Saturday, September 24, 2011

The All New, All Different: Star Trek

So, with my man J.J. finally committing to directing the next Star Trek, I thought I'd celebrate by dropping a review of his first effort that I wrote at the time:

art by Brock Rizy

So we can all agree that Star Trek was butter (well, not all of us, but I'll get to that), so I won't waste time trying to convince you to like it. Instead, I'll try to lend some perspective to the franchise in light of what we have at this point. Just so we're on the same page, let's go over what J.J. Abrams did right.
One of the things that strikes me most now, months later, is how focused the movie is. It knows what it wants to do and gets right to it. Kirk's an out of control cowboy, Spock's trying to find himself, Bones is a spaz (in a good way), and never are we in doubt about these guys' personalities. The characters are established quickly, as is the plot. The story is speeding towards it's own resolution almost from the prologue. I mean, the prologue itself is a complete story: We establish the villain's goals; the destiny of our star; and the heroic nature of Starfleet itself. After that the Abrams seems to be using the ABC method of story telling. Fate seems eminent and, clocking in at a lean 127 minutes, little time is wasted in fulfilling it. Kirk's destined to be captain of the Enterprise, Spock & Kirk are destined to be friends, Sulu's destined to have madd skillz with a sword: By the time this movie is over, all is as it should be.
Of course, the vehicle of all this destiny is the U.S.S. Enterprise. She's a prime example of what pushes this movie to the next level for me; perhaps rivaling Star Wars if the merchandise is leveraged right. I speak, of course, about Stark Trek's mech design. We can start with the Enterprise herself. Have you seen her? She's built like a freakin' muscle car! The redesign on the warp engines alone is revolutionary. The bridge design is pretty much like the classic bridge, but streamlined so that it still feels futuristic, and doesn't fall into that future-retro trap. The Narada is a monster of a ship, which also works, visually, as a mining vessel. Even the Kelvin with it's single warp engine was pretty cool looking. Everything down to the phasers and that foldaway sword Sulu had, the design is brilliant.
Another positive facet of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek is the strong characterizations. This has been one of Abrams' strengths through his career. I would suggest this was accomplished as much by casting as by writing. Zachary Quinto (Heroes, as if you didn't know) was probably the least controversial casting decision, and I must admit, he didn't disappoint. Zoe Saldana(Avatar) as Uhura was another easy one, though she didn't have much to do (then, Uhura's never had much to do). Karl Urban was the most pleasant casting surprise of the movie. His Bone's was genius. He took what at first glance might have been considered an elaborate McCoy impression and brought us a brilliant, manic doctor; paranoid, but with good reason. Now, Urban's a guy who's delivered a healthy dose of mediocrity in the past. I can only attribute this energetic performance to handling by J.J. Abrams. Of course, the one everyone was worried about was Chris Pine's Kirk. Would it be an imitation; or a complete departure? In the end, they exorcised Shatner from the role, while keeping the essence of Kirk himself; the spirit of adventure, the cowboy recklessness, the gravitation to responsibility. This role is probably the one aspect that creates a wormhole from Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek to J.J. Abrams' Star Trek.
And so, I say that to say this: The movie's great. But there's more to it than that. I think Star Trek made a bit of cinema history. It's an in-continuity reboot of a franchise. How many of those have we had in the movie industry? Comics has them constantly, to it's detriment, but this is the first I've heard of a movie franchise rebooting while retaining it's continuity. I would suggest that this is due to Abrams having a comic book state of mind. And when I say “Abrams”, I'm really referring to his entire writing team. They've shown this state of mind in the past on Alias and Lost (I wouldn't know about Felicity, maybe someone out there can enlighten me) and I think it works in their favor.
And perhaps it's this state of mind that leads to some of the flaws this film has. Yes, Star Trek had flaws, and they're worth mentioning because they speak to what the essence of the franchise was and what it will be going forward. One of the most noticeable aspects of Abrams' Star Trek is that, as a sci-fi epic, it's more fi than sci. Now, that can be taken a-lot of ways, so here's what I mean by that. Star Trek, since it's inception, has been about exploration and diplomacy in space. J.J. Abrams' Star Trek has neither. No scientific discovery; no sociological anthropology; no nothin'! Even the bad guy, while very three-dimensional and who's story was capable of that social anthropology I mentioned, wasn't really gotten into because, in the end, Nero and his beef weren't the point. The point was that Kirk and Spock are great friends and great adventurers. Now, this was simply Abrams playing to his own strengths: that's what he's supposed to do, it's quality control. But, having said that, is this what we can expect from a J.J. Abrams Star Trek? And let's not forget the Romulan question. Trekkies have been complaining about the miss-characterization of the Romulans for years now, and while, granted, Nero isn't the modal Romulus native one would come across in a Trek story, this representation did nothing to allay such grumblings. And that's important. 'Cause here's the stakes:
Star Trek is a decades old, world famous sci-fi franchise; 2nd, some would say, only to Star Wars. This latest movie has set itself up not just as a narrative reboot, but a cultural reboot. It is no longer Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek; it's J.J. Abrams' Star Trek: And Abrams does, or seeks to do, what Bryan Singer couldn't do with Superman; make it relevant to today's audience. But now that it's relevant again, can it rest on just the adventurism and cool characters? Will the audience require more mature themes in the future? After all, this film brims with energy, but it's a sophomoric energy, a trait Star Trek shares with MI:3, lest we forget. Can that be maintained as a sufficient status-quo through future movies as not only the cast, but the audience ages?
And what of television? Is this strictly a movie franchise now, or can we expect another series. And what would it possibly be about? Certainly not Kirk and Spock; that's the movie's territory. Perhaps this will force the producers to give us a perspective that goes beyond a captain and his crew on a Starfleet vessel. As much as I liked Abrams' Star Trek, it does leave questions about the franchise's future. Great things are possible, but it requires someone with fresh ideas and a commitment to depth as an integral quality of the Star Trek universe. Can J.J. the take this thing beyond the first film of a franchise reboot? We shall see.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Mature Themes: The Ecstatic by Mos Def

