Thursday, May 30, 2013

Second Opinion - Lair of the Seamstress (DLC)

Within the next couple of weeks, Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness will finally be complete with the release of Episode 4 from Zeboyd Games. A few pieces of DLC have been automatically added to Episode 3 since it was first released, two of which (Lair of the Seamstress and The Beginning of the End) actually contribute to the story of the game. Since we're a bit behind on those, we decided it would be a good idea to actually play these bits of additional gameplay as a lead-in to the upcoming Episode 4. Now without further ado, let's take a look at the first of these, Lair of the Seamstress.

As I mentioned in my review of Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3, the gameplay involves Class Pins that offer you new abilities in combat, of which there are 17. Once you reach Level 40 on all 17 Pins, you must go to the top floor of the temple, where a portal is opened that leads you to the titular Lair of the Seamstress. Your entire party (Gabe, Tycho, Jim, and Moira) is then brought down to Level 1 (but only within the DLC area) and must face waves of enemies of increasing difficulty as you Level back up.

While the gameplay isn't any different, it is an interesting experience to be de-powered and then have to fight in order to gain your abilities back. Though some enemies are ones you may have faced in the main game, what I like is that some of the ones chosen are ones that represent each of the Class Pins and what powers they have to offer. As I went through each encounter, I had to really think about what strategy I wanted to use with the abilities I was given to work with. There are also some additional moments of hilarity in the text boxes, on par with that of the game itself, which only enhances the experience of it being a Penny Arcade game. The final boss against the Seamstress is a very difficult one indeed; even after lowering the difficulty to Easy during my multiple attempts, I somehow managed to beat her with what I would consider a great deal of luck, coupled with the strategy I developed over time with the intent to take her down.

One of the most satisfying screenshots you will ever see in DLC for a retro
installment in an episodic game based on a webcomic
Overall, the Lair of the Seamstress DLC, while challenging, is a fairly short but fulfilling side-quest to explore. Your efforts are rewarded at the end, though that's all I'm going to say about it to prevent spoilers for those that haven't played OTRSPOD 3 yet. If you haven't already, have we mentioned it only costs $5?

Lair of the Seamstress (DLC)

With Penny Arcade's On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Episode 4 finally on its way, we thought it would be a good idea to finally go over the DLC for Episode 3. While we did get them automatically as they came out, we either never really had the time to play them or we forgot while trying to review something else. Regardless, there are two pieces of DLC which contribute to the game, Lair of the Seamstress and The Beginning of the End. While I might not have very much to say, this review will still cover the first piece, Lair of the Seamstress.

During the events of Episode 3, the party acquires Class Pins, a gameplay system that factors heavily into the overall combat through their various active and passive abilities. It is also revealed early on that these pins were created by the Seamstress using various beings that represent each class, ranging from a Crabomancer or Cordwainer to a Hobo or a Dinosorceror. At the top floor of the temple housing the statues of each class is a circle of torches, each representing a class, that light up one by one as you raise each one to Level 40. Once all of them become lit, a mysterious portal appears in the back of the room, one which the shrine maidens have never encountered before. Wishing to find out where it leads, Gabe, Tycho, Jim and Moira enter the portal to a previously unseen section of the temple, one in which they feel all of their power has been drained. At this point, the only way to leave is to conquer the dungeon ahead.

The gameplay of Lair of the Seamstress is no different from the rest of the game in terms of functionality, but the twist here is that every pin is reset to Level 1 and each victory awards two levels back, though items remain untouched. This made the dungeon a bit difficult to get through at first, though the challenge got easier as I went on and rearranged some of my pins to develop a different strategy altogether with handling each wave of class-based enemies. However, all momentum becomes halted when you encounter the final boss, the Seamstress herself. Against her, I lost a few times after repeatedly getting to a certain point, which prompted me to eventually lower the difficulty level just to stand a chance against her. When she still proved to be seemingly insurmountable, I rearranged my pins again and began to form a concrete strategy for taking her down. After a couple tries with my new setup, I eventually managed to beat her due to careful execution of a long-running plan. Reveling in my glory, I claimed my prize and left.

While the music is still the same, and still very catchy, the architecture of the dungeon is fairly straightforward. There are a couple of branching pathways leading to chests containing some pretty good items for each character, but other than that it's very easy to navigate. The battle environments still look pretty good in the 16-bit representation and act as a good backdrop for the action. New enemies were also pretty easy to interpret based on their appearance, particularly the Seamstress.

Lair of the Seamstress is an expansion worth playing. The extra challenge is interesting in itself and although there's nothing much in the way of story, the journey becomes worth the time put in, between two to four hours depending on how well you do in the enemy encounters, to feel the rush of finally taking down the Seamstress. The prize for beating her may or not seem worth it, though it depends on if you really want it as part of your setup. If you have Rain-Slick 3 already, since that's the only way to play it, there's no reason for you not to attempt this challenging dungeon.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Stubs – West Side Story

West Side Story (1961) Starring: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris. Additional singing by Marni Nixon (for Natalie Wood). Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. Screenplay by Ernst Lehman. Based on the Broadway Musical West Side Story, conceived, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein, words by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents. Produced by Robert Wise. Run Time: 152. Color. U.S. Musical.

In 1947, Jerome Robbins approached Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents about a contemporary musical adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, which itself was a retelling of an Italian tale. Originally conceived as a love story between an Irish-American boy and a Jewish girl, the idea evolved over the next ten years. The musical that opened on Broadway in 1957 took place on the ethnic and blue collar streets of New York City with the feuding Capulets and Montagues replaced by two street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. Given the talent involved, it should come as no surprise that the musical would be well represented in the 1958 Tony Awards, being nominated, but not winning, the award for Best Musical. It would lose out to The Music Man.

After its run on Broadway, the musical would open on London’s West End, in 1958, tour the U.S. in 1959 and a return to the Great White Way in 1960, the musical would be turned into a film and released in 1961. The film would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Art Direction (Color), Cinematography (Color), Costume Design (Color), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Original Score and Best Sound.

Having never seen the musical on stage, I cannot comment on how the storytelling might differ between versions. While watching the film, I was reminded of On the Town, in as much as West Side Story was shot, in part, on location in New York City and features some very physical and athletic dancing. While some of the film’s dialogue seems as fresh as an old Dragnet episode, the story is still powerful and the music quite memorable.

The Jets, lead by Riff (Russ Tamblyn) dancing through New York City.
In a lot of action movies you know that the fights are choreographed so that actors and extras don’t accidentally hurt one another. But this is nothing compared to West Side Story. This is a musical after all and the fighting is depicted in highly choreographed dance sequences. While the finger snapping and leaps may seem odd to modern audiences, it is hard to imagine what a Michael Jackson video would have looked like if this movie’s choreography hadn’t been there as a blueprint.

While it seems so many of today’s musicals are either retold movies with music or stories put to already written music catalogs, West Side Story boasts some very original and iconic songs: “Maria”, “America” and “Tonight” from the first Act and “I Feel Pretty” and “Somewhere” from the second come to mind. The clash of immigrant and native-born American is still relevant today, especially with the current legislation pending in the Senate, but I will leave it to more political blogs to discuss that aspect, if they so desire.

The Jets are a white-boy gang on the West side of New York City. Led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), it’s good to be a Jet. That is until the Sharks, a Puerto-Rican gang, show up to test its dominance. Led by Bernardo (George Chakiris), the two gangs pick fights with one another until at last Riff can’t stand it any longer. He calls for a War counsel to set up the rumble that will once and for all decide superiority.

Bernardo (George Chakiris) leads the Sharks. 
Riff wants Tony Wyzek (Richard Beymer) to stand up with him against the Sharks. Tony, a co-founder of the gang, has left street life for a delivery job for Doc’s (Ned Glass) candy store. But loyalties being what they are, Tony agrees to go with Riff to the dance.

Confrontations between the Sharks and Jets leads to a War Council.
Bernardo is also going with his best girl, Anita (Rita Moreno) and his kid-sister, Maria (Natalie Wood). Maria is new to America and this is her first night out.  Once there, though, Maria falls hard for Tony, who likewise falls for her. When the two lock eyes across the dance floor, everything else disappears from their world. Tony walks the streets of New York singing “Maria” as an ode to the girl of his dreams.

It is love at first sight between Tony and Maria.
The famous balcony scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is reinterpreted here as a fire escape off an alley, where Tony goes to woo Maria, after Bernardo has taken her home from the dance. The two share their love with the song “Tonight”.

Tony and Maria on the fire escape singing Tonight (though Marni Nixon is singing for Natalie Wood).
Meanwhile, up on the roof, the Puerto-Rican men and women differ in their world view. The song “America” with its broken English lyrics illustrates that the women, led by Anita, seem happy with their new country, which offers them freedoms and opportunities they didn’t know back home. The men’s counter lyrics show their disdain for their treatment and new lives, though no one seems in a real hurry to go home.

Anita (Rita Moreno) leads the other Shark girls in praising "America".
West Side Story takes what I would consider a liberal slant towards street gangs. They are not portrayed as doing anything more illegal than stealing fruit from a cart. Their drive for neighborhood dominance is not to corner the drug trade or extortion. There really is no reason given other than “this is our street.” This is not what I would consider a realistic depiction of street gangs, but hey it’s a musical. The authorities, in the form of Lieutenant Schrank (Simon Oakland) and his right hand man Officer Krumpke (William Bramley) appear helpless and uninformed and in fact, Schrank comes across as an out and out racist, even offering to help the Jets in their battle with the Sharks.

In the comedic-toned “Gee Officer Krumpke” the gangs are depicting themselves as nothing more than downtrodden children finding a family on the streets to combat the lousy role models (drug-using hooker moms and drunkards for fathers) they have back home. As juvenile delinquents they’ve been run through the ringer of society, from being before a judge, to seeing a shrink to seeing a social worker to going to jail, none of which seems to change them.

