Thursday, December 14, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 52: Star Trek...from Galoob

When you think of Star Trek toys and toy companies, two names leap immediately to mind: Mego and Playmates. The first company held the license for Trek toys in the 1970s (including and up to Star Trek: The Motion Picture), and the latter created toys from the era of Star Trek: The Next Generation all the way up through Voyager.

Although AMT/ERTL briefly produced a small line of Star Trek action figures for the release of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, there is one another company that deserves serious kudos from fans for manufacturing some high quality and fascinating Star Trek toys.

Of course, that company is Galoob, which from 1987 through 1990 -- the opening years of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the epoch of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier -- held the license to produce toys based on this popular space opera.

I remember the happy days of 1988, when I graduated high school, was a freshman at University of Richmond, and was deeply, deeply into The Next Generation. Although I was way too old to play with action figures (yeah, right!), I remember when Galoob released the first set of action figures, and ordering them through some mail order company in Florida. It seemed to take the action figures forever to come, but when they arrived...I was a happy camper.

In the release I purchased, there were six crewmembers, all from the Enterprise-D (and Next Gen). Each was molded with an original brand phaser in the left hand. This is neat in part because this "dust-buster" brand phaser (seen in
the first season only of The Next Generation, and featured heavily in episodes such as "The Arsenal of Freedom,") was replaced quickly in the franchise with more deadly, less bulbous designs. Each figure also came with a shoulder-strapped tricorder. The figures were: Captain Picard, Commander Riker, Lt. Data, Lt. Tasha Yar, Lt. Worf and Lt. Geordi La Forge. Again, this bunch is kind of interesting for a few reasons. One: this is a first season Riker, meaning he is sans beard (Playmates never made a Riker figure without a beard, except the large-scale Star Trek: Insurrection 9-incher). Secondly, both Worf and Geordi are donning red uniforms, rather than the yellow uniforms they wore from the second season on (when they were promoted to Security and Engineering, respectively). And, of course, Tasha Yar died after the first season episode "Skin of Evil." So virtually all these action figures have some interesting and collectible component. The Lt. Data of this line, for instance, is notorious, because some figures were released with blue rather than yellow skin.

Galoob didn't stop with this release. More rare (I never had 'em...) and more valuable was the line of alien figures from the Next Generation. These were: Q in his "Judge" robes (from "Encounter at Farpoint"), a Ferengi soldier (with laser whip!) from "The Last Outpost," and two aliens who - let's face it - aren't particularly memorable in the annals of Star Trek history, the Antican and Selay from the sixth episode, "Lonely Among Us." The truly holy grail of the Galoob figure line from this epoch is the almost-never-seen Romulan and Wesley Crusher figures. Anyone got one they want to give me?

At the same time that Galoob released these figures, the company also released two very cool spacecraft for the crews to inhabit. One is the shuttlecraft Galileo (which my then girlfriend, Kathryn, bought for me...), and the other is a Ferengi fighter. Now, the shuttlecraft Galileo is - again - based on a first season design (seen in such episodes as "Coming of Age"), and the design changed radically over the seasons. The Ferengi fighter features qualities of the Ferengi cruiser seen in first season eps "The Last Outpost" and "The Battle," but is not actually a vessel seen in the series at all.

Galoob also released a hand phaser with a
flashlight component, and a toy that I think is beautifully crafted: a die-cast metal U.S.S. Enterprise with a separating saucer section. Does anyone remember the inaugural year of The Next Generation, and how all the genre press was abuzz about how this Enterprise had two bridges and could separate in battle (so the families would escape unharmed?)? Well, this toy remembered that feature, even if series' writers did not. The Enterprise separated exactly twice in seven years, if I'm correct, in the aforementioned "Encounter at Farpoint" and "The Arsenal of Freedom." The next time the vessel separated was, I believe, in Generations (1994). Frankly, it was an unwieldy plot device anyway. [NOTE: My pal, Chris Johnson, reminds me the Enterprise also separated fighting the Borg in "Best of Both Worlds. - JKM]. The maneuver basically required Picard to warp away in the middle of a fight, ditch the saucer section, and then warp back into action. De-cloaking Klingon Bird of Preys don't usually leave time for such details...

In 1989, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier premiered, and Galoob released a series of taller, nicely detailed action figures of the movie cast. They were poseable figures, but much more like collectors' items than toys a kid would actually play with. These limited edition figures included Kirk, Spock and Bones in their "commando" fatigues (for the raid on Nimbus III...), and villains Sybok (in Vulcan robes) and Captain Klaa. Although not often mentioned, I believe these figures are actually quite nice. They resemble the actors well, and make lovely displays. I have three of 'em; Kirk, Spock and Sybok.

