Saturday, May 9, 2009

Star Trek (2009)

Adapting a pre-existing property, whether from a novel, a comic book, or a television series, can be difficult for a filmmaker. Die hard fans of the property will have certain expectations for the film, while at the same time the filmmaker must make a movie that will entertain the ordinary movie goer as well as the die hard fan. Perhaps no other filmmaker had a more difficult job than J. J. Abrams in creating his movie version of the classic series Star Trek. To this day the series has a legion of fiercely followers. What is more, Star Trek has made such an indelible mark on Anglo-American pop culture that even people who have not seen an episode of the series can identify its characters and even its catchphrases quite easily. In many respects, J. J. Abrams had a more difficult job in bringing Star Trek to the screen than Peter Jackson had in bringing Lord of the Rings to the screen or Zack Snyder had in bringing Watchmen to the screen. Fortunately, I suspect that if most Star Trek fans and, perhaps more importantly, the average movie goer is like me, then he or she will not be disappointed in J. J. Ambrams' reboot of Star Trek.

Among the biggest hurdles in bringing any television series to the big screen often lies in its castings. It is not enough for an actor to look like the one who originated the part, he or she must also capture the spirit of the character as he or she was originally portrayed. Fortunately, the cast of Star Trek succeeds admirably in keeping to the spirit of the original characters. Indeed, Zachary Quinto's performance as Spock is uncanny. Not only does Quinto look like Leonard Nimoy, but he sounds like him as well. Karl Urban is also remarkable as Dr. McCoy, capturing the essence of the character perfectly. Chris Pine portrays Kirk's humour and even his arrogance perfectly, and without William Shatner's peculiar speech patterns (which I think only Shatner could do well...). Going beyond the original series' regular characters, Bruce Greenwood (from the late, great series Nowhere Man) does very well as Captain Pike (whom Trekkers will remember was the captain of the Enterprise in the first pilot, "The Cage'), as does Eric Bana as the villain Nero.

While the cast does very well with the material, I am sure the question on many Trekkers' minds is whether the movie itself is loyal to the original conception of the series. I have to answer that it is. The movie does not depart in any significant way from the mythology of the original series except one (I won't reveal that here, but Trekkers will know it when they see it). What is more, there are some wonderful references to the original series and even one reference to Enterprise which I suspect only Trekkers will get. As to whether Star Trek is capable of entertaining those who are not die hard Star Trek fans, I believe it is. The characters are three dimensional and the dialogue is intelligent. The plot moves along at a very good pace. And there is no shortage of action. For those people who are not Trekkers, I can guarantee that you will also be thoroughly entertained.

Overall, in my opinion Star Trek is the best movie in the franchise except for Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. J. J. Abrams has accomplished what few others could (not even Gene Roddenberry with Star Trek; the Next Generation)--he has captured successfully captured the feel of the original series. Star Trek is a movie that will not only entertain die hard fans, but the average person as well. Now I can only hope that it does well enough to warrant a sequel...

Friday, May 8, 2009

TCM's Latino Images in Film

It is a sad fact that for the better part of its history, minorities have not fared well on film. From the Silent Era into the Golden Age of Hollywood, most portrayals of African Americans, Asians, and Native Americans have been stereotypes. In this respect, Hispanics have fared no better than other minorities. Indeed, the Mexican bandits of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre have been all too typical of the portrayal of Hispanics on film.

This is not to say that even during the Golden Age of Hollywood, positive representations of Hispanics were entirely absent on film. Ricardo Montalban as Police Lieutenant Peter Morales in Mystery Street and the striking miners in Salt of the Earth are two examples of such. This month Turner Classic Movies (TCM) turns its spotlight on Race and Hollywood: Latino Images in Film. Every Tuesday and Thursday TCM is showing films which feature portrayals of Hispanic people.

The films represent a cross section of movie history, from the Silent Era (Ramona, The Mark of Zorro) to the current era (Mi Familia, Lone Star). What is more, TCM is not flinching from the ugly fact that Hollywood did use Hispanic stereotypes. They are not simply showing such positive representations of Hispanics as Stand and Deliver and The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, but movies which feature outright stereotypes such as The Mexican Spitfire and In Old Arizona. TCM is also showing films which feature what Raquel of Out of the Past calls "brownface"--the practice in cinema of using make up in an effort to make non-Hispanic actors playing Hispanic characters look more ethnic (for an example of brownface, one need look no further than Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil). Sadly, during the Golden Age of Hollywood, Hispanic characters often played by non-Hispanics in brownface, and often the characters they played were stereotypes in the extreme.