The Jets try to explain themselves in "Gee, Officer Krumpke".
The Jets and the Sharks meet at Doc’s shop to discuss terms for their rumble. Date, time and location are discussed and agreed to, but once they start talking about weapons, things get out of hand quickly and like the then raging Cold War, each side ups the ante. But Tony arrives and influences the proceedings enough to get an all-out rumble with rocks and bricks downgraded, as it were, to a one-on-one hand-to-hand fight between each gang’s best fighters. While Bernardo is anxious to get his hands on Tony and agrees to the scaled down conflict, Riff selects a different champion, Ice (Tucker Smith).

The night of the big brawl, Tony goes to meet Maria at the bridal dress shop where she works with Anita, who is there long enough to see Tony come in the back way. Tony and Maria are a couple of crazy kids so much in love, but still know there will be societal issues and barriers to cross. Maria’s not convinced her parents will accept Tony, but he’s confident he can bring them round; just as he’s confident his mother will warm up to Maria as well. The two are so convinced that they stage their own mock wedding with the clothes they find in the shop.

Tony and Maria marry themselves.
Meanwhile, Riff and the Jets and Bernardo and the Sharks meet for the fist fight to settle their differences. But both sides come with secret weapons and before long a knife fight breaks out between Riff and Bernardo. Despite their flying about and acrobatic movements, Riff finally finds the business end of Bernardo’s knife. Tony, who had come to stop the proceedings, gets drawn in. When Riff, someone he considers a brother, goes down, he has no choice and fights and kills Bernardo in revenge. A rumble naturally ensues, but the fighting stops and the gangs scatter when the police arrive.

Tony (rear) arrives to try and break up the rumble, but he only escalates things.
Chino (Jose DeVega), Bernardo’s best friend and sometimes escort for his sister, goes to tell Maria that Tony has killed her brother. Chino then goes out, this time with a gun, to seek revenge. Tony meanwhile shows up at Maria’s apartment (whose parents are perpetually out) and receives her forgiveness. Apparently, her love for Tony is stronger than anything else. While not shown, this is the early 60’s for goodness sakes, we get the idea that like Romeo and Juliet, Tony and Maria consummate their relationship that night.

But Anita shows up and Tony leaves through the window, promising to meet with Maria at Doc’s and form their runaway. While Anita doesn’t approve, she still helps Maria. When Schrank arrives to ask questions, Maria sends Anita to meet with Tony. Being a good friend, she goes.

With Doc out raising money for Tony, who is hiding in the cellar, the candy shop is left to the Jets to man. When the pretty and headstrong Puerto-Rican Anita arrives, she does not get a warm reception. Instead the boys try to make her leave, but when she insists on seeing Tony, we’re shown through dance, their manhandling and almost rape of the girl. The action is broken up by Doc, who comes back and chases everyone away. Anita, who up until then has loved America, now sides with Bernardo in her hatred. As she leaves in anger, she tells everyone that Chino has killed Maria with a gun and that he is looking for Tony, only the latter of which is true..

When Doc tells Tony that Maria is dead, Tony runs outside looking for Chino, wanting to be killed so he can join his love in death. But Maria is not dead and she has come looking for Tony. Chino, Maria and Tony are on a collision course which ends with Tony and Maria hugging just as Chino (who turns out is a really good shot) shoots Tony dead in the climactic scene.

No happy ending. Maria tends to a dying Tony after he's been shot by Chino.
Maria is distraught about the senselessness of the violence. Both gangs gather round as Schrank and Krumpke arrive. When the Jets pick up Tony’s dead body, a couple of Sharks help them carry him away. (Great job protecting the crime scene Schrank.) One by one and two by two the gang members disburse, leaving only Chino and the cops, who start to take him away.

We’re left at the end with a sense that nothing really has changed and with all of our leads, except Maria dead, there is really no one in either gang to take control. And the police are really only good at cleaning up the mess, not preventing it from happening. Can you say social commentary?

If you have never seen West Side Story, I would recommend that you see it. This was truly a revolutionary musical in that it tried to tell a then modern day story with modern (jazz influenced) music in a modern way. As in life, there are not always happy endings and everyone has blame in what society has wrought. The problem with what is modern in 1961 is not fifty years later. The last movie I remember hearing someone say “Daddy-O” in was Blackboard Jungle (1955), an early attempt to discuss juvenile delinquency on film. Maybe kids really talked like that back then, but it always comes across as sounding like that’s how adults think kids talk.

The choreography is phenomenal. Building on the athleticism of Gene Kelley’s choreography (I had mentioned On the Town earlier), Jerome Robbins builds upon that and literally takes everything to new heights. I’ll admit the dancing for strutting and fighting takes a little getting used to, but once you get past that, look at the moves these men and women are making. These are not just great dancers, they are practically doing parkour with acrobatic moves, leaping about and pulling themselves up on pipes and fences.

ven aged, the film has a certain power that resonates through the years. The story of Romeo and Juliet has been made many times on stage and screen, but none are quite as unique and well done as this film adaptation of the retelling. You weep for the young lovers who will never live out their dreams.

