Sunday, March 24, 2019

Hoosiers (1987)

I’ve never been much of a sports fan, so I usually lean away from sports movies.  I’ve been to multiple sporting events to cheer people on, but I never get very worked up.  Yet I’m passionate about the arts and the “artsy” projects with which I’m involved, so I can easily identify with another person’s love for a favorite sport and/or athlete.

I saw Hoosiers (1987) when it was first released, and while I have truly enjoyed other movies featuring various sports, Hoosiers has remained my favorite.  Part of the reason, I think, is because it is a film that features basketball, but is about so much more.  This movie has a lot to say about small towns and the people who live in them, about passions that run deep and nearly consume people, about how we treat outsiders with different ideas, about overcoming past mistakes.  It has everything to do with human nature and wraps it within the story of a single season of basketball in the life of a tiny high school team.

Gene Hackman is perfectly cast as Norman Dale, the newly transplanted basketball coach in Hickory, Indiana.  He’s a former college coach who spent the last ten years in the navy, and something about his age and vague background causes a number of folks to judge him quickly and harshly, including fellow teacher Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey).  The good ol’ boys are rankled by this outsider’s coaching methods and do everything they can to have him removed.

A few people, however, catch on to what Coach Dale is trying to do, including Shooter (Dennis Hopper), the town drunkard who knows “everything about the greatest sport ever invented.”  Shooter’s son is on the team, which is barely large enough to be called a team.  The boys are fighting an uphill battle, especially since the school’s star player, Jimmy Chitwood (Maris Valainis), has decided not to play.

What Coach Dale brings to the team is a strong sense of discipline.  Some team members catch on more quickly than others.  Eventually, as the team learn to trust their new leader, they learn that a tiny team in the middle of nowhere can become winners.  One of the people who appreciate the coach’s methods is Jimmy.  Are we really surprised when Jimmy changes his mind and decides to rejoin the team?  The decision, when it comes (right on time), is borderline predictable.  What makes it effective, though, is how and why Jimmy makes his choice.  Jimmy has less dialogue in the movie than any other character, and yet in one scene we learn quite a lot about his values and inherent decency.

This brings me to the part of the movie I love the most.  There is a lot of footage of basketball games.  These scenes are photographed well, with clear direction, great sound design, and an energetic score from Jerry Goldsmith.  But the heart of the movie is found within the personalities displayed on and off the basketball court.  We wouldn’t care so much about the Hickory Huskers if we didn’t get a feeling of who they are as individuals.  We learn the most about Norman Dale, and a bit about Shooter and Miss Fleener, but we get wonderful moments with all of the characters, just enough to make us feel like we know the people of this small town.

Let’s consider a few moments.  I like the scene when Norman appears for his first practice with the boys and tells good ol’ boy George (Chelcie Ross) that his “coaching days are over.”  George’s response is almost instantly hostile, yet look at how Gene Hackman delivers the next line (“Is that some sort of threat?”).  He says it quietly, but there’s an intensity to it that shows he won’t be bullied.

The scene when Norman invites Shooter to be an assistant coach to the team is tricky.  Hackman and Hopper make it look easy as both men wade through uncomfortable truths.  There are really two payoffs to this scene.  It’s not when Shooter, in his best suit, shows up sober at the next game.  The first payoff is after Coach Dale intentionally gets himself through out of the game (again) in an effort to let Shooter use his knowledge on a coaching level, and under Shooter’s direction the boys win the game.  The payoff moment is the look on Shooter’s face after they’ve won and his son says, “You did good, Dad.”  The second payoff is a quiet scene between father and son in the hospital where Shooter is recovering from alcoholism.

One of my favorite moments in the movie is in the second-to-last game, when Ollie (Wade Schenck), the smallest member of the team, has to make a couple foul shots.  An opposing player makes a snide comment to Ollie, but Ollie’s teammate Merle (Kent Poole) steps up and offers words of encouragement and support.  This is, to me, why they are a team of winners.  Once Coach Dale earns the respect of the team, the respect they have for each other begins to grow and shines through in challenging moments.

The moment in the movie that really captures what I think is being symbolized in the story is just before the final game, when the boys and their coaches have one last locker room chat.  For me, the best part is when Coach Dale says, “I love you guys.”  That kind of camaraderie and affection can manifest itself in all kinds of enterprises when a group of people, however big or small, face challenges together.  It’s that sense of what a teamwork is really about: support, mutual respect, looking out for each other, never giving up.  In the case of Norman Dale and his relationship with not only the basketball team but the people of Hickory, I think the word “team” is synonymous with “family.”

