ReelReviews #114: Star Trek: Discovery, Ep. 1: “The Vulcan Hello”

Standard

SEPTEMBER 24, 2017: Discovering Discovery

 

Star Trek Discovery just might be the longest-delayed pilot episode in TV history, so it was with great relief that the show FINALLY aired its premiere on CBS Sunday evening – but not before one final delay that pushed the episode’s start time to 7:48 p.m. CST. There’s been a great deal of behind-the-scenes problems with Discovery, and oodles of merciless Discovery bashing on the internet. Anyone who has followed my posts in recent months knows that I have been firmly in the “very pessimistic about Discovery” camp. So, now that we can actually watch the show instead of just speculate on what it will be like, I tried my darnedest to keep an open mind and hope for the best. Perhaps the end result would prove me wrong and turn out to an hour of fantastic television.  One day later, the results are in.  The good news? I didn’t hate Discovery. The bad news? I didn’t like it, either.

 

The biggest problem here is that CBS pretty much set themselves up for failure. If you study the history of Star Trek, most Star Trek TV series have had rocky starts (even the original series with its now legendary first season), but CBS insisted that only the first episode of Discovery would be aired on actual television. All future episodes– including the second episode that immediately picks up where the first one left off— would be locked behind a pay wall and available exclusively online through their paid streaming service, CBS All Access. To convince both seasoned Star Trek fans and newcomers to Star Trek to sign up for All Access, CBS really needed to have their first episode knock it out of the park and leave the audience thrilled, at the edge of their seat, begging to know what will happen next. Did Discovery accomplish this? In one word: No.

 

To be fair, having a mind-blowing pilot episode is an extremely difficult task, so I can’t blast them for failing to pull that off.  Likewise, no matter how doubtful I was of Discovery, and did not care for the setting, characters, and direction the show planned to go in (and I especially hated the “Ghostbusters reboot style” marketing where Discovery and its defenders accused naysayers of the show of being motivated by bigotry), there is little doubt there were many positives about the show.  The opening theme music is much more dignified and appropriate for a Star Trek series than Star Trek: Enterprise’s “Faith of the Heart” theme was in 2001, and the credit sequence itself (showing interactive sketches of things from Star Trek like Tricorders, phasers, etc.) was a clever idea, even if it seemed more appropriate for a documentary about Star Trek props.  The visuals: and especially, the cinematography, special effects, and art direction lived up the hype and were the best I’ve ever seen for Star Trek on the small screen, and were indeed very “cinematic” in scope.  Obviously, a lot of time and attention was paid to getting the “look” of this show right.

 

The biggest issues I had with the first episode was that the episode utterly failed to accomplish some major things it needed to do from the start.  The marketing and trailers for Discovery made the show look ultra-dreary and serious, which is totally against the upbeat spirit of optimism found in the most beloved Star Trek shows: the original series and the Next Generation. I was hoping the pilot would prove me wrong and demonstrate that Discovery could be fun and adventurous, too. It did not.  Likewise, Discovery has been under fire nonstop for looking nothing like a “prequel” set “10 years before Kirk” in the original Star Trek timeline. Discovery needed to alleviate those concerns in the pilot and demonstrate that it legitimately fits into the existing Star Trek timeline and believable takes place “10 years before Kirk”. Not only did it fail to do that, its look and feel was so inconsistent with past Star Trek series, it felt like a total reboot.  Star Trek: The Next Generation began the tradition of having an existing Star Trek actor reprise their role in the new show (namely, DeForest Kelly showed up as an elderly McCoy in the 1987 TNG pilot) and every Star Trek series and movie that involved “passing the torch” to a totally new vision/setting for Star Trek has followed suit. This is such a major hallmark of Star Trek that even JJ Abrams’ 2009 “reboot” brought back Leonard Nimoy as the classic Spock, in order to have the movie tie-in with existing Star Trek.  Discovery’s failure to do so is very disappointing, and makes the new show awkwardly stick out like a sore thumb in the Star Trek universe.