If you read this, please feel free to leave comments.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) Starring: John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alice Eve, Bruce Greenwood, Simon Pegg, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Peter Weller, Anton Yelchin,  Leonard Nimoy. Directed by J.J. Abrams. Screenplay: Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof Based on Star Trek by Gene Roddenberry. Produced by J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman, Robert Orci Time: 133 minutes. U.S. Color. Science Fiction, Action

While oftentimes a sequel is bigger but not better than the original, I think in the case of Star Trek Into Darkness that it is not only bigger, but a better movie than it’s prequel, Star Trek (2009). It is more emotional as the film examines loyalties between friends and family and once again saves the Earth and the Federation of Planets from destruction. We’re shown the personal and the heroic several times through the film and in the end it’s really a very emotional and draining experience.

Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Kirk (Chris Pine) in Star Trek Into Darkness.
While you needn’t see the re-boot, though it never hurts, like its predecessor, Into Darkness wades deep into the pool of Star Trek mythos and storylines, culling a story that is familiar to even a casual fan of the franchise. Still it manages to put a surprising twist on a storyline that itself is as fresh as last week’s bread. The film is ripe with references to the original series and films. We revisit an old villain (Kahn), an old friend (Spock Prime), old weaponry (Photon torpedoes), and an old novelty (Tribbles). But the old still gives way to the new. We’re introduced to Starfleet Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller), the egocentric head of Starfleet and his daughter, Dr. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), the latter I would suspect (unless contract negotiations fail) should return in any third film, whenever that may be.

Dr. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) joins the crew of the Enterprise.
The writing is better this time out, though they do lean heavily on what has come before their involvement with the franchise. A subtle nod to an episode of Lost, dealing with what a father will do to save a child, seems almost intentional, though I have nothing to back that up. There are still some pseudo-science problems, though fewer, that I don’t want to get into, since it might spoil too much of the movie to describe.

Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy.
The cast seems to be more comfortable with their roles, or maybe I’m more comfortable watching them play these iconic characters. I think we see more depth to the Kirk and Spock characters. Karl Urban still hits McCoy out of the ball park. There wasn’t a whole lot for Alice Eve to do with the Dr. Marcus character, though, as I wrote earlier, they set her up to return and hopefully there will more meat in her part then. The last time I’d seen Peter Weller on camera was on the History Channel, of all places, talking as an expert on ancient ruins and civilizations, so it was nice to see him actually acting again. I had never heard of Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s alias is Commander John Harrison (to say more is to give away more). He plays a sort of super-Spock type-character, who like Vulcans think of mere humans as an inferior species. Though his character is crucial to the movie, it is a bit one-dimensional, so I don’t think it shows off Cumberbatch’s range; at least I hope it doesn’t.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Commander John Harrison (aka Kahn).
Stylistically, Into Darkness, like Star Trek (2009), retains but updates those elements that were so iconic from the original show. That is certainly part of the appeal so far with the reboot. The films have tried to stay true to those things the fan base holds dear, from the red, blue and gold uniforms to the music. It isn’t Star Trek without the Alexander Courage and Gene Roddenbery theme and some variation on the opening “Space, the final frontier…” speech. So far these films have seemed like big screen television episodes and I don’t mean that in a bad way.

Stylistically, Into Darkness evokes and updates the original series.
But you definitely know you’re watching a J.J. Abrams film. If you were worried that Into Darkness wouldn’t have lens flares, then worry not. That lovely Abrams trademark is unfortunately alive and well and in practically every sequence throughout the movie. I’m sure some of you are thinking, all “great” (the quotes are mine) directors have trademarks. One of my favorites, Alfred Hitchcock, certainly had one too, appearing as a cameo in most of his movies. But he only appeared once per film, not in every single shot. While the lens flare is really unnecessary, there are really times when it is downright distracting, like during a heartfelt speech between Dr. Marcus and her father. Is Abrams, like a pulp writer paid per word, paid per lens flare? There are times when the flare can have a dramatic effect, but not when it is overused as it is in Into Darkness.

Sometimes lens flares are dramatic, but mostly they distract.
Overall, I really liked Star Trek Into Darkness more than Star Trek (2009). The promise, though not explicitly stated, is that there is more to come. I certainly hope so. But I would really like that now the familiar has been established that the franchise boldly moves into stories that I haven’t already seen while retaining the heart that made the original series worth watching. The longer between sequels, the harder it is to keep the momentum going and the cast intact. Personally, I would like to see them hurry up this very casual pacing of putting these movies out. Every four years is too long in between installments.

Still not buying this, by the way.
Maybe it’s time to turn the franchise over to someone new. Now that Abrams is taking over Star Wars, I really worry how long it will be before Star Trek 3: The Search for Lens Flares hits the big screen. I’m sure like Spielberg and Lucas before him, Abrams has his own Zemeckis waiting in the wings at Bad Robot to build on the foundation that Gene Roddenberry and he have already laid down.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Daft Punk's Electroma

In 2006, following Interstella 5555, Daft Punk produced another movie, this time to compliment their Human After All album, titled Daft Punk's Electroma. While I did re-watch Interstella 5555 for purposes of a review as a tie-in to the duo's upcoming Random Access Memories album, I don't really want to watch this one again. When I watched it once, I found the movie to be really bizarre, most likely due to its nature as an experimental film. As such, I will be relying both on memory and a booklet inside the DVD case that contains nothing but screenshots detailing the entire plot.

The movie begins with two robots that look like Daft Punk (played by Peter Hurteau and Micheal Reich) driving through the landscape until they come to a small town populated by other robots that look like Daft Punk. The main Daft Punk-looking duo go to a facility where they go through a slow and lengthy process and are given the appearance of humans via a strange topically-applied goop. They soon find out that the robot denizens of the town are not amused.

The movie itself feels like an extended music video for the title track of Daft Punk's Human After All album which, if my research is correct, it actually is. The duo was going to make a music video for the song, but it somehow turned into this movie. The result is a story that is both easy and difficult to understand, in that you can get the main gist of it but at the same time wonder why certain scenes are in it that last so long. A few times during the movie there are extended shots of little to nothing happening, especially a rather lengthy hike through the desert that takes up the entire third act, which can get kind of boring rather quickly. That's not to say the cinematography was flawed, it just tends to show a lot of nothing.

When you know it's not the actual Daft Punk playing the main Daft Punk robots in the feature, it can feel like it's just a couple of guys in costumes rather than the real deal (who are, in fact, guys in costumes, so go figure). However, Peter Hurteau and Micheal Reich do a fairly decent job filling in Daft Punk's place in the feature, and using them as the main duo was probably a good move on Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo's part so they wouldn't be confused with any of the other actors wearing the robot costumes during filming.

Peter Hurteau and Michael Reich as Daft Punk. Don't ask me which is which.
In an odd sort of move for the feature, none of the music presented is actually by Daft Punk themselves, rather being performed by a host of other people. This isn't to say the music is bad, it actually seems to fit somewhat if my memory is correct, but it just seems weird that Daft Punk didn't do the music for their own feature. It should also be noted that, much like Interstella 5555, this movie also doesn't feature any sort of spoken dialogue. However, unlike Interstella 5555, the lack of dialogue here only adds to how uneasy and bizarre the atmosphere can get at times.

Overall, Daft Punk's Electroma is neither good nor bad, just...weird. The movie can get a little slow at times and certain sequences just seem to drag on a little longer than they need to. If you're someone who enjoys experimental or midnight features, this is probably a movie you would enjoy. As for Daft Punk fans, I would encourage you to watch the movie at least once, because only then can you form an actual opinion about it. As for me, it just isn't my kind of movie, but I will still hold on to it for the sake of completing my Daft Punk collection.

Stubs – Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek (2009) Starring: John Cho, Ben Cross, Bruce Greenwood, Simon Pegg, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Winona Ryder, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, Eric Bana, Leonard Nimoy. Directed by J.J. Abrams. Screenplay Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Based on Star Trek by Gene Roddenberry. Produced by J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof Time: 126 minutes. U.S. Color. Science Fiction, Action

With summer upon us, summer box office that is, every week there is another “new” must see film opening. Two weeks ago it was Iron Man 3, last week The Great Gatsby and this weekend Star Trek Into Darkness. Not surprisingly, like the first two summer films, this is either a remake or a sequel. In fact Star Trek Into Darkness is the sequel to a remake, or what is fashionably now called a reboot. And, as is our way at Trophy Unlocked, before the sequel we like to look back and reexamine the preceding film.

Star Trek (2009) is the long awaited reboot for the Star Trek franchise which had been a cash cow for Paramount Pictures. While the original 60’s series, Star Trek, had been a bit of a flop, only lasting three seasons on NBC, it subsequently launched 10 films before the reboot and countless TV Series, the most popular of which seems to be Star Trek: The Next Generation which came out 21 years after the original series and ran for 7 seasons and accounts for 4 of the films.

By the time the 10th film, Star Trek: Nemesis came out in 2002, the series and film franchise had seen better days. While I did not make it a habit to follow the various films and TV Series incarnations, I think it is safe to say that by 2002 the whole idea had been wrung pretty dry and the Enterprise was shelved for dry-docking. However, all that changed in 2009, when J.J. Abrams directed Star Trek.

The Enterprise from Star Trek (2009).
For those familiar with the original TV series, Star Trek (2009) provides the back or origin story the series only hints at but doesn’t ever really deliver. Abrams had to know to tread lightly on a mythos that had taken on a life of its own. You can’t leave out a character that anyone might recognize, though you can leave out actors.

Star Trek - Old School.
The movie opens in 2233, aboard the Federation starship USS Kelvin, which is investigating a "lightning storm" in space. From the storm, the Romulan ship, Narada, emerges and attacks the Kelvin. Narada's first officer, Ayel (Clifton Collins, Jr.), demands that the Kelvin's Captain Robau (Faran Tahir) come aboard to negotiate a truce. But once aboard, Robau is questioned about Ambassador Spock, whom he professes not to know. But that is not good enough for the Narada's commander, Nero (Eric Bana), who kills Robau, and continues his attack on the Kelvin. George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth), the Kelvin's first officer, orders the ship's abandonment. Including the evacuation is Kirk’s pregnant wife Winona (Jennifer Morrison). While he steers the Kelvin into a collision course with the Narada. Winona gives birth to their son, James T. Kirk.