Hoosiers evokes a real sense of community, something I’ve seen happen at sporting events and other events that include similar numbers of people.  While winning isn’t everything, the key is to work to succeed.  We want to watch those we love succeed, and by watching them win as we cheer them on, it somehow makes us feel as if we’ve won, too.  Hoosiers captures that perfectly.

Friday, November 25, 2016

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) has got to be one of Steven Spielberg’s most intriguing films. The initial responses by critics and the public were largely divided, full of confusion and misunderstanding. Over time the critical consensus has slowly changed and some people are now hailing the film as a masterpiece. Roger Ebert’s original review was positive while acknowledging what he saw as problems with the story; ten years later he added it to his list of Great Movies. The story is deeper, more complex, and much more ambiguous than most people perceived it to be.

There are other films that were largely brushed aside when they were released, but eventually achieved a greater status and are now regarded as classics. Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Shawshank Redemption, and It’s a Wonderful Life, which are regularly included in lists of the greatest movies, were not critically acclaimed. It took years for people to catch on. Sometimes a piece of art doesn’t receive immediate recognition, but time and contemplation can change our minds.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence may be in the same category. I’ve certainly been more conflicted over it than any other film Spielberg has made. And yet I find it fascinating. As people have begun to praise the film, I’ve read article after review after analysis, keeping up with their thoughts, trying to understand what inspired them to call it a masterpiece. I’m not yet sure if I would call it that, but I agree with Roger Ebert’s comment that it is “ceaselessly watchable, endlessly compelling.” Here we are, more than fifteen years after its release, discussing its merits, attempting to determine its “greatness.”

The project began with Stanley Kubrick, based on a short story by Brian Aldiss called “Super Toys Last All Summer Long.” Working with Ian Watson and other writers, Kubrick spent years trying to develop the material for a film. Eventually he came to the conclusion that technology had not evolved enough to do the story justice, and the project continued in silent development. After the success of Jurassic Park and its phenomenal leap in technology, Kubrick started working again on A.I. in earnest. Unfortunately he died before he was able to complete it.

Kubrick had shared the story with his friend Steven Spielberg when it was in its early stages. He even suggested that Spielberg ought to direct it. After Kubrick’s death, his widow approached Spielberg, stating that the only way the project would see the light of day would be if Spielberg directed it. Spielberg wrote the screenplay himself, staying as true as possible to Kubrick’s vision. (This is one of the things I’m always defending. People mistakenly assume that the “sentimental” parts of the film were inserted by Spielberg into Kubrick’s unsentimental story. Almost the exact opposite is true. The seemingly “sentimental” ending is just as Kubrick wanted, taken directly from Ian Watson’s screen story. While people thought that the Flesh Fair was Kubrick’s creation, it was more the work of Spielberg. People thought that Spielberg severely toned down the Gigolo Joe scenes, but in reality Spielberg enlarged the role of that character.)

Anyway, I haven’t even discussed the story yet. It begins some distance in the future, when our coastlines are flooded after the ice caps have melted. Professor Hobby (William Hurt), the head of Cybertronics, suggests that they build a child “mecha.” Mechas have been created to be workers and lovers, but he desires to create a robot that can love. Childbearing is tightly controlled, and he thinks that his idea will fill a need for childless parents. (We will later learn that the loss of his son is the driving force behind his plan.)

Flash-forward and we meet Monica (Frances O’Connor) and Henry Swinton (Sam Robards). Their son is in cryogenic status, waiting for a medical solution to his condition. Henry works for Cybertronics, and is selected to “test-drive” a new child mecha. When he first brings David (Haley Joel Osment) home, Monica is extremely upset, disturbed by the thought of a robot taking the place of her child. David is very quiet, never blinks, and sort of creeps them out at first. To keep him company, Monica introduces David to Teddy (voice by Jack Angel), who becomes David's sidekick for the remainder of the film. After a while, Monica, still conflicted by her need to be a mother, decides to “imprint” David.

