TO BE TAKEI (2014)
reviewed by Audy Elliott
Campy, devilish, light hearted, balanced, truthful, determined, politically astute, complex
Takei’s voice is syrupy good
Movie’s infectious delivery
Movie’s Narrative Spirit
Unsmooth emotional transitions
Flat in pacing during key parts
Focused too much on the husband as part of the subject
A missed opportunity to uncover more about his involvement with ‘Allegiance’ production
Weak technical direction at times
WHAT THE MOVIE IS ABOUT
A keen documentary that encapsulates over seven decades of the life of actor and activist George Takei who has boldly journeyed from a WWII internment camp, to the helm of the starship Enterprise, to the daily news feeds of five million Facebook fans, while also showing George and his husband Brad on the star's playful and profound trek for life, liberty, and love.
WHAT THE MOVIE IS REALLY ABOUT
Premiering on January 18th at the Sundance Film Festival and picked up by Starz Digital Media Distribution, the documentary shows the career of Star Trek actor George Takei, and paints a well-rounded portrait of a then young Japanese-American who at first survived Internment camp and became a rare Asian American movie and TV star (when it was truly difficult) with one of the most iconic pop culture sci-fi franchises of all time. The documentary directly puts Takei right in the center, where by his own admission is where he always wanted or needed to be. The film focuses on Takei’s personal and professional life and how both worlds would clash with ferocious tension, leaving Takei to make some hard choices in the face of post-modern racial stereotypes exercised by Hollywood, that would threaten at times, the very talent that got him there in the first place. You are forced, when first watching the film, to take notice how he deftly reintroduced himself to millennials, onto geeky pop culture children of his original fanbase, and did it on his own terms without having to ungraciously pimp himself using the star trek brand. The appreciation of Takei is that for longevity’s sake compared to his star-trek companions there are no determinant signs he is slowing down. There is an unknowingly refreshing complexity that Takei slides back and forth from when telling his story with a punchy nuanced zeal.
The movie's emotional intonation is an interplay between Takei’s syrupy golden voice and how it’s delivered pressingly tight between his multifaceted persona of comic pop ingénue and a sharp booming advocate. He demonstrates an ability in this movie to relish how people view him and how he perpetuates it to a proud delirium. Crossing over movie star currency between Howard Stern, and socio-political lectures is the take-away with him. He is layered but still approachable. He is complex but understandable. He is psychologically cutting in the most honorable, best intended, and warm way. There are many shades of the man that create the whole experience.
Most of the punch from the movie comes from an exaggerated simmering beef between Shatner and Takei. It’s a cross between little brother wanting to ankle bite big brother's crossover template, but also a dismissive reticent coldness by Shatner as he recoils and denounces any relationship with Takei, even though he informs us by participating in an interview, sans gun to head. You never know with Shatner, as he is not a man, he is an ad-lib. Takei seems genuine in his perplexing animosity, as what you see with him is what you get, leaving you satisfied. You never question where you stand with Takei, and that is his reverence. To the movie’s credit, it doesn’t “mockmentarize” the alum beef by choosing to write it off like a Takei deprecated giggle. The movie’s heart was ever present, but there was nothing to drive the presentation through its more flaccid moments. A lot of attention is given to Takei’s husband, and at first, introduction is given where he isn’t just the bad cop to Takei’s good cop but more like Takei’s co-star. This is where he should have stayed, playing off his famous spouse. However, his background was overexposed and fleshed out. I really didn’t mind him and the movie didn’t suffer from his testimonial, but let’s stay focused. I’m here for Takei, not for him. Takei, for mainstream audiences really need this movie to find out more about who he is and what separates him from the possible ignorant perception of him being a caricature that can come from long-term association/relevance of Star Trek. So, this film needs every opportunity to show the side of Takei that we don’t see past the gratuitous “whatever-Con” appearances he cash grabs a signature at. The entitled focus of the husband gets in the way stopping the momentum dead in its tracks.
Takei has many sides that operate agreeably. He is part politician, part civic contributor, part activist, but also part comic book (literally). It all comes together in his personality as real, and convicted, but the direction of the film mishandled the transition of Takei’s serious more referential professorial moments into his more relaxed on-stage intimate self. The movie could have found a better more nuanced way to shift its emotional gears back and forth a tad more gracefully. Because of this editing clash, the documentary at times suffered in spirit. The subject is a whirling dervish of delight and brings a wonderfully bloated resume with him. Perfectly encapsulating it from moment to moment is not an easy task. Beyond Takei, his career arc and his matinee idol baritone energy, I needed something more to drive the movie home, wanting some tension and conflict of this man beyond what only we see him or people like his sexual orientation afflicted from on MSNBC. There is a casual focus on Takei’s semi-autobiographical musical play called “Allegiance” which re-tells the detriment of many Japanese-American’s families’ plight surviving internment camps. I firmly believe that if the movie incorporated this aspect more intently of Takei’s involvement and how he was so instrumental in inspiring its producers to formulate the idea around his experience. It would had been a good additive plot to follow him in the little known play towards a glorious defining opening show, fleshing out his acting process, his craft and the goal of possibly the big leagues of Broadway. Perhaps then we would have had something. Overlay this with his pop-culture phenomena, personal confession, activist endeavors and his history - we would have had something virtuously well-rounded. I feel this element could have lifted the movie out of the lesser slumbering parts to keep the momentum from stumbling at the end.
In this scene, Takei and his husband Brad, go for a walk through a park. What starts out as an easy interview scene between spouses, you get a hint of each other’s criticism of one another, albeit slight, but it’s a telling moment. You can see that Takei, in one beat, is uncharacteristically uncomfortable with showing intimacy on screen, shifting to admonishing his spouse to then settling in pragmatism regarding his past when choosing to closet himself at the expense of his acting career.
This movie is colorful like a box of Crayolas; you are enlivened by Takei’s voice and the message that gloriously comes out of it. However, historically, the genre of documentaries at heart is an exposure of something you don’t know or just slightly know and want to know more about. Teach me something. And this does but not to the point where it can justify a trip to the theaters. This documentary didn’t do that outside of its superficial paint by numbers storytelling. The movie is at its strongest on what experiences created and shaped him, but by the time we meet the celebrity “brand” that we are familiar with now, there was something that left me wanting more especially towards the lethargic end. Technical issues aside, he is very inspiring, enjoyable and entertaining and to a greater extent so is the movie – for he is the movie. When it’s good: its tongue meets cheek meets understandable righteousness, but when it’s not good it’s because there is also a pedestrian directional point of view which mundanely cripples the exciting beginning energy it establishes. It’s definitely good to be Takei, but the movie’s technical direction, uneven transition, weak directional touch and lack of narrative drive towards the end is definitely not.
2.5 out of 4