Monday, May 20, 2013

Star Trekking Across the Universe . . .

I enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness almost as much as the first film. It's spectacular, funny, well acted, exciting and even a little emotional in parts. However, the film is not without several major flaws, especially if you're a diehard (or even semi-diehard) Trekkie. Warning, spoilers follow . . .

The main problem with the film is that J.J. Abrams and his writers (the same duo responsible for such masterpieces as Transformers 2) have disguised the fact that this bold new adventure is actually a remake of two previous Trek stories: the orignal series episode "Space Seed" and the classic movie The Wrath of Khan. Anyone who has watched those will not be terribly surprised when the terrorist John Harrison (brilliantly played by Benedict Cumberbatch) dramatically reveals about halfway through the film that he is the infamous Khan (formerly played by the not at all pale and English Ricardo Montalban). This reveal seems thrown in purely to appeal to the fans, since the general audience (and the characters in the movie) have no idea who the hell Khan is. Not that revisiting Khan's origins is necessarily a bad thing, but when the film then basically copies the ending of Wrath of Khan (with Kirk taking Spock's place in the radiation chamber and even another OTT "Khaaaaaaan!" exclaimation) it's a problem because the filmmakers haven't earned it. Khan and Kirk are not archenemies yet in this timeline, and Kirk and Spock haven't been friends for fifteen or more years. It's a testament to Chris Pine's and Zachary Quinto's acting that the scene still has some emotional kick, despite the shoddy scriptwriting.
It's a similar problem that Abrams' otherwise excellent Super 8 had. That film started out wanting to be Jaws or Gremlins but then took a sharp left-turn into a cuddly E.T. ending, an emotional catharsis that the film hadn't successfully set up. It makes one a little worried that Abrams' Star Wars will have an ending where one of the heroes gets frozen in carbonite or finds out the villain is his father because, hey, it worked before, right?
Trekkie rage aside, there is much to enjoy in the film. The cast are still comfortable in their roles and most of them get a moment or two to shine (though Alice Eve's character is a complete waste, aside from a grautuitous underwear scene for the young boys in the audience). It's great to see Robocop himself, Peter Weller, in a major role. The pace never lets up and fans will enjoy seeing Klingons and even a plot significant Tribble! It's one of those films that you enjoy tremendously while you're watching it, but it's best not to think too hard about the plot or it unravels completely. I appreciate what Abrams has done to bring Star Trek back into the mainstream, but it would perhaps be best if another director has a shot at the third movie. And hopefully they'll get some writers who can balance action with the more philosophical elements that Trek used to be known for.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Iron Man Minus Friends

Caught Iron Man Three the other day. Not a bad start to Marvel's Phase II. Not Avengers good, of course, but enjoyable enough. Shane Black was an interesting choice to write and direct, but turned out to be a successful one for the most part. There are lots of laughs and a few twists, though the last act "buddy cop" sequence does feel a little too much like a Lethal Weapon movie or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang at times.
I liked the references to Tony's superfriends and how screwed up he has become by seeing another dimension and almost dying. There isn't a lot of Iron Man action in this film, but luckily the plot isn't just a boring setup for the Avengers like Iron Man 2. There's also some nice callbacks to the first (and still the best) IM movie, including a cameo from Yinsen (who helped Tony build the first suit) in a 1999 flashback.
The sinister video footage of terrorist the Mandarin keeps things interesting until the first big action sequence - the spectacular attack on Stark's home. Gwyneth Paltrow finally gets to be more than a damsel in distress, briefly donning the suit to become an Iron Maiden. The middle section of the film focuses on Stark, sans all his technology, planning his attack on the Mandarin aided by a precocious young boy, though luckily it's more comedy than schmaltz. The famous Extremis storyline from the comic is used to create some interesting villains, though we never get to see Stark use the technological virus on himself.
The final act starts with a huge twist (SPOILER!) that manages to be both hilarious and completely undermine the villain. Ben Kingsley plays both the fictitious Mandarin and the Croydon actor hired for the role perfectly. It's a shame he wasn't allowed to go full villain, though. Guy Pearce tries his best to usurp him as the true villain, but lacks the menace Kinglsey has in his early scenes. Rebecca Hall as the "is she a baddie or not?" co-creator of Extremis is also pretty much wasted. It is nice to see William Sadler and Miguel Ferrer as the President and Vice President, though.
The final battle is spectacular, and gives the always underused War Machine (now called Iron Patriot) something to do at last. Fans of Iron Man's various suits will feel like a kid in some kind of store by the end. The suits even produce a fireworks show when they blow up.
Everything is wrapped up pretty neatly, and this would be a fitting ending for the character if Robert Downey, Jr. decided not to return and collect another $50 million paycheck (Marvel obviously feel this is unlikely, as the credits promise that James Bond, I mean Tony Stark will return). It's a superbly staged blockbuster, but I found the most entertaining parts to be a shoutout to Downton Abbey and an after-credits cameo from a certain Dr. with breath-taking anger management issues. Avengers 2 can't come soon enough!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Belated reviews of Oz and Jurassic Park 3D

Really getting behind on my reviews. Saw most of Oz the Great and Powerful a couple of months back (Milo did not want to sit still for the whole movie). It was entertaining, even though it was trying too hard to ape Burton's Alice in Wonderland in parts (minus the latter's feminist message, which I'll get to in a moment). The visuals and score were nice, and Sam Raimi even threw some Evil Dead moments in there. Most of the cast were good, though Mila Kunis was seriously miscast as the (SPOILER!) Wicked Witch of the West. The main problem with the film, however, is that it creates a hero's journey for a character that we know from the original story is not a hero, but a fraud. Why three powerful women need this bozo to help them is a baffling question the movie never answers. Worth a watch, but don't expect a great story or positive message.

Jurassic Park 3D was a far more enjoyable experience. Little needs to be said about this classic film, except that the dinosaurs still look great. Modern filmmakers could learn a thing or two from the thoughtful use of special effects (less than seven minutes of CG) and sense of wonder in this film. The 3D was unobtrusive, apart from a few shots of Raptors jumping at the camera. They don't make em like this anymore.

Next up: my review or a little movie called Iron Man Three!