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Sunday, January 31, 2021

Another Destination for the Post-COVID Era


In Ticonderoga, New York, there exists a faithful recreation of the sets used to shoot the original Star Trek series. Now that I know this is a real thing in the world, I must of course experience it. Now I just need to decide if I should go by land (an 80-hour round trip), or just fly to Montreal and rent a car for the short drive to Ticonderoga . . . 

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Dad in the 40s

Dad would have been 79 today. Here he is at left with his friend George Wells. Mom thinks this might have been around 1944. 

This photo was originally shot in black and white. Colour was added by an algorithm. 
Miss you, Dad. Take care. 

Friday, January 29, 2021

Two Cabs, Several Colours

Still rough, with primer showing through in some spots and some colours going "outside the lines" as it were, but I'll address those issues. 

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

A Plan for Pinawa

If it's ever safe to go outside again, I'd love to take a few days for a summer road trip to Pinawa Dam Provincial Heritage Park, the site of one of the first hydroelectric dams on the Prairies; it operated from 1906 to 1951, and judging by the photos on Google Maps, it's an impressive sight. The park itself looks quite bucolic. 


Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Superman Temporary Tattoos

Here's another surprise I found while decluttering my library. It's a collection of temporary tattoos meant to promote Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, a new (as of the early 1990s) television spin on the Superman mythos. I believe they must have come packaged with Lois & Clark trading cards, which I have not recycled, as is the fate of these tattoos. Fans certainly had a decent range of colour schemes to choose from. 

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Superman vs. Muhammad Ali: The Movie

Rao knows I love Richard Donner's Superman (1978), the film that cemented my love for the characters and stories that made up the world of Clark Kent and his heroic alter ego. Donner's adaptation captured almost the full gestalt of what makes the character great: his goodness, his vulnerability, the tragedy of his birth, the irony of being two-thirds of an impossible to reconcile love triangle, the weight of his self-imposed responsibilities. And Donner captured these elements in a film that avoided campiness (save perhaps when it comes to the villains) and treated the mythos with respect. 

But another great Superman story emerged in 1978: Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, a gorgeous oversized tabloid comic book crafted by two legendary figures in comics: writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams. While the concept sounds like a gimmick of questionable taste, O'Neil and Adams put the two icons, one real, one imagined, on equal footing through good storytelling and clever use of the mythologies of both men. 

The plot is really quite simple: an alien armada arrives in Earth orbit. It's the Scrubb, a renowned warrior species who've heard that Earth, too, is a planet renowned for its martial prowess. An emissary of the Scrubb demands that Muhammad Ali, who they dub Earth's greatest warrior, must fight the Scrubb champion in gladiatorial combat. Refuse, and Earth dies under a hail of nuclear missiles. 

Of course, the alien emissary finds Ali just as he's being interviewed by Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olsen, Clark slips away to change into Superman and argues he should be the one to fight the Scrubb champion, acknowledging that while Ali is the world's greatest human fighter, he, Superman, is which Ali responds if anyone's going to fight for Earth, it should be someone born on Earth. 

The alien emissary doesn't care who fights as long as someone does, so he sets up a primary bout that will take place in an arena that nullifies Superman's powers, guaranteeing a fair fight. Well, "fair" in the sense that now you have a guy that's still pretty strong but who's never needed any training to win fights going up against, well, Muhammad Ali. 

While this setup sounds like silly kid stuff, the storytelling abilities on hand really sell the idea, and the narrative gives both Ali and Superman plenty of moments to shine, with three great boxing sequences, some Mission:Impossible style covert ops, and a spectacular space battle. In the end it turns into a legitimately exciting space opera that, if filmed with care and an admittedly huge budget to capture Neal Adams' incredible visuals, could have rivalled the Star Wars films for escapist entertainment back in the day. 

Naturally you'd use the cast from Donner's Superman, and Ali would, of course, play himself. Somewhere out there in the multiverse, you can see this movie...

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Legends of Yesterday

Today's experiment in "If intellectual property wasn't a thing:" 

I present The Legends of Yesterday, a secret cabal of extraordinary individuals long thought lost, retired, or dead. No one but their mysterious, never-seen leader (voiced by Bruce Campbell) knows that these reluctant heroes are not only alive and restored to their primes, but gifted with immunity to aging and disease. How will the 21st century react to these relics of yesteryear? What is the hidden agenda of their secretive leader? And what about M.A.L.I.C.E., the Malevolent Alliance of Lawless Individuals for Crime and Extortion? Can they be stopped, even by the Legends of Yesterday?

The Legends: 

The Six Million Dollar Man (television) - pilot, astronaut, espionage and brute force

The Bionic Woman (television) - teacher, tennis, espionage and brute force

Michael Knight and KITT (television) - crimebusting, infiltration, policing

Rollin Hand (television) - espionage, disguise

Barney Collier (television) - engineering, invention, mechanics

Colt Seavers (television) - stunts, brawling

Robby the Robot (film) - food and drink synthesis, driving, butlering, comic relief

Foxy Brown (film) - revenge, infiltration, knife fighting

Kelly Garrett (television) - infiltration, seduction, karate, pistols

John Clayton, Lord Greystoke (novels) - brawling, jungle survival, exploration, animal handling, hunting

John Shaft (novels, film) - investigation, pistol, brawling

Big Jim (toys) - kung fu, camping, driving, SCUBA

Alan Carter (television) - astronaut, pilot, wisecracks

Stretch Armstrong (toys) - stretching, brooding

Isis (television) - animal friendship, elemental control

April Dancer (television) - espionage, glam

Roy Hinkley (television) - science

Mary Ann Summers (television) - morale, logistics

John Drake (television) - espionage, rage

Belt Jones (film) - brawling, martial arts 

Thursday, January 21, 2021

New Superman & Lois Trailer


I will admit I prefer the classic Superman trope--that is, the Clark/Lois/Superman love triangle, with all its painful angst--but judging by the trailer, this looks like it might be a half-decent take on a Superman and Lois who've taken the plunge, gotten married, and raised a family. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Brief Thoughts on Joe vs. the Volcano

Audiences are used to seeing character arcs, and we get a lovely one in Joe versus the Volcano (John Patrick Shanley, 1990). But the writer/director also treats us to a fascinating arc in tone, as Joe's story begins in an absurdist dystopian factory with the worst working conditions since Fritz Lang's Metropolis, eases into a more mundane middle-class idyll, then glides to a paradisiacal tropical finish. It's the journey Joe needs to take in order to recapture his love of life, a journey made possible by a gift from on high, a not-quite-random act of kindness rewarding Joe's courage and perseverance.

What a strange, beautiful film.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Adventures in Decluttering

While decluttering my office the other night, I found this small collection of music-themed trading cards. I can't imagine I would have ever bought these, so I theorize that someone at Warp One slipped them into my purchase as a freebie (I spent an embarrassing amount of money there back in my 20s). I recognize Belinda Carlisle, Janet Jackson, the Pretenders, and Blues Traveler (thanks only to "Ride, Captain, Ride," one of my favourite songs. The rest of these artists are complete mysteries to me. But they were SUPER*STARS at some point! 

Saturday, January 16, 2021

The Railing Room

To the uncaring heavens I shriek
Here at the nadir of existence 
Four walls in search of a ceiling and
Someone's left the door open again

Friday, January 15, 2021

Escape from Gilligan's Island: The Roleplaying Game, Part III: Character Creation, Part II

Skills on Gilligan's Island
Like all humans, Castaways possess a wide range of skills thanks to natural aptitude, many hours of practise, or both. During the game, characters will find their skills tested by many challenges, suffering penalties to their chance of success if they do not possess the particular skill needed in the given moment. 

The following skills are most relevant to life on the island:

The ability to bob, dodge, weave, balance, and perform other feats of dexterity.

The ability to play a role convincingly on stage or film or even during one’s personal life.

Animal Friendship
The ability to make friends with animals, or at least to convince them you’re not a threat or prey.

Animal Husbandry
The ability to breed livestock.

The ability to shoot a bow and arrow.

Bamboo Building
The ability to create buildings and vehicles out of bamboo.

The ability to play the banjo.

The ability to play brass instruments, such as the tuba, sousaphone, trumpet, etc.

The ability to threaten and coerce others into doing your will.

Butterfly Collecting
The ability to identify, collect, and display butterflies.

The ability to create a campsite and live comfortably outdoors for days or weeks at a time.

The ability to use tools and raw materials to assemble structures.

The ability to competently shoot motion pictures with a motion picture camera.

Climbing, Cliff
The ability to scale cliffs, with or without equipment.

Climbing, Mountain
The ability to scale mountains, with or without equipment.

Climbing, Tree
The ability to climb trees.

Clothes Washing
The ability to wash clothing.

Coconut Crafting
The ability to create useful tools out of coconut shells, oil, meat, and leaves.

The ability to cook with primitive equipment.

The ability to ride a bicycle.

Dancing, Ballroom
The ability to ballroom dance.

Dancing, Tap
The ability to tap dance.

The ability to fool someone into believing something that is not true.

The ability to change your appearance with clothing, makeup, and appliances.

The ability to drive an automobile.

Dynamite Handling
The ability to handle dynamite without blowing yourself up.

The ability to understand and repair electronic devices and understand the principles behind their function.

The ability to plant, raise, and harvest crops.

The ability to invest wisely in capital markets.

First Aid
The ability to provide basic first aid to an injured person.

The ability to catch fish.

The ability to engage in fisticuffs.

The ability to arouse someone’s interest in you as a sexual being.

The ability to grow small-scale plots or planters of flowers, herbs, vegetables, small fruits and berries, and trees and shrubs. 

The ability to gather fruits, nuts, and other naturally-occurring foodstuffs.

The ability to maintain one’s own personal hygiene and personal appearance.

Guitar, Rhythm
The ability to play rhythm guitar.

