Sunday, July 23, 2006

Guiltless Review: Streets of Fire

Tonight is what it means to be young

Streets of Fire is just about the perfect example to illustrate my philosophy of film appreciation. This movie came up in a conversation with some friends a few months ago, and as soon as the title 'Streets of Fire' came up I instantly remembered almost everything about it. I hadn't seen SoF in 20 years and truth be told, it was not a movie I even rewatched often as a kid in the mid-80's. Anything that leaves that kind of impression on my brain is definitely worth something.

This is a classic love it or hate it movie, and even if you do hate it, it's a movie you won't forget. If you haven't seen Streets of Fire and are wondering what camp you are likely to fall in, please refer to my handy guide below:

You will hate Streets of Fire if you:
- Are anally insistent on 'reality' in movies
- Can't handle fantasy settings that are not specified beyond the words: "Another Time, Another Place"
- The words: "A Rock & Roll Fable" frighten and confuse you
- Are easily freaked out by Willem Dafoe
- Don't appreciate the musical arrangements of the great Jim Steinman (writer for Meatloaf and Bonnie Tyler among others)
- Are easily distracted by cliched dialogue

You will love Streets of Fire if you:
- Are just looking for a good time
- Are not a dorky film student looking to pick apart every little thing and can appreciate the gestalt
- Always wanted to see Rick Moranis play a rat bastard
- Think Jim Steinman rawks!
- Are impressed by gorgeous art direction and cinematography
- Enjoy watching single shotgun shells cause massive explosions

I think that about covers it; for my part, put me unequivocally in the 'love it' camp, I rewatched Streets of Fire yesterday and it hasn't lost a thing.

In a strange fantasty cityscape, rock star Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) gets kidnapped by a biker gang led by Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe). Ultra-cliched tough guy & ex-boyfriend Tom Cody (Micael Pare) sets off to take her back. Not much happens besides that, but this movie is all about style and not plot intricacies.

Resonance: 10
I've talked about this already in the introduction but to re-iterate: this movie is a visceral experience that just stays with you.

Immersion: 11
The unique setting can be described as an urban dystopia that features a combination of 50's & 80's design elements, it's like nothing else that's been put in a movie. The soundtrack, featuring 2 of Jim Steinman's best Wagnerian rock ditties is a classic. The aforementioned cinematography is simply beautiful, every composition on-screen has been put together with loving care. This is a movie I paused often just to admire some of the still shots. And to top it off, the action moves at a brisk pace never allowing you to remember where you really are. Good luck turning off Streets of Fire once you hear the opening notes of "Nowhere Fast" (song featured during the opening scene).

Laughs: 3
If I had to cite one thing I'd wish were better in SoF, it'd be the lack of humor, particularly in the middle 30 min of the movie. This is a movie that is just pure fun, and the lack of humor becomes noticeable when the plot settles down on the primary protagonists. Doesn't kill the movie, just wish it had a few more laughs.

Investment: 6
The characters are totally cliche by design. While the sterotypical tough guy talk ("You know, the problem with kickin' the *beep* out of you is it would be too easy") is fun if you get into it, I admit it can get a little repetetive at times. There is no attempt to develop the characters beyond their two-dimensional surfaces. That being said, I still had no problems wanting the good guys to win here.

Thrills: 6
Sledgehammer Fight! Exploding motorcycles! Assorted beatings and mayhem! Somehow nobody dies, the violence here is totally of the safe, cartoonish variety; still fun though.

Bizareness: 10
Ok, you've probably figured out by now that this entire movie is weird as hell, but let me add one more morsel to the cookie dough.

Willem Dafoe in the best possible light is an odd looking dude. However, in Streets of Fire it's like they've taken every one of his most distinctive features (his broad forehead, his protruding lips) and accentuated them to the nth degree. The end result resembles a fully human-sized ventriloquist dummy crossed with Frankenstein's monster. If SoF had been made this century (the movie was released in 1984), I'd swear there was cgi work involved so big kudos to the makeup department; I wouldn't want to run into Raven Shaddock in a dark alley.

Final Word:
Rewatching Streets of Fire really brought me back and gave me an urge to rewatch it immediately. The songs are now careening around in my head. If you can appreciate the pure style on display here you'll have a great time.

