the other is a more standard popcorn movie that still delivers everything we want from it. I’d seen them both before but it had been a few years so it was great to give them another look.
The first of the night, 1972’s THE MECHANIC: Bronson plays Arthur Bishop, a hitman or “Mechanic” who lives a solitary life focused solely on his job. Soon after he fulfills an assignment to kill old friend Harry McKenna (Keenan Wynn), he runs into McKenna’s son Steve (Jan-Michael Vincent) who clearly takes an interest in what Arthur does for a living. For reasons that remain mysterious—out of loneliness? Guilt? The need for somebody to talk to?—Bishop takes him on as a protégé, teaching him the rules of his trade, only without telling his superiors, which turns out to cause some problems.
Directed by Michael Winner, THE MECHANIC is light on plot and dialogue—could the script by Lewis John Carlino have been more than 80 pages?—and it really isn’t a character study. What it is feels like a meditation of the nature of Charles Bronson and everything we expect from him in a film. It certainly has more weight than most of the other Michael Winner films I’ve seen and though some of that Winner hackery turns up here and there for the most part it holds together extremely well. From the very beginning where we have a completely dialogue-free stretch following Bronson’s character as he methodically prepares and executes a job which lasts nearly a quarter of an hour, there is a degree of confidence in this storytelling that sets the film apart from other Bronson vehicles. It doesn’t necessarily subvert expectations—there’s still enough well-done action that the average Bronson fan wouldn’t feel hoodwinked about it—but it does have a considerable amount of weight even without Bronson’s character ever expressing exactly what he’s feeling. As the film goes on it feels more and more like an examination of loneliness but how much it really says about this subject is up for the viewer to decide. The film also contains one of the truly great abrupt 70s endings, but to say any more would be giving it away. The film is filled with unexpected touches—the greenery in Bronson’s house, the visit the two men make to a girlfriend of Steve’s who insists she’s going to kill herself and these elements make enough of an effect that I almost forget about the weaker touches like the lame hippie-types seen partying at Vincent’s house, who don’t seem too far apart from the thugs who invade Bronson’s apartment in DEATH WISH (“My father never really liked my friends. And I’m not sure I do either,”says Vincent. That’s a little like a line in HEATHERS. Somebody should ask Daniel Waters about this.). I also wondered how many times Winner set up a shot deliberately so that the setting sun would be seen behind it, but that’s a minor point and besides, his style here makes sense for once. Much of the film is set in Los Angeles, but even though there’s a fair amount of location work including houses in the Hollywood Hills the setting is beside the point and very little interest appears to be paid to much of it. Even when the narrative moves to Naples in the third act, it never takes advantage of the setting as we’d like it too, but this seems deliberate as well. If looked at from the perspective that we’re viewing everything through the tunnelvision that Bronson sees everything it makes perfect sense and for once that slapdash Michael Winner style completely works. Though there isn’t much dialogue, what’s there is very cutting—“Murder is only killing without a license,” and Vincent’s “I call you Baby, because you’re innocence touches me so,” which he callously says to the girl who is about to slit her wrists over him. Jill Ireland turns up in one sequence and isn’t much better than she usually is but even this section ends in an unexpected way that has resonance for the rest of the film so for once, what Jill Ireland does in a movie actually makes sense. Incidentally, there’s a remake with Jason Statham coming. I’m guessing it will be much noisier.
Second on the bill was Richard Flesicher’s MR. MAJESTYK, released in 1974, a considerably more traditional narrative. Bronson is Vince Majestyk, a regular melon farmer who, when we first see him, is arguing to allow a family of Mexican migrant workers to use the bathroom at a service station. He’s a man of the people, a man who understands the value of a day’s work, a man of honor. When a local hood (THE OMEGA MAN’s Paul Kelso) tries to force his own workers, consisting of winos and bums, onto Majestyk’s farm our hero defends himself but this results in the hood presses assault charges. So Majestyk is sent to jail and he winds up on the same transfer bus as notorious hit man Frank Renda (Al Lettieri, Sollozzo in THE GODFATHER). When Renda’s cohorts try to bust him out from the bus Majestyk, determined to get back to his melon crop, takes matters into his own hands to escape with the hit man and use this to his own advantage. But things don’t quite go according to plan and soon Renda is determined to exact revenge against the melon farmer.
