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Film Flashback: Nemesis, and my first California filmgoing experience

NemesisposterMy Star Trek: The Next Generation film flashback series concludes with a look at the “generation’s final journey”, Star Trek: Nemesis, which was released 12 years ago tomorrow. The film was dropped into a very crowded 2002 holiday movie season, with other franchise releases including Harry Potter and the Chamber of SecretsDie Another Day and (just five days after NemesisThe Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Because of this, and a general increasing antipathy towards Star Trek at the time, Nemesis suffered the dubious distinction of becoming the lowest – grossing film in the franchise and not even debuting at #1 on its opening weekend, as every previous film had done prior to its release. It was beaten by the extremely forgettable Jennifer Lopez vehicle Maid in Manhattan, and disappeared from theatres quickly over the course of the holiday season and New Year into 2003.

But let’s rewind.

In the fall of 2002 I was a freshman at Hampshire College and (once again) increasingly excited about that year’s Star Trek movie. I was confused as to why the film was already being marketed as “a (the next) generation’s final journey”. Why had Paramount already decided to phase out my favorite cast? Surely the studio was being overly judgmental. The original cast had not faced that same tagline when The Undiscovered Country was released in 1991. There was a modest amount of pre – release buzz, and at some point I got my hands on a promotional CD that included the above image, and so I made it the backdrop on my computer for a time.

Thanks to a plan to tag along with my mom on business trip she would be making to Los Angeles, I was also VERY excited that I’d be seeing the new movie IN HOLLYWOOD not far from where The Next Generation was filmed ON THE OPENING WEEKEND of the new movie at the world famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, home of many celebrity handprints, unique architecture, and with Hollywood Boulevard right at its footsteps. Nemesis had its world premiere there on December 9, just three days before we arrived in town.

It was my first time in California, and I was awestruck by the palm trees and glamour. I also had no idea of the prominent role the state would eventually play in my life, with two encore visits in January 2004, additional teasers in the fall of 2006, and then a whole new and vibrant life starting in early 2008 and continuing in a modified form today.

And so once Friday the 13th rolled around, we worked our schedule out so that we (I) could attend an opening day matinee of the new film. We had swung by the theatre with some of our hosts the night before to see the area and the then-new adjacent Kodak Theatre, home of the Academy Awards. Our host sent us some digital pictures from that evening, but I think they have been lost to the sands of time and the rapidly evolving digital age. Needless to say, it was eye-opening for this kid from New England to finally see the bright lights of Hollywood Boulevard, with a surprisingly grungy feel clearly visible not far from the main tourist sights. I’m sure I was quite insistent that we had to make the matinee on time, even though we were coming from Culver City over to Hollywood on one of those so close but so far LA trafficked afternoons, and we did.

(Interestingly, this came full circle from Star Trek: Generations eight years earlier, which I first saw with my mom, the non-fan parent, on opening day.)

We sat near the back of the auditorium so as to get the whole Grauman’s Chinese experience, with its lush red velvet seats, intricate aisles and large, but not enormous, cinema screen. I’m sure the surround sound was up to the current standards of the time.

As for the film itself…

The cast looked noticeably older, four years after their previous voyage with Insurrection. A sense of finality pervaded the atmosphere, with dark tones around the screen. Oddly, the early moments of the film also included several out of character moments, most egregiously seen when Picard, Data and Worf stop the whole plot to go for a car chase, which leads them to a heretofore undiscovered clone of Data (even though another “brother” android had become well-established during the run of the TV series) and it figures prominently in the plot, alongside a mysterious and clearly villainous Romulan man, played by a then-unknown British actor, Tom Hardy.

Oh, and longtime on-off couple Will Riker and Deanna Troi GET MARRIED, with a short wedding scene briefly drawing Wesley Crusher and Guinan back with their old crewmates.

The plot uncomfortably mirrors Trek’s best cinematic entry, The Wrath of Khan, and I’m sure I noticed some allusions on that first viewing. Mainly I wanted to spend more time with my favorite Trek characters and take in the experience of the movie. This “family” feeling made the film’s ending, when android Data sacrifices himself for the good of the crew, come as a brutal shock, and actually made me cry in the theatre, since my favorite character was gone. It seems a little silly to think about now, but it was devastating to know that iconic character was gone.

I got over it, and in spite of the movie’s poor box office and my mixed impressions, I saw it again two more times in the theatre.

The first time was less than a week later with my dad, back in Boston at the Fenway Theatre’s largest screen. It was obvious the film would be bumped from all the showplace screens with release of The Two Towers the next day. I don’t recall my specific impressions from that viewing, and the third time around, in early January 2003 at the Cinemark in Hadley, MA, stands out clearer. By that time it was clear the film had not been a hit and would put Trek into a downward spiral. And yet, watching it again, I felt appreciative to see my favorite characters have another adventure, and spend time with them, again, like being part of a family.

In subsequent years I have rarely revisited the film, but writing about it makes me curious to do so at some point. In the mean time, the cast has often gone on record about their dislike of director Stuart Baird, who was hired by Paramount with no knowledge of the television series, and contributed greatly to the film’s focus away from established canon and roles.

Looking at the film now, it is undeniably unfortunate that The Next Generation crew’s journey ended with such a thud. They still deserve one last adventure, the series has enjoyed renewed interest since its 25th anniversary two years ago, and the cast members still are fond of each other. The sky’s the limit.

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Film Flashback: Insurrection

Continuing my series of posts focusing on the Star Trek: The Next Generation adventures on the big screen, the 16th anniversary of the crew’s third cinematic foray, Insurrection, is coming up next Thursday.

Once again I was excited to see my favorite space crew on the big screen, and proceeded to see their latest voyage three times during its original cinematic release. First up was an opening day screening at the then – new Showcase Cinemas Lowell, which was just coming up to its first anniversary of opening. I remember it was a winter concert night at my high school (which I was performing in) a few towns away from Lowell, so my dad picked me up and we rushed to the cinema and then hurried right back so I could make it to the evening event. Unfortunately, that rushed state led to me leaving my first point and shoot camera there in the movie theatre, and I was unable to recover it, which disappointed me and my parents as it contained a few photos that could not be replicated. (why did I even take it into the theatre? probably to take a picture of the poster… interesting how those things stand out in the memory…)

A week later, my dad and I caught the film a second time on Opening Night of the new and long – awaited Loews Theatres Liberty Tree Mall. I remember feeling disappointed that Insurrection was shoehorned into one of the complex’s smallest screening rooms, even though it was just in its second week of release. We would get to know the rest of the complex very well over the next several years.

This film serves as half of the answer to a regional trivia question in that it was one of the two final films to screen at the Loews Liberty Tree Mall twin cinema, which closed down after screenings on December 17, 1998, to make way for the new 20-plex.

Finally, I saw the film a third time in St. Johnsbury, VT, near the end of that month, with my mom and several other friends. I highly doubt that St. J’s Star Theater has changed much since that screening!

Insurrection DVDIt’s been awhile since I’ve actually watched Insurrection, and I’m aware that it has a bit of a “meh” reputation among fans. The film’s location photography in the Mammoth Lakes region of California stood out to me on those early viewings, with lush greenery and icy blues serving as fitting evocations of an alien planet. Veteran composer Jerry Goldsmith again delivered an expert tapestry of musical images to drum the story along and serve as a backdrop for the crew’s continuing mission. But I agree with a sentiment that I once saw somewhere indicating that this film shows the Next Generation crew at their most natural. They don’t have to ramp up the violence to show they can kick some ass and bring in box office, they don’t have to compare themselves to other Star Trek crews, and they don’t have to do a victory lap on their way out of the spotlight, they can simply be present in the story, and relate to each other with humanity and consideration. (The last point is something that the actors continue to do well in real life, as seen in writeups of their convention appearances over the last several years, and I saw for myself when I met Marina Sirtis here in Michigan a year and a half ago.)

I likely did not realize on first viewing that the “guest stars” for this installment drew heavily from the theatre world, where most of the regular cast members also have roots. It would be interesting to see some alternate universe mashup where Donna Murphy and F. Murray Abraham suddenly launched into dramatic monologue faceoffs with Patrick Stewart, Gates McFadden, Brent Spiner and the rest of the cast.

Film Flashback: First Contact

Why not continue with what is clearly a theme for this week?

First ContactStar Trek: First Contact celebrates the 18th anniversary of its release tomorrow. Something about seeing that movie on the big screen must have been a formative experience for me (the first time I ever rushed out to see a movie on opening night, perhaps?) as I have continued to recall its anniversary on this day of the year. Last year, of course, it shared the date with the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination.

I thought I had written an earlier LiveJournal flashback entry about seeing First Contact on the big screen, but I can’t find it. So I will attempt to recount the experience here.

I was very eager to discuss the movie throughout that Friday of 7th grade, and various Trek fans sites of the time – probably message boards and magazines – had been counting down to the release for a while. Once evening rolled around, my dad, a close friend and I traveled to the Showcase Cinemas in Woburn, intending to catch First Contact. But (in this pre online and mobile ticketing era) it was SOLD OUT for the night! I was pleased that all signs seemed to indicate it would be a hit, but it wasn’t feasible for us to stay for the late show. Since we were there… we ended up at the premiere screening of the weekend’s other new release, Jingle All The Way, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad playing dueling fathers in the holiday shopping season. We drove back home to the North Shore with a slight sense of disappointment.

The next day, my dad and I traveled along with some family friends to the General CInema in Burlington to again attempt to catch First Contact. Unfortunately my friend who had come along the previous evening was not able to join us.. We succeeded in catching a matinee of the film along with a sold-out crowd at Burlington’s largest screen, cinema 5, right in the middle of the complex. I remember appreciating the synchronicity of seeing it there, as we’d seen the first trailer for First Contact when catching Independence Day at that same cinema during the summer of 1996.

My dad and I enjoyed the film so much we saw it again just a week later back at Woburn, and for a third time at the General Cinema in Framingham on a snowy night in early January 1997. In fact, I realize that “threepeat” viewing set a pattern that I followed for the subsequent two Next Generation films in 1998 and 2002… perhaps those can be “film flashbacks” in a few weeks.

The film was the perfect adrenaline rush for a die – hard Next Generation fan like myself. Its PG-13 rating signified that Trek had embraced a new edge, where all previous films had been rated PG, except the first one with an odd G rating. The Next Generation crew were solidly on their own in this adventure, and weren’t afraid to kick some ass with their longtime Borg arch-nemeses. My favorite character, Data, got a whole story arc of his own as a captive of the Borg Queen, and also got to assert himself as the film reached a climax. The music score showed veteran composer Jerry Goldsmith returning to the series with gusto, contributing a refreshed rendition of his title theme and many additional atmospheric and memorable cues. The special effects was very much au currant for 1996, most notably seen in an extended sequence on the new Enterprise’s deflector dish. Perhaps most importantly, each member of the Enterprise crew was given at least one moment to shine or show off a particular character trait, with results showing their range from devastating drama (Picard: “the line must be drawn HERE!”) to broad comedy (Troi: : “I don’t have the time… what was I saying?”) and with the sure hand of cast member Jonathan Frakes guiding them in his cinematic directorial debut, the sky was the limit and anything was possible in Star Trek’s 30th anniversary year.

