Monday, May 20, 2013

"Star Trek Into Darkness" is just light enough for fun.

It’s not so great a feeling to walk into a theater to see a flick and find yourself becoming mentally prepared to be disappointed, but I must admit to just such a situation this past weekend when going to see Star Trek Into Darkness.  The Star Trek reboot four years ago was a little fun, but with some of the heresy director J.J. Abrams committed upon Star Trek canon, and all that God-awful lens-flaring to which he subjected us, I wasn’t really yearning for the sequel at first.  Well, maybe “heresy” is perhaps a strong word, but it’s the first one to come to mind.  Anyway, as I began to see the promotional materials and teaser trailers over the last several months, and being blown away by some of the visuals, I found myself looking more and more forward to seeing his next attempt at the Star Trek universe.

The pre-title sequence, with Kirk and McCoy fleeing some pursuing primitives while Spock becomes trapped in an erupting volcano, didn’t do much to allay my fears that I’d be disappointed in the movie, though.  Sure, the very Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque chase scene is quite well-crafted, but it almost immediately conveyed to me that Abrams still didn’t “get it” (damn it, Federation Battle Cruisers CAN NOT make landfall!!!).  It had enough hectic and funny banter and interplay amongst the characters, however, that I found myself getting past the details and getting caught up in the movie pretty quickly. 

The movie has the reckless feel of some of original series episodes where Kirk showed his rashness and selective disregard for authority, as the first film did, but the rebelliousness seems to be less for its own sake in this film, and in that sense is an improvement on the previous film.  The Prime-Directive-be-Damned attitude for which Original-Series Kirk was so beloved is in full-force here, and while we do get to see a little bit more consequence of his actions, it’s still not as much as there SHOULD be.  This character trait is the one that Chris Pine seems to enjoy portraying the most, with his smirk-and-narrow-eyes being dished out in Shatner-like proportions.  It’s also the facet of Kirk’s personality that sets the movie’s events in motion.

I won’t delve into plot details too much for fear of inadvertently dropping spoilers, and there are so many to avoid revealing that I hope I can still convey to you that I did enjoy the movie and recommend that you see it.  Into Darkness shamelessly steals plot elements from a few different points of Star Trek’s past, namely some shady forces attempting to instigate a war with the Klingons and a certain villain who turns out to be more than meets the eye.  All of our favorite characters are back, and all have enough to do that their presence doesn’t feel like glorified cameos. 

Seeing these characters interact is the best thing about it, even more so than the previous film.  The casting of all these actors is spot-on, and their preparation and attention to detail is evident.  There were several instances of some combination of each or all three of the lead actors being onscreen when I found myself thinking of Shatner, Nimoy and Kelley, as the body language of Messrs. Pine, Quinto and Urban is all so very perfect. 

On the other hand, not every character harkens back to the original - Simon Pegg’s portrayal of Scotty is done to such a hyperactive level that James Doohan himself might not even recognize the character anymore (if he were still with us, that is…).  The rebooted version of Dr. Carol Marcus didn’t even really seem to serve much purpose here, either, other than to provide an opportunity for Kirk to see her in her undies and possibly plant the seed for him to… er, plant the seed… in the next movie.

After praising the casting, though, I must wonder about the logic of John Harrison’s ethnicity and accent without putting so much detail to this question as to reveal a vital plot point.  Watching any movie requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief by the audience, but the level of that suspension should not be too great, and if a film attempts at least a token explanation of some illogical point, most folks would probably buy it and move along.  Sadly, Abrams’ screenwriters didn’t even attempt to explain why we’re supposed to accept Benedict Cumberbatch as “Harrison,” and that one point of logic nagged me enough that it took me out of the movie for a few moments.  

The movie is a visual treat, too.  The actions sequences, and there are plenty of ‘em, are technical marvels to be sure, and while Abrams’ penchant for filling the screen with debris and an almost pornographic level of mass destruction continues from the first film, thank God he throttled back on the lens-flare somewhat!

Star Trek Into Darkness is a funny, involving and entertaining popcorn-flick that is very enjoyable in the moment, but I don’t think it as good as the first three or four movie adventures of the original cast.  Abrams expends a lot of effort in giving us “Easter eggs” that remind us of moments from the series’ previous iteration, so much so that his version almost doesn’t seem to be moving in an original direction.  Given his public admission that he was never as enamored of Star Trek as he is with Star Wars, one might hope that his taking over the Star Wars franchise will mean the next Star Trek film might be made by someone who has some interest in creating an entirely original story for these characters to inhabit.