Guitar, Bass
The ability to play bass guitar.

The ability to cut and style hair.

The ability to play the harmonica.

The ability to play the harpsichord.

The ability to walk long distances through challenging terrain.

Understanding the study of history, focused on the past of the human species. 

Hot Air Ballooning
The ability to operate a hot air balloon.

The ability to track down game.

The ability to perform feats of illusion through slight-of-hand or other trickery.

The ability to conceptualize and assemble a device for some utilitarian or artistic purpose.

The ability to juggle two or more small items such as balls, boomerangs, jars, pineapples, coconuts, pies, torches, batons, etc.

Language, American Sign Language
The ability to speak American Sign Language.

Language, Cannibal
The ability to speak the language of the cannibals on nearby islands.  

Language, Cantonese
The ability to speak Cantonese.

Language, English
The ability to speak English.

Language, French
The ability to speak French.

Language, German
The ability to speak German.

Language, Japanese
The ability to speak Japanese.

Language, Mandarin
The ability to speak Mandarin.

Language, Spanish
The ability to speak Spanish.

Language, Swedish
The ability to speak Swedish.

Language, Tagalog
The ability to speak Tagalog.

Language, Transylvanian
The ability to speak Transylvanian.

Lip Reading
The ability to read lips and discover what a person is saying even if you can’t hear them.

The ability to pick small locks.

The ability to apply makeup to oneself or others.

Martial Arts
The ability to use your body as a weapon.

Mechanics, Aircraft
The ability to repair aircraft.

Mechanics, Astronautics
The ability to repair spacecraft.

Mechanics, Automobile
The ability to repair automobiles.

Mechanics, Bicycle
The ability to repair bicycles, tricycles, unicycles, penny-farthings, etc.

Mechanics, Motorcycle
The ability to repair motorcycles.

Mechanics, Ship
The ability to repair seagoing ships. 

Mechanics, Submarine
The ability to repair submarines.

The ability to diagnose and treat a variety of ailments.

Melee Weapons
The ability to use weapons such as clubs, brass knuckles, swords, hammers, screwdrivers, bottles, knives, daggers, and other non-ranged implements of menace in combat. 

The ability to mime.

The ability to locate and safely deactivate mines.

The ability to lower someone’s morale by insulting, degrading, or humiliating them.

The ability to use appearance and performance to showcase consumer products.

Mouth Harp
The ability to play the mouth harp.

The ability to know where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going in a boat, raft, submarine, or other watercraft.

The ability to make deals that benefit both parties.

Organ, Electronic
The ability to play an electronic organ.

Organ, Pipe
The ability to play a pipe organ.

The ability to pack goods into the most efficient space.

Painting, Canvas
The ability to paint works of art on canvas.

Painting, House
The ability to paint a house, fence or other large pieces of infrastructure.

The ability to play drums.

The ability to shoot photographs with a camera.

The ability to play the piano.

Pilot, Fixed-wing
The ability to safely operate a fixed-wing aircraft.

Pilot, Rotary
The ability to safely operate a helicopter.

Pilot, Ship
The ability to safely operate a ship.

Pilot, Space Capsule
The ability to safely operate a space capsule.

The ability to maintain and shoot a pistol or flare gun.

The ability to mix ingredients and calculate the correct dosage to kill or incapacitate a human or animal with poison. 

The ability to shape clay into pots and other ceramic items, and to use a kiln and paint and glazes to finish said items.

The ability to comically stumble or crash in a way that may be painful and embarrassing, but avoids significant injury.

The ability to craft puns in order to trigger a desired emotional response from an audience.

The ability to pilot a raft.

Repair, Appliances
The ability to repair appliances, given the right tools.

Repair, Electronics
The ability to repair electronic devices, given the right tools.

The ability to discover new information by referring to books, journals, photographs, interviews, and other data collection.

The ability to maintain and shoot a rifle or machine gun. 

The ability to break into a safe or other sealed container.

The ability to sail a sailboat.

The ability to find useful resources or trinkets.

Science, Astronomy
Understanding the science of celestial phenomena and their motion in space.  

Science, Astrophysics
Understanding the science of ascertaining the nature of astronomical objects. 

Science, Biology
Understanding the science of  life and living organisms, including their physical structure, chemistry, physiology, development, and evolution. 

Science, Chemistry
Understanding the composition of elements and compounds and how they react with other substances.

Science, Computer
Understanding algorithmic processes and computing machines. 

Science, Entomology
Understanding the classification, structure, and habits of insects. 

Science, Geology
Understanding how the solid earth changes over time and how that informs the structure of the Earth and its natural history. 

Science, Ichthyology
Understanding the habits, structure, and classification of fish. 

Science, Mad
The ability to apply several different scientific disciplines to achieve unconventional--some might say impossible--results, often with evil intent. 

Science, Mathematics
Understanding the study of quantity, structure, space, and change through numbers and formulae. 

Science, Metallurgy
Understanding the physical and chemical behaviour of metals and alloys. 

Science, Physics
Understanding matter, energy, spacetime, and the other foundations of the universe. 

Science, Political
Understanding systems of governance and political thought and activities. 

Science, Radiology
Understanding how to use medical imaging to diagnose and treat diseases. 

Science, Rocket
The ability to design, build, and maintain rockets, satellites, probes, and other Space Age infrastructure. 

Science, Zoology
Understanding the classification, evolution, habits, and distribution of animals and how they interact with their ecosystems. 

SCUBA Diving
The ability to use SCUBA equipment to explore underwater.

The ability to create sculptures from clay, ivory, stone, wood, or other raw materials.

The ability to use charisma and sex appeal to change the behaviour of others in a way favourable to you.

The ability to create and repair garments with a needle and thread or sewing machine.

The ability to sing melodiously.

The ability to draw.

The ability to skydive with a parachute.

The ability to fashion a sling or slingshot, to gather stones of the proper size and shape to serve as ammunition, and to use the sling or slingshot to incapacitate targets. 

The ability to use a snorkel to look below the surface of the water while swimming.

The ability to maneuver in space with a spacesuit and tether or jet propulsion.

The ability to fashion a spear out of native materials and use it to incapacitate targets. 

Sport, Bowling
The ability to bowl.

Sport, Boxing
The ability to box.

Sport, Field Hockey
The ability to play field hockey.

Sport, Ice Hockey
The ability to play ice hockey.

Sport, Darts
The ability to throw darts.

Sport, Golf
The ability to golf.

Sport, Roller Skating
The ability to roller skate.

Sport, Tennis
The ability to play tennis.

Sport, Wrestling
The ability to wrestle.

The ability to play stringed instruments such as the violin, viola, double bass, fiddle, etc.

The ability to operate on a person to fix an ailment.

The ability to swim.

The ability to set traps for small game such as bunnies, wild turkeys, snakes, and so on.

The ability to ride a unicycle.

The ability to use natural landmarks and tools like compasses to avoid getting lost on land.

The ability to weave blankets, mats, and other items out of cotton and other natural materials.

The ability to play instruments from the woodwind family, such as saxophones, flutes, etc.

The ability to create useful implements or works out art out of wood.

Writing, Essays
The ability to write non-fiction works that present a compelling argument.

Writing, Fiction
The ability to write a compelling short story or novel.

Writing, Journaling
The ability to write an interesting personal diary of life events.

Writing, Poetry
The ability to write poetry evocative enough for publication.

Writing, Scientific Papers
The ability to write scientific papers suitable for publication in peer-reviewed journals.

Writing, Screenwriting
The ability to craft a screenplay suitable for the demands of motion picture production.

Writing, Travel
The ability to write compelling travelogues.

The ability to yell powerfully enough to startle a person or beast and perhaps cause them to flee or respond to a challenge.

The ability to yodel compellingly. Can be used as a signal of distress, success, or call to attack. 

Have I missed any skills that someone might need to survive on Gilligan's Island? Post in the comments below! 

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

My First Scratch-Built Terrain

Tonight I assembled a 28mm-scale MDF kit to make some assorted traffic barricades, pylons, and warning lights, along with some shipping equipment. There were some MDF pieces left over, and I found myself assembling them into this 28mm scale . . . closet? Parking lot booth? Wardrobe? I suppose it could serve as any of those things, though how I choose to paint it may wind up limiting its versatility. Still, it amounts to a free piece of terrain! 

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Pet Epiphany

 Are pets called "pets" because you "pet" them? I'm afraid to research this question. 

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Real Cause of the Burn

Not really, but I think it would have been better than the cause revealed on the show, which was, at least, better than my worst fear: that time travel shenanigans would have shown Michael Burnham was the cause of the Burn, because of course, "BURN-ham." 

Saturday, January 09, 2021

Shorts Worth Watching: Thunder

The face of a haunted woman bathed in staccato sparks and ropes and flashes of neon light, senses assaulted by a cacophony of electronic noise that beats in time with not only the light and stop-motion movement across the screen, but our heroine's trauma. Five minutes of off-kilter terror. Takashi Ito, 1982

Friday, January 08, 2021

The Gospel According To Barabbas

Barabbas (Richard Fleischer, 1961) might be one of the most interesting takes I've seen on the Christ story; this time, we follow the journey of Barabbas, the thief who the mob pardoned at Passover instead of Jesus. Turns out this makes Barabbas immortal, or at least he's lucky enough for his circumstances to make it seem that way. He's a subject of both awe and scorn, a sinner who nonetheless was in the presence of Christ near the end of his life and so, perhaps, divinely touched by that experience. But can the cynical non-believer come to terms with his role in the story of Christ, or is he forever damned to walk the earth?

Anthony Quinn is predictably excellent as Barabbas, capturing the thief's bitterness and anger while projecting just enough doubt and vulnerability for us to believe that he really was touched by his experience, despite his protestations.

The costuming and production design create a believable first-century ambiance, and there's a gladiatorial combat sequence almost as grand as the chariot race seen in Ben-Hur (1959). The many years Barabbas spends mining sulphur are appropriately claustrophobic and desperate.

Still, I can't say that this film will stay with me. Barabbas' eventual redemption seems predictably inevitable, without any truly gripping moments of revelation; it's as if time simply wore him down and he got tired of resisting his conversion. In the end, like Christ, Barabbas is crucified, and this final scene is one of the film's most powerful moments, not simply because of the weight of its allusions, but because of the composition, the lighting, and Quinn's convincing death agonies. 

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Some Thoughts on Children of Men

Beautifully bleak, Alfonso CuarĂ³n's Children of Men (2005) presents a societal collapse painted in tones of brown and grey with the occasional spatter of blood red. Set nearly twenty years after the birth of the last surviving baby, civilization is crumbling under the weight of hopelessness and fury. In the United Kingdom, immigrants and refugees suffer the wrath of Fascist Britain. The privileged class may have food and lodging, but even their plight is ultimately hopeless, so the government hands out free euthanasia kits. After all, a world without children is a world without a future, so why go on?

In the midst of this doomed landscape we meet Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a middle-class divorcee who finds himself dragged into the role of guardian to the first pregnant woman, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey). Faron didn't ask for this job, but he understands its importance, and shepherds Kee and her baby through the hellish landscape that is rubble-strewn Britain. The journey is fraught with violence and betrayal as the decay of civil society seems to accelerate around Faron and Kee, until they are caught up in a vicious urban street battle that seems a precursor to all-out war. The end is nigh.

That end comes at sea, in the frigid waters of the English Channel, in the pale red light of a blinking buoy. There is death, but there is also hope - if there can be hope at all for this ruined world. Can the cry of a newborn save humanity? Perhaps. But perhaps it's just the last gasp of a doomed species. 

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

The Empty Skies

SPOILERS for The Midnight Sky

Handled differently, George Clooney's The Midnight Sky (2020) could have been a tense apocalyptic science fiction thriller. Unfortunately, the screenplay is so riddled with plot holes and  misguided story beats that all the drama is drained from the film before the conclusion of the first act. 

The music is lovely, the performances are fine, and the production design is magnificent--but what is the point of this story? The only stakes are the lives of the handful of people on the starship returning from Jupiter. The film makes it clear that everyone on Earth is doomed. Saving the astronauts is pointless; even if they make it back to the habitable moon around Jupiter (and don't even get me started on the idea of there being a habitable moon around Jupiter and we just didn't notice it until the mid-21st century), it's not like they can repopulate the species with just a couple of people. At best, they're dooming the astronauts to an extremely lonely and depressing life, raising a child (one astronaut is pregnant) who will eventually be all alone, without parents, without another single member of her species anywhere in existence. 

Also, what was the point of the little girl who stays behind in Greenland with Clooney's character? The film's plot and tone wouldn't have changed a whit without her. 

I'd respect the film more if it acknowledged these problems, but Clooney treats the ending as melancholic but hopeful, as if warning the astronauts to turn back is some kind of huge victory. Even Clooney's efforts to make contact with the ship are pointless, because they clearly see that Earth is wrecked as soon as they arrive, and from that point they could have figured out themselves that they had to go back to Jupiter to survive (however pointless that survival may be). 

Science fiction at its best is a wonderful vehicle for exploring all kinds of stories. But creators can't just rely on the awe and majesty of their visual effects to carry the story. The story needs to make sense; it must be logical; it must have meaning. The Midnight Sky has none of these elements.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Star Trek V: The Flimsy Frontier

Just before the climax of William Shatner's Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Captain James T. Kirk (Shatner again) asks a powerful noncorporeal being "What does god need with a starship?" When I attended the sneak preview in Edmonton back in 1989, the line got a good laugh; a deserved laugh, I think, thanks to Shatner's delivery and the point the line arrives in the story. It's a line that captures Kirk's justified skepticism, a line in keeping with the man's characterization through nearly 25 years of history to that point. On the other hand, the line is also a bit campy, appearing as it does in the rather ridiculous circumstances of this widely-panned Trek; maybe that's the true reason my audience laughed. Still, the original television series often veered into camp, and that never stopped it from asking insightful questions about the human condition. "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," a painfully on-the-nose allegory about the tragedy of racism from Star Trek's third season, had its own share of camp--and yet, even today, the episode's message resonates despite the limitations of the production. Can the same be said for Star Trek V, over thirty years since its premiere? 

A Reach That Exceeded Its Grasp
Prior to the production of Star Trek V, Shatner's longtime costar Leonard Nimoy (who plays Kirk's old friend and first officer Spock), directed Star Trek III and IV; both were successful, and IV in particular was a true critical and box office hit. Shatner's contract included a clause guaranteeing him the chance to direct should that privilege be granted to Nimoy, so the fifth Star Trek film was destined to be directed by its primary star. Shatner must have felt intense pressure to craft a film even more successful than IV, and the story he conceived was ambitious enough to to the trick: Captain Kirk would take his ship, the Enterprise, to the centre of the galaxy in a search for the Divine itself. 

With the right screenplay and direction, such a story could have been quite interesting. Unfortunately, the screenplay is uneven; there are a couple of bright spots and a few moments of cringe, while the rest is simply bland. Shatner's direction is workmanlike and nowhere near the level of skill and creativity needed to match the scope of his intended story. Worse yet, for the first time in the Trek film series, the production design and special effects are seriously below par, enough to seriously distract from a story that absolutely demanded striking visuals. Even the normally excellent main cast perform below their true capabilities here; only guest player Laurence Luckinbill, playing Spock's half-brother Sybok, seems to be having any fun in this picture. In fact, the only aspect of this production that could reasonably be called "good" is the superb score by Jerry Goldsmith, a score that surely deserves a far better film. 

Star Trek V begins with a reasonably effective cold opening. A cloaked man on horseback gallops across a barren world and encounters an ancient farmer toiling at the unforgiving land. The rider promises the farmer an end to pain, and indeed he seems to lift the farmer's cares away with a telepathic touch. The rider laughs in delight at the farmer's tears of joy, and his hood falls back, revealing pointed Vulcan ears. "A laughing Vulcan?" gasps the farmer in wonder, for in the world of Star Trek, Vulcans are renowned for their suppression of emotion. Here we cut to the opening credit sequence, and after that we transition to Captain Kirk climbing the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. It turns out that several members of the Enterprise crew are on Earth for shore leave; Kirk, Spock, and Doctor McCoy are camping in the park. In more capable hands, it might have been refreshing to see our heroes relaxing, but instead we're subjected to the kind of "light comedy" that produces groans instead of guffaws; there are fart jokes, misunderstandings of pop culture references, and a badly-executed moment of peril that's impossible to take seriously for two reasons: truly terrible special effects and the fact that Spock is wearing rocket boots, which he uses to effect a rescue. 

Thankfully an emergency recalls the crew back to the Enterprise, but we then discover that our proud ship is experiencing a torrent of wacky malfunctions, again played for comedic effect. But instead of being funny, the problems just make Starfleet, the Federation, and the Enterprise crew look incompetent, a perception cemented by Starfleet Command's decision to send the ship out on a dangerous mission despite Kirk's protests over the state of the ship. 

The mission? It seems that Sybok, the cloaked fellow from the cold open, has taken possession of the only city on Nimbus III, the "so-called 'Planet of Galactic Peace'" jointly governed by the Federation and its Cold-ish-War enemies, the Klingon Empire and the Romulan Empire. Spock reveals that Sybok is his (never before mentioned) half-brother, and that unlike other Vulcans, Sybok embraces emotions, making him a heretic in Vulcan society. 

The Enterprise arrives at Nimbus III. Keep in mind that the Enterprise, with a crew of over 500 that includes a large, well-armed, and very capable security team, is up against Sybok and a crew of ragtag, poorly-armed bandits. While it's true that Sybok has three important hostages (the diplomats from each government assigned to Nimbus III), which could perhaps hamper rescue operations, you'd think that this mission would still be pretty straightforward for Kirk and company. Except that they can't use the transporters because, of course, they're part of the malfunctions we saw earlier in the picture. So Kirk, Spock, Sulu, McCoy, Uhura, and a few security officers fly a shuttle down to Nimbus III to effect rescue. Poor Uhura gets to perform a striptease to distract the guards, an insulting character beat that I'm sure Nichelle Nichols couldn't have enjoyed much. (Though if she did, more power to her, but it's telling that none of the guys were asked for striptease duty.) 

Alas, despite all logic and reason, Sybok emerges victorious, capturing the landing party and commandeering their shuttle. He reveals his insidious plan: he took hostages on Nimbus III only to lure a starship to the planet so that he could hijack said starship and take it in search of Sha Ka Ree, which he believes is the centre of creation of the universe and the home of God. 

There's a brief moment of excitement when a Klingon Bird-of-Prey shows up in response to the crisis on Nimbus III, but rather than rescuing hostages, Captain Klaa is focused on blowing up Kirk's shuttle thanks to his previous crimes against the Klingon Empire. Sulu's ingenuity and skill get the shuttle safely back aboard the Enterprise, and there's a moment where it looks like Spock can take control of the situation from Sybok and end the crisis. Alas, doing so would mean killing Sybok, and Spock can't do it. Sybok uses his powers to take away the pain of Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov, putting them under his thrall, a moment of triple character assassination that's still hard to forgive. He tries the same thing on McCoy, Spock, and Kirk, but the three of them manage to resist, of course, because they're the headliners in this story. 

