Friday, September 2, 2016

Blog Update for September

Well you can see how well I did at updating this blog for August. The planning work for the new story took a lot more time than I anticipated. But I really feel it was necessary. I'm working on a story set in an original fantasy world - and I needed to have some of the key aspects of the world worked out and written down before I could proceed. I also did a lot of extensive character work before diving in. I'm hoping this gives some additional depth to the characters allowing them to breathe a little better on the page. But this is a movie blog, not a place where I babble about my writing. For more of that kind of reading check out my old Storytelling in all its forms blog.

I do hope to get some material up here in September, but it will likely be sparse and low key. Hope you all had a great summer!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Blog Update for August

So this month may be a little sparse with content. I'm starting in on some new fiction and I'm going to take the month (and maybe a little more) to work on it. This time I'm giving myself plenty of time for pre-planning characters and plot so I don't run into as many issues as I did during last November's NaNoWriMo adventure. I still hope to get some items posted on here, but they will probably be short items and more musings or nostalgia nuggets. I will also post some blogs about the writing process on my other blog Storytelling in All its Forms if you are interested.

Not sure if I'll have another themed month this year, but Star Trek July was a lot of fun. I hope to have a First Impression for Star Trek Beyond up in August for you, and maybe some shorter reviews as well.

Anyway wish me luck on my new writing venture!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Star Trek into Darkness (2013)

Introduction:

So the 2009 version of Star Trek did something I didn’t think was really possible. It got mainstream viewers back into the theaters to watch a Star Trek film. Was it the magic combo of J.J. Abrams and lens flares, or was there some techno-babble validation that Spock could rattle off for us? In any case the success of the film was enough to convince Paramount to get a sequel in the works. I for one was looking forward to seeing where the crew trekked next. But was Into Darkness the destination I had in mind?

Summary:

Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) finds himself in a bit of trouble when he ignores the Prime Directive during a mission, and exposes a pre-space faring culture to the sight of the Enterprise rising from the ocean. Kirk faces disciplinary action, but not before the Federation’s base in London is destroyed. Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) believes that a terrorist named Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) was involved. After Starfleet headquarters are attacked in San Francisco, Marcus sends Kirk and the Enterprise on a covert mission to attack Harrison who is hiding in Klingon space.

Kirk is all for the mission, but Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Scotty (Simon Pegg) are disturbed by it. Scotty even resigns his post, and Dr. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) picks up point on the new photon torpedoes that the Admiral has given them. As the mission proceeds, Kirk makes a fateful decision that will put him at odds with Marcus and face to face with an enemy who will spell doom to a member of the crew. Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, John Cho, Anton Yelchin and Bruce Greenwood join in this Star Trek into Darkness.

Good Points:
  • Amazing visuals and sound design in this film
  • Excellent acting by just about everyone in the cast
  • Has great pacing and tells a compelling story

Bad Points:
  • Aims for a more dower atmosphere
  • Some of the familiar plot beats are going to be too distracting for some viewers
  • Those looking for less action than the 2009 film are going to be disappointed.

Overall:

This movie gets a bad rap, but it is solidly entertaining and is actually a better made film than its predecessor. Cumberbatch brings a lot of gravitas to his role and makes for an excellent antagonist to our favorite crew. Meanwhile the plot delves into a moral dilemma that is relevant in traditional Star Trek fashion. While I was hoping for a film more about space exploration, what we got instead was a military thriller set in the Star Trek universe. It works well and is worth checking out, if you can get past some of the familiar surface plot and character points.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 3
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total: 4

In Depth Review

You can't keep a good starship down.
I really enjoyed the 2009 version of Star Trek. I thought Abrams took a lot of the elements I love about the franchise and modernized them. He also brought a sense of fun and excitement to the films, something I feel had been sorely lacking in the last few installments of the series. That said, I was looking forward to seeing the new version of the crew journey to those strange new worlds and meet unique aliens and have adventures that thrilled and inspired. Well, Into Darkness has a very different agenda, and I have to say that I was a little disappointed when I figured out where this movie was headed.