Theatrical Throwback: three times seeing an iconic actor onstage during 2007

Inevitably, researching yesterday’s post got me nostalgic about the many good times at various theatres in London. From time to time I particularly recall my good fortune in getting to see Patrick Stewart perform three different Shakespearean roles on West End stages in 2007. This was a time when Stewart had moved back to the UK and was specifically focusing on reconnecting with his theatrical roots at the RSC and with other regional arts organizations. It was also, arguably, a time when he wanted to put distance between himself and his Star Trek/X-Men/general Hollywood pursuits. I don’t think he feels as strongly in the present era, judging by his current status as a resident of Brooklyn and marriage to an American film producer. His social media and pop culture notoriety have reached a new height in recent years thanks to his many pairings with friend Ian McKellen.

In February of 2007, I was very excited to see Stewart onstage for the first time. I eagerly wrote about it in my LiveJournal the next day.

Last night I had a front row seat to see Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter perform the title roles in the RSC production of Antony & Cleopatra. It was the BEST show I have seen since returning to London, and you can see more info about it here. The energy of the show was incredible, carried by the two leads but ably supported by the rest of the cast. They also all seemed to be having fun with their roles (impressive, as they’ve been performing them off and on for almost a year) and with a keen understanding of what the story meant in a larger context. Those feelings were also accomplished through intriguing usage of set and light design, with Cleopatra’s “lair” being high above and then center stage, the usage of lights to create a unique map on the rear wall which seemed to change shape every so often, and creative music on the sides of the stage, including Buddhist-esque usage of gongs and cymbals near the end of the play, to denote the Egyptian slant. Seeing everyone in the play remain so committed and energetic, as exemplified by a warm glance that Stewart gave to Walter just before they took their center-stage curtain call, extremely impressed me.

WalterandStewart

Walter and Stewart gave a talk at a special RSC anniversary day I attended later that year.

A few weeks after I saw Antony and Cleopatra, Stewart moved right on to rehearsing The Tempest, with him starring as Prospero, for a London run. He gave an interview to The Stage theatre magazine (excerpted here) that seemed to imply he wanted to distance himself from his Star Trek fame. I don’t think he is in that same creative place today.

I caught The Tempest with a friend near the end of its run. For some reason I did NOT write about that experience in my LiveJournal. I recall it came at the middle of a particularly tiring week for me, which probably contributed to my lack of interest in writing about it. Stewart was on his own dramatically in that production, not paired with a marquee name and bringing an expectedly high level of gravitas to the role of Prospero. I do recall much emphasis on the isolation of the character and the plot, with windswept drapes across the stage and foreboding sound design throughout both acts of the play.

GielgudNine months later, I was back in London for an “encore” visit to tie up some loose ends from my stint living there and enjoy another abbreviated round of area theatregoing. I was pleased that the plays would include Macbeth featuring Stewart in the title role, and bought a ticket two weeks ahead of time to ensure that I would be able to see the hot – ticket production. I again summarized it on LiveJournal.

Macbeth was a good, strong and edgy production, although perhaps not as spectacular as the critics were claiming it was. Interesting conceptual work (setting it in a Russian hospital, the witches became nurses, the horror film elements of the story were played up) but I had a hard time sustaining my attention at times, either because of an uneven supporting cast (aside from Patrick Stewart’s magestical performance) or knowing the story very well.

Bonus: the following night brought the first time I saw my favorite British actress Diana Rigg onstage. So naturally that experience received more attention in the blog post.

All About My Mother was excellent, anchored by tremendous ensemble-centring performances from Lesley Manville and Diana Rigg, who, as many of you know, remains my favorite British actress. Rigg in particular held her scenes very strongly with a combination of humor and vulnerability, and I loved how she struck completely different dramatic angles for each part of the story. In the earlier scenes, she’s just a strong-egoed actress, but as her character begins to be revealed, she took on deeper resonance with the mothering themes of the storyline and showed vulnerability. Additionally, the direction of the play was inventive, incorporating frequent use of promenade staging, inventive reverse angle curtain calls as part of the story, and a strikingly spare wide-stage perspective towards the end of the play.

Film Flashback to “Two Captains, One Destiny”

Man, 1994 was a great time to be a Star Trek fan.

