Friday, October 29, 2010

Film Fan #26-50

#26. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
The perfect detective story, from the era before it was a TV staple, filled with character as much as intrigue, and all led by Humphrey Bogart, the man who wasn’t supposed to be a movie star, and so became an icon instead. Incredibly, there are two previous film adaptations of Dashiell Hammett’s book, and neither one comes close to the magic that seems inherent to this one. This is a clear counterargument to all those people who decry remakes these days.

#27. The da Vinci Code (2006)
Lots of people read Dan Brown’s book, and so it became natural to make a movie out of a book that was basically inspired by Indiana Jones, who in term was a homage to old movies. Anyway, lots of people then decided the movie was a joke, but the real joke is that Brown’s story is perfectly captured on film, led by Ron Howard (inspired I suspect by his success with A Beautiful Mind) and Tom Hanks, bringing some of his severe authority from Road to Perdition to a little more focus. Ian McKellen provides all the needed material to convey the theories behind the plot, that confirm rather than betray religious belief. Maybe it’s just Hanks, now able to portray maturity in a time when he’s best known as a toy cowboy, who makes it work so well, but I can’t help but think of The da Vinci Code as a touchstone of modern culture, with all the complexities so many people are constantly talking about, but are so busy ignoring while pursuing their agendas. It’s funny, because all the people with agendas in this film are the villains.

#28. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The first Star Wars released, technically, in my lifetime, endlessly praised as the rare worthwhile sequel, spends most of its time undoing everything its predecessor accomplished, and because of that, gets all the credit for expanding the saga, when really, all it does is affirm that George Lucas had a good idea from the start. What you really get is the feeling that Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen got off light. Leia leads a glorious rebellion…from one calamity to another. Han’s big reward for being a good guy is being used as bait and then turned over to bounty hunters. Luke’s Jedi training becomes even less pleasant. And then Darth Vader utters one of the immortal phrases in cinema history. One giant ball of unpleasant complication…

#29. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Described by most accounts as the guy’s version of a chick flick, this lovely little ditty was adapted from a Stephen King novella, and humanizes a bunch of convicts, revolving around an innocent man who flies the cuckoo’s nest, but not before lots of things go wrong. But the film’s true legacy is probably Morgan Freeman’s career, which exploded into the popular consciousness thanks to his indelible narration. He’s never looked back since.

#30. The Quick and the Dead (1995)
Another movie quickly dismissed in its original release, a trigger-happy nod to when westerns actually mattered, I prefer to think of it as an actor’s paradise. You even get Gary Sinese! Sharon Stone technically stars, but you’ve also got Gene Hackman sharing every inch of the screen, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe stealing it every other frame. Seriously, without this film, I don’t think I’d care half as much about either one. Oh, who am I kidding? But this still serves as my introduction to both titans, so that’s be enough right there, to keep this one in memory, but as a distillation of every western that Hollywood has ever made, it hardly gets better than this.

#31. Hancock (2008)
During a decade when superheroes exploded into an entire genre, it was only a matter of time before someone finally figured out how to do a movie with completely original material, and make it at least as good as the rest of the movies surrounding it. Except this one is generally better, and it’s not just because of Will Smith, but how cleverly Charlize Theron inserts herself, building a complicated relationship that breathlessly crescendos, revealing a scope few films, superhero or otherwise, approach.

#32. Revenge of the Sith (2005)
With great success comes the harshest critics, and Star Wars was certainly no exception. The backlash started with Return of the Jedi, but didn’t really set in until the prequels almost two decades later, and it’s a tremendous pity, too, since George Lucas didn’t really start to embrace his story until The Phantom Menace, and hit his stride until Revenge of the Sith, when the full impact of Anakin Skywalker’s descent could be fully felt. Ian MacDiarmid, who appeared to be a distant second to Ian McKellen, just as the new Star Wars trilogy limped a distant second to the flashy Lord of the Rings films by most estimates, is the center of this blossoming, revealing a distinct and full portrait of the true evil that was always waiting in the shadows behind the myth of Darth Vader. All the criticisms about Natalie Portman and Haden Christenson fall away, too. This is a story about contrasts. I argue that it’s time to give Lucas credit where it’s due, and admit that he may have known what he was doing after all. What this final entry in the complete saga really amounts to is epic drama.

#33. Mission: Impossible (1996)
I don’t mean to suggest, with the exclusions of the two films that follow this one from the list of 500 movies comprising this ranking, that this is the only Tom Cruise version of this franchise worth watching, only to acknowledge the shock of adrenaline and intrigue represented in the first entry is a tough act to follow. I mean to compare this film to The Maltese Falcon, is all. It’s time film lore reflects this kind of thinking.

#34. Red Cliff (2008/2009)
I’m a sucker for action, when it’s done right, and this film is a smorgasbord of action, as well as high drama, from one of the world’s most renowned filmmakers, John Woo, who for a few years tried to make a regular presence in Hollywood (and is even responsible for the second Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible, which is imprinted with all his usual signatures). This is a war movie without inhibition, and also missing many of the gimmicks usually necessary to justify such an undertaking for wide audiences. Two versions exist; I suggest the complete cut.

#35. Thirteen Days (2000)
I consider this the unacknowledged coda to JFK, a film that follows the Kennedy administration in all its brilliant execution, tracing the Cuban Missile Crisis as if it were Shakespearean, guided by Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, and Steven Culp.

#36. Seven Pounds (2008)
What amounted to a milestone year for Will Smith concluded with this overlooked gem, which expertly culminated on all the films he’d been doing during the decade and concluding on a martyr’s note, a solitary and self-sacrificing individual who becomes the quintessential good Samaritan without weighing the movie down with saccharin or false emotions. Rosario Dawson provides a reliable supporting presence. Why isn’t she a bigger movie star?

#37. The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
Audiences really hated when they were told all the mind-blowing action and philosophy they enjoyed in The Matrix wasn’t throwaway after all, and so its immediate sequel provoked an inevitable backlash. Filled with more panache and bigger ideas, The Matrix Reloaded all but is the introduction to a new religion.

#38. Return of the Jedi (1983)
When you spend years of your life rewatching the same films, and with the support of a whole family, you really start to absorb the experience. Maybe that’s why I’ve never been able to understand the disappointment that greeted this conclusion to the original Star Wars trilogy, because for me, it was just another thrilling addition to a favorite saga. This is the first time all the characters deliberately walk into adventure, and each sequence strolls along, nothing left for the story but a few clarifications and a final redemption. Luke, who isn’t really a Jedi but more like a survivor, is a ridiculously confident lead character this time, which may be the novelty that makes it all work. He’s all but become the new Ben Kenobi.

#39. Awakenings (1990)
Maybe this explains my reaction to Robert De Niro’s career, because this is my first and still most intimate experience with his acting, pretty much the complete opposite of what everyone else seems to think about. I haven’t been disappointed with some of his later films, like the critics who still idealize him based on Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. There’s also Robin Williams, playing what is probably considered his stereotypical “serious role,” but again, I don’t view Williams like most people seem to, and so this movie is what it is to me, a compelling slice of human drama, with no easy conclusions, just real emotions.

#40. High Noon (1952)
I figure Gary Cooper was born to this role, the lone hero, another perfect representation of the western archetype, with a lot of terrific music to give him company. This is the kind of iconic filmmaking that simply does not age.

#41. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
As far as dramatic statements go, this is about as dramatic a statement as the original cast of Star Trek could ever hope to make, with a stirring Jerry Goldsmith score driving events along, and a lot of troubled characters wondering what the heck the reason for all of it is, which is basically how audiences have been approaching it since its release. As to how it compares to other films, probably except for Star Trek (2009), this one’s the easiest to think of as a separate phenomenon from the rest of the franchise, and to consider for its own worth. I haven’t seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I figure if you respect that film, you should at least consider this one.

#42. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
A cultural landmark, the only real contribution anyone in the modern era has been able to make about Christmas, and hardly any of it has anything to do with the holiday, instead focusing on a desperate Jimmy Stewart as he struggles to find some meaning in his life. Silly boy, it was in all the lives you touched! And that, folks, is the true meaning of Christmas.

#43. Superman II (1978)
I’ve always liked this one (and with all the references to “Kneel before Zod!,” you can guess others have too), but I grew to appreciate it more after seeing Richard Donner’s complete vision in 2006. Compromised as it was by the need to rely on some rehearsal footage that clearly doesn’t match the rest of the material, it still reveals a more expansive and compelling version, one that more closely matches the spirit of its predecessor, and surpasses it. Any film where Marlon Brando can be reasonably inserted, that can’t possibly hurt, at least in my opinion.

#44. Casablanca (1942)
A movie whose existence still seems improbable to this day (there’s an anecdote included in some bonus material from the VHS special edition I probably display in my home that suggests simply by changing the names in the script, it would still be rejected by basic inclination by studios), a nuanced look at war, which just happens to be a bundle of iconic scenes, all anchored by Bogey.

#45. Star Trek Nemesis (2002)
Yes, another Star Trek, and based on the method by which this ranking was compiled, it’s not as suspicious as it seems. Any subjective list (and let’s face it, they all are) should feel free to feel a little indulgent. Star Trek films just happen to fit the criteria I value. In this one, Tom Hardy is subjected to endless scorn, based on the fact that it’s easy to overlook him in his breakthrough role, even though he’s completely awesome, and a perfect foil for Patrick Stewart, who if it weren’t for Star Trek would have been greeted with the same kind of welcome, if he were merely the guest actor in one of these films. Irony is great.

