Monday, May 20, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness Review

Star Trek Into Darkness
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Released in 2013

Is Star Trek Into Darkness too cool not to like?

It’s a weird thing to say, isn’t it? Credit the young and handsome cast or director J.J. Abrams’ handheld, lens flare-happy style, because Trekkie fan service is not filling millions of seats around the world. Abrams and the trio of screenwriters (Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof) know hard sci-fi — with its obsessive fandom and, you know, darn philosophical questions — doesn’t sell but action-adventure with a sleek space coating does. The result entertains a diverse swath of moviegoers and appeals enough to critics: At press time, Star Trek Into Darkness sits atop a very positive 87 percent Rotten Tomatoes score and a (drastically inflated) 8.3 on the Internet Movie Database, which ranks it at No. 157 on the site’s “Top 250 Movies” list.

So, it must be good, right? By blockbuster standards, sure — it beats Iron Man 3 and The Great Gatsby. From the opening scene, where hero Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and the wise-cracking Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) sprint through a red, spiny forest chased by black-eyed, albino natives (who look an awful like the aliens in last year’s Prometheus, also co-written by Lindelof), the film declares allegiance more with Star Wars and, rather blatantly, Raiders of the Lost Ark than with its slower source material. That’s all well and good, really, even if it raises the question of how Abrams will differentiate between this franchise and the upcoming Star Wars sequels he will direct.

But Star Trek Into Darkness, with its silly title (“Trek” is a verb now? Like Fire Walk With Me?), just goes through the motions. Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof structure their script competently enough but don’t know how to bring it to life. The action barrels forward, scene-to-scene, without building suspense or much sympathy for the characters. Sure, Spock (Zachary Quinto) will tell Kirk of the statistical impossibility of launching some attack and Kirk will wink and do it anyway, but what about the larger stakes regarding the maniacal Übermensch, John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch)? Actually, Harrison narrates his life story and the reason for the terrorist attacks that set into motion the events of the film to Kirk, all from behind the glass pane of one classy looking jail cell. He even cries. When you break it down, the plot is an interchangeable parade of Starfleet officers — Bones, Spock, Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood), Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) — yelling at Kirk about how unwise, hotheaded, thoughtlessly daring, etc., he is. Each shred of advice reflects the ‘specialty’ of the character giving it (Uhura worries about Kirk, Pike scolds him like a son), but they all communicate conflict that could have been incorporated into the CGI set pieces or some other non-verbal, less heavy-handed means.

The dialogue, often shouted in red-faced fits, at least allows for the actors to steal the show. Once again, Chris Pine cushions a painful Shatner impression with a fast-talking drawl more likened to Christian Slater. Kirk must own up to the reckless reputation he has built for himself, so what appears like flimsy acting in a scene where he barks at John Harrison from outside of that jail cell makes sense when you realize that Pine is playing a guy who is only coming to terms with the power his position holds. “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do; I only know what I can do,” he declares. Like George W. Bush, he rules by the gut (now there's a Slate blog post I'd like to see).

Peter Weller finds himself on screen for a surprising wealth of time, growling at Kirk as a seedy Starfleet Admiral who makes up for a lack of depth by being played by Weller, a.k.a. Robocop, a.k.a. Buckaroo Banzai. His daughter (Alice Eve), a Starfleet weapons specialist, does little besides stirring sexual tension that goes nowhere. In one scene, Abrams places her in the background, out-of-focus, where she just stands there and bites her lip while Kirk and Scotty inspect a powerful WMD. They never notice her, either, which makes the whole pose that much better, and awkward. Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Sulu (John Cho) barely speak at all, save for the latter’s menacing words of warning to Harrison, which prompts Bones to deadpan, “Sulu, remind me to never piss you off.” Karl Urban should enact Dredd-like justice for his character’s insignificance this time around, considering how perfectly he channels DeForest Kelley. The filmmakers presume you already know these characters from the 2009 installment and keep most of them static because, goddammit, there are sequels to be made and a franchise has no room for change.

Benedict Cumberbatch chews the scenery as Harrison, an old-school bad guy with new parallels to Kirk and 21st century terrorism. At one point, he levels dozens of skyscrapers with a huge spaceship. Like Shane Black in Iron Man 3, Abrams co-opts 9/11 imagery to exploit existing audience emotions while refusing to elaborate on them further. But Star Trek Into Darkness does not stoop to Iron Man 3’s level of offense because the theme of terrorism holds no more weight than those of health care, eugenics and Faustian pacts. You can detect them all, but they are threadbare — divorced from most, if not all, of the characters, action scenes and funny jokes. Basically, what we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a bad script. As for the movie, with its pretty actors, relentless pacing and 23rd century lighting, it does its job well enough. It’s cool, man. Just turn off your mind for the duration, which must be sad advice for Trekkies indeed.

