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Movies/TV

Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season 4

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Season 4 proceeds much the same way as the previous two do, with solid pacing and decent writing.  The show hasn't quite developed the whimsy that I remember (I'm pretty sure that will come around in season five and six), but it's getting closer.  It's good for its time, which is still pretty bad when you compare it with the fantastic shows that are the best of TV today.

Let's take a moment to talk about Geordi.  Has there ever been a character who is so downplayed?  Geordi's almost a prop most of the time.  It's not because of Levar Burton, he performs the role adequately, if not outstandingly.  No, the writing for Geordi is intensely boring, and he has yet to break out of his flat season one character.  This is the same aw-shucks, world-acts-upon-him persona that he had then, even though he's gotten a promotion.  Is it because of the racial politics of the 90s?  Was it determined that in order to get a black character on the show, he had to be completely passive, to take MLK's nonviolence to an infeasible endpoint?  Is it because he just wasn't written?  Did they not know what to do with an engineer not named Scotty?  It's puzzling.

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30 for 30: The Fab Five

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Chalk this movie up to opening my eyes to something as a much more fascinating topic than I realized.  The hook: "Five freshmen came to Michigan to play basketball in 1991, and they comprised one of the best recruiting classes in basketball."  Ho hum, sounds like the kind of story that's been told thousands of time before any time an announcer wants to tell me that THIS sporting event is truly simple.

But these guys weren't just an amazing recruiting class.  These guys were a cultural symbol that transformed hoops from the culturally boring and lily-white hoops of Hoosiers to the black and much more entertaining sport that it is today.  These guys were enormously influential, and they were a big step in race politics of college.  

It's misleading to say that the shift was because of them.  Instead, they were part of a larger cultural shift, but because they were so good and willing to be just ever-so--slightly transgressive, they happened to be the focal point.  So many issues are still the subject of hand wringing NCAA apologists wishing for the way it [never] was.  They were paid against NCAA rules.  The university profited enormously from sales of licensed merchandise without them getting a dime.  They left school early. They wore baggy shorts.  Why, clearly they represent the downfall of society, can't you see that Doris?

The movie's pretty good too.  They're an amazingly media savvy bunch, with Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose providing great interviews.  The director subtly points the story where he wants it to go, and it's quite convincing.  One of the best of the 30 for 30 films.

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Going Big

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It's been so long since I've seen some of these things that I've forgotten what some of them even are.  I had to look up this movie to even remember what it was about, and the recollection, when it came, was foggy.

Sam Bowie was drafted one pick before Michael Jordan.  He went on to have a quite respectable career.  However, because people are irrational assholes, he was branded a failure because he wasn't as good as Jordan.  This is... stupid.  The movie is plenty watchable, but it obviously doesn't make much of an impression.  Pass.

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Ken Burns Presents: The West

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I'm on record as a big Ken Burns fan, and I bit on this one.  Even though this is not actually directed by Ken Burns, I decided to give it a try.  It may not be directed by Ken Burns, but it's very obviously directed in his style, and done by Stephen Ives, a frequen cocollaborator with Burns.  The same care is given here, and it is quite a good documentary.

If you can get over the sometimes clumsy fetishization of Native Americans (another thing that it shares with Burns' work), the research and story here is very compelling. It's taking on no small part of US history, to cover half the nation in a long view that stretches all the way from the Spanish explorers to the current day, and even in 8 episodes, it still glosses over some stuff I'd like to hear more about.  But many parts of the series are truly stellar.  There is a lot of discussion about the sad history of the Native American tragedy, as well as repeated references back to the Mormons.  Just collating those stories together makes for a pretty good history, and all the rest is just gravy.

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Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

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Fascinating documentary on the grand and kinda trashy old dame of show business.  Joan Rivers is really funny.  She's also incredibly fascinating.  Dignity is not exactly her strong suit, as she needs desperately to be wanted and also desperately to live a high class lifestyle.  This is an excellent example of a documentary that gets out of its own way and lets the subject paint its own picture, and it turns out to be a fascinating thing indeed.

If you like Joan Rivers, you should probably see this movie.  If you don't like Joan Rivers, then you should definitely see this movie.

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Behind the Candelabra

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Liberace is a celebrity that has mostly missed my generation.  I was too young to know much about him when he died, and he's the kind of pop culture ephemera that gets forgotten quickly after he's no longer perfroming, particularly if you're not in the slice of America that goes to Vegas shows consistently.

Then comes this HBO production.  I learned a lot about Librace, I had a lot of sympathy for Scott Thorson, it was well-executed, etc. etc.   Michael Douglas and Matt Damon are pretty good, though they are such big stars that I found myself continually thinking of them as their actors instead of their characters.

I find the form quite interesting here.  This is a made-for-TV movie is every sense of the word.  It was, most obviously, made to be shown on television and not the big screen, but the tell-all biopic is well-understood ground for the TV movies of yore.  It has stars that everybody knows, and a pop culture connection that gives it just enough recognition.  I'm guessing this is just a strange one-off example of a form that is well past its height, but I'd be quite pleased if HBO did some more like this, and the other channels followed suit.  HBO did it with episodic story arc shows, pioneering with The Sopranos, The Wire, and Deadwood before the other channels brought out Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and the like.  Perhaps this is another pioneering effort.  I welcome it.

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The Dust Bowl

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Ken Burns can document the shit out of some Americana.  The Dust Bowl is one of the strongest Ken Burns documentaries, up there with The Civil War and Unforgiveable Blackness.  In at least my school history, the Dust Bowl was really deemphasized.  It was one minor part of the Great Depression, but it tends to get shunted off to the side in favor of the urban hallmarks of the period, such as the failure of markets, the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the breadlines.  Sure, I knew what most people know: it was really dusty in Oklahoma for a while there, and they all moved to California.

Or, well, that's the basic idea.  But it turns out that the causes and solution to the Dust Bowl are fascinating, and not nearly as one-dimensional as we're led to believe.  Burns establishes a thoroughly convincing case that this was yet another version of free market capitalism overstressing an area, followed by predictable environmental backlash as the resources weren't stewarded, followed by the abandonment of the free marketers as the investments weren't profitable, and the ultimate salvation coming from classic New Deal big government of the Roosevelt era.  It may not sound nuanced, but it's pretty coherent, and Burns makes it pretty tough to argue otherwise.  There isn't much "Yeah, but..." that came to mind when I was watching this one.

The parallels to our current day aren't hard to find, and Burns thankfully doesn't insult our intelligence by pointing them all out.  He spends only a small amount of time hand-wringing about our admittedly irresponsible use of underground aquifers to make this region farmable once more.

Overall, the film is Ken Burns doing a lot of what he does best.  

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Game of Thrones: Season 3

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I fell in love again with Game of Thrones this season.  The costuming and set construction still up to HBO's sumptuous standards, and the acting and writing, if anything, has actually improved.  A lot happens in this season, which is somewhat incredible given that the third book was already split in two, with many of the events from it pushed off to next season.

I will say there's a pervading sense of gloom hovering over the future of this series.  Though we have at least some of next season that still takes place with the third book, the fourth and fifth books are a significant step down in writing quality, and it was pretty clear from a textual and publishing schedule interpretation that Martin was starting to get bored with his world and his characters.  By all reports, the TV series has injected new life into the series for Martin, so I hope that he gives those two volumes the severe editing it deserves.  As far as I'm concerned, this television series is better than the books, for the simple reason that it has allowed Martin and others to tighten up the writing and character development.  I can only hope that continues.

Whatever happens in the future to this series, nothing is going to change the fact that the first three seasons of it have been exemplary TV.  

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Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby

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Baz Luhrmann's film adaptation of Fitzgerald's classic novel has resisted description for almost three weeks. I enjoyed it, but I have found myself reluctant to write about it.  Part of my reluctance stems from writing a review of the novel so recently.  But a larger reluctance manifests from the simple fact that the film almost defies description.

Luhrmann loves to explore the genre of film, to make sly winks at the audience.  His breaking of the fourth wall is not so obvious as directing his characters to look directly into the camera, but rather to adapt whatever history he has decided to tackle and adopt it to the date of the film's release.  In this, Luhrmann's Gatsby follows in the mold that he created with Moulin Rouge and Romeo and Juliet.  Gatsby, like those two films, is a movie that is simultaneously of its age, but also is ruthless about adapting the story to the age of its release whenever Luhrmann deems it necessary.  This tactic occasionally turns out for the worse, but at least in Gatsby's case, it's usually for the better.

Unfortunately, this savviness makes the movie unusually resistant to film criticism, or at least the brand of film criticism that I attempt in this blog.  After all, Luhrmann brings about an intention to his films, a thoroughness that really does make it seem that every little piece has been meticulously crafted.  My favorite film criticism points out assumptions and takes a wider lens, and when Luhrmann's film already points out all of his assumptions, it becomes redundant for me to write anything.

However, I do endeavor to also provide my opinion, and that was favorable for this movie.  The music I found sometimes jarring, as it felt like an intrusion into an otherwise admirably cohesive 1920s setting.  However, the visual style, the acting, and the writing is all quite good.

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Star Trek Into Darkness

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With Star Trek: The Next Generation fresh in our minds, Tara and I decided to go see the new Star Trek movie.  After all, the last one, though mindless, was a decent distraction.  This one has Benedict Cumberbatch in it, so it's gotta be even better, right?

Absolutely wrong.  There's so many things wrong with this movie.

Captain, That Course of Action Is Highly Cornball
Hope you didn't want subtlety, because this movie ain't got it.  Scotty runs around like a madman, Chekov runs around like a Scotty, and Uhura and Spock fight ridiculously because Market Research Says All the Fans with Vaginas Need Some Romance Because They Couldn't Possibly Be Smart Enough to Figure Out the Plot.  The first half of the movie is entirely people who nobody cares about dying or characters spouting unfunny self-referential humor.

And it's not strictly because of the TV heritage of this series.  My friend said it when talking about Bond films, but it holds here too: The Original Series wasn't campy because it was trying to be campy, it was campy because it was the 60s, and that's how action was done.  Something about the campiness is lost in translation when you layer it over cutting edge visuals and make it high-res.  Shit, son, if you want to do it campy, your film better have a stuntman in a repurposed Godzilla costume chucking styrofoam rocks around.  Don't feed me terrible one-liners and pretend that you Get Camp.

To Boldly Go Where Michael Bay Has Gone Before
In the opening scene alone, our main characters

  1. Are chased by bloodthirsty natives (Yup, seriously).
  2. Duck spears chucked at them by those same natives (Again, yup).
  3. Jump off a 300-foot cliff into the ocean.
  4. Are beamed off of an exploding shuttlecraft.
  5. Survive a fusion bomb detonation about 5 yards away.
  6. Fall from a broken rope INTO AN ERUPTING VOLCANO.

Of course, they survive all of it because Hollywood.  Jesus, I know most moviegoers are going to know who Kirk and Spock are, and that means the filmmakers can be a little bit fast and loose with character development, but if I wanted to see Transformers 8: The Bro-gasm I would just go see it.  I'm an old-fashioned guy, give me a little Plot Development Wine and a bit of Character Background Entree before you take me home to see your Engorged Explosion.

Dammit Jim, I'm a Sequel, not a Miracle Worker!
The movie has sequelitis in a real bad way.  You can practically see everybody involved thinking that they're going to do everything that worked last movie, only bigger.  Kirk jumping off of cliffs in the opening scene!  Kirk clashing with Starfleet authority!  Enterprise picked on by bigger and better spaceship!  Scotty saves the day from someplace that's not the Enterprise!  Gigantic spaceships plummeting toward Earth!  

Of course, the novelty factor is gone, so things like a cameo by Leonard Nimoy don't really work this time around.  If it quacks like a rehash, then it's a rehash.

Star Trek Philosophy
Love it or hate it, the thing that makes Star Trek different from any other science fiction is its adherence to often simplistic philosophy.  This is most obvious in the extended diplomacy of The Next Generation, but it also makes itself felt many times in the original series.  Star Trek has a bedrock philosophy that conflict can always be solved peacefully, cultural differences can be resolved through mutual education, and empathy can always win the day if we give it the time to do so.

When Khan shows up in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the plot works because it takes care to fit itself into this framework.  Khan is a parable about being careful what you wish for, an admonishment against genetic engineering of humanity.  When Khan shows up in Into Darkness, he's just The Ultimate Badguy who can't be hurt and can't be stopped, except when he can.  There are vestigial elements of the old philosophy, but they feel strange and out of place, and mostly just copped from the old movie.

 

Star Trek Into Darkness has easily claimed the spot of worst movie I've seen in theaters this year, and it's going to take a real stinker to unseat it.  (To be fair, I thought that about Prometheus last year, then Step Up 4volution came along to nab the dubious honor.  It could happen again this year.)  Do not see this movie.

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