The Narada emerging from a space storm.
Fast forward several years, a young Vulcan after his sterile formal education is invited to join the Vulcan Science Academy. But since Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) human mother, Amanda Grayson (an almost unrecognizable Winona Ryder) is considered a disadvantage, he instead joins Starfleet.

Back on Earth, Kirk grows up from a rebellious boy to a reckless adult, a sort of prairie rebel without a cause. One night, Kirk (Chris Pine) goes to a bar frequented by Starfleet cadets and naturally gets drunk and gets into a fight when he tries to pick up Uhura (Zoe Saldana). After the fight, in which Kirk holds his own, but is eventually overwhelmed, he meets Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood). Again, this is a character from the original series, reimagined for the movie. Pike encourages Kirk to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the Starfleet Academy. At the last moment, the impetuous Kirk gets on board the shuttle. Once on board, he befriends Doctor McCoy (Karl Urban).

At the Academy, Kirk cheats on the Kobayashi Maru simulation, which if I recall correctly, is what he supposedly did on the TV series, one of those incidents that’s talked about, but never shown. Commander Spock holds a disciplinary hearing, which is interrupted by a distress signal from Vulcan, which finds itself surrounded by a lightning storm. With the primary fleet out of range, the cadets are called into action. Kirk is not allowed to go, but McCoy helps to sneak Kirk on board Pike’s ship, the Enterprise.

Kirk recognizes the storm as similar to one that occurred at the time of his birth and convinces Pike that the distress signal is also a trap. When the Enterprise arrives on Vulcan, they find the fleet is destroyed and the Narada drilling into the core of Vulcan. The Narada attacks the Enterprise and Pike surrenders. He puts Spock in command and promotes Kirk to first officer.

Kirk, Sulu (John Cho) and Chief Engineer Olson (Greg Ellis) go on a space jump to stop the drill. Olson is the designated red shirt and is instantly killed when he can’t control his chute and is sucked into an exhaust flame. Kirk and Sulu fight off Romulan soldiers to stop the drill. However, Nero has already injected “red matter” into the core, setting up a black hole inside the planet which leads to the destruction of Vulcan and all who live on it, but not before Spock returns to the planet to save the high council, which includes his father. His mother is in the party, but the unstable planet swallows her before she can be transported to safety.

Three men space jump, but only two will return. Hint the guy in  red is not a main character.
The feud goes back to when Romulus was being threatened by a supernova. Spock tries to save the planet by using the red matter to create a black hole and consume the supernova. But he is too late and Romulus, along with Nero’s family, perished as a result. Spock and the Narada get caught in the black hole and sent back through time. Nero strands Spock on Delta Vega as Nero goes to get his revenge by destroying Vulcan and every other federation planet. Spock then realizes that Nero’s time travel has changed history and created a new reality.

Leonard Nimoy as Spock Prime and Chief Exposition Officer.
Kirk and Spock Prime set out for a Starfleet outpost that also happens to be on Delta Vega. Why Spock Prime never went there before is never explained. At the outpost, they encounter Scotty (Simon Pegg), an engineering genius who had been exiled to Delta Vega, along with this alien assistant Keenser (Deep Roy), for beaming an Admiral’s beagle to an unknown location during transporter testing.
Spock knows that Kirk, not himself, should be commanding the Enterprise, so using a mathematical formula devised by an older version of Scotty, called transwarp beaming, Spock sends Scotty and Kirk to the Enterprise so Kirk can take charge. Almost immediately after arriving on board, the two are spotted and taken into custody. On the bridge, Kirk provokes Spock to the point of nearly killing Kirk. Realizing he has gone too far, Spock relieves himself and Kirk takes command of the ship.

Zachary Quinto as Spock.
Chekov (Anton Yelchin), meanwhile, devises a plan that would allow the Enterprise to follow the Narada by hiding in the magnetic field of Saturn. Spock returns to the bridge and endorses Chekov’s plan. He offers to beam over to the Narada and save Pike and the only home he has left, Earth. Kirk accompanies Spock.
Anton Yelchni as Chekov.
Meanwhile, the Narada sets up its drill right over San Francisco. Scotty beams them aboard the enemy ship, but gets the location wrong. There is a brief firefight with Romulan soldiers. Using his mind meld capability, Spock finds the location of the black hole machine and the whereabouts of Pike from an unconscious soldier. Kirk rescues Pike while Spock uses the elder Spock's ship, The Jellyfish, to destroy the drill. Spock leads the Narada away from Earth and then sets his ship to collide with Nero's, igniting the "red matter" and consuming the Narada in a black hole. The Enterprise arrives and beams Kirk, Pike, and Spock aboard.
Back on Earth, Kirk is promoted to the rank of Captain and put in command of the Enterprise, while Pike, who is wheelchair-bound in an homage to the series appearance of the character, is promoted to Rear Admiral. Spock encounters his older self. Having selected a planet for the surviving Vulcans to colonize, Spock Prime persuades his younger self to continue serving Starfleet, instead of doing what’s logical. Spock remains in Starfleet and becomes first officer under Kirk's maiden command.

