Geeking Out: The New STAR TREK

Contains spoilers.

Let me start by stating that yes, I am a STAR TREK fan. Particularly the original series. However, I have never been to a convention, never dressed up as any of the characters, and I do not speak a word of Klingon. That said, as a kid, I would have LOVED to have done any and all of the above.

My point? While I count myself as a fan, my fanaticism has its limits. There are those who can talk STAR TREK circles around me. And I welcome their input and observations. I say this because I truly enjoyed much of J.J. Abrams’ new STAR TREK film. I also had some issues with the film that keeps it from being a favorite. Or even as great as its first half promised. And my problems with the film are, in part, fan-based and, in other part, common sense-based.

There’s nothing more frustrating to me than a really good film that allows sloppy moments to intrude on the world of the story and characters. That said, I should state here that I am all for re-imaginings. It seems to be the thing these days. No longer is the sequel king. It’s the remake. And I’m all for it if it can do something new and unique with the material and characters. And this STAR TREK movie does that. Much the same way CASINO ROYALE re-started the Bond franchise and re-imagined our ruthless hero. Is it the Bond from the novels? Not really. Is he still highly watchable and exciting? Yes. The Bond series needed a breath of fresh air and they got it. Sadly, the second installment forgot about character development, but that’s another film and another post… Back to TREK.

J.J. Abrams’ new take on the old series is almost terrific. In fact, the first half of the film held me lovingly in its grip. True, I went in fearing the worst, but the filmmakers had some great ideas on how to re-invigorate these characters and films and they managed to pull off the near-impossible: take these much-beloved characters –an institution, really– and give them over to an entirely new cast in an entirely new environment. Changing the timeline, as they did, is quite brilliant (and keeping within the rules of the TREK universe) and have single-handedly set us up for a whole lifetime of new adventures that do not require most of the facts and circumstances of the original series or any other offshoot, be it television or film.

The casting is near-perfect. Even if these aren’t exactly the characters as we knew and loved them, they’re pretty damn close; close enough to remind us why we loved them and make us yearn to love them again. And here is where one of my problems with the film rears its ugly head. It’s an issue that may very well be insignificant to anyone but a lover of STAR TREK. The casting and direction of the actors was so spot on, so fun to watch, both nostalgic and new all at the same time, that it’s that much more disappointing when they get one of the characters wrong.

I initially saw the film in the theater and had some reservations and issues, but all films deserve a second viewing (at least) and so I rented the Blu-ray and sat down for another look. And sadly, the same issues remained for me. The first being the casting of Simon Pegg as Scotty, originally played by the late James Doohan. As an actor and comedian, I think Pegg is great. But his (and the filmmakers’) take on Scotty basically mocks Doohan’s character. In fact, I would go as far as to say, with the exception of the accent, there is little-to-no similarities between the two. Pegg’s Scotty is a wise-cracking goofball from another movie. Whenever he’s on screen, the kids in the audience may be entertained, but the rest of us are stuck with a cartoon character. The filmmakers worked so hard to get all the characters right, why did they abandon this one?

Anyone who watched the original show knows that Scotty was never the comic relief. Not any more or less than any other character. But in this STAR TREK universe, he serves little else. His very presence undermines all the tension Abrams worked so diligently to build up throughout the film’s first half. Abrams might as well have cast Jim Carrey and let him run around the bridge talking out of his butt. It’s all very silly and out of place in a world where entire civilizations are wiped out and intimate family members murdered. But someone somewhere seemed to think that the film might be getting too dark and that they should dip into sitcom-land for a little while lest anyone get too tense or, god forbid, think the filmmakers where taking this seriously.

At one point, Scotty accidentally transports himself into an engine cooling system while our beloved Kirk has to watch him zip through transparent water tubes a la WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. Now you don’t have to be a STAR TREK fan or know any of these characters to recognize the tension all but completely disappear as the film veers off into an odd comic nether-sphere.

Add to that Scotty’s little alien friend –his cute little buddy that follows him around– and we have an episode of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND on our hands! Perhaps in their attempt to incorporate the many different elements of the TREK universe, the filmmakers thought this would be fitting. Sadly, for me, it completely took me out of the film and made me hyper-aware of the folks behind the scenes trying to make a few more “commercially-minded” choices. So, in effect, they took a beloved character, placed him in a rather riveting story, and then decided he should be more like Bill Murray in MEATBALLS.

But Pegg’s Scotty is really the only major character that completely missed the boat for me. There are a few instances where I thought the filmmakers were trying a little too hard to incorporate now-famous phrases or actions, like Karl Urban’s McCoy stating “I’m a doctor, not a physicist!” at a point where it really doesn’t make any sense in the context of the conversation that’s taking place and just ends up standing out like a sore thumb. But that I can more easily forgive because it is all in the line of trying to make the characters more like the ones we know and love. You can’t get everything right. Especially on the first outing.

But now comes the clincher; the moment in the film when logic and character motivation are replaced by a weak plot necessity resulting in what feels like blatantly lazy writing. In one fell swoop, the writers (or whoever made this decision) have Spock decide that he wants Kirk off the ship so badly that he actually has him ejected onto a dangerous ice planet. Whoa, hold on here, cowboy… Now while the filmmakers may have written themselves into a corner in needing to get Kirk and the older Spock together, they unfortunately resorted to an act that I do not for one second believe any captain or character (not to mention a logical Vulcan) would enact. Not on a ship with a brig. Lock Kirk up. Done and dealt with. Or why not simply sedate him as they had done previously? No, it makes no sense to the story or characters and ends up making me aware of the writers struggling. What’s odd is that this STAR TREK feels like a film where the filmmakers DID actually care and were hyper-aware of the characters and their motivations. So what happened here? Why a moment of such unnecessarily lazy writing?

Unfortunately, this unbelievable moment leads to one of the film’s most extraneous sequences where Kirk is chased by some wild beasties across the frozen landscape. This feels like the effects determining the story and not the other way around. It’s gratuitous and not particularly interesting. It’s an aversion from the story. For this viewer, the entire sequence and the clear unmotivated plot manipulation that preceded it took me out of the film and gave me a slight sinking feeling in my stomach. Mostly because, up until that point, they were doing such a bang-up job and I was so completely IN the world of the film! And of course, this sequence leads us directly to the introduction of Scotty, adding insult to injury.

The good news is, though it takes a while, the film finally finds its footing once again and is pretty damn entertaining straight through to the climax. Yeah, Bana’s Nero is not all that interesting or developed, but he is serviceable in a film that has chosen to spend the bulk of its time reintroducing us to these beloved characters in their new skins. And rightfully so. The film (and the franchise) depends on this.

So, for me, the filmmakers made some crucial mistakes in the second half of the film. They allowed themselves to get lazy as well as give in to some overly commercial elements that, in my opinion, had no place there and, in fact, disrupted the flow and integrity of the story.

But perhaps it’s a small transgression given the task they set for themselves and the amount they actually did get right. Still, all in all, what they got wrong brought the film down enough for me that it just doesn’t sit in my gut as comfortably as I would like it to. And that’s a shame. Because all I really want at the end of the day is good storytelling and rich characters (and yeah, these days that makes me a demanding audience member). And for the first half of the film, they delivered that in spades. But once they stumbled, I was never quite able to shake that feeling that this film was almost terrific. But these days, almost is more than we can usually expect from any film produced and developed by an American studio. So by that gauge, STAR TREK is still way above average.

Geeking Out: The New STAR TREK

What Would Palin Do?

My love/hate relationship with the extreme conservative right continues. Yes, I love how fascinatingly absurd they can be –beyond anything I could have imagined– and I hate the fact that there are people in this country ignorant enough to take them seriously. Well, let’s hope conservative Canadians are a smarter lot than our American conservative faction.

Canadian comedian Mary Walsh of This Hour Has 22 Minutes fame, visited Palin on one of her book-signing tours. Disguised as her conservative character Marg Delahunty, Mary tried to ask Palin a question during the book signing:

“I just wanted to ask you if you have any words of encouragement for Canadian conservatives who have worked so hard to try to diminish the kind of socialized medicine we have up there.”

Walsh was instantly surrounded by security and escorted out of the bookstore, even as Palin attempted to answer her question. Walsh’s response?

“We’re in a bookstore, at a public event, in a place one would think was a bastion of free speech. And no one was allowed to ask questions. What are they afraid of?”

Luckily, Walsh caught up with Palin outside (she had to hide in a loading dock) after the book-signing where Palin freely answered the question:

“Keep the faith because common sense conservatism can be plugged in there in Canada too. In fact, Canada needs to reform its health care system and let the private sector take over some of what the government has absorbed.”

Yeah. Canada needs to stop offering affordable health care to its citizens and start making Health Care a for-profit industry. Cause that’s gonna save lives, right? Because the American Health Care system is, like all things American, morally and economically advanced.

So what do Canadians think about Sarah Palin’s dream for their Health Care system? Well, according to The Raw Story:

A recent study (PDF) found that 90 percent of Canadians support universal, single-payer health care. A poll taken last summer shows 82 percent of Canadians believe their health care system to be better than the US’s, despite constant grumbling about waiting times for treatment of non-life-threatening conditions.

What Would Palin Do?

Cheney’s Need To Man-Up

Cheney has some serious problems with President Obama bowing respectfully to foreign leaders. And yet he expects Americans to lay down before him and be trampled over by his corporate cronies. This is a man who has taken advantage of more people to get what he wants than any other American figure in recent history. There is a thorough and complete brainwashing that goes on here. And it’s brainwashing through fear, which has always been America’s greatest enemy. And now he’s at it again trying to convince his incurious hordes that Obama needs to “Man-up” or “step-down.”

Commenting on Obama’s bow to the Japanese Emperor during the president’s trip to China, Cheney commented that:

“”There is no reason for an American president to bow to anyone. Our friends and allies don’t expect it and our adversaries perceive it as a sign of weakness…

“I think it’s fundamentally harmful and it shows in my mind that this is a guy, a president, who would bow, for example, who doesn’t fully understand or have the same perception of the U.S. role in the world that I think most Americans have.

“What I see in President Obama is somebody who bows before foreign leaders and spends his trips aboard primarily apologizing for U.S. behavior. I find that very upsetting.”

Really? Cause Lord knows the world openly embraced our macho posturing during the eight years of the Bush Administration. Why, we were seen as parent figures, protectors, the good guys, right? Thank God for an evolved America. Leading by example, and all that. You know, like the Bush Administration’s charming,  jingoistic vision of  “cowboy diplomacy.”

No, the truth is Cheney’s view of America has something to do with carrying a gun and shooting your friends in the face. Accident or not, it’s the perfect metaphor for Cheney’s approach to heroism, manliness, and American strength. And anyone who goes “hunting” with this man has what’s coming to them.

What was it Ghandi said?

“The science of war leads one to dictatorship, pure and simple. The science of non-violence alone can lead one to pure democracy…”

Here’s Cheney commenting on war:

“It will be necessary for us to be a nation of men, and not laws.”

Well, that’s never been more on display than in Cheney’s attitude toward war and interrogation. According to journalist/author Mark Danner (Stripping Bare the Body: Politics, Violence, War):

“According to the Bush administration, the Convention Against Torture allows waterboarding; allows confinement in small boxes; allows sleep deprivation for up to eight days; allows beatings; allows the use of insects and various other things to terrify detainees; allows the use of heat, light, severe cold, prolonged nudity.”

Danner also goes on to describe some other “ineterrogation methods” supported by Cheney:

“[They] threatened detainees with drills, that they were going to drill into their heads, threatened to shoot them in the head or threatened to rape their daughters or rape their wives.”

And now Cheney (and his daughter Liz) are systematically attempting to undermine our current president by suggesting he is “weak.” Danner continues:

“Republicans, in the person of the Cheneys, Kit Bond and others, have criticized the Obama administration nonetheless for starting a witch hunt of Bush administration officials, which clearly isn’t the case.

But as you saw in this lobbying group that Cheneys have now set up, the Republicans see rich political ground to be harvested in these issues. And this goes back really to three months after the attacks of 9/11, when Karl Rove stood up before the Republican National Committee and said, “Americans trust us to protect the country. You know, we can win on this terrorism issue.” And indeed, for two elections, they did win. And the Cheneys are now really trying to set up the Obama administration as an administration that’s weak, Democratic weakness, renouncing torture, renouncing the techniques that supposedly are needed to protect the country.

And I think there’s a very calculated strategy at work here, particularly in the event of another attack. That is, the Obama administration is being put in a position where if there is an attack on the country, it can be very vigorously blamed by the Republicans for leaving the country open to the attack by its supposed refusal to torture detainees.”

Liz Cheney commented on Obama’s bow versus her  father’s own stiff meeting with the Japanese Emperor back in 2007:

“You could also look at the comparison and think, Cheney 2012.”

