Monthly Archives: September 2016

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: When a massively powerful alien force threatens the Earth, vastly experienced Admiral Kirk rolls back the years by taking control of the USS Enterprise, much to the surprise – though not unanimous delight – of its crew. As the ship races to intercept the force, it interrogates the Enterprise too and Kirk, Spock and company discover that the ‘alien’ threat may not be so alien after all.

The five-year mission of the starship Enterprise, to explore new worlds and seek out new civilisations, was cut short not by enemy ambush or catastrophic warp core malfunction, but by TV bosses who didn’t much take to the show and killed it with budget cuts and unsympathetic scheduling. However, come 1979 and science fiction was back in vogue, thanks to the insane success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind; so Paramount dusted off the faithful Star Trek characters and sent them out on one* more mission.

A mission that couldn’t be more vital for our planet. A vast cloud, which has already eliminated three Klingon warships, is heading directly for Earth; so despite the fact that he’s not been on a ship for two years, Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) commandeers the Enterprise, itself ill-prepared to hurtle into deep space. The crew, by and large, are Kirk’s old buddies: Scotty (James Doohan), Uhura (Nichelle Nicholls), Chekhov (Walter Koenig) and Sulu (George Takei); Dr ‘Bones’ McCoy (DeForest Kelley) is also reluctantly press-ganged into action. Missing, though, is Spock (Leonard Nimoy), last seen flunking a ceremony to acknowledge the total cleansing of his emotions back on Vulcan.

The invasion of the Enterprise’s old guard puts the nose of Captain Decker (Stephen Collins) well and truly out of joint, especially when Kirk’s ring-rustiness almost causes catastrophe in a wormhole; but his mood is lightened by the arrival of Deltan baldie Ilia (Persis Khambatta) who also happens to be an old flame, just as Kirk is happy to see a strangely moody Spock when he finally puts in an appearance – though he doesn’t stay on the ship for long. The Enterprise penetrates the cloud and finds an enormous spacecraft, the inquisitive intelligence behind it scanning the Federation vessel and creating an android clone of Ilia to communicate with the ‘carbon units.’ But V’ger, as the form is called, has some strange ideas about its own origins and Kirk has some convincing to do to stop it from wiping out the ‘infestation’ of human life on Earth.

If you’re thinking that this all sounds a bit heavy-going for a Star Trek movie, you’re not alone. To my admittedly inexpert mind, Trek was always about Kirk’s suave seduction of bejewelled/green alien ladies, cantankerous badinage between the crew and the unfortunately predictable deaths of nameless crew members wearing red (see Galaxy Quest for details). In short, the TV show was naff but fun. For whatever reason, Robert Wise (yes, the The Sound of Music one) eschews any notion of frivolity for the big screen and serves up Gene Roddenberry’s universe as a companion piece to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. He really means it, too: 2001 effects wizard Douglas Trumbull and legendary sci-fi advisor Isaac Asimov are both on board.

The combination of all these talents is majestic, metaphysical and… monumentally slow. The vision is an epic one, but in essence Star Trek: The Motion Picture is little more than a sequence of lengthy model shots overlaid with overwrought orchestral stirrings, the actors required to do little more than gawp at viewing screens and react to the impressive but protracted light shows thereon as they get ever closer to the secret of V’ger, only talking occasionally to further the flimsy plot. When Spock goes out on a spacewalk to communicate with V’ger, it couldn’t be more 2001 had he said ‘My God, it’s full of stars.’ It all looks very realistic and you can tell that time and effort has gone into the film, but it’s a pretty exhausting watch.

The over-arching theme – the continuation of evolution – is pure 2001 too, and though this shouldn’t be a criticism, it has to be. Firstly, because there’s already a film (called 2001) that covers all this ground and more; secondly, because the effects aren’t quite at the standard of Kubrick’s 1968 classic; and thirdly, because you just don’t expect to find Kirk and his buddies in something this sterile. The film opens with Klingons so you look forward to conflict, a space battle or some hand-to-hand combat; but there’s hardly any action, just a lot of looking at things in awe. And while there’s a hint of the old relationships at play, it’s all done with the humour toned down as the film explores its big ideas (such as the malfunctioning transporter – oh, the ethics!). Even the potential flashpoint, Decker’s antipathy towards Kirk, comes to nothing as he turns his attention to fake Ilia and volunteers to boldly go etc. In fact, just about the only concession to Star Trek’s 60s heyday is android Ilia’s dress – though ‘dress’ isn’t perhaps quite the right word, since dresses tend to cover some part of the leg.

There’s no doubting that Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a feast for the eyes on the big screen and is always technically very competent. I don’t doubt either that many people prefer the comfort of having familiar characters to explore the vastness of space with, rather than Dave Bowman and his creepy computer friend HAL. The film could, however, have done with clipping its delusions of grandeur and acknowledging its humble television roots. For while there’s a nice-looking motion picture here, it leaves some small-screen actors with not enough to do in an awful lot of time and space.

NOTES: Well, alright, six and a bit. But they didn’t know that at the time.

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Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: The three girls who make up rock band The Kelly Affair head to Los Angeles with the lead singer’s boyfriend and heads full of dreams.  However, the reality offered by LA impresario Ronnie ‘Z-Man’ Barzell is a dangerous mixture of drugs and debauchery from which no-one will emerge unscathed.

Hey, man! You dig that girl band The Kelly Affair? Manager Harris (David Gurian) certainly digs on singer Kelly (Dolly Read), and she digs him back; but although Harris is happy making out and picking up the cash for playing at schools, Kelly has bigger plans.  She convinces bassist Casey (Cynthia Myers) and drummer Petronella (Marcia McBroom) to try their luck in LA, where by happy coincidence Kelly has a rich Aunt Susan (Phyllis Nelson) and (she discovers) a share in a million-dollar fortune, though Susan’s square lawyer Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod) has serious misgivings. Susan also offers an introduction to music impresario and all-round fixer Ronnie ‘Z-Man’ Barzell (John Lazar) at one of his wild parties.

The meeting has profound implications for all the new arrivals: for a start, the band is renamed The Carrie Nations; Ronnie usurps Harris’ place as manager and gold-digging actor/gigolo Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett) steals Kelly’s affections; Pet bumps into waiter/law student Emerson (Harrison Page), but a one-night stand with James Iglehart’s heavyweight boxer causes all kinds of ructions; and quiet Casey turns to drugs, though Sapphic fashion designer Roxanne (Erica Gavin) keeps a close eye on her. Harris, meanwhile, fails to satisfy voracious porn star Ashley St. Ives (Edy Williams), gets walloped by Lance, and recklessly takes advantage of Casey’s vulnerability, leading him to make a dramatic cry for help on live television. However, the increasing craziness around the group is as nothing compared to the violent events of Z-Man’s last, and wildest, party.

It’s entirely possible to see Beyond the Valley of the Dolls as a snapshot of what went wrong with the Summer of Love, the ideals of free love distorted by drugs and sex into a lurid soap opera of bed-hopping and murder in an ultra-seedy Sin City (a fleeting shot of the grubby Hollywood sign tells you everything you need to know about late ’60s/early ‘70s Los Angeles). This is particularly true of the dialogue, peppered with hippy clichés and phrases that sound ridiculous now, and probably did at the time: ‘This is my happening and it freaks me out!’ yells Barzell over the strains of the Strawberry Alarm Clock.

Yet if the burnt-out hippy vibe were all the film had to offer, it would be nigh-on unwatchable forty years on (for some reason, Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels comes to mind).  Somehow, BVD’s faux-morality tale of Innocence, or rather Idealism, Lost manages to engage the viewer, and on more than a visual level.  It wouldn’t be right to call the movie a spoof, and satire would praise it too highly, but it’s certainly aware of its bombastic excesses and high camp dialogue. The filmmakers let you know that they know they’re serving up overripe, over-the-top trash, and invite you to sit back and enjoy it.

Which brings us to the film’s notorious director, Russ Meyer, and his fondness for the more (ahem) generously-proportioned lady. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls saw Meyer employed as hired hand for 20th Century Fox and it’s obvious that – even allowing for numerous naked couplings – his style has been toned down considerably.  However, it’s equally obvious that most of the female cast have not been cast primarily for their acting chops: Cynthia Myers is quite affecting as shy, misused Casey, but she’s no Hepburn; and cute though Dolly Read may be, she struggles to fit in with the over-charged atmosphere (much like her chest, her English accent keeps popping out). There’s inevitably a big dollop of gratuity involved in the movie, but it never tips over into pornography since the story always takes precedence. Meyer always films women beautifully, too; not only do they look good, but they also have strong personalities and there’s never any suggestion that they are merely the playthings of men (indeed, it’s usually the other way round).

Moreover, though he broadly deserved his nickname ‘King Leer‘, it unfairly overshadows Meyer’s talents as a director; for example, see how he gives us snippets from the climax under the opening credits, to let us know that something will go horribly haywire without giving the game away. His kinetic editing style is also in evidence, the attention always shifting without ever becoming disjointed or distracting. He also uses the band’s perfectly bearable songs to good effect, though I imagine they are unlikely to be to many people‘s tastes these days. Meyer and fellow writer Roger Ebert (yes, that one) also create a truly fascinating character in Z-Man: loquacious, articulate, charismatic and mad as the proverbial box of frogs.

