Friday, May 24, 2013

WOULD RATHER BE DOING THE KESSEL RUN? J.J. Abrams Shows His Love for One Space Opera and Disdain for Another in “Star Trek Into Darkness”.

Star Wars…<ahem>…Trek Into Darkness is akin to the central conceit of The Wizard of Oz: The movie works if you allow yourself to be taken in by the spectacle but fail to look for the man behind the curtain. In that, the film is slick, drawing one in with its razzle dazzle. It’s only after you step away and start thinking about it that you realize it’s an onion: The more you peel back the layers, the more likely it will sting your eyes and make them tear.

Director J.J. Abrams, working off a script by scribes Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof, presents less of a Star Trek film and more of quasi “Star Wars demo reel” meets “Lucas/Spielberg’s Greatest Hits”. Tons of homages to films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith, just to name a few. The plot centers around terrorism taking place within the Federation itself from ostensibly one of its own, Starfleet Officer John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock, The Hobbit) who is out for…

Oh, forget it. 

He’s Khan.
 Yes, that Khan.

Khan Noonian Singh, the closest thing to an arch-nemesis that all of Star Trek ever had and antagonist of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Khan declares war on the Federation particularly against Starfleet Commander-In-Chief Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller, Robocop, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns), father to Lieutenant Carol Marcus (Alice Eve, Men in Black III, The Raven)...

Yes…that Carol Marcus.

Ms. Marcus, who is baby mama to James T. Kirk’s love child in the “prime universe”, the main female point of interest in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan...

See where I’m going with this?

In fact, a complete chunk of the film is basically the closing act of the original Star Trek II reversed. It’s debatable whether the last third of the movie counts as "homage" or "pandering". After all, the producers have said that in this rebooted universe certain events can (re)occur, just not in the way they previously unfolded.

That’s all well and good, but when it goes so far as to crib a certain iconic moment…
…yes, that iconic moment…

...well, with apologies to Zachary Quinto, Bill Shatner did it better.

Look, I’m not going to lie.  I was caught up in the spectacle of the film and had a smile on my face through most of it. Primary players Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, (the under-utilized) Karl Urban, and Zoe Saldana, are much more comfortable in their inherited pop culture skins this time around, and the camaraderie between Kirk (Pine) and Spock (Quinto) is a welcome change from their antagonism in the previous outing, though their “bromance” seems somewhat forced at times. Unfortunately for Pine and Quinto, Shatner and Leonard Nimoy had the advantage of having countless filmed hours to build up the brotherhood between the characters. George Takei/Sulu fans will enjoy John Cho’s little moments, and Chekov fans will probably get a little worried when Anton Yelchin’s version is asked to wear a red shirt and is reassigned to Engineering (a subtle nod to the Chekov/Khan conundrum of Star Trek II). Simon Pegg brings some comic relief to Scotty (especially in one literal “running gag” that goes a bit too long).  Cumberbatch makes for a very intense, menacing villain but, quite frankly, he could have played a whole different character and still have been just as effective (and don’t get me started on Kahn's characterization inconsistencies given that Eric Bana’s Nero screwed up the timeline centuries after Khan was exiled into space…).

Khan is such a pervasive presence in the Star Trek lore that his usage is somewhat of a cheat; a way to artificially create tension instead of letting the story do it on its own, which also (rather unfairly) invites comparison with the Khan of old, who was (in the hands of the late, great Ricardo Montalban) much more charming and rakishly charismatic; a self-contained villain who only let his mask slip when thwarted by his supposed lesser, the infuriating James T. Kirk. Further, his obsessive insanity isn’t manifest until years of exile on Ceti Alpha V, which never took place in this universe. Even worse is that, for whatever reason, this version of Starfleet does not have access to either the internet or history books; it takes a pandering cameo in the form of Leonard Nimoy to explain to the crew of the NuEnterprise how dangerous Khan really is.  And, all that quibbling aside, director Abrams had the opportunity to turn the character of Khan on its ear, but instead of taking the leap prefers to play the safe, familiar route instead. Oh, the film gives new reasons why both NuKirk and NuSpock would have a mad on against Khan, but it feels forced and contrived.

