Monday, May 27, 2013

The Best Trek in Generations! “Star Trek: Into Darkness”(3D)

Can I just write “Wow” five-hundred times and have that count as my review of this film?
            Obviously, J.J. Abrams’ latest installment in the Star Trek franchise not only meets with my approval, but is in my opinion the best Star Trek movie since 1982’s “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan”. “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” was a great final outing for the original crew of the star ship Enterprise, if you were okay with the thinly-veiled JFK assassination plot. Likewise, “Star Trek: First Contact” not only had some very good character development and science fiction “what if?” elements it was also a load of laughs (“You told him about the statue?”). Still, neither “The Undiscovered Country” nor “First Contact” comes close to the glorious successes and excesses of “Into Darkness”.
            From the first scene “Into Darkness” propels you into 132 minutes of virtually nonstop 3D action and intrigue. The film starts out as straightforward mission to capture a rogue Federation Agent, but quickly turns sideways. Kirk (Christopher Pine) comes to realize that the greatest enemy to the Federation and peace with the Klingon Empire lies at the very heart of the Federation. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the film’s principle villain (nope, I’ll not give that character’s true identity away!) and it is through interactions with this bad man that Kirk grows to appreciate the grave responsibilities that accompany the chair of command.
            During those brief moments when the action in “Into Darkness” slows enough for us to catch our breath and get a smattering of plot-moving dialogue there are plenty of fun “ah-ha” moments. Alice Eve plays Dr. Carol Marcus whom many will remember should go on to have a child with Kirk as per “Wrath of Khan”. Kirk, Spock and Uhura land on the Klingon home world of Kronos in a ship that was impounded the previous month during some affair involving a fellow named “Mudd”, obviously the loveable charlatan rogue who appeared in two separate episodes of the original series. (Quick question: Anyone else think funnyman Jack Black would make a great Harry Mudd in Star Trek 3? Let me know, better yet, find a way to let J.J. Abrams know.) Nurse Christine Chapel is mentioned in passing and Leonard Nimoy even makes what may be the briefest cameo of his career as old Mr. Spock pointedly not advising his younger self. Perhaps the best homage moment came when Scotty (Simon Pegg) lamented the lack of power from the Enterprise.
            The sets and special effects of “Into Darkness” are all top drawer and beyond imaginative. The Engineering section of the Enterprise is immense yet decidedly not terribly science-fiction-like; as one might imagine the engineering room of a high energy physics-driven star ship. The City of London is envisioned in the 23rd century as being overgrown by buildings that dwarf St. Paul’s Cathedral (which is visible in one scene but you have to look for it down around the base of the skyscrapers). The artificial gravity on board the U.S.S. Enterprise goes haywire at one point and we’re treated to one of the most dynamic gravitational mix-up scenes ever filmed, wherein the way “down” keeps shifting at the most inopportune of moments. All this filmic pizzazz and 3D cinematography blend seamlessly to create a visual joy ride worth twice the price of admission.
Since this is my first review of a 3D film I think I’d like to address this recently-reborn format. 3D lends itself very well to high action films such as “Into Darkness” where it can be utilized to bring space flotsam flying at you or have spears flying into the fray from behind you. In more intimate settings, the true artistry of the format can be seen when focus is shifted from foreground to background and multiple points in between very much the way our own eyes shift focus while scanning our 3D world. These shifts can be used to focus and hold our attentions, guiding us gently through what might otherwise be a very flat scene - pun intendedJ. 3D is definitely a format that has come of age in the past five years, but an exploration of its impact not only on “In Darkness” but on film in general should, and will, be the subject for a forthcoming essay.  
            I know there are many Trekkies and/or Trekers out there who are still freaking out over the recasting of the original series’ legendary characters. There are also some who would point out that Gene Roddenberry himself is on record as never wanting Star Trek to look back but always look forward. To those people I say, with respect, get over it. As long as the characters are respected and the story lines aren’t cheapened, why not explore where today’s cinematic technology can take Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and all of the crew of the gallant NCC-1707?
            With a price tag of $185 Million - and every penny of it on the screen! – “Star Trek: Into Darkness” goes well beyond operating on all thrusters. This film has everything: action, drama, romance, bro-mance, strong special effects, Klingons and even a Tribble! In the end this Star Trek blazes ahead at Warp Factor 9 promising to take us once again, where no one has gone before.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Opulence and the Emptiness and “The Great Gatsby”

