A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Bush’s Brain

April 19, 2011

Bush’s Brain

I bought this movie at the urging of a heavily left leaning staff member of mine. At least that’s my recollection of things. I’ll freely admit that I’m about as far to the left politically as it is possible to be. I spent a lot of the early part of this millennium upset with the president of our nation. I was angry with him, his decisions and the things he did to our country. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that I hated George W Bush. As such I didn’t particularly mind the notion of a movie that attacked the man regarded as having been responsible for putting Bush in office.

There’s no kind way to say this though: this is a poor excuse for a documentary. It’s a collection of interviews based on hearsay, speculation and bitter grapes. It’s fear mongering and hate speech. I don’t mean that Karl Rove is innocent of the shady dealings that this movie accuses him of taking part in. I simply mean that no good case is made in any of the allegations.

Most of this movie is interviews with the two authors of the book the movie is based on and with various political opponents of candidates that Rove worked for. Hardly unbiased. Even that would be acceptable if a single thing they said was backed up by fact. They accuse Rove of bugging his own office. They accuse him of sicking an FBI agent on his political opponents. They talk about the Valerie Plame leak, constantly saying things like “I can’t prove that Rove was responsible for the leak, but if he were it would be his style.” That’s not reporting, it’s speculation.

Not to mention the transparent emotional manipulation. There’s an entire segment of the movie that briefly explores the life and death of an American serviceman named Fred Pokorney. Amanda and I kept waiting for the movie to explain why this tragic tale of a life cut short had anything to do with Rove. It doesn’t. It just shows us Pokorney’s wife and father mourning, and implied that he wouldn’t have gone to war and died if Karl Rove hadn’t used Iraq as a chip in a political poker game.

What this movie drives home more than anything else for me is the acriminous nature of modern politics. A much better insider take on it in my opinion is Bush press secretary Scott McClellan’s book What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception. McClellan talks a lot about the never ending campaign shapes not just the spin put on politics but every political decision. Are there people, Karl Rove among them, engaged in a constant war of words to promote their candidate and denigrate the other side’s? I don’t doubt it for a second. Are the stories we read in the paper often fed to the press by these political wranglers? No doubt. Indeed I’ve become more and more skeptical of all news stories regarding politics precisely because I know this kind of maneuvering goes on. But Karl Rove is only one example. I don’t doubt that there are equaly duplicitous political masterminds on the Democratic side.

So where does that leave this movie? Well to be frank it’s not worth the time it takes to watch in my opinion. Karl Rove IS a force to be reckoned with, this I have no doubt of. He can be credited with formulating the entire Republican strategy for re-claiming congress in the last elections (a strategy of blocking every effort to get anything passed in congress over the last two years and then blaming Obama and the Democrats for not getting anything done.) But this movie doesn’t build any sort of credible case against him. It just vents its spleen for an hour and a half, and then is mercifully over. I don’t believe I will be watching this movie ever again.

April 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 414 – Paris is Burning

Paris is Burning – April 18th, 2011

I had heard about this documentary ages ago. I think we had a copy at the video store Andy and I worked at when I was in college and I know for certain that it was shown for a couple of classes. But I never saw it. I knew it existed and I had a vague idea of it being about drag culture in New York. But I never took the classes it was shown for and I never grabbed it from work so I never really got the specifics until I started poking around online after reading some comments about one of the contestants on this year’s RuPaul’s Drag Race.

One of the places I frequently read (though almost never post to – I’m a lurker by nature) is Television Without Pity. The forums on there can be horribly biased towards their favorites, and back when a certain show I enjoyed was still running I had some issues with the person they had reviewing it, but overall I find that there’s some good discussion. And frequently there’s a wealth of information on things I myself have no experience with. So when the Drag Race forums were discussing Mariah Balenciaga there were mentions of the House of Balenciaga, and they weren’t talking about the fashion designer. They were talking about drag balls and the Houses that compete in them. I had to know more and knowing more led me back to this title. So we bought it and tonight we watched it as RuPaul’s Drag Race draws to a close (finale next week).

I’m not sure what I was expecting from this documentary. On one hand, I knew it would be showing me a culture that I am not at all a part of. I knew that I would be learning new terms and cultural history that I’ve never really been exposed to. In many ways, I expected a lot of the content, but it still felt fresh. Even so clearly dated from the eighties, it felt fresh. Perhaps because it’s new to me. You can know a concept and still not be acquainted with the reality. And this documentary might not have been made by someone from inside the community it documents, but it does present some pretty impressive reality.

The movie has a variety of types of shot. There are interviews with many of the key members of the scene as well as some lesser knowns (at the time – I have no way to judge how successful any of the up-and-coming members ended up being after the filming was over). They tell the viewer about some of the history of ball culture and how it came to be and where it began and how the Houses started and what the current state of it all is at that time. They talk about voguing and shade and realness and fantasy and passing. There’s plenty of footage from what looks like one or two balls, complete with several different costume categories, dancing competitions, arguments over rules, requests for stolen items to be returned, etc. And then there’s footage of many of the people involved just out and about in the city, hanging around with each other, showing off their fabulosity, chatting about why they’re into the scene, what they hope to accomplish and how they live their lives.

It would be incredibly presumptuous of me to try and explain what the documentary explains, but I’ll give the basics. Drag balls as shown in the documentary are sort of competitive parties. Various attendees dress up for different categories and we’re not just talking ballgown and swimsuit here. We’re talking everything from passing as straight (male or female) to specific careers and situations. Executive wear, student wear, high fashion, first time in drag. And that’s just the fashion, though I certainly don’t want to give the impression that it’s at all minimal. It’s fantastic and very clear right from the outset that tons of time and effort and money go into these looks. They’re stolen or created or bought, sometimes at the cost of buying food. This is a big deal. But then on top of it is the dancing. And it is amazing to watch. Madonna’s version is so very tame in comparison to what these folks were doing in a banquet hall in the middle of the night in 1988. Through it all the audience cheers and jeers and gets up close to get a good look at what’s going on. It is utterly unlike anything I have ever seen or lived.

Also unlike my own personal experience are the Houses. They’re described as surrogate families or gay street gangs who fight through dancing and fashion. The Houses have parents who lead the groups, take in new members and help them out. The people in the documentary are mostly African American. Most are gay and many aren’t just drag queens, they’re transsexuals at various stages of transition. They are people whose families have rejected them or who’ve left their families preemptively to avoid rejection. On one hand, I wish there wasn’t such a need for groups like these to form. On the other hand, the need exists and I’m glad that the Houses are there and provide the support and kinship that they do. In an ideal world people’s families wouldn’t reject them for their sexuality or gender identity or for being themselves just because being themselves isn’t “mainstream”. But we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where over twenty years later I know there are still people who need those support networks because they have no others.

So it’s not just about a bunch of drag queens getting together to out-stomp each other in fabulous gowns. It’s about community and family and the difficulty of living day-to-day for most of the people involved and how these balls are their escape and their connection to each other and a common interest and passion. And oh, some of the people in this movie break my heart. Venus Xtravaganza, particularly, who is so clearly talented and determined and amazing, and who was murdered in a hotel room before this documentary was finished. And there are two boys who show up a few times, thirteen and fifteen and hanging out outside one of the balls. I want to know who they were and what happened to them. What they went on to do with their lives because they were so obviously taken with the balls and wanting to be a part of it. The fifteen year old claims his parents are gone and he lives with a friend. And I want to believe he did something amazing but I don’t think they give their names and I don’t know. As is made clear from so many of the people in the documentary, life for many or most of the members of this community isn’t easy.

The trouble I run into with this documentary is that it makes me feel like a voyeur. And really? I am when it comes to a culture like this, so far removed from my own life. I’m a white straight cisgendered woman who grew up in the suburbs. I went to a private school and a small women’s college. I can work a pair of heels, but that’s pretty much the only thing I’ve remotely got in common with anyone on the screen here. And it’s an uncomfortable feeling. But that’s valuable too. Because I’d rather know that there are things outside of my experience than go through life assuming that my experience is universal. Which is likely the point of this documentary being made. But still, it was made by a woman who wasn’t part of the community herself. It wasn’t one of the members of the group who went and got a grant to make a movie about the balls and Houses and culture. It was someone from outside. Which immediately makes it a display. As candid as the interviews are and as real and honest as the footage is, it’s still being put together from the outside. It’s frustrating, because it’s valuable, but it’s also problematic.

Still, I’m glad we have it and I’m glad we watched it. I’m under no illusions that the culture exists for me to take in, regardless of shows like Drag Race. The culture existed then and exists now for the people in it. They are their own audience and their own judges and while many of the people in the documentary say they want to be known in wider circles and achieve fame more akin to, say, RuPaul’s, the balls themselves aren’t there for that. But I am glad I got to see them. I’m glad I know a little more about it all than I did earlier tonight.

April 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Paris is Burning

April 18, 2011

Paris is Burning

Another thrilling conclusion to another hilarious and wonderful season of RuPaul’s Drag Race is rapidly approaching, so Amanda and I splurged a bit and got some appropriate movies to watch on Monday nights for the next couple weeks. (As a result Amazon now thinks I’m a homosexual black man. I’m not complaining because some of the resulting suggestions are rather interesting. I’m just saying.) One major lasting impression from watching this movie is that I am very much an outsider looking in here. RuPaul’s brilliance lies in the ability to make the spectacular world of drag accessible to all, but this documentary comes from a different time, almost from a different world.

This movie drives home the astonishingly difficult circumstances that some of these people lived in, and celebrates the strange world they crafted for themselves to belong in. I cannot even imagine how harsh life must have been for an impoverished gay black man in New York City in the late eighties. This movie doesn’t actually dwell on the challenges of such a life, but it points out, in a sort of off-hand manner, that this is the life many of the people featured here are living. They’re ostracised for being gay (particularly in the frightening world of the AIDS epidemic) for being black, for being poor, and for being, in many cases here, transvestite or transsexual. Some of the people interviewed talk about being cut off from their biological families. They talk about how obsessed popular culture is with being rich, white and heterosexual. But they talk about this within the context of describing and explaining something wonderful and special that has come into existence to provide a place where these people can revel in who they are and take delight in a culture of their own.

I’m clearly the target audience for this film. It’s a movie made to introduce people like myself, affluent and privileged people who have no experience in this world at all, to its concepts, vocabulary and a few of its inhabitants. It purports to be a documentary about the Ball scene, and it is, but in order to explain the Balls it has to explain so much of the rest of the culture. It defines terms like “Shade” and “Reading” which are familiar to me from Drag Race but would not have been otherwise. It introduces the concept of the Houses – a combination of gay street gang and surrogate family. Through interviews and footage from a few Balls it explains a little about how this blending of beauty pageant, dance-off, and extreme costume ball came to be and how they influence the lives of the people drawn together to compete in them.

To tell the truth I found the world and the characters who inhabit it much more interesting than the film made about them. I appreciate Jennie Livingston’s documentary style – letting the subjects tell their story in their own words through interviews – but the film overall felt scattershot and disorganised. Maybe it’s that I’m so used to the reality programming of today, which uses a heavily over-produced version of the same style. Today’s shows are edited to create story arcs. They have writers and producers who use off-camera prompts to steer interviews and keep things on message. They create an environment of stress, sleep deprivation and in the case of Drag Race of alcohol consumption which is carefully crafted to generate drama for the cameras to capture. In contrast this movie is just some interviews about similar subjects edited together. It doesn’t attempt to craft a story from them or use them for its own ends. I suppose I appreciate that restraint, because there are some powerful stories here that could have taken over the project but which instead feel like footnotes.

Take, for example, the heartbreaking tale of Venus Xtraveganza: found strangled and stuffed under a bed after giving interviews in this movie about how dangerous it was to turn tricks in the city for a living. She’s so full of dreams and optimism in these interviews, and her death is hardly mentioned in the film. Such a story could have taken over the entire movie, but instead Venus’ Xtraveganza mother Anji just sadly shrugs and says it’s the kind of thing that happens to people in her world.

In contrast to that harsh world we have the glamorous but competitive land of the Ball. The best part of the whole movie is seeing all these people doing the walk, demonstrating their skills be it “realness” or “vogue” or just plane fabulous over the top drag. I love watching Willi Ninja doing his thing. I love all the fantastic drag queens. I love the high class glam and the feathers, ruffles, fur and fans. Most of all I love the catty MCs who bring the whole event to life. I can easily see how this escapist world became such a sensation for these people. It’s like PAX is for me: a convention where you can celebrate who you are with like minded people. Heck, I even want to dress up for my convention. So maybe although I live in a completely different world from the people in this film I find it easy to feel a kinship with them. I just couldn’t ever hope to be half as fantastic.

April 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 334 – Trekkies 2

Trekkies 2 – January 28th, 2011

I think that by this point it should be rather obvious that Andy and I are most definitely Trekkies (that’s the term I was raised with and it’s the term Roddenberry used and that’s the entirety of my reasoning). We bought Star Trek V specifically for this project. We watched it! We have spent the past two weeks watching a Star Trek film every night. After Wrath of Khan we put in the reboot even though it was late and we’d be watching it for this project in the next week. After some of the TNG movies we put in episodes from the series. We even watched one (Masks) before we put in tonight’s movie. We don’t do cons or collect stuff (though I do have a few action figures from early in TNG’s run – I played with them and they are not mint in box) but let’s face it, these fandom documentaries speak to us because we fit right in.

Seven years after the original documentary Denise Crosby returns to guide us through even more Trek fandom. This time we get to leave the US and meet fans in other countries, see how they show their love of the show and visit their conventions. We also see more of the US and get to revisit some familiar faces and meet plenty of new people. More aspects of the fannish universe are explored and there’s some meta commentary where the fans in this documentary talk about the portrayal of fans in the first one. And once again, while Crosby is the one going around from country to country – in theory – the focus is mostly on the fans themselves, which is just perfect in my opinion.

This documentary really does make an attempt to show a wide variety of geographical areas. They travel to several different countries and talk to fans in each, both at conventions and not at conventions. They visit stores selling merchandise and they visit homes full of posters and tapes and figures. It’s fantastic, because it quickly becomes apparent that there are some wonderful differences in terms of cultural influences and some amazing similarities in terms of the overall tone and sentiments. Every group of fans seems to have imbued their activities with parts of their culture, making it distinct while keeping it immediately recognizable as Star Trek

They start in Germany and it’s largely like what’s in the first movie, but in German and with German accents. Then it’s off to London where we meet a dude who’s constructed an elaborate set in his flat. The flat would be difficult to live in, but it’s amazingly intricate. Then to Italy, with more conventions and fans and cosplay and oh, the food. We visit Brazil, where a publisher of Portuguese language Trek items says “This is a wonderful way to be crazy.” They go to France, where it still seems like it’s not terribly accepted as of the time of the movie’s filming but people love it anyhow. Still, I would love to have a Star Trek quiche party. Australia gets a visit too, and Serbia.

The bits in Serbia are really the most inspiring to me. The fans there talk a lot about the show being a symbol of hope for them. They visit the first Star Trek convention in the area and I am not ashamed to say that it brings tears to my eyes. The fans there are just so amazed and thrilled to find each other and have the opportunity to get together. What’s really wonderful about all the countries they go to and all the people they talk to from all the cultures represented is that they’re all saying the same thing. They use different worlds and different languages, but they’re talking about loving the ideals and finding a space where they can be comfortable and enjoy being who they are. And in every country there is a feeling that having Star Trek is a hugely positive thing.

And there’s still plenty to explore in the US too. We visit with Daryl Frazetti and his cats, we see Barbara Adams again, and oh, oh there’s more Gabriel Koerner! He’s so much more aware of himself here, looking back on his teen years with fondness but also knowing that yes, he was, in his own words, socially oblivious. But he’s done well for himself, working on CG stuff professionally and married and all, so who cares, really? There’s Star Trekkian Shakespeare, filking, more conventions. There’s a whole section on the charity work done by fans and fan organizations as well as the cast and crew.

One major difference I noticed between the two documentaries is that while this one does have quite a few little bits and pieces from various cast members, they’re mostly newer cast from the newer shows and the clips are short. They’re little reactions to questions, not longer musings on the general topics. And I don’t mind that. After all, we did get thoughts on the show and the universe from quite a few of the bigger names in the first documentary and in this one we get some people who weren’t a part of it all yet. But we also get a whole lot of fans, and the title of the documentary is a reference to the fans, so that’s fitting.

There’s also a lot of focus on fan creativity. It’s not just about wearing uniforms and going to conventions and having parties and watching the show. It’s about making fan movies – and there are several, in different countries. It’s about filking, which gets a good little clip. Fanfiction is mentioned again and shown to be more than just the Kirk/Spock stuff (I mean, come on, there’s got to be some Chekhov/Sulu too, right?). They talk about the roots of dressing up for conventions (check out Forrest J. Ackerman dressed up for the 1939 WorldCon) and really get into the world of fan art and all the myriad ways people express their creativity and funnel it through the Star Trek universe. There’s a whole section on Trek-themed rock bands in Sacramento. My personal favorites are Warp 11, who seem pretty rockin’ to me, and Stovokor (a Klingon metal band – perfect, right?).

Overall I think a second documentary had to be made. There’s just so very much out there. It says something to the phenomenon that is Star Trek that there is such a vast amount of fandom around the world. It’s inspiring and comforting and thrilling to so many people and they love it so much – we love it so much – that it’s impossible to hold back. There’s a whole extra hour of footage on the disc! We watched it after we finished the documentary and loved every additional minute. It’s just wonderful to see so many people enjoying it. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there’s still enough unexplored fandom out there to warrant a third installment, though who knows if it would ever get made. Still, if it does I’m sure we’ll watch it. We’re just like that. We’re Trekkies.

January 28, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Trekkies 2

January 28, 2011

Trekkies 2

As with yesterday’s loving look at those eccentric fans of Star Trek this is a series of interviews with Denise Crosby at conventions. But this movie leaves the comfortable confines of North America and explores Star Trek fandom across the globe. Yes, we catch up with some of the break out stars of the first Trekkies movie, but it’s the international fans that make this movie special.

There’s just something so cool and surreal about people in Star Trek uniforms speaking German, Portuguese, Italian and French. Fandom transcends all borders and boundaries. People dress up as Klingons in every country in the world apparently. There’s something surreal and comforting about that, which is what this movie is trying to convey I think.

This movie came out seven years after the first Trekkies movie, so part of the fun is re-visiting the BNFs featured in that film. Barbara Adams doesn’t seem to have changed at all. Except that she’s been promoted from Lieutenant Commander to Fleet Admiral. She’s still working in the print shop. She’s still wearing her uniform and spreading the word of Star Trek. We also get to see Gabriel Koerner and his lovely wife – proof, he points out, that nerds do sometimes get laid. Note also that he did the visual effects and starship flybys on the DVD menus and in the film.

The most emotional moment in the film is when Denise attends the first ever Star Trek convention in the Balkans – the former Yugoslavia. One attendee says that there had been some doubt that a Serbian Star Trek convention could actually work because, he says, every Serbian Trek fan thought that he (or she) was the ONLY Serbian Trek fan. It’s a beautiful moment captured on film to have all these closet nerds discovering each other. It perfectly depicts the sense of community that fandom engenders and how sharing their love for this seminal sci-fi series can help to bring people together. The notion that Star Trek helped so many people through hardship brings tears to my eyes. One fan talks about how so many people find themselves when in times of trouble longing for some golden past that probably never existed, and contrasts that with the Star Trek fan’s tendency to look forward to a better future instead.

We get to see a lot of fan productions in this movie too. In German. In French. There’s a fantastic looking Star Trek adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Gabriel Koerner is producing a Star Trek spoof in his free time (and I keep expecting Wil Wheaton to walk on to his set.) There’s an earnest but amateur German production that involves a meeting between TNG and classic Trek captains. (I was amused to not that although most of the German production was in German, the Klingons still speak Klingon – which is its own language and apparently is not changed no matter what language the rest of the show is translated into.) There’s a movie set in the old west where the co-captains of the USS St. Paul have to battle a backwards and corrupt sheriff. And everybody seems to have a trailer for their work. (A couple of trailers are featured on the DVD.)