“Past versus present” discourse aside, the film on its own merits contains heavy handed, post-9/11 zeitgeist (but then, this is nothing new of Star Trek as a whole in the past decade plus) and plot holes large enough to fill a black hole, especially in terms to a resurrection in the film…, not that resurrection...

...but one similar to it with the means to effect that resurrection built...rather, telegraphed with all the subtlety of an elephant in a china shop...into the story. However, instead of using the resources at hand to effect said miracle within the ship, let’s just make it more complicated for no other logical (pun intended) reason other than to justify an extraneously unnecessary chase/fight scene and get another good look at Zoe Saldana’s derriere (you’ll understand what I mean when you see it). 

There’s everything a Star Wars…>AHEM<…Trek fan could enjoy: space battles, explosions, gratuitous women in underwear shots (not that I'm complaining on that one), thrills, chills, and lens flare…lots and LOTS of lens flare, which can make a slouching character holding a cup of coffee seem inspiringly heroic. However, the essence of Star Trek (exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life), is given only perfunctory lip service. There are also themes regarding humility (Kirk gets more comeuppances in this film than the character has gotten in its entire existence), and nature versus nurture (Spock/Khan) but they also seemed forced.  The film essentially panders in a way that is incongruently insulting but entertaining.

However, the entertainment, and the joy of the film, comes primarily from the actors. The chemistry of all the players is spot on (with perhaps Weller being a VERY minor blip in those terms). Heir apparent to John Williams Michael Giacchino’s score in turns elevates the action but evinces a bit of acoustical boredom; his motifs somehow diminished in presentation compared to that of the previous outing. Though, quite frankly, his theme for Khan is much more inspired and satisfying than the turgid brashness of Nero's theme.

In a sense, this film is schizophrenic. Some films are just to be taken at face value. Try to dwell on them too much and your brain starts to hurt. Star Trek Into Darkness is one such film. So if you see it, just enjoy it at the moment then think of something else immediately afterwards. In the meantime, we’ll just sit back and wait for the film that J.J. Abrams REALLY wants to direct ("Paging John Williams…John Williams…you’re wanted at the soundstage...").

Sunday, May 12, 2013

JAZZY HIP-HOP: The Great Gatsby is a Visual, Artistic, and Substantive Feast.