Later on, Galoob released a number of "micro-machine" sets -- small Star Trek spaceships (from all series), but by then the action had moved mostly to Playmates and their highly-detailed, extensive Star Trek toys.

Still, I remember well the years between 1987 - 1990, getting acquainted with The Next Generation for the first time, and eagerly awaiting Trek V in theaters. Galoob's toys always bring back nostalgia for that time.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Mercy in Her Eyes in the Indian Press

My monograph on independent filmmaker Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair, The Namesake...) Mercy in Her Eyes: The Films of Mira Nair, has just hit bookstores and the press in India!

Here are some of the highlights so far. From The Hindu (India's national newspaper) is a piece by S. Theodore Baskaran entitled
"Cultural Crossover Oeuvre." It reads in part:

Muir, who has examined the films of Sam Raimi in an earlier work, looks at Nair's films in this book. He sees Nair's films in the backdrop of globalisation. Observing her unique style and her concerns, Muir identifies her as an auteur, fitting in with this French theory of film study. Nair's major concern that gets reflected in her films is one of identity. Her characters face the questions: What makes me who I am? What makes me unique? She turns her lens on exiles, expatriates, outsiders, and `nowhere' people. Muir concludes that her "films reflect and represent her own personal experiences, political and social views, and even general perceptions of life itself. Nair's films so often represent love letters to the India she knows and adores, an India that globalisation could imperil, or at the very least, substantially alter. This is why she is truly a local filmmaker, but one whose audience is global." He points out that Nair is able to capture not merely the place and a time but a texture and a feeling. This is exemplified by many sequences in `Missisipi Masala'.

The author of this book, Muir, has not only analysed her films but have spoken with those who worked in her films, such as Dr. Abraham Varghese, author of `My Own Country', actor Naveen Andrews and Delhi-based theatre person, Barry John, an early and lasting influence on Mira Nair.

Muir, an independent film scholar, explains film studies concepts in a language that is reader-friendly and engaging. Though one misses a complete filmography of Mira Nair, there is an insightful appendix, which provides a point-by-point textual analysis of her feature films. It provides a model for film analysis. An elaborate bibliography and an exhaustive index increase the utility of this work. This delightful book is bound to stimulate interest in film studies in India."

At The Financial Express, Editor Sudipta Datta (a delightful journalist whom I had the opportunity to correspond with...), writes in her article "Local stories, Universal resonance" that "John Kenneth Muir has drawn an engaging portrait of Mira Nair as seen through her films."
She goes on to write:

"What emerges is an interesting portrait of an artist, who has “focused dramatically on the subjects of national and personal identity, and more importantly, the quandary of characters who have departed their home only to find that in their new lives, they are traversing uncharted waters…” It’s about an artist who has succeeded in the global market by “remaining committed to her art even in the face of temptations that other directors might find irresistible (she famously refused to direct a Harry Potter film).” At least in four of her films, she has had to struggle to get finances.

Muir also peppers the book with lively anecdotes. For instance, Raghubir Yadav recalls the challenging day he had while Nair shot the funeral scene. “It was shot like a real funeral, where my corpse – played by myself – was tied on the bier for the whole day… I had to play dead with the poor children cursing me all the time due to my weight.” Also, Muir shows us how she puts the Satyajit Ray principle to work in most of her films – even when bad, life is good – and to look around with mercy in one’s eyes. So, a Mira Nair film touches you, more than anything else. It also “pulses with life, colour, symbolism, and meaning.”

I also did an interview for Ms. Datta, which you can also find at The Financial Express. It's entitled ‘Nair crafts stories of global appeal.'

Here's an excerpt:

Mira Nair’s films are universally appealing for two reasons, primarily. First and foremost, she boasts an eye for beauty and film composition (mise-en-scene) that cannot be discounted. I believe this quality arises from her love of photography and understanding of “the frame”, among other things. Regardless, her films always appear ravishing. Nair’s eye for capturing life in all its richness and colours and movement is vitally important because the visual — the eye — transcends the barriers of language and culture. Secondly, Nair understands that by telling “local” stories; stories of her India, those personal tales will resonate with audiences around the world. Humanity is what we all share in common, regardless of home or national identity. By focusing on the personal and human, Nair crafts stories of global appeal.

