Movie Reviews - 2009 postsSunday May 10, 2009
“Star Trek”/“Star Wars” Parallels
Anyone else notice the parallels between the latest “Star Trek” and the original “Star Wars”? Examples:
- Opening battle between a small ship and a GIGANTIC ship, which immediately has us rooting for the small ship—the underdog. Meanwhile, what escapes from the small ship is the key to the eventual destruction of the gigantic ship.
- The fatherless, seemingly parentless, farmboy gazing up at the stars, at what he might be.
- The destruction, a third of the way through the film, of an entire planet and its billions of souls, which affects several main characters greatly.
- The discovery of the hooded wise man in the cave, who teaches the young buck the proper way and his proper destiny.
- The destruction of the bad guys by the two archetypal characters: in “Star Wars,” innocent and rebel; here, extrovert and introvert, emotion and logic. In both films, these two characters start out enemies but become fast friends.
- In the end, the triumphant farmboy is feted at a medal ceremony in front of the entire fleet.
That's just off the top of my head. More? Anyone?
ADDENDUM: In this construct, Uhura has the Princess Leia role: the feisty girl the farmboy is after and the other guy winds up with. In the original “Star Trek” series, the threeway was between Kirk, Spock and McCoy, with Kirk listening to input from both logic (Spock) and emotion (McCoy) and then deciding on the best course of action. But in this film, Uhura seems to have a bigger part than McCoy. Part of the “Star Wars”izaton of the series? Who knows?
ADDENDUM: Via a back-and-forth on Facebook, we got this:
Spock: Jim, the statistical likelihood that our plan will succeed is 4.3 percent
Kirk: Spock, it'll work.
C-3PO: Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1!
Han Solo: Never tell me the odds!
ADDENDUM, 8/7: “Star Trek: Confusion”
Review: “Star Trek” (2009)
WARNING: MASSIVE SPACE SPOILERS
You knew it wasn’t going to happen, just as, when Sulu’s life was imperiled, you knew he was going to be fine because he’s Sulu. So, yes, the Romulans drilled into Planet Vulcan, and, yes, the Romulans prepared “the red matter,” which, we find out, will cause the planet to collapse upon itself, and this is all supposed to happen in a matter of minutes. But you leaned back and waited for the deus ex machina. Because it’s the Planet Vulcan. That’d be like blowing up Earth. Ain’t gonna happen.
Then it does.
And you think, “Holy crap.” Pause. “Oh, they’re not gonna do one of those cheesey reverse-time things, are they? Where we wind up going back to this moment in order to reverse it? And everything’s the same? And fine?”
It’s not until the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise is talking about all of this, and Uhura says that these all-powerful Romulans, who are from the future, have created “an alternate reality,” that the other shoe drops.
This “Star Trek” movie isn’t just a reboot—a chance to update popular and still-lucrative characters with young stars and updated special effects. This is an alternate reality. A new reality. The new reality.
In other words, J.J. Abrams and friends have created a rationale for doing whatever the hell they want with these characters—blow up Vulcan, have Spock and Uhura get it on, give Scotty a cute little sidekick—and the hardest-core Trekkie/Trekker can’t really object because it still plays within the rules of the “Star Trek” universe.
Abrams & friends can tell Trekkers: Look, your universe is fine—where the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise meet the salt creature and Mudd’s women and the Gorn and Finnegan and Joan Collins and 1920s Chicago and Wyatt Earp and Abe Lincoln. That’s all still there. But that’s the alternate universe now. Or this one is. And this Capt. Kirk and his crew are on a different path and there’s nothing you can say about it because it plays within the rules Gene Roddenbury originally created. And you can’t go against Roddenbury, now, can you?
And you pause for a moment, balanced in that thought.
And you think: Wow, that’s pretty smart.
As for the film itself? It zips, baby. But it’s not as smart as the above.
They bring back miniskirts and black boots. I’m a fan.
Chris Pine makes a dynamic Kirk. Zachary Quinto makes a spookily accurate Spock. Hell, all the casting by April Webster and Alyssa Weisberg is well-done. Among the second-tier characters, I particularly like Simon Pegg as Scotty, Zoe Saldana as Uhura and Bruce Greenwood as Capt. Pike. At times, Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy seemed a bit much—like he wasn’t doing DeForest Kelly so much as Dave Thomas doing DeForest Kelly on the old “SCTV” show. To trot out my nerd credentials. Not to mention my age.
Here’s the story if you want it: Next-Gen-era Romulans, who have witnessed the destruction of their planet, go through a hole in space, and, with their high-tech weaponry, destroy the U.S.S. Kelvin. But George Kirk, captain for all of 12 minutes, manages to hold them off to allow the rest of the crew—including his pregnant wife, who gives birth to a baby boy en route—to escape. Then these Romulans wait around for 25 years until Amb. Spock, whom they blame for Romulus’ demise, comes through the same hole in space. Apparently no one knows they’re out there. Helluva cloaking device. Helluva lotta patience. Very little imagination.
In the meantime, baby boy Kirk grows up to be a badass. After a barfight with some cadets from Star Fleet Academy, Capt. Christopher Pike gives young Kirk a pretty good speech (“Your father was the captain of a starship for 12 minutes. He saved 800 lives. I dare you to do better”), and the next day Kirk signs up for Starfleet.
He makes passes at Uhura, makes friends with Bones McCoy, makes enemies with Spock. We see Kirk faced with the unwinnable Kobayashi Maru test, which, in this universe, Spock created (rather than, say, Kobayashi Maru), and which Kirk defeats by cheating, and for which he’s almost tossed out of the Academy by Tyler Perry doing the guest-star gig. (Hey, how about Madea as captain of a starship? Or on one?)
Then: lightning storms around Vulcan, Federation ships sent to investigate, blown apart by the Romulans, who are busy getting their revenge. The Enterprise, thanks to Kirk, survives, but Vulcan is blown up and Capt. Pike is captured and one of those slug things that was put in Chekhov’s ear in “Star Trek II” is put in Pike’s mouth here. Num.
Even though we’re in an alternate universe, we still get tons of echoes from the old one. Sulu tells Pike he has extensive combat training experience, and when Kirk asks what kind, Sulu replies, “Fencing.” Spock repeats several of his famous lines, once as Quinto (“When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”), once as Nimoy (“I have been, and always will be, your friend”).
But there are holes in the plot as big as the holes in space that the Romulans went through. Sure, I’ll buy that the Romulans can do whatever they want to Vulcan. One assumes the Vulcans, those peace-loving bastards, don’t have much of a defense system. But Earth? C’mon. We’re way too paranoid not to be defense-ready. And are Spock’s actions really logical throughout the film? I mean, shooting Kirk into space in a pod? Is that standard procedure? Or is it merely a way to get Kirk on that Class-M ice planet, where he’ll run from this alien and that alien and into the arms—almost literally—of the old Amb. Spock? And how about old Spock? Turns out he’s responsible for the destruction of his entire planet. Ouch! Even with the alt-universe thing, I doubt Trekkers will take kindly to that.
I like certain touches. The long-faced alien trapped between Kirk flirting with Uhura at the bar. The sensation of actually being blown out into the deadly silence of space.
And the movie zips. And it’s fun.
Is it too zippy? Too fun? When the movie ends the way we knew it would, with the new crew seeking out new blah blah blahs and new yadda yaddas, I looked at the new, alt-universe Kirk and thought, “But what’s your point?”
In the original series, particularly its first season, there was a mystery, and a creepiness, to what they might find out there, always augmented by that great background soundtrack of creepiness. (I can do four original series background tracks: “Spock’s low bass-guitar blues”; “romance”; “fighting”; and “creepiness.” “Creepiness” is my favorite. Whoever did the music for TOS was genius.)
By “Next Gen,” most of the mystery had been drained away, replaced by a kind of humorless military discipline. But then you got the Borg, and “Best of Both Worlds,” and, wow, that was pretty creepy. “Resistance is futile...Number One.” Great line. More, it was tough defeating the Borg. It took a whole summer, from May to September.
There’s very little mystery or creepiness or difficulty left. Now aliens sit longfaced between us at bars in Iowa, and now we bed Orion animal women like that (even the sex is easier: Sorry, Bill!), and now we warp to Vulcan and warp back again, lickety-split, and defeat the enemy just in time, and get our command at 28 (Pine’s age) as opposed to 35 (Shatner’s age in ‘66). Most of the new crew is in their early 30s but they look so much younger, so less adult, than the original crew, who were in their mid-30s and 40s, that they almost seem like tiny toons versions of same. And it’s all so easy and weightless, as it generally is for tiny toons.
I guess I thought “But what’s your point?” because for most of the movie, the goal of James T. Kirk was to become a starship captain and outdo his father, which he did, by saving the entire frickin’ planet and maybe the entire human species. Nice! But now what? What’s Kirk’s goal now? To seek out new life and new civilizations? That takes work. He seems too breezy and solipsistic for that. As does our film industry.
There are still stories to be told out there, that add to the mystery rather than paving it over, but you’ve got to drop out of warp-drive, and pause, and look around, and reflect, in order to tell them properly. And I doubt Hollywood’s interested in that.
What's Rotten on RottenTomatoes?
A friend told me that "The Soloist," which I obviously liked, got a mediocre, low 60s rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and I checked it out. Worse than he thought: 56%. At the same time I noticed that "State of Play," which I obviously didn't like, did much better:
"The Soloist": 56%
"State of Play": 85%
These are the ratings for "T-Meter critics" (all critics), which is the default setting on Rotten Tomatoes. Click on the tab for "Top Critics" (or critics from top newspapers) and the fortunes of the two movies reverse:
"The Soloist": 71%
"State of Play": 63%
Meanwhile over at metacritic, which some movieogers supposedly favor, but which feels less crisp than RT, "The Soloist" gets a 61 to "State of Play"'s 64.
All of which reminds us there are still a few bugs in the quantitative (and possibly qualitative) critical system. It also makes me worry over the state of movie criticism when those top critics at those top newspapers disappear, and we're left with the Wallys from wallysworld.com.
Review: “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (2009)
You like overhead shots of the protagonist kneeling by the body of a loved one and screaming up at the heavens?
You like scenes when a superhero has to choose between killing a villain and letting him live? A dilemma that reveals his “true” nature?
You like dialogue such as “We didn’t sign up for this,” and “If man were meant to fly he’d grow wings,” and — after a would-be-partner shows up just in time to save the hero — “You miss me”?
Then “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” is your movie. Bonus: You get two of those overheads shots of the hero screaming up at the heavens. Three if you count a flashback.
Admittedly, the filmmakers were hampered from the start. “Wolverine” is a prequel, which means they had to end it with the title character in a vaguely similar place to where he was at the beginning of “X-Men” (2000), which is to say: alive, with an adamantium skeleton, and with no real memory of who he is. That’s tough: to have your ending before your story even begins.
The movie opens in 1845 in the northwest territories of Canada, where the boy who will become Wolverine, then called Jimmy, is sick in bed, watched over by his scowling brother (half-brother?) named Victor, the boy who will become Sabre Tooth, as well as his father, who, in a flash, is killed in the foyer downstairs. The trauma awakens Jimmy’s “berserker rage,” and his claws — skeletal at this point — are unleashed, and he kills the killer, who, it turns out, was his real father. Oops. Victor and Jimmy then flee. “Keep on running,” Victor says. “Don’t look back.” And they don’t. Through the entire credit sequence, in which you see them fighting in 1) the U.S. Civil War, 2) WWI, 3), WWII, and, 4) Vietnam. Questions immediately arise. Did they skip the Spanish-American War? And what did they do between wars? And why are they fighting for the U.S. anyway? Aren’t they Canadian? Actually the most important question is: Do they ever worry over the increasing might of military technology? Let’s face it, in 1845, or at least by the time they reach adulthood in 1860, nothing on earth — on earth! — was as powerful as they were; but during their lifetime they witnessed the introduction of the repeat-action rifle, the machine gun, the airplane, the missile, and the atom bomb. Don’t they ever think, “Wow, these humans are becoming more powerful than we are!”? Don’t they ever think? What have they learned in 120 years? Anything?
The story picks up — that is, the credits end — after the brothers have been shot by a firing squad for killing their own during Vietnam. They live, of course, and are recruited by Maj. William Stryker (Danny Huston), the man who will become Brian Cox. “I’m putting together a special team,” he says. For whatever reason, these mutants, including Victor and Jimmy, now called Logan, follow this human. Because they like killing? I don’t understand. Can’t they kill on their own? A few scenes later, Logan draws the line and tells his brother, “I’m done.” His brother responds, threateningly, “We can’t let you just walk away.” Then he and five other mutants stand around and watch him walk away. Smart.
Six years later, Logan’s in a 1973 made-for-TV movie. He’s a lumberjack in the Canadian Rockies, he’s got a pretty, long-haired girlfriend who’s a schoolteacher, and everyone knows they’re doomed. They kiss. Seventies music tinkles in the background. The audience gets restless.
Thank God Stryker shows up. “Your country needs you,” he tells Logan. Canada needs him? Oh, right, the U.S. Logan refuses but later tells his girlfriend the reason they want him is because “I’m the best at what I do. But what I do isn’t very nice.” It’s a famous Wolverine line, penned in the 1980s, but it doesn’t work here — particularly after Victor/Sabre Tooth kills the girlfriend and then defeats Logan. Apparently our boy isn’t the best at what he does.
Worse: Stryker convinces Logan to get all adamantiumed-up to get revenge on Victor. “I can give you the tools to defeat him,” Stryker says. Logan becomes Wolverine, in other words, because he’s a lousy fighter. Who knew? Almost feels cowardly. You’d think he’d try a martial arts class before getting his skeletal structure replaced.
I could go on. Every little element in this movie is just plain dumb. During the adamantium transfer, for example, Logan’s heartrate increases exponentially, then falters, and everyone’s urging him on: “Live, damnit!” When he flatlines, people turn away. And we wait... And we wait... As if there’s any suspense. He’s Wolverine! He lives! We know! Get on with it!
He goes to Three Mile Island, where he’s heard they’re holding mutants for experiments, to get revenge on Stryker and Victor; but when he discovers his girlfriend lives, that she fooled him, he walks away. Uh...dude. The imprisoned mutants? That are still being experimented on? Of course he returns and eventually frees them, and they leave, about 20 of them, scared and huddled together and hiding from the soldiers with their guns. Aren’t we sick of this yet? Why are they acting like malnourished boat people rather than, I don’t know, the most powerful people on the planet?
There’s a moment when we’re in the office of John Wraith, who runs a boxing gym in Vegas, and, in the background, there's a matchcard with upcoming bouts featuring ‘70s-era fighters. And I thought about the care that went into that small detail, and in the creation of the office, and Hugh Jackman’s insane workout regimen to turn his perfect body even more perfect. I thought of the inspired casting of Danny Huston and Liev Schreiber, and I thought, “It’s all for shit if you don’t have a story.” And this one’s for shit.
Admittedly, the filmmakers were hampered from the start. We begin knowing basically where we’ll end. But that’s a reason to open up your imagination, not close it off.
Review: “The Soloist” (2009)
“The Soloist” is much better than I thought it would be when I sat down and not quite as good as I hoped it would be halfway through. But it’s still very, very good. The best Hollywood release so far this year.
You probably know the story. You might’ve seen the “60 Minutes” segment on Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.), columnist for The Los Angeles Times, and one of his column subjects, Nathaniel Ayers, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a homeless man he finds beneath a statue of Beethoven playing a violin with only two strings, and who, it turns out, attended Juilliard for two years in the ‘70s only to drop out when mental problems overwhelmed him. You might’ve read Lopez’s book about the experience. Hell, you might’ve seen the trailer for the film last fall, when the release date was November and Downey was being talked up for an Oscar nom. Then — boom — the film was pulled until April. “Uh oh,” I thought. Springtime for a serious film generally means death. It means it ain’t good enough for autumn.
I began to relax — began to realize how smart this film was — while hearing the early voiceovers from Downey: either writing his column on available scraps, recording it into a tape recorder, or, best of all, just writing it in his head as he’s walking. That’s it, isn’t it? That’s what we do. At the same time, the story is moved along.
The film is remarkably integrated this way. It includes, among other riffs, dying newspapers, the homeless, Hurricane Katrina and Neil Diamond, but none of these things seems heavy or extraneous. Everything is integral. The flashbacks to Nathaniel’s earlier years don’t interrupt the story but continue or augment it. Yes, the movie borrows from “Amadeus” — using music to shut out the world — but why not? That’s what music does. That’s what any art does. Even if you’re not a true artist, the point is to have the world fall away for a time. It keeps us sane.
Nathaniel is not. We get conversations like this, as Nathaniel and Lopez watch a plane fly overhead:
Nathaniel: Are you flying that plane?
Lopez: No, I’m right here.
Nathaniel: I don’t know how that works.
Nathaniel’s can’t separate things. Everything blends together. Even his words come in a stream-of-consciousness style reminiscent of Robin Williams’ comedy. One thing leads to the next leads to the next. Yet, for a time, this almost seems...sane. For a time, everything seems part of the same big pattern — a pattern we can’t quite see — even though director Joe Wright (“Atonement”) keeps pulling back for overhead shots that let us take in, if not the pattern, then at least a pattern. The one we’ve created.
Is there any actor I’d rather watch think than Downey, Jr.? Everything he does here has energy and intelligence. When he was a younger actor (and, yes, on coke), it was as if there was too much he was trying to convey too quickly. He needed to age in order to slow down, in order to become palatable.
His Steve Lopez is divorced, lives alone, has trouble with raccoons. He’s the other soloist, the man who keeps the world at a writerly distance, or who, through whatever circumstances, has wound up alone. But he’s straightforward. When he finally reaches Karen, Nathaniel’s sister, and she asks why he’s interested in her brother, he doesn’t bullshit:
Lopez: I’m going to write a column about Nathaniel.
Lopez: Because that’s what I do.
One column leads to another. Nathaniel’s true instrument is the cello, and an elderly woman who reads these columns sends hers. Of course Nathaniel can’t keep such an expensive item in his shopping cart — it could be stolen, he could be hurt or killed during the theft — so Lopez arranges to have it kept at Lamp, a nonprofit homeless shelter for the mentally ill. Initially Nathaniel objects to such a plan. When we finally see the place, so do we. The area outside Lamp is filled with refugees, like it’s a scene from a post-apocalyptic film; like it’s Los Angeles’ own Katrina, whose images flicker on background newsroom televisions. Lopez, more than Nathaniel, feels justifiably threatened there — among the mentally ill and drug-addicted.
There’s a great scene — maybe the best scene in a movie full of great scenes — where, once again, Lopez has made the difficult 30-foot, nighttime journey from Lamp offices to the safety of his car, and, inside, he breathes a sigh of relief. We’ve all been there. The camera holds on him and you wonder: Is someone going to attack him now that he feels safe? That’s a Hollywood staple. But no. The camera just holds. And a realization comes over him, some fundamental change, some silent recognition of responsibility or awareness of artificial boundaries (between, say, the car and the street), or maybe just an awareness of his own fears, and he gets out again and walks and searches — part of the crowd, now, not apart from it — and finds Nathaniel bedded down for the night and joins him. That’s another column. These columns lead to change, as the mayor promises $50 million for the homeless and Lopez is feted at a black-tie affair.
One wonders where the movie will go from here but I like where it goes. Two forces are at work within Lopez. He tries to help Nathaniel — getting him an apartment and a tutor — and he also wants to wash his hands of him. These seem like opposite forces but are part of the same impulse. By making him independent, he’s no longer responsible for him. Or he’s responsible for him only in the way that each of us is responsible for each other. Which is to say: Not at all.
When someone tells Lopez that he’s the only thing Nathaniel’s got, he responds, “I don’t want to be his only thing,” and, again, we know where he’s coming from. How much does he have to do? How much does he need to care? How much do we?
The script by Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”) is full of great dialogue. “I don’t want to die in here,” says Nathaniel, freaked out by his new apartment. “Don’t,” Lopez replies matter-of-factly. Earlier, outside Lamp, Nathaniel says: “I hope these children of God will be okay tonight. They’ll sleep and dream as humans do.” That’s nice. Don’t know if it’s Grant or in Lopez’s book, but it’s nice.
Great supporting cast — particularly Nelsan Ellis as the man at Lamp, and Catherine Keener, an editor at the Times, who, we find out, was once married to Lopez.
A few elements feels clunky, or political, only compared to the smoothness of the rest of the film. The ending, for example, includes both voice-over and revelation, but it needed only one of these.
Even so, “The Soloist” comes close to being a remarkable film. I want to close with another great scene, an almost throwaway, that feels, without trying, without dotting its “i”s, to be integrating all of its parts. Keener is in her office as an offscreen higher-up is letting someone (her?) go by talking up the company’s “very good exit package.” Out her window, several stories high, she sees Lopez helping to push Nathaniel’s shopping cart up a hill. They’re heading to the L.A. Symphony to listen to a rehearsal, but she doesn’t know that, she only knows what she sees. And she smiles a wistful smile. There’s great balance here: the comedy outside and the tragedy within; one man helping another while a company, part of a dying industry, lets go of another employee. It doesn’t draw too fine a point — as I fear I might be doing — it just feels part of this big shifting pattern we all create. It’s worthy of Keener’s beautiful, wistful smile.