There’s a great sequence that follows the Sacramento Star Trek theme band movement. There’s the classic Trek band No Kill I (taking their name from the thoughts Spock reads from the Horta.) There’s also NKI: The Next Generation and NKI: Deep Space Nine. The best actual songmanship seems to come from Warp 11 – and I’ll admit that I am tempted to dip into the internet and see what songs of theirs are available for download. Then there’s the Klingon metal band Stovokor – they are simply awesome. Really, how could a Klingon metal band go wrong? We also are treated to a much better representation of the filking phenomenon than in the first movie. Here we actually get some quick excerpts from real filk artists, and their songs are haunting, silly, and catchy.

Really this movie is just more of the same from the first film. More interviews. More costumes. More fans. More people brought together by a shared love of Star Trek. If you end up watching this DVD be sure you look at the deleted scenes. Just select “play all” because there’s an entire extra movie worth of material to watch. We put it on because we like to watch special features and fifty-five minutes later we were still smiling and laughing along with the movie. As with our Star Trek extravaganza as a whole, we simply didn’t want this movie to end.

January 28, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 333 – Trekkies

Trekkies – January 27th, 2011

As of last night we watched all of our Star Trek feature films. All of them. Every single one. But our two Trek weeks aren’t over, since we’ve also got documentaries! We discovered this when I was in college and I’ve got to say, it struck a chord with me right away. It’s a documentary not just about the fans of the show(s) but also about the whole phenomenon of Trek fandom. It touches on lots of different aspects of fannish activity, from conventions to clubs to cosplay to collecting. It’s a big world out there and this documentary tries to at least give a wide sampling of what the fandom has to offer.

I am of mixed opinion on Denise Crosby, who was one of the producers and who acts as a sort of guide through the movie. I remember loving her character, Tasha Yar, when the Next Generation series started and I was crushed when she left the show. Later on when I learned she’d asked to be written out? I admit, I felt put off by her. And then she got written back in when she approached the producers later on. It just feels like she regrets leaving in the first place because of how big it’s gotten and desperately wants to be a part of it all. Then again, in her place, looking in on something like this? I’d want to make myself a part of it again too. Still, she spends much of the show looking shocked and bemused like she’s not quite sure she really wants to know how far some of this stuff goes.

Through the course of the movie we meet quite a few fans and many of the cast members of the various shows. There are interviews and conversations and the interviewees are often the ones narrating what’s being shown on the screen. There’s Barbara Adams, who’s known as Commander at her workplace in a printing shop and who wore her Starfleet uniform when she had jury duty during the Whitewater trial. There’s a dentist and his family who’ve turned their office into Starbase Dental, full of props and sci-fi decorations. They all wear costumes too, including a full Troi wig for the dentist’s wife and assistant. There’s the kid who dresses his cat up (the cat seemed to be totally cool with this so I’m not criticizing) and enters him in costume contests at cons. There’s the guy who builds Trek-based electronics gizmos. There are a huge variety of cosplayers who do everything from Klingons to Andorians to Orions. There are Borg and Vulcans and Bajorans and a number of Starfleet officers of various positions of canonical basis (or not). And then there is the fan we consider the star of the movie. Gabriel Koerner.

Let’s get this straight: We love Gabriel Koerner. I wasn’t just like him when I was a kid, but I was a fan and I was a socially awkward teen and I had friends like him. In this movie he is a 14 year old Trek fan who is invested and fascinated and thoroughly versed in his hobby of choice and man, I loved him from the moment I saw him. I was also fascinated to realize that in the photos they show of him as a kid, he looks a great deal like the kid they got to play young Spock in Star Trek. But yes, Koerner steals the show. He plays ambassador to the Trek fandom and he does a wonderful job. He’s a nice fan. He’s young and enthusiastic and bright and he seems well aware of what the fandom entails, unlike Crosby, who seems somewhat shocked at a couple of things she hears about.

There are certainly some TMI moments in this documentary. A couple of things people unfamiliar with fandom (any fandom) might be taken aback by. Slash fanfic, for one, though by now folks on the internet should be aware of it, if not familiar with it (at one point a dealer at a convention asks Koerner how he knows so much about the action figures they’re trading and Koerner explains ‘I’m on the internet.’ Bigger deal in 1997 than now). Cosplayers explain how it helps their personal lives, there’s some rather tasteful but certainly sexual fan art shown. To me, having spent a goodly portion of time online following various fandoms, it’s nothing terribly unusual or surprising. But it’s new to everyone at some point and for anyone who hasn’t dabbled in a fandom of some sort, it’s probably somewhat revelatory.