Jerry Fielding’s score for THE MECHANIC is cool and methodical, just like the film. MR. MAJESTYK is more of a straight genre plotline, so Charles Bernstein’s score is as big and melodic as most of those 70s action films. Of course I mean this in the best way and by a certain point MR. MAJESTYK is an absolute blast to watch. Written by Elmore Leonard, the plotting comes together like clockwork and the film even presents us with a Bronson who’s about as loose as we ever saw particularly in the scene where he first meets Letteri, about as goofy a moment as I’ve seen him play (maybe there are others. I need to keep looking.). It drags slightly in the middle, but much of MR. MAJESTYK moves fast and is extremely satisfying in that no-nonsense, old school 70s way with lots of expertly-done action. Letteri is fantastic as the bad guy who is ultimately a spineless coward when he doesn’t have a gun or his men to back him up, Linda Cristal has an interesting screen presence as Bronson’s sort-of love interest and Lee Purcell, also in BIG WEDNESDAY, is gorgeous as Lettieri’s moll though it does make me wonder exactly what a woman like her is doing with somebody like Al Lettieri.
The two films are different enough which prevented any sort of repetition, even though they are both basically “Charles Bronson movies”. They present him at his best and together they made a hugely enjoyable night at the movies. Neither one is deep, but the unspoken elements provided by the star make them practically profound when compared to what we get from the genre these days. Seeing Charles Bronson do what he did best was exactly what I needed at the end of that week and I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to be quite so stoic.
Sunday, May 17, 2009
I haven’t seen Tobe Hooper’s LIFEFORCE in years and just about the only thing I remember about it is…well, if you’ve seen LIFEFORCE you know what that is. But let’s be adults here. Those who haven’t seen LIFEFORCE may be aware of it from its pretty cool poster art, showing a single eye staring downward at the planet earth promising an austere, 2001-like experience. I even remember a TV spot at the time that made striking use of this image, but it’s nowhere to be found on YouTube. To say that the actual film is different in tone than what this promises is putting it mildly, something that I think the people who were there for the recent 70MM screening at the Egyptian were aware of judging by their applause for the credits for Cannon Films and Golan & Globus during the opening titles. There was also applause for composer Henry Mancini, but that consisted of maybe three people, including myself. LIFEFORCE is a ludicrous work, yet sitting there watching it I couldn’t help but have a huge smile on my face the whole time. It was the second feature after THE ROAD WARRIOR and sure, that film’s great and all but LIFEFORCE may have been the highlight of the evening. In many ways it’s the cinematic equivalent of an all you can eat buffet, with all sorts of things that taste great on their own but if you put them together it’s kind of like pouring ranch dressing on pizza. Which still sounds pretty good, but maybe that’s not the way you’re supposed to eat it.
While investigating Halley’s Comet, the American/British crew of the Space Shuttle Churchill let by Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) discovers a mysterious vessel hidden in the comet’s tail which contains three bodies in suspended animation. Soon after, all communication with the shuttle is lost and a second is sent up to investigate. They discover a Churchill gutted inside by fire, but the three bodies which include a beautiful woman (Mathilda May) are still intact. They are brought back to earth to investigate but the dead woman turns out not to be a dead woman at all and the naked girl soon calmly walks off, wreaking havoc everywhere she goes (“Don’t worry. A naked girl is not going to get out of this complex.”). Things become more complicated when Col. Carlsen turns up back on Earth in an escape pod with his own story about what happened but even though he may have some kind of psychic connection with the girl, even he may not be able to prevent the mass destruction that is beginning all through London.
Playing like an ALIEN knockoff that Hammer might have made if they still existed and worked with actual budgets, LIFEFORCE is a difficult movie to defend on any serious level but impossible for me to dislike, considering the massive entertainment value of everything that occurs in it. In some ways it’s everything you want in a movie—It’s got stuff in outer space! It’s got zombies! It’s got massive explosions! It’s got a naked girl walking around killing people! Not to mention the almost endearing insistence on playing everything relatively straight, with next to no (intentional) attempts at humor but instead of draining out the fun in context this approach somehow manages to make everything more entertaining than it might have been otherwise. Even much of the casting which consists of able actors who probably would have played the third cop from the left in most other movies adds to this odd feel. Based on the novel Space Vampires by Colin Wilson with a screenplay by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby of ALIEN fame, the very nature of the story—space movie to vampire movie to manhunt movie to zombie movie to disaster movie—is so erratic in how it’s structured that it’s tough to understand how coherent this could have seemed on the page. This scattershot plot is handled by Tobe Hooper about as well as anybody could—he does, after all, give it a genuine feel of size and there’s no denying that he definitely knows how to take advantage of the concept of a beautiful naked girl going around killing people (if only SPECIES had been this much fun). There’s just a definite lack of discipline to the whole thing as if nobody ever sat down and asked, “So what the hell is thing ABOUT, anyway?” Golan & Globus certainly weren’t going to do that, since their talent as producers was in making deals. As a result, it feels like a would-be blockbuster made for a parallel universe where this was what people wanted to see (and, in a refreshing switch, treats England as the center of the world instead of the U.S.) but accidentally got released here. I should note that the 70MM print screened at the Egyptian was of the 101 minute theatrical cut which for the most part has been superseded on home video by the 116 minute international cut. One thing’s for sure, the shorter version never stops moving—I think at least some of the major cuts came from the opening outer space sequence. Maybe somebody decided that since the story doesn’t really begin until the bodies get to Earth they made this section more of a prologue than anything which gets things happening quickly but does give a certain choppy feel to the start. All the on-screen chaos at the end makes me think of a larger-scale version of the climax of QUATERMASS AND THE PIT and the denouement plays like an R-Rated version of the end of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE and it’s just as much of a mish-mosh as that makes it sound. Sure is fun to watch, though.
