Sorry for the length, but I didn't have time to write a short blog.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Star Trek and Me: A 50 Year Journey (Part 1)

I was nine-years-old when the original Star Trek aired on TV on September 8, 1966. My dad did not like science fiction, so I had to watch it on the other TV in the house.  It was a black and white TV.  That was okay because a lot of shows were black and white.  In fact, I am not sure that I even knew that the show was in color. Little did I know with that show, my life would change because of my love for this show.  There is no explanation for this.  It would be another couple of years before I read Tolkien's masterworks. It was this one show that got me involved forever in the world of nerds and geeks. 

You must remember that this was when nerds were not even close to popular. We were the kids that were picked last for kickball and ganged up on for dodge ball. We weren't ever the accepted kids and in the small town where I was raised, there just weren't that many other nerds.  And that was exactly what Star Trek offered.  People belonged.  Without question, everyone was accepted and each had gifts, however small, that were valued.  Star Trek offered incredible hope for humanity.  I didn't know I was witnessing history like the first interracial kiss on TV or discussions about civil rights, racism, the dangers of nuclear weapons or forgetting the meaning of history. Sure there were other shows that would occasionally take on these issues. They were shows like the Twilight Zone or maybe Outer Limits. Science fiction, especially TV Sci-Fi, has always been able to discuss human nature before most other entertainment media with its outsider status. Up until Star Trek, none offered the hope for us. None offered the belonging. 

After its second season, Star Trek was to be canceled for poor ratings. There was, however, a core of people who loved the show. It was two of these people who would commit to keeping Star Trek alive. There weren't any on-line petitions or even hand written ones. There was John and Bjo Trimble who spearheaded a letter-writing campaign to save the show. This was not the first time a show was saved in this manner, but it is probably the most famous. It was so successful, that in 1968, NBC did a primetime voice-over announcing that Star Trek was not canceled and asking for people to quit writing letters. Star Trek got a third season and then it was canceled.  

Life went on. There weren't a bunch of other channels. Perhaps a few independent channels and there was also a need for programs to be shown it the time slot after school but before the news. So, syndication was born.  It was widely believed that for a series to go into permanent re-runs, it needed to have at least five seasons worth of material.  So those of us who loved held little hope of ever seeing it again. There would be rumblings. James Blish adapted the screenplays into short stories and there was a small amount of "fan" items, but very little.  I had read the Blish book so many times that I had to eventually replace it.  

Then NBC decided to try to bring the show back but in a weird way. It would become a Saturday morning cartoon.  The cartoon never really caught on.  Still, it was something.  Then it all changed. It was discovered that with only three seasons, a show could go into syndication.  College students started watching Star Trek. What is more, not only was the show so popular in syndication, but these college students were actually scheduling classes so they could watch the show. The other thing that changed was a little thing called Star Wars was released. According to legend, Paramount started looking for something, anything they could use to compare to Star Wars. It seems they had the rights to that old TV show Star Trek, and they could get the entire cast to be in the show. By the time Star Trek the Motion Picture made its way into theatres, the show had become a phenomenon. There were actually studies done on the Star Trek phenomenon.  

The movie was boring. It was long and tedious and lacked the luster of the original show. It did make enough money and had enough buzz to get a sequel. Had the magic worn off? Legend has it that Leonard Nimoy hated making the movie so much, that he agreed only to return for a sequel if he could kill off Spock.  Arguably, the best of any of the Star Trek movies was born: The Wrath of Khan. Again legend has it that Leonard Nimoy enjoyed making Khan so much that he agreed to bring the character back providing he could direct the next two films. Khan was a hit.  The search for Spock only mildly so and then The Voyage Home brought back not just the action but the humor that made the show work. The magic was still there, it just needed to let people who understood the franchise to work. 

And so it went. Twenty-one years later The Next Generation was born, followed by Deep Space Nine and Voyager and finally Enterprise. Many felt that perhaps because Enterprise did not run for seven years before it was canceled, that perhaps Star Trek had finally run its course. Enterprise seemed to have lost its way.  What was supposed to be a prequel to the original series actually ended up giving its fans very little in the way of the formation of the Star Trek world and a new villain called the Xindi that had nothing to do with any of the original worlds of Star Trek. By the time the series tried to behave as a prequel, it was too late. UPN was floundering as a network and the ratings were just too poor for the show to continue. The show had been gutted by over commercialism, too much product, and too little substance.  I feared the magic really had died.  

I'd gone to Star Trek conventions for several years, but slowly they became less and less about the fans and the show and more and more about the money groups could rise from the fans. It is probably still true, but the feel is different now than it was then.  I quit going to conventions. I was not alone. Slowly, the passion I had was not as strong. I still collected, but I was more selective.  I liked collecting. I even played an on-line game that was for a bit attached to Paramount, but that too began to wane in numbers. By the time I quit, once fully crewed ships were struggling, including my own. I also watched the series in reruns, but I held little hope for the series to return and the Next Generation movies would most likely be the last in theaters.

Nothing ever dies in Star Trek. As surely as a red shirt will die on the away team or a series regular will return to life or in another form, Star Trek like a phoenix will rise again. Hope does not die. Star Trek was reborn with a new cast and a new timeline.  In something of a controversial move, the new director, J.J. Abrams reset the entire Star Trek universe by creating a new or alternate timeline. Gone was all that history, or baggage, that came with all those other series.  Star Trek was going to create new magic. What is more, there will be another TV series in 2017.

