Thursday, May 16, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness ★★

Visually Exciting; Illogical on Almost Every Level

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Remember Kirk, Spock and Bones? Remember the Enterprise and its five year mission? In case you're rusty: "To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before." Star Trek was about a future in which different nations and other worlds worked together. The Federation had its enemies, sure, but for the most part it was about the wonder of space and its endless possibilities. It was ahead of its time, to say the least, and sadly, the latest entry in J.J. Abrams' version of the series hints that we may never see that vision of the future again.

Star Trek Into Darkness has not only a bad title, but one that completely undermines what Star Trek was always about. It's as if Mr. Abrams watched the series and understood none of it, or, if he did, simply didn't care. Into Darkness is a film in which the director forces himself on the material, rather than let the material speak for itself. I was a fan of the first film, which wisely created an alternate timeline and even included the original Spock (Leonard Nimoy) so that the audience would know that the stories we all loved from that original series still existed. This also meant that Mr. Abrams was free to modify the characters, slightly, which made their introductions fresh and new, while still retaining what we always loved about them. In other words, he seemed to care when he made Star Trek. I'll say this for his directing of Into Darkness: he has a talent for creating breathtaking visuals during pulse-pounding action sequences, but when you strip that away you discover that this film is all style and no substance. You don't really have time to breathe when watching Into Darkness, and it's only after watching the film in its entirety that you begin to see its many flaws.

Into Darkness begins, promisingly enough, with Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones (Karl Urban) racing through a red forest trying to distract a race of aliens while Spock (Zachary Quinto) attempts to neutralize an erupting volcano. When things don't go as planned, Kirk has to save Spock by violating the Prime Directive, which states that Starfleet cannot interfere with the development of alien nations. As a result, Kirk is demoted to first officer by Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and Spock is assigned to another ship. At this point it seems that Mr. Abrams and his screenwriters (Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci & Damon Lindelof) actually get Star Trek. Kirk could not allow a civilization to be destroyed and thus had to intervene, exposing the Enterprise when his friend was in danger.

I was optimistic about where the film was going right up until the villain, John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), is introduced, at which point the film truly veers into darkness. Kirk resumes command and pursues Harrison into Klingon territory which, if Kirk is careless in his quest, will cause a war with the Klingons. From here, Mr. Abrams commits the biggest sin when he attempts to remake The Wrath of Khan, easily the best entry of all the Star Trek films.

The Wrath of Khan worked for a variety of reasons: it dealt with questions of mortality, friendship and above all, sacrifice. Once again, it seems as though Mr. Abrams watched that film and understood none of it. His Kirk is much more cocky and somehow managed to forget everything he learned in the first film. His friendship with Spock feels forced, not earned (let's remember, they only became friends in the first film because the older Spock told Kirk they needed to be), and Bones is barely even a character this time around. (The three of them and their clashing personalities were what made the original series, as well as Wrath of Khan great.) Thus, everything that happens feels false and does not achieve the emotion Mr. Abrams was hoping for. During the screening I attended, people in the audience were actually laughing at what was supposed to be the most moving scene in the film.

A lot of imagination is missing from Star Trek Into Darkness, which is unfortunate given the admiration and excitement I had for the first one. What does work comes in small doses - namely the opening, some of the action sequences, and perhaps the two best scenes in the movie, which feature conversations between Kirk and Pike. Overall, Into Darkness feels lazy and, at times, disrespectful, not only to the fans of both the original and the new incarnation, but to Gene Roddenberry's original vision of the future. The first film had the marketing slogan "This is not your father's Star Trek", which was true, but still had the heart of the original series. Into Darkness, however, feels like it's no one's Star Trek.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Iron Man 3 ★★★★

Finally, The Third Time Is The Charm

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Providing a much needed breath of fresh air to the series, Iron Man 3 kicks off the summer movie season with a bang.

As a director, I must say I have never been a huge fan of Jon Favreau. As an actor, he's fine, but when the best movie he's directed is Elf (although I do love Elf), you know there's trouble. Thankfully, Favreau chose to leave the Iron Man series as a director to pursue other projects and was replaced by the prolific Shane Black. Black has only directed one other feature, the highly enjoyable Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but is clearly the man for the job, at least for this franchise.

There's a certain style that comes from a Shane Black script, most notably witty dialogue (perfect for Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark); voiceover narration; a noirish, pulpy feel to the story; and Christmas as the juxtaposed backdrop. All of these elements are in place for Iron Man 3, which Black co-wrote with Drew Pearce, and it serves the story in a variety of unique ways. The voiceover narration is one of those elements associated with the film noir style and it's use here gives the film less of a superhero feel and more of a detective-recalling-his-biggest-case vibe. To that point, a large part of this movie is uncovering a mystery that's set up in its first act, and Tony plays the role of lead detective perfectly.

Iron Man 3 is also violent in the ways Black is famous for, even though it's somewhat muted given its PG-13 rating and the studio's desire for it to fit within the Marvel universe, but Black still manages to make this movie his own. As opposed to the previous entries in the series, this time around, the violence matters. These aren't just CGI characters created to be blown up, though for those who want it, there's still an impressive amount of CGI in play. We believe that any of the characters could die at any moment, largely because of the tone Black establishes and maintains throughout, as well as Downey's best performance in the series.

At the beginning of the film, we're told through voiceover that Tony has made many enemies, as he reflects back to a New Year's Eve party in 1999 where he had a one night stand with a scientist named Maya (Rebecca Hall) and managed to blow off a crippled scientist named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), who was a huge admirer of Tony's. In the present, Killian despises Tony (why wouldn't he?), has gotten his disabilities in check, and now resembles the Guy Pearce we all know and love. Apparently, he is also working with a terrorist known only as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) who shares in Killian's desire for Tony's demise. When The Mandarin attacks Tony at his home in Malibu, Tony is left for dead with only one non-functioning suit at his disposal, setting up some interesting plot reveals along the way.

The movie has also the task of picking up the pieces left by the end of The Avengers, but manages it quite nicely by removing any Avenger-esque subplot (a fault of nearly every Marvel movie to be released after the first Iron Man) and instead (brace yourself, this is a novel concept) placing Tony front and center. He's suffering from anxiety attacks after his near death experience, can't sleep, and has become more paranoid than ever about attacks from other worlds and dimensions. Tony's desperate, scared, and a little unhinged. This isn't the Tony Stark we're used to. Sure, he's cocky at times, but more as a deflection than ever before. He's lost the confidence he once had. As a result, he's created 42 new suits, each one a supposed improvement over the previous. These suits are meant not only to protect himself, but Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) as well. At one point, Tony says, as if to put it mildly, "Nothing's been the same since New York."

All of this is to say that Iron Man 3 is precisely the summer blockbuster that I hope both critics and audiences can agree on. It's a lot of fun, it's intelligent, and it's one of those rare movies that I look forward to seeing again.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Upstream Color ★★★★

A Mesmerizing Follow Up From The Director of Primer

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Do not try to understand Upstream Color after one viewing. It's next to impossible. Instead, let the emotions, good and bad, wash over you and let that be your critique of the movie. It's the second film from director Shane Carruth (Primer), which should help to discern what type of movie this is.

For those who want to have an idea of what they're in for, I'll say this much: a woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz in a haunting performance), is kidnapped and force-fed larvae that make her susceptible to mind control. Her assailant (Thiago Martins) has her perform a variety of bizarre tasks before having her make a series of large withdrawals from her bank and pocketing the money himself. Later, Kris discovers worms gestating right beneath her skin and desperately tries to remove them. When that fails, she's somehow drawn to a farmer who is seemingly obsessed with sound, carrying microphones and recording equipment everywhere he goes. The farmer removes the worms and puts them in one of his pigs in one of the most disturbing surgery scenes I've ever witnessed, and Kris awakens alone and confused in her car on the side of the freeway. Some time later she meets a man, Jeff (Carruth), who becomes a kindred spirit to her, hinting that he, too, may have been experimented on in the past. 

Of everything this movie offers, that just scratches the surface. It's clear that Carruth operates on an entirely different level than I could ever hope to. But as a filmmaker, he certainly is a major talent. He's a director who uses imagery and, for this film, sound design (as noted by film critic Alonso Duralde) to give the audience an almost a dreamlike experience, while at the same time being astoundingly original in his approach to storytelling. His cinematography is evocative, his score is eerie, and his dialogue - what little there is - hardly matters when compared to what he's showing us. Think Terrance Malick, but much more twisted. Better yet, think of Darren Aronofsky's second film, Requiem For A Dream, and you might begin to understand how you'll feel after watching Upstream Color.

It works in the ways that the best science fiction films do; you'll find yourself asking a lot of questions, questions only truly great science fiction offers. I always come back to 2001: A Space Odyssey, as the quintessential science fiction experience. Every time I watch it gives me another interpretation of our place in the universe, where we come from, what's next etc. Upstream Color is offers similar questions, but is more of a cautionary tale of where we are as a civilization, and what certain members of society are capable of when given power. I'm not saying mind control is possible and I'm not saying it isn't. But pondering it's existence and what it could mean is just one of several rewarding pleasures of seeing a film like this. Where 2001 can be seen as more of an optimistic approach to consciousness (depending on your interpretation of it), Upstream Color is it's own dystopia. It takes place in the present, but seems to theorize that our undoing isn't the result of war or attacks from aliens, but instead by human choice. Given the power to control another, would we use it? Carruth is giving us his interpretation of a world gone mad from its own power. It's incredibly effective. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Mud ★★★★

A Coming of Age Noir Along The Mississippi River

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

There aren't many directors who can make the audience feel as though they are actually part of the world displayed before our eyes when we see a movie. Some directors try but fail - James Cameron with Avatar, for example, forcefully tried to make us part of Pandora with his use of 3D - and some, like the brilliant Jeff Nichols, do so effortlessly, trusting in the work they're producing. Nichols' latest film, Mud, is a beautiful representation of the latter.

In an area unfamiliar, I'm sure, to many like myself who have never journeyed that far south, the story takes place and was shot along the Mississippi River in Arkansas. Two boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan, giving one of the most amazing performances of the year) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), discover a boat in a tree in the middle of a mostly desolate island along the river. They also find the boat inhabited by Mud (Matthew McConaughey, giving one of the year's best performances), a man who tells the boys that he is waiting for his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), to find him so that they can run away together.

Ellis' mother and father (Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon) are in the early stages of divorce, which is devastating to Ellis, as he is beginning a relationship with his first serious crush (Bonnie Sturdivant). We all remember our first crush; the intense feelings, awkward interactions and maybe some sleepless nights; and Nichols captures all of these feelings beautifully, getting an amazing performance out of Sheridan. After Mud asks the boys for help, Ellis obliges after hearing Mud speak about Juniper. The love that Mud clearly has for her entrances Ellis, giving him hope when his parents have left him hopeless. The look of excitement and desperation on Ellis' part perfectly conveys the longing all of us have experienced at least once during our lives. The idea of true love being tangible has its temptations and with them a certain degree of naïveté.

Mud is one of those coming of age stories that manages to get everything right. In his creation of Ellis, Nichols succeeds in making the audience a part of the story, despite the unfamiliarity of life along the Mississippi River. Our hearts break for Ellis, yet we believe, as he does, that love will conquer all. Nichols perfectly captures the innocence of adolescence while also providing a noirish backdrop for all the characters to live within.

Mud, we find out, is a fugitive for a crime I won't spoil in this review. Suffice it to say that, in addition to being pursued by authorities, some very bad men want him dead. With every task Ellis performs to help Mud, including finding and speaking with Juniper, Ellis places himself in more danger. McConaughey is stellar as Mud, portraying the character as somewhat of a simpleton with deadly skills, especially if someone threatens a person he cares about. Mud is thus the grown up version of Ellis, at least if Ellis doesn't learn from Mud's mistakes.

It's hard, I imagine, for anyone not to sympathize with both Ellis' and Mud's plight. This is a film that asks the audience to revisit the intense feelings young adulthood provides but also to recall the moment in time where suddenly we realized it was time to grow up. It's never easy for anyone, but it happens to us all, and Ellis' story is a beautiful representation of that time in our lives. This is a film about lost innocence and the acceptance of truth in extreme circumstances. Life is always simpler when we're young, or so we think. But Nichols knows better, and invites us into his story about lost youth by allowing us to remember our own.