#46. Blade Runner (1982)
For the longest time, this was one of those cult experiences that did its best to elude me, but eventually, I grew to embrace it as the evocative experience that it is, the search for the worth and meaning of human life, led by Harrison Ford and Ridley Scott.

#47. The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
I’ve been struggling with Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy for a decade, and I’m still not sure I’ve managed to reconcile all the popular and critical acclaim with my own experiences, which have always taken on a more combative relationship to the material. What’s not in question is the artistic achievement, which begins with the superb casting that drives the first installment to fantastic heights, led by Ian McKellen and Sean Bean, who either by permanent death or altered circumstances aren’t around to lift subsequent entries. The same can be said of Ian Holm. Also features the best of Howard Shore’s scores.

#48. Che (2008)
I waited what seemed to be an eternity to see this collaboration of Benecio Del Toro and Steven Soderbergh on the life of the most famous revolutionary of the past century, whose legacy still basically amounts to a famous image and the unfortunate reign of Fidel Castro in Cuba. Hopefully this film, and its startling and incredibly focused drama, might begin to reverse that.

#49. Superman (1978)
The superhero origin story before it was popular, Richard Donner spends as much time with the Man of Steel matching wits with Lex Luthor as to how he ended up in Metropolis, making this movie as much as Kal-El/Clark Kent as Superman. Marlon Brando lends his incredible charisma in support of the project.

#50. The Stunt Man (1980)
One has the sense, after watching this movie, that Richard Rush was destined to become one of the great filmmakers. Whatever happened to his career makes for a fantastic enigma, just like this movie, with Peter O’Toole leading the way.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Film Fan #1-25

#1. Alexander (2004)
Oliver Stone was so well-known when he made it that audiences weren’t exactly expecting a passion project out of him. In fact, nobody was expecting anything out of him. He hadn’t done a high profile movie since 1995’s Nixon, and had only done two other films since then. By 2004, he was pretty much known by reputation, which had been distorted to the point of irrelevance. Alexander was seen as just another misguided attempt to cash in on the success of Gladiator, a historical epic worth ignoring, or worse yes, outride deriding. He cast Colin Farrell, “who looked nothing like Alexander the Great,” in the title role, and submitted as supporting cast Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, and Anthony Hopkins, none of whom were all that popular at the time. Anyway, all of that negative talk is say that none of it really matters. Stone achieved his masterpiece twenty years into his Hollywood directing career. Farrell has never before or since found a role more befitting his unparalleled range, a sensitive actor who can also command the screen, whose singular knack for conveying desperation goes a long way in exploring the scope of a life that made history through sheer force of will. Kilmer and Jolie are indispensable in filling out this portrait, demonstrating equally powerful figures who help shape the man Alexander becomes, just as Hopkins explains his legacy for people who might still not get it. There are three cuts, the final one presenting a definitive version, but you really can’t go wrong whichever way you go. If you look past all the bad press, though, the movie really ought to speak for itself. Simply put, the most powerful movie I have ever seen.

#2. Munich (2005)
Steven Spielberg was in a fairly similar position as Stone when he made this portrait of terrorism. By all records, he’d already made all the definitive career statements any handful of directors could have been expected to make, a wide gamut from E.T. to Schindler’s List. Most of the critics at the time were looking for a movie that explained the modern world, post-9/11, and mostly, they looked to war stories. When Spielberg delivered this look back at the Israeli reaction to the Munich Olympics murders, it looked more like an homage to classic thrillers than a nuanced picture that blamed no one and impugned everyone. Most people hate that sort of thing. They prefer black and white. To personify the message, he cast Eric Bana, one of today’s finest actors, but who has consistently failed to capture critical acclaim. His only problem is that same kind of vexing nuance.

#3. The Truman Show (1998)
I guess at this point you’ll begin to see a pattern forming. Nothing should be obvious. Here is Jim Carrey’s finest transformation to date, a perfect reflection of the comedian’s dilemma. Yes, he’s the center of attention, but that’s not really what he wants. All he wants is for his world to make sense. As it turns out, the way in which he does that is tremendously entertaining. The Truman Show is not only that, but also incredibly moving, a breakthrough reflection on reality TV before it really exploded. The only man the whole world wanted to watch actually had no idea. Nothing was fake about him except the circumstances cast around him. I guess that also describes everything reality TV did in the years that followed.

#4. The Dark Knight (2008)
Christopher Nolan quickly established himself as the most cerebral filmmaker of his generation. Early films like Following and Memento relied on a certain amount of gimmickry, but soon he set out to prove that his flair for getting attention was just the icing on the cake. Tackling superheroes had become something of a hobby for established directors like Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi in recent years, but it took Nolan to truly embrace them. He gave Heath Ledger the defining role of his career, which finally transformed him into a character actor, and in doing so, perfectly encapsulated the murky portrait of modern heroism, super or not.

#5. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Brad Pitt has such an abundance of charisma, he makes a curious icon of modern cinema. He never does what he’s supposed to. The actor everyone mistakes for Brad Pitt is Johnny Depp, but it’s Pitt who is constantly searching for the roles that fulfill him artistically, rather than the ones that are showy. It’s Pitt who’s perfect to casually inhabit someone who was genuinely infamous, who will instantly make you sympathize with someone who might at best be called an anti-hero, only to remind you in the least expected moments what kind of person he really is. Like Alexander, it’s a true story with constant surprises, the ring of truth behind high art, and has been all but completely overlooked. That’s the real tragedy.

#6. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Quentin Tarantino arrived on the scene and was instantly acclaimed as one of the most exhilarating new voices in cinema, someone who was literally born into it. Then everyone got a little too used to him, even though he made more films almost as a last resort. This is beyond a doubt his masterpiece, combining both his instinct to throw what appears to be utter nonsense onto the screen, as well as his singular voice, the one which intrinsically understands great drama, merging into the sublime. This student has beyond a doubt graduated.

#7. Memento (2001)
This is how much I love Christopher Nolan. In previous versions of this list, this one was higher still, and has recently had the great privilege of being eclipsed by its own sibling. I imagine that if you want to make historical comparisons, Nolan is our Hitchcock, who envisions filmmaking to be no different than the best of literature, which can announce itself as much by what it says as how it says it. Even told front to back, this one would still work.

#8. Gladiator (2000)
Ridley Scott was another director well into his career when he made a creative breakthrough, coming into his own as a visionary of the historical epic, which he went on to practice with much success later. But the first in this instance is still the greatest, as he channels Russell Crowe into a reluctant hero, who even dies at the end, still clutching moral victory. It’s not an easy message to accept for those who would rather believe life is made to enjoy all of life’s rewards, even though those that are not technically earned, and so critics were always baffled by this one, even after it one the Oscar.

#9. Star Wars (1977)
The oldest film of the top ten and a full-blown cultural phenomenon, this one really needs no introduction. George Lucas perfects the sci-fi film here, and to this day no one has really tried to top him. The fact that five subsequent films further explain what the heck was happening in all that adventure, I can’t even begin to separate from its own impact. I was born three years after its original release. Remains the greatest story inspired by and created for film.

#10. JFK (1991)
Oliver Stone again, in the other film that has to be considered a masterpiece, the only piece of fiction that has attempted to tackle the most important moment in US history from the past century. To fully understand it, Stone exploits all the conspiracy theories behind the assassination of President Kennedy, only to explain why they’re physically necessary, and why the subject who isn’t even a character in the movie is still important today. My appreciation for JFK has grown over the years. This marks the first time it appears in the top ten.

#11. The Departed (2006)
The genius of Martin Scorsese is that he made a career thanks to Robert De Niro, but a legacy thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio. I know that sounds a little like heresy, but where De Niro inhabited characters in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, it’s DiCaprio Scorsese captures literally at the moment he reaches acting maturity. That’s what this whole film is about. Titanic made him popular, but that didn’t guarantee Leo a career, as subsequent failures to capture the zeitgeist made clear. After The Departed, that all changed. Forget Blood Diamond, which somehow obscured his chances to win the Oscar for this performance. This is cinema magic, unqualified.

#12. The Matrix (1999)
The only movie that could possibly upset the public’s interest in Star Wars happened to debut in theaters just before The Phantom Menace. A strange combination of philosophy and action, The Matrix became ubiquitous in an instant. It wasn’t that its ideas were entirely original, but the way the Wachowski brothers presented them did. No matter what you think of the sequels, the first one burned an indelible image in movie history.

#13. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
The first out-and-out comedy on the list, it’s the kind of classic that ignores all restraint, understands no limitations of pretext, and puts it all out there, and pretty much everything sticks. You don’t need to be a fan of Monty Python to enjoy it, and I think that’s the one distinction that bothers most critics. You attach any label to the title, and that’s all they’ll think about. But in all seriousness, if Charlie Chaplin had done it, no one would be thinking that way today.

#14. Citizen Kane (1941)
This is the furthest back yet, and there’s a reason, because this is more or less the birth of modern cinema, from the consummate professional and genius of film, stymied by a system that had no use for any of that. They wanted Orson Welles, and they also really, really didn’t want Orson Welles, because in him was a talent that would not accept restrictions, and for that, the rest of his career was as constricted as possible. He better understood filmmaking than anyone else for the next twenty years. He was and still is far ahead of his time. He is Shakespeare and Herman Melville for a new medium. This is still his most famous accomplishment, mostly because it’s still so darned hard to find much of anything else that he did. It also happens to be really good. If it featured the famous actors of the day, more people would watch it.

#15. Watchmen (2009)
The comic book that looked beyond the episodic adventures typical of that medium, and instead looked at the scope of careers and history, became the next great superhero film in the hands of Zack Snyder. Famously described for years as unfilmable, Watchmen is actually the consummate film experience, full of set pieces and giant personalities, uncoiling moment after moment, until finally Snyder envisions a more perfect ending to the whole affair. I could kind of understand that after The Dark Knight, audiences weren’t quite ready to accept that someone else could make another superhero movie this good, but at some point, they are really going to have to catch up.

#16. Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
All of the Star Trek films will be on the list, but this ranking isn’t a de facto designation. I’m a Star Trek fan as well as a film fan, and this one is the best of the Star Treks, and also a great film, bolstered by Patrick Stewart’s embracing of the switch to the big screen. Like Star Wars a little earlier, I don’t know what someone would think if this were the only Star Trek they ever saw, but it was a pretty definitive success at the box office, so that’s probably a good indication that it works pretty well.

#17. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
I saw this film as a fan of Jim Carrey, but there’s a wealth of other performances to enjoy, be it co-star Kate Winslet, or supporting actors Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, and Tom Wilkinson, whose subplot could easily support its own great film. What’s so constantly surprising about this film is that it works on so many levels.

#18. Mr. Arkadin (1955)
Because of the conditions put on Orson Welles’ later career, as suggested earlier, I figure it’s up to personal experience as to the next best film in his canon. This one has been considered a weaker version of The Third Man, but I consider it a sort of tribute to Dostoyevsky, something that feels authentically Old World at times, but embroiled thickly in classic film noir as well. There are multiple versions available, owing to the fact that he was sabotaged in his attempts to put the finishes touches on the film. It’s your own reward to watch each of them, one of those tricks to have an excuse to rewatch a great film.

#19. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Almost from the beginning, Hollywood has been obsessed with the subject of war, trying to explain its horrors to a public that has not always been interested. Francis Ford Coppola famously took inspiration from a classic piece of literature, but that didn’t make it any easier to make. It was war to make this definitive portrait of war, defining the career of Martin Sheen, and giving Marlon Brando another chance to define his.

#20. The Usual Suspects (1995)
The problem with Bryan Singer is that he isn’t easy to pin down. If he’s got a particular message to make, he doesn’t make it very obvious, which may be one of the most refreshing moves a filmmaker can make. Here he makes a startling debut, building a web of characters out of a terrific cast, headlined by Kevin Spacey, in a role he still can’t top. Sometimes, when critics want to take the wind out a classic, they’ll try and explain its success away as some sort of fluke. There’s a reason why my appreciation for The Usual Suspects only grows.

#21. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
Terry Gilliam has been thinking out-of-this-world thoughts since he infiltrated the British brotherhood of Monty Python, but his uniquely American perspective has been formulating new fantasies for decades now, leaving him a prime candidate for critics to underestimate the longer he continues working. Here he guides Christopher Plummer into a profound exploration of legacy and responsibility. There are other things to talk about concerning this movie, but let’s concentrate of what it’s really about.

#22. The Mask of Zorro (1998)
For one generation, which was at this time well past its prime, pure cinematic adventure was embodied by Indiana Jones, just as it had once been by Errol Flynn. For me, it was this film, which had the good sense to dust off an old Hollywood favorite, and take it to a whole new level. Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta Jones, it was a potent combination, another funny little crossroads of careers, and the true birth of the modern cinema superhero.

#23. Dr. Strangelove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
The name everyone associates with this movie is Stanley Kubrick, but I have two others that trump it: George C. Scott and Peter Sellers. Sellers is pretty obvious, so I’ll concentrate on Scott. I still have never seen Patton, so this is the experience that instantly explains Scott’s star power, his sheer presence, no matter the tone of the role. That’s a pretty good legacy, too.

#24. Star Trek (2009)
Here is the first time Star Trek really gets to just embrace moviemaking, because it’s the first time everything is created specially for the medium. J.J. Abrams is one of my favorite creators on television, but it’s apparent with work like this that he’s got the talent to succeed anywhere he chooses.

#25. On the Waterfront (1954)
The birth of the first real movie star, just as Citizen Kane introduced Orson Welles as the first real filmmaker, Marlon Brando bursts onto the screen. This isn’t his first or even first famous movie, but it’s still his greatest achievement, the one performance that everyone judged all his other performances on. That this is his first starring role to be featured on the list is not an indication that I experienced the same critical pitfall as just about everyone else, merely that in this instance, all the elements were given the chance to align at the same time.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Film Fan Introduction

The thing that bothers me about most “best of” movie lists is that almost none of what most of them consist of actually seems relevant to me, as if I’m just supposed to become familiar with a sort of bible for film fans. There’s just this understanding that all these old films that were popular or critically acclaimed (most of the time, it’s mostly popular, not that the compilers of these lists will admit it, unless they’re being really pretentious and following the even more alienating route of tracking international filmmakers, who mostly only really influence other filmmakers) must still be revered.

The sad truth is that filmmaking today is a lot more sophisticated than it was even as late as two decades ago. The worst hacks making a movie in 2010 are still technically superior to the work that was done even in some of the most acclaimed films on those lists. The acting, for instance, has changed a great deal. When Marlon Brando first appeared, he completely revolutionized his craft, by making it naturalistic, relatable. In the early days, most actors didn’t know there was any other form but what they’d practiced on the stage, which by its very nature cannot feel as intimate as what can be captured on film, which is an audience that sits right in front of the actor, not ten rows back, or in some faraway balcony. When Orson Welles first appeared, he completely revolutionized cinematography. He came from the stage, but he also understood the new possibilities cameras afforded him. I won’t say anything about silent or black and white films, because those remain legitimate artistic choices.

The point is, for some people, it isn’t enough to be told that something is great. If it doesn’t feel great decades after the fact, then to that specific film fan, it cannot and should not still be considered as great. Films aren’t books. This is the only way there’s a real difference. Authors have complete control over their works, and they have since the beginning. Filmmakers faced a steep learning curve, and they didn’t always learn quickly enough. This is not to say all old films really are crap, and that all new films are completely awesome, but to merely soften the blow when what you find in the list of 500 films that will follow, there are more newer than older films. This is to say, it should now be considered completely legitimate to place newer films near the top of such lists instead of older ones, because in some intrinsic sense, they really are being made better these days. Not that they couldn’t make them liked they used to, because there are truly great films in the great old past, but not as many as you were always led to believe. That much, my dear, is called nostalgia.

That being said, this list also admits that it is still very much a subjective one, because it is the work of a single individual working from only his experiences. These are strictly his opinions. While this is in fact the latest (and most extensive) list of its kind, from this single perspective, to date, there are still a great many films that haven’t been seen, whose absence may be attributed as much to disinterest as lack of viewing. The films on the list might be said to represent the best of what this perspective has been aware of in his time, since they are the films that have been viewed, that have warranted attention, at least from this perspective. There are always new films being added to this experience. Since this list only covers films seen through 6/20/2010, already there are plenty of films that have since been viewed but will not appear, simply because they missed the cut-off, even though some would technically surpass many of the films that follow.

In an effort to feature a comprehensive version of the list, attempts have been made to weigh films from different eras, starting from a simple ranking from individual years, and then comparisons based on those that proved themselves superior amongst their own contemporaries. Still, a lot of newer films crowd the early parts of the list, and a lot of older films crowd the later parts of the list. The last hundred has plenty of newer films, however, many from 2008, 2009, and 2010, though two from this year made it to the top hundred as well.

Enough prattling. You want to know what weird ideas I have about the best films ever made…

Friday, October 15, 2010

Star Trek (2009)

And so it happened that Star Trek finally had to do what it had long avoided, had in fact, done everything to avoid, including the virtually unprecedented move of sticking with the same actors in their original roles for near-three decades, and pretty much two decades that amounted to four additional casts. After all that, the popular culture could stand nothing more from the franchise, nothing more, that is, than the reboot. And so, in the summer of 2009, that’s exactly what finally happened.

A funny thing occurred, too. The reboot actually made Star Trek popular. No, seriously. I’m not talking about a kind of grudging admittance, or even wide acceptance among niche audiences, but full-blown, mind-blowing success. It really wasn’t just the folks who had always liked Star Trek, or who might typically have been inclined to like it, who turned out to watch the new movie. What Star Trek did was become just another summer blockbuster success story.

As films like Batman Begins and Casino Royale had done before it, the reboot literally went back to the beginning, exploring the origins of James T. Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the familiar characters from the original series as the show and its six movie spin-offs had never been quite able to do, despite a fair number of allusions over the years. It opens, dramatically, with Kirk’s birth, actually, and even these glimpses of his mom and dad seem like an eternity of backstory. For those who considered themselves familiar enough with Spock, there’s plenty left to say about his upbringing as well. The movie spends much of its time exploring how much there is to say about the two characters, what kind of story is possible that builds itself around them.

What’s interesting is that, even while that is going on, the movie basically follows the same pattern, at least, of the four Next Generation films that precede it. A villain threatens to wreak all kinds of havoc, and by the end of the story, he basically needs to be blown up to resolve his threat. What’s different is the way all of it is presented. Freed up with new actors, all that struggle to make previous incarnations that have originated on television can truly embrace all of cinema’s possibilities. This is not to say that actors who first appear on television can’t fit easily into movies. Far from it. Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Denzel Washington, the list goes on of actors who previously made their mark on television who went on to become famous and lasting movie stars. But in terms of an entire cast, especially one that has spent some extended period of time doing things shot specifically for TV, there is always going to be a learning curve to figure out how to translate that dynamic to another medium. Arguably, The Motion Picture and First Contact represent the apex of two different generations of Star Trek actors doing that, and the results vary greatly.

The difference with Star Trek is that everything is freshly conceived to fit the big screen. What’s funny is that the director behind this vision has had most of his success on the small screen. Aside from his early career as a screenwriter and Mission: Impossible III, J.J. Abrams is best known for TV shows like Felicity, Alias, and Lost, which admittedly was conceived as something of a big screen project for television, which the ambitious (and expensive) pilot episode alone will demonstrate. His credentials, however, along with those of the frequent collaborators who will go unmentioned here, testify to an uncanny devotion to character, which is a key element of what has always been at the heart of Star Trek. Clearly, that’s what he focused on with this initial offering of the reboot of one of the most famous franchises in modern lore.

Recasting was probably among the biggest hurdles, and was long one of the favorite pastimes of armchair fans. Surely you recall the popular interest in Gary Sinese taking on the role of Bones McCoy. Yet one of the unexpected and great successes of Star Trek was casting Karl Urban, who was best known at that point for a minor role in the Lord of the Rings films, instead. Zachary Quinto, then known for his disconcerting role on Heroes, had been publicly campaigning for the role of Spock, so his casting was the least surprising. The most famous actors, John Cho and Simon Pegg, cast as Sulu and Scotty respectively, managed to blend in, and make the most of their limited scenes. Anton Yelchin, a young actor working to make a name for himself, achieved the impossible by replacing the beloved Andrew Koenig as the quirky Chekov. Zoe Saldana captured lightning in a bottle by appearing in Star Trek and Avatar in the same year.

Then there was Kirk. What would you say if I told you Chris Pine’s last starring role before Star Trek was with Lindsey Lohan? No, seriously. It was called Just My Luck. Sure, he was more memorable in Smokin’ Aces, and in the elongated wait (when Paramount actually determined, correctly, that Star Trek could hold its own in the summer season, and so delayed release for months), also took a turn in Bottle Shock (that’s him, as the long-haired rebel son). But Chris was basically unknown, the quintessential actor for such an important role. For every Tobey Maguire, you also have a Christian Bale or Daniel Craig, who don’t seem like obvious choices before they’re cast, but only because audiences just aren’t that familiar with them yet. Star Trek made Chris Pine a star.

It did the same for Chris Hemsworth, who plays his dad. For some other parts, name actors were easier to go with, such as Winona Ryder, Ben Cross, Bruce Greenwood, and Eric Bana, who replaced Russell Crowe as Nero. Either one was a considerable coup for the film. Granted, Crowe would have had more appeal for wider audiences, but Bana, who like Crowe is a personal favorite, still represents the kind of actor who probably would never have been available to Star Trek casting directors prior to this film. Then there was Leonard Nimoy, who represents the sole connection to any other incarnation of the franchise, and who just happens to be the most iconic face, reprising his role as Spock thanks to a time-twisting plot that plays fast and loose with everything that had come before. When the whole project plays everything as sacred, you can afford to treat it as nothing sacred, blowing up Vulcan and setting up a whole alternate reality that will serve as the new playground for subsequent films.

That’s what’s so interesting about this reboot. Clearly, for years, a lot of people became attached to the idea that Star Trek represented a continuing experience, even if each new incarnation dealt with new casts and scenarios. All of it tied together, as numerous guest appearances that cross-pollinated familiar faces continually attested. Even the maligned “These Are the Voyages…” managed to grant Enterprise, the first time the franchise attempted to look back instead of forward, this experience. Rather than starting from scratch, Star Trek’ bends the rules and keeps all the familiar experiences in play while also creating an entirely fresh starting point. All the familiar names are here, but they have different stories, just different enough that they speak to two different generations of fans, meeting somewhere in the middle.

As a fan who obviously had a lot of attachment to what had come before, I might have been seen either as an extremely easy mark for Star Trek, or as someone who should have hated the very idea of it. Personally, I hate both ideas. I don’t like each new incarnation simply because it seems I’m supposed to, but because I keep finding reasons to like them. On a certain level, yes, having a pre-existing interest does make it easier, but if a movie or a TV show rubs me the wrong way, then it rubs me the wrong way. Being a fan merely means that it’ll be that much more likely that I’ll eventually take another look, or however many it may take for me to change my initial opinions. Wrath of Khan, ironically, is especially indicative of that, in my experience.

Star Trek became one of my favorite movies from 2009 not merely because it was a new Star Trek film, but because it was a truly good film. (Granted, the number of times I saw it was definitely because it was a Star Trek film, but in 2008 and 2010, I saw certain Christopher Nolan movies frequently because they captured my imagination in similar ways, experiences I wanted to repeat, and often.) When whole sequences start to string together and I find it difficult to forget them, I know something has been particularly successful. And in Star Trek, pretty much everything works, without exception.

And so now we’re in another of those crossroads, a happy one, as it turns out. We get to wait for another Star Trek. Sometimes, that wait has been as little as a week, or even several times a week. There were four years between the end of Enterprise and the release of Star Trek, and seven years between Nemesis and Star Trek. There was a big gap between the original series and The Motion Picture, but some of it was mitigated by the animated series. For the first time since the original Kirk films, the franchise seems content to be a big screen experience, which is perhaps welcomed, after the constant succession of TV shows that represented the bulk of the backend from the last phase of Star Trek. It may play like safe to keep it in cinemas for the time being, but that feels pretty okay for now.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Star Trek Nemesis

The fourth and final Next Generation film was released in 2002 and made a very tiny amount at the box office, the least of the ten entries in the Star Trek movie series to that date, relegating the franchise to a cultural afterthought, a somewhat strange fate for a cast that had once had the potential to push it to new heights.

Fifteen years after “Encounter at Farpoint” (roughly the time equivalent of the first two original cast cinematic escapades), a lot of things had changed for Star Trek. The fifth TV series, the third since 1987, was in its second season, headed toward an abbreviated-by-modern-standards four year run. Picard and crew became the victims of an undeniable burnout. Paramount’s apparently unshakable belief in the durability of the franchise could no longer be sustained, at least without a break. Nemesis had been advertised as the final appearance of this cast, something that had worked well for The Undiscovered Country, and even better for “All Good Things…” eight years earlier. But it had been a long eight years. Deep Space Nine, though a small critical success, had failed to interest fans, even with its ambitious Dominion War arc. Voyager, which had been meant to metaphorically replace Next Generation, had only succeeded in irritating long-time viewers. And so had Enterprise. One questionable Picard film, Insurrection, had torpedoed any potential for a sustained national audience outside of a weary fan base.

Nemesis itself seemed tailor-made for ridicule. The villain, a clone of Picard known as Shinzon, was portrayed by the young British actor Tom Hardy, who in appearance and speaking pattern looked more like Dr. Evil, the comical foil in Mike Myers’ Austin Powers films, which at that time were still a treasured cultural institution. Star Trek movies were also an anachronism during a period when Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations were capturing the zeitgeist, Harry Potter was invading the cinema, and even the second Star Wars trilogy conquered popular interest (despite a distinct lack of critical acclaim). There was also a surge of interest in comic book characters, whether Spider-man or the X-Men, in whose films Patrick Stewart himself co-starred. It seemed less than relevant to care about Star Trek and its tired shenanigans.

It didn’t even matter that acclaimed screenwriter John Logan, who would soon pen both The Last Samurai and The Aviator, was two years removed from his involvement in the Oscar-winning Gladiator, had attempted to inject some new life into the concept. All fans saw was same-old, same-old. Nemesis was just another tired retread of Wrath of Khan, down to an apparently ho-hum death of a main character, the android Data, whose return was patently foreshadowed in the ridiculous subplot of a newly-discovered second “brother,” who happened to be an idiot.

I’m being purposely negative in my descriptions, not because I don’t personally like the movie, but because they represent the general opinion of an irredeemable failure, at least by most accounts. In fact, as you might have noted, Nemesis ranks fourth in my list of Star Trek films, behind only First Contact, last year’s Star Trek, and (yes), The Motion Picture. I admit to having unorthodox opinions. This is the penultimate entry in a series of articles that basically has something nice to say about every incarnation in the franchise, which is not a very common reaction.

Ironically, one of the elements I’ve already brought up could help redeem the irredeemable Nemesis for modern audiences, Tom Hardy. The actor basically disappeared after the film, and its failure contributed to a tailspin in his personal life, at least for a few years, but recently he’s been rallying, and finding some new success in the movies. I don’t say that you need to see Bronson in the same manner that I say you should give Nemesis another look, because Bronson is a movie more in the manic vein of A Clockwork Orange. Hardy portrays a notorious British prisoner whose extreme narcissus is exaggerated to comically theatrical lengths in the film. But you wouldn’t care about that, either, if Hardy hadn’t turned out so memorably in Christopher Nolan’s mind-blowing Inception this summer. There’s a lot of things that threaten to steal that show, but Hardy’s cool confidence is a leading contender. It’s almost enough to give his Shinzon a reprieve, perhaps.

And it wouldn’t just be for Hardy’s performance, either, because I believe Logan succeeds in his ambition to craft an epic story out of his villain, who is so much more than appearances, but rather a truly tragic figure who has as much to say about his own character as Picard, an element of the film that builds, as the past three Next Generation films have done before it, on the possibilities of the guest actor in a formidable cast, especially one who has been called to stand toe-to-toe with Stewart, as no one else has. It’s a tall order, especially when Ian McKellen was the last actor to do that, to fan and critical acclaim (notably in X2: X-Men United), but Hardy and Shinzon really do accomplish it.

Little-explored aspects of Picard are in the spotlight here, from the mythic rebellious streak of his youth (memorably explored previously in “Tapestry”) to his fallibility, affecting a deconstruction of the character, something that had never really been attempted before, with all the more dramatic power since all this occurs while he confronts a clone of himself from a time prior to his original assumption of a ship called Enterprise, which may be the most intriguing aspect of the story. Unlike Kirk, whose entire mature career is ably represented by the breadth of his filmed adventures, Picard was already well into his Starfleet exploits by the time we saw him for the first time. All we really got to know about him before this point is that he lost his real heart in a brawl with Nausicaans, he lost his best friend but retained an association with Jack Crusher’s widow, and had first encounter with the Ferengi. But he was apparently important enough even then to have warranted a Romulan plot to replace him with a clone they could manipulate to their own ends.

Which is exactly the fate Shinzon could have enjoyed, if those Romulans could ever formulate a coherent plan everyone could agree on, but there’s a reason why Romulans never managed to sustain a lot of galactic attention, and it had nothing to do with their latent Vulcan reserve. They simply weren’t good at staying on point (the exact opposite, as it happens, of Paramount and Rick Berman). So Shinzon becomes the victim of a government overturn, and is remanded to the custody of the lowly Remans, represented in the film by Ron Perlman, who would shortly return to cultural awareness as the star of the Hellboy movies. What’s ironic is that Shinzon’s story continues to diverge from Picard’s, since he becomes personally involved in the Dominion War (as fans had wished during Insurrection for their one-time favorite captain), the root of his later return to prominence, amassing military clout if little respect from his Romulan peers.

As Nemesis opens, Shinzon affects a coup in the Romulan Senate (the first visual cue for viewers looking for grandeur and finding the product lacking; contrast this scene with the Galactic Senate sequences in the otherwise maligned Phantom Menace), hoping to win by force respect and power for his adopted Reman brethren, a Napoleon overcompensating for his shortcomings. Hardy is surrounded not just by Perlman in most of his scenes, but by Dina Meyer (as Donatra, another formidable presence in the film, especially in contrast to Shinzon), Jude Ciccolelle, and briefly, Alan Dale, who in a few years would make a considerable presence on Lost. He and Jude had already made memorable impressions in the early run of 24.

Picard, meanwhile, is giving a toast to the newlyweds Riker and Troi (the big payoff to the unexpected chemistry Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis enjoyed during First Contact, with seeds planted for this occasion by Insurrection), the big sign of progress for the film, a bookend to Data finally receiving emotions in Generations. From there, it’s a collision course between the captain and his clone, which Shinzon is exceedingly eager to make, since he needs Picard’s blood to correct genetic issues from the cloning process and the subsequent, premature abandonment by those disappointing Romulans.

At this point, I’d probably like to emphasize that this is, in fact, a Romulan story, the first for a Star Trek film, even though Romulans had been a prominent fixture of the franchise from the very beginning. After a dominating run by Klingons through most of the preceding entries, and despite the failure of Nemesis to leave a favorable impression on audiences, it’s notable that Star Trek more or less continues the trend. In fact, if you didn’t know that Nemesis was a box office bomb, you might look at last year’s reboot as something of a sequel. Only J.J. Abrams and his brood, it seems, paid any attention to this lowly flick.

Anyway, as Picard gradually becomes aware of Shinzon’s implications, he’s given the challenge of matching wits with him. Shinzon seems to go out of his to appear untrustworthy, but what he really wants is to win Picard’s respect and trust, which is what their first true discussion together is all about. It’s here where our captain truly stumbles morally for the first time, failing to understand his clone’s sincerity, believing that all he has to do is convince Shinzon that he’ll give him what he wants, if only he’ll legitimately earn it. He fails to grasp Shinzon’s desperation, and fatally, clearly doesn’t do anymore than humor him. Everything else, every tragedy, is the direct result of this conversation.

Data, meanwhile, stumbles across B-4, an imperfect predecessor to himself, discovered by Shinzon and intended as bait to lure the noble Starfleet officers into a trap. Unlike the treacherous Lore (never actually referenced in the film, but doubtlessly intended to lurk in the back of the fan’s mind), B-4 is an obvious innocent, even moreso than Data himself, perhaps an allusion to the fact that Data himself, except for a subplot in Insurrection, hasn’t really been one for about fifteen years now (when he initially emerges in the holodeck, attempting to perfect “Pop Goes the Weasel”). B-4’s deficiencies seem like unnecessary attempts at humor to the cynical viewer, but they’re shorthand and contrast to Picard’s problem, how to confront a past that threatens to disrupt the present. It’s actually Data’s most fully-rounded arc in four films, one with a clear direction, much like Picard himself, and like the captain, a story with real dramatic consequence has tragic results that are, rather than undermined by an apparent escape hatch in his replacement by B-4, actually serves to complete the thought Shinzon couldn’t, that the path to the future is filled with purposeful struggle. When B-4 first manifests a connection to the memories that had been downloaded by his departed brother, it isn’t to suggest that he will become him, but that he now has the same potential his brother had been exploring all his life. What Shinzon wanted was the same kind of possibility Picard’s life embodied, the quintessential Star Trek quest for the next horizon.

You can see it on Picard’s face, both when he sees Shinzon dies in front of him, or when he watches Data sacrifice himself, that life isn’t easy, even when you seem to have everything going for you. Nemesis is an incredibly nuanced and powerful exploration of the things this cast had been attempting to do from the very start. It does feel a tad derivative at times, trying too hard to feel like a typical action movie, and while it probably succeeds better than any other Star Trek film until the one that follows it, that still doesn’t make it feel entirely natural. Director Stuart Baird undermines a lot of the film’s impact by displaying a consistent lack of connection with the material. For the final appearance of the Next Generation cast, the experience is helmed by someone who doesn’t understand the significance of characters like Guinan, putting in an insignificant appearance, or even Wesley Crusher, who is virtually cut from the movie entirely (you can still glimpse him at the wedding reception). Still, he does have the good sense to recognize the dramatic appeal of a cameo for Kate Mulgrew as Janeway, one of my favorite parts of the film.

Of all the Star Trek films, Nemesis most deserves a second look.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Star Trek: Insurrection

December 1998 fell in the middle of the final season of Deep Space Nine, the fifth of Voyager, and apparently far from much interest in a new Star Trek movie. Despite the considerable success of First Contact two years earlier, Insurrection arrived to minimal interest, and a very different tone from its predecessor, ensuring that even those who had gotten into the concept of Next Generation feature films would find this one easy to overlook.

To get this out of the way, yes there are problems with Insurrection. Even though he’s the director, Jonathan Frakes can’t seem to come up with a realistic substitute to the beard he shaves off halfway through the film, but not before he’s done shooting scenes prior to that development. Worf becomes the butt of Final Frontier humor. Okay, that’s pretty much it.

Otherwise, I’ve always really liked this one. Dismissed almost from the start as just another TV episode expanded beyond its limits, Insurrection was arguably the first victim of Star Trek overload that finally sidelined the franchise in 2005, seven years after its release. A number of sequences are truly exceptional, from the opening scenes that reveal a duck blind mission on an alien world and Data running wild all over it, to Picard and Worf’s thrilling chase to reclaim the android, to the captain’s final confrontation with the villainous Ru’afo, there’s a lot that works dramatically, and compares favorably to anything that was seen in First Contact.

The two films are very different in a lot of ways. First Contact deals with matters that carry a lot of weight with audiences, both those familiar with the Next Generation cast already and those who quickly realize how personal all of this is to Picard. Insurrection deals with matters that are entirely new to everyone involved, which realize their potential in how Picard gradually accepts their importance despite his apparent professional detachment. I think if you still don’t get it, more than a decade later, that’s your best approach.

As embodied by the most significant Starfleet admiral in franchise history, Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe, in a performance that brought him back into some significance, and no doubt led to his casting in The Matrix Reloaded five years later), the establishment is the story here, which is strange, because that’s not really what Star Trek had ever been about, even though both Kirk and Picard were positioned as the captain of the flagship. Gene Roddenberry deemphasized a lot of what seemed to be important in modern culture throughout the franchise, often without drawing any attention to it. Kirk was a prime example, because although he ostensibly represented not just Starfleet but the entire Federation, he was more typically depicted as the master of his own fate, and that he participated in almost every mission personally helped establish that he pretty much controlled his own missions, no overhead necessary. On the rare occasion, especially in the later films, where he was forced to acknowledge superiors, it was always a pretty dicey situation, where he would pretty much scoff and do his own thing anyway.

Picard was always a little different. He was always the consummate professional. Even in First Contact, he made the most tactful Kirk maneuver of his career, pretty much duplicating Kirk’s decisions in Search for Spock, with the audience being allowed to decide, as Kirk faced the hard way in The Voyage Home, that it was all obviously worth it. Insurrection was different. Admiral Dougherty was right there, dictating move for move, treating even our beloved Data as if he were just another officer, hardly worth noting at all (which of course for at least seven TV seasons the audience had been told otherwise, certainly in “The Measure of a Man”). Eventually, because Picard always does the right thing (Nemesis would finally find a situation where the right thing isn’t necessarily the right thing), he decides he can’t just sit back and let things happen, follow orders that are against his moral code.

Insurrection is in many ways a story of familiar things being turned on their head. The basic plot itself had already been the basis for at least one Next Generation episode (the filmmakers were well aware of this, just in case you were wondering), and the conclusion is the third in a series of four movie endings to see Picard basically beam in, confront the villain directly, and leave on the coattails of a massive explosion.

What seem like weaknesses are actually strengths. I can’t stress enough that just because something is familiar that it can’t work, especially if the context is actually different. In essence, what repetition actually represents is a chance to challenge the audience, to remind viewers that life presents a continuing series of challenges that we can either face or run from, basic cause and effect, really. In Generations, Picard has to prevent Soran from blowing up a sun, and the ramifications are directed at a moral question of whether or not that particular villain has the right to effect millions of live simply for his own gratification. That’s pretty much the same as what the captain does in Insurrection. Bet you never even got that. In First Contact, he prevents retribution, just as he does in Nemesis. Both if you actually watch each of these sequences, even if the setups are similar, you’ll note that the impacts are all calculated to individual yields. It’s been said that these scenes are all stolen from James Bond flicks. But in Star Wars, something always blows up, to some degree. Death Star, Luke Skywalker’s mind (I didn’t say this couldn’t be funny), Death Star, the Trade Federation blockade, interstellar war, the Republic. Always some fantastic ending, something making way for something else. Or James Bond, where the villain always gets his comeuppance.

At least with Star Trek, sometimes the villain learns something. Without Ru’afo to incite them, some of the Son’a finally reunite with the Ba’ku (though in Deep Space Nine, we later learn that some of them continue to side with the Dominion).

For existing fans, part of the disappointment was no doubt that Picard was doing any of this at all while the Dominion War was going on around him. They saw it as a huge waste of time. The film addresses this. As captain of the flagship, Picard is subject to every whim and need of the Federation, whatever it might be. Since we never saw Kirk engaged in an actual war scenario, it’s probably easy to just assume that he would have taken his Enterprise into battle and kept fighting until the war was won, probably in a single afternoon (he outwitted Khan in a matter of hours, didn’t he?), just another thing that separated him from his successors. But for Picard, who valued simple exploration (and always harbored his archeological interests), probably didn’t relish conflict (not to mention “Best of Both Worlds,” or First Contact), and probably began to wish his skills for diplomacy might be put to better use. The most effective comic scene in the movie is when he’s called to attend a ceremony to greet the latest members of the Federation, which he clearly finds to be a waste of his time, but will do what he has to, because that’s what Picard does.

It isn’t until he learns any number of dirty secrets surrounding the Ba’ku and the Son’a, and Starfleet’s interests in their world, that Picard begins to have second thoughts. It doesn’t hurt that he meets a Ba’ku named Anij (Donna Murphy, who would, six years later, establish better footing in genre film history with Spider-man 2 as the wife of Doctor Octopus), who allows him to embrace what he has long denied himself, a less cluttered acceptance of life’s challenges. He begins to confront Dougherty about all the inconsistencies surrounding this mission, about an emerging and contradictory perspective that the admiral has long been denying, simply because it’s inconvenient.

To have the captain star in a story like this is pretty remarkable, since the captain is supposed to be the hero, not the reactionary. This is the second time in three films that Picard has been the reactionary, and so it’s no surprise that once again, audiences don’t particularly like watching him this way. He once again tackles the action role, a bit more directly, but far more late into the game, than in First Contact. It isn’t until he volunteers to thwart Ru’afo personally that he truly gets into the spirit of it, and that’s why the ending works for me, how it isn’t just another variation of something we’ve seen, but something that feels necessary and right, a rousing conclusion.

Zerbe and Murphy are worthy successors to James Cromwell and Alfre Woodard in themselves, but where the casting really became interesting was F. Murray Abraham as Ru’afo. Like Malcolm McDowell and Alice Krige before him, Abraham embraces his role, but gets a lot more chances to, well, flesh it out. This is where the film really demonstrates that it’s the third in a series, since it seems to relish its take on the best parts of its predecessors. Like McDowell’s Soran, Ru’afo has a personal mission that drives him to distraction. Like Krige’s Borg Queen, he drips with creepy visuals. With Abraham’s considerable presence, he steals every scene he’s in. The story is only allowed to unfold the way it does because with Ru’afo, you don’t need to know the backstory until it becomes important. Once you learn that the Son’a are actually members of the Ba’ku race, you realize that Ru’afo’s obsession is far beyond any idea of revenge, and so the story becomes something else entirely. You almost wish you could see another film right after, the Year One where Ru’afo first realizes his ambitions are never going to be satisfied with these smug settlers with all the time in the world, and nothing much to show for it.

Yes, you could actually begin rooting for the villain. But the Ba’ku themselves are pretty interesting, too. The opening credits, the first extreme contrast from First Contact, take their time, quietly exploring a rural village and its flourishing culture. We learn later that technology exists here, but only as a means to an end. These people are busy with what interests them most, not with getting hurriedly to the next big thing. When Picard arrives and doesn’t understand, because that’s sort of what he’s all about, hurriedly jutting off to the next big thing, you want Anij to sit his butt down and explain to him that he doesn’t understand how much he actually has in common with them. He yearns for simplicity more than anything else. Insurrection, which by fan estimations, should have been about the Dominion War, tries to make the case that we just need to get out of the way of ourselves.

Maybe not the best message, especially for a franchise audience finding little to spark some renewed interest. Star Trek is probably fairly unique in being a phenomenon that people fought to save, but then started taking for granted, ultimately deciding to reject it because those darn creators kept trying to stick to the message. Wiz! Bang! Where are all the explosions!?

Riker and Troi, meanwhile, finally get back to the message themselves, that they had undeniable chemistry, that they tried hard to ignore, and finally avoided as best they could. When someone asks, Well, whatever happened to Troi’s relationship with Worf? I would say, that whole thing was what Worf needed at the time, a new family to replace all the turmoil he’d experienced, losing a mate and gaining a son, and struggling to feel comfortable in Starfleet while maintaining his Klingon ideals…Anyway, Worf didn’t need that anymore. Perhaps the fact that he was hardly ever integral to the story in the Next Generation films says more about his character, that all the problems he had in TV episodes didn’t really represent what he, essentially, was always looking for, and ultimately found. Each time he had an excuse to find his Next Generation friends again, it was always at a point where he needed it. Watch Deep Space Nine and see where he was each time a new movie was released. 1996, he was still settling in. 1998, he was still recovering. 2002, c’mon, do you think he was going to be an ambassador forever?

Plus he has that great Gilbert & Sullivan duet with Picard. Which brings us back to Data. It might seem trite to pair him with a kid (even Michael Welch, whose pedigree would only increase after his debut here, whether as a de-aged Jack O’Neill in Stargate SG1, or co-starring in Joan of Arcadia and the Twilight films), backward development for a character who had come so far, just in the last two films alone. No matter that Insurrection puts all sorts of new context to him. Bringing his quest to be more human back into the picture by having him hang out with a kid was something he rarely did even around Wesley Crusher, and only when some child was traumatized enough to think he himself was an android. As strange as it seems to say so out loud, Data rarely socialized. He had a certain circle of friends, but he pretty much kept to himself when he wasn’t on-duty. You don’t realize while you’re watching Insurrection, but it’s pretty remarkable to see him making a concerted effort like that, with someone else. He didn’t exactly ask Dr. Crusher in Generations to help him understand humor. He just pushed her out of the boat.

Suffice it to say, but I found a great deal to admire about the film. It’s not the strongest entry, but that’s sort of the point. It’s a strange way to make a motion picture, but at that time, Paramount had a film franchise to continue, and it thought something like Insurrection made sense. Well, it does, actually. Maybe you’ll think so, too, with another viewing.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Star Trek: First Contact

As it has been since 1996, First Contact is my favorite Star Trek film. (Here’s the official order, for those who like to keep score: 1)First Contact, 2) Star Trek, 3) The Motion Picture, 4) Nemesis, 5) Generations, 6) The Search for Spock, 7) The Voyage Home, 8) The Wrath of Khan, 9) Insurrection, 10) The Undiscovered Country, and 11) The Final Frontier.) Of the whole series to date, it’s the one that most succeeds in simply being a film. I get chills watching it.

It should come as no surprise that most of them come from watching Patrick Stewart in it. As I discussed earlier, clearly the dude was cast in Star Trek because he can act, and it wasn’t the small screen for which he was meant. He was going to be the consummate Star Trek film actor, and by god, in First Contact, he fulfills that potential, from one sequence to the next, working as many levels as he can possibly fit in, against as many actors as possible. Clearly, he meets his match in Alfre Woodard (Lily), and the ready room scene where the two collide over the best course of action against the Borg claiming Picard’s own ship, that’s cinema gold. I don’t care if no one else ever actually agrees with me, that this is literally one of the finest scenes ever caught on film. I don’t care if most critics consider, even after more than twenty years, Patrick Stewart’s part in Star Trek to be an unnecessary and ill-fitting diversion from the stage. They never really appreciated him before. And they still don’t really appreciate him now. Even most filmmakers today hardly recognize the extent of his talent. I like him as Professor X just fine, and Conspiracy Theory is an unexpected delight. But it’s as if, apart from TV work specifically developed for him, no one understands what this guy can do. I consider his Scrooge, which he developed over years of performing a one-man show, to be definitive. Likewise his Ahab (even if the hair was a little dodgy). And yet his one true film highlight comes in the middle of a movie most people will never take seriously enough.