Bonus Tracks!
Some Streets of Fire videos on Youtube!
Nowhere Fast

Tonight is What it Means to be Young

In Japanese even!
Tonight is What it Means to be Young in Japanese

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Guiltless Review: Battlestar Galactica: Lay Down your Burdens

"The Interesting thing about being a president is that you don't have to explain yourself to anyone" - Laura Roslin

I think realism is overrated in science fiction & fantasy. Yes it's good to ground fantastic stories in some kind of reality, it makes the fantasy more accessible to the audience. It also helps to invest people in the characters and situations depicted. That being said, too often "realism" is used a substitute for creative ideas and good storytelling. For too many creative people the words 'real', 'dark', and 'gritty' carry entirely too much weight. I'm past the point where a piece of entertainment can impress me by just staying true to those adjectives.

Then a show like the new Battlestar Galactica comes along.

Those of you who haven't seen Sci-Fi's new version, and only associate the name Battlestar Galactica with the classic late 70's TV show are in for a rude awakening upon watching this show. I liked the original BSG well enough, while at the same time acknowleding it's purpose as pure escapist fun. By comparison, the new BSG is just brutal (in a good way) on every level. BSG tells the story of a rag-tag fugitive fleet of humans on a lonely, sometimes dehumanizing quest for survival.

I won't get much more into it than that. Suffice it to say that BSG tells a dark, gritty story that does not flinch from the ugliness that exists in humanity. Unlike other shows featuring stylized violence, the brutality here seems a natural extension of the circumstances the main characters live under, and is used to serve a fascinating story about ideas (not that mindless violence is neccessarily bad, its just that this show is soooo much better than that).

BSG is easily my favorite TV show at the moment. If you have somehow missed out on it, I got 5 words for you: The internet is for downloads. Be forewarned the show gets pretty intense and is not for the faint of heart. I'll focus the rest of this review on the last episode that his been shown. An absolutely brilliant 2-parter called "Lay Down your Burdens" that has left me in taut anticipation for next season's premiere.

The rest of the review will contain SPOILERS as well. DO NOT read past this point if you are yet to see "Lay Down your Burdens" in context, you will be missing out.

Resonance: 10
May as well start here. The basis of BSG's story is that humans are now an endangered species. They are hunted mercilessly across space by Cylons, a race of sentient machines that have a strange fascination with humanity, and look to emulate us in many ways. The central questions this show asks are: How far will people go to survive on both an individual and a societal basis? How much are we willing to scarifice our ideals and our morality? What I absolutely respect about the show is that it rarely includes a solution that ends things cleanly with all parties satisfied. Major characters plot against each other on a weekly basis. In a situation this dire, such conflicts are the norm. Unlike many other shows and movies that depict humanity instantaneously and unquestioningly banding together when facing such a common threat, BSG posits that achieving such unity is not inevitable - it's likely impossible and ideals must always be fought for, even in the face of extinction.

In "Lay Down your Burdens" such a conflict arises. In what is as cynical and probably realistic a take on politics as your likely to see on television, the surviving humans are divided along a vital political issue: the decision whether or not to settle the fleet on a recently discovered world that can sustain human life. Two presidential candidates are divided along this issue, however the investment in the issue on the part of one Gaius Baltar (James Callis) is clearly secondary to the political leverage gained by claiming to be on the side of settlement. There is no foresight for the common good, only the opportunistic, timely grab for power.

Of course it works, why wouldn't it? People are sheep, and though its obvious to anyone watching the show that Baltar is a shifty, self-serving hedonist, he gets elected anyway.

These are the kind of conflicts that show up routinely on BSG. The perspective is cynical, but not preachy. The humanity that is shown struggling with these issues is the humanity we can all recognize rather than some idealized fabrication. The outcome of such conflicts creates real resonance.

The planet that is settled on represents an end to despair and anxiety to the voters, even though the sense of safety it provides is an illusion and not what is advised by the experts most informed of Cylon activity. The allure of laying down one's burdens is strong enough to make a disastrous decision though, which is something I can totally relate to.