Eek. Is Cheney really the reigning example of American “strength?”

If you ask me, I think Cheney’s values are now, and have always been, on display for anyone who wants to see them:

“We have to make America the best place in the world to do business.”

“The Middle East, with two-thirds of the world’s oil and lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies.”

Even Cheney’s comments on Saddam Hussein sound more like another country talking about America’s past and the recent Bush/Cheney’s present:

“Saddam Hussein had a lengthy history of reckless and sudden aggression… and had built, possessed, and used weapons of mass destruction.”

Even in talking about the “terrorist agenda,” Cheney continues to make oblivious comparisons to his own “agenda”:

“Given the nature of the enemy we face today, and the fact that their ultimate objective is to force us to change our policies and to retreat within our borders, the last thing we need is to convey the impression that terrorists can change our policies through violence and intimidation.”

How about that Gandhi fella again:

“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?”

Choose your leaders wisely.

Cheney’s Need To Man-Up

New DSO Guitarist Soars

As some of you know, I was quite upset to read that lead guitarist/singer and founding member of the amazing jam-band Dark Star Orchestra, John Kadlecik, was stepping down. Not since Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead have I experienced such a solid, transcendent and moving live musical experience as DSO. Given that, I felt that anyone who would try and step into John’s shoes would be as disappointing as all those who have attempted to fill Jerry’s.

Well, those shoes are being filled by Zen Tricksters and Donna Jean Godchaux Band lead guitarist/singer Jeff Mattson. Now while Mattson’s singing voice isn’t as melodic (or as Jerry-like) as Kadlecik’s, his playing is simply startling. Or at least that would seem to be the case judging by his first gig with DSO (see below).

Mattson’s guitar soars, cries and rages with the best of them. Like Kadlecik and Garcia before him, this guy seems to have that magical potential wherein the guitar becomes an instrument capable of turning one’s emotions and thoughts into the purest of sounds that lift the music far above that place of commercial comfort and allows it to burst through the clouds to that mysterious place bordering the heavens. Or at least he manages to do so on this first night. I’ll keep listening and will certainly be checking out their next live gig in my area. I’ll reserve full judgement for that time. But it’s safe to say, for the moment, that this musical experience I was already starting to mourn (again) may be far from dead. Or is that “even more Dead”?

Check out Mattson’s intro show HERE. I highly recommend the Sugaree, Deal, I Need A Miracle and Eyes Of The World as terrific samples.

New DSO Guitarist Soars

DSO Founding Member Kadlecik Resigns

This is sad news indeed for those of us who have come to love the experience of seeing Dark Star Orchestra perform live. Their recreations of specific Grateful Dead concerts –right down to set list, equipment, stage set-up and style– have managed to bring back an experience gone since the death of Dead founder Jerry Garcia in 1995. And anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows that I was (and am) a recent newcomer to the DSO scene, though I have been part of the Dead scene since the mid-seventies.

It seems just as I embraced DSO as my current refuge and re-energizer in the world of live music, the band is now going through a life-altering change. DSO founding member and lead guitarist John Kadlecik announced that after 12 years, he would be resigning from the band. From John’s own web site:

Howdy folks-

Well, its been twelve years since Dark Star Orchestra performed its first show, so I’d like to start off by taking a moment to thank all of you that have given us the chance to play for you. You have made the last twelve years possible for DSO! There have been over twenty musicians and even more crew members and “home office” staff who have helped make DSO what it is today. I am grateful to each and every one of you and it has been an honor working with all of you. Thank you – thank you – THANK YOU!

And now to the matter at hand…

Most of you know by now that Phil Lesh and Bob Weir have asked me to play with their new band: Furthur. Needless to say, this was a great honor and the first three shows were A LOT of fun! However, I cannot in good conscience divide my time and energy between DSO and Furthur and I feel it would be a disservice to all parties involved. So after careful consideration, I have resigned from Dark Star Orchestra and my last performance as a member of DSO will be December 5th in Buffalo, New York. I am fully supportive of and honored by the remaining members’ desire to continue and I wish them all the best in their future endeavors. To all of you: “I love you more than words can tell…”

John Kadlecik

While I wish John all the best and plan to see him as often as possible with Further, I will miss the small venue experience of those DSO shows. They were, quite simply put, the best and most powerful live musical experience I’ve had since my early years of following the Grateful Dead. And in many ways, the shows DSO recreated from the Dead’s latter years were, in truth, better and tighter than the Dead themselves performed them.

