Sunday, February 15, 2015

#793. The Inspiration of Star Trek: Insurrection

Star Trek: Insurrection (1998) is the third installment in the film franchise featuring the Next Generation cast and ninth overall, only the second of three not to feature Kirk in any capacity.  It is generally regarded to be one of the worst installments.

For years I've been trying to figure out why that wasn't my gut reaction on its original release, which is to say why I liked it, still like it even, and been generally puzzled at its instant and outright dismissal.

Chances are if you're familiar with Insurrection's reputation at all, assuming you haven't seen it yourself, you'll know that fans like to call it a blatant excuse for an extended episode rather than a true movie experience.

Its predecessor was 1996's First Contact, which proved to have broad appeal and out of four Picard films, easily the one to have enjoyed the most success.  In that sense, Insurrection had a lot to live up to, and as in such cases was perhaps always doomed to failure, a notion few like to consider.  Once something is deemed a failure, people generally accept it as such and move on.

Yet Insurrection is a story of considerable nuance.  It may even be a direct statement on the state of the Star Trek franchise at that time.

The writer was Michael Piller.  In many ways the producer who saved Star Trek, a successor to the team of Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer, whose Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan remains the highwater mark for many fans, Piller was responsible for the remarkable third season creative turnaround Next Generation experienced on its way to massive popularity.  At its height the series was a genuine cultural phenomenon with ratings to match, the exact equivalent of the success The Walking Dead enjoys today, doing in syndication what the latter has done on cable, which may remain a more remarkable feat.  On the strength of this achievement, Paramount began an ambitious expansion that led to Deep Space Nine (which premiered to similarly-sized viewership) and Voyager (which launched UPN, a dream of the studio that began two decades earlier and led to The Motion Picture).

The franchise fatigue fans like to dismiss so much (they like to cling to what everyone was saying about the quality of the product) was born and in full evidence by 1994, when Next Generation ended and relaunched in the movie Star Trek Generations, which was intended to be a celebration, the historic meeting between Picard and Kirk.  It instead met to general apathy.

When its teaser trailer appeared in front of the box office hit Independence Day, First Contact was met with wide derision.  No one was excited about Star Trek.  Ratings were poor.  1996 was the thirtieth anniversary of the franchise.  Deep Space Nine added Next Generation's Worf in an attempt to interest fans who found the third series otherwise unappealing.  After First Contact defied expectations, the franchise tried the Worf trick again, revamping Voyager with Borg elements, including the addition of series regular Seven to great publicity.

Yet the audience continued to drift.  New genre hits like The X-Files, Xena, and Buffy took away whole segments of viewer interest, while direct sci-fi competition like Babylon 5 and Stargate SG-1 offered the first alternatives of the new Star Trek TV era.

To quote Ru'afo from Insurrection: "The Federation is old."

Michael Piller's success in guiding the franchise was a double-edged sword.  He helped usher the careers of Ronald D. Moore and Ira Stephen Behr, both of whom would eclipse him in creative reputation, as well as give way to the Rick Berman regime, which would see its ultimate expression in tandem with Brannon Braga in Enterprise.  Braga and Moore wrote Generations and First Contact, the first two Picard movies.  After helping Voyager launch, Piller had walked away from Star Trek.  He came back to write Insurrection.

It's my contention that he had a lot to say.

Insurrection is a fountain of youth story, and there's a reason for that.  At one point, the villainous Ru'afo offers the aging Admiral Dougherty to avail himself of technology that "will take twenty years off your face."  Twenty years, huh?  A significant figure.  Twenty years prior to the release of Insurrection was in fact the release of The Motion Picture, the first of the film series and the official revival of Star Trek itself, ten years after the end of the three-season TV series (with a short interval for the Animated Series fans tend to ignore).

Why would that be so significant?  Motion Picture was the first of many instances where Star Trek acknowledged the passage of time directly.  Kirk has only just come back and he's lamenting the aging process.  There's a young bull named Decker eager to replace him as captain of the Enterprise.  Wrath of Khan features similar themes.  In essence, Motion Picture is the first theoretical point at which, instead of continuing what had been, Star Trek could have reinvented itself, started all over.  That's basically what Bennett and Meyer did with Wrath of Khan, ignoring Motion Picture and starting over with an entirely new aesthetic.