First Contact was the unabashed success of the Next Generation films, and rightly so. It may have been another apparent rip-off of Wrath of Khan, but if so, then it was the one that really got it right. The Borg, especially as embodied by the new Borg Queen (Alice Krige) were lightyears more interesting, compelling, and articulated than Khan, not to mention more relevant. They spoke directly to the character of Picard, both in terms of past experience, and his unwillingness to admit defeat.

This wasn’t like Kirk, cheating no-win scenarios, just because he was the dashing hero. Kirk won his biggest victory by unwittingly sacrificing his closest friend. Picard admitted defeat. It’s in First Contact that the character is completely reinvented, or perhaps brought back to his never-before-seen roots, as a young risk-taker unafraid of consequences, who once lost his heart because he refused to back down from an unwinable fight. Throughout seven seasons on television, he remained mostly a passive figure, content to fall back on his skills at negotiation. He lost a valuable officer in Ro Laren because he refused to take an active role. In the films, he finally accepts that responsibility again, and it’s a revelation. In fact, it’s downright scary. Once he finally opens up, Picard almost isn’t even likeable. You can see, if you want to, the echoes of Nemesis in First Contact, when he slaughters Borg drones without hesitation, even drones that are recently assimilated from his own crew. All the compassion he was shown, even when transformed into the pitiless Locutus in “Best of Both Worlds,” he directs only to Data, perhaps the only being capable of truly understanding the turmoil that is always bubbling beneath the surface. The android has emotions he can turn off in the blink of an eye. The captain probably wishes he did, too.

What you might not get from Picard himself is portrayed aptly by Zephram Cochrane (James Cromwell, in his signature Star Trek role), the historic wonder boy who turns out to be all too fallible indeed. In fact, he’s hardly likable at all. So Riker, in his most memorable appearance anywhere in the franchise, learns. Maybe it’s not hard to notice the first officer this time, because the actor behind him, Jonathan Frakes, is also behind the camera. Like Leonard Nimoy before him, Frakes proves adept at directing, finding new and interesting things to do that help illuminate all the strengths, both old and new, of everyone he’s known for years. Where some people see a lot of Alien in this movie, I see familiar things made relevant in new context, which is all any piece of fiction can possibly hope to do. There are no new stories, and there really aren’t any old ones, either. Stories just are, combinations of familiar elements told in unfamiliar ways. If you want to, you can view First Contact as the perfection of a familiar effort, making Star Trek films. This was the eighth one. How often are the best films in any series that deep into the pile? (Okay, okay, so the Harry Potter series has a good shot at that, because there’s a lot of meaty character work to resolve in the final half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and these films have already proven that they’re best when they center on character and the spectacle possible in bringing it out.)

Because the film spends so little time trying to explain things, it works incredibly well, because it’s allowed to just have fun. Riker and Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton, finally sporting pretty much his own eyes), not to mention Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), they still playing the support team, but this time, they’re commanding it, trying to guide the unruly Cochrane into completing his historic mission, the first human warp flight. Worf (Michael Dorn) has his best and most essential appearance of the franchise, too. Viewers who didn’t know he was technically a part of the Deep Space Nine crew when he showed up in the Defiant, the ship that was built to battle the Borg, and put up as much of a fight as he could, in a sequence only sparingly demonstrated, saw an awesome battle and a good reason to bring him back aboard the Enterprise. He and Picard have their most meaningful conversations, or should I say confrontations, the kind of scenes the TV show could never have done, but should have always been happening. To say that Worf was a castrated Klingon on the small screen would have been putting it lightly, but it was also completely indicative almost all of his appearances. First Contact gave him an excuse to cut loose.

Even Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) has at least one good moment, when she summons the Emergency Holographic Program (Robert Picardo, proving that in a short time, at least one aspect of Voyager was already a proven part of franchise lore) to stall some incoming Borg. You get everything you need to know about her, Crusher’s medical and professional sense, in just that one scene. It’s what everything about her had always been trying to say, and there it was. Gates even gets to show off her theatricality, which had always failed before.

We get a couple of minor Starfleet officers to make an impact, too, from the established (Reg Barclay, portrayed to perfection once again by Dwight Schultz, in his only film appearance) to the new (Neal McDonough, making a lasting impression as the short-lived Lt. Hawk, and Michael Horton, as the recurring Lt. Daniels). Picard brings Dixon Hill to the big screen, too, and that works like gangbusters. Ethan Phillips joins Picardo in a Voyager cameo. Anyone who already loathed Neelix must still have enjoyed that one. (Tim Russ, in one of his many pre-Tuvok roles, had sort of started this tradition by appearing in Generations as a bridge officer aboard the Enterprise-B.)

The final act has its own iconic moment, too, when the audience learns the aliens who spotted Cochrane’s flight are actually Vulcans. It’s a huge surprise, a fitting one, and helped set up an entire later series (Enterprise). Jerry Goldsmith’s lush and somber score helps make the film tremendously memorable, hitting the same frenetic notes at the right times as the rest of the movie itself. I need to reference the new uniforms as well. Not since The Motion Picture and Wrath of Khan had such a change in wardrobe made such an impact, both on the films they happened in and on the franchise itself. The red jackets Kirk sports for six out of his seven appearances speak about an era just in themselves. The black jackets Picard assumes in First Contact (which are quickly made the standard attire in Deep Space Nine) help bolster the image that this is Star Trek finally embracing the medium of film.

It’s not hard to see how First Contact affected the rest of the Star Trek franchise, from 1996 to 2005, the kind of profound impact that happens surprisingly infrequently. For that reason alone, it earns a place in history. But it is also a darn good film. I would volunteer “great.”

Friday, October 1, 2010

Star Trek Generations

Three years after The Undiscovered Country and just a few months after “All Good Things…” concluded their TV adventures, the Next Generation crew ascended to the big screen in what was deemed by Paramount an inevitability. To assist in the transition was Captain Kirk, who would at last share time with his successor, Jean-Luc Picard. It was to be the biggest moment yet in franchise lore.

The whole idea of it is probably still controversial to this day, far more than anyone realized at the time. The studio basically assumed that, after six films that covered more than a decade, Star Trek was now as much in the movie business as it was television. It calculated that, even with a third series having launched the previous year, the fans would want something to replace the departing flagship, with the same philosophy applied to both stages. If Kirk were no longer making films, then Picard was the next logical choice.

I would tend to argue that Picard should have been in the movie business long before he broke in, if that were really so inevitable. Though it would have robbed audiences of the sublime sendoff for the original crew, The Undiscovered Country, Next Generation films might have seemed viable and lucrative as early as 1990, at the end of the new cast’s breakthrough third TV season, when everything was finally clicking into place. Just imagine what “The Best of Both Worlds,” already one of Star Trek’s most famous moments, could have done with a considerable budget.

Humor me a moment. The original crew, back in the 1960s, was cast for television. None of the actors, not even William Shatner, ever got much of a film career, before or after their three seasons serving on the bridge of the Enterprise. By the time they became movie stars, they were all aging. By the time of their last film together, none of them could ever hope to be featured in their own films again. The six Star Trek films are little each of their highest marks of achievement, and they are marks that would never have been achieved without Star Trek.

The Next Generation cast, however, was in a far different situation. I’m not suggesting that there was no success outside of Star Trek for the original crew, since Shatner and Leonard Nimoy obviously had some other high profile successes during this period of their careers, but that they were to a fault confined pretty specifically to a single beast. They were victims, as Nimoy himself realized early on, of their own limited success, a stroke of luck. The Next Generation cast had a single advantage: they knew exactly what they were getting into. In a lot of ways, this meant the casting job itself could afford to be a little more expansive. Thus, Patrick Stewart.

Not to begin and end with Stewart, because Wil Wheaton is still to this day more independently famous than he is, but the casting of Patrick Stewart was the singular genius of Next Generation, more than anything a clear sign that this show knew exactly what it wanted, and would eventually figure out exactly how to do it. Jeffrey Hunter was no William Shatner, after all. NBC wanted a complete overhaul after viewing “The Cage,” and so was brought in dashing James Kirk to replace wooden Christopher Pike. Yet, as with my earlier assertions that Next Generation was basically Gene Roddenberry’s belated vindication of The Motion Picture, he once more got the more cerebral version of Star Trek that he always intended, and in turn, finally cast that central character perfectly. It didn’t have to be a Brit to work, but Patrick Stewart was so perfect, so unexpected, that he probably sold his version of Star Trek entirely by himself.

All of this is to get back to how and why Star Trek Generations came about, and the manner of which it destroyed the franchise as it had come to be known. I would argue that, having finally gotten exactly what he wanted, Roddenberry, had he lived to see it, would have once again have found himself thoroughly repudiated.

With the casting of Stewart, Star Trek was given in an instant exactly the thing it had been searching for since the 1970s, before The Motion Picture was even conceived: credibility. Stewart himself wouldn’t have guessed it, since he had been struggling throughout the decade he landed the role of a lifetime to make the transition from noted Shakespearean actor to Hollywood success. He landed bit parts in Dune and Excalibur, for instance (as to the latter, so did Liam Neeson, and look where that got him at the time). He was an aging, balding veteran with nothing to sell but his air of authority, and that’s not exactly a formula for success. But Star Trek was exactly the vehicle for that persona, even if Star Trek itself didn’t know it. The franchise was stuck in a singular pursuit of success with the same stagnating cast at the time. Only when given a shot to entirely recreate itself could it find exactly what it was looking for.