For me, it was not just the new movies and cast but a recent event that would rekindle my passion. That is for my next blog.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins: Solid Acting and Great Storytelling

Today's adventure was off to see Florence Foster Jenkins with Meryl Streep in the title role and Hugh Grant as her second "husband" St. Clair Bayfield. The cast is supported by Simon Helberg as her Foster's accompanist, Cosmé McMoon. The movie, based on the real-life, tone-deaf soprano and New York socialite, is solid storytelling with quite a memorable performance by actress extraordinaire, Meryl Streep. 

The story is loosely based on Florence Foster Jenkins and her one appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1944.  There are some details left out and probably some pretty liberal stories added especially for the supporting cast.  The actual details of Jenkins life is a bit more complicated, but historically it is pretty clear that her second husband, a Shakespearean actor turned manager, protected her from actual critics and surrounded her with friends who would go to great lengths to protect her. It seems that she really was completely unaware of how badly she performed, but among her admirers were Cole Porter and Enrico Caruso. There is even a story that Cole Porter would dig his cane into his foot during her performances to keep from laughing.  It is also clear that all the real news critics who attended her one public performance at Carnegie Hall were less than kind.  It was not just one critic as the movie would have us believe.  The real Jenkins collapsed five days after the performance from a heart attack while shopping and died a month later.  During her life, she released nine songs on five 78 records from 1941 to 1944. 

The center theme of the Florence Foster Jenkins is clearly about love and passion.  Jenkins' marriage to her second husband was a complicated one both historically and fictionally.  It is clear though that he loved her, and there was very little he would not do to protect her from discovering that her music was often a source of amusement for those who heard her or had her records.  She was clearly driven by her love and passion for music and the elaborate costumes that she designed and wore.  While the movie does mention much about her long-time struggle with syphilis which was given to her by her first husband. It leaves it to the audience to decide how much the disease had affected not just her cognitive abilities, but her ability to actually hear what she sounded like. It is clear that she did have some musical ability having actually played the piano for President Hayes before she had damage to one arm in the late 1800's.  The portrayal of her in the movie make pulls no punches about how ludicrous she sounded, but by the end, we all understood the beauty that she heard in her own protected and musical world.

The acting by Streep, who can actually sing, is as usual stellar.  She creates a complicated and layered character which we find both amusing and moving.  She is eccentric, self-absorbed without being egotistical, and a truly loving character.  Hugh Grant is, well, Hugh Grant.  He plays once again that caring and careful leading-man character that he always plays. Simon Helberg is the third part of this interesting performance bringing to life the soft-spoken pianist who in later life became interested in of all things, body building.  It may be unfortunate that Helberg has such a memorable character as his Big Bang Theory's Howard Wolowitz, but the gentle and caring Cosmé McMoon also makes his performance a wonderful surprise. 

Florence Foster Jenkins, while a bit predictable, is a good story.  We laugh and tear up just as we should. It is well worth your time.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Suicide Squad: Action, Humor, and a Little Plot

Is Suicide Squad the great movie so many hoped for? The simple answer is no. Is Suicide Squad as horrible as many "professional critics" think it is? The simple answer is also no. Look, folks, Squad is a comic book movie and not necessarily from the top of the card for DC. I've read a few Suicide Squad comics, and there has even been a form of the group on the CW's Arrow. I've also read  Harley Quinn and remember her creation for the original animated Batman series in the 90's. What do these comics have to do with the latest movie version? It's simple. These comics are driven, at least the ones I've read, by the randomness and craziness of the characters. The same is true of the movie Suicide Squad.

Suicide Squad has very little plot to get in the way of the action.  To expect much more than this is not really within the realm of the comics.  You must remember that most of these villains, with the exception of the Joker, don't have that big of a story arc. They have always been minor villains. Deadshot is the oldest of the characters. He made his first appearance in 1950. The rest of the group didn't really start appearing until the 80's and 90's, with El Diablo in his current form being the youngest created in 2008.   

Suicide Squad has the same dark overtones of the DC Universe, so no surprise.  Will Smith (Deadshot) has his usual quick one-liners. Margot Robbie plays much the same Harley that we recall from the animated Batman, and the rest of the cast meets expectations. In other words, the movie is heavy on the action, predictable, and filled with fairly two-dimensional characters. It is a fun movie that you can let wash over you. It's not complex or deep nor does it have bizarre scenes that need explanations. 

The story is simple.  We get some quick back stories of who these villains are. We learn that Harley is crazy; Deadshot is kind of a gray area bad guy; Killer Croc is just mean; El Diablo is a gang member who would become better; Kitana has a sword that drinks souls; Boomerang is all about himself; Flag is a super soldier; and the baddies are ancient aliens. Jared Leto, who plays the Joker, delivers a tonally good Joker if a bit over-the-top. My biggest issue with Leto's Joker is the look. 

Following the backstory, the Suicide Squad is sent out to stop the baddies, the Enchantress and her brother.  The Joker is trying to free Harley Quinn, and we learn that the person, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who would use the bad guys as throw-away heroes, is as bad as the Suicide Squad. 

Suicide Squad is a fun enough movie, held my attention, and I didn't feel like I'd wasted my money. The action sequences and the special effects are entertaining. It was, more or less, what I expected having read the comics. No, it's not one of the great films. It's a comic book movie, plain and simple. I will probably buy the Blu-Ray.