Fortunately, Hollywood would make progress with regards to Hispanics in films. More positive portrayals of Hispanic characters would appear as early as the Fifties, in such films as Giant. By the Eighties and Nineties such films as Stand and Deliver and Mi Familia would emerge. TCM is showing these films as well, showing that we have made some progress.

TCM's Race and Hollywood: Latino Images in Film looks to be a very interesting overview of the representation of Hispanics in American film. As mentioned earlier, the films range from the Silent Era to the current, from extremely stereotypical portrayals of Hispanics to more realistic, even positive portrayals. Like other minorities, Hispanics were given short shrift from Hollywood for much of its history. It is good to see TCM giving Hispanic people their due.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Dom DeLuise Passes On

Comic actor Dom DeLuise passed on Monday at the age of 75. He had been ill for some time.

Dom DeLuise was born on August 1, 1933 in Brooklyn. He graduated from the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan and then attended Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. It was in the late Fifties that his career began, among other things playing Tinker the Toymaker in the daytime children's show Tinker’s Workshop. He was a semi-regular on The Shari Lewis Show, on which he played an inept private eye. He also appeared on The Garry Moore Show, which was where he created Dominick the Great, a bumbling magician whose every trick failed as he desperately tried to maintain his composure.

Dom DeLuise made his debut on Broadway in the play The Student Gypsy in 1963, playing Muffin T. Ragamuffin D.D., Ret. He made his film debut in Diary of a Bachelor in 1964, followed by a more serious role in the film Fail-Safe later that year. It was also in 1964 that DeLuise appeared as a regular in the series The Entertainers. In the Sixties DeLuise appeared frequently in films and on television. He guest starred on such shows as The Munsters, Please Don't Eat the Daisies, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Dean Martin Show, and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. He had his own short lived series, The Dom DeLuise Show, in 1968. DeLuise also reappeared on Broadway, in Here's Love in 1963.

The Seventies was arguably the heyday of Dom DeLuise's career. He was a favourite of Mel Brooks appearing in several of the director's films, including The Twelve Chairs, Blazing Saddles, Silent Movie, History of the World Part I, and Spaceballs. He also appeared in a number of other films in the Seventies, including Norwood, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother, The World's Greatest Lover, Sextette (based on the Mae West play), The End, The Cheap Detective, and The Muppet Movie. On television he had his own short lived sitcom, Lotsa Luck, and guest starred on Medical Centre. Deluise also appeared on Broadway in Last of the Red Hot Lovers.

The Eighties saw Dom DeLuise appear in such films as Cannonball Run, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Johnny Dangerously, and Going Bananas. He lent his voice talent to The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, and Oliver and Company. He also appeared on the TV shows Amazing Stories, 21 Jump Street, and B. L. Stryker. From the Nineties into the Naughts he appeared in the movies Driving Me Crazy, Almost Pregnant, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Always Greener, It's All About You, and Breaking the Fifth. He appeared in such shows as Married with Children, SeaQuest DSV, Burke's Law, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. He also provided voice work on such television cartoons as Dexter's Laboratory, Cow and Chicken, Fievel's American Tails, and Duck Dodgers.

There can be no doubt that Dom DeLuise was very funny. He may not have been leading man material, but in the proper part he could upstage anyone in the lead. In fact, he was among the best actors in Mel Brooks' films. Whether as Buddy Bizarre, the director in Blazing Saddles or Emperor Nero in History of the World: Part I, he was often among the funniest parts of the movie. It is sad to think that he has left us now.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

"Boy or a Girl" by Imperial Drag

This being a busy week, I thought tonight I would simply post a video. In this case, that video is "Boy or a Girl" by Imperial Drag. For those of you who have never heard of Imperial Drag, they were a glam rock/powerpop band circa 1994 to 1997. Imperial Drag arose from the ashes of Jellyfish, perhaps the best powerpop band of the Nineties besides The Posies. After Jellyfish broke up, keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr. teamed up with guitarist Eric Dover (who had played with Jellyfish on tour) to form Imperial Drag. Imperial Drag was inspired by such glam rock bands as Sweet and T. Rex from the Seventies, not only in the style of their music, but in the image they cultivated as well. They released a self titled debut album in 1996. The album produced one hit, the song "Boy or a Girl, which went to #30 on Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks chart and to #54 on the United Kingdom's Singles Chart. While "Boy or a Girl" did well, however, the album Imperial Drag did not. The trend towards powerpop in the early Nineties was coming to an end, and Imperial Drag's glam rock image was out of step with the the post-grunge bands of the late Nineties. Imperial Drag disbanded in 1997. In 2005 a compilation demos and non-album tracks by Imperial Drag simply called Demos was released through the now extinct Weedshare music service.