Oh, and as a side note - it’s certainly a relief that San Francisco won’t be destroyed for another 250 years, since I’d very much like to see it before all of Telegraph Hill is overtaken by the Starfleet Campus…

Monday, May 6, 2013

"Iron Man 3" seems to be an experiment in the effects of rapid-fire wise-cracks.

Robert Downey, Jr. is a funny guy.  We all know that, right?  I don’t mean just as the characters he plays – you’ve seen him do press or talk shows when he’s promoting something, and he’s obviously as sharp as a tack.  We’ve also all seen the other two Iron Man pictures, as well as The Avengers, and it’s fairly apparent that the wise-ass genius Tony Stark was the role he was born to play.  The snarky, rapid-fire dialogue which comes so easily to Downey was the highlight of his three previous portrayals of the character (well, four, if you include his post-credits scene in The Incredible Hulk).  The question I have after seeing Iron Man 3, however, is at what point does a highlight start to blind us?

Shane Black, the screenwriter who created Riggs & Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon, and wrote and directed the criminally-underappreciated Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang (also starring Downey), assumes the director’s chair for this entry of the series from Jon Favreau (who thankfully still found time to return and play Stark’s bodyguard Happy Hogan).  He and his co-writer Drew Pearce give us a story of how Stark is adjusting to his world after being so emotionally scarred by his experiences in The Avengers, suffering from anxiety and insomnia, and driving him to focus obsessively on his various suits of armor, which puts strain on his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).  Along comes the terrorist threat known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), as well as some professional acquaintances from Stark’s past conveniently reentering his life, namely one Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), and the resulting death and destruction drive him to learn just what his priorities really should be.  

Iron Man 3 is a lot of fun and fits in the series very well.  It feels like we’re seeing the same characters in the same world we’ve observed before, and it’s definitely the most frenetic of the three movies.  The action pieces of the film, of which there are several, are spectacular.  We’ve all seen the destruction of Stark’s mansion in the trailers and TV spots, so it’s not a spoiler to say that if you thought that was impressive, there are others just as good before movie’s end.  Stark spends a great deal of the time outside his armor, even during battle, and this new story-wrinkle leads to a whole lot more techno-cacophony.  If anything, Black gets a little carried away with the mayhem at the movie’s conclusion, but Hell, if you buy a ticket to a superhero movie (or a Shane Black movie, for that matter) without expecting lots and lots of Stuff-Blown-Up-Good, then you’d best do a better job of researching how to spend your entertainment dollar.  

Black tries to take us a little deeper into everybody’s psyche than the previous movies did.  Stark has so much of his world upended during this movie that he has to seriously reexamine just what being Iron Man means to him, and how it impacts the people around him.  He spends a large portion of the movie out of his armor, being forced to come to grips with his emotional distress and to rely on his wits, and not his inventions.  Black excels at writing the sort of dialogue that Downey excels at delivering, and he has provided a different tone for the series, but while the concept of Stark’s introspection is very interesting, I think Black misfires in the execution in a few ways. 

Sure, it would be foolish to attempt making this film without taking advantage of Downey’s wit, but there are some instances in Iron Man 3 where the old adage of Less-being-More is ignored.  Stark’s mouth is pretty much running constantly throughout the movie, yapping off at each and every character he encounters, regardless of the logic.  The addition of an almost-stereotypical “kid sidekick” was a bitter disappointment, and seemed to primarily be A) a means to provide Stark a target for some rapid-fire smart-ass-ness, and B) a marketing ploy to involve kids who are probably too young to be seeing this PG-13/borderline-R movie in the first place.  

As good a job as Black does at delving deeper into Stark, he does it at the expense of the other characters around him.  The Killian and Maya Hansen characters are woefully underdeveloped, and the Hansen character in particular is almost dumped from the film about two-thirds of the way through.  As much fun as Don Cheadle’s Rhodey/Iron Patriot may be in the movie's final act, even his inclusion felt wedged in there, in a story-logic sort of way. 

Iron Man 3 is a worthy entry in the series, and I enjoyed it enough that I look forward to the character’s return in The Avengers 2 in a couple of years, but as good a movie as it is, I can see how it could have been even better.  I liked how we delved deeper into Stark’s relationship with Pepper and his overall mindset after his experiences in The Avengers, but while Stark so famously said “I am Iron Man” at the conclusion of the first film, and he does come to learn more about what that phrase means to him by the end of this movie, I’m left wanting to learn a few more things.  But, hey - we sure got a lot of great one-liners…