Thursday, May 30, 2013

Before Midnight

This is it. The last gulp of indie-movie fresh air before diving into the pressure-filled depths of the summer blockbuster season.

Now I like those depths, by and large, but I also like a little fresh air.

And I love the preceding two movies in this cycle, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.

The creative participants, director Richard Linklater and actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, have joked that theirs is the lowest-grossing trilogy in film history. Which might be correct, but the ultra low-cost movies -- each consists of an extended conversation between Hawke and Delpy -- have made money for everyone involved, and, oh yeah, they've been a joy to watch.

The first movie took place in 1995, when the actors and their characters, both in their early twenties, encountered each other on a train in France. The next showed us their reunion in 2005, and the current 2013 film shows them as a married couple with a pair of twin girls.

The action begins with Hawke dropping off his teenaged son at the airport. The boy's mom lives in Chicago, and Hawke is getting the itch to relocate there in order to be closer to his son.

This creates the first bout of friction with Delpy, who adamantly does not want to find herself "buying peanut butter in a grocery store in Chicago," but it's not the last.

Before Midnight is filled with conflict, especially in the opening and closing sequences of the film. The marriage between Hawke and Delpy is not a fairy-tale match. It's real and difficult and draining and sometimes nasty.

But there's also love and laughing, and lots of philosophizing.

The basic idea behind these movies is to capture the feeling of a relationship in its various stages. The romance of early love, the moment of commitment, and then the results of that commitment.

I think all the movies are great. The fact that Hawke is an American and Delpy a Frenchwoman -- and that both of them co-write the scripts with Linklater -- results in a tension not just between individuals, or genders, but cultures. This generates one of the best dynamics you can get in fiction: legitimate conflict between characters who love each other.

We're not going to see much of that over the next three months, but Before Midnight has made it a little easier to get through the next three months with sanity intact.

Thanks, Before Midnight!


How Accomplished: 76/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 79/100

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Star Trek: Into Darkness

I've seen the movie now, but I still don't understand what "Into Darkness" is supposed to mean.

The story takes the characters into no particular darkness, externally or internally, that isn't experienced by every character in every space opera that has ever been written.

There are laser battles -- I won't dignify the weapons involved with the name phasers -- there are spaceship chases, there are hostile aliens and even more hostile Starfleet admirals bent on cartoonishly diabolical schemes.

But darkness?

Where, exactly?

I begin to suspect the title was chosen simply because it sounds cool; not because there is any meaning behind it.

And that, friends, is the perfect parable for Star Trek: Into Darkness.

In a complete thematic retread of the previous movie, Chris Pine's Captain Kirk has the Enterprise taken away because of reckless behavior. But the Enterprise is restored, again by Kirk's mentor, Captain Christopher Pike, again by the end of the first act.

And it's none too soon.

A terrorist by the name of John Harrison, played by the reigning Sherlock Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch, has ruthlessly bombed a Starfleet administration building on Earth. Kirk and Spock figure out Harrison has escaped to, ahem, the Klingon homeworld, and thus are sent there to bring him to justice.

Everything that follows comes off like the plotting of a five year-old. Random, nonsensical things are forced to happen so that later events, already outlined, can work.

Example: a Starfleet admiral orders the Enterprise to take on 72 experimental, long-range photon torpedoes because they will be the best weapons for taking out Harrison. Scotty objects because the torpedoes are impervious to scans, so it's impossible to say exactly what's inside them. Scotty objects so much, in fact, that he quits. He quits the Enterprise, he quits Starfleet, he quits a twenty-year career in space.

Because he can't scan some torpedoes the admiral ordered him to accept without scanning.

This makes no sense until Scotty later gets a call from Kirk, who has grown suspicious of Peter Weller's scowling admiral, and asks Scotty to sneak aboard said admiral's ship and do some investigating.

Aha! So that's why Scotty quit! Because the writers needed him back on Earth halfway through the story when the Enterprise would be deep in Klingon space.

That's crap writing.

And it's marbled through Into Darkness.

Almost all my criticisms of the previous Star Trek movie are equally valid here: the dialogue is on-the-nose; the relationship between Kirk and Spock doesn't work; the larger universe is almost completely ignored to the extent that it feels like nothing exists beyond the boundaries of the movie screen. Battles take place in orbit around both the Klingon homeworld and the human one, yet no other ships ever arrive to help one side or the other.

A lot of this is craft-related. Basic storytelling stuff.

But underneath it all is a contempt for the source material. JJ Abrams, a confessed non-Trekkie, is doing everything he can to drive the box office numbers as high as possible. The execrable Paramount Pictures is doing the same. They have talked over and over about how they need to expand Trek's international audience.