Unsurprisingly, not everything works. The whole business with Porter’s devious machinations and Kelly tricking Porter into a compromising situation is actually quite tiresome (Read’s assets can only get her so far); and who knows what happens to Kelly’s insistence on having her share of the money, or why Charles Napier turns up at all. But in general, the film’s overwrought drama easily holds the interest, right up to its perfectly bonkers climax at Ronnie‘s Superhero party and the absurd moralising that follows.

You probably wouldn’t want to watch Beyond the Valley of the Dolls with your church group or your mum. Neither, actually, do you need to watch it too often, for while it’s not simply a time capsule, the incessant hippyisms can wear you out. What you should do, assuming you’re of an age to do so, is give it a watch. Then you can decide for yourself whether it’s a worthy of the name ‘cult classic’ or just titillating trash. I’m genuinely undecided.

Naked Gun, 33 1/3: The Final Insult

WFTB Score: 7/20

Naked gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994, Peter Segal) WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: Detective Frank Drebin is lured out of retirement for one last job: to infiltrate the gang of tough guy Rocco Dillon and disrupt their dastardly plan to explode a bomb at the Oscars. His success comes at the cost of his relationship to his wife Jane, who desperately wants a baby; she leaves to take a road trip with an old friend, but a close shave and a discovery on a handkerchief leads her back to her husband’s side – at exactly the wrong time.

The Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team may not exactly be the originators of the modern spoof genre – Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles came along a few years before their Kentucky Fried Movie – but they are certainly responsible for some of my favourite examples of the genre, notably Airplane! and the deliciously silly Top Secret! You could make the case that The Naked Gun was one of their more surprising hits, given the short-lived nature of its forebear, the TV show Police Squad! But a success it was, spawning the sequel The Smell of Fear in 1991 and, three years later, The Final Insult.

Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) is enjoying his retirement from Police Squad, though perhaps ‘enjoying’ is not the word: he’s now powerless to halt hold-ups at the supermarket, and has altogether too much time on his hands to make cakes and make sure his and Jane’s house is spick and span. Jane (Priscilla Presley) wants a child but Frank hasn’t been up to the job, and matters are not helped when former colleagues Ed and Nordberg (George Kennedy and O.J. Simpson) tempt him into investigating Tanya Peters (Anna Nicole Smith), the busty moll of inveterate criminal Rocco Dillon (Fred Ward), in an effort to stop Dillon from busting out of jail and carrying out a terrorist plan.

Things get so bad that Jane leaves to hit the road with her feminist friend Louise (Ellen Greene), which at least frees Frank up to ingratiate himself with Dillon in Statesville Prison; but when Jane suffers a close shave with an aggressive trucker, she seeks out Frank, inadvertently making her an ideal hostage figure for Rocco and his suspicious mother (Kathleen Freeman) when he escapes prison and prepares to put his plan into action, namely to ruin the Oscars ceremony by hiding a bomb in one of the closely-guarded winners’ envelopes. Can Frank, with the chaotic help of Nordberg and Ed, prevent a catastrophe at one of the great American events of the year?

A frequent complaint about recent spoofs is that they reference films, TV and other bits of pop culture in a scattergun fashion, often not bothering to create new jokes as they do so; and while The Final Insult is more focused than the horrible Epic Movie, for example, its targets are not as consistently lampooned as in Airplane!, the film content to take random snatches from The Untouchables, The Shawshank Redemption and most barefacedly Thelma and Louise. More importantly, unlike its predecessors The Final Insult relies on these parodies to carry the film. If either of the first Naked Gun efforts had been played absolutely straight, they would have been pretty weak cop dramas but could just about have passed muster; take away the jokes from this film, however, and there is almost nothing left.

Which makes it all the more unfortunate that the jokes are also very thin, either relying on the ZAZ back catalogue (‘Cigarette?’ ‘Yes, I know’) or using the same gag – a character (usually, but not solely, Drebin) reacting to something whilst the scene carries on – so often that it loses any impact. There are still a number of jokes that raise a smile, but very few are as clever or cheeky of those found in The Naked Gun; additionally, and counter-intuitively, the writers seem to be catering for a less mature audience, finding plenty of time to snigger over the late Miss Smith’s bosoms and writing plenty of laboured slapstick into the Oscars sequence (the 66th Ceremony seemingly reserved for actors of the star quality of Mary Lou Retton and Raquel Welch). At least the acting is still game and Nielsen is spared the indignities that would befall him in the execrable Scary Movie 4, though future criminal O.J. Simpson and his partner George Kennedy are given very little to do, and forensic scientist Ted Olsen (Ed Williams) returns only to find himself completely redundant.

It’s unfortunate that The Final Insult sends the Naked Gun series out with both a bang and a whimper, since the first two films have both aged well and still surprise with new jokes on repeated viewings. The amount of fresh comedy served up in this film is not quite insulting, but is meagre rations for a generation brought up on an abundance of ZAZ silliness.