     When I first read about the Hitchens incident, the article made it sound as if Christopher Hitchens humiliated Mos Def and made him look like an idiot. It then started making excuses for Mos, saying he was playing devil's advocate in defending the Taliban, etc. Of course, when I finally saw the exchange, I had a different perspective. In my view, Mos Def asked a simple question regarding the deeper motives of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and those who support them. Hitchens reacted with dismissive sarcasm, and none of the panel had the courage to delve into the issue any deeper than the “they're evil guys who want to take over the world” scenario. Weather you agree with Mos' point of view or not, this incident was a good example of him as someone with a unique perspective. He asks questions no one else is asking; and he's making music no one else is making.
 cover to The Ecstatic by Mos Def

     One thing that jumps out at me on The Ecstatic, is Mos' attitude toward song structure. People like Souls of Mischief, Doom, along with Mos Def are favorites of mine partially because of their willingness to either play with, or abandon the verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/breakdown structure of the average pop song. One dalliance in this area is what I call the “one verser” or the “perfect little song”. It's a technique I'd be wiling to bet he got from Doom. The best example of this might be Revelations: Using the “one verser” method, the rhymer will set the beat moving, and spit one long verse; perhaps 32 to 48 bars. However, the verse will have physical breaks or changes in them, cadence or rhyme pattern which, taken as a whole, connote a chorus and verse, but wouldn't be apparent to the listener until the end of the song. Mos also perfects on this album a technique he's used with varying results on the last 2 albums. I call it the “reprise verse” technique. This is where the rapper spits a short verse, maybe 8 bars or so, and then spits it again, but either with different subject matter or different words for the same rhyme scheme. For a great example of this, go to track #3, Auditorium feat. Slick Rick, or even better, track #12, Worker's Comp. This may seem like a simple trick, but Mos Def uses this technique to lend great poignancy to very simple rhymes.

     Of course, Mos Def's singularity doesn't end at the Rhymes. I don't know if Mos actually made the beats on this album, but he's credited with producing the whole thing, so I assume that means he at least chose and mixed the beats that are used. Whatever the case, there are beats on this album that can literally be heard no where else in hip-hop. I don't know what he's been listening to in order to find the instrumentation and samples used on The Ecstatic, but I will say that a-lot of it reflects his fascination with Islam. Auditorium is clearly sampled from some sort of middle-eastern pop music, and The Embassy on track #8 is a great example of him rapping over an old-school, stripped down Arabic beat.

     Before I finish, can I just say: It's great to have an MC with a subject and a predicate. One of the songs that made me a hip-hop head when I was young was My Philosophy by KRS-1. It showed me that there could be an entire class of MC out there whose claim to fame was intelligence. Nowadays, even amongst the Underground, one might have to search long and hard for rappers who use madd skillz to provoke intellectual curiosity. Thanks to Mos Def, we have an MC who understands black perspectives and issues, and takes them seriously; has mature and thoughtful ideas in his lyrics; and makes songs on a wide range of subjects. I don't think he made one drug sales reference the entire album, and he even stays away from the trap of harping on “the struggle” over and over again which a-lot of so called positive rappers fall into. The Ecstatic is an all positive album of unlimited subject range.
     So, since Mos Def didn't get an NAACP image award, I'll present him with the Corance/GhettoManga Blackest Man In America award. Because he doesn't shoot people or sell drugs in his rhymes; he doesn't run around with his shirt off; he doesn't disrespect women. In fact, he brings new respect to the black community by saying things no one else is saying through music no one else is making. Brilliant!


Friday, September 2, 2011

God Body: Return of the Protege-page 12

Our newest story comes to an end. I hope you enjoyed it! Let me know what you thought, and stay tuned for more. Click here to start at the beginning and read it again!

by Corance Davis and Rasheed Hines