 

 

Stylistically, Discovery was much more similar to the JJ Abrams movies than the “prime timeline” it claims to be set in.  Like the JJ verse, Discovery relied on lots of lens flares, sleek tech, frantic non-stop action, shouting, and shoot ‘em up action sequences.  The one major difference is that the Kelvin universe movies at least kept the fun, humorous, and lighthearted style of the prime timeline Star Trek (even “Star Trek Into Darkness” was actually very “dark”), whereas Discovery is extremely dour and somber, making the experience more like watching Blade Runner or Alien.

 

Tonally, the only existing Star Trek that Discovery resembled was Star Trek: The Motion Picture. This was an odd choice, since the movie was roundly criticized in 1979 for not “getting” the point of Star Trek, and Discovery is (quite fairly) getting the same criticisms.  Like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Discovery relies on wowing the viewer with breathtaking visual effect sequences (there’s even a “spacewalk” scene for the Michael Burnham character that is reminiscent of TMP), and some “big” scary crisis in space to drive the events forward– but it lacks any kind of warmth, personality, playfulness, or sense of wonder and joy.  Looking at it objectively, this tone is likely the reason “The Vulcan Hello” is probably my least favorite Star Trek pilot (falling behind my previous “least favorite”, Emissary), as all the previous pilots seemed to have some compelling ideas and fun characters that Discovery simply lacked.

 

One thing that surprised me going into “The Vulcan Hello” is that it’s really the first Star Trek pilot since the original series that’s not really a legitimate “pilot” episode.   In other words, all the other pilots from Next Generation to Enterprise made a point of introducing the characters and setting up the story that the rest of the series would be about. They were also all two-hour premiere “mini movies” on the small screen.  “The Vulcan Hello” harkens back to the original 1960s Star Trek where the “pilot” may have been the first episode produced, but it’s just a random story that plucks the viewer right into the middle of an established setting and doesn’t really let you get to know the characters. I’m actually OK with Star Trek trying this format again (after all, Roddenberry originally wanted the Enterprise to be a ship with “some history” and to introduce a seasoned crew as opposed the later shows all taking place on the crew’s maiden voyage), so I’m fine with Discovery starting us off with Michael Burnham having already served on that ship for seven years, and pushing the viewer right into a critical mission they’ve having.  That being said, what I question about this episode was the execution of that idea.  Once the decision was made that the pilot would be the lone “free” episode on regular TV and would have to “sell” the viewer on signing up for the rest of the show, there should have been enough time devoted to the first episode of giving us a compelling story and ending with a “tease” of the USS Discovery and its regular crew (perhaps the final scene showing them shaking hands with Jason Isaac’s Captain Lorca or something).  It seems bizarre to me that a show called “Star Trek Discovery” gave us a pilot episode that didn’t feature one second of footage showing the USS Discovery.

 

Rather, Star Trek Discovery can be summed up as about 40 minutes of frantic action revolving around a crisis with “Predator-style” Klingons that act like ISIS members.  The Klingons in “The Vulcan Hello” seemed to be depicted as purely evil nasty monsters barking angry orders about some crazy ideology, which didn’t fit with even the most negative portrayals of Klingons in past Star Trek series (at worst, past Klingon villains were more along the lines of arrogant, tough bullies who delighted in putting down the federation). To me, the pilot episode was very much at odds with Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future where vastly different cultures try to find common ground, no matter how difficult.  It also seemed to have a very ugly and cynical look at the future that was never present in any incarnation of Star Trek, even “dark” series like DS9.  If there’s one thing it did manage to “sell” me on, it’s that Sonequa Martin-Green did an excellent job as Michael Burnham (I had my doubts about the show revolving around her character before I saw the episode), and she is compelling character in her own right – though she deserves better than a shoehorned in back-story about being raised by Vulcans and having a season-long arc that apparently involves fighting ISIS-like “Klingons”.

 

Although I did not care for the episode, I freely admit that an entire television show cannot be judged by a single episode, so I intend to tune into the next few episodes, and I hope the show improves. In the meantime, however, Star Trek Discovery’s biggest obstacle to succeeding at this time seems to be itself.  Discovery simply hasn’t earned its place as a “legitimate” Star Trek show and it can’t afford two seasons to “find its footing” like past Star Trek shows have done.  In the meantime, the Orville has sprung up to capture the attention and respect of Star Trek fans, and it’s doing something that would have seemed impossible two years ago – it seems to be working as a valid substitute for having Star Trek on television.

 

 

** out of ****

Advertisements

ReelThoughts: What if Man of Steel was made in 1978?

Standard

My first editorial on ReelReviews!

WHAT IF ‘MAN OF STEEL’ WAS MADE BACK IN 1978?

A constant refrain we hear from Synderverse fans is that their crappy movies only got awful reviews because people “unfairly” compared them to the earlier big screen adaptations. That is why Wonder Wonder was “fairly” rated and got a positive review, they say. If Man of Steel had been released first and made in 1978, audiences and critics would have seen IT as the “definitive” version of Superman and loved it.

So let’s examine this scenario.

Go back to 1978 and imagine Superman: The Movie was never made. POOF! It’s gone from existence. No Salkind producing team, no Richard Donner as director, no sweeping iconic John Williams theme, and Christopher Reeve remains an unknown young stage actor from Julliard.

Without that movie to “taint” audience’s views of Superman, the creative team behind Man of Steel arrives in a time machine and Warner Bros. gives them the go-ahead to film THEIR “vision” for Superman using 1978 filming techniques and actors. Zack Snyder uses a 1978 film crew to capture David Goyer’s script exactly as it originally written. 1978  actors are hired to fit Snyder’s vision for DC comics: Obscure TV actor Grant Goodeve (who is the same age as Christopher Reeve and looks very much like him and Henry Cavill, but plays dour, serious roles) is cast in the title role. Ann Margaret (then a redhead actress in her late 30s) is cast as Lois Lane. Yaphet Kotto is Perry White. As in real life, Warner Bros. insist on hiring big name stars, so screen legend Orson Welles is hired to play Goyer’s version of Jor-El, Dustin Hoffman is hired to play Goyer’s version of General Zod, and Bruce Dern gets to be David Goyer’s Pa Kent and is killed on screen by a tornado.

The film eats up a HUGE budget as the screenplay calls for massive destruction porn and is done in the tone of a dreary, ugly, humorless, late 1970s action filled disaster flick (in “sci-fi” drag) about an “alien invasion”. Grant Goodeve has almost no dialogue and doesn’t have much to do on set but stand around and look glum, and spend weeks on end shooting fight scenes with Dustin Hoffman, as use wire work to plow into each other while “flying”. Meanwhile, their stunt doubles throw each other into “buildings”. Pyrotechnics are used to knock down the “Metropolis” set endlessly and blow up half the “city”. Snyder directs Hoffman to talk like he has marbles in his mouth while screaming lines like “I WILL FIND HIM!!!” Ann Margaret gets to say lines like “If we’re done measuring dicks, can you have your people show me what you found?” Since the digital technique doesn’t exist yet, much of the cinematography achieves the desired “shakey-cam” effect that Snyder wants by having overcaffinated camera men riding around set on lawnmowers with handheld cameras. Bruce Dern’s stunt double is injured during the tornado scene, and filming is delayed for several weeks.

Since the PG-13 rating doesn’t yet exist in 1978, the film gets rated R for extreme violence and use of language, with the graphic depiction of Superman breaking a character’s neck shocking 1970s audiences. (Films from that era competing for the same adult audiences include The Deer Hunter, The Fury, and I Spit On Your Grave) This becomes the 1970s audiences first look at a big budget theatrical superhero movie, trying to appeal to audiences who grew up on George Reeves playing Superman as a lovable all-American boy scout.

And there you have it, a world where the original “Superman” movie as we know it was never made, and the world got Hack Snyder’s vision for the character instead.

How well do you think the movie would have been received?

ReelReviews #15: Grindhouse (2007)

Standard

APRIL 7-11, 2013 SCREENING: “GRINDHOUSE” MOVIES (2007-Present)
I watched a series of five films over two weeks ago, and then spent another week mulling over how the heck I would review five different films that are meant to be seen as a package deal. I’ve put it off until I reached a solution: write one review that its own five segment mini-reviews, just the movies its analyzing. You see, the basic concept from directors Robert Rodriquez and Quintin Tarantino was that they would each do a cheesy, low-budget, trashy movie that resembled the type of schlock you’d get in the ’60s and ’70s, and package the movies together as a “double feature” to watch back-to-back in a theater, complete with fake trailers and commercials between movies, and intentionally grainy, scratchy film to replicate stuff that was thrown together. After the double feature came out, it inspired three movie silly “grindhouse” type movie spinoffs. Did they succeed in this strange little parody/homage? Well, yes and no.

 

PLANET TERROR (2007)
Planet Terror is basically a “zombie movie”. I use the term in quotes because its made to look like a movie from an era where they probably wouldn’t call it a zombie movie (as the George H. Romero variety hadn’t become the definitive image of a zombie yet) and what’s more, the movie is actually about some kind of extremely grotesque mutated humans, rather than undead corpses eating human flesh. They do eat people, though, and it’s a heck a lot of more fun than people find in a lot of “modern” zombie movies like World War Z. The poster image of the girl with a machine gun for a leg is certainly exploited for all its worth in this movie, and even though they use modern CGI, the concept and execution definitely mimics the feel of a old low-budget garbage movie. There’s lot of extreme over-the-top violence as well, and this film certainly brought a smile to my face because it made me think back to the stupidest set of 70s horror movies I watched, like Laserblast (1978), along with some terrible blaxplotation movies of the same era. Where I think the film fell short were two elements where it simply ignored its own premise: 1) The movie was too long for a “Grindhouse” movie, and certainly as one half of a double feature that you’re supposed to watch back-to-back in one sitting. It should have been between 75-85 mins., tops. Second, although intentionally made it to look like it was shot in the 70s, the movie takes place in “modern times” and uses modern technology and so forth. I found that distracting. They went through so much trouble to give us scratchy looking 16mm film, why the cell phones that reminded us that this movie was not made in the era it pretends to be?
**1/2 out of ****

 

DEATH PROOF (2007)
Death Proof is the second half of the original “Grindhouse” experience, and considered the much weaker film of the two. Some people have even gone as far as to say its Tarantino’s weakest movie. But in many ways, I actually enjoyed it more than the first film. Like Planet Terror, the grainy film and ridiculous opening credits immediately make it look like you’re watching some piece of crap made around 1972 or so, but instead of just being an over-the-top splatter film, this one has something completely lacking in the first: atmosphere Apparently the “in-joke” is that it’s supposed to look like two different movies spliced together (which they actually did for really bad MST3k fodder like “They Saved Hitler’s Brain”), but the fact its obviously Kurt Russell in both halves of the movie – playing the same role – ruins this effect. As for me, I loved the first half the movie (where had a very good, creepy “70s stalker movie” vibe like I was watching The Last House on the Left or something), and I was indifferent/bored by the second half, which had a “70s stunt race car movie” feel. To convey that its “Two different movies” the second half was almost grain-free, and that didn’t work for me at all because you could tell it was shot on modern film equipment. Again, the same flaws from the first film were present, and even more apparent: the running time was too long, and it was obvious taking place in 2007. Nevertheless, I consider this film to be its own little modern cult classic, and the lap-dance scene in the movie’s first half is unforgettable
*** out of ****

 
HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN (2011)
Machete is by far the better known and more popular of the Grindhouse spinoffs, but for me there was only one true heir to the original project, and that’s Hobo with a Shotgun. It was based off one of the “fake trailers” from the original 2007 double-feature, and expanded into its own feature length movie. Ironically, its got a completely different director (the little known Jason Eisener) and a different actor from the 2007 fake trailer (in this case, the far better known Rutgar Hauer), but I felt it was the most faithful to the whole grindhouse experience: It looks incredibly low-budget, trashy, over-the-top, gory, and tongue-in-cheek hilarious In many ways, this was actually more faithful to the concept, and really nailed the feel of a movie from another era. For example, the music soundtrack sounds exactly like some MIDI synthesizer score from the early 80s, making it seem like you’re watching a lost John Carpenter movie. I’d say the only jarring part of the this is because the earlier Grindhouse movies looked like they were attempting to copy films from the late 60s/early 70s, whereas Hobo definitely looks and feels like a mid 80s movie. Despite having no sci-fi elements and having a storyline more along the lines of Death Wish, Hobo With a Shotgun is pretty much the spiritual successor of 1987’s Robocop. If you liked Robocop, you’ll love with (complete with the excessive violence and biting satire). In fact, forget about watching the remake of Robocop and watch this instead, as its far more true to what the original Robocop was aiming for. This may be the best of the “Grindhouse” movies. Be prepared to be grossed out, offended, annoyed, and mesmerized by it all.
*** out of ****

 
MACHETE (2010)
I think Machete is probably the most financially successful of the five Grindhouse movies, but it was one of the least creative, in my opinion. I still liked it, but I had a blast with the first three movies and I felt that was missing here. Despite this being directed by Robert Rodriquez, it is not a Grindhouse movie. It based on one of the fake trailers from one of his Grindhouse movies, and the opening credits even continue the same style, but it quickly becomes a very modern Hollywood movie. The only difference between this and a typical action comedy is that the script here is still obviously a satire of the whole genre. The actors play it straight, but Lindsay Lohan is here for one reason and its not to display her acting talent (ironically, she finally gets naked in the movie but you can’t see anything). Robert de Niro even shows up here, playing a buffoonish right-wing politician. There has been much talk about the movie having a liberal agenda, and I would agree that political conservatives will probably not like the film’s storyline or message, but the film is just too silly and frivolous for me to take offense as any kind of preachy liberal sneer It has some genuinely funny laughs, and its quick paced and quick witted, but nowhere near on the level of the three real Grindhouse movies. The “fake” trailer for Machete is better than the real one, because the real one is just another typical Robert Rodriquez movie like Once Upon a Time in Mexico, or Spy Kids. The best scene may be Lindsay Lohan’s slutty character disguising herself as a nun. Oddly enough, it disgusted me, intrigued me, and had me cracking up at the same time.
** out of ****

 

MACHETE KILLS (2013)
The latest, last, and least of the films spawned by the whole Grindhouse concept. Naturally, it’s a sequel to Machete, but the best part of this movie was yet another “Fake trailer” for what eventually could become the real third movie: “Machete Kills Again… In Space” It cracked me up and every scene in the “trailer” was better than the real scenes in this movie, and made me wish that the still unconfirmed third film was the sequel instead of this movie. The actual film has plenty of action and a brisk pace, but goes nowhere and just isn’t very funny or interesting. Instead of de Niro like the first movie, this time we have Mel Gibson showing up in a “major role”, and it actually made me feel kind of sorry for him because his career has been reduced to doing this pathetic movie. Machete Kills is the opposite of the original intent of Grindhouse: rather than be made to intentionally parody the look of low-budget, crappy films, It’s a big budget, slick film that unintentionally looks very crappy. The best part of the movie may be former child actress Alexa Vega now appearing as a smoking hot, bikini-clad voluptuous adult character, but I got so bored with the movie I think I missed that part. I give it points for trying, but its just throwing a lot of crap at me, and thankfully, nothing is sticking.
* 1/2 out of ****