I can say without prevarication that Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is one of the better films you will see all year. A strong statement to make; especially given how controversial a director Baz Luhrmann, he of Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge fame, is. But rarely does a film based on a literary work (in this case, F. Scott's Fitzgerald's eponymous novel ) come so close to being almost as artistically rich as the work that inspires it.  Yet this film, a collaboration of Luhrman and primary executive producer Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter (yes, that Jay-Z), presents The Great American Novel as music video. Glitz, glamor, bling, bold brassiness, T&A, lots of style, yet lots of substance...heavy with it. The symbolism comes short of being heavy handed, but given the symbolism replete in the source novel, that is not an indictment.
The story follows narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire, who proves he can actually deliver narration that doesn't sound like a whiney Peter Parker), a self described observer who feels disassociated with the world around him, as he befriends and tries to unravel the mystery of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a wealthy, new money socialite who is in love with Carraway's cousin, Daisy Buchanan (a very ethereal Carey Mulligan) who so happens to be married to old money Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Anyone familiar with the novel (and if you've taken English in 11th grade, who hasn't?) knows the story, which the adaptation follows quite faithfully with perhaps a deviation or two. But with this film, it's not the story, but how it unfolds; which it does with visual aplomb, bombast, delight and pageantry. The film opens in style reminiscent of the studio films of the early 20th century and then segues in to crisp modern clarity. - The Jazz of the era is instead replaced with modern hip hop stylings (with an orchestral assist from Craig Armstrong), which may rankle a few purists, but in the context of the film it beautifully works. The past and present comingle, presenting the thematic message that the years may change, but society has not. There are the haves and have-nots, blue blood snobbery, and gumption. The masses still want their "bread and circuses", whether it be found in a speakeasy or in lurid gossip to be found at either a dinner table or a tabloid, reality TV show.  As usual, Luhrmann creates a microcosmic world that exists in fantasy yet can exist anywhere. He uses colors and CGI to good, yet sometimes overbearing, effect yet still manages to get the themes found in the novel visually represented.
And it does not just stem with the visuals. He ekes out performances that completely captures the blasé, banal vapidity that most of these characters embody which is laced with an existential despair that makes itself evident in fleeting moments throughout the film. The first half of the film is one big party, where everything is all smiles and NSA fun. It's when Gatsby achieves his initial objective does the party shut down. Once the party's over, life's harsh realities make themselves unavoidably manifest. Luhrmann then shatters the illusion, bearing the true heart of the novel. Colors are muted into dark greys, save for a flashing green light and the colors of a dilapidated eye doctor's sign (both important pieces of imagery in the novel). New York, so blazingly idealized in the beginning of the film, becomes visually oppressive representation of John Upton's "The Jungle". It's as if he films two different movies, and the transition is jarring as one would expect as though one were coming out from a drinking binge. The pacing and editing is uneven at times; scenes go on a little longer than they should while others more worthy of development get a short shrift, but the film holds your attention even at the slowest of spots.
This film would be nothing without Leonardo Dicaprio in a role that almost seems tailored to him. His still boyish good looks and charisma are used to good effect in the role, and presents the character of Gatzby as an imperfect mask: It occasionally slips only long enough to be caught by anyone paying attention. However, it is only Nick Carraway and the audience that catches on to them. Gatzby is, in a sense, as chameleon-like as the actor who portrays him. Yet Gazby is a cypher in a world that does neither seeks nor desires purity of truth or passion. He is an enigma to the shallow world of which Daisy is a part. Yet for all his bombast and usual clipped, almost punctuated dialogue, Gatzby is painfully real. Whether he is a hopeless romantic, delusional fool, or Machiavellian villain is for the viewer to decide, but Dicaprio's performance is such that the interpretation could be any, all, or none of the above. This is one time that an Oscar nomination would be deserved. The same, however, cannot be said for Maguire. Carraway undergoes his own journey within the novel but the character's arc gets the short shrift here. Nothing is made of his infatuation with Jordan Baker (a very porcelain Elizabeth Debicki), and the changes in the character's demeanor seem quick and forced. Maguire does the best he can, but he is simply not nuanced enough to make the transition smooth or believable. While the character is the observer who feels divorced from what he observes, he also serves as the reader's/viewer's eyes and ears. Perhaps as this is a visual telling the character becomes extraneous. Nevertheless, the character's arc suffers from this.
There is so much going on in this film, both visually and subtextually, that a simple review is inadequate. That being said, The Great Gatsby is a film that should be experienced. It might not get you an "A" in American Lit class, but it will certainly help you get a better understanding of how rich the novel truly is.

Sunday, May 5, 2013


I have come to the conclusion that serious comic book aficionados should not watch live action adaptations of their beloved characters. 

For many, including myself, those characters are akin to family; their adventures have accompanied us throughout some of our, if not our entire, lives; the core concepts and history of any given character is as sacred as biblical scripture. To change any aspect that would change any fundamental aspect of those characters would be verbotten; akin to a figurative backhand.  