Investment: 10
As with any show I'll be this into by season 2, BSG has fleshed out so many interesting characters, and drawn me into so many storylines that my investment is pretty absolute at this point. The conflicts I mentioned above make me want happiness all the more for the characters I like. Because they live in a world of moral ambiguity, with no precedence to their dire stituation, much of their moral compass is created along the way. It makes it all the sweeter when these people are able to triumph against the overwhelming odds laid against them.

I'll use the example of Admiral Adama (Edward James Olmos). Adama wastes no action nor words. He commands with a soft-spoken tone, but the way his crew responds to him speaks volumes about the respect he gets, even from the otherwise rebellious Kara 'Starbuck' Thrace (Katee Sackhoff). He is not infallible though. In "Lay Down your Burdens" he becomes involved in a coverup over tampering with the election ballots. When Baltar cofronts him, Adama suggests he take his victory and leave it at that, and that's all it takes to make Baltar back down. It's a great bit of characterization, even though he's about to become his boss, Baltar realizes that NO ONE should cross Adama.

Twists: 11
Wow, as Inigo Montaya put it: "There's too much to 'splain, let me sum up." There are more completely unexpected but naturally evolving twists packed into the last 30 min of "Lay Down you Burdens" than I've ever seen anywhere else. That's a big claim I realize, but I honestly can't think of anything that tops it. The last 15 minutes in particular present a conitnuity jump into the future that was not a gimmick nor felt like a cheat in any way, just the most interesting place to take up the story from. Just one "holy crap!" moment after another.

Laughs: 6
Mostly coming courtesy of Callis' turn as Baltar, there are some hearty laughs to be had here. Particulary when we see Baltar's version of running a presidential administration.


Final Word:
If you haven't seen Battlestar Galactica - There's still time! before the new season starts that is. If you've seen all the way through "Lay Down your Burdens" and have cable can I please come to your house for the season premiere?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Guiltless Review: Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan

Revenge is a dish best served cold; It is very cold in space

What a great time we live in where we can so completely recapture a piece of our childhood for about $20.

I have a fairly large DVD collection, about 120 or so movies. Since I liked them enough to buy them, these are usually films I end up re-watching a lot.

In some cases, a whole lot.

I usually shy away from calling something my favorite _________ of all time. I think it's kind of a presumptuous thing to say. I'm changing as a person all the time, what I might prefer today may not be the same as tomorrow. Mood and external stimuli can do much to alter my preferences. I don't like boxing myself in by making bold declarations.

That being said, if I can think of one movie in my collection that I would never want to lose, or the first movie that pops into my head when asked what's your favorite, it's usually Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (or TWOK for us lazy writers).

My last few reviews have featured movies that got a mix of good and bad responses from me. Be warned that the guiltless review that follows will likely degenerate to out and out gushing.

If you don't know the basics of Star Trek, you won't learn that here. Please refer your nearest video store, DVD mailing service, or fansite to catch up.

Wrath of Khan is a story of revenge and naval warfare told in the Star Trek Universe. It's plot is very simple: Khan Noonien Singh (played with scenery-destroying bravado by Ricardo Montalban) is a genetically engineered megalomaniac who was marooned on a desolate planet 15 years prior by one James T. Kirk (William Shatner in what is easily his best performance as Kirk), then captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise. As you would assume, given the title of the movie, Khan finds his way off the planet and is out for revenge. Of course, there's much more to it then that, but I certainly wouldn't want to spoil it for those few unfortunate souls who have somehow missed out on this movie.

Investment: 10
As a kid in 1982, this movie was my introduction to the Star Trek universe. I was never a big follower of the original series ( I didn't dislike it, I just never followed it that closely). Unlike many other fans, going into this movie I had no history with these characters.

This movie doesn't need it.

In a lot of movies, we are expected to follow a hero's adventures and be thrilled by his or her exploits and be satisfied that they are triumphant. Many times, this level of investment just isn't earned and what should be empathy turns to indifference.

Watching the old star trek series now, as well the other original cast movies I've come to realize that they have never gotten these characters so right anywhere else. Nowhere else are Kirk, Spock, and McCoy more likable than they are here.

It's all in the details. In the little things that are said, the way the main characters have an obvious history and comfort zone with each other. Teamwork and trust just comes naturally by now; they are very easy to root for.


