Sunday, December 31, 2006

Saturday Night Fever

Saturday Night Fever is really one of the great American films ever. I know it's known mainly for it's music and dancing scenes. But what a remarkable story this is. It's been called an urban tragedy, or perhaps a tragedy of youth. John Travolta plays Tony Manero, who works in a hardware store by day, but is the undisputed king of his world by night -- on the dance floor and among his friends. Yet from his dead end job, the discord in his family life, and the small local dance competitions he practices for, we begin to see that that his world is too small. That his goals are not high enough. It takes his encounter with the ambitious Stephanie, and a tragedy within his circle of friends, to make him realize how limited his world really is. As such, it's a remarkable coming of age story.

This movie is not possible, of course, without John Travolta. This is the movie that made him a household name, and his megawatt star power dominates the film. It grabs us from the opening scene - that fabulous strut down the streets of Brooklyn. It's interesting that the success of his performance is due as much to raw charisma as to any technical ability.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The DaVinci Code

This is the much-hyped adaptation of Dan Brown's mega-bestseller The DaVinci Code. I read the book and really liked it -- how would the film version turn out? This movie certainly has the star power to do the task, not just with Ron Howard directing and Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou in the lead roles. Even the supporting roles are filled with stars - Jean Reno as Captain Fache, Alfred Molina as Bishop Aringarosa, Paul Bettany as Silas, and Ian McKellen as Teabing. In fact, it's a credit to the casting that I could not name an actor I would have preferred for any of those roles.

Film adaptations of literary works though are always hit and miss, I think because they are very different media. Film is a very visual medium, while literature is a cognitive one. Literature also tends to be dialogue-heavy. So films adapted from books tend to work best when they try not to follow the story too closely. I'm thinking that 2001: A Space Odyssey was the best example of that. That film is very different from the book, yet still follows in the spirit of the story. Also I'd have to admit that the Lord of the Rings movies stake out their own territory from the books, although God knows I hated those movies.

Films that follow the storyline too closely tend to be too linear, and also end up being very long because it's almost impossible to squeeze into 2 hours what a reader might consume over several weeks. Also there is a tendency to model the cognitive aspect of the novel by having the main character narrate or monologue alot. Or you have the characters sitting around talking to get through all the exposition. The DaVinci Code suffers from this a little, but it is a credit to Ron Howard that it does not detract from the film too much. But make no mistake - this is a long movie, with a lot of story to sit through. Also I felt that the cinematography and the musical editing were a bit heavy-handed, though this got better by the end of the movie.

But I think what saves the film is that it stays true to the central idea of the novel - the story of Mary Magdalene and the theory that the Church has tried to supress it. It didn't try to turn into an action movie, or some kind of special effects movie, like *ahem* Lord of the Rings. It's a solid film, but a very talented crew. Oh, and for fans of Audrey Tautou (*raises hand*), she is beautiful in this movie.

Monday, December 4, 2006

The Best of Classic Star Trek

I've run out of movies for Netflix, so I've queued up the entire Star Trek classic series. I'm going to list here my favorite episodes. This is for my own use, so if you don't like Star Trek please please please don't read this. Mainly the episodes I like deal with some interesting social or political theory, don't have a lot of cheesy scenes, and preferably have a hot bit of yeoman eye-candy. :) These are listed pretty much in chronological order.

The Naked Time: A mysterious virus makes the Enterprise crew bare their rawest emotions. Sulu running around with a samurai sword, Spock crying - it's all good.

Mudd's Women: Ah, I remember as a kid looking longingly at these three lovely ladies. Watching this again, they're starting to look a bit dated - a bit too 70s. But this episode does ask some interesting questions about beauty and self-perception.

What are Little Girls Made Of? This is an interesting episode about robots and all, but I have to admit the main reason I like it is that hottie robot girl. How did they keep those clothes from falling off?

The Conscience of the King: I've always liked this episode about a man suspected of being Kodos the Executioner. It's more serious than the usual episodes, with not a lot of special effects or weird ideas. Just grit.

Balance of Terror: This is the episode that introduced us to the Romulans, and is probably the best of the ship-based battle episodes. I liked the contrast between Kirk and the Romulan captain.

Arena: This was a great idea, pitting Kirk against a nasty super-strong lizard man on an arena planet. The ideas they use to concoct weapons are very cool.

Space Seed: This is the episode which the best of the Star Trek movies, Wrath of Khan, is based upon. Ricardo Montalban is spectacular as Khan. I'm amazed at his charisma and explosiveness in this role. It's interesting to see how they modified Kirk's behaviour a bit so that he wouldn't be eclipsed by Montalban. And he carries it off surprisingly well.

The Devil in the Dark: I've seen this one many times as a kid, so I was expecting to be a bit bored. But watching it again, I realize it has all the elements of the best classic episodes. The partnership of Kirk and Spock, which is the great strength of the classic series, is very prominent in this one, where both their similarities and differences are apparent. There is a lot of witty banter between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. And the story deals with some interesting ideas like how we fear things we don't understand, and the idea of working in cooperation with the world around us rather than forcing it into our own structures.

The City on the Edge of Forever: This is, hands down, the best Star Trek episode ever. Nothing else is close. The Enterprise crew discovers a time portal, and after a freak accident McCoy goes back in time and somehow changes history so that the Federation and the Enterprise no longer exist! It's up to Kirk and Spock to go back in time and try to stop McCoy from changing history. This episode just has a different feel about it - it's almost like it was created totally separate from the other episodes. There's hard any sci-fi tricks or special effects, just a riveting, gritty storyline. And Joan Collins is fantastic as Edith Keeler.

Amok Time: This of course is the episode about Spock's wedding. As I said before, Spock and Kirk are the real strengths of this series. And in this episode we get our first look at the planet Vulcan, and the exotic Vulcan mating ceremonies that are, well, 'fascinating'. Spock provides a lot of flavor to the crew, and we are always interested in learning more about Vulcans. It's curious why he is the only non-human crewmember, since they lead to a lot of interesting backstory. The crew of TNG, of course, is littered with aliens.

Mirror Mirror: This is my favorite episode after The City On the Edge of Forever. A transporter malfunction sends Kirk, Scotty, Uhura, and McCoy to a parallel universe where the Federation is brutal, aggressive, and imperial. It's interesting to see the contrast of this 'Klingon' like Federation, and there is a lot of tension in whether they will be found out before they can get back to their own universe. It's also funny how Spock is pretty much the same in both situations, and the episode makes good note of that.

The Journey to Babel: I didn't have much expectations on this one, but it's actually really good. It introduces a lot of things to the show. Mainly Spock's parents, and the tension between him and his father. (Did anyone notice that Spock's father is the same actor that played the Romulan captain in Balance of Terror? Well, I guess Vulcans and Romulans are very similar...) Also this idea of the Federation as only a semi-agreeable collection of different peoples is very compelling, and mirrors the countries in real life. Besides that there is the usual tension of a spy on the ship, a mysteriously powerful ship stalking the Enterprise, Kirk injured, etc. All good stuff.

The Trouble With Tribbles: This popular episode was actually rated the #1 favorite episode in a recent poll. I don't agree with that, of course, but it is a good story. The tribbles are cute and quite a departure from the normal scary-looking aliens. Also I really liked the interactions between the humans and Klingons. It presents the Klingons in a more personal setting, making them seem more like us.

The Gamesters of Triskelion: This is a very cool episode, even if there is nothing really earth-shaking about it. Kirk, Uhura, and Chekov are whisked to an alien planet and become gladiators of sorts, fighting on behalf of advanced, purely intellectual beings. It has some interesting ideas about personal freedom, and the girl in the silver suit is kind of cute. 200 quatlus for the human!!!

Return to Tomorrow: This is one of my favorites. The Enterprise finds a deserted planet, with only three intellects remaining of a highly advanced race. (Why does 'advanced' always mean intellectual, by the way?) They ask to possess the bodies of Kirk, Spock, and Dr. Ann Mulhall so that they can build android bodies. It's very moving to see the beings having bodies again after so many centuries, as well as the interactions between Sargon and Felezza. This is the first appearance of the appealing Diana Muldaur as Ann Mulhall.

Patterns of Force: The concept behind this one is very interesting. A Federation historian John Gill goes to an alien planet and sets up a Nazi-style government. The theory is that no country accomplished as much as the Nazis did in such a short time - basically pulling their country from near bankruptcy to world domination. The question is: could that government succeed if ruled by a benevolent person instead of a maniacal dictator. I think the answer given is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. It's an interesting idea and this episode develops it well - with two warring planets, a resistance movement, undercover agents, etc.

Assignment: Earth: This is an interesting episode in that it doesn't deal a lot with the Enterprise crew. The main characters in the story are the agent Gary Seven and his secretary (played by Teri Garr!). This episode even looks like some of the detective shows of the 70s.

The Enterprise Incident: This is one of the more popular episodes. It's a cloak-and-dagger story about Kirk and Spock on a mission to steal the new Romulan cloaking device. It has a lot of nuggets like Kirk dressed up as a Romulan, and Spock making out (pretty much) with the sexy Romulan commander.

Is There No Truth in Beauty? Well it's hard to go wrong with Diana Muldaur. In this episode she plays the aide to the Medusan ambassador, whose visage is so hideous that it drives humans mad! There's a lot of cool psychological stuff going on here, plus a war of wills between Spock and Diana Muldaur. To her credit she holds her own very well, which is not easy.