Chris Pine firmly in command as Captain James T. Kirk.
While I would admit to being skeptical of J.J. Abrams before having seen the film, I do think he pulled it off. The film is faithful to the original series, but it is different enough to stand on its own. Unlike the first Star Trek film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) which monkeyed about with the crew, upping everyone in rank and re-decoing the uniforms, Star Trek (2009) tries to embrace its legacy. The uniforms are back to the gold, blue and red, though modernized, as are the phasers and communicators (the original series being the inspiration for the flip phone.) But this is how it should be, rather than the director throwing us a bone.

All the main characters are back: Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine); Spock (Zachary Quinto); Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban); Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana); Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (Simon Pegg); Hikaru Sulu (John Cho); Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin). Even minor characters like Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and Spock’s parents: Sarek (Ben Cross) and Amanda Grayson (Winona Ryder), who appeared in the original series, are brought back. Some new ones are added, such as George Samuel Kirk, Sr. (Chris Hemsworh) who is Kirk’s father. Even the original Spock (Leonard Nimoy) appears as Spock Prime, but the original Kirk (William Shatner) does not. I’ll let you decide for yourself if that’s a good thing or not.

Star Trek crew - New School.
Star Trek has the unenviable task of trying to appease fans of the original series, but also introduce new fans, who might only be drawn to the material because of Abrams’ involvement. And there are definitely Abrams touches throughout that make this film part of his universe. The most obvious of them is the overuse of the lens flares. What no doubt started as a mistake for some director of photography has turned into an Abrams trademark. There are more of them than I care to count or would want to. The film could almost be called Flare Trek.

Hope you like lens flare.
Where the film differs from the series, it is sometimes hard to take. The logical and emotionless TV Spock is now involved in a hot and heavy relationship with Uhura. The Star Trek series broke interracial ground when Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) kissed Captain Kirk (Shatner) on the show, but the affair between Uhura and Spock, especially given his Kolinahr upbringing, seems, well, illogical. Not to mention that Saldana and Quinto seem to have zero on-screen chemistry. But you got to mix things up when you’re making someone else’s mythos your own. This twist seems to have been added only because it was so different from what happened in the series.

Not buying this.
The movie plays fast and loose with its own pseudo-science. Cadets are called into duty because the main fleet is out of range, but travelling faster than the speed of light would probably mitigate that. And if I’m not mistaken, the Enterprise creates a black hole which consumes the Romulan Narada, but its proximity to Earth might present a clear and present danger to the planet. But that is all forgotten by closing credits. And the red matter, the Brylcreem of molecules, as a little dap is enough to create a planet crushing black hole. One wonders why the writers couldn’t have come up with something other than a name that describes the color of the matter. The name sadly reminds me of Avatar’s unobtainium, a name which was roasted for its unimaginativeness.

Red Matter by any other name would be just as destructive.
Also with all the faster than light crafts at their disposal, why did the Federation send Spock in what looks like a space bicycle to save Romulus. You would have thought an Enterprise-style vessel could have gotten there quicker.

And on Delta Vega some of the indigenous life forms seem ill-equipped to survive the cold let alone dominate. I’m thinking specifically of the son of the Cloverfield monster that chases Kirk over the icy cliff.

Does this look like a creature built for cold weather?
I think the story sort of derails on Delta Vega, a mysterious winter planet that is full of both coincidence and exposition. It’s too convenient that Kirk is marooned on the same planet that Spock Prime had been left on by Nero. In both cases if you want to get rid of someone, why put them on a planet with a Federation outpost, where Scotty is stationed? The sequence starts with Spock kicking his First Officer not only off the bridge but off the ship. That has to be against Federation regulations. Then there is the convenience that Spock Prime is there to save Kirk from the Cloverfield monster and later Spock Prime reminds Scotty of the right mathematical formula, which Scotty will only later discover, that allows them to transport to the Enterprise. And let’s not forget the juicy exposition that Spock Prime lays on Kirk via the mind meld in the icy cave. Too much of the movie relies on the confluence of these characters being in the same place at the same time. It’s not good writing.

The Star Trek chain of command is also fast and loose. Not only does a stowaway become the First Officer and ultimately the Captain, because he’s supposed to be Captain, but it would scare me that Scotty would become the chief engineer onboard the Enterprise. Not only has he never been on the brand new ship before, but wouldn’t the ship already have a chief engineer before it left the docks? For a newbie, Scotty is really familiar with the workings of the anti-matter engines. We’re told he really knows transporting, but that’s a long way from running the engine room.

The planet Vulcan, which is destroyed during the movie, seems to be both the most logical and bigoted planet in the Universe. Spock’s human half is considered a handicap of sorts and Vulcans love to tout their superior make-up compared to that of humans. Talk about racism on a species scale. But oddly enough, Spock’s Earth mother is one of those entrusted with preserving Vulcan culture. The choice doesn’t seem logical.