Historically, "Hollywood" doesn't feel the same way. After all, the filmmaking industry has given us a buffonish Lex Luthor; a battle armored Batman; an Alfred Pennyworth who abandons his post; a motorcycle helmeted Captain America; an organic web shooting Spider-Man; and a Hulk with daddy issues, to name a few. Some changes seem justified "in the real world", but when a comic book property is being adapted, it is inherently understood that neither the characters nor events that are being adapted would take place in the real world. Thy can be accepted on paper, and even in animated cartoons, but not live action? In my opinion, it is a rather condescending attitude to take not just to the material itself, but to the fans who have enjoyed those stories all this time.

That being said, Iron Man 3 will be a "love/hate" film. Joe Moviegoer will love it, purists will hate it. 

Purists won't hate it because of Robert Downey, Jr.  He brings "Tony Stark" to manic life, his mania being augmented by the combination of a life change and the psychological ramifications of the events of Marvel's The Avengers.  His performance may border on comedic caricature on a couple of spots, but his performance is so arresting it hardly matters. They won't hate it because of the action as, once it starts, it doesn't let up. Even the quiet moments, few that there are, are fraught with tension even as they lead to the next pyrotechnic display. They won't hate it because of the underlying disquiet engendered by the theme of terrorism, especially heightened due to the tragic events in Boston, MA. They won't hate it for the story, per ser, which involves Tony Stark going up against an international terrorist known only as "The Mandarin" (Ben Kingsley), and dealing with a sin from his past.  They won't hate the addition of the Hollywood trope known as "the precocious child" (in this case, Ty Simpkins, as a boy genius in the making), which, at least here, is serviceable as the character humanizes Tony and provides some comedic relief.  They won't even hate it because of the over abundance of CGI, which has advanced in these films so much that they meld seamlessly onto the entire celluloid canvas. 

Purists will hate it because, without spoiling anything, they take certain core concepts in Iron Man lore, over 40 years worth, and shit on them like someone with painful, cramping diarrhea after eating two day old bad sushi. Purists will hate it because of how the story resolves itself. Those purists would be justified in their attitudes. There is a reasonable expectation of certain things to hold true when watching a story that involves any pre-established character. 

However, filmmakers go for the widest audience possible, and make choices based on what would best achieve that goal. And the name of the game is reinvention, whether it be a female Dr. Watson in the TV series Elementary or an African-American "Perry White" in the forthcoming Man of Steel.  The thing about Iron Man 3 is that, like most action films of late, there is the reliance of constant twists and turns to the point of saturation, which to a degree dilutes the story itself. Yet the changes made, for the most part, work if one only experienced Iron Man through these films. But even I, who is not as invested in Iron Man as others would be, found myself wondering were the changes really necessary?  That is a question for each individual to answer for themselves. But it seems as though Hollywood, (Disney/Marvel Studios, inexplicably, in this case) is looking down on the material even as they exploit it to profit by it. And if that leaves a bad taste in my mouth, I can only imagine how the "Marvel Zombies" would feel.

Director Shane Black brings on the action and the funny, managing a balancing act that does not quite come out even but is nonetheless entertaining. Brian Tyler manages to turn in a score that surprisingly has identity; it showcases the action but makes effective use of piano solos to highlight the introspection and, yes, vulnerability that the God-complexed Stark wrestles with. The rest of the cast are top notch in terms of their roles, with veterans Gwyneth Paltrow, Jon Favreau, Don Cheadle, and Paul Bettany; and newcomers Guy Pierce, James Badge Dale holding their own with the magnetic (pun intended) Downey, Jr. But the real scene stealer, as the ostensible big bad, is Ben Kingsley, who looks like he is having the most fun he's ever had on a film shoot. The movie, despite going overlong with some scenes, moves at a brisk pace, seeming shorter than its actual run time. 

I enjoyed the film, but frankly I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn't known any of the published backstory. However, reinvention is the new entertainment buzzword (both in film and in DC and Marvel Comics now as well) and it is here to stay. I cannot recommend Iron Man 3 for any fans of the actual comic.  For the average person who just wants a two hour actioner to pass the time, it would be an enjoyable romp.

Though I have to say, the post-credits scene did take some of the sting out of it.