Great Gravitas in Two Popcorn Flicks

We don’t exactly think of superheroes or science fiction when we think of Oscar bait, but two performances in mainstream pop movies of recent years have stuck with me. They both demonstrated a subdued gravitas which may have slipped past many people’s radar because the work was so naturally understated.

The first is Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War. One of the complaints about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that it has so many dead ends, and despite the continuous storyline, so many of its films still feel like stand alone fresh starts. That’s largely true.

An exception is RDJ’s work in Civil War. His portrayal of Tony Stark has been uneven, partly as he has explored the character himself, and partly as the varying quality of scripts has left him more or less to work with, but not only did the plot of Civil War bring to fruition all the character growth earned and lost over the course of several films, RDJ brought his A game to it, and gave an impressively nuanced performance.

We can really feel the weight of all that has happened in recent years in the MCU in this film. We can see this movie as a depiction of the age-old political struggle between collectivism and individualism, but Tony Stark is no bureaucratic stooge here: RDJ makes it clear that this man is finally just crumpling under the burdens that life has kept stacking on him. He needs escape. He needs rest. This is a man in turmoil.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

download-1I watched the premiere of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine back in 1993, and I hated it. I was a teenager, and this show bored me to tears (it’s called Trek, but they don’t actually go anywhere!). I did the natural thing: I forgot it existed for more than two decades.

I checked out some episodes on Netflix recently, and I was quite amazed: Deep Space Nine is awesome!

If Rogue One is Star Wars for grown ups, Deep Space Nine is Star Trek for adults. Even the opening credits (whose slowness baffled me as a kid), illustrate this contrast. Where the first two Star Trek series had zippy, bombastic anthems playing, DS9 has a somber, stately processional.

And I never knew that DS9 was a tense political thriller! World building is a big thing in the realm of fantasy writing these days, but unlike the rest of the franchise up to that point, DS9 isn’t an obvious analogy for the political environment of our time, but has completely invented its own wholly complete and complex political milieu from scratch.

And it’s unabashedly a military thriller! This is a story of the world at war. (Gene Roddenberry always wanted Star Trek to be about a hippie Utopia without real violence; hence the emphasis on families on board the Enterprise in season 1 of TNG, and hence the detachable saucer to whisk them off to safety in time of need–both awful plot devices that quietly disappeared as that show became much better).

But DS9 is absolutely saturated in military conflict. It’s everywhere, all the time. And, again, it’s a rich, mature world of serious political intrigue. This will definitely be my next Netflix binge show. For anyone else who might have written this off back in the 90s, do yourself a favor and give Deep Space Nine another chance.

Which Episodes of Star Trek Should Be In The Reboot Universe?


With Star Trek Beyond set in the middle of the “5-year mission,” we’ve officially reached crossover time with the original series.* Despite the alternate universe of the reboot, V’ger is still out there, the whale probe is still on its way, and the Klingon moon is still likely to explode.

Besides those later movie references, the TV series itself offers some rich grist for the mill. Consider the great 2nd season episode, “The Doomsday Machine.” This one featured a giant automated device with an impenetrable hull from beyond our galaxy that would slice up entire solar systems. It drifted in from off our charts and wreaked havoc. Nothing in the altered timeline would change that. It’s still out there, and at about the right time to merge with the reboot universe.

The original episode does a decent job of conveying the machine’s size and strength, but obviously the budget and effects of the time left it largely to imagination. Today, a story on such a scale could be realized much more effectively. If the Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens was a big step up from the old Death Star, a new Doomsday Machine could make Starkiller Base look like child’s play.

Future reboot movies could do a lot worse than including a new Doomsday Machine.


* I used to worry that the reboot series was moving too far too fast, but then it struck me that Kirk probably joined Starfleet several years later in this universe than he would have in the original series. Having them in the “5-year mission” era already seems defensible. Besides, its the 3rd film in the series; no need to hold off forever on the timeline.


Notes and Quotes, June 2014


  • List of technology-enhanced activities for secondary English classes.
  • Examples of worthwhile technology-enhanced lesson plans.
  • Quick thoughts from the Hardings, homeschooling parents of ten who have sent seven kids to college by age 12.
  • Recently found this silly video I made for a class I was taking two years ago.  Amusing.
  • Instapundit nails it: the humanities lost relevance when they decided to preach that nothing has intrinsic value.  It’s been my experience that students (yes, even at-risk, underprivileged minorities!) appreciate the classics.  Everybody likes the egalitarian ideal of participation in the uniting, universal canon, rather than manufactured niche curricula that only panders to trends.


Language & Literature

  • Great WSJ essay on one of my favorite books, A Confederacy of Dunces.
  • Cute chart collects insults from famous authors who hated each other’s work.
  • Fascinating memoir of writing the script for Star Trek: Insurrection. Included here because it shares so much about that specific writing craft.  Also, Insurrection is often over-maligned—it is not great, but not nearly as bad as many say.  This long essay shows how it could have been great.
  • Long lost introduction by Anthony Burgess to Dubliners.



Living Well

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Star Trek Bamboozle

It’s been almost a year since the universally praised Star Trek reboot came out in theaters, but it’s only been recently that I’ve realized what an unbelievable premise the ending gives us: Jim Kirk, a rookie fresh out of the Academy, is given permanent command of Starfleet’s flagship. 

Don’t get me wrong; this is still a fantastic movie.  If anything, JJ Abrams gets infinite kudos for making this story remotely believable.  But no matter how many field promotions were given, and no matter how heroic or effective he was in a crisis, nobody’s first assignment after graduating would be captain.  He was even being investigated for academic fraud at the time!  They gave us an amazingly clever start to the series, but in their rush to put Kirk in charge, they gave us a story that simply doesn’t hold water. 

Good thing the movie was strong enough to survive such a leap in logic.  Can’t wait for the sequel.

Fun With Star Trek

Long live Star Trek!  The Mrs. and I went to see the new flick Thursday night, and the baby slept throuh the whole thing…a great sign right there!  I won’t bore you with my slobbering nerd worship, but since then I’ve watched a couple of episodes of the classic original series where they’re all archived on the CBS web site.  Hungry for more, I rented Star Trek II.  Still ravenous, I sated myself on YouTube videos.

And that’s where I found these two astonishing, breathtaking triumphs of human genius.  Wow.  Just wow.  Ladies and gentlemen, may I proudly present “The A-Team” and Monty Python and the Holy Grail…starring the crew of the starship Enterprise:

Time To Revisit Star Trek VI

200px-star_trek_vi-posterAs the hubbub heats up for the release of the big Star Trek reboot in two weeks (and it does look terrific), I’ve been thinking back on the first ten films in the series.  Fans have their favorites and their theories: the even numbered films are the best, most say, and favorites tend to cluster. 

Many people will cite Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as the best, and they have a strong case: Kirk’s backstory, the ingenious continuity of an episode from the original series (and the hilarious mistake of having Khan recognize a crew member who wasn’t actually on the show during that original episode), the presence of recently departed Ricardo Montalban as supervillain Khan and a young (and skinny!) Kirstie Alley as a Vulcan named Saavik, plus the riveting conclusion with its cat-and-mouse battle and Spock’s sacrifice.  Undeniably, a great movie. 

Those who aren’t devoted fans might fondly remember 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, a lighthearted romp where the Enterprise travels back to the 1980’s to…wait for it…save the whales!  By far the funniest in the series, its jokes mainly revolve around the 80’s tried and true “out of place adults and/or aliens reacting to the strangeness of modern life” formula. 

And of course, there’s a lot to be said for Star Trek: First Contact, a film made especially to attract non-fans, which did so by pumping out one of the most viscerally intense action movies of the 90’s (really!) by taking the Borg threat from the Next Generation TV series and making them ten times cooler. 

But as I’ve reminisced, I realized that I hadn’t seen Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country since I saw it in the theater 18 years ago.  I figured it was time to give it another go, and put it on tonight.

Here’s six reasons why Star Trek VI may well be the best of the first ten Star Trek movies:

WARNING: Spoilers follow!  If you don’t like it, go and watch the movie first.  Just trust me. 

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