In other words, just imagine if Decker had been the captain after all...

Twenty years later, it had been a decade since Bennett and Meyer had toyed with the idea of revival again, this time a full reboot, going with a fresh young cast in what was to become The Undiscovered Country, which instead became the last film to feature the full original cast in all its aging glory (just imagine if Christian Slater had done more than a cameo; in 1991 that would have indeed meant something).  This was only a few years after Next Generation launched on television, a reboot of a different kind.  Picard, as the portrait eventually emerged, an older captain, had been in his youth...not entirely unlike Kirk, actually.  A telling detail, I would say, one not often exploited, but surely an ongoing commentary between two generations.

By the time of Insurrection, Picard's age was no longer something people fixated on, in part because of Patrick Stewart's spirited portrayal, yet this was the movie that chose to address it directly.  In the movie, the mysterious planet with the odd characteristic of slowing down the aging process, and even reversing it a limited extent (all the adults end up frozen in their thirties), has a woman named Anij among its population, whom Picard forms a bond with, and in this way the matter is addressed most directly.  And yet Anij isn't interested in how old Picard is, but how young.

"I wonder," she says to him at one point, "if you're aware of the trust you engender."  She speaks to him about a perfect moment in time, "when time seems to stop, and you could almost live in that moment."  It's a trickier idea than it seems.  Later in the movie, Picard uses it to help save her life.  And it may be the idea of the fountain the movie truly wishes to convey.  It's not a story about stealing youth back at all (which is what the villains want) but rather having the opportunity to appreciate what you have.

The subplot and in fact what had at one point been developed as the lead element of the movie involves Data going rogue, why and how that happened.  Admiral Dougherty's role is to provide a detached voice for Starfleet, one that doesn't particularly care about everything Picard does, including understanding what makes Data special.  For fans, that matter was resolved in the classic episode "The Measure of a Man," but for Dougherty and by extension others in Starfleet, Data is still just a machine, which is how the natives of the mysterious planet treat him, too, at first, a piece of technology that subverts what ordinary people can do on their own.  "We believe," another village leader says, "when you create a machine to do the work of a man, you take something away from the man."

All of that is to say, Piller wondered if Star Trek were being taken for granted.  This was his big pitch to show how it was still relevant, despite all objections.  The idea of the straight reboot, of course, eventually happened, to spectacular success, but at the time, in 1998, that was still years away, a decade away, and the franchise as it was continued to explore what had then been established from the start.  Piller felt that there was a great deal of worth in it, and even a great deal of wisdom possible to be gleamed from commenting on it directly.

Insurrection was followed by Nemesis, which was in some ways a melancholy continuation.  Picard is confronted with a manifestation of the youth he once was, just as Data meets a child-like version of himself.  Data spends the second half of Insurrection interacting with a boy, trying to make him comfortable with the idea of artificial life.  Data will always be a contradiction to the popular depiction of robots, a fully independent individual capable of being accepted on his own terms and a constant rebuttal of fears that humanity will one day be replaced by the likes of him, which in the end is what all the stories featuring his other counterpart, Lore, were about, including the complex two-part episode "The Descent," in which their relationship is juxtaposed with the Borg.

As Picard confronts his own doppelganger, it's meant to be one last reminder of what makes him different from Kirk.  For Kirk, there would, essentially, have been no difference between the older and younger versions of himself.  That's the struggle between Kirk and Decker and Motion Picture, which Kirk terms as a competition.  When Michael Piller addresses the matter of age in Insurrection, it's the rare moment fans don't mention Wrath of Khan, which concludes with Kirk deciding after all the turmoil he experiences that he feels young.  Where Kirk must experience a great deal of pain to realize he's not as old as he feels, Picard is told by an outsider that he already is young.

