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

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To Be Takei


It's always a great day to be OK to be Takei!

It’s always a great day to be OK to be Takei!

(2014) Documentary (Starz Digital Media) George Takei, Brad Takei, Walter Koenig, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, John Cho, Daniel Inouye, Norman Mineta, Lea Salonga, Dan Savage, Howard Stern, Jay Kuo, Tom Ammiano, Eddie Paskey, Lorenzo Thorne, Telly Leung, Jimi Yamaichi. Directed by Jennifer R. Kroot

From an outsider’s perspective, it seems that it must be great to be George Takei. Beloved Star Trek actor, Facebook sensation, activist and advocate for Japanese-Americans and the gay community, he has been described as America’s gay uncle and that might not be far from the truth.

But when you consider the things he’s been through – being imprisoned in two different internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the no less damaging prison that came from being a closeted actor throughout most of his career (he didn’t come out until 2005 and then in response to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s veto of the gay marriage bill.

He has overcome some difficult, dark days but he has emerged on the other end with a disingenuous smile and a live and let live attitude that might lead some to underestimate how forceful and passionate he is for the causes he believes in. Even his feud with William Shatner doesn’t seem to be something he takes all that seriously; I get the sense he doesn’t feel any ill will towards the actor. Shatner, interviewed for the film, comes off as somewhat befuddled about the fuss and a bit standoffish – “I really don’t know the man,” he protests on several occasions.

Still, I don’t know if I could be as cheerful as Takei given his circumstances. What keeps him sane, I think, is his relationship with his husband Brad. Brad is kind of the sensible, detail-oriented one in the relationship. He takes George’s crazy schedule and makes it work. Sometimes he can be a bit of a nag, other times he can be a bit startled at George’s occasional penchant for oversharing, sometimes he can be a bit of a nit-picker. Still, the love that is there is obvious and deep.

In fact, watching the interaction between George and Brad made me think “That’s me and my wife!” There is really no difference in their relationship than my relationship with my wife other than that my relationship is with a woman and George Takei’s is with a man. They both drive each other crazy upon occasion but they both lean on and rely on each other – and there’s no doubt either man would take a bullet for the other, literally and figuratively. That’s how most good marriages work. People who are fuzzy about whether gay people should be married should watch these two gay people together. They are indeed, the prototypical gay married couple.

I did find that aspect of the documentary inspiring; I also found that the scenes of George’s activism with both Japanese-American causes as well as gay causes to be among the most interesting in the film which is something since I’m a proud Trekker and love the little insights that come in from the surviving members of the crew of the Enterprise. As a Trekker I might have wanted more on his era in Star Trek but the film critic in me acknowledges that would only appeal to a certain segment, myself included.

However, the film critic in me frowns on the way that Kroot bounces around in subject matter, from the internment to George’s early Hollywood years to his discovering he was gay in high school to his Facebook stardom to his relationship with his parents. I would have preferred something a little more linear in terms of telling Takei’s story, although something tells me that George himself isn’t the most linear of men.

A project close to Takei’s heart these days is Allegiance, a musical about the Japanese-American experience in the internment camps that Takei starred in (along with Salonga). The show is largely informed by Takei’s own experiences and shows a depth in his acting that he rarely gets a chance to display. The musical set records at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater and is expected to debut on Broadway during the upcoming season.

Takei himself makes a fascinating subject for a documentary and it’s high time that there was one made about him. There are some great archival photographs and such but I think the focus here is rightly on the relationship between George and Brad – which is clearly the central focus in George’s life – and on his activism. It is impressive that in his 70s George Takei has become much more of a cultural phenomenon than he was as a younger man, and continues to work an impressive schedule not only as an actor but with personal appearances as well as speaking engagements for his various causes. Takei is a national treasure and we should appreciate him as such.

REASONS TO GO: Takei is as interesting a person as you think he is and probably more so. Does a lot to further the cause of gay marriage.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary jumps around from subject to subject in kind of a willy-nilly fashion. May not have enough Star Trek material for some Trekkers.
FAMILY VALUES:  Suitable for family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Takei was born with the first name of Hosato, but was called George by his father, an Anglophile (as his son later became) after the coronation of King George VI in 1937.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before You Know It
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Skeleton Twins

Fanboys


Fanboys

Fanboys on the outside looking in.

(2008) Comedy (Weinstein) Sam Huntington, Chris Marquette, Dan Fogler, Jay Baruchel, Kristen Bell, Carrie Fisher, Danny Trejo, Billy Dee Williams, Seth Rogen, Allie Grant, William Shatner. Directed by Kyle Newman

Fans have a kind of sweet madness. I’m not talking about the people who follow something on a casual basis; I mean the full-out, balls-to-the-wall, obsessive, dangerously knowledgeable super-fans; the kind that show up at conventions and name their kids after characters in the movies.

This specific fandom that Fanboys is examining is the Star Wars fans. The movie is set in 1998, just prior to the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and arguably the best time to be a fan of the series – when anticipation had fans jumping out of their skins waiting for the new movie, the first in more than 15 years.

Four school friends who hadn’t been together since graduation meet up at a party; Eric (Huntington), the lone respectable one who was working for his dad’s car dealership which he was expected to take over some day; Hutch (Fogler) who lives in his mom’s “carriage house” (read: garage), Windows (Baruchel) a computer nerd who has a thing for a chat room geek he’s never met and Linus (Marquette), who is somewhat angry about the way things turned out.

It turns out he has plenty of reason to be angry; he has cancer and won’t live to see the next movie in the franchise released. Eric, who was once his best friend, resumes that role and decides that his friend WILL see the movie before anyone else does. The four of them – and Zoe (Bell), a very cool friend that frequents the comic book store Hutch and Windows work at and quite possibly the only girl that could hang with these guys – will drive from Ohio to Marin County, California where Skywalker Ranch is located, break in and watch the movie. Windows’ online crush even claims she can get them the plans to the Ranch which is legendary for its security.

They take off in Hutch’s tricked out van, a kind of rolling convention on wheels, and head vaguely West. On the way they will encounter evil Star Trek fans, the all-knowing Harry Knowles (of Ain’t It Cool News fame) and William Shatner himself as they race the clock to get their dying friend to the ranch. Will it be worth the trip?

Of course, we all know at this point in time that The Phantom Menace was a disappointment but back then the possibilities were endless. The world of fans was anticipating what they thought would be an epic movie and nearly every fan website was in a dither. It was a kinder world.

However, the story of this movie might have made a good movie of its own. The movie was completed back in 2007 but was shelved by studio head Harvey Weinstein who felt the cancer subplot was too grim for the comedy he wanted; he also felt it appealed to a niche audience and not a general one. Both are legitimate points.

Director Newman fought the changes and Weinstein eventually assigned director Steven Brill to reshoot some scenes and re-edit it. Fans went ballistic, launching a campaign to stop the changes, opening MySpace pages (“Stop Darth Weinstein”) and threatening to boycott Superhero Movie en masse. I’m not so sure that was a threat so much as a relief.

Eventually Weinstein relented and allowed Newman to re-cut the movie a third time…only he gave him only 36 hours to do the work. The movie bounced from release date to release date over the course of three years until it finally got an extremely limited release in February 2009 and, as you can see from the box office performance below, died like the Emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi.

It’s kind of a shame because the movie isn’t too bad. It got a critical shellacking which, frankly, illustrates why critics are out of touch with the audience that comes to the movies. People do get involved with their favorite franchises. Laugh and make fun if you want to, but it fulfills something in people, be it Trekkers, Star Wars fan or Twilighters. Those who judge the lifestyles of these people are the ones who really need to get a life.

For the most part, the performances here are okay although there’s nothing here that’s going to supercharge any careers. Baruchel is sweet as Windows and Marquette has some nice scenes as Linus. Mostly, the star power is in the cameos and there are plenty of those, from Star Wars vets Fisher and Williams to Shatner and Rogen (who is amusing as an overbearing Trek fan).

There are a lot of asides that will have knowing fans nodding in satisfaction; I can see how audiences not super-familiar with the Star Wars saga might feel left out a little. However, the movie really isn’t for them anyway. The DVD extras on several occasions call this a love letter to Star Wars but I don’t think it actually ends up that way. It’s more a love letter to the fans, and not just of Star Wars but of all things that excite the imagination and promote obsession. It’s sweet-natured and while not everything works, I am positive that the love is sincere. I’d much rather see a movie like this one than a thousand big budget big star comedies whose sole reason for being is to fatten the bank accounts of those involved. Sincerity trumps budget every time.

WHY RENT THIS: A very sweet homage to fandom, particularly that of Star Wars. Some of the cameos are actually well thought-out.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit gratuitous in places and the humor – well heck the whole dang movie – is going to appeal to a very limited audience; some of the references will go right over the heads of ordinary folk.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of crude humor, much of it sexual (as you might expect from a bunch of guys who don’t get laid much). There’s also some drug use in the movie, as well as a heaping helping of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The guards at Skywalker Ranch wear uniforms from THX-1138, one of Lucas’ early films (and one he references regularly in subsequent films). The head guard is played in a cameo appearance by Ray Park, who played Darth Maul in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is some webisodes that were available before the movie’s release, as well as a character study but really, most of the extras are relatively mundane as these things go.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $960,828 on an unreported production budget; the film was undoubtedly a flop.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Answer Man