As to the video to "Boy or a Girl," it was directed by Nick Small, who also directed the videos for "Little Baby Nothing" by The Manic Street Preachers and "Kung Fu" by Ash. Small designed the video as an homage to the Russ Meyer movie Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (which as everyone knows, was co-written by Roger Ebert). Anyhow, without further ado and courtesy of YouTube, here is "Boy or a Girl..."

Monday, May 4, 2009

Chuck's Uncertain Fate

Today the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) unveiled its new programmes for the fall, while at the same time cancelling the police drama Life. At the same time, however, the fates of some of Law and Order, My Name is Earl, and Chuck remain up in the air. This has been unnerving to many geeks, who have anxiously been awaiting word as to whether Chuck will return next fall.

I must confess that I am not a regular viewer of Chuck. At most I catch an episode here and there, and I have not watched the show at all since Fox moved House into the same time slot. But I can understand the concern my fellow geeks have for the show. Spy dramas have not exactly been common on American network television in recent years. In fact, Alias and Chuck are only two that come to my mind. More importantly, however, Chuck is one of the few shows that actually features geeks.

Let's face it, geeks have not exactly been common on American television. In fact, for the over sixty years that American broadcast television has existed, they have been relatively rare. Only a few characters who could be considered geeks even come to my mind. Gomer Pyle on The Andy Griffith Show and later his own show could be considered a geek, still reading Captain Marvel comic books nearly ten years after they went out of print. Radar on M*A*S*H, who read Batman comic books at a time when superhero comic books were out of fashion, could also be counted as a geek. More recently there has been Timothy McGee on NCIS, Kutner on House, and the guys on Big Bang Theory. Chuck is one of the first TV shows which has ever featured a geek in the lead.

It is because Chuck Bartowski is a geek and because Chuck is a spy drama that I have always had a soft spot for the show. Geeks have been a relatively rarity on the show, and it is good to see show where the lead character is actually a geek. Furthermore, the show is somewhat original as a spy drama. In many respects it is a fairly original twist on the premise of The Avengers, in which a man and a woman operate as a team--the twist being that the male member of the team is wholly inexperienced and uncomfortable when it comes to the spy game. And I must confess that the leads of the show are very appealing. Zachary Levi is convincing enough as Chuck that one has to wonder if he is a geek himself. As Sarah, Yvonne Strahovski is at the same time dangerous and yet vulnerable, a realistic superspy. As Major John Casey, Adam Baldwin is the perfect foil to Chuck--very good when it comes to espionage, if a bit rough around the edges when it comes to the emotional lives of those he knows.

Over all, I find Chuck to be an enjoyable show, if not one I watch regularly. In fact, I only have one objection to the show: the computer service for which Bartowski works is called "the Nerd Herd." I know, the name is meant as parody of the Geek Squad from Best Buy, but it doesn't work for me as the terms geek and nerd are not synonymous. A geek is simply someone who is an enthusiast of something that is off the beaten path--Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, old movies, computers.... A nerd is someone who is socially awkward to the point of absurdity. Someone can be a nerd and not like science fiction or horror movies (some of the biggest nerds I've ever known were not sci-fi fans at all, but sports fans). Nerds don't even have to be intelligent--some of the most socially awkward individuals out there also happen to be extremely stupid. It then seems a bit of a misnomer to me for a computer service to be called "the Nerd Herd," when most of its employees are not nerds. After all, Chuck had a girlfriend in college (and a good looking girlfriend at that). He is a geek, but not a nerd. In contrast, most of the guys on Big Bang Theory are geeks and nerds (here I should point out I wrote a post a few years back on this very topic...).

Regardless, I can fully understand why so many are anxiously awaiting word from NBC as to the ultimate fate of Chuck. And while I do not watch the show regularly, I must confess that if it is cancelled I could not help but miss it.