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.