Archive for May 1999

Notting Hill

May 28, 1999

Notting_Hill-02It’s sometimes been said that the true test of a movie star is whether he or she can effectively play one. I wouldn’t agree. A rock star or even a TV star might understand the hassles of being a movie star — the invasions of privacy, the crowded yet isolated life lived in public. But only a fine actor can make us understand it, too. In the surprisingly disarming Notting Hill, Julia Roberts demonstrates yet again that she’s not just a bit of charisma decorated by a warm smile. Roberts plays Anna Scott, the world’s most famous actress; in interviews, Roberts has bent over backwards to distance herself from Anna, who can be much more brittle and cool than Roberts would like us to believe she herself is. Does it make any difference? How much of what Julia Roberts does in interviews is acting? Whatever the true reality, Roberts makes us believe in the reality of Anna the vaguely sad woman who lucked into fame and has had many opportunities to regret it.

One afternoon, while promoting her new blockbuster Helix in London, Anna ducks into a Notting Hill travel bookshop owned by William Thacker (Hugh Grant), a witty and self-deprecating gentleman who rather reminds us of, well, Hugh Grant in his interviews. Perhaps, in these ironic times, this is one of the only remaining routes into a romantic comedy: a premise that winks at the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief. After Anna and William have fallen in love, and the tabloids make much of their tryst, we know full well that both Roberts and Grant have had experience with scandal, even though Grant is playing a virgin in such matters.

Notting Hill is a graceful Hollywood romance that doesn’t quite feel like one, thanks to screenwriter Richard Curtis, who likes to bring an American into caustic, scruffy-working-class Brit territory, as in The Tall Guy and Four Weddings and a Funeral. Curtis also loves to paint a colorful background for his romances, in the form of agreeably rumpled supporting characters. Consider, for example, William’s best friend Max (Tim McInnerny), the world’s worst cook and loving husband to Bella (Gina McKee), a sensible attorney who also happens to be in a wheelchair. Or William’s loopy sister Honey (Emma Chambers) or his menschy shop clerk Martin (James Dreyfus), both of whom are flabbergasted in the presence of Anna. Or especially the scene-stealing Spike (Rhys Ifans), William’s flatmate, who makes David Thewlis in Naked look like a model of refinement.

You get the warming and chilling essence of Notting Hill in the scene where Anna first enters William’s shop. He recognizes her but is too much the gentleman to say so; he tosses off a few witty asides, and we see Anna’s wary attraction to him, and his to her. Then a stubbly customer wanders over to Anna for an autograph, and you see a little light go out in Anna’s eyes as she politely but coolly complies. You see William deflate a bit, too: he’d thought he might actually have a chance at this woman, but the customer reminds them both who she is and punctures the illusion. It’s a lovely little scene, and the rest of Notting Hill gets considerable mileage out of the themes introduced in it. The illusion that Anna is just a regular woman, it turns out, isn’t an illusion after all — even if everything around her is.

Trekkies

May 21, 1999

Do you have to be a Trekkie (or Trekker, if you prefer) to enjoy the documentary Trekkies? Not at all; in fact, it helps if you aren’t one. Trekkies is a peek inside the Star Trek fan phenomenon — a cult that, according to this film, is fairly benign if sometimes laughable. If it’s a snark-fest you’re looking for, don’t look here: Trekkies was distributed by Paramount, which would never dare to offend the supporters of its biggest, most lucrative franchise. No, director Roger Nygard has crafted a sort of neutral valentine to Trek die-hards, and if we occasionally snicker, it’s not because Nygard is encouraging us to laugh, and it’s not really because Trekkies are geeks, either: Obsession seen from the outside is always equal parts fascinating, scary, and funny. It’s also comforting, because we all have obsessions, though not all of them lend themselves to a documentary.

Why does Star Trek have such a tight grip on some people? Trekkies wheels out some of the same explanations we’ve been hearing for years, some of which can also apply to (and serve to explain) the Star Wars cult: easily defined conflicts, the ideal of teamwork, the optimistic and humanistic messages. Watching the documentary (narrated and hosted by Next Generation vet Denise Crosby with a mixture of awe and bemusement), I realized that the Trek following is essentially a huge melting-pot of people rejected by the rest of society. No matter who you are (according to the movie), you will be welcomed at Trek conventions, embraced by others who share your tastes; Trekkies are bound together with a sort of mystical understanding. We see gay men, lesbians, even a crossdresser — Star Trek appears to be a religion big enough, and democratic enough, to accept anyone willing to spend the money.

And the phenomenon is very much about money. Star Trek was really the first pop-culture creation to spawn an enduring collecting craze all by itself. Trekkies makes you see that all the Star Wars merchandising was merely following in Paramount’s footsteps. Other pop-culture crazes have come and gone — and even Star Wars died down a little from, say, 1984-1997, though there was still the odd book, CD-ROM, or line of action figures — but Star Trek has been in there pitching for 40 years, and, despite dire predictions, the Trek machine shows no real signs of going away. Trek‘s crossover appeal to non-acolytes may be fading, but the faithful are more faithful than ever, if Trekkies is any indication. There they are, spending untold amounts of money on autographs, rare mementos, and props from the movies/TV shows — we see one guy in full Klingon mode at an auction, dropping $1500 on a tiny Klingon headpiece, and we hear about another guy who bid $40 or $60 on a half-full glass of water (imbibed by Trek actor John de Lancie, who had a nasty case of the flu) and eagerly quaffed the stuff in hopes of getting the “Q virus.”

Nygard focuses on some memorable eccentrics. Barbara Adams, who made headlines in 1996 when she insisted on wearing her Starfleet uniform to the Whitewater hearings as a juror, prefers to be addressed as “Lt. Commander” — her rank in a local Trek organization. David Greenstein also goes nowhere without full Starfleet regalia — we see him shopping at the supermarket — and the movie makes the fair point that these people should be allowed to wear whatever they want; they’re not hurting anybody. Trekkies gets us on their side as harmless transgressors, challengers of the “norm” (hey, they look a whole lot less ridiculous than some of the teenagers I see slouching around town). And when you see footage of Barbara Adams entering the courthouse with throngs of reporters tracking her, you have to ask yourself who’s weirder: the lady in the Star Trek uniform, or the media hounds who think this is newsworthy.

At certain points, however, you feel a slight “click” where fandom crosses the line into genuine strangeness, as when Greenstein says he would have his ears surgically Vulcanized if he had the money. A few of the interviewees are borderline obnoxious, like 14-year-old Gabriel Köerner, who speaks very precisely and is obviously whip-smart and quite talented — we see some of his digital animation and see his 172-page screenplay — but just as obviously socially stunted, sort of like a Trekkie version of Rushmore‘s Max Fischer. (When a friend’s phone call interrupts one of his interviews, Köerner yells “Peter! This is the worst possible time for you to call! Go away!” and hangs up.) And I wouldn’t want to work for Denis Bourguignon, an Orlando dentist who has turned his office into “Starbase Dental” and makes his staff wear Starfleet get-ups. (Nor would I really want to have my tooth filled by a Data lookalike.)

Of course, in addition to Denise Crosby, we see past and present Trek cast members reflecting on the impact their characters — and the phenomenon they unwittingly signed onto — have had on millions of lives. William Shatner doesn’t sit for an interview, though we spot him at an event. Leonard Nimoy, James Doohan (contributing a moving anecdote about a suicidal fan), and a frail-looking DeForest Kelley are among the old-schoolers sharing their thoughts; some of the newcomers, like the consistently funny Brent Spiner, the raffish Jonathan Frakes, and the articulate Kate Mulgrew, steal the show from their more ponderous predecessors. Conspicuous in their absence: captains Patrick Stewart and Avery Brooks, as well as Whoopi Goldberg, whom Nichelle Nichols references in an anecdote that would’ve been a good segue to Whoopi discussing how Uhura made her realize she could do anything.

I would’ve also liked to hear from a couple of dissenters, like Harlan Ellison, who wrote what is perhaps still the most revered Trek episode (“The City on the Edge of Forever”) and has voiced little but contempt for Trekkies and Trek in general. Trekkies is nothing if not one-sided. You see the nurturing, family-values side of fandom, but you don’t see the dark side. You don’t see the vicious infighting, clearly on view in any message board on any fan site, not only dealing with Trek but with any popular entertainment from Star Wars to Buffy. You don’t see the hostility towards any outside view of the phenomenon — I always seem to get pissy emails whenever I give a sci-fi film (be it Star Trek: Insurrection, The Matrix, or Phantom Menace) a less-than-glowing review; it can’t be a coincidence. You don’t see the nitpicking, you don’t see the snobbiness among the more established and knowledgeable members of fandom; you don’t see the ugly side of enthusiasm taken too far, which is zealotry. Some of these fans are so touchy about being perceived as geeks with no lives that they get mega-defensive and end up coming off like … geeks with no lives.

And the PG-rated documentary glides quickly over a sub-subgenre deserving of its own documentary: the “slash” fanzines pairing Kirk and Spock (as well as other Trek characters) in a variety of sexually explicit scenarios. (I would’ve loved to have heard Nimoy’s take on those; Brent Spiner is typically witty about the erotic fan art featuring Data and Crosby’s character Tasha Yar, and he seems tickled to hear about his female fans, the “Spiner-fems.”) Since one of the enduring stereotypes of Trekkies is that they’re asexual nerds, the movie could’ve used more of this evidence to the contrary.

Trekkies is often entertaining; the footage of the late, great Bones the Cat is as side-splitting as anything in any comedy you’ll see. Just don’t expect an incisive, balanced documentary. Errol Morris might have cast a cold, clinical eye on Trekkies and let them hoist themselves on their own Picard, but this isn’t an Errol Morris film — it’s a gentle spotlight on a subculture. That spotlight is more warming than revealing; by the end, we’ve learned little that we didn’t know before, except that there are a hell of a lot more Trekkies among us than we might have imagined. Thank God most of them are benign — again, according to the movie.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

May 19, 1999

In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s here. After 16 years of anticipation, and at least six months of airhorn hype, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace has actually descended to Earth in physical form, lightly touching the faithful fans on their fevered foreheads …. Oh, and how is it as a movie? Bad. Very bad. Terrible, juvenile, tedious, empty. In that order. Does that matter? No. It’s a new Star Wars movie, and it’s there, and people will have to see it if only to be able to say they’ve seen it. Whether they’ll be able to say they enjoyed it is another story.

After 22 years away from the director’s chair, George Lucas has returned to it, in his first full-time gig behind the camera since the original Star Wars. He has also penned his first all-by-himself screenplay in 22 years. Taken together, the script and the direction are proof positive that Lucas should never again be allowed behind a camera or a keyboard. The dialogue is a medley of flat, cringe-inducing platitudes or lame stabs at humor. The action scenes go by in a hectic blur; the people scenes drag on into infinity. The most memorable performances are by computer-animated aliens — one of whom, the clumsy Jar Jar Binks, may entertain very small children but will send anyone over 12 into exasperated fits of eye-rolling.

The “story,” such as it is, involves Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), Luke Skywalker’s future mother, who wears Noh-flavored gowns and kabuki make-up; her chalky face is brightened with a crimson dot on each cheek and a dainty blood-red smear bisecting her bottom lip, as if the actress bit it to stay awake and bore down too hard. Queen Amidala refuses to sign a corrupt trade treaty, so the Trade Federation wants to persuade her. Enter Darth Maul (Ray Park), Mr. Persuasion. A horned, red-faced Sith assassin, Darth Maul has very little to do in the movie except look fierce and sell action figures and T-shirts.

The Queen’s only hope is two Jedi Knights — the veteran Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan MacGregor). They take her to Tatooine, where they encounter the nine-year-old prodigy Anakin Skywalker (amateurish Jake Lloyd), the future Darth Vader. There is a pod race, there are lightsaber duels, there is a computer-generated battle between computer-generated aliens and computer-generated battle droids. If you are easily impressed by special-effects whiz-bang, Phantom Menace may be your cup of adrenaline. But the consequence of the restless editing and the ceaseless CGI is an overall thinness. The movie has no heft, no weight — it’s a giant PS2 version of itself.

The actors get lost in the design. Lucas makes a fatal error in placing the bland Jake Lloyd and the annoying Jar Jar Binks so centrally, while keeping fine actors Neeson, MacGregor, and Portman under his thumb. These actors look demoralized and bored, as if they knew that the thin air they’re emoting with will be filled by the CGI critters Lucas really cares about. Meanwhile, Lucas gives the crowd-pleasing Darth Maul a bare minimum of screen time and resorts to a lot of cheap jokes. What was he thinking? If Phantom Menace is meant to be the start of a fresh trilogy, and the genesis of the entire six-part Star Wars saga, it’s an awfully shaky start.

George Lucas had the money and power to do exactly what he wanted to do in Phantom Menace, and that’s the most depressing part: you stare at it and say, “This is what he wanted to do?” You’d hate to see a movie he didn’t want to do. Or perhaps this is actually a movie he didn’t want to do. Perhaps Lucas feels trapped in the universe he created — perhaps he resents having to go back to this well three more times. If so, he has no one to blame but himself.


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