I mentioned in my review of Nemesis that I think Paramount is really fixated on The Wrath of Khan, and that they feel that film is the template that all other Star Trek films must follow. I remember the writers saying early in preproduction for this film that they were going to focus on space exploration and not include a central villain in the story. They would instead have the conflict build from the unknown. That sounded great to me!

Has the Enterprise met her shadow self?
But at some point, gears were shifted and a new script was crafted. If this was a second movie in a “new” franchise then it needed to mimic the second movie the classic series. It needed to be Wrath of Khan. And how excited were the studio execs when they realized they could mimic the older film and get away with it because hell, this is a new continuity. So the ship was on course for Wrath of Khan with bigger special effects and lots more action.

The thing is Abrams and his writing crew took the story of Khan (and most importantly Space Seed the classic episode that introduced us to Khan) and used it as a starting point. Instead of making this a tale of one man’s revenge against Kirk, they turned it into a military thriller in which the crew of the Enterprise finds themselves trapped between a terrorist and a ruthless government. Into Darkness does what the 2009 film didn’t do: present us with current social problem in the lens of science fiction adventure.

This becomes the major stumbling block for a lot of people. If you can’t get past the concept of Into Darkness reimagining the story of Khan and his conflict with the Federation, then you just aren’t going to enjoy this movie. All the beats are there, with a few deviations. You know how the film is going to end, and even be able to predict some of the dialogue.

"No, I'm not Loki, I'm Khan. Not even the same actor...
are you even paying attention?"
Beyond that Benedict Cumberbatch is in no way Ricardo Montalban. Now some folks will say that is a good thing. But if Montalban’s performance as Khan in the original series is seared into your mind you may have disconnect issues seeing Cumberbatch in the same role (even if they spend the first portion of the movie calling him Harrison).

But leave aside those elements and focus on the film as part of the new direction of the franchise. Does Into Darkness continue the growth of the characters, the world of Star Trek established in the 2009 timeline, and provide an action packed adventure. I think it does. In fact, I hear people calling this one loud dumb movie, and I’m not sure where they are coming from. Did they see the same film I did?

Admiral Marcus' model collection is the envy of the
Federation.
From a visual standpoint, Into Darkness continues the look and feel that Abrams brought to the series. There are some new away team outfits as well as new ships like the Vengeance dreadnaught that appears in the second half of the film. Like the previous film there are neat touches like the Admiral uniforms that echo the admiral uniform Kirk wears in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Abrams does stick to his lens flares, so if those annoy you, well you aren’t going to get away from them here. But I did find this film to be edited a little smoother, and actually have a lot less shaky cam going on it. In fact most of the action scenes and big special effects moments are top notch, another high point for the series.

The subdued colors are seen when the crew is not
on the Enterprise.
Fitting the name, the visuals in this film shy away from the popping color of the previous film. Instead a lot of the film occurs in the dark or with the primary colors being white, black, grey and steel. This fits the films approach to the political spectrums in the film. Kirk is presented facts that he feels are concrete. Black is black. White is white. But once he meets Khan, he realizes that none of that may be true, and that Admiral Marcus may be lying to him for reasons that are very much grey.

Much of the sound effect work continues to be top notch. Once again Ben Burtt that mastermind behind the amazing sound effects of Star Wars returns to supervise the sound design. We get a mix of the old and new and it works wonders in supporting the visuals of the film.

Michael Giacchino is back as the composer. His work for the 2009 Star Trek was really impressive. He continues his winning streak with Into Darkness. He brings back his bold and heroic theme for the Enterprise and Kirk. This time he uses many variations to keep things interesting. He also brings back Spock’s theme a couple of times, but not quite as fleshed out as we got in the 2009 film.

"What are you looking at, smooth head?"
Where Giacchino really shines are with this three antagonist themes. First up is the brash and aggressive music for the Klingons. While not quite as distinctive as Goldsmith’s Klingon theme from The Motion Picture, we get a theme that uses bold choral chanting – in the Klingon language! Next up is the theme for the Vengence. This theme is a little sad, but one that can turn aggressive very easily. We hear it quite a few times in the film, often mixing and playing with Khan’s theme – stressing the relationship between Khan and Marcus.

Khan does get a theme, one that is calculating, building slowly to greater and greater intensity. Giacchino uses it to great effect in the score, again playing it subtly when Khan is at work. One of my favorite moments in the film and in the score is when Kirk and Khan attempt to board the Vengence by propelling themselves bodily through space. Giacchino plays Kirk’s theme in counterpoint to Khan’s creating one hell of a musical ride that builds and builds in excitement. Giacchino is one of my favorite film composers working today and his work in the Star Trek franchise is consistently great.

Scotty pleads his case to Kirk.
The cast continues the fine job they started in 2009. Pine as Kirk gives us a very assured performance, with some small Shatner touches here and there. Quinto really understands Spock and his interplay with Kirk and Uhura makes for some interesting moments in the film. He also gets to shine a bit at the end when he faces down Khan in San Francisco. Karl Uban is just plain awesome as Bones. He gets a couple of key scenes, but I wish he had a bit more screen time. The same goes for Saldana as Uhura, Cho as Sulu and Yelchin as Checkov. While each character gets to contribute to the plot in some way, they really seem to be background to the primary conflict between Kirk, Marcus and Khan. Only Pegg as Scotty gets a bit more meat in his role. He is the voice of reason against Marcus’ mission and plays an interesting counterpoint to Kirk early in the film.

Carol pleads her case to the Admiral.
For the new roles in Into Darkness we have some key performances. Alice Eve as Carol Marcus is good in the underwritten role. Sadly she feels like she was added to have another girl in the movie who ends up standing around in her underwear at one point. Ouch did that moment feel forced (and Abrams has pretty much admitted it was). Peter Weller makes for fine commanding officer. His fear and distrust come through in spades, and he does a good job playing against Kirk and Khan. Another key role is filled by Bruce Greenwood reprising his role as Admiral Pike. He is a surrogate father figure to Kirk, and his actions act as a catalyst for the main crux of the film. Greenwood’s performance really helps these two films, especially his relationship to Kirk.

Khan doesn't plead to anyone.
Finally there is Cumberbatch as Khan. I think he does an excellent job in the role. He is calculating, menacing and passionate. All these elements rolled into one very dangerous individual who is driven to accomplish his goals. Cumberbatch plays the part to the hilt, and makes one of the best antagonists in the series. It is a different take on the same character, but still feels true to the character. It took me a couple viewings to separate his performance from the one in Wrath of Khan, but the movie works as well as it does because Cumberbatch is fearsome and yet we understand why he is doing what he is doing.

"The needs of the many... oh wait, wrong movie."
Or is it?
For the most part the script to Into Darkness works well enough. It delivers plenty of action scenes. It delves into the political thriller element with skill and presents us with an interesting core conceit. How far should a society go to fight fear and terror? Is it right to put innocents in peril or attack perceived enemies in territories under the rule of others? Do we let fear turn us into what we fear most? By the end of the film Kirk and the crew deliver the message that we shouldn’t fall into that trap. Admiral Marcus could take the higher ground, but instead gives into his fear. He brings Khan back, and in so doing creates a new enemy that turns out to be his undoing. In an effort to protect people from a perceived threat, Marcus causes the injury and deaths of many in San Francisco at the end of the film.

On its own, I think this core concept is a great one. Unfortunately the writers are locked into the Wrath of Khan template. And so they are forced to kill off a key cast member, because Wrath of Khan did it. Some people defend this as a way of reinforcing the mirror concept of the two timelines, and Spock Prime’s key scene suggests such a thing. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t change the fact that Kirk’s “death” in this film feels unearned and resolved way too quickly.

Let the rage of a million Trek fans consume you!
When Spock dies in Wrath of Khan it had impact because of the years we spent with him in the television series, books as well as The Motion Picture. Leonard Nimoy was the embodiment of that character and his death had impact. On top of that bringing him back was the plot of an entire film The Search for Spock. That movie made the price for brining back a friend very high indeed. It felt earned in both cases.

Sadly Into Darkness feels like it is just mimicking those films because they were beloved. Kirk’s death feels flat because we haven’t been with Pine’s performance over years and several adventures. And his return just seems too convenient and pat. It isn’t a deal breaker for me, but it does harm the ending the film when it wants to deliver its biggest punch, it falls flat.

One of the more creative and thrilling scenes in
the whole franchise.
That said, I really enjoy Star Trek into Darkness. I think it delivers a story that does have impact and power (until those final sequences). I think Abrams’ film is better constructed and executed over all. And while it wasn’t quite the space adventure film I was hoping for, it makes for a film that sits along well with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country in its take on political thrillers.

"Wait, you're a guardian of the what?"
"Wait, you're a Rider of what?"
The Enterprise prepares for some Vulcanology.


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Friday, July 29, 2016

Movie Music Musing: Trekking with Giacchino

When J.J. Abrams was engaged on to help reboot Star Trek in 2009, he brought his composer of choice Michael Giacchino. I was thrilled by this because I think Giacchino is one of best film composers working today. His energy and enthusiasm come right through in his music. His is great at hitting the emotional beats of a story and keeping things moving with exciting action music that utilizes themes and doesn’t rely on the modern technique of making loud audio wallpaper.

Giacchino is also great at adapting existing themes into new and interesting variations. He did this with his scores to Speed Racer and Land of the Lost, so I knew he would be certain to take Alexander Courage’s classic Star Trek theme and give us something grand.

With the release of Star Trek Beyond Giacchino has joined the ranks of Jerry Goldsmith as being the only composer to score three consecutive Star Trek films. What is even more impressive is that his music for all three films has been consistently great. He’s created memorable themes, given us interesting and effective variations of those themes and not just supported the movies, but given them their own unique identity with music. I hope Giacchino stays on board as the composer for this series of films, but if he moves on, we have three excellent scores to enjoy.

So without further ado here are some of my favorite tracks from the three films.

Giacchino’s main Star Trek theme gets one of its best moments to shine in this track from the 2009 film. It is played when Kirk and Bones get their first glimpse of the Enterprise orbiting Earth. The track is called Enterprising Young Men showing Giacchino’s penchant for punny track titles.



For the film Star Trek into Darkness Giacchino gave us three new themes to enjoy. But one of the best is his character theme for Harrison/Khan. In the film we get to hear it in many different versions, but Giacchino got a chance to record a concert suite version of the theme, and here it is. I love how Ode To Harrison starts off quiet and sinister, but builds in a meticulous way until it becomes this powerful force of nature. Really fits the character.



When Star Trek Beyond rolled around Giacchino got a chance to write a lovely reflective theme for the crew during their time on the starbase Yorktown. This theme is quite different from what we’ve heard in the previous movies, but Giacchino makes sure it fits in his musical version of the Star Trek universe. The track Night on the Yorktown is already getting buzz for being a contender for track of the year in film score fan circles.



Later in 2016 Giacchino will score the Marvel film Doctor Strange so I’m looking forward to hearing what he comes up with for that (and if it will have a little nod to Harrison’s theme). But I’m glad he got a chance to score Star Trek Beyond and continue to build the audio world of this film franchise and take it boldly into an undiscovered country.


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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Hush (2016)

Introduction:

Don’t confuse this movie with Hush that came out in 1998 with Gwyneth Paltrow. This movie comes for the director of Oculus and the disturbingly dark Absentia. It moves away from the supernatural character based horror of his previous films. Instead we get a thriller that can sit along proudly with other recent takes on the genre like Grand Piano and Passion. You may want to get the edge of your seat ready for some use.

Summary:
Maddie (Kate Siegel) is an author working on her latest novel. She figured the best place to do this is in her isolated cabin, where her only companion is her cat. Her nearest neighbors are Sarah (Samantha Sloyan) and John (Michael Trucco). Sarah has become good friends with Maddie’s and the two spend time talking about her work.

