For the Love of Spock


The Nimoys are all ears.

The Nimoys are all ears.

(2016) Documentary (Gravitas) Leonard Nimoy, Adam Nimoy, Mel Nimoy, Sybil Nimoy, Julie Nimoy, William Shatner, Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, Zachary Quinto, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Mayim Bialik, Jim Parsons, J.J. Abrams, Jason Alexander, Walter Koenig, Catherine Hicks, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Nicholas Meyer, D.C. Fontana, Amy Mainzer. Directed by Adam Nimoy

 

The character of Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek series was and is a cultural icon. Played by Leonard Nimoy, then a character actor who had never worked more than two weeks on the same project in his career, he was created at a time of great social upheaval and in many ways stood for rationality, logic and self-control in a time when just about everyone was about as emotional as one could get. He also stood for cultural tolerance, as he was best friends with a human which was a metaphor for the racial turmoil going on in the United States at the time (and sadly continues to this day).

Nimoy’s son Adam, a successful television director, wanted to do a documentary on the cultural phenomenon that is Spock and got his father’s blessing to do it. After a Kickstarter campaign netted the necessary funds, Adam conducted an interview with his father and started to talk to other members of the original series cast when his father suddenly passed away at age 83.

The focus of the film changed from Spock to Leonard Nimoy. It became a love letter from a son to his father. The two had a very rocky relationship at times, particularly when Adam’s drug use became an issue, which fueled displeasure from his father, an alcoholic. They went years without speaking, but eventually reconciled.

He tells his father’s story, glossing over his childhood and young adulthood and bringing him to his days in Trek. Much of  the movie focuses on his time as Spock and in between; on the rigors of fame and having to share his father with an adoring fan base. Early on, he and his sister Julie answered fan mail for their father. It was Adam who in the famous prank showed up on the set without his dad’s knowledge wearing Vulcan make-up (the footage is shown here).

Nimoy famously has had a loving relationship with the Trek community of both fans and the cast and crews of the various TV and film iterations; he also had a sometimes contentious relationship with Paramount, the studio that produced the series; his lawsuit to gain the cast royalties from merchandising was settled largely because the studio wanted to make motion pictures based on the show and Nimoy refused to sign for the film before the suit was settled. It was also at his insistence that George Takei and Nichelle Nichols were added to the animated series cast; he felt strongly that the diversity of the original show’s cast needed to be brought over to the animated show and even today both of those actors refer to the incident with great affection.

The younger Nimoy includes plenty of home movies as well as backstage footage from the show and films which for me personally was very nostalgic; I lived in Los Angeles at the time the show and the first movies were being filmed and I was reminded of that watching the film, bringing on in me a strong sense of comfort. It was an idyllic time and an idyllic place.

The movie does run a bit long in my opinion but love letters always tend to. Fans of the TV show and of Star Trek in general won’t mind; I think they’ll kind of prefer it that way. The interviews with the new cast add a bit of dimension in that all of them grew up with Star Trek even if they weren’t fans and those that were (such as Simon Pegg) were a bit awestruck working with Nimoy in his signature role. Fans like Jason Alexander and Jim Parsons talk about what the character meant to them but at the end of the day, it is his brother Mel who breaks down when talking about the terrible day when Leonard Nimoy passed away that gives us the greatest sense of what the man behind the Vulcan meant to us all.

The film closes with a tribute to Nimoy at the Burning Man festival shortly after he passed away and I swear that the flames on the tribute as, like the other temporary art installations at the festival, burned to the ground brought to mind the Federation emblem in the shape of the flames seemed to be the most cosmic of all the tributes. Spock lives but without Nimoy to give the character its essence (with all due respect to Zachary Quinto who plays Spock in the movie reboot franchise) it is mostly the idea of Spock that we have now – and that gives all of us comfort. Truly, this is a wonderful way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the original show.

REASONS TO GO: Very much a love letter from a son to his father. It’s an interesting perspective on fame by the children of the famous. The backstage footage is pretty nifty.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a little bit on the long side.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some foul language but not a lot.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The movie was funded by a Kickstarter campaign.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Be Takei
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Milton’s Secret

Hot Sugar’s Cold World


The most erotic Pop Rocks recording ever.

The most erotic Pop Rocks recording ever.

(2015) Musical Documentary (Amplify) Nick “Hot Sugar” Koenig, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Jim Jarmusch, Rachel Trachtenburg, Shelby Fero, Martin Starr, Kool AD, Dapwell, Heems, Kathryn-Leigh “Kitty” Beckwith, William Edward Glen, Despot, Ariana, Himanshu Suri, Frank Andrews, Danny Brown. Directed by Adam Bhala Lough

Music isn’t just a collection of pretty notes played on instruments; in its most primal form it emanates from everything around us, from the noises of a drunk vomiting next to a cab door slamming to a pair of human skulls being smashed together in the Paris catacombs. In its most intellectually stimulating form, it challenges us to define it and redefine it – is music just a collection of sounds or is it something else?

Nick Koenig, a.k.a. Hot Sugar seems to think the latter. An electronic composer/musician/performer based in New York, most of his music has been released via the Internet. Thought by some to be a modern-day Mozart, he almost compulsively records sounds throughout his world (and any others he can find) and utilizes them to create beats and base music on. Some of the soundscapes he creates are incredibly beautiful; others are harsh and discordant; others are percussive and propulsive.

Like many artists, he doesn’t have a ton of humility; at one point he dismisses musical instruments like the piano and the guitar as “novelties” as if something that has been around more than a thousand years is just a passing phase. However, if you dig deep you can kind of see his point; musical instruments were essentially invented to be heard at a further range in a pre-amplification era; drums in fact have been used as devices of communication. Music going back to our most primitive past was essentially made via human sound – the voice and the beating of the chest and the clapping of hands.

Koenig is consumed by his muse; he can’t be bothered to devote a ton of attention to interpersonal relationships, although he has a girlfriend, rapper Kitty who like Hot Sugar, is more of an internet personality rather than a mainstream figure. When the two break up about 20 minutes in, the vitriol is incredibly toxic with Twitter and Instagram used as a delivery system for the poison.

Koenig responds by returning to his roots – visiting family in France including where his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, is buried. He goes on a world tour although he has reservations about it; one of his posts on the Internet can reach far more people than any club appearance. Apparently the necessity of face-to-face interaction with his fanbase eludes him.

Some of the better moments in the film come when Koenig is interacting with others – like astrophysicist and current face of scientific endeavor Tyson who discusses the science of sound with Koenig, as well as members of the hip hop group Das Racist and comedian/actor Starr (Silicon Valley), the latter who goes out with Koenig on a perhaps ill-conceived attempt to buy illegal fireworks to shoot off in a local gymnasium.

The documentary by respected filmmaker Lough captures Koenig in all his best and worst moments; from composing some really dazzling pieces to some thoughts that will bring the facepalms out in force. His single-mindedness and occasional bouts of Taking Himself to Seriously-itis can make him a difficult figure to relate to and one senses that it is perfectly okay with him. He’s not looking to be related to; he’s looking to challenge our concepts of what music is or should be, and to recreate it in his own image. It’s a brash and ultimately senseless undertaking, but one has to admire his guts to even try.

I can’t say I liked the documentary because ultimately I found Koenig to be the ultimate millennial; absolutely sure in his views that everything that preceded his existence was more or less wrong. It is a mindset in which the sum isn’t just greater than the parts but that the parts are irrelevant. I find that sort of thing to be a little bit disturbing but it is a brave new world and while being hip doesn’t interest me, being able to navigate the changes that come does. Hot Sugar may indeed be making the noise of the future that will replace music as we know it. That doesn’t mean I will embrace the change that he may very well have the talent to make.

The movie is currently set for a very limited release mainly in one-off screenings but as of November 6 the film will be available in on-demand or downloadable form; go to the website to see where you can find the film by clicking on the photo at the top of this review.

REASONS TO GO: The music can be incredible. Some fascinating images. Interesting look at the creative process.
REASONS TO STAY: Koenig comes off as a bit self-important. The breakup of his relationship takes up too much time. Hot Sugar is not necessarily a film subject that people will go out of their way to look for.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity, sexual images and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Koenig lives in New York City now, he was raised in Paris and speaks fluent French.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Exit Through the Gift Shop
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Miss You Already

Europa Report


One of the many stunning visuals from Europa Report.

One of the many stunning visuals from Europa Report.

(2013) Sci-Fi Thriller (Magnet) Michael Nyqvist, Sharlto Copley, Embeth Davidtz, Daniel Wu, Christian Camargo, Karolina Wydra, Anamaria Marinca, Dan Fogler, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Neil deGrasse Tyson. Directed by Sebastian Cordero

The acquisition of knowledge doesn’t come without cost and sacrifice. Marie Curie, dying of radiation poisoning but her pioneering research led to such breakthroughs as x-rays and the understanding of isotopes. The crews of the Challenger and Columbia, part of our efforts to colonize and explore space. Ferdinand Magellan, the first to circumnavigate the globe although he didn’t quite get there – dying short of his goal (which his ship and crew completed). But is the knowledge worth the cost?

The Europa Project and the spacecraft Europa One are a privately-funded exploration project to send a manned expedition to Europa, one of Jupiter’s largest moons, to discover if life exists there. Recent probes have discovered the possibility of liquid water below the ice-covered surface and of all the places in our solar system, may harbor the best potential for the existence of life.

The mission consists of six crew members – Pilot and Mission Commander William Xu (Wu), navigator Rosa Dasque (Marinca), Chief Science Officer Daniel Luxembourg (Camargo), Marine Biologist Katya Petrovna (Wydra), Junior Engineer James Corrigan (Copley) and Chief Engineer Andrei Blok (Nyqvist). A solar storm knocks out their communications equipment about a year into the mission.

While Dr. Unger (Davidtz), CEO of Europa Ventures – the parent company of the mission – frets back on Earth, the team determine to make an extravehicular walk to the exterior of the spacecraft to try and repair the communications array. The attempt is unsuccessful and leads to an unsettling catastrophe that puts the crew into a kind of funk.

They decide to carry on with the mission and eventually land on the surface of Europa, although an unexpected thermal vent knocks them slightly off-course so that they land several hundred yards away from their intended landing site. Their remote probes find nothing but strange occurrences lead them to doubt their sanity and hint at something miraculous on Europa.

This is ostensibly a found footage film, taken from the supposedly declassified documents and videos sent back by the mission, with Unger providing narration. There are a lot of reasons to be wary of found footage films but thankfully, not this one. It is one of the best to come out of the genre yet. The visuals can be absolutely stunning, and the set design is truly outstanding, and cinematographer Enrique Chediak makes it all look good.

Cordero, who previously helmed the fine mystery film Cronicas, outdoes himself here. He shot this entirely on a Brooklyn sound stage over a course of 18 days. The budget was pretty miniscule as sci-fi films go, but every nickel is onscreen.

The cast is fairly impressive and while none really distinguish themselves particularly, they are all capable actors acting capably here. Copley is probably the best-known of the group with appearances in District 9 and more recently, Elysium but Nyqvist, from the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo might be more familiar to European audiences.

While there have been a fair amount of movies with similar themes over the years, not many have been as taut and well-constructed as this one. One quibble – they begin the film shortly after the failed attempt to repair the communications array and refer to events that haven’t happened yet, then tell much of the rest in flashbacks. Coupled with Unger’s narration from well past the mission’s completion, it can get somewhat confusing to the average viewer not paying close attention.

However, overall this is a very solid and enjoyable sci-fi thriller that makes use of the virtues of the found footage genre as well as any movie has of late. That in itself is reason to laud the heck out of the film.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific visuals. Realistic depictions of character and situation.

REASONS TO STAY: Somewhat confusing at the beginning. Acting is serviceable but not really outstanding.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some scenes of action and a few scary images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hydrazine, the substance that gets on James’ spacesuit during the repair mission, has been used in reality for decades as thruster propellant and auxiliary power unit fuel in spacecraft.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/16/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Apollo 18

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones