December 18, 2002

Star Trek: Nemesis

Outside Food scarfs up Star Trek: Nemesis

Summary: Nemesis falls to the worst problem any entry into the Star Trek canon can have: it simply doesn't bother to wrap itself in a fully realised universe. It does, however, offer glimpses of a heroic epic-that-almost-is.

Star Trek - Nemesis: DataPhallic symbols will get you every time

There are spoilers in this review.

Star Trek: Nemesis' Fatal Flaws
Let me begin this by saying, in spite of everything I am about to say, I did like this film. I like the idea of what this film could be. I like the 45 minutes or so that the film could be boiled down to. I like the ten minutes of truly powerful cinema the film contains—ten minutes that, not surprisingly, exist because of the skill of the actors, not the strength of the script or power of the CGI.

Nemesis falls to the worst problem any entry into the Star Trek canon can have: it simply doesn't bother to wrap itself in a fully realised universe. Instead of establishing the relationships between the characters, there are winks and nods: "Hey, you guys in the audience remember how these two are good friends, right? So, okay, bear that in mind. Now, you actors, go run around and shoot things." There is idiot lecture: "I still can't believe the Captain is allowing us to do a full memory download," declares Geordi LaForge (actor LeVar Burton), or words to that effect. Info-dump declarations are the sort of sloppiness any fanfic editor can spot from three weblinks away. The script is a first-draft effort: Here we'll have a celebration so everyone can get together, and then there's a big emergency, then we'll need to show some Romulans, then Riker will have a fight, and the big scene at the end will have a green-glowy something that gives you the same shivers the Death Star did when it powered up its planet-smashing doodad.

That's all well and good, but any writer worth her salt knows that once you have the bare outline, it's time to add the depth, the flesh. Those first ideas may be rearranged; some of them may be dropped entirely. In the end, the finished piece is lean and mean and tight and toned. Or it should at least look as if it made a few efforts to get down to the gym during lunch. This script must have spent its lunch hours eating fast-food, then wandering back to work feeling too sluggish to get much done the rest of the day.

The direction is as listless as the script, although I'm not sure what could have been done to bring more life to a script in this stage of bloat. The cinematography carries on the Insurrection (Star Trek movie #9) mode of presenting everything in the sort of tight focus that ought to be reserved for quicktime movies on the internet. The entire audience is turned into "close talkers" who spend so much time looking up people's nostrils that the climactic emotions, as the camera draws (once again) into the personal space of the actor, lose any impact. Not to mention the distraction of looking for the contact-lens lines in Data's amplified eyeballs. At that extreme a closeup, he is no longer Data—he is Brent Spiner, actor in facepaint and yellow contacts.

Nature versus Nurture versus Picard
The elements of great storytelling—literature or cinema—are studded throughout the film. Early in the movie we catch a glimpse of Wesley Crusher. You remember Wesley, don't you, the uber-intellectual kid who saved-the-day a few too many times during the Pepsi Trek series? That character did manage to evolve, though. Wesley is an unusual boy who manages—through interaction with others, through Picard's tutelage, through his mother's steady guidance—to grow into a fully human, compassionate, and presumably well balanced adult. Most of actor Wil Wheaton's filmed scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, and I don't know what they consisted of. One would hope they did the job of showing what the awkwardly misfit boy became: an adult interacting in a mature fashion with his world, a competent member of Starfleet and of humanity. Basically, all the things that Picard accuses Shinzon (played by Tom Hardy) of lacking, and of needing. This foundation would have informed all that we learn about Shinzon later, rather than (or in addition to) the rather unsuccessful "I am your mirror" theme of Shinzon vs. Picard. Shinzon's obsession with human (all right, half human) Deanna Troi—wanting to touch her hair, wanting her sexually—would contribute to Shinzon's life being a mirror not only of Picard's demons but of the demons of all human beings. What happens to a person who, growing up without society's control rods, loses his very self; a person who never has the mentoring that led Wesley (again, presumably, since we only see a glimpse of the character) through all life's dangers into successful adulthood? (Add in the social-scientifictiony Roddenberry-esque question of, How does this reflect our own society's failure to nurture its children?)

Star Trek - Nemesis: crew Phantom Edit, Please
As a series episode, Nemesis would have been supported by the episodes on either side of it. As a film, it is currently supported only by the weak (and equally poor visually) Insurrection. Better to consider it the second chapter of First Contact, film number 8. Consider a Nemesis edited down to about 45 minutes. Trim the fluff and the winks and nods to previously supplied information, pick up the pacing. If it follows as part of First Contact, the character development so sadly lacking in Nemesis itself would therefore be provided.

Consider the new story: Picard, as portrayed by the perpetually scrumptious Patrick Stewart, Enterprise captain, as mighty as Kirk himself. Picard saves the world, saves the human race, saves his crew, never fails his friends. A celebration ensues, and then Picard strides into the fray again—and he fails not once but twice. When it comes down to the act it will take to save his crew, he freezes. He fails to take any action at all. He does... nothing. (This is the occasion of one of the squandered closeups—a tight-angle look-into-the-mind, that an actor of Stewart's merits performs so well.) He fails utterly, and it is his friend, the sidekick, who must take up the challenge. (In my phantom edit, the scenes of Data's arrival are intercut with Picard's fight, to ratchet up the tension and pacing.) A scene or so later, as Riker's droning voice fades into a soft blur, the look on Picard's face is the second squandered closeup. Here is the only time within Nemesis itself where we have a clear understanding of the Data-Picard friendship.

Then follows Picard's second stumble. As a friend put it, "we've seen both his heels." The second failure is implied; in a better film the implications would have provided so much momentum that it would be almost unbearable to have to wait for the next installment. At the very end, in a subtly sinister scene disguised by Picard's cheery optimism, you can see wheels spinning in Picard's mind. One imagines his thoughts: He can try to remake his friend, sublimate another being (B-4) into a duplicate. Create a clone—precisely what caused all the tsuris of the entire movie. It would be a terrible disservice to Data. It will be a disservice to B-4, whose personality has already been compromised by the alternate personality embedded in his memory. The question is left tantalisingly open: will Picard be able to "raise" this being into maturity in a Wesley-way, or will they take the Shinzon path with Picard as B-4's viceroy?

This is heroic epic on a powerful scale, which makes it all the more disappointing that the film has only a few scattered threads of greatness. (Could this be an opportunity for the media tie-in novel to soar?)

The ultimate hubris here is that of the filmmakers. Those responsible for a script that didn't bother to establish itself, to mature as a separate emotional vessel, grown into adulthood out of the nine films preceeding it.

Outside food for Star Trek: Nemesis was a box of shortbread cookies and a four-pack of strawberry daiquiri wine coolers. Somehow, I knew I'd be needing a drink.

(this review also appears on fandom.TV)

Posted by OutsideFood at 12:00 PM | Comments (38)

December 01, 2002

Real Women Have Curves

Real Women poster Real Women Have Curves

My Big Fat Greek Wedding has the hype, the big budget, and the high-ticket producers, and it's a fine, funny movie; but Real Women Have Curves has the heart (and the curves).

This produces an odd result. The former, set in Chicago, is definitely a "Hollywood film" (even though not to the extent of a glitz-vehicle for a Jennifer Lopez-type); the latter film is set in Hollywood but is vastly more real in atmosphere. Both are based on a stage play that tells the real-life bildungsroman of the protagonist. The one protagonist is a Greek-American woman entering her 30s, a disappointment to her family for being plain, overweight, and still unmarried. Its strokes are broad but, with the exception of a bottle of Windex, Toula's family are eerily like mine, in a different language. Curves, based on the play by Josefina Lopez, features Ana, an 18-year-old whose family emigrated to California from Mexico. Her mother, Carmen, unapologetically demands Ana work in her sister Stela's dressmaking shop after high-school graduation instead of venturing to college. Carmen relies on both prayer and pestering to bring Ana into line; the more determined Carmen's prayers, the more Ana is compelled toward her own path.

When Ana grouses that not only is it too hot in the dressmaking shop, but they work in a sweatshop, as if she's enlightening the women there, she is simply told to get back to work steam-ironing the fancy dresses they sell to a corporation for $18 to be sold at Bloomingdales for $600. Later, when she has come to understand the hard work the women put in to support themselves, to maintain their independence, to stand by Stela as long as possible, Ana not merely complains about the heat but takes off her shirt to cool off. Her mother is aghast (Ana is too fat, too unattractive, and of course unmarriageable); but the other women follow suit, a room of women of varying shapes and curviness, all completely human, non-airbrushed, complete with cellulite. I want to say "more beautiful than Halle Berry or George Clooney's artfully lit Solaris tushy," but those who will believe me don't need to be told, and those who won't believe me, won't get it.

Pancha's (Soledad St. Hilaire) large, beautiful body has, she says, stretchmarks from east to west. The teenager's curves may be smooth but they are generously full. The thin woman among them (Rosali, played by Lourdes Perez) shows off her cellulite first apologetically, then in pride. Only Ana's mother finds the spectacle shameful, but her reasons are complexly multilayered, and I won't spoil the moment by revealing them here.

Ana's hope lies in going to college, the viewer may think at first, but the film doesn't let that choice stay obvious or easy. Hope extends beyond the boundaries of the film; Stela has begun to design her own line of dresses, dresses for the women she knows, dresses cut to flatter realistic curves. If this were just a cinematic fairy-tale, we would immediately hear about Stela's successes with her own line, rather than seeing, instead, her steadfast determination not to be the deciding factor in Ana's future no matter how desperate her own needs.

Call parts of it predictable and you acknowledge that it's as predictable as life. There's nothing fairy-tale about the ending, unless you mean fairy-tale in its deepest oldest sense of fundamental issues between parents and children left unresolved. It's the real-life way people—people you may know, if you also felt you knew the gaggle of relatives in My Big Fat Greek Wedding—react and behave that make this a treasure. One or two lines of dialogue could have used an editorial file to smooth them over, and a pair of peripheral characters never much come into focus. The guy with a crush on Ana is a bit bland (but, let's be honest, fellas, aren't most guys a little nebulous in high school?). And the production isn't Hollywood-slick, but I wouldn't call it rough. Once again, I'd call it real (that would be "real" and in "how life feels," not "artsy grainy jumping the camera around").

America Ferrera is solid as Ana. Lupe Ontiveros (she has appeared in Selena, As Good As It Gets, the television series Greetings from Tucson) as Carmen is phenomenal, performing the astounding magic of a great character actor. Ingrid Oliu portrays Ana's older sister Estela with utter believability.

Jorge Cervera Jr. and Felipe de Alba are Ana's father and grandfather, respectively. The deep love between Ana's parents, which Ana may be completely unaware of, is warmly portrayed by the veteran actors. That some reviewers seem to want to call the grandfather's understanding of Ana and her situation a cliche demonstrates only that those reviewers are out of touch with the dynamics of such a family, the long experience and understanding created by surviving to be the elder of the family, observant of the generations and a part of their daily lives.

Visit the website. Better yet, skip the website, see the film.

My outside food for this was a bottle of Snapple Turbulence Shredded Lemon Juice Drink. Much like having a lemon custard stage a hostile takeover of your mouth, if you like that sort of thing, which I didn't. Palatable when watered down over a Complimentary Paper Cup of Ice.

Posted by OutsideFood at 12:00 PM | Comments (0)