Well Sarah is also practicing her sign language, because Maddie is deaf and unable to speak. This makes things especially problematic when a masked stranger (John Gallagher Jr.) arrives in the night and decides to add Maddie to his escalating kill count. But has this over-confident killer taken on more than he bargained for, or will Maddie’s silent death be the climax of this tale.

Good Points:
  • Kate Siegel gives an excellent performance in tough role.
  • Director Flanagan knows just how to ratchet up the tension
  • Excellent use of a single location to drive the isolation fear


Bad Points:
  • Anyone looking for a movie with lots of gory kills is going to be disappointed.
  • Fans of supernatural horror will be disappointed – no monsters here
  • I can see a few people finding this boring.


Overall:

While I wasn’t the biggest fan of Oculus I really did like this movie. Sigel does a great job in the role. You really like her and fear for her. Gallagher is menacing, and the script does a good job keeping him creepy but smart. Yes, the movie is a reimaging of Wait Until Dark, but I think this film does a fine job building suspense and thrills in equal measure. Well worth seeking out if you are looking for a good thriller.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 3
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.


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Friday, July 22, 2016

Nostalgia Nugget: Star Trek was Always Around - Part 2

If you didn't get a chance to read part 1, check it out first to read my thoughts and memories about Star Trek the original series.

Q's Galactic Nets. Keeps freshness in and keeps
Picard out!
Star Trek was always around.

But I have to admit in 1987 I was way more into Star Wars. It was the ten year anniversary of my favorite space adventure series, and I was really getting back into it at that time. I was listening to the scores on cassette tape and reading my Role Playing Game book, and even writing my own fan fiction. But that is when I heard about a new Star Trek series coming to television

At this time I had a friend who insisted everyone call him Spock, even our teachers. Seriously. I went to school with "Spock" for two years of junior high, and he ended up going to a different high school. I ran into him a couple years later during summer school, and greeted him as "Spock". Wow, he looked like I had slapped him. The guy had gone all goth and Depeche Mode in the past couple years. Star Trek was far behind him. He may have insisted I call him by his true name, but I still thought of (and think of) him as "Spock".

Spot tried to watch Encounter at Farpoint.
I'm not sure what happened to "Spock" in those two years, but I can tell you what happened when I watched the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was actually a pretty big event in my house. We got the VCR ready to tape the episode, which was a full two hour (two episode) event. I don't remember if my grandmother was still living with us at that point (I don't think so), but we were still fans because of the films in the 1980s.

So Encounter at Farpoint starts, and we are enjoying the new characters, the new ship, the new look to everything, but also kind of puzzled at how much different everything looks and feels. Then about one hour into the episode one by one my family starts getting distracted and vanishing from the sofa. I was the only one left to see the ending. To this day, I don't know if the rest of my family has seen the whole episode.

Now, I do remember revisiting the taped version (commercials and all) a few times over the years and having the same issue. I thought maybe I just wasn't giving it a chance. But it took its damn time doing anything, and that the story just wasn't terribly interesting. I thought Q was pretty cool and funny, but the rest of the episode just felt kind of flat. I remember giving the next couple episodes a chance. But when you've got the one two punch of The Naked Now and Code of Honor, well let's just say, this isn't The Next Generation at its best. In fact Code of Honor is often listed as one of the worst episodes in the entire Star Trek franchise. You know right under Spock's Brain.

Wow, this picture is filled to bursting with nerdy
goodness!
So I went back to Star Wars and kind of forgot all about The Next Generation for a while. I would catch episodes here and there. I specifically remember seeing Elementary Dear Data and Sarek which made a big impression on me. At some point I remember there being a big hullaballoo about Spock returning to Star Trek. I remember my family once again sitting down to watch both parts of Unification and wondering how it would all tie into Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. But time went by and I never really got into the series.

I still made a point of seeing The Next Generation films in theaters. But even though I found First Contact entertaining (Farmer Hoggit in SPACE!) I just didn't feel a connection to this crew. I ended up giving Insurrection and Nemesis a pass during the theatrical run, and saw them on home video.