In other words, ever since The Motion Picture, Patrick Stewart was exactly what Star Trek had been seeking.

But he became locked up by a television show, and the early seasons are ample demonstration that the fit simply wasn’t comfortable. Even in his best hours Stewart always felt out of proportion. What the third season did was elevate the material to his level, is all. What I’m arguing is that it would have been just as well to transplant to his natural medium of film at that moment than continue what was suddenly a success on television. Audiences and ratings are not my concerns here. The material is. Clearly, with the Borg the creators had already discovered something that would be properly stimulating, and intriguing, enough to carry a film in exactly the way the original crew had been searching for a decade, but in a way that was actually natural.

Again, I don’t mean to knock the original cast or its films, because I’ve already spent a good deal of time talking about their merits, but merely to suggest that everything those experiences had been attempting to do out of necessity, the new cast could pull off naturally. To paraphrase Shinzon, they were a cast bred for film.

But to actually do something is different from the theory of it. Perhaps it was waiting the extra four seasons, perhaps it was because no matter how much the cast fit the bill, the audience never thought it was as necessary as the studio did, the Next Generation cast ultimately failed to meet expectations. Pretty spectacularly. Generations itself proved as much, first one out of the block.

The problem ended up being, the setup was too perfect. Patrick Stewart had already proved for seven seasons that he was a dynamic and confident lead actor, so his sudden appearance on the big screen felt redundant and uninspired. In 1994, the hunger for the next Star Wars had completely evaporated, was transforming into something else entirely, a need for blockbusters to definitively prove their own worth, no more hangers-on need apply. It was no longer good enough to be cinematic or ambitious, but rather to demonstrate something that hadn’t been seen before. Star Trek was certainly no longer new.

It wasn’t even enough to do what the franchise had never done before, what had been the implicit promise ever since “Encounter at Farpoint” in 1987, the meeting of the captains, which Generations was all about. The culture was backing away from excessive commitments, which the 1980s had mined more thoroughly than any era since serials, but Star Trek was asking for exactly that, dangling a payoff just when nobody cared anymore.

In fact, a lot of critics suggested that what Generations amounted to was a glorified serial, its moments stolen beat for beat from some earlier, antiquated time. It was like, Kirk and Picard meet. So What?

Maybe it didn’t help that what everyone realized by the end of the film was that Generations wasn’t so much a momentous occasion so much as itself the end of an era, signified by the death of Captain Kirk, merely aiding in the big rescue instead of driving it. More than any of his own films, Kirk’s last film appearance was all about how human this larger-than-life figure had really become. He was giving up the franchise and his own legend at the same time.

Replacing him? Some dude who moped, even cried, crawled around in dusty rocks. Instead of Spock, the iconic Vulcan whose death was as famous as his life, this new captain was supported by a neurotic android who spent the entire film in an insane frenzy.

So let’s finally get to Data (Brent Spiner). No character after Picard better represents the Next Generation cast. Unlike the captain, however, Data was tailor-made for television, given a clear direction with an ambiguous destination that was never meant to be reached. He was the puppet who wanted to be a real boy. Just as Picard had been made to be the mirror opposite of Kirk, so too was Data the opposite of Spock. He was the outsider fans were allowed to love. Pop goes the weasel.

Data’s greatest TV virtue was turned into his greatest cinematic sin in an instant. Generations gave him the emotions that had been denied him quite deliberately for seven seasons, limiting what Spiner could do, and at the same time providing a steady and reliable personality. Now the android was free to do everything the actor could, which must have seemed like the best way possible to mark a transition, to make a distinction between mediums. Instead, it was a disaster. The only scene where it truly works is the first time everyone realizes how naturally Data and Picard work together, a moment in an impressive set called stellar cartography, when Stewart and Spiner are allowed to do what they do best, act, in the very example of what separates this cast from its predecessor.

Everything else just confuses the audience. Everything that attempts to make a movie out of this cast that has been making movies for the past five years, one hour at a time, feels like an effort. I’m not saying this because that’s the way I feel. I loved and still love Generations. But that’s the reaction of the audience, whether it has ever been voiced that way or not. It’s just as well that Shatner didn’t get his elaborate skydiving sequence finished, because the parallels with The Final Frontier would have been too obvious.

Generations has lots of things in common with The Undiscovered Country, naturally. It still doesn’t feel dated, because it was shot with so much care by director David Carson, to disguise all the elements that had just been seen on television in far more grand scales, all the mood lighting, that it pretty much stands as the Motion Picture effort of the Next Generation films, something that works so hard to look the part that it somehow fails to feel it, too. Klingons play a key role, led by the Duras sisters familiar to TV audiences and anchored by Brian Thompson in another of his thankless Star Trek roles, but they’re almost beside the point. If Soran (Malcolm McDowell) didn’t need co-conspirators, they wouldn’t have been in the film at all.

It’s in Soran, however, that the film really starts to find a pulse. McDowell is such a familiar character actor, and is so well-known for A Clockwork Orange, that his work in Generations will probably be overlooked forever. Yet more than Shatner, Stewart, or Spiner, he’s what keeps everything together. Never mind how he’s the subtle link between generations, an unassuming if egomaniacal individual who pretty much does his best to keep to himself throughout the entire movie. That much pretty much sums up Khan, too. At times, when anyone wants to try and explain what they don’t like about the movie, beyond the “meaningless” and “insulting” death of Kirk, they’ll say it’s the first Next Generation attempt to steal the formula from Wrath of Khan. They’ll completely emasculate Soran, just that easily.

Yet McDowell is the casting coup of Patrick Stewart, repeated, for Generations. He doesn’t have a lot to do, and he really doesn’t need to do a lot, because his character is the idea floating through the story, just as the Nexus is floating through space. He is the embodiment of time, the very thing he spends most of his dialogue talking about. McDowell and Soran are a match made in heaven. You believe Soran because you’ve never known quite what to believe about McDowell, what it is that makes him relevant, despite a long career and very little to show for it. You can call him the stand-in for Star Trek itself in the film, the cynical heart of an earnest production. He doesn’t want immortality. He simply wants what he once had a tantalizing taste of, a sense of infinite possibilities. He never knew what he wanted until he stumbled into it, and then couldn’t shake it until he got it back. He just didn’t realize what it did to him.

In that sense, as the film itself cleverly insinuates, Generations does give Picard back to the Borg, exactly as the next film does, as every audience member had been wanting since “Best of Both Worlds,” but was constantly denied except for little gifts here and there. If the original crew got its fill of serialized storytelling in its string of six films, then the new crew had been teasing it for seven seasons, but hardly ever actually capitalizing on it.

Next Generation was always about episodic material, but tinged with a real sense of the material world, and that’s what Generations attempted to emulate, notably with its strange idea of a realm where your heart’s desire could be magically obtained, where doing the right thing means being counterintuitive in the most obscene sense possible.

Isn’t that Generations in a nutshell? I like to argue that people sometimes stumble into exactly what they need, and sometimes still, simply don’t realize it. They want something else, so reject what they actually get, even if it’s exactly what they need. I don’t think Kirk is ever any better, any more relevant, any more real, than when he’s pining for that lost love, Antonia, riding a horse and trying to figure things out, only to snap out of his funk and realize, as he always does, that he’s capable of doing exactly what needs to be done, regardless of the consequences. Picard, likewise, is a man who has a lot of history the audience was simply never allowed to explore, but who always rises above his circumstances and grasps the noble truths he seeks to uphold, the wisdom he embodies, if not always actually lives up to. More than anything, he is a living conduit of tradition, which makes him entirely appropriate as the second captain of the franchise, and the man to pin this movie on, the one looking over the next horizon (which of course he literally does at the end of the film).

Pointedly, I would say, the Next Generation movies, right from the start, take a little more exclusive look at storytelling than the six preceding entries. They never look at Federation presidents and deliberations. These kinds of moments are avoided entirely. Picard and Stewart are capable of embodying every kind of authority necessary, both in their reactions to the guest characters this captain always interacts with directly as well as the cast that was assembled around him all those years ago. Perhaps it’s telling, the role Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) plays here, the only time she makes a meaningful appearance in the four films, the sage voice, the only one, Picard needs in moments of reflection.

In 1994, after my first experience, the first Star Trek I saw in a theater, I had arrived late and felt throughout it a feverish anticipation. I made it bigger than it really was. But even later, when Generations came back down to earth, it never lost its grandeur, its simple grace. It was, to my mind, an unqualified success. It was a completely different beast from the original crew films that had come before. It did feel more natural, perhaps for the reasons I’ve speculated about in this piece, perhaps because it was a matter of timing for me personally.

It’s almost like a cross between The Motion Picture and The Undiscovered Country: competent, timid. Generations exists in a bubble. It’s separated from the three films that follow it visually, but also in the sense that the possibilities of the big screen haven’t been fully embraced yet, like a Next Generation version of an original crew film. Picard is less an authority here than reactionary. There’s little doubt that he’s the lead character, but Patrick Stewart has yet to fully understand the new possibilities. He’s still acting like someone on TV.

But even for that, I love it.
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