Final Verdict:
3 Stars Out of 5

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Friday, May 3, 2013

To the Wonder Review

To the Wonder
Directed by Terrence Malick
Released in 2013

Great films only become “great” by surviving multiple viewings and emerging stronger after each one. The inverse also holds true, which is why rewatching a movie like Avatar, which relies on visual effects more than vision or character, draws diminishing returns. Watch a Terrence Malick film for a second or third time, however, and you will grasp its themes, symbols and, well, point with surprising ease. I did not fall in love with The Tree of Life, Malick’s divisive 2011 opus, until my second viewing, and it took a third to cement it as one of my all-time favorites. Still, the first time I felt something, something special and quite awe-inspiring that I knew would take another go-around to put a finger on. It is the absence of that sinking-stomach feeling and itch to dive right back in that worries me after seeing To the Wonder.

If it’s not already obvious, those unmoved by or even disdainful of Malick’s style should avoid To the Wonder. All the usual Malickian devices — jump cuts, cutaways to nature and philosophical voiceovers — return, and their initial jarring effects take on a sensible, impressionistic logic, if you’re willing to just go with the flow. The majesty of Emmanuel Lubezski’s cinematography and the classical soundtrack (with emphasis, as usual, on Wagner) makes surrendering to the film easy enough, though its experimental approach keeps the core love story — between an American, Neil (Ben Affleck), and a Russian, Marina (Olga Kurylenko) — at arms length. To quote Affleck at last year’s Telluride Film Festival, “To the Wonder makes The Tree of Life look like Transformers.”

Cheap Michael Bay comparisons aside, this might as well be Malick’s most confounding film, which is all the more disconcerting because the plot is pretty simple. We meet Marina and Neil at the start, and peak, of their love in Paris. One second, they’re caressing each other on the Pont Alexandre III; the next, they’re gunning a convertible to Mont Saint-Michel. They are moving so fast that reality threatens to “pull [them] down toward the Earth,” as foreshadowed by the quicksand that surprises them along the castle’s shore. After moving to Oklahoma (“The Romance State,” as no one calls it) to live with Neil, Marina and her daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), despair at how boring and static their lives have become. What follows is a series of betrayals, reunions, farewells, passions, flare-ups and wanderings about the Oklahoma landscape, where Malick and Lubezski find beauty in wheat fields, bison herds and the fracking plants where Neil works.

Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) meanders along a separate subplot for about two-thirds of the film before encountering Marina and Neil on separate occasions. His story is one of sadness and desperation, and Malick affords the Catholic priest a level of intellectual curiosity not seen since the days of Ingmar Bergman. Only terminal patients, drug addicts and criminals seek Quintana’s guidance; the comfortable, fortunate masses live without faith, or adopt it for days or hours at a time. After wedding a young couple, the priest finds not one friend or family member outside his church willing to talk with him about the experience they just shared. If The Tree of Life could be interpreted through a pantheistic lens, then To the Wonder reads more as an ode to Christianity, and its precarious place in our modern, dispassionate world.

Whether intentionally so or not, Neil and Marina possess little of the humanity that makes Father Quintana such a compelling character. Malick has long telegraphed conflict and feeling through non-verbal means, like the way Neil circles around and brushes against Jane (McAdams), a childhood friend with whom he shares a brief, tumultuous tryst. In the cinematic language of Malick, such blocking suggests a disconnect between the two characters and negates the need for melodramatic confrontations. Even by this logic, however, it is hard to justify how Marina frolics and prances about — all the time, everywhere, in city squares and supermarkets. Marina’s dancing ties into the aforementioned idea that movement equates to life, but it also comes across as quite silly when she barely does anything else. That she turns to God and Father Quintana later in the film almost hints at some inherent instability on her part, when considering the nature of his other parishioners. At the very least, it makes her sort of unpleasant. I never want to laugh at a serious work of art, but come on, Terry, you’re pushing it.

These criticisms must sound fairly imprecise and somewhat petty. Just because I did not relate to the two main characters does not mean they are two-dimensional or without meaning. After 40 years of masterpieces, Malick deserves the benefit of the doubt. The images in To the Wonder are works of art on their own, in a way that a shot of Jane tossing a bale of hay means a whole lot more than Jane just tossing a bale of hay. What does it mean? I’m not so sure. I have no problem with embracing not only the beauty but also the ambiguity in that I do not understand. Besides, that is why we see these kinds of movies again, a prospect I have taken a sudden liking to, now that I think about it …

Final Verdict:
3.5 Stars Out of 5

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.