Take this exchange for example:

Kirk is now an Admiral, he is aboard the Enterprise only for a routine inspection. Spock is currently Captain. When they are notified that an emergency situation has presented itself. Spock defers to Kirk as his superior officer, offering him control of ship. Kirk, who has been regretting his promotion to admiral and mired in a mid-life crisis refuses at first, wishing not to upset his friend. That is until Spock sets him straight:

SPOCK: Jim, you proceed from a false assumption. I am a Vulcan, I have no ego to bruise.

KIRK: You're about to remind me that logic alone dictates your actions

SPOCK: I would not remind you of that which you know so well. If I may be so bold, it was a mistake for you to accept promotion. Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny. Anything else is a waste of material.

KIRK: I would not presume to debate you.

SPOCK: That is wise. In any case, were I to invoke logic, logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

KIRK: Or the one.

SPOCK: You are my superior officer, you are also my friend, I have been and always shall be yours.

Of course just reading the lines don't do this scene justice. There is so much heart put into these performances that completely sell it. This one scene adds so much flavor to these characters and their relationship. It also advances Kirk's story arc in TWOK. It also makes me want these guys to succeed. This is one of my favorite-ever scenes in any movie.


Resonance: 12
This one is waaay off the charts. I actually look at the resonance this movie produces in 2 ways. First there is the visceral resonance, the way I remembered so many details about this movie when I bought it on a VHS tape 7 years ago after not having seen it for 15 years.

Then there is the emotional resonance, TWOK features themes of coming to terms with aging and mortality. And this is a theme that is explored in the best possible way. Not in a only-film students-and-megageeks-will-get-it kind of way, nor in a hit-you-over-the-head-with-it kind of way. The theme is present througout the entire film but is never its sole focus. In the very first scene, Lt. Saavik (Kirstie Alley) is going through a Starfleet simulation/test of character (the infamous Kobayashi Maru). The simulation presents a situation where there is no chance for success or escape and is designed to make officers-in-training face the possibility of death.


We later learn that Kirk is the only officer to ever beat this test and thus avoid facing his own mortality. Of course he could only do this by cheating, and thus completely missing the point of the test. The entire rest of the movie can be seen as a Kobayashi Maru test where Kirk can't change the rules.

How does this resonate with me?

I've been depressed much of this past year. Bad year at work, bad year at home, I'm 33 and still trying to get through a doctoral program. I've had to face death as an adult for the first time. Like Kirk, I'm feeling old, worn out. Kirk has to face the music in this movie and I totally relate. I hope to find the same peace Kirk does by the end of TWOK at some point.


Tears: 9

We've come a long way and still haven't spoken about the death of Spock. Yes, Spock does get better eventually (next movie even), but the way his death is handled: the build up, the painfully heroic sacrifice. It's perfect, as well as I've ever seen a major character's death handled in any movie.

The ending coda following Spock's death is just as good. The funeral, Kirk's eulogy, even the soaring orchestral rendition of Amazing Grace are tremendous. Then there's Kirk's reconciliation with his son, his final words of goodbye to Spock, and finally the camera setting down on the Genesis planet and finding Spock's coffin. Then for the only time, it's Spock who delivers the classic Star Trek introduction.

I admit, I don't usually cry at this ending anymore, but the fact that it still moves me after seeing it about eleventy-bazillion times is nothing short of amazing.

Bryan Singer completely ripped off just about every element of this ending I mentioned above for X-Men 2, and I can't even be upset about it cause it worked pretty well in that movie. If your going to rip something off, why not do it from the best.

Awe: 7
I am awestruck whenever I get to see that ending with James Horner's booming score playing.


Twists: 8
I love how the plot twists are so informative of character. The good guys are at a disadvantage for just about the entire movie, and only get by on their wits. And I don't mean technobabble-wits, just good old fashioned quick thinking in a way I could understand and appreciate. I'm thinking of the 'coded messages' trick Kirk & Spock use here, its done right in front of the audience, but people don't usually realize what they did till later.

Immersion: 10
This film moves fast, so much story is told in such little time. It's a model of efficient and emotional storytelling. James Horner's score, which I alluded to earlier, totally adds to the immersion, picking it up at just the right moments.

Dread: 6
Three words: Ear-burrowing worms. Khan's method of mind control is absolutely gruesome. Nothing nearly as disturbing as this anywhere else in Trek.

Laughs: 5
Surprisingly, in a movie this tense there are some genuine laughs. I've always felt that moments of levity make the danger in movies seem more dangerous. The laughs here all come from well written character moments that serve to make the protagonists seem more likable.

What's any discussion of Wrath of Khan worth without the oft-parodied line:


If you don't love this movie you are just not trying.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Guiltless Review: Serenity

or "River the Reaver Slayer"

Yes, its been awhile, but I haven't stopped watching movies. Specifically, I've watched just about the entire Joss Whedon oeuvre this year, from Buffy to Angel to Firefly to Serenity.

Ok, I admit I skipped most of "Angel" and just about all of "Firefly," but judging from "Serenity", I pretty much gather what happened. Serenity is a movie I liked overall, but had some distinctly tiresome "Whedonesque" touches in it. In any case, there'll be time to discuss it in the context of his other work later, for now its onto the guiltless review.

Malcolm Reynolds (or Mal played by Nathan Fillion) is captain of the titular transport ship. He's also a smuggler and a thief, just trying to make a free and dishonest living in a galaxy dominated by the rule of an oppressive "Alliance." He's surrounded by a crew of old war buddies and like-minded freedom lovers who form something of a makeshift family.

Reluctantly, during the run of Firefly (which precedes this film continuity-wise) Mal took on two passengers that have caused him no end of trouble: Simon Tam and his sister River. River doesn't speak much and has a mysterious connection to the Alliance. The Alliance has since been hunting down Serenity. To that end they have assigned The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who may just be smart and resourceful enough to succeed in catching her.

Twists: 7
I'll start here because this is what the movie really has going for it. The story drew me in, despite the fact that I didn't see most of "Firefly." I won't ruin things by divulging too much plot. Suffice it to say that what passes for civilization in this interplanetary society lives in fear of "reavers"; people who have gone mad by living on the isolated fringes of space for years. The origin of the reavers is revealed here in a disturbing way that sets the tone for the second half of the movie.

Immersion: 9
This is a fully realized fantasy universe. Just learning more about this universe kept me interested. In addition, the pacing of the movie is excellent, Whedon accomplishes a lot with most of his scenes, wasting no time in moving a dense plot along. For example, an early shot that follows Mal around his ship and serves to introduce the entire crew is particularly impressive.

Laughs: 4
A couple of decent chuckles here. The script is witty but not nearly as funny as say "Buffy" was.

Investment: 4
Ok, this is one of the oddest numbers you'll see for a movie I liked. Usually with dialogue this sharp, acting this good, and a plot this involving I will get more invested in the characters. However, I think some of my Whedon-overload may have worked against the movie here.

If you've seen the later seasons of Buffy or Angel, you'll know what I mean. Whedon has a tendency to use shock tactics (think sudden deaths of major characters) to add a sense of "tension" to the proceedings. Sometimes this works dramatically and sometimes it doesn't. For me, it removes a layer of investment I would otherwise have for characters knowing that they are subject to such whims. As a result, what should be a high level of tension turns into a detached coldness. It diminishes how much I cheer for the heroes or am saddened by their tragedies. It all ends up feeling like a cold writing exercise rather than a dramatic story. This might be by design; I'm sure the morbid 18-year old death fetishists eat it up, it just doesn't work for me.

Bizareness: 2
A very loud '2' here. The reavers get such a build up and a great back story, but end up looking pretty lame. So much potential wasted.

Thrills: 5
One really cool thrill comes late in the movie when Serenity is being chased by about a zillion reaver ships. The hand-to-hand fighting involving River is just a tad less cheezy than classic Buffy-Fu, that is: not very thrilling.

Final Word:
I enjoyed watching Serenity, but honestly don't really care to watch what I've missed of Firefly or if there is ever a continuation of this story. Despite being entertained, I'm just not invested enough to care about what happens next. End of non-spoiler review.


Knowing Whedon, such a continuation would inevitably include the intergration of the operative to Mal's crew and more tediously bad kung-fu. My brain starts to hurt just thinking about it.