Young Spock (Jacob Kogan) about to be bullied for being different.
The casting is pretty good for the most part. Pine is a good fit for the unflappable Kirk and Quinto makes a very believable Spock. But of the big three characters I think Urban really nails “Bones” McCoy. More than the others, he really seems to channel the spirit of his TV predecessor, DeForrest Kelley. Simon Pegg also brings humor and fun to the Scotty character. While James Doohan’s original portrayal was an obvious roadmap, Pegg infuses Scotty with his own sense of humor. I thought Eric Bana did a good job as Nero, the overzealous Romulan who wants to destroy the Federation in order to save his own planet. His revenge/prevention method is illogical, since with time travel he could prevent the destruction of Romulus, but I’m just getting picky.

Eric Bana as Nero, a Romulan with a chip on his shoulder the size of Vulcan.
In the end, Star Trek is really a summer blockbuster, relying on well-developed characters, the foundations for which were laid decades ago. Take that away and the story is good, but not great, the love interest seems tacked on and special effects are there to save the day. While I liked the movie overall, there is a little too much J.J. Abrams throughout. The movie is not so much a Star Trek movie as an Abrams reimagining of a TV show from his youth. Star Trek covers a lot of ground, but the storytelling is flawed, something I’ve come to expect from Abrams projects. While I have concerns about the next Star Trek movie, which I already understand is Flare Trek 2, I can’t imagine what Star Wars VII will look like under this director’s helm. If anything, he’ll be treading on more sacred ground and perhaps less forgiving fans.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem

Allow me to preface this review by saying that I am a big fan of the French House duo Daft Punk. I discovered this group around the release of the first DJ Hero, which lead me to listen to what their songs sound like unmixed. I ended up enjoying what I was hearing, exposing me to an entire music genre (Electronica) and have been exploring the realms of that genre, and Daft Punk memorabilia, ever since. As I was exploring Daft Punk's backlog, I discovered that their second album, Discovery, was adapted into an anime film released in 2003, the subject of this review. I remember liking it when I first saw it, and with the release of Daft Punk's fourth studio album, Random Access Memories, coming up, I decided it would be appropriate to review this film as a celebration of sorts. Now without further ado, let's take a look at Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem.

After a few briefs clips of Leiji Matsumoto speaking about the movie, the story begins on a distant planet populated by blue-skinned humanoids, most of whom are enjoying a rock band made up of four of their kind playing the song "One More Time", including the planetary defense unit. Meanwhile, a mysterious spaceship begins to spy on the planet, deploying groups of soldiers to kidnap the band. The soldiers prove to be successful, leading the defense force to send a distress signal to another, similar alien (named Shep in supplemental material), leading him to chase the mysterious craft back to Earth where he crashes. It is then shown that the alien band is being altered to resemble humans more closely, to the point where their memories are altered as well.

One thing I like about Interstella 5555 is that it manages to tell a coherent story featuring likable characters, interesting plot twists, and a number of emotional scenes, all without having any spoken dialogue whatsoever. Any "dialogue" to be found here comes from lip-syncing the characters' mouths to the music when there is any singing, but even then it doesn't happen that often. Even though there isn't any dialogue to give the characters a personality, the personality is all in their body language, somehow being enough to get you to feel for what the character is going through. This movie does have its own villain, but without any spoken word to make you get that they're the villain, the body language and animation are enough to get across their motivations and evil nature, which is truly spectacular for this movie and helps make them more memorable.

The main characters in their original form (from left): Octave, Baryl, Arpegius, Stella
The animation itself is spectacularly pulled off, being timed masterfully to the background music and managing to display any character's entire personality and emotional range. Leiji Matsumoto and the animators at Toei Animation did an amazing job especially with the more emotional scenes in the movie and getting you to care about the characters on-screen. I often found myself fascinated by what part of the visuals was timed to what part of the song (in a good way) and I especially praise the timing of the opening scene of the bands playing their song as it times perfectly with the music (something the Adult Swim cartoon Metalocalypse would later pull off with good results). The character designs are also nice to look at, being fairly realistic with just enough cartoonish/anime elements to be visually appealing and not uncanny.

The background music, primarily being Daft Punk's Discovery album, fits well with the story presented in the movie, written by Daft Punk (Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo), Leiji Matsumoto, and C├ędric Hervet; or is it that the story fits well with the music? Whatever the case, Daft Punk's album provides the perfect background for the movie, which I don't think could have worked very well without it. Discovery as an album is enjoyable by itself, and if you don't like it upon first listen, this movie might give you a new perspective on it.

Thomas Bangalter (left) and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo (right)
Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem is not only an enjoyable anime film, it is one of the best animated features I have ever seen. The animation manages to things that most movies would need dialogue for and pulls it off splendidly while letting the music speak for itself. I'm not sure I would let a small child watch this movie, given that the story contains one or two heavy concepts as part of the plot. This movie may require an extra viewing to see the more minor details of the plot, but once you do it becomes easier to understand. I would consider this movie required viewing for Daft Punk and anime fans, though people who aren't that into either may want to think about giving it a shot anyway.