Star Trek: Into Darkness

STIDWhat’s interesting to me about the Star Trek phenomenon, among many things, is the way its fans have taken ownership of the franchise. I guess that what happens when an audience member goes from being a fan to being, well, an addict. Harry Potter has its addicts. Lord of the Rings has its addicts. And I’m not knocking that. It must feel flattering—although also a little scary—to know that some people spend a good measure of each day in the universe of your film(s), whether they’re in a theater or not.

A bone to pick. The opening scene gives us Kirk being chased through an alien jungle. He’s disobeyed the prime directive in stopping by to try to save a planet from a volcano that’s about to turn its residents into lawn statuary. Along the way, Kirk has nabbed an important religious document from the tribe. But the issue for our intrepid explorers is that the aliens shouldn’t see the Enterprise. Somehow, that would be going too far. That would be a more flagrant violation of the prime directive than stealing from them. Oh yes, and altering their fate on a global scale. Well, now I sound like a fan boy.

Based loosely on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan—actually a kind of prequel to it—Star Trek: Into Darkness gives us the fledgling crew on a mission to track down and destroy a vicious terrorist. The thrills are many. The plot twists surprise. Well, some of them. OK, one of them. The actors give uncanny emulations of the by-now archetypal characters. The high-tech world is even more high-tech. Somehow, though Abrams picks up the story line at an earlier point in the history of the Star Trek voyages, the technology seems more advanced than it does later, when Kirk, Spock, and the other space cowboys are older.

The villain is played by English actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who singlehandedly revived the Sherlock Holmes franchise. He’s not a physically imposing actor, though he is tall, but his piercing stare and deep voice more than convince us that he’s a force to be reckoned with.

There haven’t been many complaints from fans and addicts about Star Trek: Into Darkness. What there is can be traced, I think, to the fact that this is the second outing from director J.J. Abrams. We’ve seen the bag of tricks he brings to the franchise. The shine has worn off a little. What, for me, is still fresh, though, is the way the effort to give audiences rougher-edged residents of the Star Trek universe. They’re pricklier, thornier, driven by mixed motives. They’re not the pure souls Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry insisted on.

Kirk, in particular, as played by Chris Pine, suffers from impulse control, appetite, delusions of grandeur, etc. The same was true of William Shatner’s Kirk, but to a far lesser extent. Shatner’s Kirk always made you think he knew what he was doing. Pine’s Kirk is more tormented by doubt, more flummoxed by the unexpected. Spock, too, played admirably by Zachary Quinto, is allowed some emotional latitude, literally, from Leonard Nimoy’s hyper-rational Spock. And it plays well, since Spock is only half-Vulcan.

Zoe Saldana does a nice job playing Lt. Uhuru, and the character is given more to do than most women in the original franchise. But it’s still not enough. Even her big confrontation scene with the Klingons doesn’t come to enough. Not her fault. She can only do so much with the material she’s given. From its earliest days, Star Trek touted tolerance of, and equality for, all races, creeds, and cultures. But for women, not so much. It’s a mistake that was corrected in the other franchise spin-offs, but the original Star Trek is still a boys’ world.

At its heart, Star Trek has always been a buddy picture, with Kirk and Spock constantly testing the limits of their bromance. Add to this a worlds-in-collision theme, some classic space battles and standoffs, and a few chases, and you’ll be ready to sign on as a Federation cadet.

A note to the United Federation of Planets: You’ve got to stop giving The Enterprise to this gang of hooligans! Every time they take it out for a joyride, they bring it back in pieces! Dudes of the Future, your interstellar spaceship insurance must be through the roof by now!

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Here’s Mud in Your Eye

Mud3screamsgrayAt last, the talented but ever-underutilized Matthew McConaughey has found material worthy of him in Mud, the new feature from Jeff Nichols, director of the excellent Shotgun Stories.

At its heart, the movie is about desire. McConaughey plays Mud, a man on the run. He’s killed a man, killed for love. And now he’s bound and determined to get back to the woman he loves and run away with her.