What this documentary does very well is show the fans in it in a very sympathetic and fond light. After all, one of the big themes of the documentary as a whole is how everyone is welcome in a world like the one in Star Trek and how for people who feel marginalised elsewhere, something like the Trek fandom is an enormously welcoming thing. There’s a group of women interviewed at one point who explain how strange it is to come to a convention and feel normal and go home after and realize they have to not act like themselves. The whole thing is saying that this is a safe place for people. A comfort zone, if you will. And I like that. I’m not a big con-goer, but I’ve been to a couple that felt like home. In particular, PLA (the Public Library Association), WorldCon (World Science Fiction Society) and PAX East (Penny Arcade Expo on the East Coast). Walking into those conventions felt like walking into the midst of the best party ever. One where the people all speak my language and get me. I can only imagine that’s what Trek cons are like. I can’t say for myself since I’ve only ever been to one and oh, it was the saddest convention in all the land. One room, with a ring of tables at one end and a tiny stage at the other end. We didn’t stay long but I wish I’d been old enough at the time to stick around, because even though it was tiny and all, I think I still would have enjoyed myself.

I remember quite clearly training my fingers into the Vulcan greeting when I was a kid, but while my parents are fans and called themselves Trekkies, it was always with a bit of a laugh to it. After all, we weren’t like those people who dressed up and went to conventions! But then, what’s the big difference when you know episodes by heart? A friend of mine, who will remain nameless, is a big Star Trek fan. A mutual friend introduced us by telling him “Hey, she’s a Star Trek fan too!” and he all but dove over a table (and if you’re reading this, my friend, don’t deny it). So we showed him this documentary and he protested a bit, claiming he wasn’t a Trekkie and no, no, he wasn’t like “those people” on the screen. And then we reached a bit with a guy who built himself a working version of Christopher Pike’s chair from the original series. And immediately he commented “That light’s in the wrong place!” Not a Trekkie indeed. Who cares, really? Gabriel Koerner says it best when he states that he calls himself a Star Trek fan and leaves the debate about Trekkie and Trekker to others.

Aside from Koerner, I think my favorite parts of the movie are some of the stories told by the cast members. They all seem so awed to be a part of something this big, and thrilled with some of the things that have come of it. James Doohan tells a story about a suicidal fan who came to see him at several conventions after writing him a letter telling him how she was feeling. Coming to see him helped her through a hard time and she eventually went and got an engineering degree. There are stories of fans seeing themselves represented by the diverse cast and being inspired. There are stories of fans seeing the possibilities for the future and doing things to make that future happen. There are so many stories. It’s fantastic. And yes, some of them are funny, like the fan who sent a ridged Klingon condom to the producers. And there are funny moments, like the Klingons going to get some fast food for lunch. But it’s all done with love, because the fans so clearly love the show. How could you really make fun of that? Especially when they state so clearly why it is that they love it. It’s because the show has such wonderful ideals and such a hopeful view of the future. It’s because it’s inspiring and, as Majel Barrett says, Star Trek is a 20th century mythology. That’s certainly worth some respect.

January 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 2 Comments

Trekkies

January 27, 2011

Trekkies

We have watched all of our Star Trek movies now, but we have other Trek related movies to watch. Like this documentary about fans of the various Star Trek franchises. I don’t recall how we discovered this movie – I think we must have had it at TLA Video and Amanda and I rented it and watched it because we liked the idea of a movie all about Trek fanatics. Instantly we fell in love with this movie. It pokes fun at the fans a little bit, but it’s kind-hearted good natured fun. It also has a number of rather touching stories as well, about how fandom actually helps people.

The movie purports to star Denise Crosby, but in fact it is responsible for the rise to fame of a young and enthusiastic fan names Gabriel Koerner. Denise does interview a number of the stars of Trek and some of the more frightening fans (she has a slightly bewildered look on her face a lot of the time,) but Gabriel’s unfettered joy as he shows off his collected toys, introduces us to his fan club, and invites us along to a convention is infectious. He shows off some impressive CGI work that he was putting together for an amateur movie his club is putting together. He takes us to the dealer tables as he trades some figures. He just seems like a fun guy to hang out with, not so different from myself as a youth.

I’m not a habitual con goer myself. Oh, I admit that this year I have planned my spring break around Pax East – the big video-game convention – but aside from Pax last year and one Worldcon sci-fi convention I’ve not been to any other conventions. But I can completely understand the appeal. Everybody wants to meet and talk to people who enjoy the things they enjoy. I really respect all the cosplayersthey interview here – people with some quite elaborate uniforms and costumes and make-up. That looks like a lot of fun.

This is a simple but well put together documentary. It is almost entirely interviews with Star Trek fans of varying degrees of intensity. There are also some anecdotes from cast and crew of the various shows, and some of those are truly moving. But it’s the regular fans I love. The woman who wore her starfleet uniform as a juror. The couple who run a Star Trek themed dentist’s office. The group of Klingons who do community service. And of course Gabe with his uniforms and his father’s shuttlecraft van and his Star Trek fan group. Of course the movie concentrates on the most colorful and blatant of fans that the film-makers could find, but they aren’t held up for ridicule – they’re treated simply as people passionate about something they believe offers a better vision of what life can be. Star Trek is depicted as a source of inspiration more than anything else.

I see this as a fun little film full of people that would be a lot of fun to be with. I may not go to Star Trek conventions myself, but these people are folks I respect. Amanda and I planned to cosplay at the last convention we attended but were never able to fit it into our busy lives. It takes dedication to live your life the way these fans do. It takes money. It takes time. These people are living a dream, and it’s a lot of fun to watch them doing it.