Sybok sticks the three of them in a jail cell while he takes the Enterprise to the centre of the galaxy. The trip seems to take about fifteen minutes. Yes, the ships in Star Trek are fast, but they're not supposed to be fast enough to cross thousands of light years in mere minutes. There's a lot of hullabaloo about "no ship has ever survived crossing the Great Barrier!" that apparently surrounds the centre of the galaxy, but of course the Enterprise crosses it without any fanfare. Furthermore, the vengeful Captain Klaa is right on their tail. 

Allow me a moment to digress. When I first saw the first trailer for Star Trek V, I was pretty excited, because that "great barrier" line, taken out of context, makes it sound like a reference to the Great Barrier around the edge of the galaxy shown in Star Trek's second pilot episode, "Where No Man Has Gone Before." I thought we might be getting a sequel to that tremendous episode, akin to the way in which Star Trek II followed up on "Space Seed." 

Alas, I think what happened is simply that Shatner forgot the location of the Great Barrier, sticking it at the galaxy's centre instead of surrounding its perimeter. 

At some point during all this nonsense, Mr. Scott breaks Kirk, Spock, and McCoy out of their cell. He knocks himself out on a bulkhead, to not only the actor's embarrassment bu to that of the entire audience. There's a chase with rocket boots that ends in recapture, but that's fine, Kirk convinces Sybok that since we're all here at the centre of the galaxy, let's go meet God together. 

Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Sybok take a shuttle down to the planet (the transporters are still broken) and they meet God, who turns out to be a floating head with the stern countenance of an old, white-bearded white guy. Sybok is elated and asks God for the secrets of the universe, but "God" remains suspiciously focused on bringing the Enterprise closer to the planet. It's at this point that Kirk asks why God needs a starship, and then the whole thing goes south; turns out the Great Barrier isn't to keep people out, it's to keep "God" imprisoned. Mortified, Sybok sacrifices himself to get into a sort of psychic wrestling match with the God entity, the transporter works just long enough to get McCoy and Spock back to the ship, then breaks down again so that Kirk has to run away. Just as God is about to smite Kirk, Captain Klaa's Bird of Prey shows up and blasts God to oblivion. The Klingons beam Kirk aboard and discover that Spock served as the ship's gunner; turns out the Klingon hostage was grateful for the initial rescue and demanded Klaa return the favour. In a better film, this turn of events might have raised thoughtful questions about the subtext of Spock killing God, but...this is not that better film. 

The Klingons and the humans have a nice cocktail hour on the Enterprise where they discuss the nature of God, who, as it turns out, is right here in the human heart. They resume their shore leave on Earth and sing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" over the closing credits. 

In short, Star Trek V is a mess, undermining beloved characters, filled with lacklustre action beats, laughs that don't land, story beats that make no sense given established Star Trek canon, and production values that simply don't stand up for their era, let alone today. 

Hey, It's Better than Into Darkness
That being said, there are a few moments I like. Chekov has a decent moment in command of the Enterprise before he gets brainwashed. Sulu shines as the pilot of the shuttle. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy have some decent character beats together during their camping trip and their stay in the Enterprise brig. There are even a couple of camera moves that would have been impressive and really cinematic if William Shatner had had the resources to execute them properly. (I'm thinking in particular of the shot that ends with the antique ship's wheel in what appears to be the ship's lounge.) The score is lovely. Luckinbill is good. And at least there's some ambition here, something that got lost in some of the later Trek movies--Star Trek Into Darkness, Insurrection, I'm looking at you. 

Friday, January 01, 2021

Movies I Watched in 2020


The last movie I watched in an honest-to-goodness theatre was The Rise of Skywalker back in December 2019. Thanks to COVID-19, I haven't stepped foot in a theatre since. And yet I watched (gulp) 2,422 movies in 2020. I may need to go outside more often. 

I watched at least one film a week, and usually many more. My only saving grace is, as usual, a lot of them were short films. 

I wish Letterboxd had a more granular genre breakdown. They could (and should, I think) add film noir, disaster, monster, suspense, mystery . . . 
I wrote over 70 reviews this year, but even so that amounts to only a tiny fraction of all I watched. I saw over 100 movies released in 2020 this year, but as I'll describe below, most of my movies this year came from decades past. 

And oh, that ever-growing watchlist! Knock off almost 400 movies, add almost 1400. It's my quantum immortality strategy.
How many of these names do you recognize? Despite that a plurality of films I watched in 2020 were from the 20-teens, nearly all of the folks on this list have long retired from acting or passed away. Mel Blanc tops my most-watched list for the second year in a row because I finally finished my Looney Tunes Golden Collection boxed sets of cartoons. Mel's voice shows up in virtually every one of those dozens of shorts. He'll probably show up this year, too, because I still have three Platinum blu-rays of still more Looney Tunes . . . 

James Stewart, Cary Grant, and John Wayne show up in the top five because I'm a fan of these actors and the directors they tended to work with. It's the same story with most of the other familiar faces in this image. Elvis, well, he's there because he was a massive pop culture phenomenon of the 20th century and I felt like I should become familiar with his movies to better understand his appeal. Mack Sennett earned a place in my top five in 2020 because I watched a bunch of Keystone Kops movies. 

The less familiar names show up because I watched several early films by (in)famous director D. W. Griffith. 
Here are the directors whose work I watched most in 2020. It's dominated by pioneers of early film, directors that worked form the 1880s to the 1920s; I've now seen just over 40% of all the movies mades in the 1890s thanks to most of this work being available on YouTube, Vimeo, and other channels. I've now seen most of the works by Canadian animation genius Norman McLaren; hopefully I'll be able to track down the few works of his I haven't yet been able to find. Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, and Robert McKimson made the list by virtue of those Looney Tunes DVDs. As for Lynch and Soderbergh, I'm hoping to complete their filmographies soon. 
And here's 2020's world map. I added some African nations and some microstates too small to see at this resolution. 

Other 2020 Milestones
I have now seen 551 out of 566 Best Picture nominees, or 97.35% of the total. That includes, as I noted late last year, 100% of all the winners. Just 15 nominees left to go, but tracking the last few down is going to be a heck of a task...

The nominees I watched in 2020 were Marriage Story, Little Women (2019), Ford v Ferrari, Jojo Rabbit, Parasite, Joker, 1917, The Godfather Part II, The Godfather Part III, Braveheart, All Quiet on the Western Front, Dances with Wolves, Gigi, The Last Emperor, My Fair Lady, and The Hustler. Of course it's also possible I've seen some nominees for the 2020 awards without knowing they're destined to be nominees, since they won't be announced for a while . . . 

Here's the decade-by-decade breakdown of the films I screened in 2020: 
2010s: 260
1940s: 230
1900s: 234
1890s: 217
1970s: 212
1930s: 182
1950s: 171
1960s: 167
1980s: 137
2000s: 134
2020s: 114
1910s: 107
1920s: 117
2020s: 114
1870s: 2
1880s: 2

So Much for Quantity, What About Quality? 
Since signing up with Letterboxd, I find that my approach to viewing film has become more precise. That is, my viewing now occurs in bursts that follow particular actors, directors, genres, geographies, and decades. For example, late in 2020 I watched over 30 movies starring Jimmy Stewart. It's not just because I love Stewart's work, but through the films he (and his agent) chose, I get a bit of insight into the man, the people he worked with, and the evolution of his craft over time and across different styles and genres. Furthermore, watching films in this way exposes me to new directors, new actors, new composers, and in that way my watchlist continues to expand. 

This can lead to many serendipitous outcomes. While following the crime genre, I ran across Deep Cover, a 1992 Laurence Fishburne vehicle about an undercover cop who fights not to lose himself in the shady world of drug dealing. Directed by veteran character actor Bill Duke, who I remember most as the big tough guy Arnold Schwarzenegger has to fight in Commando ("I eat marines for breakfast!"), Deep Cover works not only as a tense, gritty neo-noir suspense thriller, it's also a raw and chilling indictment of US drug and economic policy and the systemic racism that traps people of colour in utterly bleak circumstances. I'd never heard of this film until 2020, and I'm so glad Letterboxd helped me discover it. 

Other highlights include Fritz Lang's M; the prototypical biker film, Easy Rider; the shocking, violent, and gut wrenching revenge masterpiece, Oldboy; Wong Kar-wai's tender and obsessive In the Mood for Love; Atom Egoyan's beautiful ode to human connection and empathy, Exotica; the horrifying British nuclear nightmare, Threads; the surreal chase film, Figures in a Landscape; classic Canadian slasher Black Christmas; Orson Welles' haunting, claustrophobic, and insightful The Immortal Story; the unintentionally hilarious Air Force One; the beautiful Humphrey Bogart anti-romance, In a Lonely Place; and the very strange Burt Lancaster backyard odyssey, The Swimmer

Of the films I watched that were released in 2020, those I enjoyed most include the surprisingly sincere Disney tragedy-exploitation film, Clouds; The Trial of the Chicago 7; Sofia Coppola's On the Rocks; Spike Lee's David Byrne's American Utopia, performed and filmed at the same Broadway theatre where Sylvia and I attended Come From Away; I'm Thinking of Ending Things, with another great screenplay by Charlie Kaufmann; surprisingly decent low-budget SF actioner Archive; Tom Hanks WWII thriller Greyhound; Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods; the haunting, deliberately-paced, gorgeously shot Last and First Men; well-crafted suspense chiller The Invisible Man; Boss Level, a violent take on Groundhog Day, but one with surprising heart and soul; the scary-as-hell-I-really-have-to-quit-Facebook-now documentary The Social Dilemma; Dick Johnson Is Dead, an honestly heartwarming documentary about mortality and the love between father and daughter; and Wonder Woman 1984, which is getting a drubbing from critics but which I found (barring some problems) entertaining and well-intentioned. 

Here's the complete list of all the movies I watched in 2020 in reverse chronological order. My 2020 film reviews, also in reverse chronological order, can be found here

All in all, a pretty good year for movies in Earl's world. Hopefully I'll be able to get back into a theatre in 2021.