Maybe most movies are about desire, but most movies fail miserably at depicting it. It’s too often a given. The hero and the heroine get together for reasons that never really register onscreen. Here it’s as if every cell in Mud’s body is leaning toward the woman he loves. You feel it in every anxious glance. His life isn’t worth living without her.

Unless it’s Member of the Wedding or To Kill a Mockingbird, I avoid movies with child actors as leads. Heck, I run screaming into the hills. But in the case of Mud, I have to say that Tye Sheridan as Ellis and Jacob Lofland as Neckbone do a better job than most adult actors in most other movies. The incredible thing is, you can’t see them acting. They aren’t smart-alecky know-it-alls or wise-beyond-their-years mini-philosophers. They’re kids, kids who have a hard time distinguishing between what they should and shouldn’t believe.

The always excellent Ray McKinnon plays Ellis’s father, a man whose barely withheld frustrations sometimes seem about to boil over into violence but never do. That in itself is an achievement—a movie about the South that doesn’t paint its characters as idiots, racists, or grotesques of one stripe or another.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Michael Shannon’s excellent performance as Neckbone’s laid-back uncle. Shannon made such an indelible appearance in Jeff Nichols’s first movie, Shotgun Stories, and then promptly got cast in a number of big-budget Hollywood projects that had him not so much acting as screaming in various volumes. His performance in Boardwalk Empire is hard to take. And see the trailer for Man of Steel as an example of his adherence to the Al Pacino School of Acting.

Lately, every time I’ve seen Sam Shepard in a small part in a movie, he’s seemed pissed-off that he has to be there. But here he does his best acting in a long time. It’s a secondary role but an important one, as Mud’s longtime friend and mentor. He’s an actor whose silences speak volumes.

And then, of course, there’s McConaughey, who always plays the bad boy of one kind or another. But here his bad boy has a sharper edge. He’s driven by love, and you don’t know what he might do next. It’s easily his best performance ever.

And though she isn’t on-screen a great deal, Reese Witherspoon does more acting in Mud than she’s been asked to do in a host of other movies. And she does most of it between the lines. She plays the white trash beauty who is the object of Mud’s desire. It’s a measure of the quality of her acting that she makes you feel both anger and sympathy for her, sometimes at the same moment.

Mud is essentially a southern retelling of Dickens’s Great Expectations, with Mud as Magwitch, though that may be where the similarities end.  It’s fascinating to me that Mud is a straightforward, realistic movie, and yet you’re never sure what will happen next. It’s full of suspense. Compare it, for instance, to After Earth. Set in the distant future, and partly in outer space, you’d think that you’d never know what will happen next. But in fact, it’s completely predictable. It doesn’t make a move you couldn’t have predicted  two days before you went to the theater. I saw After Earth two days ago, and I forgot all about it as soon as the lights went up. I saw Mud two months ago, and I’m still thinking about it. That’s good movie-making.

Mud, a fine movie and not to be missed.

Olympus Rising

OlympusHasFallenOnesheet3screamsTwo movies, both about terrorists taking over the White House, the first in theaters now (Olympus Has Fallen) and the second, White House Down, still to come. But if you count G.I. Joe: Retaliation, it’s three, since that plot involves evildoers replacing the president with a lookalike, assault from within. You can imagine the pitch, at least for the first two: “It’s Die Hard in the White House!”

Yes, it’s a live-action version of a first-person shooter video game, but I kind of like Olympus Has Fallen, despite its chest-thumping title.

The plot is simple. A wily North Korean terrorist successfully takes over the White House, making a hostage of the President and his inner circle and killing a lot of people along the way. The greatest nation in the world with the greatest military in the world is completely helpless, hopeless, and hapless. Well, maybe there’s one guy . . .

Enter disgraced Secret Service agent Mike Banning. The movie provides an interesting back-story for Banning that seems lifted from In the Line of Fire, but it still works, also providing a plausible excuse for why our hero would not have been mowed down in the first wave of the assault on the White House. As in the Clint Eastwood movie, the theme is redemption, a serious theme that lifts the movie somewhat. Compare this theme to the one announced in the G.I. Joe subtitle: Retaliation, a theme as thin as the celluloid the movie is not printed on.

Act Two is essentially target practice. What I hate about most movies like this is the way they ask for a willing suspension of disbelief instead of earning it. The solution is often obvious, but the characters have to be blind to it in order for the producers to reach their 96-minute run-time. But here, just when you’re thinking, “Well, why don’t they just . . . ,” they do just that, usually with disastrous results. Because this is America, baby, and no amount of soldiers, sharp-shooters, missiles, and metal-plated generals can prevail against Evil. What it takes is a rugged individual, a man with skills and with something to prove.

Gerard Butler, also the movie’s producer, establishes himself nicely as a gravelly-voiced action hero-with-a-past. In fact, for the first time since I can remember, he does a completely convincing American accent, with no trace of his native Scotland eking through. Aaron Eckhart, as the President, is a good actor mostly wasted. The wonderful Melissa Leo has several strong moments and smartly snaps off some good one-liners.

Rick Yune provides the movie with its monomaniacal villain, who seems to have worked out the assault with exquisite detail. People magazine may have dubbed him the sexiest villain, but there’s a bit of vacancy behind the eyes that makes him seem less menacing than he might have been. But maybe I’m still too fixated on the suave and sadistic over-the-top villain Alan Rickman played in Die Hard. I like my villains with a taste for classical music, claret, and, oh yes, cutlery.

Morgan Freeman plays the Speaker of the House who takes over as President. Most of these movies (e.g., Air Force One) depend not so much on dialogue as on barked commands and snarled threats (“Do it! Now!”). Watch Freeman order a cup of coffee in the Situation Room and you see both why he’s a great actor and also the strong contrast between what’s real and what’s cartoon.

There isn’t a move in Olympus Has Fallen that you can’t predict from across the street, but it’s all carried off with speed, efficiency, and a dash of style. In an age of bloated, over-long, over-budgeted movies that are less block-buster than block-blubber, that’s quite an accomplishment.

Admit One

20130324-090931.jpg3screamsMaybe it’s the advertising or maybe it’s Tina Fey’s brilliant work on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, but I expected Admission to be a zingy comedy of the screwball variety. It’s actually a charming and smart romantic comedy with several good laughs.

Tina Fey plays Portia Nathan, an admissions officer from Princeton, where she passes judgment on the thousands of prospective students who clamor to be admitted, fending off bribes and pleas that fly at her as fast as ninja stars. Hers is a buttoned-down world that works by strict adherence to policy, to logic.

Enter the ubiquitous Paul Ruud as the passionate do-gooder who may have more than one reason for wanting a talented but troubled student to get into Princeton. The secret at the heart of this movie is another feature that makes Admission more than the usual light-hearted comedy. The key is to think of the various meanings of the movie’s title.

Ruud is reliably excellent playing off his patented mixture of charm, wit, and good looks. Tina Fey is good, too, though that crooked smile of hers, while fetching, always makes her look too aware that the camera’s on her, as if she’s about to say, “Come on, fellas! Turn that thing off!” Still, the script calls on her to give some tender and emotionally charged moments, which she rises to nicely.

One of those moments is with the excellent Lily Tomlin, playing her quirky mother but with more edge and depth than you might expect from the typical romantic comedy. It’s great to see her in such fine form.

In most movies like this, every loss a character suffers is countered with a win. Here, not so much. Novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz, screenwriter Karen Croner, and director Paul Weitz do a nice job of keeping the story from becoming too contrived and yet still allowing it to satisfy our hopes for the character.

Ordinarily, for me, “charming” would be the kiss of death for a movie. But what makes Admission better than most in the genre is that it plays out in the real world, where not everything gets tied up in the end with a lovely bow. It’s a world where loose ends prevail, a world where love may not conquer all, but maybe it conquers enough.

snoOZe

Ozonesheet2screamsThe stars of Oz the Great and Powerful aren’t James Franco, Mila Kunis, or any of the other actors. They’re the digital effects people. The actors might as well be sock puppets, they’re so overshadowed by the digital scenery. Does it impress? At times, yes, but mostly  the movie throws a wall of color at you that swamps story, writing, acting, directing, and almost everything else. Less is more, movie-people.

I’m a James Franco fan, but he’s best as a mumbling, hunch-shouldered beat, not as a wholesome Disneyesque character (or an Oscar host). I mean, the broader he smiles, the more it looks as though he’s going to eat you. James, who’s making your career choices? If you’re not careful, you’ll end up like Nicholas Cage, the Vincent Price of our times.

Like most Hollywood movies these days, all the hard work here seems to have gone into the digital effects, not the casting, writing, acting, or directing. I mean, there are passages of dialogue so plain, I almost fell asleep, I, the guy who never sleeps at movies. Shouldn’t the writing be as exceptional as the special effects?

The best actor is Mila Kunis, whose character is written and played with a tasty ambiguity, adding an interesting reason for her character change. But otherwise the actors seem to play their parts with a wink and a nod, as if they don’t want us to think they actually take this stuff seriously. The result is something like middle-of-the-road fan fiction. We recognize the characters and the story but something seems to be missing (soul, art, nuance, etc).

Yes, those scary flying monkeys are back, though the digital monkeys are much less disturbing than the 1939 monkeys, who seemed to be no more than actual people in monkey suits, suspended on wires, and yet somehow they seemed all the more frightening despite–or because of–that. The Munchkins are back, too, but mostly as background. I’m disappointed there isn’t more music. Oz has always seemed to me to be a land of music, its residents breaking into song at the drop of a hat. The Munchkins start to sing at one point, but stop so quickly it seems as if the moviemakers are wagging a finger at us, telling us they’re not that kind of movie. They should be so lucky.

The story itself ties in nicely with the 1939 perennial that haunts our dreams, explaining how a Kansas huckster ends up as the leader of this mythical land. And the final battle is clever. Maybe the most interesting and disturbing visual is the China girl, a porcelain doll who’s been shattered by the witches’ soldiers and glued back together by the Wizard. She tinks with each step, and she’s covered with a fine mesh of hairline cracks. Creepy. Good creepy.

It’s a movie whose themes and dialogue are too pointed, its main theme being the need to choose between fame and virtue, between greatness and goodness. Oz, Oscar, goes from a blustering con man to a man who embraces his limitations, his mere humanness, and the need to put others before himself. It’s a hard-won lesson, but because Franco never seems to believe his own bluster–or to be very good at it–we never really believe he needed the transformation. The role should have gone to a Steve Carell or an Owen Wilson or a Will Ferrell, actors who can make it seem as though they believe in their own bluster. Franco is just too inward an actor to pull off a conniving con man. His face itself conveys thoughtfulness and self-doubt, not brash self-confidence.

I’m guessing here but I think people who like this movie may like it because of its connection to the great Judy Garland movie, not because in and of itself it’s any good.

In a tribute to the original, this movie starts out in black-and-white and in 4:3 aspect as we see Oz’s life in the carnival BT (Before Tornado). Then color seeps into the image and the image itself broadens into widescreen. Yet despite all the millions that must have gone into the Oz sequences, the sideshow world of the opening is the most inspired and engaging part of the movie. Oops! Another two hundred mil down the drain!

A Late Word on Killing Them Softly

kts3screamsI’m late in reviewing this movie, which is long gone from theaters, but it occurs to me that the movie might work better as a rental than as the reason for a night out. A theater screen may be too large for this small, interesting movie, which might be more suited to the home theater screen.

Killing Them Softly is an ideal movie for actors, though that doesn’t make it an ideal movie. Not even close. There isn’t much plot, the scenes are too long, and it’s all character moments shot in sometimes gruesome close-up. It might have been called Conversations Among Gangsters. This last feature is what makes it great for actors. Lots of dialogue to chew on. But the movie feels like an indulgent project put together by good actors who had a weekend to spare and too much veneration for Reservoir Dogs.

The most successful performance is the turn by James Gandolfini, who plays Mickey, a just-paroled gangster with extreme appetites. Of course, Gandolfini created one of the most successful and nuanced portraits of a gangster in modern film history in Tony Soprano. But his Mickey is wilder, a barely self-contained monster who casually flips from threats to self-pity. It’s a portrayal that makes you more frightened of the criminal mind than any amount of Gangster Squad-style bloodletting. In comparison, Killing Them Softly is a work of genius.
I haven’t seen Gangster Squad, so maybe this dismissal is unfair, but I feel I’ve already seen it a hundred times. I haven’t seen a movie that looked so pre-conceived, prefabricated, pre-chewed, and pre-digested as this one in a long time. Sean Penn’s portrayal of Mickey Cohen is more over-the-top than Robert DeNiro’s over-the-top portrayal of Capone in Bryan De Palma’s Untouchables.
Brad Pitt is good as a thoughtful fixer who discusses alternatives with his victims before killing them. This must be what soft killing is all about. Not, I think, what Roberta Flack had in mind when she sang “Killing Me Softly.” Pitt always surprises me as a better actor than you’d think he would be, and often in unlikely places. Watch the way he eats that sloppy sandwich in the opening of Oceans 11, a small but lovely bit of characterization.
Killing Them Softly has fine actors throughout. Ray Liotta is always good, but his performance feels like a distant echo of his role as Henry Hill in Goodfellas. The always excellent Richard Jenkins is, as you would expect, excellent.
The trouble is the script doesn’t give its characters enough to do. And we’ve seen these characters too many times before—men who bond with each other as easily as they betray each other. But I can think of many worse reasons to go to the movies than seeing good actors doing good work. Not a ringing endorsement, I guess, but there you go.

Skyfall Down

Skyfall takes the Bond franchise in a somewhat new direction. Call it the “Bournification” of Bond. Ramp up the violence, the big stagey special effects, and cut back on the cheesy rejoinders, and you have the new entry in the fifty-year-old Bond franchise.

There are many things to like in the new Bond movie. Daniel Craig plays Bond as wizened and battered by life, a man with a past. For the first time, he comes across as something like a real character, someone with regrets, someone who bleeds. This may not seem like much of an achievement–after all, isn’t this a standard story element called “characterization”?–but characterization is exactly what the Bond movies have always lacked. The various Bonds have had personalities, but no character. They have all been creatures of the now. The new Bond changes that. Slightly.

Is this enough to make Skyfall a good movie?

‘fraid not.

Yes, I know it’s making a gazillion dollars at the box office, but since when has wealth or profit been a reliable indicator of talent, brains, or quality?

Think about it. How many times have we seen the fist fight on top of a train speeding toward a tunnel? The high-speed motorcycle chase through a crowded marketplace, a chase where the only victims are produce? The psychopathic and fabulously wealthy super-villain who claims to be superior to everyone else? It’s all so recycled.

Do the big stunts amaze? I’ll tell you this much: they overwhelm the plot. Each one is like a massive Rube-Goldberg machine–an infinitely complex mechanism for achieving a very small result. Watch the subway train sequence (you’ll know the one I mean) and tell me why our villain had to go to such an extreme when all he really had to do was keep climbing the ladder? Because he’s crazy? Never a good explanation for why a character does what he or she does. Ever.

Without going into detail, I’ll just mention obliquely that this movie makes several moves meant to clear the decks and prepare the way for a fresh look and set of characters (some, anyway; reports are that Craig has signed on for two more installments).

A movie like this gives us an excellent director in Sam Mendes and excellent actors. Besides Daniel Craig and Judi Dench, Javier Bardem does a great job, out-creeping the creepiest of Bond villains). Ralph Fiennes plays the stiffest of stiff upper lips. Of the Bond “girls,” Berenice Marlohe is most interesting, playing the femme fatale balanced on the knife-edge of violence and vulnerability. But for my money, the best acting comes from veteran Albert Finney, who has very little screen time but makes the most of it. Note the nicely tossed put-down he gives Bond at one point.

I knew a man once who built himself a very expensive house but ran out of money before he could finish it. From the outside, it was huge and lovely, built with the best wood and put together lovingly by artisans of great skill. But it was nothing more than a hollow shell. There were no rooms inside, only a vast space ribbed by studs, joists, and rafters. The more I go to movies like Skyfall, the more they seem like that house–a stunning surface hiding a hollow core.