Monday, April 30, 2012

Movie Review: 'Summer of '42'

Summer of ’42 (1971)

Part One: An Overview of Summer of '42

Nothing from that first day I saw her, and no one that has happened to me since, has ever been as frightening and as confusing. For no person I've ever known has ever done more to make me feel more sure, more insecure, more important, and less significant.

In everyone's life, I often think, there is a Summer of '42 (or '52, or '62, and so on....), a time in which we discover the joys and sorrows of growing up...and falling in love. There are hijinks and pranks, jokes and playful insults...and always the bonds of friendship.

But sometimes, in those days of discovery and self-awareness, we feel the angst of that first attraction, the bittersweet highs and lows of falling seriously in love for the first time – sometimes with the right person, sometimes not. And of course, we feel the heartbreak of losing that cherished love...wondering what on Earth happened.

Based on an actual event in screenwriter Herman Raucher's life, Robert Mulligan's 1971 classic is one of those rare coming-of-age movies that stands heads and shoulders above those sex-obsessed, raunchy teen-oriented films (Private Lessons, Meatballs) that were released in later decades.

 Starring Gary Grimes as Hermie, Jerry Hauser as Oscy, and Oliver Conant as Benjie and featuring the luminous Jennifer O'Neill as Dorothy, this lyrical, hysterically funny and heartbreakingly poignant film will elicit both laughter and tears from all but the most stone-hearted viewer.

Summer of '42's plot revolves around the Terrible Trio of Hermie, Oscy, and Benjie, who live on a small island off the East Coast of the United States. It's the summer after Pearl Harbor, and all the men of military age are going off to the various fronts to fight the Axis powers. One of these is Dorothy's husband, Pete.

For Hermie, this opens up a whole world of possibilities. For in between all the usual boyish things he's done with Oscy and Benjie -- raiding the Coast Guard station, teasing each other, and trying to find out everything there is to know about sex, he's also fallen deeply in love with Dorothy. He spends time at her house, making himself useful by bringing in the groceries or helping her fix things...the "How do you like your coffee?" scene is a gem, evoking all those memories of how far we young guys would go to impress that "special" girl:

Dorothy: Oh, you drink coffee, don't you?
Hermie: [trying to sound like an adult] ... I consume a couple of cups a day.
Dorothy: Well, I have milk.
Hermie: Oh, no. I take it black.

But before this movie fades to black to the strains of Michel Legrand's "The Summer Knows/Theme from Summer of '42," Hermie will learn that even heaven-sent (in this case, Pete's demise) opportunities come with a heavy price. Even though Hermie's fondest dream does come true (and the scenes of the preliminaries are among the funniest, particularly the purchase of a condom!), the results are somewhat sobering...and heartbreaking

Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird) and Raucher carefully balance the comedic and romantic elements so that one doesn't overwhelm the other. Grimes, Hauser, and Conant are very believable as the Terrible Trio; guys watching this film will probably look back on their teenage years and see shadows of their best friends – or themselves – in Hermie, Oscy, or even Benjie.

Of course, Jennifer O'Neill's participation in this film is what gives the film its emotional core, for what was going to be simply a movie about Herman Raucher's best friend Oscy (who was killed in Korea the same day Raucher turned 24) inevitably became entwined with Hermie's desperate love for Dorothy and the bittersweet consummation of that brief but life-changing relationship. O'Neill, whose subsequent career failed to live up to expectations after this film, plays Dorothy with warmth, charm, and grace, so in love with her soldier-husband that she can't see Hermie's in love with her. Her simplicity and openness are what draws Hermie (and most viewers) to her, and when tragedy strikes in the shape of that War Department telegram (WE REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR HUSBAND...), we know deep down why she turns to Hermie for solace and bittersweet love.

Part Two: Love, Laughter, and Tears

Oscy: Not even the BEST of friends go halfsies on a rubber.

I was 17 years old when I first saw Summer of '42; I had become aware of its existence when I saw a framed cover from the paperback edition of the novelization hanging on one of the walls of the English Department at South Miami that same year. It was late one summer night, one of those hot South Florida nights when the air conditioner keeps on running because it's warmer outside than the thermostat's 78-degree setting. I was having trouble sleeping...between dealing with my feelings of unrequited love for a girl named Mary Ann Pena and worrying about the upcoming stresses of my junior year, insomnia was more the rule rather than the exception.

That night I had already read from several books, so I wandered downstairs to where the main TV was, and still is, strategically placed in the kitchen/dining room area. I didn't know what was on that Saturday night; the TV Guide was out of reach in my mom's room and I didn't want to risk waking her up just to see what was playing at 11:30 p.m. I decided to turn the set on, adjust the volume so that it wouldn't wake my mother up, and flipped the channel to the CBS affiliate, WTVJ.

Just in time, too, for the Late Show promo was ending and the Warner Bros. logo was fading to a nostalgia-laced main title that identified the film as a Robert Mulligan film with a now-familiar name, Summer of '42.

Underscoring the credits was a piano-based theme by French film composer Michel Legrand, a simple yet haunting melody that seemed to foreshadow the wondrous-yet-bittersweet relationship between Hermie and Dorothy. And from that night in the Summer of '81 to this day, no other coming of age movie would be as funny and as tear inducing, nor would there be another that I identified with so closely.

Until I received the DVD version several years ago, I only saw Summer of '42 three more times after that first viewing. It was rerun twice on broadcast TV a few years later, and then my friend Betsy rented it at Blockbuster one day when she had invited my friend Richard and me for one of our regular Saturday afternoon get-togethers. Richard fell asleep sometime before Hermie's fateful visit to Dorothy's house on the Night of the Telegram, but Betsy and I watched it -- afterward she teased me about my unrequited crushes and gently chided me for misting up:

Betsy: You're not crying, are you?
Me: I'm not crying.
Betsy: Yeah, you are.
Me: [sniffling] Am not.
Betsy: Are too.
Me: Maybe a little.

I'm not sure if Betsy liked the film as much as I did; our tastes were pretty similar and if we had ever explored the possibility of becoming lovers, I'm sure we would have had very few disagreements as far as books and movies were concerned.

As for Richard, I finally got him to watch Summer of '42 in March of 2004 when we got together for my 41st birthday; he didn't fall asleep this time and he seemed to enjoy it, especially the more comedic scenes involving the Terrible Trio:

[The three boys are gawking at a medical journal about sex]
Oscy: Now listen! Before I saw these pictures, I didn't think it was possible, either. But these are pictures, Benjie, pictures! These aren't drawings! I've seen those drawings! These are pictures!

Richard, of course, loved the beautiful Jennifer O'Neill; I doubt any man who watches this movie can genuinely say that the luminous model-turned-actress doesn't evoke the memories of their own "first time" lovers, or feels Hermie's pain as he goes from fantasizing about having sex with Dorothy to actually doing it. Of course, the consummation scene is tastefully done; O'Neill undresses but never actually appears totally nude – the lovemaking is sweet and sad and mostly off-screen, a fine example of the adage "less is more."

Although I love this film – if I ever make a Top Ten list of my favorite movies from all categories, Summer of '42 would rank second or third – I don't watch it that much, especially when I'm feeling lonely or blue. Not only do I still mist up unabashedly whenever I see it (something that surprised my older sister, who first saw Summer of ’42 when we watched it for Christmas in '03), but it's a story that evokes my own first time, which came for me at a far later age than Hermie's, and under circumstances that are just as bittersweet as those in the film. With some great loves, I think, there are painful losses...whether it is for a teenager in the Summer of '42 or for a 36-year-old in the Winter of 2000. 

© 2012 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved

Saturday, April 28, 2012

United 93: A Review

When Universal Pictures rolled out writer-director Paul Greengrass’ United 93 in 2006, I was not sure if I would ever see it. 

I certainly didn’t see it in theaters that year, and I did not rush to order it from Amazon when it was available on DVD a few months later. 

Like millions of my fellow Americans, I was apprehensive about seeing a recreation of the events of September 11, 2001, and specifically about the efforts of 40 passengers and crewmembers to wrest back control of the hijacked airliner from four Al Qaeda terrorists before it hits its intended target in Washington, DC. 

While I did not – and still do not – think my own reluctance came from the movie being released only five years after the events of 9-11, I didn’t want to have nightmares about United 93 the way I did back in the fall of 2001.  I was watching Good Morning America on that day (having tuned in a few minutes after the first plane hit the Twin Towers) and I still feel a pit in my stomach when I remember seeing the second plane fly, kamikaze-like, into the other building of the World Trade Center. 

What changed my mind about United 93 was the befuddling fact that many public opinion polls now show that more than half of us want to pull our soldiers out of Afghanistan because they believe that the war in that country is no longer worth it. 

To me, that’s as if more than half of the American population had decided, halfway through the year 1943, to propose peace terms to the Japanese, Germans and Italians because World War II was not worth the sacrifices the nation was being asked to make. 

The Movie:

United 93 
begins, as it must, during the early morning hours of September 11, 2001.  The four Al Qaeda terrorists assigned to take over the plane are in their hotel rooms in Newark, New Jersey, and writer-director Greengrass spends some time showing us their quiet but intense preparation for the "jihad" operation.  It's quite frightening to see how quiet and pious the four young men are; they read from the Koran and go through Muslim rituals (bathing, shaving their bodies) that they believe are needed to enter Paradise later that day. 

The movie then intercuts between various locations which range from the busy Newark International Airport terminal, Boston Air Traffic Control, New York ATC, the Federal Air Administration headquarters, and various military bases, showing us what the terrorists, the passengers, flight crew and the various government agencies do once the first signs of trouble appear. 

Even though the viewer knows what's coming, Greengrass - who uses real civilian and military personnel who were on duty on that terrible September morning - nevertheless allows the real-time narrative build up its feeling ofsomething bad is going to happen without making it look overly dramatized.  

Captain Jason Dahl
: [looking at message on display screen] Two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center? We just flew out of Newark and the weather was beautiful!
First Officer LeRoy Homer: Must have been student pilots.

Part of the realism, of course, is due to the refusal of Greengrass to follow Hollywood conventions of focusing on either the hijackers or the obvious "hero" (Todd Beamer) whose last words - "Let's roll!" - were a rallying cry for the nation during the flag-waving days after 9-11.  Greengrass refuses to ID all the passengers who appear on-screen, which gives United 93 the same sense of "these guys are mostly strangers to each other" that one feels when taking a flight or riding a bus. 

Another factor that makes United 93 feel urgently real is the casting. Not only did Greengrass convince such non-actors as FAA Administrator Ben Sliney and 1st Lt. Jeremy Powell (just to name two) to play themselves, but most of the professional actors are unknown "character" performers.  (Additionally, the United 93 crew is portrayed by real pilots and flight attendants.) 

This helps the viewer to immerse him- or herself into the movie and not have the illusion of reality broken by seeing the presence of a big-name star ("Oh, that's Harrison Ford as Ben Sliney!") that pulls audiences into a more relaxed "It's just a movie..." mindset. 

Finally, Greengrass unapologetically refuses to simplify things for the average person who doesn't have any idea what certain air traffic control terms mean and thus would be confused by them. Again, this is to show the viewer how the events unfolded and to evoke just how confusion, communications breakdowns and a sense of This can't be happening affected the government's initial response to the 9-11 hijackings. 

Is United 93 Worth Watching?

Clearly, United 93 is not a 'let's watch this with the kids" type of movie. It is a fairly accurate depiction of a very tragic incident in which everything went wrong, not just for America but for the hijackers, too.  Not only did the 40 passengers and crew resist to the very end, but other factors derailed Al Qaeda's plans for United 93, which was supposed to hit the White House around the same time the other three planes hit their targets. 

Though the whole movie is spine-chilling and incredibly intense, for me the toughest moment in United 93 comes while the plane is still at the gate in Newark.  The passengers - including the four terrorists - are aboard, the crew is getting things settled, and the access hatch closes.  

It's at this moment, when we see the latch mechanism moving inexorably to the LOCKED position, that I felt the worst anxiety.  It's a small detail, one that everyone of us who has boarded a plane on our way to somewhere else has probably never noticed.  But in this context, it's like a tomb being sealed, and only four of the passengers know it. 

Todd Beamer
: Are you guys ready? Let's roll! Come on, let's go. 

What I like - if that is a proper term for this movie - is how Greengrass never panders to the audience by making certain scenes more action-movie like.  Even Todd Beamer's famous last words are delivered naturally and without bravado.  The people aboard the plane know what the hijackers' "brothers" did and that they probably won't survive, but even in the more speculative scenes, Greengrass doesn't turn United 93 into a civilian version of Air Force One.

Recommended: Yes

© 2012 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Smetana: Ma Vlast and The Bartered Bride

The Bottom Line Although Smetana's life ended in tragedy, his music became the foundation of Czech musical tradition. This European album highlights his best works. 

Bedrich Smetana, along with Antonin Dvorak, is a composer who helped put what's now known as the Czech Republic on the classical music map; before the world heard his comic opera The Bartered Bride in 1866, this small Slavic country (part of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire) was considered to be a musical backwater. Like Peter Tschaikovsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in Russia and Richard Wagner in Germany, Smetana's music was, first and foremost, a reflection of his fierce nationalism; his use of such traditional Czech dances as the polca, furiant, and dumka in his works give his compositions a distinctive regional flavor. This earned him the reputation of being the founder of Czech musical tradition, and his most nationalistic piece, the tone cycle known as Ma Vlast (My Fatherland) is one of the best known orchestral works in the classical music repertoire.

Born in 1824 in the town of Leitomaschi, Smetana started his musical career as a composer of piano works, and he was so good that Franz Lizst found him an editor. Later, Smetana traveled to Sweden and worked as both a pianist and orchestra conductor in that Scandinavian nation. He returned to Prague in 1861 and became heavily involved in the creation of classical music that was, in the tradition of Wagner in Germany, fiercely and unabashedly Czech in nature. As his musical accomplishments grew, Smetana was invited to become the royal court's theatrical music director in 1866.

Sadly, Smetana was dogged by tragedy. Like Beethoven, he started losing his hearing. As his illness progressed inexorably, he spent most of his money seeking a cure for his deafness, but even the finest medical minds of the 19th Century were unable to help him. He not only lost his hearing, but he was plagued by a painful buzzing that often left him in agony. It is sadly ironic that some of his finest works, including My Fatherland and his well-known String Quartets, were written when he could no longer hear even the simplest of notes. Worn out by illness, Smetana died in Prague in 1884.

CD 1: The Bartered Bride, String Quartet No. 1 in E minor

The first of two CDs in the 2-disc The Bartered Bride/My Fatherland Vienna Masters Series by Germany's Pilz record label features the overture and three dances from Smetana's comic opera, The Bartered Bride (Die Verkaufte Braut, in German). The opera's plot revolves around Marenka and Jenik's frustrated attempts to marry over the objections of Marenka's father, Krusina, who would rather arrange a socially-upward liaison between Marenka and Vasek, the son of a wealthy landowner named Micha. This being a comedy, there are many little contrivances worthy of a 1960s sitcom, such as accidental meetings, brilliant evasive maneuvers by Marenka (seems that Vasek isn't exactly a rocket scientist), and, of course, skeletons in Micha's family closet that of course will lead to a happy resolution in the end.

Here, the Czech National Philharmonic Orchestra of Prague performs a suite of music from The Bartered Bridewhich consists of the lively Overture (track 1), which vividly sets up the opera's comedic flavorings. The comic flavor of the opera's incidental music is further enhanced by the nationalistic airs of such Czech dance styles as the Polca (track 2) and the lively and fierce furiant (track 3). The wacky orchestration and almost Looney Tunes-like Entry of the Comedians (track 4) end the suite on a high note that is marked by bright brass passages and lush work by the string section.

The next work on CD 1 is the piano piece known as Memory of Plzen (track 5), performed brilliantly and evocatively by pianist J. Bulva. Although it's a brief composition (only lasting two minutes and 33 seconds), it is full of emotion and wistfulness.

The Overture from Libusa (track 6) is an impressive orchestral piece that showcases a big symphonic sound that will, to 21st Century audiences, sound almost like a John Williams score for a film. With a running time of 8:40, it is marvelously melodramatic and full of brassy passages.

Finally, we have the autobiographical "From My Life" or String Quartet No. 1 in E minor, which has four movements; the Allegro vivo, allegro moderato, largo sustenuto, and the vivace (tracks 7-10).

Interestingly, in the article about Smetana in, we are told that " the final movement is punctuated by a piercing high E in the first violin which, Smetana explained, represents the devastating effects of his tinnitus. He may also be hinting at this personal misfortune with the piccolo scoring in final movement is punctuated by a piercing high E in the first violin which, Smetana explained, represents the devastating effects of his tinnitus. He may also be hinting at this personal misfortune with the piccolo scoring in Má vlast."

It is Má vlast (My Fatherland), the six symphonic poem cycle about Smetana's homeland, that is the sole focus of the 71:51 CD that rounds out the 2-disc set. Performed here once again by the Czech National Philharmonic Orchestra of Prague under the direction of conductor Libor Pesek, Má vlast consists of the following tone poems:

The Moldau (track 1), which may be the best-known of the six; it describes the river Moldau from its headstream to its passage to Prague.

Vysherad or The High Castle (track 2), about the famous castle in Prague where Czech kings had their royal courts.

Sarka (track 3), which is the tale of a young Slavic knight and a warrior-princess.

From Czech Fields and Forests (track 4), which describes scenes in the Czech countryside, including bits about a hunting party and peasants working in the fields.

Tabor (track 5) is a tale from the long-ago Hussite Wars (1420-1434).

Blanik (track 6) relates, in musical terms, a Czech legend about six knights that (in a motif that runs through European mythology a la Barbarossa) are asleep under a mountain, waiting for a dark time to come to the homeland, during which they will awake and come to the nation's aid.

I really enjoy this 2-CD set; I particularly like Maestro Pesek's steady and brilliant conducting and the sound of the Czech National Philharmonic Orchestra of Prague; it's not as bold and striking as say, the London Symphony Orchestra, but it is a fine ensemble nonetheless. The performance is very good and can effortlessly switch moods from the laughter-inducing melodies of The Bartered Bride to the stirring patriotic themes of Sarka, Blanik, and the famous The Moldau.

© 2012 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved

Friday, April 20, 2012

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
In 1991, as Terminator 2: Judgment Day's end titles faded to black and the theater's lights came back up, we were left to believe that Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), her son John (Edward Furlong) and a reprogrammed Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) had not only defeated the advanced T-1000 Terminator which had been trying to "terminate" the future leader of the human resistance against the murderous Skynet computer network, but also changed history by preventing the development of Skynet itself. After all, the formidable trio had destroyed the Cyberdine Corporation's main lab, Skynet's "father," Dr. Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), was dead, and all traces of the original Terminator – the mangled arm, the strange chip that Dyson had reverse engineered, and the T-101's CPU itself – had been melted in a vat of of hot liquid metal, along with that formidable pair of good/evil Terminators. End of movie, end of story, right?

While I'm not sure if James Cameron, the Terminator's creator, thought that there would be a Terminator 3, Arnold Schwarzenegger's undeniable popularity and Hollywood's affinity for profitable sequels practically guaranteed there would be a film like 2003's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

T3 takes up the narrative of a twenty-something-year-old John Connor (Nick Stahl) some eight years after the events chronicled in Judgment Day,, but his tale is that of a man headed for a deathward spiral rather than that of a contented savior of mankind. When we first meet John, he is barely recognizable (he abuses drugs and alcohol in order to escape inner demons and to cope with his mother's death) as the future leader of the resistance against Skynet. Rootless and without purpose, young Connor drifts about the city of Los Angeles, unaware that his old nemesis from the future, Skynet, has some more tricks up its virtual sleeves.

As imagined by screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris (who co-authored their original screen story with Ted Sarafian), the destruction of the Cyberdine lab, the death of Dyson and the incineration of the T-101 and all traces of the first Terminator hindered rather than halted the military's work on Skynet, an advanced computer network designed to automate the United States' strategic arsenal in an era of budget cuts and downsizing of conventional forces. Under the leadership of Air Force General Richard Brewster (JAG's Robert Cresswell), the programmers and technicians assigned to the Skynet program have not only built the sophisticated CPUs and software that will place America's nuclear bombers, subs, and ICBMs totally into the automated "hands" of a hyper-intelligent computer, but also created the first generation of hunter-killers and Terminator prototypes.

To make matters worse, the future Skynet has refused to accept defeat at the hands of the Connor family. Having been frustrated in its attempts to prevent John from being born in 1984 and to kill him as a pre-teen in 1997, Skynet dispatches a third Terminator even more advanced than T2's infamous liquid metal T-1000 model: the prototype Terminatrix T-X (Kristanna Loken).

As beautiful as she is deadly, the T-X (in a tip of the hat to the first film) arrives in a chronosphere sans clothing and commandeers a woman's Lexus and her clothes in order to not only hunt down John Connor but all his future lieutenants in the resistance movement, including Kate Brewster (Claire Danes of My So-Called Life), a veterinarian who not only is Gen. Brewster's daughter but is also destined to be John Connor's most trusted aide...and his wife.

But even as the T-X methodically hunts down Connor and Skynet's future enemies, another chronosphere arrives in L.A. and deposits another outdated (and reprogrammed) Cyberdine T-101 Terminator (Schwarzenegger). Its mission: to once again serve as John Connor's protector and ensure his – and Kate's – survival. Now it's a question of which Terminator will win the race against time....and whether or not Skynet can be stopped before the nuclear fires are unleashed.

Although Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines earned good professional reviews when it was released theatrically in 2003 (CNN's Paul Clinton hailed it as "Utterly spectacular. The best action film of the year."), I was skeptical and opted not to watch it at the multiplex. To me, a Terminator film without James Cameron's input either as writer or director was as viable as a Star Wars film without George Lucas' cooperation. I wasn't sure if the writers had done a good job or if the producers had remained thematically faithful to Cameron's original vision.

Now that I own the Warner Bros. Video DVD of Terminator 3, I can say that although I think Rise of the Machines feels a bit superfluous, it is a very watchable action film. Its saving graces are:

Involvement of Terminator series producers and other behind-the-scenes veterans: Okay, so Cameron decided to sit this one out, but original producers Mario Kassar, Andrew Vajna, and Gale Ann Hurd are back, as well as the Terminator-effects creator Stan Winston and the special effects team of Industrial Light and Magic.

References to the older films: T3 couldn't stand on its own without the first two movies, so the screenwriters and director Jonathan Mostow carefully weave little linking threads from The Terminator and T2: Judgment Day not only with Schwarzenegger's presence but with bits of dialog and exposition, filling in some backstory gaps (as it happens, Kate and John had met before, shortly before the events of the second film), and the slimy psychiatrist Dr. Silberman (Earl Boen) has a short but important cameo.

John Connor: Do you even remember me? Sarah Connor, blowing up Cyberdyne, hasta la vista, baby. Ring any bells?
Terminator: That was a different T-101.
John Connor: What do you guys, come off an assembly line or something?
Terminator: Exactly.
John Connor: Oh man, I'm gonna have to teach you everything all over again.

It doesn't pander to audience expectations: The screenwriters' decision to give T3 a darker, not-so-triumphant ending is, in my view, the shrewdest move made by the creators of the film. In the first two films, the audience got what it basically expected: to see the bad Terminators offed by the heroes and all's well that ends well. Terminator 3 teases the viewer into thinking Ah, this is going to be exactly the same deal! John, Kate, and the good ol' T-101 defeat the T-X Terminatrix and save the world, which is what we, the audience, want. But the subtitle of the film reveals the film's true intention; T3 isn't about the defeat of Skynet, it's about the Rise of the Machines and the setting in stone of John Connor and Kate Brewster's future. While the ending of the film is atypically downbeat (Skynet does take over America's nuclear arsenal and unleashes Armageddon), it was a brilliant doesn't insult the viewer's intelligence conclusion.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

2010: The Year We Make Contact (movie review)

2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984)
In the years after the 1968 release of Stanley Kubrick's landmark science-fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey, he and collaborator Arthur C. Clarke were asked many questions about how it was conceived, how the realistic special effects had been done, why did Kubrick decide to use classical music pieces in the soundtrack, and if HAL was a punny jab at IBM's corporate name.

Another question that followed both the director and the writer for years was Will you ever do a follow-up to 2001?

Kubrick wasn't interested in doing a sequel and generally stayed away from science fiction; the only other set-in-the-future projects he ever envisioned after 2001 were A Clockwork Orange and penning the basic story idea for A.I., and even that he turned over to his friend Steven Spielberg a few years before his death in 1999.

Clarke, on the other hand, at first demurred from doing a literary sequel, but in 1982 his novel 2010: Odyssey Two was published and sold well enough that two other sequels, 2061: Odyssey Three and 3001: The Final Odyssey.

Of course, MGM, which had released 2001 14 years earlier, was interested in a screen adaptation and even approached Kubrick to see if he wanted to direct 2010: The Year We Make Contact.  He declined, but he was gracious to writer-director Peter Hyams (Capricorn One), telling him he didn't mind if Hyams helmed the follow-up to one of his best-known works.

The Film:  As is often the case when a novel is adapted into a screenplay, Hyams slims 2010's story to its bare essentials by jettisoning huge sections of Clarke's book, including a subplot involving a disastrous landing on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, by a Chinese spacecraft.

Knowing well that 2010 had to be both a sequel to Kubrick's film and yet stand on its own as a 1980s-era audience draw, Hyams starts the film with the same Thus Spake Zarathustra (Theme from 2001) title music and a recap of the story of USS Discovery's encounter with the huge monolith in orbit over Jupiter. This is done quickly and as economically as possible so we can move on to the "present" of 2010.

Hyams then takes us to the Very Large Array of radio-telescopes out in the New Mexico desert.  There, Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider) has a semi-clandestine meeting with Soviet scientist Dimitri Moisevitch (Dana Elcar).

Moisevitch informs Floyd, the former chairman of the National Council of Astronautics and the man in charge of the ill-fated Discovery mission to Jupiter, that the now-derelict spacecraft is danger of being pulled out of its orbit (now between the gas giant and its volcanic moon Io).

The Americans, Moisevitch tells Floyd, are preparing Discovery II and its crew for a salvage mission which may shed light into why HAL-9000 had its famous failure and other mysteries, but the Soviets have a ship, the Alexei Leonov, ready to go.

But because Discovery is American territory at a time when the Cold War is threatening to become hot, Moisevitch proposes a compromise – a joint Soviet-American flight to Jupiter –.if the two governments can agree.

Floyd, now a university chancellor and happily re-married with a much younger scientist (Madolyn Smith), is somewhat skeptical at first, but he somehow gets approval from a very conservative White House to go ahead with this joint mission.

Over the next few months, Floyd tries to assure his wife and young son that this is going to be his last spaceflight and spends much of his time either getting in shape for the mission or putting together the American half of theLeonov's crew.  He recruits the brilliant engineer Walter Curnow (John Lithgow) who helped design Discovery, and computer systems creator Dr. Chandra (Bob Balaban), the man who programmed the 9000-series of supercomputers – in essence, HAL's human "father."

Along with Leonov's Soviet contingent (played by Helen Mirren, Elya Bashkin, Oleg Rudnik, Victor Steinbach, Saveli Kramarov, Vladimir Skomarovsky and Natasha Shneider), the three Americans go forth to Jupiter, "sleeping" in hibernation and blissfully unaware that a crisis in Central America is turning into a war between their two nations.

What happens once the Leonov reaches Jupiter I'll cheerfully leave to the reader to discover, but two of the actors from Kubrick's film (Keir Dullea and Douglas Rain) return to reprise their roles, and Arthur C. Clarke makes not one but two cameos. (He's easy to spot in the first one, but the second one is subtle and you have to look very closely for it.)

My Take: Considering that Hyams made the film at a time when science fiction movies tended to imitate Star Wars, Alien and Star Trek by focusing on space battles, unfriendly space life forms, or "space opera" conventions, 2010 is a rarity of the genre. 

Instead of going for megabucks by giving teenage guys and college-age geeks the usual laser guns and faster-than-light starships in dogfights, Hyams does a good job at compromising between Kubrick's high-concept vision of the future based on what tech could be like in the 21st Century and a 1980s film's quicker pacing.

Clearly, jettisoning the Chinese spacecraft's doomed Europa landing helps Hyams cut down on pacing and lets the viewer focus on the somewhat complex issues that remain, including the thorny problem of what might happen if the Leonov crew makes it to Discovery and reawakens HAL-9000.

The cast, which includes many Soviet expatriates (Bashkin being perhaps the best known, since his career includes memorable appearances in Air Force One, Thirteen Days and two of the Spider-Man features), is great. Mirren is excellent as Mission Commander Tanya Kirbuk, and Scheider does a good job at stepping into a role created by another actor 16 years before.

Also still stunning – particularly in a digitally cleared up version – are the special effects.  Though not created by Industrial Light and Magic, the most famous effects company in Hollywood, the stunning visuals were done by three different companies which did have several Star Wars artists in their payroll.   The most stunning sequences, which are set near Jupiter, still stand up to even the closest scrutiny almost 30 years after the film's release.

Unfortunately, while the sci-fi elements still work and the acting, pacing and effects are top-notch, 2010 has become badly dated because history failed to unfold as novelist Clarke and writer-director Hyams envisioned.

Between 1984 and the real 21st Century, the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War officially ended, rendering moot the political undertones of the film.  (The novel pretty much assumed the Cold War had ended, but as in 2001, the two superpowers still had separate and competing space programs)  Yes, it's true that the Russian Republic under Vladimir Putin and his "successor" is once again flexing its muscle and challenging American/Western foreign policy in order to recoup some sort of superpower status, but it's highly unlikely that we are in for a Cold War II that resembles the situation in 2010: The Year We Make Contact.

To his credit, Hyams strikes a careful balance between wanting to play respectful homages to the first film and making his own memorable movie.  He strives - not always successfully - to capture the look of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey but doesn't try to do a carbon copy.  This includes his choice to only use the Theme from 2001 in the soundtrack; instead of using different classical music compositions as Kubrick had done in '68, Hyams hired David Shire (Zodiac) to write an original score for 2010.

Though it did not become a classic as its more famous predecessor, 2010: The Year We Make Contact is  still an enjoyable (if rather dated) vision of what is now "our time" as imagined in 1984.  It doesn't quite reach the lofty heights of Kubrick's 2001, but it boldly attempts to go beyond the Star Wars/Star Trek conventions of space-related movies and, at the same time, gives audiences something to wonder about after the credits roll and the film fades to black.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Black Sunday: Prescient film portrays terrorist attempt on US soil 24 years before 9/11

Black Sunday (1977)

On March 11 1977, nearly a quarter of a century before Al Qaeda's horrifying attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, a relatively small number of moviegoers sat in darkened theaters across the United States, popcorn and soft drinks in hand, and watched Black Sunday, director John Frankemheimer's film adaptation of Thomas Harris' debut novel about a horrifying Palestinian terrorist plot against the United States.

Starring Bruce Dern (Silent Running), Robert Shaw (Jaws), Marthe Keller (Marathon Man), and Fritz Weaver (Fail-Safe, Holocaust), the film – now considered to be ominously prophetic – distilled its "torn from the headlines" sensibilities from such actual events as the murder of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich and the 1975 kidnapping of various OPEC ministers by Carlos the Jackal in Vienna.

Indeed, the Israeli response to the 1972 Munich Massacre is the starting point for the original novel and the screenplay by veteran Hollywood scribes Ernest Lehman, Kenneth Ross, and Ivan Moffat; their adaptation, despite changing some of the story's locations so that director Frankenheimer could use actual footage from Super Bowl X, is pretty faithful to Harris' book.

The film opens (as the novel does) in Beirut, Lebanon, as an Israeli commando unit led by Major David Kabakov (Shaw) carries out a "retribution raid" against the leadership of Black September, the real-life splinter group of the Palestinian Liberation Organization responsible for various hijackings and – of course – the 1972 incident at Munich. Kabakov and his commandos enter the apartment of a senior Black September officer and kill almost everyone – except for the beautiful Dahlia Iyad (Keller); Kabakov spares her life when he catches her taking a shower, assuming she's the main target's female companion.

Bad move, because Dahlia has been "running" an American sleeper agent named Mike Lander (Dern), a Navy veteran with experience on both dirigibles and helicopters, Lander was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967 and spent six hellish years as a POW until the Paris Agreement ended American military involvement in Indochina and Hanoi released all the American prisoners.

For Lander, it is his Vietnam experience that is the catalyst for his willing embrace of the Black September terrorists. Ostracized by his fellow POWs for collaborating with the North Vietnamese and discovering that his wife has had an affair, Lander is pushed to the brink of madness by the hostility his fellow POWs -- especially the senior officer -- feel toward him. Unable to cope with his humiliation and anger, Michael Lander resigns his commission and goes job hunting, finding the going tough until, finally, he is hired by the Goodyear rubber company to fly blimps.

By now, however, Lander is plotting a most lethal sort of revenge upon the country he believes caused him to lose his pride, his honor, six years of his life, his manhood, and his wife. Inspired by the Black September attack on the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, he contacts the radical terrorist group, asking for explosives and technical assistance so he can convert the Goodyear blimp into a flying Claymore mine. The target: the Super Bowl championship game. The place: the Orange Bowl stadium in Miami.

Intrigued, the Palestinians send Dahlia to America. She spends a year in the United States, cultivating, evaluating, and becoming intimate with Lander, a man she knows to be increasingly insane yet incredibly useful to Black September's goal of making America pay for her support of Palestine's hated enemy, Israel.

Of course, in order for the film to get from Dahlia's near-death at the hands of Kabakov to the climactic attempt to attack the Orange Bowl, the terrorists have to always be ahead of the forewarned American government (a tape of the prerecorded communique "explaining" the attack is found early on in the film) and Kabakov's hunter-killer team. Just as Mohammad Atta and the 18 other 9/11 hijackers would do in real life years later, Dahlia and her Black September comrade Mohammad Fasil (Bekim Fehmiu) evade the authorities, always seemingly one step ahead of the cops, FBI, CIA, the Soviets' KGB, and Mossad, Israel's top-notch intelligence agency.

My Take: Although the film sometimes tends to get bogged down by the length of the Lehman-Moffat-Ross screenplay and all the cat-and-mouse moves by the protagonists, Black Sunday nevertheless is a gripping thriller. Frankenheimer, who had cut his directorial teeth in many TV productions in the 1950s and helmed 1962's The Manchurian Candidate, knows a thing or two about pacing, action set-pieces, and ratcheting up the suspense levels to nearly-intolerable levels.

While most of the casting decisions were basically sound, I do wish another actor had been chosen to play Mike Lander. Don't get me wrong; I like Bruce Dern,and he pulls off the angry/insane vet part here very well. Trouble is that Dern seems to have been the "go to" actor for crazy, angry, or isolated WASPy characters, because he played similar roles in Silent Running, The Cowboys, and Coming Home.

Adding to the film's suspenseful atmosphere is a taut score by composer John Williams, who followed his work on Black Sunday with his unforgettable compositions for Star Wars

Interestingly enough, the football game sequences in this film aren't staged; they were filmed during the real Super Bowl X in Miami, and football fans will not only recognize key plays of the Cowboys-Steelers' match up, but also such NFL legends as Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, and Miami Dolphins' owner Joe Robbie.

Although it is a bit longer than the similarly-themed The Sum of All FearsBlack Sunday is still one of the best adaptations of a suspense/action novel ever made. Robert Shaw (in one of his last films) is always an interesting actor to watch; he projects a combination of a hunter's instincts and the strategic prowess of a chess player, two qualities that serve him well as the terrorists' main adversary. And, of course, the story is a gripping and – after Sept. 11, 2001 – terribly plausible scenario. 

Book Review: 'Star Trek Encyclopedia: A Reference Guide to the Future - Revised and Expanded'

In the spring of 1994, Pocket Books published the first edition of The Star Trek Encyclopedia: A Reference to the Future, the third book in a trilogy of reference books co-authored by graphics artist and production consultant Michael Okuda. (The other two volumes are The Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual and The Star Trek Chronology: A History of the Future.)

At the time, the Star Trek franchise was in a state of flux. Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) was ending its seven-year run in syndication and production was under way for its first theatrical movie, Star Trek: Generations.  Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) was picking up steam in its second season in syndication, and Paramount was about to launch its United Paramount Network with Star Trek: Voyager (VGR) as its flagship TV series.

This, of course, meant that the first edition of The Star Trek Encyclopedia, written and edited by Mike and Denise Okuda with Debbie Mirek, was at best an introductory volume; its comprehensiveness about the franchise was limited to Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) and its six spin-off movies, Star Trek: The Next Generation up to part of the seventh season, and the first season's batch of episodes from DS9.  Star Trek: Generations and Voyager were mentioned in the pages relating to Star Trek, but of course just as being works in progress  

Even by limiting the encyclopedia to Paramount "canon" projects - Star Trek: The Animated Series (TAS) and the "expanded universe" novels don't count (with the exception of a data point taken from the TAS episode Yesteryearwhich was referenced in the TNG episode Unification, Part 1 and thus garnered canon status.) - the Okudas and Mirek knew that as the Star Trek franchise expanded, there would be a need for future editions.

Sure enough, in 1997 Pocket Books published the second edition of The Star Trek Encyclopedia, which now contained material from two TNG feature films and from various seasons of both DS9 and VGR, which were still airing first-run episodes.  

The 1997 edition was re-issued two years later in both hardcover and trade paperback.  The 1999 version was almost identical to its predecessor save for a supplemental insert that covered the release of Star Trek: Insurrection, the seventh (and final) season of DS9 and part of VGR's fifth season.

The Star Trek Encyclopedia: A Reference Guide to the Future's entries are presented (as most encyclopedias usually are) in alphabetical order, ranging (in the main section) from ‘audet IX (a planet on which a Federation Medical Collection Station is located) to Zytchin III (yet another planet, this one defined as a world on which Capt. Jean-Luc Picard had spent a not-too-enjoyable vacation once).  Each entry is tagged at the end with the name of the episode, series (with the three-letter code for each) or feature film title. 

Entries about characters also have tags which tell the reader the name of the actor who played his or her role in an episode or feature film, and cross-references to other, related entries are presented in boldface type so readers may find out more information.

Example:  Tal. (Jack Donner). Subcommander on the Romulan battle cruiser that captured the Federation starship Enterprise when that ship crossed the Romulan Neutral Zone in 2268 on a secret spy mission. ("The Enterprise Incident" [TOS]).

Naturally, the length of each entry varies considerably based on its topic's prominence in the Star Trek universe. ‘audet IX gets, at best, two sentences and the requisite source tag, while Kirk, James T. has an entry that begins on part of page 241. takes up all of page 242 and ends at the head of page 243 with information taken from Star Trek: Generations.

The hundreds of entries encompass a wide range; you can look for characters, planets, star systems, creatures, starships, food and drink, civilizations, organizations and other "in-universe" topics.  Those are presented in a very factual, 'this is real" style reflecting the authors' clever conceptual conceit.

However, the entries also cover such production-related topics as short descriptions of the (then) four canon TV series, nine feature films and the hundreds of individual episodes, listed (of course) alphabetically and painstakingly cross-referenced and source-coded.  (The section on Star Trek also includes a reference to the unproduced Star Trek II TV series of the late 1970s, explaining that the pilot episode, "In Thy Image" became the basis for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Wherever possible, the franchise's major races and entities (Bajorans, Cardassians, Dominion, Ferengi, Kazon, Klingons, Romulans and Vulcans) are highlighted in illustrations showing individuals in various outfits and uniforms.  For instance, if you look up Romulans, there is a graphic at the foot of the page which shows two distinct groups of military personnel, one from the 23rd Century-set TOS and one from the TNG time period.  Additionally, entries on Romulan starships have graphics depicting various classes as they appeared in episodes or films set in the two time periods.

The Star Trek Encyclopedia: A Reference Guide to the Future  also has various lists in its main text sections, covering such topics as astronomical features, Starfleet vessels seen or mentioned in the various episodes or movies, food and drink and warp speed factors.

In contrast to the 1994 first edition, the 1997-1999 edition is illustrated in color, which is a vast improvement vis-à-vis  the black-and-white photos and line drawings in the original volume.  The quality of the production stills and head shots is much better here because the photos look more "in focus" and sharper, and there are moreillustrations in total, too.

As I said before, Pocket Books did not publish a true Third Edition when it released its 1999 revised version; the publisher merely asked Michael and Denise Okuda to create a Supplement section which would add material gleaned from Star Trek: Insurrection, the final season of DS9 and VGR's fifth season.  Organized in the same format as the main body of the encyclopedia, its entries begin with ablative armor and end with Zevians.

While I understand that doing the update in this fashion was more economical in both time and money for the Okudas and Pocket Books, and although I concede that it is presented with the same attention to detail as the main book, it does have a "tacked on at the end" vibe to it.

At the end of the book there are eight appendices, listed from A to H.  They are:

A. Federation Starships & Ships of Earth Registry B. Ships of the Galaxy C. Historical Events in the Star Trek Universe D. Timeline of Star Trek Production E. Writer and Director Credits F. Cast  G. Production Personnel H. Bibliography 

The first two appendices are charts illustrating the comparative sizes of most of the various space vessels featured in the Star Trek TV shows and feature films until 1999.  

The two timelines which follow are text-only updates of the ones which appeared in the 1994; the "historical events" timeline is drawn mainly from the Okudas' The Star Trek Chronology and is only a selection of major events up to the fifth season of VGR, the end of DS9 and the release of Star Trek: Insurrection.

The other appendices are purely informational ones about the production side of Star Trek.  Essentially, they are lists of writers, directors, episode titles, cast members and people who worked behind the scenes on the various pre-Enterprise, Nemesis and J.J. Abrams reboot feature film projects.   Though casual readers might skip them, reviewers and trivia fans can peruse Appendices E-G for all sorts of details, like who wrote "Yesterday's Enterprise" (Ira Steven Behr & Richard Manning & Hans Bemler & Ronald D. Moore. From a story by Trent Christopher Ganino & Eric A. Stilwell) or to see how many roles James Sloyan played (Jarok, Alidar; Jetrel, Dr.; K'mtar; Mora Pol, Dr.) in the franchise.

Sadly, the high costs involved in publishing expensive reference books which don't sell as well as cheaper paperback novels, combined with the existence of online databases such as the one on have caused Pocket Books to cease publishing further print editions of The Star Trek Encyclopedia.  The franchise has grown to encompass five TV series, 11 completed feature films and at least one more due in 2012 (as this is being written), so revising the entries for a print edition would be very time-consuming and expensive, especially when one considers that few readers would buy the book anyway.

Remember Me: One of the best Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes

Remember Me
Star Trek: The Next Generation - Episode 79
Written by: Lee Sheldon
Directed by: Cliff Bole
Stardate: 44161.2 (Earth Calendar Year 2367)
Several months have passed since the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-D) completed her repair-and-refit work at Starfleet's Earth Station McKinley, and with a few missions under her crew's belt, the starship is at Starbase 133 for a regularly-scheduled personnel rotation.

Along with some of the new crew members, Starbase 133's now retired medical officer, Dr. Dalen Quaice (Bill Erwin), boards the Enterprise as a passenger.  A friend and mentor to Enterprise Chief Medical Officer Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), the recently widowed Quaice is on his way to his home on Kenda II.

Not long after Dr. Crusher welcomes her friend and colleague and helps him settle in his stateroom, she decides to head over to Main Engineering, where her son, Acting Ensign Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) is carrying out a warp field experiment based on the equations of Starfleet engineering theorist Kosinski (a character from Season One's Where No One Has Gone Before).

As she watches her son work, Dr. Crusher sees, for a brief instant, a bright flash of light, but when nothing else seems to have occurred, she decides to look in on her friend Dalen, who, after all, must be going through a rough time with the death of his wife and his subsequent retirement.

However, when she arrives at the doctor's assigned quarters, he is not there, nor are any of his personal belongings.  Every query Beverly makes - to the ship's computer (voice of Majel Barrett Roddenberry) and to Transporter Chief Miles O'Brien (Colm Meaney)  - results in a dead end; there's no record of a Dr. Dalen Qaice boarding the Enterprise, nor does O'Brien remember beaming him aboard.  Worse, there's no proof that Dr. Crusher's friend and mentor ever existed.
For Beverly, whose memories of Quaice are very real and recent, this is just the beginning of an odd and nightmarish experience; as time goes by, more and more crew members and passengers vanish, leading the good doctor to wonder if what she is experiencing is part of a strange plot or, worse, if she's losing her mind.

My Take: As a Star Trek fan who was dismayed when Star Trek: The Next Generation (ST-TNG) lost two of its major female cast members at the end of the show's first and somewhat uneven season, I was - and still am - glad to see the show-runners and writers got around to focusing episodes on the female supporting characters and not just on Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), Commander Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Lt. Cmdr. Data (Brent Spiner) and - later - Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn). 

Even though ST-TNG had been intended to be a true ensemble show - unlike its 1966-1969 forerunner, Star Trek - the writers tended to write episodes which relied too much on the captain, first officer and operations/conn specialist to the detriment of Dr. Crusher (McFadden), Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) and Security Chief Lt. Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby).  Though Sirtis stayed with the series throughout its seven-year-run, Crosby and McFadden left the series; Crosby's Yar was killed off in Skin of Evil, and McFadden's Crusher was transferred to Starfleet Medical on Earth, which gave both the producers and the actor a window of opportunity for Dr. Crusher to return to the show someday, even if it was as a guest star.

Happily, McFadden decided to come back full-time after Season Two, and the writers gave her several Crusher-centric episodes throughout the rest of ST-TNG's life as a first-run syndicated TV series.

Here, McFadden - who is also known as the first actress to portray Cathy Ryan in the movies based on Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan novels - displays her talents as an actor to full effect as her odyssey through space and time progresses, going from the lowest ebbs of bewilderment and fear to finding the steely determination to solve the mystery behind the disappearance of her friends and shipmates.

For seasoned ST-TNG fans who started watching the series since its two-hour premiere Encounter at Far Point, Remember Me makes use of overt internal continuity because it not only refers to Wesley Crusher's warp field experiment as being based on Kosinki's equations (as per Where No One Has Gone Before), but it also brings back that first season episode's intriguing guest alien The Traveler (Eric Menyuck), who had told Picard that Wesley was gifted and that his talents should be nurtured.

Star Trek fans should also note that this episode matched The Original Series' total 79 aired episodes tally; the following episode, Legacy, would see the first time a Star Trek TV series would reach the 80-episode mark.

Of course, viewers who are seeing Remember Me as a stand-alone show with no previous knowledge of the series will be confused at first, especially once Dr. Crusher sets out to find the mysterious Traveler, a character that they have not yet encountered and yet is the key to the riddle Dr. Crusher is trying to solve. 

The teleplay by Lee Sheldon is nicely written and obviously tailored to highlight McFadden's bravura performance, while Cliff Bole (for whom the Bolian race was named) does a great job of directing Remember Me.