Steve Railsback, it has to be said, is pretty terrible, maybe another reason why some of this stuff was cut. It feels as if there was a conscious attempt to cut him down, making this at times a movie without a lead character, which only adds to the feeling of disorientation we may feel at times (and, possibly, to the delirium we feel at the ludicrousness of it). The bulk of the Brits, the ones who never get roles this big in other movies (with one key exception) give this absurd story a huge amount of credibility, including Peter Firth, Michael Gothard of FOR YOUR EYES ONLY and SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, Aubrey Morris and especially Frank Finlay (Adrien Brody’s father in THE PIANIST) as Dr. Fallada who brings the utmost conviction to every ridiculous line he has and somehow is able to give it a huge amount of weight. It’s as if he knows what all this is but dammit, he’s going to have fun trying to make it all work. When he is sidelined from the storyline for a period his energy is missed. Patrick Stewart, the one exception who did make it big otherwise, plays Dr. Armstrong, director of Thurlstone Hospital. Mathilda May, in case I didn’t make it clear, is gorgeous. The outer space special effects by John Dykstra are maybe a little dated but still pleasing in that old-school optical way. There are also zombies and they’re pretty cool. Henry Mancini’s score (there’s some “additional music” by Michael Kamen as well) is fantastic, fully embracing the madness onscreen. It’s too bad that he didn’t get to do enough of this sort of thing in his career.
The film was a big flop when released in June of ’85, a real indication that the Cannon formula was never going to work on a blockbuster scale. But there is a cult around for it and it’s clearly aged in a more interesting fashion than a few other movies from that summer that I can think of. After the screening, I briefly got to meet Tobe Hooper and tell him how much I enjoyed the film. I wasn’t kidding—I really did have a blast while watching it, much more than I expect from a lot of movies I’m going to see this summer. It has a massive amount of problems, which I think could have been solved somewhere along the way if somebody could have clamped down on the script and certain other matters. Since this didn’t happen, we have this ultra-bizarre example of sci-fi/horror that can puzzle and entertain us for a long time to come. Late in the film I happened to glance over to the other end of my aisle where someone I know was sitting. She looked over in my direction and, clearly enjoying the film as well, gave me a huge smile. Maybe you had to be there for the moment, but to me that just about says it all. LIFEFORCE can’t be defended with any real seriousness, but it’s still a blast to sit through and I feel no guilt whatsoever in saying that.
“I’m fascinated by death itself. What happens as we die, when we die, what happens after we die.”
“You mean life after death.”
“Life after death.”
“Do you really want to know?”
“But to answer your question, yes, I think there is.”
Thursday, May 14, 2009
It had to happen eventually. Something had to happen with Star Trek. I already mentioned how boring STAR TREK: NEMESIS is. ENTERPRISE ranks as one of the single least compelling shows in the history of the medium. I used to say that what was wrong with Star Trek was that the mine had been stripped, leaving nothing left to explore, but maybe that wasn’t the problem. Maybe it had just become too consumed by its own language and rules—not just the canon which probably was impenetrable by a certain point, but by the elements that had become ingrained in that canon. The awful technobabble dialogue, the droning music, the actors speaking their lines in a numbing monotone. It had ceased to be fun or diverting in any real way. I happened to see an episode during the final season of ENTERPRISE which, though I couldn’t recite the plot to you, somehow involved Nazi aliens in some sort of alternate World War II and they managed to make even that boring, a pretty neat trick if you think about it. I say this as a fan from way back ever since watching the reruns of the original series on Channel 11 back in New York. Not that I watch them all the time, but it’s nice to have the DVDs around in case if I ever want to take a look at an episode to remember the way it used to be. I’ve even got the old animated show. So I’ve seen the new film directed by J.J. Abrams simply called STAR TREK (after all, there's never been a movie with that title before) twice by now. This was necessary because it was almost like I needed one viewing just to begin to absorb this film and figure out exactly what it is. That said, my thoughts on it still feel preliminary. There are problems, yes, and there is room for improvement in future installments, but it’s just about as good a summer popcorn movie that I’ve seen in the past several years. It moves. It has an energy. There’s no way to be certain how I’ll feel about it in a month or a year but right now I wouldn’t object to sitting through it again this very moment. It’s fun and that’s one thing that any incarnation of Star Trek hasn’t been for a long time. There’s no way to ask the question “What is Star Trek?” without getting into a debate with somebody since there are going to be all sorts of opinions. But maybe, just maybe, this film is what Star Trek needs to be right now.
Everyone knows about the plot right now, how what we know of as the history of Kirk (Chris Pine) Spock (Zachary Quinto) McCoy (Karl Urban) Uhura (Zoe Saldana) Sulu (John Cho) Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Scotty (Simon Pegg) is irrevocably altered by the arrival of the Romulan Nero (Eric Bana) from the future. Leonard Nimoy as Spock (“Spock Prime” in the credits) turns up in a key role to give his blessing and to give us one final look at his version of the character. In sealing up the old universe into a Ziploc bag, never to be opened again, it’s kind of liberating to be able to explore some of the characters in new ways and in some cases, like Uhura, give them a character where previously none existed at all (in that sense, I think romantically pairing her with Spock is a terrific idea). The script by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (it’s easy to imagine that producer Damon Lindelof worked on it as well), even with the flaws that people have been talking about is structured in a way designed to keep it moving like a rocket (when the action kicks in, it’s done in that one continuous day kind of plot like STAR WARS) and continually brings up new elements throughout, like how it doesn’t introduce Simon Pegg’s Scotty until late in the game, as if hiding an ace up it sleeve) that never lets it get dull for an moment. It even brings up elements of the Trek mythos that have pretty much laid dormant since the 60s—Christopher Pike, Sulu and his fencing, green Orion girls—and seems to take a certain delight in doing something with them as if satisfying a daydream one of the writers had long ago. And with all the familiar dialogue spoken by the characters throughout I’m pretty sure that there are a few non-catchphrase exchanges heard here and there (I’ve seen some of these films and episodes a lot) that seem inserted almost subliminally. It’s as if the wanted to do whatever they could to make this feel like a dream Trek, one that really takes advantage of the universe in a way we haven’t seen before. With all these elements coming together I found myself liking my second viewing even more than the first. It just put a big grin on my face as I remembered what it was once like to really enjoy a summer movie, or maybe just a summer movie that featured the Starship Enterprise. Even the digital effects were something that impressed me, something that rarely happens anymore, particularly during the extremely well-donespace jump sequence. And for once I didn’t mind all the camerawork that people seem to be worked up over or even all those flares. It was a style for this film, for this new presentation of Trek and it gave a surprisingly vibrant feel to the whole thing that hadn’t been seen before. By a certain point I stopped noticing it and seriously, I’m the first person to get annoyed by that sort of thing these days.
Not that I don’t have a few issues, or maybe even a few qualms related to where all this might be going. The movie moves fast and much of the time that clearly seems to be what J.J. Abrams has in mind. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But there’s something missing in there for me. There’s no one single shot or image or ever a series of images that come off as distinctly cinematic. There’s stuff going on in the frame constantly in every scene—and points to the film for shooting in genuine anamorphic, not Super 35 or digital—but there’s no real joy-of-filmmaking in anything that Abrams does here. There’s no one single moment where we ever feel that. There’s some great effects work and there’s the gaze at the setting suns of Tatooine equivalent as young Jim Kirk gazes at the Enterprise under construction, but it’s not quite enough. We need to see not just the great starship captain that Kirk is going to become, but the great man he is going to become and I’m not quite sure that’s here. That’s not the worst thing in the world, certainly, but it is something that keeps this film from being something that is great.
That said, the performances by the leads are just fantastic, working expertly in presenting these young versions of these characters doing not just impersonations but nailing something about the essences for the most part. They also create successful characterizations by themselves, something we can’t say with each one of these reboots (yes, that would be SUPERMAN RETURNS) Pine, Quinto and Urban all are terrific and I look forward to seeing what they’ll do with these characters in the coming years. Zoe Saldana (boy, she’s stunning) had more of a blank slate to work with than some of the others and Pegg’s Scotty is more of a comic relief but these characterizations work immensely and there’s not a moment when they were on screen that I wasn’t enjoying what they were doing. The thinly-drawn Nero, who’ll probably go down as one of the least memorable villains in all of Trek, seems less the fault of Eric Bana, who seems game, than either a script that lets him down or stuff that was cut from the final film. Winona Ryder has a few minutes in old-age makeup as Spock’s mother (I miss her), Bruce Greenwood hits the right note of authority as the first actor to play Christopher Pike in over forty years and a few alums from prior J.J. Abrams projects turn up in bit parts. At this point in time Leonard Nimoy seems almost more like Nimoy than Spock but this almost seems appropriate and it’s hard not to be affected a little bit by getting to see him as Spock on the big screen once more. I’ve spotted some criticism of Michael Giacchino’s score out there but, though I haven’t heard the album yet, in all honesty I thought it was terrific. I’ve loved his work in recent years, particularly on LOST and here I thought he got the tone for this just right with an extremely rousing main theme, which I look forward to hearing him expand upon in the future. There are few other composers out there right now whose name I’m as pleased to see in film credits as much as his.
The film does know how to keep the wheels spinning fast enough that the issues that people seem to be harping on don’t even bother me very much, but it does cause certain things involving the characters to not pay off. So much of the basic story comes from Nero’s hatred of Spock, yet when it comes to mano-a-mano time it’s Kirk who really squares off against the villain (true, Kirk and Kahn never met in that film but it had so much other thematic richness going on that it was never really an issue). I also couldn’t help but notice that a line said to Kirk near the very end—“Your father would’ve been proud of you”—is the exact same line said to the lead character of a brilliant thriller that won Best Picture at the Oscars years ago (If you don’t know what it is, I guess it doesn’t matter). In that film the range of emotions that washed over the face of the lead actress (who also won the Oscar) upon hearing this said more than any words ever could and added much resonance to the entire film. In STAR TREK the line is spoken but there’s not even a shot of Kirk reacting to it which would allow a sense of thematic closure to the moment. It’s just another part of the pomp and circumstance of the scene. I’m not saying that there should be complex ambiguity on Kirk’s face here but there could be something that would add to the movie and would even be valuable in getting us to care about this version of the character in films yet to come. I like STAR TREK a huge amount right now and since we’ve got crap from Michael Bay and Stephen Sommers coming this summer, surely making me want to jab a fork in my eye, in a few months it might even seem downright miraculous just how good this film is. I just wish there was more substance to it. More that would stay with me. Remember the tag line from THE MOTION PICTURE, this franchise’s first appearance on the big screen, thirty years old this year—The Human Adventure is Just Beginning. That film was actually lacking in the drama department too, for its own reasons. This time, they’ve got an even better head start to do more of it in the follow-up and I hope it happens. I hope they don’t do something predictable, like bring back Kahn or go all action to make it a QUANTUM OF STAR TREK sort of thing. This is the time for the people involved to branch out and really make this universe their own. There are so many possibilities that they could explore and if they strive for the stars, there’s every reason to think that they could pull it off.
Monday, May 11, 2009
I can’t help but wonder, did Steven Soderbergh have Richard Lester’s CUBA in mind at all when he was making CHE? His book of interviews with Lester doesn’t spend too much time on this particular film but Soderbergh does seem willing to defend it even if only on the basis that it willingly tries to go against the grain of what you’d expect. I can see where he’s coming from, but Lester himself seems to indicate that the project, released in 1979, lost a sense of direction by a certain point. There's validity to both opinions, but my gut reaction is to side with Lester. While watching it I found myself sitting there, waiting for the plot and tone of the movie to kick in much like you do for the first ten minutes of every movie. This continued until I realized that I was nearly an hour into the thing and I was petty much still waiting for it to begin. There are good things in there, but for the most part it’s a dry, dour film and combined with some distracting casting choices it was difficult for me to fully engage with it on any real level. I wasn’t bored which seemed a little strange since it’s really not a particularly compelling movie, but the few things it does have in its favor aren’t quite enough.
Set in Havana in 1959, just before the Cuban Revolution (so shouldn’t that make it late 1958?) CUBA stars Sean Connery (who had just made ROBIN AND MARIAN for Lester) as British mercenary Robert Dapes, who has been brought in by the Batistas to help go against the Communist rebels. Once there he encounters the beautiful Alexandra Pulido (Brooke Adams) who he has not seen since the two had an affair when she was just a girl in North Africa. Though she gives him the brush-off at first, her growing awareness of the affair her wealthy husband Juan (Chris Sarandon) is having and her growing memories of her time with Robert causes him to seek him out, but not quite for the reasons he is expecting. Others who are in a state of denial over how much their world is on the brink of total change include her husband’s father (Walter Gotell, General Gogol in the James Bond films), her husband’s mistress (Lonette McKee), boorish American businessman Larry Gutman (Jack Weston), a Batista General (Martin Balsam), a pilot maintaining his cool amidst the chaos (Denholm Elliott) and various others caught up in the revolution in one form or another.
Even considering my limited knowledge of the history of Cuba, it’s a difficult time period to cover cinematically not least it’s hard not to think of the pertinent section in THE GODFATHER PART II, the gold standard for this sort of thing. The amazing I AM CUBA (which is essential) belongs in a different category due to its quasi-documentary nature, but it’s worth a mention as well. The plot of CUBA probably sounds like an aping of CASABLANCA from the description and for all I know that’s how the project, written by Charles Wood (THE KNACK and HELP!, also for Lester) originated. It’s also possible that it was designed to go against these expectations from the get go (is Sydney Pollack’s HAVANA the CASABLANCA knock-off I imagine it is? I’ve never seen it). It’s too bad then, that so much of CUBA comes off as a little blah, with no real wit or energy to most of it. There is good dialogue throughout, like during Connery’s big scene with Martin Balsam, but it’s all played on such a muted level that at times I barely noticed. Everybody also speaks only English, which is problematic. The movie certainly has a consistently dense, lived-in look and feel, with very good work by D.P. David Watkin, making viewing the whole thing strangely compelling even when the story isn’t.
The production filmed in Spain, an odd choice, and I’m the wrong person to say it doesn’t look like Cuba (Spain subbed for Cuba all right in DIE ANOTHER DAY, though) but throughout I couldn’t help but continually think that the setting didn’t feel particularly tropical in any real way, even with palm trees visible throughout. It apparently rained through the shoot and it almost feels like this weather affected the moods of everyone involved, making for a very cold, detached viewing experience (As Lester told Soderbergh, “…we spent so much energy trying to turn a cold and rainy mid-winter Spain into hot Havana that we forgot about everything else that you are supposed to be doing, like saying ‘What is this scene for?’”). This could almost be read as the point, to represent the lack of real passion any of the characters feel, including where the Connery-Adams romance goes. The big confrontation between the two is well-written and played enough that it almost gets by but instead of us aware of the disconnect between the characters, it’s as if the actors are the ones who aren’t connecting, neither one fully aware of what the big picture is supposed to be. It’s potentially a compelling moment--he can’t imagine how she could be anything other than a damsel in distress waiting to be swept away by him and her response to him indicates the exact opposite. Her motives are a surprise, but they’re not insidious and a potentially interesting comment on the standard past lovers-reunited plotline that never has as much effect as it should. The undermining of Connery’s screen authority is a fascinating idea that unfortunately comes off as half-baked. Ultimately that was my response to a number of the plot threads and the degree to which all theses characters are connected with each other made me imagine how Robert Altman would have handled this milieu. Back to Soderbergh, the anti-CASABLANCA nature approach to the whole thing may have been an influence on THE GOOD GERMAN, but even though CUBA has more on its mind than just being a commentary on the bogusness of old Hollywood clichés, it still left me wanting. There are moments where the imagery comes through—the montage of activity under the opening credits or just Connery and Adams walking through a Havana slum in the early morning light. But they’re just moments, leading to a climax featuring gunplay and explosions, none of it very memorable. Because of history, we can see where a lot of this is leading, so as a result there’s not very much drama to any of it. Right after the end credits rolled I took a look at the trailer on the DVD which makes it look more like an action film, featuring a few scenes which I realized I could barely remember. They were in the movie, but I had already begun to forget them.
Connery, who Lester claims never spoke to him again after this, has his moments, but it’s Brooke Adams who is one of the best things here, bringing an enormous amount of gravitas to her role as someone who no one seems to think of as anything more than an object (that said, she looks pretty great as well). She’s good enough that she’s just about the only successful element of the unfortunate casting of actors in key roles who are definitely not Cuban or Latino, including Sarandon, Balsam, McKee, Gotell and a pre-TIME BANDITS David Rappaport, all good actors, all people I enjoy seeing in things, but having them here makes it difficult to take much of it seriously. Fortunately, Hector Elizondo plays a police captain who assists Connery and kept I hoping their scenes would develop into an interesting back-and-forth, but it never quite happens (I kept imagining Elizondo as a Claude Rains/Capt. Renault equivalent, but the direction the movie takes never allows for this). Jack Weston does bring some needed liveliness to his comic-relief role and the sly Denholm Elliott shares the screen with Connery a decade before INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE.
There are far worse things I can imagine than a movie made in the 70s by a director I admire and featuring somebody like Sean Connery, even one that doesn’t really work. It is a reminder of the movies made then which featured adults, were Rated R and featured a lot of drinking done by its characters. The adult nature of it makes me think that there might be more to CUBA on repeated viewings than I may realize right now. Subtlety does tend to grow over time. Then again, I may still just think that it’s a missed opportunity. If I ever find myself in conversation with Steven Soderbergh, maybe I’ll bring it up to give him the chance to try and convince me.
Friday, May 8, 2009
Amidst all the hoopla of the STAR TREK prequel/reboot, it seems to have been forgotten that this summer marks the 20th anniversary of the release of STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER. Or, more likely, everyone just chose to forget about it. The directorial debut of the one and only William Shatner, the film had a decent opening then quickly got lost in the shuffle amidst poor word of mouth and the onslaught of other, bigger summer blockbusters. People were disappointed at the time and the reputation hasn’t gotten much better over the years. Buried within a mediocre premise, sub-par special effects and misguided execution is an attempt to tell a TREK story that is more about the characters than you would usually get from such a summer blockbuster. But it all seems wrongheaded as if there was never a firm consensus as to what this movie should be and that, combined with a novice director whose eyes were clearly bigger than his stomach, makes the whole thing feel like maybe they should have just started over. The film came out during a particularly good time in my life, so I have fond memories of going to see it and that combined with a few successful things it does contain makes me almost want to defend it. Almost.
Sometime after the events of THE VOYAGE HOME, the crew of the Starship Enterprise in on shore leave, as Scotty tries to repair the new Enterprise which has turned out to be filled with bugs. They are soon called back to duty when word comes in of a renegade Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) with a knack for psychically getting people to “share their pain” and get them to follow him who has taken several ambassadors hostage on Nimbus III, “The Planet of Galactic Peace.” Spock seems to know this Vulcan, but doesn’t reveal the entire story until it is too late and soon after they arrive, Sybok and his followers are able to commandeer the Enterprise with Kirk, Spock and McCoy as their captives. Sybok claims that he has found the fabled “Sha Ka Ree” (Eden, as we would know it) and, with the Klingons in hot pursuit, is intent on penetrating the barrier at the center of the galaxy to find it.
Well, that wasn’t so hard. Considering how little sense the story ultimately makes I thought that was going to be more diffucult. There’s so much wrong with STAR TREK V, either for a fan or just a normal moviegoer, that to start listing them all almost feels like it’s teasing a defenseless child. Conceived from an idea that Shatner came up with himself which was probably coming from a very personal place, the basic story is such a hodgepodge of ideas and plot threads from old episodes that you begin to wonder just how much attention he ever paid to the scripts he was acting in. His passion for wanting to make this film comes through in every shot, but that turns out to be part of the problem, with everything about it coming off as reminiscent of his legendary ego. When Leonard Nimoy directed his first film with THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK he just shot the thing, focusing on the actors and what he thought was best to tell the story. Shatner’s approach is to make EVERY. SINGLE. SHOT. AN. AMAZING. SHOT. As a result, there’s very little regard for how each of these shots are supposed to flow into each other and frankly there are times when it just doesn’t work on a basic filmmaking level. He also seems to have gotten way too attached to his Steadicam while shooting the film. All these years later, certain things stick out to me, like that goofy “Go climb a rock” shirt that Kirk wears and is just way too distracting. What is up with those shots of the Kirk & Co’s feet comically stumbling down the mountain on Sha Ka Ree as the glorious score plays? Didn’t occur to anyone that it would play odd in how the two alien planets seen in the film are both deserts? And would somebody please tell me why Sybok seems to have gotten a haircut and full wardrobe change before heading down to Sha Ka Ree? And, for the last time, why are they putting seatbelts in theaters this summer? Little bits and pieces are enjoyably reminiscent of the old show, like the beehive hairdo on Shatner’s daughter Melanie playing a Yeoman on the bridge, but it’s never enough and somehow the film manages to have a relatively impressive feel of scope and still feel cheaply made at the same time.
