Classic Review: The Royal Tenenbaums

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Of all Wes Anderson’s live-action films, The Royal Tenenbaums might be the most Anderson-esque. This is not always to the film’s benefit, as it is also his most self-indulgent, and will likely be off-putting to anyone on the fence about his signature style. Yet for all its stylistic excesses, there’s a sincerity to the film that makes it difficult to hate. It may not be his best work, but it remains a fascinating examination of many of the issues that his films so frequently champion, one well-worth the time of any fervent fans of the off-beat filmmaker.

The cast features some of Anderson’s most eclectic and varied characters ever. Their personalities are communicated as much visually as they are verbally. The patriarch of the family, Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman,) can always be seen sporting his trademark cane, even though he doesn’t seem to need it, indicating both his duplicitous manner and his tenuous foothold in the house he temporarily resides in. His children all share a particular listlessness, perhaps the result of their common history as troubled child prodigies, yet each seems thoroughly distinct from the other. Chas, played by Ben Stiller, sports a bright red tracksuit, and has an overwhelmingly aggressive personality to go with it. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow,) always seems to be staring beyond what she is looking at, which makes sense considering her lifelong wanderlust, which has done little to bring her happiness. Then there is Richie (Luke Wilson,) who hides behind an overgrown beard for most of the film, afraid to let his family members know of his troubled state of mind or his romantic feelings for Margot, his adopted sister. These characters are all people of few words, all hiding a long history of pain, self-inflicted and otherwise, and one of the film’s great pleasures is in seeing their relationships grown and develop in a strikingly believable way over time. The Royal Tenenbaums features one of his largest ensemble casts, yet almost every character receives just the right amount of attention to invest the viewer in all of their fates.

At the time during which most of the film takes place, the Tenenbaum family’s ties to one another are tenuous at best, Royal having separated from his wife, Etheline (Angelica Huston), and the children all having taken vastly different paths in life. When Royal reveals that he is terminally ill, he summons all of his children back to the house in which they grew up to spend time with him during his last days. Unbeknownst to them, Royal has an ulterior motive – to reignite the embers of his marriage, and win back a spot in his family. As I have previously mentioned, these characters are not only vividly distinct, but each, in their own way, is nearly impossible to get along with, which is the source of most of the film’s dramatic tension. Each of the children has inherited some of their father’s less savory qualities, and they must come to terms with it just as they come to terms with his rapidly-approaching death. The relationship between fathers and their children is nothing new for Wes Anderson, whose entire body of work at times feels like an elaborate way to work out his own paternal issues. Yet the narrative here is complicated by a number of other participants, such as Henry Sherman (Danny Glover,) the Tenenbaums’ accountant, who proposes to Etheline, and who would likely make a far better husband to her than Royal, who was negligent at best and abusive at worst, ever was. There is also Eli Cash (Owen Wilson,) Richie’s best friend, who has been in a relationship with Margot for some time and who also happens to be the only person with whom Richie has confided his feelings for her. To make matters even more complicated, Margot is also married to the well-meaning yet dull Raleigh St. Clair, played by a perfectly cast, suitably deadpan Bill Murray, who turns in perhaps the best performance in the film. These characters do not exist simply to pad the runtime with useless side plots, but rather to bring out qualities in the Tenenbaums that they would not otherwise express. Henry exposes Royal’s duplicity and immature jealousy, while Eli and Raleigh allow Richie and Margot to work out their feelings for one another. The Royal Tenenbaums may not reach the emotional or comedic heights of Wes Anderson’s other work, but the way Anderson expertly balances all of these plot threads is nonetheless impressive.

Despite all of the disparate story arcs and relationships, it is Royal who ultimately takes center stage in the resulting drama. All roads lead back to him, narratively as well as genetically. As I’ve said, Anderson’s films are no stranger to failed fathers, but Royal is perhaps the hardest to love, being more actively deceptive than his more tame counterparts in other films. He cannot introduce Margot to his friends without referring to her as his “adopted daughter,” favors Richie above his other children, and generally lies as it suits him. He is the lynchpin of the film, a figure whose redemption or condemnation could repair or further destabilize the world around him.

As his name implies, Royal is something of a fallen king, having been ousted from his domain by his own family. His quest to regain his position is not some noble crusade, but rather a self-destructive venture. I will not reveal the ending, but I will say that it mostly succeeds at resolving his story in a satisfying. The bottom line about Royal’s story, and the film in general, is that it’s more an impressive achievement than an emotionally touching experience. It may not be Wes Anderson’s best, but with a filmography as strong as his, that isn’t much of a problem.

 

Classic Review: Alien

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The Alien franchise has lost a great deal of its shine in recent years. Prometheus and Covenant were ambitious but ultimately failed experiments, Resurrection is a hideous mess from beginning to end, and the third film might have been fairly average if it had not been butchered by the studio during production. Even Aliens, while a commercial and critical success, did not even attempt to reproduce the tone of the original, as so many imitators have failed to do. The first film, directed by Ridley Scott, thus stands alone as a singular triumph in sci-fi horror, having become almost synonymous with the genre. Released largely due to the success of Star Wars, Scott’s film marks a departure from the action-heavy spectacle that science fiction was embracing at the time, opting instead for bone-chilling tension, a slow-moving narrative, and more grounded characters.

Early on in the film, the Nostromo, a commercial spacefaring vessel, lands on a mysterious planet with a Stygian landscape and an ominous atmosphere. Against the reservations of some of their crew, the captain, Dallas (Tom Skerritt), brings aboard an alien life-form after it attaches itself to the face of crew member Kane, though it relinquishes its hold on him shortly after. This leads to what is perhaps the most nerve-wracking scene in the film. The crew is at ease, sharing an uneventful meal, when suddenly Kane begins to spasm and convulse. John Hurt, no stranger to death scenes, perfectly conveys the agony his character is experiencing, as does the rest of the cast, whose concern and shock at what follows perfectly mirrors that of the audience. The scene culminates in a strange creature bursting out of Kane’s chest in a terrifying display of gore. The creature looks at once pitiful and repugnant, so it is perfectly understandable that the rest of the crew has no idea how to react to the events that have just taken place. Unfortunately, their hesitation gives it the opportunity to escape, leaving it to roam free on the ship. What works best about this scene is the sharp contrast between the amicable mealtime chat and the carnage that immediately follows. The characters are affable and relatable, and the film lulls us into a false sense of security by taking its time introducing them and showing them interacting with each other. Then, with the gruesome death of Kane, we are reminded that this is, first and foremost, a horror movie, and a particularly chilling one at that.

The creature eventually grows into the fearsome xenomorph, one of cinema’s greatest monsters. The alien was designed by H.R. Geiger, who creates a Lovecraftian nightmare that is the stuff of nightmares. Scott wisely shrouds the xenomorph in shadow for most of the film, not allowing us to see its entire body until the very end. This is one of the most tried and true rules of creature features, yet in Alien it is all the more effective because of the fact that the xenomorph is such an otherworldly creation. There is almost a sense of sexual violation to how it kills its victims, penetrating them with a phallic second mouth that emerges from its regular one. The home release version has a deleted scene that features a wide shot of the alien crawling towards Veronica Cartwright’s character, Lambert, its entire body exposed. The scene is utterly laughable, the creature looking ridiculous rather than frightening, and it only gives one an appreciation for how perfectly executed the theatrical cut is, and how wisely Scott withholds most of the creature until the appropriate time to show it in its entirety.

The greatest fear that the alien evokes is that of the unknown. From the outlandish world on which they find it to its terrifying method of giving birth, most of the scariest moments in the film come from learning some horrifying new detail about the creature. It is not a villain in the sense that it is malicious or motivated by evil, but rather because its life is dependent on killing human beings, even being required to do so in order to be born in the first place. It cannot be reasoned with, tamed, or comprehended, making it a far more frightening antagonist than the monsters of folklore-based fiction.

The film’s protagonist, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver,) is the perfect vehicle through which to experience these events. Initially, it is not particularly clear that she is the film’s main character, as we are introduced to the cast as an ensemble first, with each member (including Weaver, Hurt, Cartwright, Skeritt, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto and Ian Holm) receiving equal attention and screen time. Once the face-hugger is brought onto the ship, however, Ripley’s sense of caution and level-headedness begin to distinguish her from her crewmates. This is not to say that she is the infallible badass that genre films love to spotlight. On the contrary, she is incredibly human, showcasing her fears and vulnerabilities even as she demonstrates her ability to overcome them. Weaver makes it easy to empathize with Ripley, making her capable, but not in an alienating way. She has received no formal training and is completely unprepared for this kind of situation, but does her best under the circumstances, which is all that any of us can hope from ourselves. She is also something of a blank slate, her personal history and relationships seldom elaborated upon. One would think that this kind of character would be dull or bland, but Ripley is neither, full of personality despite her character’s threadbare backstory.

Ridley Scott has had his fair share of lackluster films, but there is a reason why he has won so much renown as a filmmaker, and Alien is perhaps the best embodiment of these talents. Unlike many subsequent horror filmmakers, he doesn’t simply rely on shock value or cheap scares. It is a film that feels meticulously crafted, with tension building to a fever pitch and then releasing in satisfyingly explosive moments. Scott balances quiet scenes of character development with those of abject terror. Despite it having been released four decades ago, it remains the definitive blueprint for science fiction horror cinema.

Classic Review: Rushmore

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Wes Anderson’s filmmaking style has become so easily recognizable, so overwhelming, that it’s difficult to imagine a period where he was still developing it. Such is the case in his second film, Rushmore, written by Anderson in collaboration with Owen Wilson. The film, set in and around a prestigious boarding school, features all the whip-pans, oddball costumes, deadpan humor, surprising violence, and symmetrical shots that would make Anderson famous, but they feel less polished here. This is not a criticism of Rushmore, as it is this rough-around-the-edges quality, a product of its director still trying to find his voice, that makes Rushmore one of the most exciting film’s in his body of work. It is a perfect jumping-on point for those unfamiliar with Anderson, and can still be enjoyed by those who are turned off by his more recent excesses of style.

Anderson is one of those filmmakers who clearly loves every one of his characters, quirks and all. Nowhere is this more the case than in Rushmore, whose opening montage paints a vivid portrait of one of indie cinema’s most enduring protagonists, Max Fisher. We see a list of his accolades as he poses with the various school clubs and organizations that he either founded or is the head of. Yet for all that, Max is failing all of his classes, and is, by the admission of the headmaster (played by Brian Cox,) the absolute worst student at Rushmore. His way with words and various achievements indicate a star student, yet his grades do not reflect this, largely because he cannot be bothered to apply himself in his classes. In short, Max is too creative, too ambitious, for his own good, not bothering to try on anything unless it fits his peculiar notions of personal enrichment. Though he attends Rushmore, he does not come from means. His father, Bert (Seymour Cassel,) is a barber whose very name implies a certain plainness that the son finds repugnant. Moreover, Max is only enrolled at Rushmore due to a scholarship he received for writing “a little one-act about Watergate” in the second grade, the first of many plays he has written and staged since.

Max has also cultivated an extremely specific look, wearing his Rushmore uniform pristinely everywhere he goes, as if to remind everyone that he attends such a prestigious institution. He suffers from an affliction that ails many of Wes Anderson’s protagonists – he is obsessed with making the world fit his fixed ideas about what it should look like. The plays he stages tell a great deal about his character, as he is able to exert a level of control onstage that he cannot in real life. Indeed, one imagines that if he could stage his life like a play, Max would be infinitely happier. The fact that he cannot never stops him from trying, and we see him constantly try to bend those around him to his will, getting nasty or manipulative when he does not get his way. He is also, for all his confidence and wisdom, completely lost in life; his ruminations about what he might do after college feel hollow and disingenuous. It is unsurprising that Max has few friends his age, choosing instead to hang out with a younger boy, Dirk Calloway (Mason Gamble,) whom he has been assigned to mentor, and Herman Blume (Bill Murray), the father of two of his classmates, who is disillusioned with life and admires Max’s entrepreneurial spirit.

Max Fisher is, to put it lightly, an obsessive. He has a million passions, and not enough time in the day to pursue all of them, yet he tries anyways. Similarly, when he encounters a new first grade teacher at Rushmore named Ms. Cross (Olivia Williams,) he begins to obsess over her as well. The only thing he cares more about winning her affection is attending Rushmore; at one point he even implies that, if given the choice, he would like to continue to do so for his entire life. There is an odd contrast between the Rushmore we see onscreen, which looks like any other New England boarding school, and the idea that Max has of it in his head as an Edenic playground where anything is possible, even a relationship between a 15-year-old boy and a grown woman. Max lives in his delusions, and Rushmore, with all its resources and well-to-do students and alums, enables these delusions.

As incisively as Rushmore examines the flawed nature of its protagonist, it also has the sense to laugh at him from time to time. Max is a patently ridiculous human being, and the fact that he doesn’t realize this makes it even more apparent. He does not realize how inappropriate his pursuit of Ms. Cross is, nor does he see as strange his friendships with Herman and Dirk. Max has created a fantasy world for himself, embodied by Rushmore and Ms. Cross; the gulf that exists between this world and the real one is where Anderson begins to develop what will become his trademark sense of humor. The same things that make us pity Max are the things that make us laugh at him, even as we hope that someday, we will no longer be inclined to.

While Rushmore is funny and charming and everything else we’ve come to expect from Wes Anderson’s films, it is the emergence of many of his unifying themes that makes this particular film stand out. From Max’s issues with his father, to the complicated love triangle between him, Ms. Cross, and Herman, and even Max’ obsessive desire to reshape the world as it pleases him, Rushmore sees the development of one of the most brilliantly specific sets of directorial sensibilities of the modern era. It is a timeless work that remains a charmingly poignant coming of age story, an ode to the quirky ambitions and tragic failures of children who think outside the box.

Classic Review: Grease

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The opening of Grease somehow both sets the tone for the film without resembling anything else in it. It is an animated vignette about a greaser set to a Frankie Valli song of the same name. It promises one thing only: that the film, regardless of its quality, will be as slick as the substance from which it derives its name. If this feels superficial, it’s because it is, and the film makes no secret of that. Unlike Rebel Without a Cause or other films about youth culture in the 1950s, Grease is concerned with the fashions and trends of the time rather than the reasons young people might have had for looking that way. It is a film about delinquents in gangs that makes no effort to explore their motivations or the pain that lies beneath their snazzy exteriors. That said, the film isn’t a total loss. It tries to be cool and cool it is, at least when it isn’t embarrassingly funny. But Grease still can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity, one that squanders its chance to say something interesting about the nostalgia for the 1950s that was so prevalent during the 70s, especially considering the popularity of films like American Graffitti, which had come out a few years prior. Had the film used this chance, it might be an interesting parallel to our current wave of nostalgia. Instead, it is simply a flashy, empty-headed musical, though by no means a bad one.

Though Grease features a large cast, there are really only two characters who matter – and no, they aren’t Danny Zuko (John Travolta) and Sandy Olsson (Olivia Newton-John). Instead they are the T-Birds and the Pink Ladies, who, though groups rather than individuals, feature members so similar in personality that they may as well be considered a single character. They are all vapid and self-absorbed, as teenagers tend to be, yet here their similarities with actual young people abruptly end. The Pink Ladies, with their exaggerated femininity and theatrics, exist solely to chase men and manage their image. The T-Birds, meanwhile, think only of cars, sex, and breaking the rules, and the film is more than willing to romanticize all of these pursuits, no matter how useless or dangerous they are.  When Danny falls in love with Sandy, he must outwardly reject her and maintain his pathetic veneer of disaffectedness, not because his friends will disapprove of Sandy, but because they will disapprove of any sincere display of emotion. The screenplay is smart enough to make fun of the characters for this short-sightedness, but it’s never smart enough to delve any deeper into their problems.

As shallow as it is, I can still understand why so many have a fondness for this film. The design elements are top-notch, with the costumes in particular standing out so much that they have more personality than the characters who wear them. It’s no surprise that the sets and costumes are so vivid, as all of the attention goes to them. The filmmakers, like the characters, are immensely concerned with how everything looks, and not much else. The result is an idyllic version of the 1950s that certainly never existed, but remains fun to look at.

The main draw of the film is, of course, the music, and to the film’s credit, the songs are all catchy, and most of them follow the rules of 1950s musical numbers, though some do feel temporally anachronistic. Newton-John and Travolta both have musical talent aplenty, so they are more than capable of leading the various song-and-dance numbers. Newton-John is by far the better singer, while Travolta is the better dancer and actor, so it is no real suprise where their careers would take them after this film. Considering the low bar we have recently set for singing and dancing actors in musicals, some of the bits in Grease are surprisingly refreshing. The choreography isn’t terribly sophisticated, but at least it showcases the talent of the participants, while the songs never feel like they were written for actors with limited vocal ranges (looking at you, La La Land). It is a musical that, for all its lack of substance, is perfect for sing-along screenings, as long as the attendees are aware of the extent of the film’s stupidity.

Though I’ve written at length about the emptiness of the film, I haven’t yet touched on the parts where the film goes from refusing to say anything interesting to actively saying something morally repugnant. Danny and Sandy are clearly in love, yet they cannot be together due to the social pressures that prohibit Danny from making any expression of sincerity. The solution? Have the sweet, demure Sandy change everything about herself. Problem solved! The issue here isn’t simply that she succumbs to peer pressure, but that the film celebrates this transformation. Grease actually does a fairly decent job of setting up the major themes of the narrative, and then completely fumbles the ball when it comes to following through on them. It is a bafflingly moronic film in nearly every sense, as fun to watch and as devoid of substance as any of its characters.

Review: Love, Simon

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Love, Simon never once claims to be an original film. It wears its John Hughes influence on its sleeve, and treats its subject in the most conventional way possible. Yet, considering the meta narrative surrounding this film and its landmark status, one cannot help but think of it as a revolutionary act, however innocuous it may be. It is thus difficult to review the film without discussing its cultural importance. Fortunately, for all its cliches and inoffensiveness, Love, Simon has a strong undercurrent of warmth that will almost certainly endear any audience to it, especially its target demographic of young lovelorn teens.

The basic premise is fairly simple and ripe for teenage angst, which will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with director Greg Berlanti’s television work. Simon, a high school senior, has what amounts to a perfect life, with a massive home, loving parents, and supportive friends. Despite this, he has barricaded himself emotionally to hide the fact that he’s gay and no one around him realizes it. He finds an outlet in the form of “Blue,” an anonymous peer of his who shares this secret and with whom he begins an online correspondence. The film subsequently follows  his attempts to keep his sexual orientation hidden from those close to him while grappling with his feelings for Blue and curiosity about his identity. As I said before, this is a Berlanti project, so cheesy dialogue and shameless pandering to youth culture abound. Yer while these are certainly irksome, they never completely overshadow the film’s noble intentions and casual affability.

As far as coming-of-age films go, Love, Simon has a fairly banal protagonist, which is strange for a film that makes such an effort to penetrate his psyche, translated his furtive outer demeanor into an inner monologue that leaves little to the imagination. I suspect that this is in part to communicate the fact that Simon, despite his sexual orientation, is a typical teenager. While this does a great job at normalizing homosexuality, the result is a boring character whose saving grace is the fact that he manages to sidestep many of the tired stereotypes associated with gay teenagers, closeted or otherwise. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Simon is the discrepancy between the immense privilege of his external life and the suppression of the self that prevents him from fully enjoying him, which goes far beyond the angsty ennui that nearly all cinematic teenagers experience.

The film is, first and foremost, a love story, and in this regard it is likable enough to charm the adolescent target audience. As with any teen movie, Love, Simon gives us a world where the person you end up with in High School is one of the most important things in your life. Aside from the melodrama, the love story in this film is heartfelt and earned.  The mystery surrounding the identity of Blue is genuinely compelling, and there are several misdirects and red herrings to keep the audience guessing. The romantic drama involving Simon’s friends is considerably less interesting (and a little too angst-driven for my taste,) but the film spends minimal time on it, so it can be forgiven. There are, however, relationships that don’t get nearly enough screentime, particularly those involving Simon’s parents, played by Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel. Compassionate and understanding, their son’s inability to tell them his secret is one of the film’s most tragic elements, and Berlanti handles their discovery of his sexuality brilliantly. Through them we see that the film is about more than just romantic love. It is about the difficulty that repressed individuals have communicating with the people they love, whether it’s friends, family, or lovers. Though Simon is surrounded by supportive individuals, he still isn’t comfortable coming out. The issue then, is Simon’s own feelings of self-doubt. By giving Simon this flaw and complicating his relationships with his loved ones, the movie becomes something more than just a saccharine teenage love story or an indictment on society’s bigots. It explores (though not in great detail) how love cannot bring someone happiness without openness and trust. In other words, before he can truly love others, Simon must learn to love himself.

As heavy as the material is, the tone is fairly light, adopting the buoyant spirit that has become so fundamental to the American teen comedy. Despite this, there are places where the film could use a little more complexity. The characters are all cardboard characters, no more deep than the ideas they represent. Some do not even get the luxury of two-dimensionality, as is the case with the teachers and administrators at Simon’s school, the treatment of whom, as an educator myself, I slightly bristle at. The biggest tonal problems manifest themselves through Simon’s voiceover narration, which is essentially an elaborate way to explain thirty-year old cliches to us as if we have never heard of them before. What this essentially boils down to is the fact that Love, Simon does not give its audience the benefit of the doubt nearly enough. In 2018, general audiences do not need homosexuality explained to them quite as much as this film does, but could benefit rather from gaining a greater insight into how being a closeted teen feels. It is when it explores the latter that Love, Simon truly shines, even when at times it relies too heavily on exposition and contrived dialogue.

Though Love, Simon is a gay love story, it was not marketed solely towards the LGBT community, which is admirable, as is the fact that Simon never turns into a one-note gay cliche, though he remains a one-note teenage cliche. One of the film’s best insights is that there exists a wide variety of homosexuality, and that there is nothing about a person’s sexual preferences that changes the way they would otherwise behave, emphasized by Simon’s own insistence on his verisimilitude to the viewer. Most pointedly, Simon is allowed to retain his masculinity in spite of his sexuality. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the film’s other notable gay character, Ethan (Clark Moore). Ethan is everything we’ve come to expect from queer stereotypes: effeminate, funny, and devoid of any real agency in the story. What’s worse, we are meant to find him funny in a way that is often uncomfortable.

The fact that Ethan is a person of color exacerbates a problem the film has with race; all of the major black characters are light-skinned and middle-class. I’m almost tempted to speculate that some of them might have been written as white and racebent at the last minute upon the realization that the film focuses exclusively on white middle-class characters. The result is a film with diverse casting, but that somehow feels even more white-centric because of it. It often feels as though they were made to be as non-threatening as possible to white audiences, not to mention reinforcing harmful ideas about darker skinned people being less attractive and less worth seeing in romance films like this, where young audiences flock to see attractive people make doey eyes at one another. It is thus important to note that while love Simon represents a societal step forward, it remains a marginal one, retaining many of the harmful storytelling practices that have been plaguing Hollywood films for decades. For a film that preaches acceptance, there are certain groups of people that Love, Simon still struggles to embrace.

Love Simon’s biggest selling point is that it’s a feel-good movie. Berlanti takes subject matter that has traditionally been used in emotionally fraught dramas and cleverly distilling it for a mainstream audiences. However, this comes at a price, namely flat characters and a derivative screenplay. Its commercial success is ultimately worth more fanfare than the film itself, which, while fun at times, never manages to rise above the mediocrity it so often deliberately seems to aim for.

Classic Review – Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan

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If I’m being perfectly frank, I’ve never been a diehard Star Trek fan. I respect it’s high-minded aims and appreciate what I’ve seen of the series, but it’s never held the appeal for me that it does for so many. Perhaps this is because, as a work of cinematic art, it never utilizes its medium to its fullest potential, relying instead on exposition-heavy dialogue to convey its themes. This all changed in 1982 with the release of Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan, a compact, tightly written, visually stunning space opera that maintains the spirit of the show while adding some much-needed visual flair and a villain more imposing than any the franchise has seen since.

The film’s structure is similar to that of an average episode, with a few important deviations. First, the crew of the Enterprise is not wandering the cosmos acting as interlopers in various intergalactic affairs. That time is gone, and the crew, now older, is training the next crew of the famous starship, captained by Spock (Leonard Nimoy.) Kirk (William Shatner,) now an admiral, is conducting a routine observation aboard the ship when they get word of some trouble affecting a distant research station, which they soon find is caused by one of the original series’ greatest villains, Khan (Ricardo Montalban.) By bringing back a familiar foe and featuring a plot hook reminiscent of the old show, the film feels like an extended episode of the series rather than the slow-moving experiment that was the first film or the traditional action films that the Next Generation films sought in vain to emulate.

Despite its similarities to the show, Wrath of Khan marks something of a facelift for the franchise. Though the varied locales and fascinating scenarios of the original series might have filled audiences with wonder in the 1960s, by the post-Star Wars era they were horribly outdated. Thus, when the series was relaunched as a film franchise (partially in response to the success of George Lucas’ rival space opera,) it received a much larger production budget, allowing for improved special effects. While not nearly as revolutionary as what Lucas did with Star Wars, the effects in Wrath of Khan are at least tolerable, and mark the first time that the locations in Star Trek feel like tangible places rather than cheap sets. Star Trek has always been more about character than about spectacle, but the improved production value of the films allows the characters’ struggles to shine through without the need for so much suspension of disbelief.

The film’s greatest asset, however, is Ricardo Montalban, who gives science fiction one of its most endearingly theatrical villains in Khan. He seems to savor every word as he delivers it, each one dripping with hatred. Angry at Kirk for past defeats, he pursues him with single-minded determination, and few are the audiences who do not immediately snap to attention whenever he appears on screen. For a character who is so one-note, Montalban is surprisingly versatile as Khan. He can be mockingly sarcastic or dramatically sadistic, as he is through most of the film, but he can also act with exaggerated magnanimity, as when he offers Kirk sixty seconds to surrender before destroying his ship. More than anything, he is frighteningly efficient when it comes to achieving his goals, and on numerous occasions manages to genuinely outwit the protagonists. This is especially impressive considering the limited resources at his disposal, including a small, inexperienced crew of supporters and the grotesque, chittering Ceti eels. One does not have trouble believing that Khan was once the scourge of the federation, and the tense game of cat-and-mouse as he and Kirk match wits is possibly the best conflict Star Trek has ever produced.

While not as profound as the show, Wrath of Khan does give us an interesting look at how vengeance consumes those who indulge in it too frequently. Khan was left on a deserted planet for years by Kirk, and suspects him of having left him there to die (though it is implied that Kirk’s actual motivation was to give he and his followers the chance to start anew.) All of his anger concentrated on the man who supposedly wronged him, Khan’s lust for vengeance ultimately becomes his fatal flaw, as he sacrifices his tactical superiority just to make Kirk feel the same wounds that have been inflicted upon him. Even when his scheme malfunctions and he is defeated, he uses his dying breaths to curse his enemy, quoting from another fictional character consumed by a desire for revenge – Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab: “From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee, for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

Of course, before the film’s end, he does get his revenge, in a sense. One does not have to have seen the film to know that (spoiler alert) Spock famously sacrifices himself to save the rest of the crew, sharing some touching last words with Kirk before dying. It remains the most emotionally resonant moment in any of the Trek films, capped off by a moving funeral wherein Kirk beautifully eulogizes his fallen friend with one of the film’s most well-remembered quotes – “Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most human.” This is a big moment for Spock, who spends most of the series struggling with his mixed Vulcan-human heritage. The culture that raised him prizes logic above all else, making the complex emotions of human relationships difficult for him to navigate. Yet his death finally finds a way to reconcile these lineages. He makes a logical choice to sacrifice one life to save many encapsulated in one of his final lines, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” It is a choice no Vulcan could find fault in, but it is also a singularly human impulse – to risk anything to save the lives of one’s friends. In Spock we see two of the things that make humans so exceptional (our capacity for higher reasoning and our ability to love selflessly) co-existing harmoniously, and while the following film would focus on reviving Spock and thereby rescinding his sacrifice, within the scope of the Wrath of Khan’s narrative, it is singularly cathartic moment.

It is also a pivotal moment for Kirk and his rivalry with Khan. While Khan has allowed bitterness to fester within him, Kirk must learn to bear the burden of loss without succumbing to this same infirmity. The fact that he chooses grief over vengeance serves as a counterpoint to the single-minded fury that is Khan’s most prominent characteristic. This is a large part of what makes the film’s central conflict so compelling – its participants are perfect foils for one another. Considering this, Spock’s sacrifice represents more than just the conclusion of his character’s arc – it also marks a moral victory for the entire crew of the Enterprise.

There are no doubt a number of Star Trek fans who are turned off by Wrath of Khan’s focus on effects-driven action rather than ideologically-motivated dialogue. But to say this, or to imply that the film is simply aping Star Wars, is to ignore the emotional undercurrent of the film that is completely its own. True, the plot is more rudimentary and the ideas at play aren’t terribly complex, but this only allows for the more emotionally charged moments to land more effectively. It elevated an already imposing villain to new heights, all while giving the protagonists some of their most significant character moments ever, and for that it towers over everything else the franchise has ever produced.

Classic Review: Mind Game

mind game

For the last two decades, Japanese animation has received a popularity surge in the United States. Most mainstream-oriented fans of the genre usually associated it with the fictionalized fantasyscapes and imaginative worldbuilding of Miyazaki’s films, but in truth there is far more variety to it than this view acknowledges. Among the best and most overlooked anime films is Masaaki Yuasa’s Mindgame a psychedelic, surrealist exploration of modernity that is as frustratingly unreadable as it is knee-slappingly hilarious. It is as close as animation will likely ever achieve to a cinematic collage, and all the more impressive considering that it was directed by a single person, whose vision is felt and sustained throughout the entire work.

Summarizing the plot of Mind Game is an exercise in futility. It seems as though every ten minutes it decides that it wants to be a completely different film. I have not read the comic that it is based on (penned by Robin Nishi,) so I cannot comment on its faithfulness. What I can do is describe the sensation of watching it, which is far more crucial to the film’s success than the plot or structure. It is a film that keeps the audience on its toes, constantly wondering what tone or premise it will adopt next. At different points, it seems to be about the romantic foibles about its protagonist, his struggle to return to his body after his own death, his pulse-pounding adventures as he flees from vengeful gangsters, and the brief time that he spends inside the mouth of a whale.

By far the strangest aspect of Mind Game is the animation style, especially considering the fact that it doesn’t particularly have one. Rather, Yuasa decides to reject traditional conventions of animation by switching styles and aesthetic sensibilities as it suits him. With each twist of the plot (and even from one shot to the next within the same scene,) the entire look of the film is liable to change, at times appearing to be a traditional hand-drawn animated film, at other times painting its characters as unpolished, almost-realistic cutouts that clash with their surroundings in interesting ways. Yuasa seems intent on creating the most visually unpredictable film he can, keeping his audience on its toes at any cost. There are likely many viewers who will find this level of aggressive experimentation to be too disorienting for their tastes, but for everyone else, the results are fascinating and hilarious in equal measure.

That’s the bottom line about Mind Game – it doesn’t have much to placate viewers with more conservative sensibilities, but remains a blast to watch. There are plenty of laughs to be had with the film, stemming from plot elements such as protagonist Nishi’s sexual frustration, the antics of an old man who has been living in the whale for decades, and the gut-bustingly funny scene where Nishi realizes he has just died, which contrasts brilliantly with the ominous dread of the preceding scene. Mind Game never slows down for a second, nor does it cease to provide unexpected laughs in the most unusually charmingly way possible.

I’ll admit that I’ve had considerable difficulty articulating the brilliance of this film (especially considering the tight time constraints under which I typically write these reviews.) Suffice it to say, this film leaves one pondering its themes as well as the strange way in which they are delivered. It represents the endless possibilities of its medium, experimenting visually while remaining socially relevant. I cannot say much more about the film without ruining it, so I will simply say that it is worth seeing, and soon.