MOVIE REVIEW: Mission: Impossible 3 (2006)

Yeah, I'm catching up on my summer movies. Slowly. I had X3 in my Netflix queue and then this second sequel, starring Tom Cruise and directed by J.J. Abrams.

Disclaimer: in general, I've had problems with the Mission:Impossible franchise. Why? Well, in essence it's a movie empire built on one image: that of a man flying towards the screen while a fire ball explodes behind him. That's not much to base a movie upon, let alone three. (And yeah, the image is repeated in MI:3, with Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt catapulted towards the camera while a missile blows up a truck behind him, on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge).

Now, once upon a time, Mission:Impossible was a television series. Created by Bruce Geller, it concerned a team of covert espionage agents who rarely used guns in their dedicated efforts to preserve national security. Instead, they achieved their aims in detailed, cleverly-conceived "cons," using agent expertise in psychology, acting (!), and the latest secret technology (including masks, etc.)

But, somewhere along the twisted road to the silver screen, the concept mutated, and Mission:Impossible became all about the glorification of one extraordinary man, Tom Cruise's agent, Ethan Hunt. The films didn't really feature teams (or psychology at all...), but rather expensive stunts. They became, in a word, American James Bond films, with Cruise fulfilling that role.

Oh man. Why do I even bother? Why do I keep complaining about re-imaginings like the Mission:Impossible franchise? Don't I get tired of it? Well, yeah I do. But I do it because I see an American populace settling for increasingly dumb entertainment, even in a smart genre like science fiction. We're so cowed and stupid, apparently, that we accept (and love!) the idea that people in another galaxy will share our fashion sense and slang (in the new Battlestar Galactica), and we'll accept blaring guns and fireballs instead of carefully-constructed plots and a team of agents in the Mission:Impossible movies. But, to quote Dirk Diggler, I'll keep trying if you keep trying. I'll keep complaining about dumbed-down re-imaginations no matter how tiresome I sound, cuz someone's gotta do it. Hey, I have a son now, and I want Joel to grow up in a world where the movies are smart; where the television captures his imagination.

When I was a kid, I was often glued to the tube watching Mission:Impossible. The series was short on spectacular action and dialogue, but brilliantly conceived in every way imaginable. Not every aspect of the story was directly explained, and the viewer had to put all the pieces of the "con" puzzle together for himself. The information wasn't spoon fed to the audience. This was especially rewarding at the end of each episode, when the bad guy would be hung out to dry (by his own petard...), and the IMF team - anonymous and secret - would simply drive away from the scene unnoticed in a non-descript van. How cool is that? They left no footprints. They just did their job, invisibly - and with no couch jumping - and moved on.

Somehow, I can't imagine Tom Cruise's character doing that. Because these movies are ALL ABOUT HIM.

But to be fair to Mission:Impossible 3, it does boast a more complex template than just exploding fireballs. And that template is...Alias. Yep, J.J. Abrams' canceled espionage series, formerly airing on ABC. For instance, Mission:Impossible 3 cow-tows to Alias's peculiar fetish for brutal interrogation and torture sequences with not one but two (count 'em!) such scenes. It also utilizes familiar locations (like Berlin and Shanghai) from the series, and most derivatively of all, adopts the Alias theme of an agent balancing his home life with his "business life." Why, the movie even opens with the common Alias conceit of opening an episode in media res, and then backtracking to explain how the main character got into the dangerous predicament.

So really, why didn't Abrams just make an Alias movie? I sort of prefer Jennifer Garner's character, anyway. But I shouldn't complain too much, because as derivative of Alias as MI:3 is, at least there's more going on than big explosions (see MI:2). Also, of all the Mission:Impossible films, this is the only production that actually features a team (meaning more than two guys...) pulling a con. To wit, there's a splendidly paced, shot and orchestrated sequence in the Vatican. For fifteen minutes, while this scene unfolds, the movie feels like a Mission:Impossible episode. And...I loved it. Whoo-hoo.

Otherwise, the movie is a bizarre series of dead ends. A Q-type agent at the IMF rattles on at length about a rogue molecule, a deadly technology called "the Anti-God." It plays absolutely no role in the film. At least no direct one. Then there's the McGuffin of the film, "the Rabbit's foot," which Ethan must recover. Maybe it's the Anti-God molecule, but the screenplay declines to share any information. That's right, you go two hours and six minutes and don't even find out what the rabbit's foot is. I'm all for ambiguous mysteries, but this just isn't playing fair. How would viewers have liked it if in Star Wars, Darth Vader talked the whole movie about the stolen Death Star plans, but no one ever told the audience what the Death Star was?