For the franchise, for the fan, from Piller's perspective, it's a contradiction of everything that had begun to seem apparent, that Star Trek's day was soon to be over, that it was no longer relevant.  It's a representation of everything that makes Picard different from Kirk, why there's a difference.  And in that way, ties the whole story together, not the idea of the fountain of youth, but going back to how the story begins, the idea of why Data seemed to change, and what could be done about it.

What Piller wanted Insurrection to convey was what Next Generation had been trying to say since he first helped it find its voice: stop worrying so much.  Even in the midst of a juggernaut the studio seemed intent on mining to exhaustion (which is exactly what happened), Piller still believed in the product itself, and once again he wanted to help the fans feel that way too.

I keep hoping that in time, other fans will view Insurrection more kindly.  Perhaps in understanding what it was truly saying all along, that could be easier.  Another subplot has Riker and Troi rekindling a romance that had been over since before the start of Next Generation, an echo of Decker's own subplot from Motion Picture.  And maybe that's all you need to know, too.

Friday, February 13, 2015

#792. Mock Squid Soup: Napoleon Dynamite

Mock Squid Soup returns another month to discuss movies!  This month:

Despite Napoleon Dynamite being more than a decade old at this point (!), I have never gotten around to seeing it.  This was one of those hugely improbable smash hits, like The Blair Witch Project or My Big Fat Greek Wedding (or Blair Fat Dynamite for those running out of time to read my gibberish).  And yet, somehow, star Jon Heder went on to a somewhat lengthy mainstream Hollywood career.

He made these:

I was working at a movie theater when Benchwarmers opened, and the trailer was on a loop at the concession stand.  Good times.

School for Scoundrels was part of Billy Bob Thornton's campaign to be liked for being unlikable, which he began a year earlier in the Bad News Bears remake.  No, he started the campaign with Bad Santa.  (You can tell he's supposed to be bad because it's in the title.)  Actually, people are kind of ambivalent about him now...

Blades of Glory was part of Will Ferrell's campaign to make a movie out of every sport, including racing (Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, which is awesome), basketball (Semi-Pro), male modeling (Zoolander), and of course competitive news-anchoring (Anchorman).

Eventually Heder went back to the great high school in the sky, where he voted for Pedro.

You can also thank director Jared Hess for Nacho Libre.  Which I do, every day.

Napoleon Dynamite also features Jon Gries, who played Roger Workman Linus, Ben's father, on Lost.  And of course Diedrich Bader, who is awesome in everything.

With all due apologies to Jon Heder and Napoleon Dynamite, my favorite unlikely movie star will always be Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who gained fame as "McLovin" in Superbad.

Mintz-Plasse later appeared in two Kick-Ass movies, Role Models, and Fright Night, among other films.

And totally pulled off the fake I.D.  If you feel like blaming Bill Hader for that, it's fine, because Bill Hader is awesome in everything, too.

Monday, February 09, 2015

#791. Birdman

Birdman, currently in the running for Best Picture at the Oscars (of the other nominees, I've seen American Sniper, which I would also endorse above and beyond its apparently compulsive popularity), is a remarkable experience.

Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and starring Michael Keaton, it joins a growing list of films that take a more surrealistic approach to film storytelling.  You may know it best as the movie that trades on Keaton's two turns as Batman as well as his subsequent relative obscurity.  Since 1992's Batman Returns, his most notable projects have been 1996's Multiplicity (an attempt to remind everyone that he was previously a comedic actor) and various supporting roles (including a turn in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown).

Gonzales Inarritu, I'm convinced, pursued Birdman partly out of frustration with critics.  My personal previous experience with him was the excellent Babel, a comparable experience to the more acclaimed ensemble dramas Traffic and Crash.  Birdman is in part a statement about how critics find it difficult to give credit where credit is due because they're often too busy fixating on something other than what they're supposed to be reviewing.  In Birdman it's the main character's past as a superhero.  In the case of Babel it was that there had already been two acclaimed version of that story template.

Ironically, Birdman's chances at winning an Oscar this year are improved by how it continues a different tradition entirely.  Several, actually.  One is that it continues a trend the Academy previously relished in the career of director Darren Aronofsky, who this year angered critics by creating Noah but previously pleased them with efforts such as The Wrestler and Black Swan, both of which depicted the later careers of performance artists struggling with their futures.  Black Swan in particular is relevant to Birdman in Natalie Portman's Best Actress-winning main character, who experiences a problem similar to the one in Birdman, in that reality is something that is frequently interrupted by fantasy sequences.

Birdman is similar to The Wrestler in another regard, in that it is a film that will garner critical acclaim for a genre far more frequently used to receiving none of it.  The Wrestler, of course, features Mickey Rourke as a professional wrestler.

In Birdman it's superheroes.  Christopher Nolan's Batman films, The Dark Knight particularly, with Heath Ledger's Best Supporting Actor win, being probably as close as any superhero movie will come to experiencing such acclaim directly.  The same goes to other effects-driven genre films other than the anomalous Lord of the Rings films, capped by Best Picture-awarded The Return of the King.

Keaton is supported by two other actors familiar with superhero movies, Emma Stone and Edward Norton.  Stone has appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, while Norton was The Incredible Hulk (for one movie; no doubt he sympathized a great deal with Birdman's main character in walking away from a lucrative franchise).  They're joined by Naomi Watts, a member of the Gonzalez Inarritu repertory (she's also appeared in 21 Grams), Zach Galifianakis, and Amy Ryan.

Birdman follows another Academy-friendly tradition, taking a look behind the scenes of a production, whether in film (The Artist) or the stage (Shakespeare in Love).  That alone ought to assure it excellent odds at capturing Best Picture.

It's also known for appearing to be one long tracking shot, which is an especially tricky thing to pull off.  Children of Men garnered praise for one such sequence, while Russian Ark is another film that took on the full challenge.

Birdman interested me from the moment I heard of it, which is something There Will Be Blood also did, but in this instance, the end result is as satisfying as I thought it would be, much as how many movie-goers experienced Gravity.

There's a lot to love about it, and despite all the traditions it continues, Birdman still manages to be a wholly original experience.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

#790. Star Wars: Strange Magic?

One of this year's earliest releases ended up being what should have been considered inevitable: a fully animated George Lucas film.

This was Strange Magic, which like 2012's Red Tails and two out of the six original Star Wars films was directed by someone else, but the George Lucas is strong in it.  Specifically because the Star Wars is strong in it.

After reading the Dark Horse comic book adaptation of The Star Wars, the original vision of the saga, in which names and situations are familiar, but everything's scrambled compared to what ended up on the screen, it's become hard for me to separate Lucas from his variations.  Strange Magic, in some sense, is the courtship of Padme and Anakin all over again.

Although to be more specific, it might even be an alternate version of Darth Vader himself, the later fully villainous version of Anakin Skywalker.  Strange Magic's Bog King is an unhappy fellow who has instituted an oppressive regime, much as how Vader first appears in A New Hope.

It's worth noting how even in the films as they have been presented, Star Wars still remains difficult to completely reconcile.  Luke and Leia being siblings was something that kind of happened in Return of the Jedi.  Anyone familiar with the novel Splinter of the Mind's Eye will remember what New Hope and even The Empire Strikes Back implies about their relationship.

Lucas involved triangle romances, or implied triangle romances, in the Star Wars prequels, as Anakin believes Obi-Wan Kenobi is somehow involved with Padme by Revenge of the Sith.  This is one of the singular misunderstandings about the saga yet simultaneously one of its most popular elements, insofar as the romance between Leia and Han Solo, as emphasized in Empire Strikes Back, which also introduced Vader being Luke's father.

Lucas working with complicated relationships was evident in American Graffiti, a film about high school students.  To some extent, how much a fan understands or appreciates what Lucas has done throughout his career, and not just Star Wars, affects how they view Star Wars itself and their ability to interpret what is and isn't accomplished in it with regards to the prequels.  Yet Lucas himself always viewed Star Wars as far more fluid than the fans would, which has contributed to a widening distance between his impact on what makes Star Wars what it is and what the fans think about that.  This is where Strange Magic enters the equation, again.

This is a movie that makes it clear how different Star Wars can be, in any number of ways.  The Bog King softens when he realizes Marianne can see him as something other than a monster, and the idea of true love as a source of power akin to the Force represented by the presence of an imp who could very easily be seen as a variation on Yoda, whom Lucas once referenced as a classic magical bunny, as in Alice in Wonderland, who randomly appears to facilitate matters.  Now, seeing Yoda as just a "magical bunny" is difficult in itself, because his original appearance in Empire Strikes Back as a wise sage instead of the strange little miscreant he first seems to be drastically affected any other interpretation.  The Yoda in the prequels has a far more gleeful attitude, especially around young Padawan learners (as seen in Attack of the Clones), something that seemed impossible in Empire Strikes Back and even The Phantom Menace.

Yet context is always key.  In one context, Vader is no Bog King, Luke and Leia had no potential for romance at all, and Yoda is too busy being sage to bother with being playful.  In another, everything is different.  Yet, in the mind of George Lucas, the same.

Strange Magic failed at the box office because it wasn't really a children's animated film at all.  Maybe it was supposed to be, but it might better be appreciated for what it really is, a commentary on Star Wars and how its creator continues to see it.  Lucas is famously uninvolved in the Disney version of Star Wars that begins with The Force Awakens, but he still has things left to say.  Far too often, the conversation has leaned toward the fans being tired of Lucas changing things.  But it's worth remembering that for longer than the fans knew anything about Star Wars, George Lucas was already changing things.

It actually deepens the experience.

#789. The Gilliam Theorem

I'm a huge fan of Terry Gilliam.  That being said, being a huge fan of Terry Gilliam can be a lot of work.  Hence, the Gilliam Theorem.

Gilliam started his popular career as the lone American in Monty Python, and his first (co-)directing credit was Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).  I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest he's the member of the troupe who most eagerly embraced the challenge of advancing his ambitions past Monty Python itself.

Which is not to say the others (Graham Chapman has certainly looked better, though) have slacked off, but their projects have had a much looser continuity.  That's also to say, Gilliam is the one who has had the highest profile in terms of what he's done, which is to continue directing films, so that when you say John Cleese, you think of Fawlty Towers or A Fish Called Wanda and scores of comedic supporting roles, or say Eric Idle and think of Spamalot! or Not the Messiah or even The Rutles, and whatever it is you think of in association with Terry Jones (who was the other co-director of Holy Grail, by the way, and for me personally known for writing Douglas Adams's Starship Titanic) or Michael Palin (not related to that other Palin).

Anyway, the point is, the parrot has ceased to be, and I won't go on insulting Monty Python, but rather discuss Terry Gilliam...

After Holy Grail, Gilliam went about crafting the rest of his directorial career, which began with a Python-esque effort called Jabberwocky (1977).  He went on to begin forming his own legacy with the more distinctive Time Bandits (1981), which is usually considered his first notable effort.  It's certainly a very interesting film.

His most universally acclaimed film, Brazil (1985), followed, also the one that began Gilliam's career of trying to catch up with whatever he was supposed to be doing.  Which is to say, in a different way entirely, Gilliam inadvertently became the modern Orson Welles, the director who constantly has to prove himself all over again, if he's to do his own projects at all, with studio meddling constantly getting in the way.  Time Bandits, like Citizen Kane, proved perhaps too much to live up to, and so the more he wanted to explore his personal creative vision, the more interference Gilliam experienced.

He followed with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), which is something I saw for the first time in college, and maybe that was the best possible time to discover Gilliam post-Python, because Munchausen is pretty weird but also wildly imaginative in exactly the way a college student can appreciate.  (Really, there is hardly any period better than college than to discover a passion for film.)

Gilliam's biggest mainstream hit was The Fisher King (1991) featuring Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams, which perhaps worked because of the straight man routine, in that Bridges grounds the film in reality while observing Williams, who seems to be utterly insane.  But the truth turns out to be the first instance of Gilliam finding a more transcendent tone.  If you find yourself unfamiliar with Gilliam's work, this would be the ideal introduction.

His biggest box office hit, though, was Twelve Monkeys (1995), featuring a time traveling Bruce Willis and an insane Brad Pitt, which borrows some of what Gilliam learned making Fisher King, allowing the real world to be present but in a very unreal way, which may be the best way to describe his instincts as a filmmaker.

Following that was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), a movie about Hunter S. Thompson.  It's Gilliam's only attempt to date at depicting the real world as an inherently surreal experience.

There's a long break until The Brothers Grimm (2005), which begins Gilliam's recent instinct to revisit his earlier work and see what else he can say about it.  In a lot of ways, Grimm is an updated Jabberwocky.  It's also his first collaboration with the late Heath Ledger.

I didn't even know Tideland (2006) existed until recently, which is a clear indication of the direction Gilliam's mainstream career has gone.

My favorite Gilliam is The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), which received any attention at all because it was the project Ledger was filming at the time of his death.  The Ledger everyone cared about, however, had already been immortalized in The Dark Knight, a singular performance in an otherwise still-underrated career that still has yet to be fully appreciated.  Much as Gilliam's, really.  Gilliam chose, within the existing framework of his story, to fill out Ledger's remaining work by casting three replacements, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell.  Yet the best thing about it is Christopher Plummer, who plays a kind of Gandalf or Dumbledore if they had never met Bilbo or Harry Potter, someone forced to make a Faustian deal (with a Devil played by Tom Waits, whom many observers have remarked Ledger based his Joker on) against his daughter's future.  Also worth noting that it features the mainstream debut of Andrew Garfield.

The Zero Theorem (2014) is a kind of Brazil revisited, in some ways, an office worker-of-a-kind making an existential breakthrough, but in a thoroughly Imaginarium way.  The star is Christoph Waltz, who has been so sensational in two successive Quentin Tarantino films (Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, both winning him Best Supporting Actor honors at the Oscars), and I thought his presence alone might have been enough to make Gilliam creatively visible again.  Clearly I was wrong.

The problem, as introduced in Brazil, is that Gilliam has become something of a Sisyphus, pushing a boulder up a hill endlessly.  Nowhere is that more evident than in Lost in La Mancha, a documentary about his previous attempt to make what is once again his current project, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.  In Lost, all the forces imaginable worked against him, and film production was ultimately cancelled.

All of which has resulted in making a very visible creator an obscure personality during the height of his career.  Gilliam has never lacked for ambition, and he has seized every opportunity presented him, but he has tended to be out of sync with just about everyone.  The '80s were a perfect decade for his instincts, and he proved eminently adaptable in the '90s, but he's played catch-up ever since.  People are always asking where all the creativity is in film, and arguably no director has ever demonstrated as much of it as Gilliam, yet seldom has anyone acknowledged that.  It's always about timing, of course, and whether or not his instincts have been agreeable to wide audiences.

The Gilliam Theorem suggests that creativity alone isn't always what audiences want, no matter what they say.  They want familiarity.  When Gilliam has done work that looks like what others are doing, with his own elements peaking at the edges, he's been successful.  When he's pushed his own elements to the forefront, he ends up marginalized.  The only comparable filmmaker I can think of is Tarsem, responsible for the genius of The Fall but still best known for his first film, The Cell.  Tarsem tends to tell his stories from established vantage points (The Cell is a story about a serial killer, The Fall about a little girl hearing stories from a suicidal stunt man...which I guess is less of a good example than it seems; Immortals, meanwhile, is another Greek myth movie, while Mirror Mirror is Snow White).

Like Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, Gilliam attempts to answer the big questions in Zero Theorem (such as, you know, the meaning of life, this time with far less Python!).  By necessity, and because he tends to swing for the fences with every project, Gilliam has had to go back over territory familiar from his own work, but that will leave future fans with a much richer tapestry to examine.  He will be a director still worth talking about years from now precisely for the challenges he has continually embraced, his interest in pushing boundaries.  Commercially, it can be a recipe for disaster.  But in terms of results, a feast.  Every creator does that, by the way, but few of them do it as fruitfully.  They're learning at slower speeds.  Working in Monty Python pushed Gilliam further and faster than most, presenting a whole set of challenges he was eager to embrace.  How quickly he reached new milestones became almost insurmountable for others to continue following.  And yet he kept going.


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