Which is true, as far as it goes.

But their method of reaching that audience involves dumbing down the story to pre-teen, virtually illiterate levels -- just how poorly do we think of these foreign audiences, anyway? -- ramping up the action until it leaves the realm of Newtonian physics altogether, and replacing tension with constant, kinetic activity.

These Star Trek movies bear the same relation to the original Trek that the Transformers movies do to the eighties cartoon.

And that's a great analogy, because Abrams is doing his best Michael Bay impression with his directing, right down to the inane ploy of throwing in a sexy actress -- in this case, Alice Eve, playing the Badmiral's daughter -- who serves no purpose except to wear outfits that are ten percent tighter than anyone else's.

Or not to wear them at all.

The whole thing is very sad and dispiriting -- oh, by the way, Harrison turns out to be Khan, and Kirk dies saving the ship from radiation the same way Spock did in Wrath of Khan, except he gets revived when McCoy injects him with some of Khan's blood -- but if there's one piece of good news, it's that the movie is not doing well at the box office.

It's on pace to fall short of the original's numbers, which is the opposite direction these franchises are supposed to go.

The numbers are so weak, in fact, it calls into question the financial wisdom of making a third movie.

Which means maybe, if we're lucky, this will be the last Star Trek reboot we have to endure. At least for six or seven years, till Paramount reboots again with another cast and crew.

In the meantime, though, we'll have JJ Abrams' Star Wars VII to drive us crazy.


How Accomplished: 14/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 3/100

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Iron Man 3

My friend Mike is my go-to guy to discuss superhero movies with.

We've been talking comics for a quarter of a century, so we have a long history analyzing the merits and demerits of super-powered people and the adventures they find themselves in.

Naturally we spoke right after seeing Iron Man 3. We talked about the movie for hours. Sadly not in flattering tones.

There are so many things wrong with this flick I struggled to start the review, so I enlisted Mike's help. Here was his response:

"BGP. Bad Guy Plans. They can be as far-fetched as you want. The first Superman is a great example. Far-fetched, but played earnestly by great actors, and a solid script. However, this "film" didn't give us anything! Nothing! Right now, tell me, what did Aldrich Killian want? Even in a vague way? Create an army? Billions of dollars? Power? Pepper Potts? The question shouldn't be WHO is Tony Stark fighting, but what he is fighting to achieve or prevent."

"I would argue that in Die Hard, John McClane is a cop stopping a robbery first. The personal element, with Hans, only develops because of how much the two men WANT to achieve their goals."

He's right, of course.

The catastrophic problem with Iron Man 3 is the lead villain, Killian Aldrich, played by Guy Pearce, and his inscrutable, illogical, sure-to-fail plan.

If I understand correctly, and I'm not at all sure I do, Killian is an entrepreneur who buys Rebecca Hall's extremis virus, a bio-medical enhancement that regenerates limbs and bestows super flame-powers on its subjects. Unfortunately some subjects die in fiery explosions during and after the treatment.

Enter The Plan.

To cover up these accidental explosions and the resultant deaths, Killian invents a global terrorist called The Mandarin, hires a down-and-out British actor -- played by Ben Kingsley -- to play him, somehow seizes control of the U.S.'s entire telecommunications network, and broadcasts repeated demonic threats to the American people and their president.

Killian also flirts with Tony's main squeeze, Pepper Potts, whom apparently he knew years earlier in a different context. When she turns down his request to fund his new research, he sends six attack helicopters to destroy Tony and Pepper's Malibu mansion, with them in it.

Getting back to his main focus, Killian takes control of the Iron Patriot armor -- an offshoot of the Iron Man suit worn by Tony's buddy, Don Cheadle -- uses it to kidnap the President from Air Force One, takes him back to his loading dock lair in Miami, strings him up with cables, and prepares to burn him to death on live television.

Remember, all this is to REDUCE the spotlight on a few scattered explosions that take place around the country and leave absolutely no incriminating residue.

It just doesn't make a lick of sense, and all kinds of concomitant problems -- pointless scenes, non-existent tension, poor acting performances -- flow from this central failing.

So Iron Man 3 is a total mess. But only in the artistic sense.

Financially it's doing crazy good business. A billion dollars worldwide is already in the bag, and 1.5 billion is not out of the question.

I have a theory that a sequel's box office grosses reflect audience satisfaction with the preceding movie, and in this case, the preceding movie was The Avengers. People loved The Avengers, and Iron Man 3 is the lucky beneficiary.

What box office fate will befall Iron Man 4? That's the question.


How Accomplished: 32/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 29/100