The long – running classic franchise was arguably at its modern – era peak, with many entertainment magazines eager to devote coverage to the Enterprise’s banner year. (A particularly good example is Entertainment Weekly’s FOUR covers devoted to the franchise over the course of the year – January, May, October, and a special collector’s issue, in addition to a cover story in its sister publication TIME. )

generations teaser posterIn immediate output, the year saw Star Trek: The Next Generation completing its seven season run in syndication in May, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine settling in to a steady run in syndication – finishing its second season and going right on to its third, Star Trek: Voyager beginning filming that October and set to debut in January 1995 on the new United Paramount Network, and Star Trek Generations, a new film uniting select crew members from the Original Series and the entire crew of The Next Generation, set to hit movie theaters on November 18.

And now here we are twenty years later, and Generations will be a 20 year old movie on next Tuesday. As Picard mournfully says in the film, “time is the fire in which we burn.” But I don’t think it’s that somber of an anniversary – at least, I hope not!

Looking back, this was the event movie of the season for me, as an impressionable 10 year old and recently minted TNG fan. I talked my mom, who wasn’t the fan – parent, into attending an opening afternoon showing at the Loews in Danvers, and am sure I also talked up my anticipation throughout that week of 5th grade, so much so that one of my two homeroom teachers continued to ask me about Star Trek topics for a few years afterwards, and probably would clearly remember it if I brought the subject up to her today. My dad, the fan – parent, and I caught an encore viewing of the film a month later at the then – new General Cinema in Burlington, which would be a frequent filmgoing site for us over the next couple of years.

I’d love to see any written thoughts I might have expressed about that first screening on the opening afternoon. I do recall feeling some disappointment at the downbeat nature of the story, such as Captain Picard being an emotional wreck rather than a fearless leader for the majority of the movie. I certainly enjoyed Data’s increased presence in the storyline, as he decided to finally jump into a world with emotions, and even experiment with swearing!

The film enjoyed a solid critical and commercial reception, ultimately grossing around $75 million in grosses. I recall that its video release came on my birthday in 1995, eight months after its cinema release. The film was allegedly the first to ever feature a website as a key promotional tool.

two captains one destinyI watched the film again about a year ago and could not believe it’s slllooowww pace, which would not hold in 2014 filmmaking styles. On the other hand, it is refreshing to see the mix of CGI and model – based special effects, which has become a lost art in the current era. The story’s short shrift to the majority of the Next Generation characters is regrettably evident upon seeing it again, and became an unfortunate trend throughout the crew’s cinematic forays. Most Trekkers can’t forgive the film for its careless kick – out of Captain James T. Kirk, who is allowed an unfitting death scene near the end of the film, and seems tacked on to the narrative, again taking away from the Next Generation focus. (what might the film have been like if it did not include any Original Series cast members?)

Especially considering it was followed two years later by First Contact, the Next Generation crew’s finest cinematic hour, this film did not age well on multiple fronts. The writers voiced their retrospective opinions in a revealing interview that appeared on the internet earlier this year. Other TNG actors have noted the intensity of 1994 and the mixed blessing of finishing their series and going right on to the movie.

So Generations clearly has a place in Star Trek history, but it is remembered with mixed emotions by those involved – and perhaps by other fans who were eager to see it on the big screen but then not matched in their expectations to boldly go where no one has gone before.

People are People & Work is Work

Curiosity and boldfaced names have drawn me over to the 2013 Motor City Comic Con today. For a few of my preteen years I was an avid follower of these types of events, mostly in the form of Star Trek conventions, getting to meet (briefly) Mr. Data himself, Brent Spiner, and partake in various fan activities.

I also have a ticket for a special reunion Star Trek convention in Chicago in June, and might have to post a follow up entry on that experience.

My point in recording sensations from today’s event is to note that the feeling is different. No longer awestruck, I’m now… Curious. And sympathetic. And admittedly still entertained.

I think it’s a side effect of working in the business that I wonder what it must be like to be on the “vendor”/”talent” side of these events … Nod knowingly at a fellow vendor you saw at a similar event, maybe in a different state. Crack a joke with a former actor colleague you haven’t seen since… that one film you both are best known for. Pay close attention to the words of your fans – that may be reverential – and give them your undivided attention, even though economics and livelihood dictate you might be charging them a fee for a picture with you.

I probably just overthink it all. I see a lot of smiling faces at this event. I just might inhabit that fan role myself to speak with Ms. Marina Sirtis (Deanna Troi) because there’s no time like the present.

Shatner’s World included Philadelphia – and has now moved on to new worlds

William Shatner does not need to keep boldly going at age 80, almost 81. And yet, like any good actor, he keeps saying yes, or may be afraid of stopping, or he may just want to work as long as he can. Or some combination of those three factors. In any case, his latest career turn has taken him back to the theatre, where he got his start but has not spent time for quite awhile. So he turned to a knowledgeable and easy to remember subject: himself. He brought his latest enterprise to Philadelphia for one night only on Tuesday, March 13th.

With celebrity autobiography shows like this, it can be hard to pick out the drama. Well, their life’s drama is often splattered around the stage, but the dramatic throughline of their presentation can be harder to discern. I thought back to my seeing Carrie Fisher’s “Wishful Drinking” four years ago in Berkeley, and how I’d let myself get wrapped up in her forcefully glamorous aura before being reminded by my also in the audience friend to think critically about Fisher’s presentation.

The same challenges exist in Mr. Shatner’s performance, and yet he has become so iconic (treasured?!) that I’m sure a good chunk of his Philadelphia audience took pleasure in simply seeing him LIVE. He did enter and leave the stage to a standing ovation, the latter round of which I joined in on.

This show, “Shatner’s World”, seems to have arisen out of a “now what?” or “why not?” phase of Shatner’s career. Actually, the expression is more likely to be “I’ve got nothing to lose!”

He takes the audience on a merry-go-round of a live autobiography, from the streets of Montreal to the hustle of Los Angeles to the infinity of outer space, and beyond. His most famous credit gets its due, but is not as closely scrutinized as I’d expected it to be. Shatner offers hints of what seems to be a larger theme of achieving personal (serious) acceptance of the role, something I would have liked to hear more about but may be difficult to describe in a public setting.

He doesn’t shy away from describing other parts of his career, but does keep the focus about 90% on his public life. His three daughters are only mentioned briefly, perhaps by their request, and there is no examination of the challenges of maintaining an acting career over so many years.

Shatner gave several unscripted asides to the audience about a range of topics from lighting cues to the eternal question of mortality. I found those thoughts to be more intriguing than the scripted material, and can understand why he’s gained popularity for his open mic and written word skills.

I’m certainly glad to have attended this performance, and realize that it adds to a relatively wide spectrum of Star Trek actors I’ve either seen or met in person – Shatner, Nimoy, Stewart, Spiner, plus two instances of one degree of separation links to Colm Meaney and Marina Sirtis.

And yet, in keeping with my theatrical sensibilities and desire for human insight, I know I might have even more enjoyed being a fly on the wall (or assistant director!) in the rehearsal room for this project. What must it be like to be so closely associated with a persona and therefore make your public life in conjunction with that role? Us it possible to show another side of yourself? How do those close to you feel about that side of your life? Or do they feel fortunate that they know you in real life? Do fantasy and reality blur to an inescapable nebula?

From what I gather, it seems that Shatner DOES ask some of those questions in his recent documentary “The Captains”, interviewing all five additional captain-actors of STAR TREK about their personal and professional lives. I considered buying a copy of this film at the souvenir table, but changed my mind after seeing it can be purchased for $12 less online.

It is clear you are a role model and still very present figure, Mr. Shatner. Thanks for your commitment and perseverance!