Soon after, the Swintons bring home their healed son Martin (Jake Thomas). Martin's jealousy of David's presence creates friction within the family. His manipulation of David eventually makes it appear that keeping David in the home is dangerous, and Henry convinces Monica that they need to get rid of David. Monica reluctantly goes for a drive with David, intending to take him to Cybertronics to be destroyed, but guilt changes her mind and she abandons David in the woods.

While in the woods David meets other abandoned and discarded mechas who scrounge for spare parts. The mechas are soon captured by Lord Johnson-Johnson (Brendan Gleeson) to be used in a Flesh Fair, which is a twisted event where mechas are destroyed for the entertainment of humans. David escapes the Flesh Fair with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), and the two travel to Rouge City so that David can search for the Blue Fairy. During his time in the Swinton home David learned the story of Pinocchio, and has become convinced that the Blue Fairy can turn him into a real boy, thus granting him the ability to earn the love of Monica.

Rouge City is a bit like Las Vegas on steroids but even more depraved. It's kind of amazing how Spielberg and his collaborators have created such distinct places, each one as memorable as the other. The images in this film are strangely, inexplicably haunting. The design work, in addition to the cinematography by the great Janusz Kaminski, is impeccable.

David and Joe ask Dr. Know (voice by Robin Williams) how to find the Blue Fairy, and he shares with them a strangely prescient portion of a poem by William Butler Yeats which leads them to a flooded Manhattan. There they find Professor Hobby and David learns the truth and purpose of his creation. In the film's most disturbing scene, David also learns that he is one of many "Davids." (Spoilers from here on out.) Not knowing how to handle this information, David basically attempts suicide, falling from a tall building into the ocean below.

David and Teddy end up using an "amphibicopter" to search the underwater Coney Island amusement park, where they eventually locate a statue of the Blue Fairy. They become trapped, and David implores the Blue Fairy to turn him into a real boy. Time passes, a new ice age descends, and the story continues 2000 years later.

The amphibicopter is excavated from the ice, and David and Teddy are discovered by what at first resemble aliens, but are actually highly advanced super-mechas. Mankind has become extinct and these super-mechas are all that remain. They access David's memories as a way of studying his interaction with humans, which is now their only way of studying the human race, possibly in an attempt to understand their own past. The super-mechas appear to be led by a character credited as the Specialist (voice by Ben Kingsley), who is also the narrator of the film.

After being awakened by the super-mechas, David appears to have returned to the Swinton home where he encounters the Blue Fairy (voice by Meryl Streep). As a result, the super-mechas decide to give David one last day with Monica. (In the film it is explained that she has been recreated through a strand of DNA and will only live for a single day. Other discussions on the internet have posed the theory that the final events in the story may only be happening in David's mind.)

It's really up to each viewer to decide what happens at the very end. It's interesting to note that, in the behind-the-scenes interviews, composer John Williams (whose score for this film is an extraordinary achievement) states that David essentially dies at the end, which brings a certain human-like mortality to his character.

I've left out certain key elements of the story, but they ought to be discovered as part of the experience of David's journey. At the end we're left with many debatable issues. Does David really feel love, or is it only a result of his programming? Do we as an audience really care about the fate of a robot boy, no matter how realistic? Humans are expert at forming sentimental connections to objects. Does such a connection constitute a responsibility on our part?

Spielberg creates a look in this film that often pays tribute to the work of Kubrick, and often evokes other Spielberg films, but somehow becomes an interesting mix. As he has gotten older Spielberg's camera work has become even more elegant and economic; even fancy shots still serve the story. And through the astounding performance of Haley Joel Osment he found the perfect David. This story lingers in the mind, stirring many questions and ideas.

Even as I write this in late 2016, the film holds up astonishingly well. None of it looks dated, and the story has as much impact as when it was first released. I'm not sure if I've done it justice in this description. I'm drawn to this story, which is hard to describe except as Ebert did: "ceaselessly watchable, endlessly compelling."

Monday, November 21, 2016

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

When I saw the original Planet of the Apes as a kid I hated it. There were a lot of factors: I was young enough not to truly understand the message behind the story; parts of it were disturbing to me (even though it's technically a rated G movie); it's very different from other science-fiction films; and it just kind of creeped me out. The apes bothered me, not because they looked like actors wearing masks, but they were out to control and/or eliminate humans. For me, they had no redeeming features.

So I ignored the entire franchise for years. I've been somewhat of a fan of Tim Burton, but I avoided watching his 2001 version. Childhood memories create strong impulses. Then Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out in 2011 . . . and I went about my business. But my brother said I ought to watch it and that I might like it. I read up on it, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it got favorable reviews. So I gave it a look and surprised myself. Not only did I like it, I really liked it. The filmmakers had finally found the right way into the story for me: they told it (mostly) from the point of view of Caesar, the main ape character. Andy Serkis's performance was revelatory, and I found myself identifying with Caesar.

Three years later came Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) with a new director, but still with Andy Serkis. I still can't believe how excited I was to see it. The special effects had taken yet another leap in quality, and the story was even deeper than before. This time I identified with the apes and the humans, which is sometimes a controversial move for a filmmaker, showing that the argument on both sides has equal importance and value, while also showing that there are potential villains on either side of a conflict. No one is 100% right, and no one is 100% wrong. Yet things happen that will forever affect the direction of both societies. I found it to be a very involving film.

The events in Dawn take place ten years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The apes have created a utopian society in the California forest, working and living in harmony. There have been no signs of humans. Caesar is the leader of the colony, and has a family (wife Cornelia, son Blue Eyes, and a newborn). The ape friends he made in the first movie (Maurice, Koba, and Rocket) are trusted and important members of this society.

All seems peaceful until a group of humans stumble upon the apes. It is revealed that humans are still living in nearby San Francisco, and a small group has been sent to locate the nearby dam and attempt to use it to restore a modest amount of power to the remaining residents of the city. The group is led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), and includes his wife Ellie (Keri Russell) and son Alex (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Caesar initially turns the humans away, but Malcolm makes an appeal to the apes, and soon they are trying to find a way to work together.

The cooperation between the apes and humans causes deep unease on both sides. A majority of the human population was wiped out by the "simian flu," and several of the apes, Koba (Toby Kebbell) in particular, remember the treatment they received at the hands of humans. Mistrust and fear of the unknown plague both parties.

It's worth appreciating how director Matt Reeves doesn't turn this into an all-out action film by shying away from the issues that arise. He deftly shows that both sides share many of the same feelings. Both sides are led by open-minded individuals who are struggling to control the fears of those around them. Sometimes those fears are justified. Sometimes the only way forward is to put aside differences and work together, bringing each other to a different understanding. But fear is a powerful emotion, and the characters in the world of this movie have been conditioned to expect it. Only a chosen few possess enough foresight to push against that impulse.

Without giving away much more of the plot, the misunderstanding and anger that have been simmering for the entire movie finally bring things to a conflict. The intriguing part is that the filmmakers have made it possible for us to follow all of the issues. Even when characters do things we don't agree with, we understand how they came to those decisions. Both humans and apes see what happens as a betrayal, but it's hard to assign all the blame to one side.

The director and his colleagues do a smooth job of taking what is essentially a science-fiction thriller and weaving in all the emotional/political/sociological issues. I found it to be very resonant. While none of the issues are clearly black and white, I had a clear sense of how the characters felt about those issues. To an even greater degree, Reeves has made it possible for the audience to identify with the apes as much as—if not more than—the humans. When things finally boil over into action sequences, we understand the complexity of what is happening without losing track of the characters.

Much credit is also due Andy Serkis, one of the greatest actors now working. Beginning with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and passing through King Kong (2005), The Adventures of Tintin, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Hobbit, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, his work is unparalleled in the world of motion-capture performance. As a pioneer in the field, he has an innate understanding of the process, in addition to being a wonderful actor. He gives a powerful yet subtle performance, conveying intelligence and wisdom through guarded expressions and body language with just enough dialogue, but no more than necessary.

All the actors, in fact, do a great job. The cast is a good mix, on both sides of the conflict, and the director makes it easy to tell everyone apart. These are not cookie-cutout characters from an assembly line. These are individuals with personalities and histories that can affect the outcome of the story.

Maybe the turnaround in my opinion has something to do with advances in technology. But I think a big reason is how movies have developed in their storytelling. The filmmakers finally approached this story from an angle that piqued my interest. As Caesar tells the members of his extended family: "If we go to war, we could lose all we've built. Home. Family. Future."

Who couldn't relate to that?

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Peter Pan (2003)

Remember when you were a kid, and you saw the legendary TV musical version of Peter Pan, and Peter was striding around the stage declaring, "I WON'T grow up!"? Remember what you thought, in your innocent, na├»ve, trusting childlike way? You thought: "That's not a little boy. That's obviously middle-aged actress Mary Martin making a fool out of herself."
                                                         ~ Dave Barry, from Dave Barry Turns 40

P.J. Hogan's live-action Peter Pan (2003) is the first major film to break with tradition and cast a real boy in the role of Peter. The rest of the casting, by the way, is spot on. There are some big-name actors involved, including Jason Isaacs, Richard Briers, and Lynn Redgrave. Yes, there is some silliness, but that comes with the territory. The world of Neverland is one of imagination and fantasy, and the filmmakers have succeeded in creating a full-fledged movie and not some made-for-kids fluff.

The story of Peter Pan, sprung from the mind of J.M. Barrie, was written as a book and adapted for the stage, but it was born to be a movie. Everything in the film is presented with a kind of storybook look, including the scenes set in London. Visually, the early scenes are just this side of being realistic, while the look of Neverland is a work of imagination that takes things to a whole new level. The story follows a path that over the years has become familiar. Along the way we meet mermaids, fairies, pirates, Indians, and the Lost Boys. Where the film succeeds is in making it all seem fresh and new.

The story begins with Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter) observing Wendy Darling (Rachel Hurd-Wood) and her brothers as they create stories and pretend to be pirates. They have a pleasant life with a loving mother (Olivia Williams), a kind yet timid father (Jason Isaacs), and a dog for a nanny. Wendy is on the verge of growing up, which is strongly encouraged by Aunt Millicent (Lynn Redgrave). This is an alarming prospect, and Peter floats in at the right time to whisk Wendy and the boys away to Neverland where they will never have to grow up.

At this point we begin to notice another successful element of the film. Advances in technology had finally made it possible to create "realistic" flying, without making the actors look like they're hanging on wires. While the Darling children are learning to fly for the first time, Peter is supposed to be an expert, and Jeremy Sumpter looks convincing and impressive.

Once they arrive in Neverland, the children are immediately attacked by pirates, led by Captain Hook. One tradition that the filmmakers have maintained is the dual casting of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. Jason Isaacs has fun with both, giving us a deliciously nasty Hook, and a touching portrayal of shy Mr. Darling.

It appears that Hook's sole purpose is to be the nemesis of Peter Pan. Once Wendy comes along, Hook is almost at a loss. So, too, is Tinkerbell (Ludivine Sagnier), Peter's constant companion. As the narrator tell us, fairies only have room for one emotion at a time, and the feisty Tinkerbell gets herself into trouble, even going so far as to form an unwise alliance with the untrustworthy Captain Hook.

The presence of Wendy and her brothers in Neverland seems to have an effect on nearly all of its inhabitants. The Lost Boys suddenly lose interest in following Peter and beg Wendy to be their mother and tell stories. The sly part of the story is that Wendy has already grown up. While she has fun in Neverland, she is constantly thinking of her worried parents, and is always aware of the deeper emotions and issues in life that Peter is willfully avoiding. When he offers her the chance to never worry about grown-up things again, she replies, "Never is an awfully long time."

I fear that I haven't given you a good idea of the fun and momentum of the story. There are so many things that have been done just right in this film, yet so many things I don't want to give away. There is even a nice twist on the part about clapping to bring fairies to life, which is handled nicely.

Finding Neverland, the 2004 film about how J.M. Barrie was inspired to write Peter Pan, came out a year after this film. It is moving, enchanting, and a little sad. It's fun to see how the story of Peter Pan was first brought to the stage, and how it became Barrie's greatest success. I think the two films complement each other rather well.

While Finding Neverland is about the creation of the myth, this Peter Pan is all about seeing the story in its full glory. The first time I saw it in the theater, I had a goofy grin on my face most of the time. I don't know what I was expecting when I walked in. I wanted to see it because they finally got the look right, and I was surprised to find that they got the story right, too.

Peter Pan has always had deeper currents beneath the story that most versions don't even acknowledge. This one does. There has always been a bittersweet element to the story that's always been in the back of my mind. Roger Ebert said it perfectly: " never grow up is unspeakably sad, and this is the first Peter Pan where Peter's final flight seems not like a victory but an escape."

Nobody walks into Peter Pan expecting to be moved, but I was. It felt as though I was seeing the story of Peter Pan as I’d always imagined. This story has been around longer than I've been alive, and P.J. Hogan and his collaborators found a way to make it seem new and exciting. It never goes overboard with action, there is humor aplenty, and in the end I appreciated how this version became quite thoughtful. This is a Peter Pan for the ages.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

First of all, I have no interest in debating which version of Star Trek is better, or which captain is better, or which villain is the best, etc.  One of the delights of the Star Trek franchise is that it’s been around long enough that a lot of people have grown up with it.  Which version you prefer may depend on your age and exposure.  I grew up as the original movies were being released, and Star Trek: The Next Generation was on television.  I’ve been watching Star Trek most of my life, and while I have my preferences, this essay will focus on my favorite of the films.  (Do I think it’s the best?  Hard to say.  There are others that I admire greatly and may write about in the future.)

Star Trek: First Contact (1996) was the second film of the Next Generation cast, and probably stands as their best.  Their first feature film outing felt more like a glorified television episode instead of a full-fledged movie.  The success of First Contact began with writers Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore.  They decided to add the element of time travel, and, even more crucially, brought back the best Next Generation villains: the Borg (cybernetic zombies, if you will).  These and other decisions gave the film a slightly darker, grittier tone, which ended up being exactly what the series needed.  These story decisions, under the spirited and confident direction of Jonathan Frakes (aka Commander Riker), made First Contact an exciting adventure.

The movie starts with a wonderful shot that seems to begin in space, but pulls back to reveal the eye of Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart), and keeps pulling back to reveal the interior of a vast Borg ship.  When the story begins, the Borg are attacking Earth and the ships of Starfleet when the USS Enterprise flies to the rescue.  The crew of the Enterprise end up following the Borg back in time to the 21st century.  It appears that the Borg are attempting to prevent “first contact,” that moment in Star Trek history when aliens made contact with Earth, thus giving birth to the Federation, Starfleet, and all things Star Trek.

The Borg, those sneaky buggers, manage to beam aboard the Enterprise and begin assimilating entire decks.  (The good news for non-Trekkies is that the movie brings us up to speed nicely, so a familiarity with the television series isn’t a requirement.)  Commander Riker and a team beam down to Earth, while Picard leads the remaining Enterprise crew against the Borg.  In the confusion of the Borg attack, two important things happen: Lily (Alfre Woodard), who is from the 21st century, gets to tag along with Picard on the Enterprise, and Data (Brent Spiner), an android member of the Enterprise crew, is kidnapped by the Borg.

What happens on Earth with Riker and his team qualifies as the “lighter” storyline.  Part of their mission is to locate and assist Zefram Cochran (James Cromwell), the man who will be known historically as the inventor of warp drive, which made “first contact” possible.  Instead of some stuffy intellectual, Cromwell plays him as a drinker who likes loud music and wants to make lots of money in order to attract lots of women.  What later generations mistakenly regard as his vision for a brighter future owes a lot to luck (and a little help from the Enterprise crew of the future).  At one point, Cochran even succeeds in getting Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) drunk.  There are other amusing moments when crew members of the future can’t help but gawk in open-mouthed wonder at their hero.

Back on the Enterprise, Picard must find a way to stop the Borg from assimilating his entire crew and ship.  Lily, in essence, is the audience, the outsider who gets a glimpse into the future.  Her lack of knowledge provides Picard with a chance to fill us in on how things have changed.  He also has a unique perspective on the Borg, having once been assimilated into their collective and subsequently rescued by his loyal crew.  His growing friendship with Lily is one of the strongest elements of the film.

Once Data is captured by the Borg, the film gives us one of its biggest surprises.  The Borg are a collective with a hive mind, but we discover that there is a Borg Queen (Alice Krige).  I guess with so many drones, somebody had to be calling the shots.  Her look is both disturbing and vaguely sexy.  She pretty much tries to seduce Data, as the Borg graft human skin to his body so he can experience human sensations, all in an attempt to bring him to the dark side, so to speak.  As far as Star Trek villains go, the Borg Queen is a good one.  Her appearance is unexpected, and throws aside many of our assumptions about the Borg in general, and female villains in particular.

Without giving anything away, I’d like to talk about an important scene.  It’s the scene right after Picard calls his Klingon security officer Worf (Michael Dorn) a coward.  While Worf and the crew think they should abandon the Enterprise and set it to self-destruct, Picard is determined to defeat the Borg no matter the consequences.  The only person who will stand up to him is Lily, which works because she is not bound by the Starfleet chain of command.

The remainder of the story aboard the Enterprise hinges on this one pivotal scene.  Lily confronts Picard about his need for revenge, even calling him Captain Ahab.  Picard responds with equal force, in a powerful display of Patrick Stewart’s acting ability.  The most impressive element of this scene is watching these two actors give it all they’ve got.  Other than the unmistakable chemistry between the actors, there are no special effects, and Jerry Goldsmith’s score is properly subdued.  A crucial decision must be reached through (sometimes heated) discussion, and Patrick Stewart and Alfre Woodard make the scene spellbinding.

At the time of its release, Star Trek: First Contact had the most state-of-the-art special effects of any Trek film. It still holds up pretty well. Even so, the real pleasure of science fiction is the exploration of ideas, and in the case of Star Trek, the exploration of relationships. As we’re taken on an adventure with thrills and scares and action and humor, we wouldn’t care so much if the characters weren’t—as Spock would say—fascinating. The real success of Star Trek has been the creation of consistently compelling characters that we want to follow where no one has gone before.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Fugitive (1993)

The Fugitive (1993) is relentless.  Director Andrew Davis never gives us a moment’s rest, which is fitting, because the characters don’t get one either.  Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) is on the run from beginning to end, doggedly pursued by U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones).  The filmmakers are able to maintain a high level of suspense throughout the movie, which is a well-crafted, expert thriller.

The original television series featured Richard Kimble, always on the run, evading his pursuers by the skin of his teeth, caught up in a quest for the one-armed man that he claimed killed his wife.  The movie takes that premise and runs with it, and ramps up the tension in the process.

The movie begins with the brutal murder of Kimble’s wife (Sela Ward).  The police don’t buy Kimble’s story of a one-armed man.  In a short amount of screen time, Kimble is convicted of murder and sent to prison.  The next time we see him, he is being transported by bus with other prisoners.

Kimble’s escape from the prison bus, and the ensuing train wreck, is one of the most memorable sequences in cinema.  It’s frightening, looks real, and is extremely effective.  For the last twenty years movie train wrecks have been compared to this one, which was executed with a real life-size train.  In terms of scale, it’s probably the largest and most complex sequence in the movie.  It also takes place very early in the story, starting off the chase with a bang.  For the rest of the movie, Kimble never has a chance to relax.

Enter Tommy Lee Jones.  The U.S. Marshal’s office takes over the investigation and begins the search for Richard Kimble.  Gerard’s team has a lot of fun dialogue, and sound like people who have worked together for a while.  They also sound authentic to Chicago, where most of the movie takes place.  Jones’s authority is effortless and believable.  As they investigate the case, he knows when to play nice and when to push.  He follows his instincts, but uses his brain.  He has much more dialogue in the movie than Harrison Ford does, yet much of the time he doesn’t reveal what he’s thinking.  It’s a deceptively simple performance that earned him an Academy Award.

What else can be said about Harrison Ford?  He is an ideal Everyman, the character we root for and empathize with.  Although The Fugitive is a thriller, it’s not filled with as much action as the Indiana Jones films.  As a result, Ford’s performance is a master class in acting through body language and facial expression.  The key, though, is that he doesn’t oversell it; he never goes over the top.  His restraint gives the story a more realistic dimension.

Time after time we think Gerard and his team have finally caught up to Kimble, but he’s always just ahead of them, and not by much.  The marshals can’t believe he would be foolish enough to return to Chicago, which is exactly what he does, driven to find the elusive one-armed man.  As he follows in Kimble’s footsteps, Gerard begins to see what he’s doing, and ends up conducting a very similar search that eventually leads them to a one-armed man (Andreas Katsulas).

We in the audience, I think, always believe Richard Kimble is innocent.  That’s why Harrison Ford was cast in the role.  He is able to gain our sympathy from the very beginning.  We also like Sam Gerard, who is only doing his job.  His opinion of the case can be summed up by this classic exchange:

KIMBLE: I didn’t kill my wife!

GERARD: I don’t care.

(According to the behind-the-scenes material, Gerard’s line was originally, “That’s not my problem.”  Jones changed the line on set.)

One of the pleasures of this movie is watching these two actors at work.  They are well matched in their intelligence and determination.  Movies of this style are sometimes used as an excuse for overacting, but Ford and Jones are masters of their craft, and lend their scenes the right amount of realism to draw the audience in.

Andrew Davis and his collaborators have created a story that could have been laughable.  But their control of timing and tone, combined with James Newton Howard’s score and incredible performances from the actors, pushes everything to a high level of excellence.  The Fugitive is a great movie.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Random Ramblings: In Defense of the Mainstream

Mainstream (noun) - A prevailing current or direction of activity or influence.

I am a bit of a compulsive list maker, and websites like Facebook and Pinterest seem to exploit that tendency.  As I've gathered my interests into their respective groups and subjects, it appears that, most of the time, my tastes, while eclectic, tend toward things that could be considered "mainstream."  My definition of "mainstream" is: popular, known by many, similar to what we mean when we refer to something as a household name/brand/product.

Is this a bad thing?  I don't think so.  But I know there are many people who think that liking things that are mainstream equals bad taste.  They think that anything in the mainstream, by its very definition, must be mediocre.  I once saw a statement posted on the internet by somebody who didn't want to have anything to do with "anybody who listens to Top 40 radio."  If we follow this sort of thinking logically, then the only people with good taste would only listen to obscure bands, watch only independent films, read books that never make bestseller lists, buy generic products in anonymous stores, and possibly make their own clothes.  They would probably have one secret t-shirt with a recognizable image, like "Van Halen" or something like that.

There is a fine line to walk here, because I agree that some things in the mainstream really are mediocre.  There are movies, television shows, music groups, and countless other things that are thrust at us every day.  The prevailing strategy of modern advertising is to saturate the market with the newest product.  Let he who has the biggest advertising budget win.  The problem with this strategy is that good things can be damaged by too much exposure; people don't want to buy something they're already sick of.

I've had this happen to me.  There have been a few musicians that I heard about all the time, saw their names and pictures all over the place, and I got sick of it, so I avoided their music without ever actually hearing it.  When I finally took the opportunity to listen, it turned out to be really good music that I was happy to have heard.  The same thing has happened for me with a few movies.

Just because something is popular doesn't make it bad.  Some of the people I admire in the world of music and movies, who are, in my opinion, the very best at what they do, also happen to be some of the most popular in their fields of work.  I think a good part of the reason they became popular is because of the high quality of their work.  Most of them have remained popular for years, and what is their longevity but a testament to the quality of their work?

I could probably make a list (don’t worry, I won't) of several popular people, household names, and I'm sure that most people would be forced to agree that the people on that list are among the best at what they do.  And I'm talking about well-known people (and movies, books, songs, etc.) that are familiar to a wide variety of people.  True celebrities, or people who are famous or celebrated because of their accomplishments.  Our society has twisted the definition of a "celebrity," and many undeserving people are now called celebrities, although you would be hard-pressed to say why they would be celebrated or what they could possibly have accomplished.

In his essay on Schindler's List, Roger Ebert (mainstream!) wrote something about Steven Spielberg (mainstream!) that I liked: "The film has been an easy target for those who find Spielberg's approach too upbeat or ‘commercial,’ or condemn him for converting Holocaust sources into a well-told story. But every artist must work in his medium, and the medium of film does not exist unless there is an audience between the projector and the screen. Claude Lanzmann made a more profound film about the Holocaust in Shoah, but few were willing to sit through its nine hours. Spielberg's unique ability in his serious films has been to join artistry with popularity―to say what he wants to say in a way that millions of people want to hear."

To criticize something for the fact that it resonates with a majority of people seems wrong.  The fact that anything is able to do that is a wonder.  But that doesn't mean that anyone with a dissenting viewpoint should feel compelled to conform.  And it doesn't necessarily mean that there is anything wrong with things that aren't in the mainstream.  I guess I'm writing this in response to the criticism that commercial success is the brand of mediocrity.  That shouldn't be an automatic assumption.  I think that, deep down, all of us crave some form of recognition for a job well done.  (Don’t we?)  Some people, though, have succeeded in getting that recognition from millions of people.

It seems as though some people think that anything mainstream taints the purity of their interests.  But from my point of view, it's the variety that makes life interesting.  If something popular makes my life better, so be it.  As I've said before, the trick is to find the right balance.