I’m happy to say that I was more than pleasantly surprised by Baz Luhrman’s latest magnum opus “The Great Gatsby”, arguably his best film since 1995’s “Romeo + Juliet”. Honestly, I was expecting a sedentary snooze-fest treatment of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel similar to the 1974 Robert Redford version, but I really should have known that the man who made “Moulin Rouge” would handily capture the spirit of the Jazz Age. This latest Gatsby is certainly not a flawless film; it is entertaining and in places even tender in its portrait of a man driven to riches only to be worthy of the one woman who would make his gilded world whole.
Because I’ve never read “The Great Gatsby” I can’t tell how heavily Luhrman and Craig Pearce (co-writer w/Luhrman of the film’s screenplay) drew upon Fitzgerald’s prose in crafting the deeply expressive narration delivered by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) which elevates the film above the commonplace.
The film opens with Nick, a likeable young man under treatment at a sanitarium for a host of emotional issues including depression, alcoholism and insomnia who relates to his psychiatrist the events of the summer of 1922... Hoping find a place for himself in the Wall Street boom of the 20’s, Nick had rented a modest house out on New York’s Long Island -- beside the fairy tale castle mansion of an enigmatic man famous to all, but known by few, a man called Gatsby.
What Nick planned as a summer of financial studies became an adventure into the private lives and excesses of the ultra-rich and powerful. Nick’s cousin, Daisy, married to Tom Buchanan, an adulterous heir of old money, lived on the old money side of the bay opposite the Nuevo Riche side where both Nick & Gatsby resided. Between a sordid lower Manhattan apartment orgy with Tom and the almost czarist extravagance of Gatsby’s weekend happenings Nick became both insider and outsider, viewing the world of the idle rich from “within and without”. When Gatsby (Leonardo Di Caprio) took Nick into his confidence concerning cousin Daisy, Nick developed into both agent and sole true friend to the millionaire.
Gatsby was a man from Daisy’s past, a man who went off to WW 1 but never returned because of his poverty. Driven by a strong vision of what he could be and a powerful optimism, Gatsby spent years reinventing himself to amass the fortune he felt he needed to secure a future for himself and Daisy. It was no accident Gatsby bought the palatial mansion directly across the bay for Daisy and Tom. Likewise, Gatsby’s mad weekend bacchanalias were not mere frivolous extravagances; he yearned each weekend that Daisy would be enticed to travel across the bay and they would meet, again, and recapture the romance of their youth.
Nick was to be instrumental to the reunion of Gatsby and Daisy, and in the process taken in to Gatsby’s empty, lovelorn sphere as well. There, Nick recognized Gatsby as possessing the kind of heart money can’t buy or create and we, like Nick, come to wonder if Daisy may not be good enough for Gatsby. How shallow and materialistic was Daisy that she wept uncontrollably at the beauty of Gatsby’s silken shirts? In the end, Nick assured a confused but hopeful Gatsby that he was better than, worth more than, those rich folks he aspired to join, that he was “worth the whole damn bunch of them.”
It’s hard to tell for me whether Leonardo Di Caprio’s performance, at times seemingly wooden while at other times painfully natural, was intentionally so, old sport. The millionaire Gatsby was played with a larger than life forced charm that was hard to swallow from an actor like Di Caprio, but when Gatsby first reunites with Daisy that fa├žade fractured to reveal a poor Romeo in romantic awe of his Juliet. In the most intimate scenes Di Caprio’s Gatsby was human, but he too often put up his wealthy front even to Nick, who by the end understood the source of that tragically guarded nature.
 “The Great Gatsby” is as mentioned above a flawed film. Luhrman incorporated modern music into this Jazz Age masterwork and sometimes it works, other times it only served to break the spell of the film and remind me that I was watching a movie. Similarly, Luhrman’s, poetic realist colors and dynamic visual style were occasionally obtrusive and again broke this film’s spell. Tobey Maguire was amiable (Maguire always is!) as Nick but the performance was scarcely brilliant, evidence that with a good script even a mediocre performance can carry a film. Carey Mulligan - perhaps best known popularly as Sally Sparrow from the legendary “Blink” episode of Dr. Who - portrays Daisy with vulnerability and grace; still, Luhrman really needed to pull her aside for those scenes where she’s supposed to be expressing the boredom of the idle rich and utter the single word every director should know: “Less”. These minor flaws did at times pull me out of the film’s story but never for long, after the first 20 minutes I was too rapt by the sheer majesty of Baz Luhrman’s creation and Fitzgerald’s characters to care.
I don’t know if “The Great Gatsby” will be remembered next Oscar season, at least not for the acting which was solid but never extraordinary. However, I do feel that this may be the first must-see film of the 2013 summer movie season; it has it all, music, love, great visuals, depth of emotion and classic source material that should bring in casual teen-agers and ardent cinemaphiles alike. See “The Great Gatsby”, a provocative vision of the opulence and emptiness of 1920s America.