DSO’s new lead guitarist will be Jeff Mattson of the Zen Tricksters and the Donna Jean Godchaux Band. While I fully expect Jeff to be a stunning guitarist, I am concerned that he may not have the musical “voice” that both Jerry Garcia and John Kadlecik managed through their playing. I have found it to be a rare talent indeed and not one that can be learned, but seems to come from some innate inner place. So while I have no doubt that DSO’s musical experience will continue to be a good one, I wonder if it will ever reach the transcendent heights it did with Kadlecik at the helm. We’ll soon see.

And I hope that this incarnation of Further continues on for some time to come and that John’s magic lifts this new band to heights unseen and unheard. And while two of the Grateful Dead’s original members (Bob Weir on rhythm guitar and Phil Lesh on bass) will be playing alongside John, the music will be less a throwback to the past and more a rediscovering of the music as the band members grow and mature. For me, this combination of musicians shows more promise than any other I’ve seen in the Grateful Dead universe, with the exception of the Dead themselves. As for DSO, I’ll be listening closely. I’m just not ready to give this experience up all over again. There were so many people I was excited to turn on to this musical journey. And then it was gone…

Or not.

DSO Founding Member Kadlecik Resigns

Scorsese Talks Blu-ray

Picture 7Martin Scorsese was the head speaker at this year’s Blu-Con 2.0 symposium in Beverly Hills. And he seconded what those of us already hooked on Blu already know:

“Blu-ray is going to extend the lifetime of a movie… I have a daughter who’s 10, and she can’t tell the difference between old films and new films. [That makes me] very excited and optimistic as a filmmaker and a film lover.

BD’s potential to replicate the original theatrical experience is the best I’ve seen in forty years of [movie] collecting. Blu-ray offers the ability to see the film as it was intended.”

He also added that Blu-ray has the potential, when mastered correctly, to offer:

“a film grain texture which I think is very important in recreating the film experience.”

He then went on to praise Criterion for their hi-def remastering of the brilliant and sumptuous 1948 Powell/Pressburger film THE RED SHOES, due for upcoming release on Blu-ray:

“It’s like experiencing the film for the first time again. It’s not just the details of the eyes or such; it creates a completely different experience.”

Scorsese talked about how a poor presentation can greatly alter a movie-watcher’s experience of a film:

“There are subtle things, like not being able to see the actor’s eyes. With Blu-ray, you don’t have that problem.”

As a Blu-ray collector and filmmaker myself, I can personally attest to just how incredible Blu-ray is. When used correctly. There are a few Blu-ray discs out there that don’t live up to the potential of the medium, but the majority of films I’ve watched and own are simply outstanding. It is genuinely a very different experience from watching standard DVD or, lord help us, video.

Picture 8Criterion’s new release of Wim Wenders’ WINGS OF DESIRE is a revelation. I owned the previous DVD release and I can tell you right now that these are two very different film-watching experiences. Same goes for the newly remastered Blu-ray edition of the Hitchcock classic NORTH BY NORTHWEST, which was given a stunning new 8k transfer. The detail and texture now possible in the Blu-ray format has opened a door to allowing people of all ages to experience films, both new and old, in ways not possible since the time of a film’s original theatrical release. For anyone who loves film, or simply enjoys watching a movie now and again, Blu-ray is the only way to go. Unless you own a 35mm projector and a damn good print of your favorite film.





Scorsese Talks Blu-ray

Silly Sarah: The Answer To Palin’s Coin Question

Picture 6Last week, Sarah Palin raised her newest conspiracy theory while speaking at a Wisconsin Right To Life fundraising banquet. During her speech (in which she also managed to continue her insistence on the existence of Health Care death panels), Palin suggested something was amiss of late in Washington, citing the move of “In God We Trust” to the edge of American coins.

“Who calls shots like that?” Palin demanded. Who makes decisions like that? It’s a disturbing trend.”

Turns out, George W. Bush and a Republican Congress. Despite Palin’s none-too-subtle subtext in suggesting this “disturbing trend” was a direct result of the Democratic White House trying to secularize our American money, it seems the new coin design was commissioned in 2005 under a Republican controlled Congress. It was then approved by President George W. Bush.



Silly Sarah: The Answer To Palin’s Coin Question