Star Trek had a collectable card game too, but I
didn't care. TEAM DEATH STAR!
By this time we are in the 1990s, and I was still a Star Wars fan. But an odd thing happened in that decade. With Deep Space Nine and Voyager on the air, there was a saturation point to Star Trek that Star Wars just didn't enjoy. I think a lot of Star Wars fans got a little bitter about the whole thing and this strange rivalry started. Suddenly, you couldn't like both series, you had to pick one. I was on team Star Wars for sure, especially when the Timothy Zahn books and the collectable card games came out. With the Star Wars renaissance occurring I declared Star Trek too boring and cerebral to have fun. I ended up avoiding all things Trek (aside from the original series movies which already had the nostalgia glow on them).

Even Mr. Triquarter is begging him to stop.
Looking back on the whole thing it just seems silly. Kind of reminds me of the whole DC vs. Marvel debate going on these days. Trek vs. Wars - there was no winner. Because Star Trek ended up with Insurrection and Generations, and Star Wars got the prequels. We all ended up losing.

Still, when Enterprise was announced in 2001, I was willing to give it a shot. I liked the idea of tackling that period of history in the Trek universe. I also thought that Scott Bakula would make a great captain. It looked like there was going to be a good mix of adventure and action, so I was looking forward to it. So my wife and I sat down to watch the first episode Broken Bow and wow was it underwhelming. I thought it was going to be more about the prequel elements of the concept, but that didn't really seem to be the point. Instead it we were given some bland storytelling with a new coat of paint. And don't get me started on that odd decontamination massage scene - wow was that embarrassing.

"So we want you to take this survey after you watch
Broken Bow and tell us what you think."
We gave Enterprise about two more episodes, and they were mostly harmless, but not really engaging. Or at least not what we were expecting from something that was supposed to be leading up to The Original Series. It seemed way too much like The Next Generation, and missing a lot of the fun and adventure of the 60s series. The the trailer for the next episode featured the hilarious "pregnant man!" gag, and we just said "no thanks" and went back to watching anime.

I eventually changed my tune about The Next Generation. I knew too many folks whose opinions I respect tell me about some of the really great episodes of that series. Hell, even one of my video store friends (who was also a huge Star Wars fan) got into Deep Space Nine when the Dominion war heated up. He kept trying to convince me to give it a chance. I called him a traitor to the cause and tried to Force choke him - but yeah that just never works out for me.

A fan's vision of Star Trek anime!
Eventually The Next Generation appeared on Netflix download. I decided to give it a chance, and try watching a few of the episodes that people kept telling me were so good like Inner Light and Darmok and of course The Best of Both Worlds. That convinced me. Off and on over three years I watched all seven seasons of The Next Generation. It was quite a ride and I had a good time, getting to know and appreciate this crew and some of their stories and situations. It made The Next Generation films have a greater impact for me, and made me appreciate the Star Trek legacy even more. In the last couple years I've delved into Deep Space Nine and have been enjoying that series. Might be time to give Enterprise another chance too.

I really liked the series finale. Thought it was better than
most of the TNG feature films actually.
That said, Star Trek has always been around. There have been good stories and characters and bad stories and characters.  But I kind of like the comfort at having that galaxy out there. It is a vision of the future that is unique in some ways and so influential in others. With a new television series coming soon, I'm actually looking forward to it. I just hope that the first few episodes are more engaging then Encounter at Farpoint or Broken Bow.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

And Then This Happened... Star Trek

When it comes to Star Trek  the original series, there are plenty of goofy moments to pick from. But that is part of what makes watching the series so much fun. There are great stories, great characters and some really interesting and thought provoking plots. But there are just as many hilarious and over the top moments, not to mention silly looking costumes and giggle inducing dialogue. And let's not just pick on the original series here. Pick any episode from season one or two of The Next Generation and you can have some goofy fun as well. But today, you get to caption this scene from the episode Is There in Truth no Beauty?

And then this happened...