The concept of a renegade Vulcan is a good one, but the ret-con nature of his relationship to Spock is too gimmicky to ever really work and though the basic notion of these characters having to face truths about themselves has potential the whole thing is hurt by an uncertain tone. It’s particularly problematic in how this ultra-serious concept is forced into playing like an enjoyable romp with lots of laughs, of course because the more comical THE VOYAGE HOME was such a big hit. There’s nothing wrong with a lighthearted STAR TREK entry, but the ideas it wants to explore are so weighty that most of the attempts at jokes don’t really fit. Not to mention that most of them aren’t funny anyway, whether they’re character-based or the broader stuff like Scotty knocking himself out or Uhura’s legendary (ahem) fan dance. I’m also just going to avoid discussing the campfire scene entirely, I just don’t have the heart right now. The chief culprit in this aspect is probably screenwriter David Loughery who is hampered with a storyline that takes way to long to get going, is unclear on too many of the specifics (why does Sybok getting the Enterprise crew to “share” their pain cause them to join him? Is this power a form of the Vulcan mind meld? How do Sybok and what seems like a dozen followers take over the Enterprise, even one with a “skeleton crew”? The center of the galaxy is only six hours away? I could go on and I’m sure I’m forgetting something) and too much of the dialogue is flat-out bad (“What does God need with a Starship?” is pretty great, though). Even if the fact that the Enterprise being in such bad shape affects the plot of the movie in numerous ways (small crew, no transporter, running gag for Scotty) it still feels like a contrivance without which there would be no movie, making Sybok’s plan seem even more flimsy.
The special effects, not done by ILM this time around, are as bad as legend has it, which damages the film about as much as any effects extravaganza has ever been damaged by such things. This is particularly true in the climax when we finally meet “God” and a number of elaborate plans Shatner had for his finale never came to fruition due to planning and budgeting beyond the production’s means. In that sense, it was his bad luck that he happened to be making his film just a few years before CGI changed everything. Supposedly he tried to get Paramount to let him place new digital effects in the film a few years ago when the DVD was happening, but they declined to put up the cash. It was probably for the best since no matter what was achieved, a version of this film with better effects would still be a bad film. There are simply too many other problems in here that could ever be fully dealt with. Some effective touches do turn up throughout like a few shots here that do offer the right kind of Scope, the scene depicting DeForest Kelley’s own secret pain, not the sort of thing you ever expect to see in a summer action movie, is undeniably effective and the score by Jerry Goldsmith lends the film most of the epic feel it winds up possessing, bringing a huge amount of clarity to the murky story. The recurring music of Sybok using his power over people (found in “Free Minds” on the soundtrack album) is particularly haunting to me and the music used to represent Kirk’s free-climb of El Capitan (“The Mountain”) is probably more beautiful than the film deserves.
As an actor, Shatner proves how much he needs a director to sit on him at times with even his small bits of business seeming too big. Laurence Luckinbill as Sybok certainly has presence but he also at times seems like he needed a director to at times tone down what he was doing. Except for Kelley’s aforementioned scene, the regulars don’t get to do very much worth mentioning. Nimoy doesn’t seem to have any particular ideas on how to approach Spock this time out and his voice seems to have really begun to change around this time with some notable hoarseness evident on occasion, as if he had been smoking way too many cigarettes. David Warner, who went on to several other appearances in the TREK universe, mostly stands around the entire time as the Federation representative St. John Talbot on Nimbus III but he still manages to use his voice to make the few lines he has count (I always liked the way he says “worthless lump of rock”). Cynthia Gouw is extremely beautiful as Romulan Ambassador Caithlin Dar, but most of her role seems to have been cut (she made only a few other acting appearances before moving on to another career) and much of her dialogue is apparently dubbed—her voice is clearly different during the hostage tape the crew watches from when her character is seen in the flesh. Todd Bryant and Spice Williams as the Klingons Klaa and Vixis are easily the most enjoyable people to watch in the movie, fully into their roles and it’s during these sections when Shatner’s film regains some of the old Nicholas Meyer funkiness.
Ultimately I don’t have much animosity towards STAR TREK V—for me, there are too many fond memories I associate with this period in my life when it was released and the Goldsmith score in particular seems to represent some sort of swan song to my filmgoing memories of adolescence. I also will freely state that I don’t think this is in any way the worst TREK film of all time—seeing the original characters once again certainly helps and the film series had not yet been put in the stranglehold of the Rick Berman era and which led to an extremely bland feel which ran through multiple films and hours of television. All that technobabble dialogue substituting for actual drama in particular made them almost intolerably dull by a certain point. I’ve never been able to get through the entirety of INSURRECTION without zoning out around the 70-minute mark and last week I tried watching NEMESIS, the final film with the NEXT GENERATION crew, only to find it so unforgivably plodding that I couldn’t get through the first hour. That doesn’t happen for me with THE FINAL FRONTIER which can never quite be called good but I still freely watch it even at its most shabbiness. It may be a misfire in many ways, but it at least was well-intentioned. Maybe I’m being too easy on it, but that’s what sentimental attachment can do to you. In that sense, life really is a dream.