This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Agony Booth review: Trekkies vs. The People vs. George Lucas

This article looks at documentaries that focus on the followings to science fiction's two biggest franchises.

It goes without saying that Star Trek and Star Wars are the two biggest science fiction franchises ever. Even non-science fiction fans can recognize elements from either franchise, such as “beaming” or “the Force”. So it’s not surprising that numerous books and essays have cropped up over the decades which attempt to explain why these two franchises have such passionate followings.

Trekkies (1997)

While there are several books about the topic, perhaps the first such documentary on Star Trek fandom was the 1997 film Trekkies. This film was produced and hosted by Denise Crosby, who played Tasha Yar on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The film largely consists of Trek fans from all walks of life discussing their love for the franchise. We see fans dressed as Klingons ordering food at restaurants. The cashier even tells Crosby that he often serves Klingons. Other fans discuss the technology seen in the Trek shows and how it may not be too far from reality. One such fan even attempts to build a chair similar to the one the crippled Captain Pike occupies in the original Star Trek two-parter “The Menagerie”.

It also has appearances from several of the actors and actresses from the various Trek shows, save Enterprise (the debut of which was still four years away). The actors relate stories of their encounters with Trekkies. For instance, Kate Mulgrew, who played Captain Janeway on Voyager, states that people have come to her asking her to marry them.

Yes, the film also addresses the famous “Kirk vs. Picard” debate. Chase Masterson, who played Leeta on Deep Space Nine, chimes in to say that both Kirk and Janeway are studs.

There’s one touching moment where James Doohan, who played Scotty on the original series, talks about a female fan who wrote to him expressing her suicidal thoughts. But he asked her to come to upcoming conventions where he would make appearances. She did so, and some years later, she contacted Doohan again thanking him for his support and gave him the news that she was getting her master’s degree.

One famous Trekkie the film looks at is Barbara Adams, the woman who famously dressed in Starfleet garb during her time as a grand juror in the Whitewater investigation. Adams was later dismissed from the jury, not for her attire, but for disobeying the judge’s order to not give interviews.

Crosby herself takes time to address her own thoughts on the franchise. At one point, she produces fan-made drawings of various Trek characters, including Yar and her half-Romulan daughter Sela (also played by Crosby). Of all the TV actors who have quit their shows, Crosby is the only one I know of who managed to get her best roles on her show after her character was killed off. Crosby even addresses this wonderful irony in the film.

A life-long Trekkie herself, Crosby suggested the idea of the film to director Roger Nygard, who had just directed her in the 1991 TV movie High Strung. He agreed, and filming began at a convention at a Hilton in Los Angeles that was organized by William Campbell, who played Trelane in the original show’s “The Squire of Gothos” and Koloth in “The Trouble With Tribbles” and Deep Space Nine‘s “Blood Oath”.

Trekkies received positive reviews and even spawned a sequel, Trekkies 2, which was released in 2004. The sequel mainly looks at Trek fans outside the United States and even profiles fans from the first film, including Adams. Trekkies itself was given a theatrical release in May 1999. Ironically, the film was released the same weekend as Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. And speaking of which…

The People vs. George Lucas (2010)

Like Trekkies, this film looks at Star Wars fans and their extreme devotion to the franchise. There’s no specific host in the film, but there are discussions with numerous people linked with the films, including Gary Kurtz, who produced the original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, as well as David Prowse, who wore the awesome Darth Vader suit in the original trilogy.

This film also goes into great depth about Star Wars creator George Lucas. Specifically, it goes into how he first inspired the love of millions of people before many of those people became disenchanted with him decades later because of his decisions in how to handle the franchise.

Indeed, a great deal of this documentary centers on how Star Wars is a creation of Lucas’s, but—some argue—also a pop culture juggernaut that belongs to the world.

The film even takes a brief look at Lucas’s other cash cow, the Indiana Jones series. Specifically, it goes into how fans became just as dissatisfied with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and its “nuke the fridge” scene as they had been with the Star Wars prequels (yes, there is a clip of that insufferable South Park episode to drive the point home even more). At one point, film critic Rafik Djoumi talks about how fan dissatisfaction with that film was directed even more at Lucas than its actual director, Steven Spielberg.

Another factor adding fuel to that fire is Lucas’s refusal to allow the original cuts of the first three Star Wars films to be released on Blu-ray. We see fans reacting to his insistence that the revised versions are the only ones in existence by reproducing the original versions on their own.

But the film’s director, Star Wars fan Alexandre Philippe, insisted that the movie isn’t meant to be an anti-Lucas diatribe (although one gets that impression from the title). To his credit, the film does showcase fans who actually love the prequels and even Jar Jar Binks. Philippe also goes into a fair amount of detail about how Lucas began his filmmaking career with his unique works THX-1138 and American Graffiti, and how those two films culminated into the great achievement that was the original Star Wars.

One of the fans interviewed is Jason Nicholl, creator of the blog The film is dedicated to him, as he died prior to its release. A sequel is reportedly in the works, and will focus on the franchise since Lucas sold it to Disney in 2012.

Both Trekkies and The People vs. George Lucas are definitely worth a look for fans of these franchises. They both take a nice hard look at how people can be taken with something to the point of obsession. However, one could say that each film was made for different reasons. Trekkies was meant simply as a look at Trek fans, while The People vs. George Lucas was made because of how the fans’ relationship with the creator of their franchise has changed over the decades.

It must be noted that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry received some criticism from fans, specifically for how he insisted the Star Trek animated series that ran from 1973-1974 be ignored (and it’s still only occasionally mentioned in the annals of Trek lore), as well as the direction he took both Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the first season of The Next Generation. However, Trekkies doesn’t throw much actual criticism in Roddenberry’s direction as People does with Lucas. Perhaps this is because Roddenberry died in 1991, and some say that TNG truly took flight after that (not to mention the debut of all the subsequent Trek shows).

Since these two films were released, their respective franchises have gone in somewhat different directions. The fifth Trek series Enterprise debuted in 2001 but plummeting ratings kept it from enjoying the same seven-season run as its three predecessors, and it was canceled in 2005. At the same time, the 2002 film Star Trek: Nemesis deservedly flopped, thus bringing the big screen adventures of Picard and his crew to an end.

Seven years after that, Trek got the same reboot treatment as Batman and James Bond. The 2009 Star Trek had the original crew now played by different actors. That film was successful enough to get two sequels, Star Trek Into Darkness and Star Trek Beyond. But the passing of Anton Yelchin, who played Chekov in the reboot series, has left future reboot entries in doubt.

But a new Trek TV series Star Trek: Discovery is set to air on CBS in November. It was co-created by Alex Kurtzman, who co-wrote the first two entries in the Trek reboot series. Like Enterprise, this show takes place before the original Trek series. Here’s hoping that’s all it has in common with Enterprise.

As for Star Wars, Disney has given us a mixed bag so far. While The Force Awakens had more appealing main characters than the prequels, that didn’t change the fact that the film itself just repeated things we saw in the original film while simultaneously going the Alien 3 route of pissing all over the feeling of satisfaction the original movies left us with.

Rogue One, on the other hand, proved overall a better Star Wars prequel than the prequel trilogy. It was also a treat to see the late, great Peter Cushing (well, as close as we could get to him anyway) on the big screen again.

But Carrie Fisher’s passing soon after that film’s release has left a feeling of uncertainty about where to take the franchise next. Her scenes for the upcoming The Last Jedi were reportedly already shot before her death. But time will tell how the following entry in the sequel trilogy will go without her.

Time will also tell if Discovery or any of the many Star Wars films Disney doubtlessly has on the drawing board will do their respective franchises justice. I don’t doubt that Disney will keep squeezing cash out of Star Wars like it has with Marvel. But even if any future films are not embraced as classics, and even if Discovery doesn’t last a single season, they will, at least, remind us of the greatness of their respective original entries.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Agony Booth review: Licence to Kill (1989)

This article looks at the most controversial entry in the James Bond series.

Here now is the Licence to Kill review that I initially planned to write before Sir Roger Moore’s passing.

If any entry in the James Bond series can be described as “polarizing”, it’s this one. Some love it for its intensity and for the way it does something different with the Bond formula, while others dislike it for precisely the same reason.

Adding fuel to this fire is the fact that this was Timothy Dalton’s second and final appearance as 007. After Sir Roger officially hung up his Walther PPK with A View to a Kill, Pierce Brosnan was originally chosen to take over the role in the 15th Bond picture The Living Daylights. However, this led to renewed interested in Pierce Brosnan’s TV series Remington Steele and his contract for that show prevented him from taking the role. This eventually led to Dalton taking on the 007 mantle instead.

However, some fans (unfairly or not) were miffed that Brosnan was denied the role that seemed destined to be his, and so they almost made it a point to pick on Dalton’s Bond from the get-go. Daylights itself is entertaining enough, but just as there were fans who criticized Sir Roger for his lighter take on Bond, so too were some quick to point out that Dalton was trying too hard to be serious. And that fire was definitely fueled when Daylights proved successful enough for Dalton to reprise his role as Bond in Licence to Kill.

The film begins with Bond and his buddy Felix Leiter (David Hedison, who previously played the role in Live and Let Die) en route to the latter’s wedding. Their trip is deferred when DEA agents arrive, telling Felix they have a chance to capture a ruthless drug lord named Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi).

After his henchman Dario (Benicio Del Toro, long before his Oscar win) cuts out the heart of the sap who was shagging Sanchez’s lady friend Lupe (Talisa Soto), Sanchez attempts to escape to Cuba by plane. But Bond manages to hook a cord onto it from the chopper that he and Felix are on. After that, the two pals parachute down to Felix’s wedding below, and cue title sequence.

During his interrogation, Sanchez informs DEA agent Ed Killifer (Everett McGill) that there’s a $2 million reward available for anyone who busts him out of prison. At the same time, Bond is enjoying Felix’s wedding reception. Actually, a bit too much I’d say, as he’s blatantly kissing the new Mrs. Leiter, Della (Priscilla Barnes). The newlyweds also give Bond a lighter with a flame that can go super high.

After Killifer stops by to wish the newlyweds well, he begins to transfer Sanchez to Quantico. But this trip doesn’t last long as Killifer KOs the driver of the truck, which eventually enables the drug lord to escape.

That night, Bond is bidding Felix and Della farewell after 007 politely refuses Della’s offer of her garter. This leads to a nice bit of continuity as Felix tells his wife that Bond was married once. But as is the case with all action films, the bad guys leap out of thin air just as the main hero disappears. Felix is knocked out and taken to what looks like an aquarium. Sanchez appears, and Felix is shocked that Killifer is involved in this, before Sanchez lowers Felix into a tank with a shark.

Felix curses Sanchez as the shark begins to munch on him.

The next morning, Bond pulls into an airport and learns that Sanchez has escaped (I guess it didn’t make the news sooner). He quickly bolts to Felix’s place, only to find Della dead and Felix mangled with a note saying, “He disagreed with something that ate him.” (The same thing happens to Felix in the novel of Live and Let Die).

Dalton gives us his Oscar Scene of Anger before Felix painfully stirs. Bond quickly sends for an ambulance, and a doctor says they’ll have to wait to see if Felix recovers.

With his pal Sharkey (Frank McRae), Bond finds the aquarium, which is owned by Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe). Investigating further, Bond finds cocaine hidden beneath maggots. 007 soon gives these maggots a nice feast when he disables a security guard before tossing him into the box with the maggots. Bond then disposes of another guard by throwing him into a tank with an electric eel.

Killifer then holds Bond at gunpoint, telling him to go to the shark tank where Felix was mangled. But Sharkey’s unexpected presence allows Bond to toss Killifer into the tank instead, along with the $2 million he got for changing sides.

This investigation leads to Bond’s boss M (Robert Brown, in his final appearance in the role) personally making an appearance to order Bond to drop this matter and go on to his next assignment. But Bond feels obliged to continue, given his history with Felix, and tenders his resignation. When M orders the surrender of his weapon, he quickly escapes and becomes a rogue agent.

Bond later sneaks into Felix’s home and uncovers a CD full of classified info that only he and Felix knew about. This CD reveals that only one of the informants on Sanchez is still alive: ex-CIA pilot Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell). The next day, Bond discovers Krest’s ship, the Wavekrest (which comes from the Bond short story “The Hildebrand Rarity” published in the For Your Eyes Only collection). Bond sneaks onboard and confronts Lupe, whom he recognizes from earlier in the film when he and Felix captured Sanchez. But all she offers him are her wooden line readings. Bond then discovers that Krest’s men have killed Sharkey, which leads 007 to kill those men before escaping with $5 million.

Bond traces Pam to a bar where he brings her up to speed. But Dario (who must be bad, since Pam says that the Contras kicked him out) and his thugs arrive to cause trouble. A shootout occurs before Bond and Pam escape in a speedboat. After some mandatory arguing, they agree to go to the fictional Republic of Isthmus to get Sanchez. And yes, this scene ends with the two of them making out in the boat (it’s a good thing Dario and his gang didn’t chase after them in one).

We next cut to London, where M chews out Moneypenny (Caroline Bliss, making her final appearance in the role) for making so many typing errors. I realize she misses James, but this makes me wonder how her job performance would have held up if his marriage had lasted longer. M also discovers that she’s been tracking Bond’s movements, and just flat out tells her that there are men on their way to Isthmus to intercept Bond. This plot exposition gives her plenty of info to pass along to Q (Desmond Llewelyn) over the phone.

James and Pam arrive in Isthmus, and Bond’s sexist nature proves as strong as ever when he informs a hotel maĆ®tre-d that Pam is his secretary. The two later go to Sanchez’s estate, where the drug lord meets him after Bond chats with Lupe (making Pam jealous), and impresses everyone with his gambling skills. As he clandestinely views Sanchez’s office, Bond basically sweet-talks the drug lord into employing his services.

When he and Pam return to their hotel to discuss the matter, they’re informed that Bond’s uncle is awaiting them in their suite. Assuming the worst, Bond and Pam get ready, only to discover that the uncle is Q. Despite Bond’s protests, Q convinces him to use his gadgets.

One of these is toothpaste that’s a plastic explosive. This is just the thing Bond needs to get through the armored glass that lines Sanchez’s office. He’s also given a “signature gun”, which is a sniper’s rifle that only Bond can use.

After a “comedic” moment where Pam takes the master bed, forcing Bond and Q to sleep in the same room (with different beds, thankfully), Bond prepares for his hit on Sanchez the next evening. He stealthily places the toothpaste while Sanchez is hosting drug dealers from other parts of the world. Just as Bond prepares to set off the toothpaste, he sees Pam chatting with Sanchez’s head of security Heller (Don Stroud). The toothpaste blows away the glass, but Bond’s shot is disrupted by agents who turn out to be from the Hong Kong Narcotics Bureau. They take him to a warehouse where one of them, who was posing as one of Sanchez’s guests, angrily tells Bond that he may have fucked up an attempt to get Sanchez which the Hong Kong guys had been planning for years. To add to 007’s bad luck, an MI6 agent named Fallon (Christopher Neame) appears with orders from M to bring Bond back. Before either he or the Hong Kong guys can do anything else, Sanchez’s men ambush them, killing everyone except an unconscious Bond (what a surprise!), who’s next seen waking up in a fancy bedroom.

As with many of the other Bond films, this leads to a moment where Bond dines with his opponent. He informs Sanchez that he was once a British agent, and that the previous night’s attack must have been by people on the hunt for him. Sanchez encourages Bond to relax at his place for the night. This, of course, leads to him sleeping with Lupe after she silently tells him she loves him.

When Bond returns to his hotel, he violently asks Pam WTF is going on. She tells him that Heller was about to make a deal with her that would have resulted in Sanchez’s capture. That is, until Bond took his shot. So that makes this two attempts to capture Sanchez that Bond fucked up! The only thing overshadowing the irony here is where this will lead in the end.

But Bond’s not one to let his fuck-ups get in the way of getting some action (of all kinds). He infiltrates Sanchez’s warehouse while Pam and Q cover for him. The former does so by distracting Sanchez’s middleman, a TV evangelist played by (wait for it) Wayne Newton!

Bond temporarily gets Sanchez off his trail by framing Krest when he places the stolen $5 million on the Wavekrest. In the film’s grisliest moment, Sanchez kills Krest by sticking him in a decompression chamber until his head explodes (Zerbe would go through something similar years later in Star Trek: Insurrection).

But Dario finds Bond out, and after setting fire to Sanchez’s cocaine lab, Bond is placed on a conveyor belt that leads to a rock shredder. But Pam shoots Dario, allowing Bond a chance to toss him into the shredder instead.

As the fire spreads, Bond and Pam also find Heller’s body while Sanchez escapes, with our heroes following him by plane. Three of Sanchez’s four tankers are destroyed, and the drug lord and Bond fight on top the remaining one before it goes down a hill. Both combatants survive, but as Sanchez is ready to hack Bond with his machete, Bond pulls out his new lighter and torches his opponent.

The film ends at a party, where Bond is chatting on the phone with a recovering Felix (who doesn’t seem too broken up over the fact that he’s now a widower). Here now is the film’s biggest WTF Moment when Felix says that M wants Bond to come back.

Okaaay, Bond went rogue, which resulted in not one but two official operations against Sanchez getting fucked up big time. Plus, Bond’s actions led to the deaths of both British and Hong Kong agents. The only possible explanation for M welcoming Bond back with open arms must be that M is happy that he now has fewer checks to sign.

I can certainly understand why some Bond fans love this film. It has a deadly serious tone that contrasts with what the previous decade’s worth of entries established. One could definitely call this the polar opposite of Moonraker. That film brought out great spectacle with great flamboyance, and it was the latter that turned some fans off. Licence to Kill, on the other hand, has a lot less humor and a more mundane plot. Like Max Zorin in A View to a Kill, Sanchez doesn’t seek to conquer the world, just a certain aspect of it, and any people who die in their attempt to achieve that goal are merely collateral damage.

But just as Moonraker was accused of going overboard with the lightheartedness, many fans (myself included) thought that Licence went overboard in its attempts to be more mundane. By doing so, it comes across as downright boring in some scenes, and “boring” is something Moonraker cannot be accused of. Both Davi and Del Toro make fine villains, but the movie doesn’t seem to pick up the speed you think it would once Bond resigns and goes out on his own. I appreciate that the story is set into motion because of Bond’s friendship with Felix, which makes the viewers believe that it will lead to a nerve-jolting climatic confrontation between Bond and Sanchez (a la the fight between Bond and Grant in From Russia with Love). But no, said fight scene just consists of Bond whipping out a gadget that wasn’t supplied by Q and the villain quickly becomes charcoal.

What staggers me, however, is that those fans who love this film insist that it’s the closest to Fleming’s Bond. But as someone who’s read each book in that series more than once, I find it hard to agree with that sentiment. Not once did I imagine Bond to be as intense as Dalton plays him in either of his Bond outings. Now, before anyone says, “He’s closer to the books than Moore’s Bond,” as I once noted, both Connery and Moore gave the character a carefree aspect that I didn’t see in the books, which helped the film series become the great success it did. I can also say with 100% certainty that Bond never once frenched his BFF’s bride on her wedding day in any of the books.

This is not meant to knock Dalton, however. The success of the Bond films with Daniel Craig, who plays Bond in a similar manner, suggests that Dalton may have been ahead of his time with this interpretation. Both Connery and Moore’s Bonds thrived in a pre-9/11 world, whereas that tragic event made people crave more intense action heroes such as Jason Bourne. Craig’s Bond satisfied that desire perfectly (hence why some have called his Bond a Bourne knockoff).

In any case, Licence to Kill’s (relatively) lackluster reception coincided with legal issues that led to a drought of Bond movies for the next six years. During this time, Dalton resigned from playing Bond, which led to (for many) positive karma as Pierce Brosnan was finally able to play Bond when the series got back into production with Goldeneye.