Here's the difference between TV show and this movie. On the TV program, the characters didn't stop to explain what they were doing, but we understood what the mission was and there was a "light bulb" moment as the mission came together in the finale. In this movie, Tom Cruise goes after an object that is vital...but we never know what it is, why it's important, what it means, or what it could do. He accomplishes the mission...but it means...nothing. See the difference?

I think someone was trying too hard to be clever here...

Like X3: The Last Stand, I can write with authority that the film is fast-paced and the explosions are impressive. But, really, there's nothing else happening. Also, I must note that Lalo Schifrin's Mission:Impossible theme song is so good, so riveting, so goose-pimple inducing that J.J. Abrams could have filmed Tom Cruise walking his dog, added the music, and the movie would have still felt exciting and vibrant.

The theme song, I hasten to add, was composed forty years ago.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW: X3: The Last Stand (2006)

Well, it doesn't suck too hard. In fact, it's sorta okay. In a safe, predictable and middling kind of way.

That may be the bottom line concerning X-Men 3: The Last Stand, one of the blockbusters of the summer of 2006. To the good, the third movie in the X-Men franchise moves assuredly from special-effects set-piece to special effects set-piece like a well-oiled machine. And the crux of the story - an injection that "cures" mutants - is a solid, interesting hook on which to hang a tale.

And yet, a crucial element of heart seems to be missing on this go-round. The film's story is an outline in search of a plot, despite the potential of that narrative hook. Worse, the familiar characters march lock-step through their paces on automatic pilot; as if nobody behind-the-scenes thought to provide actual motivation for anything they say or do. The actors all seem bored and disengaged. They showed up, and that's a plus, I guess.

Now, I'm not going to bash Brett Ratner, the director. That's too easy and too common. On the contrary, he manages to stage and shoot the set-pieces with aplomb. If we're being honest here, he manages this aspect of the production far better than Bryan Singer handled the Statue of Liberty battle in the original X-Men back in 2000 (a melange of confusing perspectives and close-ups that lacked scope). Nope, Ratner may have been but a hired hand on this project, but he does a competent job with what he's been given in terms of script. The fault isn't his.

The fault is in the script...which is a turd. The story involves the mutant community's reaction to the "cure" which will transform them all into humans. At the same time, the script resurrects Jane Grey as Dark Phoenix, a force of pure evil. How did she manage to survive the crisis at the end of X2? "Her powers wrapped her in a cocoon of telekinetic energy," Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) helpfully explains. Oh. And if you believe that, I have a bridge in San Francisco I want to sell you...

Anyway, as goofy as that one sentence explanation is, I accept it. For purposes of the story we need our evil Phoenix in action, so...whatever. Dramatic license and all. What I can't and don't accept is the slapdash way the film abruptly and immediately kills off Cyclops. Can someone explain to me why Dark Phoenix kills Cyclops but not Logan? (Hint: Jackman's a bigger star.) How does she kill Cyclops? Why don't we ever see it? Why has it been relegated to an off-screen moment? Why does she take a near-roll-in-the-hay with Logan but not Scott, before killing him? Why murder a franchise character in such a half-assed, unfocused way? A way in which, I might add, he contributes nothing to the plot? Cyclops has a cameo in this movie, and that's about it.

Secondly, why does Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) not even think about what might have happened to Scott until AFTER he frees Jane Grey from mental restraint in the lab. Is he that stupid? It suddenly occurs to Wolverine - after Phoenix is up and about and acting nutsy - that she might have had something to do with Scott's disappearance. Not the brightest bulb, this Wolverine, I guess. On the other hand, at least he actually thought of Cyclops. The script provides not a word of sorrow, confusion or worry over Scott's fate from Storm, Rogue or Professor Xavier. Aren't these guys supposed to be a team? What's with all the Cyclops non-love?

One story-point and its resolution illuminates best the problems with the film's script. Rogue, the mutant who absorbs the powers of any mutant she touches, struggles with the idea of the cure. Should she take it or not? What would she give up if she did so? What would she gain? Of all the mutants, Rogue certainly has the most dramatic reason for wanting the cure. After all, her powers physically separate her from those she loves. This should be a focal point of the script. But the plot point is resolved in a short scene, again in by-the-numbers fashion. With little build-up, she reveals to Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) that she took the cure. Oh, okay. So it was more important to Rogue to have physical intimacy...I get that. I believe it.

But hah! Then, in the deleted scenes, you'll see the exact same scene, only this time with the opposite resolution. Rogue has decided not to get the cure; to retain her powers, in this version. It's the same scene, except for her choice. In other words, the writers never sat down, got into Rogue's head and attempted to figure out exactly what it is that this character would want or desire. Nope. It was just a flip of the coin, apparently. That stinks if you're writing a movie and you understand the characters so little that you don't know where they'd stand on the plot's main point.

So the morality of the cure is not even examined here. Was Rogue wrong to want it? To get it? To give up her powers? Would she have been wrong not to have taken the mutant antibody? X3: The Last Stand has no idea. Why? There's cars to flip over and bridges to destroy!!!

Finally, why do Storm, Wolverine, Kitty, Iceman, and the other X-Men defend the humans from Magneto and his Brotherhood, when it's fairly obvious that the American government is indeed launching a genocide against Mutants? I mean, the U.S. President has authorized the use of the anti-mutant drug as a weapon. It can be fired from guns like bullets, for heaven's sake. Is that not evidence that his Administration has it out for mutants? But because the X-Men are the good guys (a priori...), they defend the human race.

Well, I'll tell you something, sometimes the human race ain't worth defending. Sometimes, we do stupid ass shit and need a smackdown. Why don't the X-Men fight Magneto AND disarm the human troops carrying the mutant "cure?" I'm reminded, of some reason, for Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which didn't play favorites in terms of species...even though the audience was exclusively homo sapien. In that film, humans enslaved apes and treated the simians terribly...monstrously. The audience was rooting for the apes to win their bloody insurrection, because mankind had proven totally unworthy of being the "master" race. X3 seems to believe that the audience will be on mankind's side no matter what...even though mankind has broken faith by turning the "voluntary" cure into a pogram of eradication.

Again, it's as though the writers just didn't ever stop to think about what any of the characters in this story would legitimately feel. For that matter, what's up with the U.S. President? He's got a mutant ensconced in his administration and seems reasonable. So then why does he go from making the cure voluntary to weaponizing it? Again, the script provides not a single line of dialogue that explains his motivations.

In The X-Men universe, "mutantcy" is an allegory for homosexuality in our world. Can gays be cured? Would they want to be cured if they could? This is not an issue that's settled or obscure today. So why doesn't this film take a "stand" (or last stand...) on the matter? Why doesn't it have characters on either side of the debate passionately argue their point? Again, I suspect because there's wire-work to do, and things to smash ("I'm the juggernaut, bitch!") But an opportunity has been missed. Imagine how much more powerful it would have been if The X-Men themselves (forget Magneto...) were divided on the issue of a cure.

Again, another movie franchise, Star Trek, handled this sort of idea well. The Undiscovered Country was all about racism...even the "invisible" racism of the Enterprise crew. "Let them die," Kirk said of the Klingons. "They don't place the same value on life as we do," Scotty told Spock about the Klingons. These were horrible comments revealing that the characters we love were indeed flawed and human (we're all that way..., come on!) However, in the course of the film, Scotty, Chekov ("Guess who's coming to dinner?") and Kirk
were confronted with their own racism and were able to rise above it. That's what makes them heroes! Yet in X3, the X-Men are all golden goodies, and the folks in the Brotherhood are all black hats. There's no nuance or shades of gray, and thus the issue at the core of the film is not explored in any significant way. Characters like Storm and Wolverine don't learn anything in the course of the movie. Not about the cure and not about themselves. They thought one way at the beginning of the adventure and they feel the exact same way at the end of the story. Kinda boring. And deeply, deeply disappointing, since The X-Men comic-book has always been about a disenfranchised minority fighting for freedom in a society that doesn't understand it.

X3 is a competently-made film, and the twin mutant smackdowns (one at Grey's house; the other at Alcatraz) get the adrenaline pumping. But there's something terribly by-the-numbers about this sequel. It's not so much that it feels rushed, just that it feels...empty. Again, like an outline in search of a movie. If you turn off your brain, it's entertaining enough, I suppose. It's not embarrassingly bad. Just...vacant.

On the scale of superhero sequels, this not the worst (Superman III, Batman and Robin, RoboCop 3), but it is nowhere near the top tier either (Superman II, Spider-Man 2). It's actually not even a Blade 2. Instead, it's down in the middle of the pack somewhere...a kind of sorry ranking for a "last stand."