January 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 151 – Home (2009)

Home (2009) – July 29th, 2010

We do enjoy documentaries, and ones about nature and the Earth are always interesting. I don’t think we own nearly enough documentaries, personally, so that’s one of my goals for our collection (along with getting some good Bollywood – any suggestions?). I feel like this is an episode of NOVA crossed with Koyanisqaatsi. It’s beautiful, but then having seen the writer/director Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s photography in books, I fully expected to be mesmerized by the visuals.

So let me start with the positive. Visually, this documentary is amazing. The arial footage is spectacular. The natural world footage, with its amazing colors and fascinating shapes, is almost startling, and I say this as someone raised on nature documentaries. I knew Arthus-Bertrand’s work already, and I knew he would go for arresting shots. There are some beautiful views of the Grand Canyon, and some absolutely stunning shots of salt evaporate islands in the Dead Sea that almost look computer generated. There’s a lot of talk of minerals early on, and so we get some simply astoundingly colored shots with earth colored by sulfur and iron and a variety of others. It’s beautiful. It’s truly a visual masterpiece and even more so when juxtaposed with the shots of human habitations and industry, then shots of the effects the latter has on the former.

To be honest, I think I’d have enjoyed it more on mute, with the Koyanisquaatsi soundtrack playing. The narration is full of information and statistics and science, and that’s all well and good. It’s very informative and certainly puts the visuals in context. But I get the feeling it’s largely preaching to the choir. Who is watching a documentary like this who doesn’t at least know the basics of what’s being explained? Do we need to be told “everything is linked” several times over? I can think of children’s novels that do it more gracefully. I’m not saying there’s not a valuable message here, I’m just saying that I think the people likely to pick this up are people who already know and care. I don’t know how productive it is for the audience for a documentary to be guilt-tripped. Over and over and over, since the narration seems to say the same thing several times in only slightly different phrasing.

We know this stuff. It’s horribly depressing. It’s overwhelming. It’s a morass of anxiety and depression-inducing bad news. And I know it all. Not the numbers, but I know which way the wind is blowing. I try not to dwell on it or I wouldn’t get up in the mornings. Yes, I get it. We’re parasites (Americans in particular). Thank you. The last fifteen minutes is devoted to pointing out that yeah, okay, while we suck and all, we’re working on things. The phrase “It is too late to be a pessimist” is repeated several times, trying to convince me that it hasn’t just spent almost two hours spouting some horribly pessimistic stuff. It’s not enough. It should have been worked into the rest of the movie, with each depressing segment buffered by information about what’s being done and what can be done in the future, but it wasn’t.

I wish there was an alternative soundtrack that gave the information without the guilt. That being said, it is a beautiful movie, as evidenced by the amazing end credits, which go through some fascinating images from all of the locations that were used in the filming, labeling each with the location the shots were taken in. It’s almost worth watching for the end credits alone. It’s really all far more effective to let the images speak for themselves.

July 29, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | 2 Comments

Home (2009)

July 29, 2010

Home

It’s Wil Wheaton’s birthday today, and NASA’s birthday, so we wracked our brains and searched our collection for something cool and space-themed. What we came up with was this: an introspective and mesmerizing documentary about the planet we find ourselves inhabiting. I hadn’t watched it yet, so I wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but judging from the cover I took it to be a film in the vein of the Planet Earth documentary by the Discovery Channel. But it’s not quite that.

What it is is, in a word, preachy. Sanctimonious. I think it’s intended to be a wake-up call, but the narration is an almost monotonous laundry list of the ails of the world as brought upon the planet by man. We’re inundated with statistics like “One in ten natural rivers now no longer reach the sea in the dry months.” “Since nineteen-fifty the population of the Earth has tripled.” The repeating refrain drums into our heads the headlong acceleration of human expansion. “Faster and faster.” And my problem is not that I disagree with the central thesis of the film – that the current expansion of the human race is unsustainable – but that the way the message is ceaselessly drummed home is so self righteous and irritating.

I have to wonder what audience this narration was intended for. If to my ears, those of somebody who largely agrees with the bleak message being conveyed, this writing seems overbearing and irritating, then how must it sound to anybody who disagrees with the message? It would be simply unbearable. They’d turn the movie off in the first five minutes. So this self-righteous ranting must be aimed at other people like myself with environmental leanings. So the movie is unlikely to have any real impact, since the people likely to be able to bear to watch the whole thing are already making efforts to live in a more sustainable manner.

Luckily, the film is not irredeemably unwatchable. This is because it is filled with a never-ending sequence of jaw-dropping images captured by writer/director Yann Arthus-Bertrand. There’s also a great orchestral score. For much of the movie I simply wanted to turn the narration off and take in the amazing visuals. These are, for the most part, great wide areal tracking shots. Both of unbelievable natural beauty and of human excess and destruction. In one way it does live up to my expectations before I put it in: it shows a vast variety of different locations throughout the entire world. Every continent is represented and many, many countries. I could just get lost in these pictures.

So I don’t feel like I completely wasted the last two hours, even if I did have Glenn Close preaching on and on at me about how we’re destroying the only home we have and everything’s going completely down the crapper. At least it was accompanied by an amazing array of pretty pictures.

July 29, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 125 – Woodstock (Director’s Cut)

Woodstock – Director’s Cut – July 3rd, 2010

Our movie starts with an interview with an older man who lives nearby, talking about the festival. He says “It was too big for the world!” How true. We don’t start with the musicians, or even the music. We don’t see anyone who might have attended the festival in the first interview. We get there slowly, seeing the farmland surrounding the festival location first, and the building of the fences. A few people here, a few people there. Long hair and long whiskers. The stage half-finished while Crosby, Stills and Nash sing Long Time Coming. Watching it as we are, from the present, looking into the past with scenes of people preparing, we know what they don’t. We know what the man in the first interview knows. This was big. Bigger than big. Event of a lifetime big. Not my lifetime, of course. It’s a little under a decade before my time. The closest I can get to this time period is the music and movies like this.

I grew up listening to what is now termed “classic rock” on vinyl. My parents have a fantastic record collection and among their albums are a lot of the bands that appeared at Woodstock. Crosby, Stills and Nash, Canned Heat, Jefferson Airplane and Santana, to name a few. I’ll be honest, much as I enjoy Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, and love their segments in this, my very favorite part is the one number from Santana, followed closely by Sly and the Family Stone. Maybe it’s because I have a from-birth fondness of Santana (my mother sang one of their songs to me the first time she held me). Maybe it’s seeing Carlos Santana so young and so brilliant even then. I don’t know, but him and Sly and the Family Stone will make me dance in my seat (or out of it) every time.

But then there’s also The Who, whom I love and not just because Daltrey was in the Highlander series. He’s got this fantastic fringed shirt during his performance at Woodstock that immediately reminds me of Judas at the end of Jesus Christ Superstar. There’s Joe Cocker singing With a Little Help From my Friends, which is one of my favorite versions of this song ever. It’s frenetic and sort of desperate and pleading and beautiful. Really, that frenetic quality is present for a lot of musicians in the film. They let the music carry them along. Even the bands that seem calmer on the surface sometimes have some wild drums in the back, or a guitarist who’s really into the whole mood. It’s not just wild, it’s exultant.

The music is fantastic, but what makes this a documentary instead of simply a concert, and what made Woodstock a cultural phenomenon instead of simply a festival is everything that happened off the stage. Interviews were conducted throughout the course of the festival, both with the townspeople in the area and with the attendees. There’s plenty of footage not just of the stage but of everything else. We see the cars and the crowds. We see people milling and policemen directing traffic. We see people bathing in the streams. We get interviews with volunteers and attendees. And as the movie progresses, things get more crowded and confused, but also more exciting. The announcements being made get a little weirder and start mentioning things about the size of the crowd. It gets clear just how massive it all is.

We watch as a thunder storm sweeps through and everyone hunkers down under tarps and blankets and umbrellas and tents and plays in the mud and sings together while they wait for the rain to end. The Army sends some doctors in to help with medical needs. A young woman at an information booth talks about how she’s lost her sister in the crowd. The sister has to be in court the next morning and the young woman has her tickets home. She seems a little annoyed, but not panicked or truly upset. She’s resigned and hey, if you had to be stuck why not there? Some townspeople talk about it being a mess while other ones talk about donating food. A group of festival-goers go skinny dipping and clean up. We meet the guy cleaning the public toilets and find out one of his two sons is at the festival while the other is in Vietnam.

Given, with 500,000 people in attendance, it was going to be messy. There are certainly detractors in among the townspeople, and a few representational instances of the problems inherent in such a large crowd with inadequate supplies and no easy way out. A woman breaks down crying as she’s overwhelmed by the press of people around her. A man in town talks about the whole thing being a disgrace. Then again, the local chief of police says how upstanding all the kids are and how America should be proud of them. But the overall mood of the film, the picture it gives of the music and the people there and the three days and everything that happened there is one of hope and peace and a vision of how people can get along even in large numbers. Contrast this with the later Woodstock concerts and the mass chaos that erupted at them. Anecdotal stories from college friends involved fires and mobs fighting. Not the same sort of thing, you know?

I know someone who was there. He’s a patron at my library. He says he knows he was there but doesn’t remember any of it. My parents weren’t there. I seem to recall my mother telling me they’d gone to some other event somewhere nearby and missed it entirely. It wasn’t really their scene, even if they did love the music. Still, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like to have that experience instead of just a documentary, albeit as wonderful a documentary as this one is. Would I have been at the pond, skinny dipping? Would I have stuck it through the rain in the mud? Or would I have panicked, confronted by huge crowds and no way home? I think it’s even odds on either direction, though I’m quite certain I’d have abstained from any drugs then (not just the brown acid) like I do now. It’s a moot point, really. This was a unique moment in time. My generation and the ones after mine just aren’t in the same mindset as the Woodstock generation(s). It is, like so many other things that make me cry, a thing whose time has passed. I can get a tantalizing taste of it through this film and the soundtrack albums and maybe some day the gigantic collector’s edition that’s got even more performance footage, and that will have to be enough.

July 3, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment