STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS
Star Trek’s Eternal Mission Continues
“Star Trek Into Darkness” is a lot of movie. It gets personalities and dialogue right, but lets gigantic plot problems slide around like ocean-bound rubber duckies on an oil slick. The tremendous effort that the screenwriters, filmmakers, and actors put into harmonizing the film’s gently cheesy tone with Gene Rodenberry's original 1966 television series is spot-on. Like its cinematic prequel, the humor walks a fine line between dry wit and camp — between old-fashioned and hip. Crisscrossing subplots however, get messy.
Fans of the original series that launched multiple TV versions and [now] 12 films are rewarded with a returning cast of actors from the current J.J. Abrams relaunch, who resemble younger versions of the iconic actors. Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner ought to be gratified. It might seem counter-intuitive to imagine Chris Pine as a younger William Shatner, but the talented actor makes it plausible, even recognizable. The same rule applies to Zachary Quinto’s earnest incarnation of Mr. Spock. Eyebrows and pointy-ears aside, Quinto has Spock’s delivery and manner down to, well, a science.
The film’s first act sets a high mark of suspense, spectacle, and character interaction that gradually fades as the movie grinds into its truncated finish. Spock gets beamed inside a boiling volcano on an alien planet called Nibiru; his mission is to set off a device that will freeze the interior of the lava-spilling mountain, thus saving the planet’s not-so-friendly inhabitants. Spock’s red heat-and-flame resistant suit is a nice touch of costume-design.
If you’ve ever wondered what it might feel and look like inside an active volcano, you’ll get a pretty good idea watching it on a 3DIMAX screen. Not that the 3D is better than marginal, but the special effects are convincing. A tacky exception occurs in a later scene looking through the front windows of the U.S.S. Enterprise at what are clearly painted models of three crewmembers. How this ridiculous clip avoided the cutting room floor is anyone’s guess.
In his imitable the-good-of-the-many-yada-yada way, Spock is at peace with the personal sacrifice it seems he must make for the sake of the endangered aliens. No amount of shouting by Kirk at Spock via radio transmission about his “life” can dissuade the ever-logical Vulcan from seeing his mission through. The ongoing struggle between Kirk’s emotionalism and Spock’s strict adherence to rationality is a chestnut that somehow never gets old. The ever-deepening friendship between Kirk and Spock serves as the movie’s strongest hook.
Kirk’s handling of the Spock/volcano incident isn’t up to snuff for a Starfleet commander, especially one who took over responsibility for the ship from his by-the-book dad Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood). James Tiberius Kirk still has much to learn. Several ethics lessons come into thematic play for audiences looking for more than just chases sequences though space. Transforming the U.S.S. Enterprise into a weapon of war comes under some microscopic analysis.
On Earth, a meeting of Starfleet muckety-mucks which includes Kirk, his dad, and Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) comes under a devastating assault by John Harrison (Benedict Cumberpatch), an ex-Starfleet officer gone bad — real bad. The nefarious Harrison has a secret that he takes with him when he retreats to the Klingon home terrorist, the planet Kronos. For his part, Peter Weller — with his steely alien blue eyes and imposing presence — briefly steals the movie, exposing a series of flaws in the script relating to his character’s subplot and that of Marcus’s daughter Carol (Alice Eve). After smuggling herself onboard the Enterprise, Eve’s character stands around looking for something to do.
Betrayals and reversals follow involving the Klingon-connected Harrison. Explosive action sequences featuring epic battles between the Enterprise and a mammoth warship don’t make as much sense onscreen as they must have on paper. Nonetheless, watching the U.S.S. Enterprise hit warp-drive and vanish into the vastness of space on an IMAX screen is something every kid that sees this movie will remember for the rest of his or her life. The “Star Trek” franchise has its weaknesses, but it’s still the best thing going in the sci-fi genre.
Rated PG-13. 123 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
“Oblivion” is not a fun movie to watch. The endless stream of borrowed visual and episodic elements from other sc-fi movies constitute an elephant in the room. A problem of being reminded of other [better] sci-fi movies is that it prompts you to mull over how shoddy the one you’re watching really is.
Co-writer/director Joseph Kosinski based the film on a comic book he wrote with Arvid Nelson. It shows. No audience member would ever imagine that the skeleton that passes for a story was based on a novel. An idea for a story exists, but the movie is little more than an outline for a narrative that got thrown in the oven far too soon.
Tom Cruise is watchable if not convincing as Jack, a generic Omega Man whose job it is to fix-or-repair-daily the fast flying drones that buzz around what’s left of Earth in the year 2077.
Narration informs us that the notoriously unreliable people of Earth waged a “victorious” battle against an army of invading aliens called Scavengers. By the looks of what remains of the planet, it’s safe to say that humans lost both the battle and the war. Needless to say, there isn’t much left of the planet to "salvage." Why anyone would waste resources looking after such a dust heap as we witness here is beyond the imagination. The movie doesn't fill in any blanks.
Considering that Cruise last played “Jack” Reacher, the filmmakers missed a memo that it might have been a good idea to change the character’s name, lest Tom Cruise be made even less specific than he already is. Richard Gere take note, Tom Cruise has officially filled your shoes.
Jack lives in a small but deluxe skyscraper apartment — dubbed “Skytower” — with his “effective” work partner Vika (Andrea Riseborough). A fancy transparent swimming pool is the icing on the cake. Vika spends her time checking in with their mother ship mission commander Sally (Melissa Leo), a patronizing matriarch with a twangy accent — think, a female version of George Bush Jr.
Vika plays housewife while Jack fiddles around on the Earth’s surface with drones that want to kill him as if he were one of the “Scavs” that hide underground in an oppressed community of “Mad Max”-styled survivors. Jack has secrets of his own. He has a little remote cabin where he goes for alone-time to listen to vinyl rock ‘n’ roll records; Led Zeppelin is a favorite. Jack suffers from flashbacks involving another woman. Could it be that he was brainwashed by some one or some thing?
Riseborough’s character is never allowed to take hold. None of the characters, with the exception of Jack, is given much substance to work with. Most squandered is Morgan Freeman as the Scav’s leader Beech. Freeman gets a total of about eight-minutes of screentime, and that’s it. It’s as if the story were being told upside-down. If Freeman’s character were the protagonist, then the movie might have had somewhere to go. As it is, the best thing “Oblivion” has going for it is its production design and Icelandic landscapes.
It’s not like Tom Cruise hasn’t made a great sci-fi movie in his career; “Minority Report” is a masterpiece. “Oblivion,” on the other hand, is just what the title portends.
Rated PG-13. 125 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
As time-travel suspense thrillers go “Looper” is only a pinch better than mediocre. The make-up that Joseph Gordon-Levitt wears to make him look like a young Bruce Willis is such a distraction that it alienates the viewer. Our unreliable protagonist Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is a paid assassin whose job it is to execute hired killers sent 30-years back in time to the year 2072. Joe uses an unwieldy gun called a “blunderbuss” for the close range killings he frequently commits next to an abandoned cornfield. Joe dreams of using all the silver bars of payment he’s been stashing for a move to France. The aspirational sidebar allows Gordon-Levitt’s character to indulge in some less than academic French language study that hits the screen with a thud.
If writer-director Rian Johnson (“Brick”) has done any homework, he has spent the lion’s share of it on packaging a movie incapable of living up to it’s top heavy casting.
From the opening scene, Joe’s detrimental voice-over narration reduces the storyline to a remedial level. In the future, “time travel is illegal,” Joe tells us. Only a group of dimwitted mobsters are capable of using advanced time-travel technology to their own nefarious ends. Smart people don’t exist in Rian Johnson’s version of the future. The generic criminals do a bustling business burying the bodies of aging loopers in the past where young loopers enter the cycle of self-destruction by killing off their elders. It’s called “closing the loop.” Failing to off your elder version when the time comes is a big no-no for any self-respecting looper. Forget that the gangsters in charge could easily avoid such a polarizing event if they only sent victims back in time to be killed by discrete assassins rather than by their own doppelgängers. This glaring loophole is especially significant since a looper sent back in time could theoretically change the course of the future if they survive.
Detail oriented audiences will have a field day making lists of such narrative inconsistencies. The filmmakers tip their low-budget hand by never showing the much-referred-to future that so many assassins are sent back from. Rian Johnson is no Philip K. Dick. In a story ripe with capacity for some amount of searing social commentary, there is next to none.
Joe gets thrown a curveball when his 30-years-older model (played by Bruce Willis) shows up for assassination. Naturally, Joe does his best not to murder his older self in spite of his vicious boss Abe’s (Jeff Daniels) order to the contrary. Abe’s mob boys are hot on the trail of both Joes. Instead of teaming up to change the future for their life expectancies, the two Joes trade insults in a diner over coffee. The scene is notable for how inferior it is compared to what Hollywood hacks crank out on a weekly basis. Needless to say, Rian Johnson doesn’t make much of Quentin Tarantino knock-off either.
An unsatisfying subplot involving a single mother (well played by Emily Blunt) and her telepathically gifted but volatile young son unbalances the drama. Older Joe suspects the boy of being a child version of a 22nd century baddie called “the Rainmaker,” who may or may not be such a worrisome force of evil. He is also hung up on an Asian woman who saved his life, and wants young Joe to intercept her murderer when the time comes.
The narrative material doesn’t match “Looper’s” visual effects. From the start, Joe is introduced as a character we can never fully empathize with. He betrays a friend before shuffling off in the direction of a story that further impugns his character as anything other than a narcissist. Even the selfless act Joe commits during his crisis decision comes with a grain of martyrdom. If you can get past plot holes that pass by like highway mile markers, and you can put up with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s weird make-up, then you’re halfway to enjoying a generic genre B-movie. Bon chance.
Rated R. 118 mins. (C+) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Sure to inspire a new generation of youngsters to pick up video cameras and start making their own movies, "Super 8" is an intentionally restrained monster movie that plays the heartstrings of its young characters against a nostalgic brand of filmic suspense. Dakota Fanning's more talented younger sister Elle steals the show as Alice Dainard, a young thespian called upon to act in a Super 8 movie being made by four preteen classmates in small-town Ohio, circa 1979. Alice's "mint" performance, during a touching nighttime love scene with her adolescent private investigator "husband" on a train platform, is interrupted by a terrible train crash. Charles (played with goofy aplomb by Riley Griffiths) is a child director with Hitchcock aspirations and an effective verbal command of the director's idiom. Charles's make-up assistant pal Joe (Joel Courtney) recently lost his mother in a factory accident. Joe's town-sheriff dad Jackson (Kyle Chandler) has his hands full dealing with the fallout of the enormous train crash that attracts a team of Army and CIA officials for a top secret clean-up operation. There's an escaped alien creature on the loose.
Writer/director J.J. Abrams ("Star Trek") is clearly having fun with playing two entertaining ends against the middle. On one side is the recreational zombie movie the kids are making to submit to a local film festival. Wait through the closing credits to watch their finished Super 8 product. On the other hand is the big budget sci-fi monster movie Abrams teases out as an homage to B-movies of the '50s. We don't even get a good look at the giant alien monster until the third act. The heart of the story lies in the budding romance between Alice and Joe in spite of the vociferous disapproval of their diametrically opposed fathers.
"Super 8" is a cool kids' movie made by young-minded adults who haven't lost their sense of inspiration for the magic of making movies from a child's perspective. Anything seems possible. If J.J. Abrams errs on the side of producer Steven Spielberg's wide-eyed brand of cinematic cheese (think "E.T.") it comes as a forgivable flaw. Less forgivable is letting Elle Fanning's character slip out of the plot for two too many scenes. "Super 8" does not benefit from the tightest editing. There are moments when the story stalls. A seemingly significant plot point involving thousands of mysterious little white heavy metal cubes goes largely unexplained. When contact is finally made with the alien creature, there isn't enough character development for the monster to enable much empathy. The list of quibbles goes on. These would-be deal breaking elements earn forgiveness due to the context of the overall narrative setting, which involves the unbridled joy of recreational filmmaking. Such enjoyment isn't such an old-fashioned idea after all.
Rated PG-13. 112 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
21st Century Boy
Duncan Jones's Sci-Fi Potboiler
By Cole Smithey
Director Duncan Jones follows up his impressive debut feature "Moon" with this suspenseful sci-fi potboiler. Jake Gyllenhaal is ideally cast as Captain Colter Stevens. Stevens is a soldier caught between worlds. His apparent body is trapped in a plane cockpit. He communicates via video with military scientists who feed him instructions for his current mission. Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright are the faces of a program called Source Code. Stevens's brain is wired into the Source Code which allows our hero to travel back in space and time for eight minute intervals, during which he must locate and disable a bomb. On a speeding Chicago commuter train Stevens sits opposite his attractive fellow suburbanite Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan). The catch is, Stevens is inhabiting the body of a man who died along with everyone else on the train when a terrorist's bomb detonated. The unique situation makes mirrors especially uncomfortable for Stevens. "Find the bomber, and you'll find the bomb." Like "Groundhog Day" set in hell, Stevens is repeatedly blown up at the end of each eight minute sequence, but he gets ahead of the action he's able to now predict with uncanny precision. Michelle Monaghan lights up the film. The romantic spark which develops between Christina and Stevens brings warmth to the story. Newcomer Ben Ripley's brilliant script comes to vibrant life with a strong musical score by Chris Bacon. Here's the first great Hollywood action movie of the year.
There's a zeitgeist occurring in the genre of psychological thriller. "Inception," " The Adjustment Bureau," "Limitless," "Unknown," and "Source Code" all have certain unmistakable character and plot elements in common. In each one, secret technologies employed in covert operations. An atmosphere of perpetual confusion figures into each film. In every story the information that the main character has access to determines his ability to adapt in crisis situations. In "Unknown" Liam Neeson is at direct odds with his identity. He isn't the man people think he is. The same is true in "Limitless," with its drug-assisted, coming-of-genius parable, and in "Source Code," in which a soldier battles fate across time.
An interesting aspect of "Source Code" lies in the character development exposed in Colter Stevens's shifting attitudes toward his would-be love interest. Christina is nothing but receptive to Stevens regardless of his varying degrees of erratic behavior. She's an open book. During his first return to the recurring eight minute train predicament, Stevens dismisses Christina as a robot-of-distraction. It takes him another visit before he views her for the real and valuable person she is. The "love interest" aspect builds from there. The scenes build neatly in a logic that supports Stevens's goal of saving the passengers. A major shift occurs when Colter invites Christina to sit next to him to play a game of picking out suspicious traveler. A tangible romantic subplot develops into a sophisticated treatise on the nature of relationship. Gyllenhaal and Monaghan are thrilling together. Their natural sense of give-and-take-expression is spot on. As with "The Adjustment Bureau," the romantic connection polarizes the action.
"Source Code" features two dynamic female characters who take the story in opposing directions. Vera Farmiga's military scientist Colleen Goodwin fills the screen as she communicates within strict guidelines with Captain Stevens. It seems during her early talks with the wounded soldier that she might be closer to the robot-distraction he perceives Christiana to be. Then a funny thing happens. Colleen does a similar change-of-behavior as Stevens exhibited with Christina. There's grit, and muscle, and beauty, and even intelligent satire wrapped up in "Source Code." You might want to see it more than once.
Rated PG-13. 93 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Adjustment Bureau
Damon and Blunt Go Down a Wormhole
By Cole Smithey
Writer/director George Nolfi makes a smooth transition from screenwriter to filmmaker with his feature film debut. As the screenwriter on such intrigue-action movies as "The Bourne Ultimatum" and "The Sentinel" Nolfi knows a thing or two about creating suspense. Loosely based on a 1954 short story by Philip K. Dick, Matt Damon makes a believable politician as David Norris. He's a blue-collar hotshot who gets robbed of a U.S. Senate seat after a tabloid revelation about a display of temper back in his college days. The sting of defeat is lessened when the young all-American everyman meets a beautiful dancer named Elise (Emily Blunt) in the men's room of the hotel where he faces disappointed supporters. Elise's story about hiding from hotel security in a toilet stall after being caught crashing a wedding, seems unlikely. Nonetheless, the forced plot point allows romantic sparks to fly between Damon and Blunt. The actors' convincing onscreen chemistry puts a simmer under the artificial sci-fi storyline that hovers above.
There's a clear comparison between "The Adjustment Bureau" and "Inception." Both films use the filmic medium for its obvious ability to surprise the viewer with juxtaposed environments that compress space and time. Here, a midtown Manhattan office building door might lead onto the field at Yankee stadium or let out on a cobblestone SoHo backstreet. Such metaphysical manipulation is the narrative backdrop for an old fashioned idea about a small group of bureaucrats controlling all human interaction. Think Terry Gilliam's "Brazil."
A handful of hat-wearing men run the planet. They are "adjusters" who monitor anomalies, like the unplanned meeting of Elise and David. Their job is to make corrections for such irregularities so that all goes according to "their" predetermined plan. They carry around special map books that show coded patterns of all human movement. It seems that David Norris has a promising political future before him if only he stays away from Elise. She too has a bright future, as a modern dancer and choreographer, if she doesn't fall into a long-term relationship with her love-at-first-sight object, namely David Norris.
Coincidence incites David to run into Elise after the men-in-hats discover the couple's initial meeting. Our not-so-cloaked guardians of freewill give David the once-over-twice. They warn him to stay away from the girl, ostensibly under pain of death. But the warning isn't enough to prevent fate from intervening when David runs into Elise on a public bus. Adjuster Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) is instructed to prevent the incident from occurring. But Harry is worn out from the daily grind of his demanding job. Harry also harbors an inexplicable soft spot for Elise's and David's bond. He's not entirely "adjuster" material. When his bosses call in their heavyweight closer, Thompson (Terrance Stamp), to put a lid on the long-budding relationship, the pace quickens into an unconventional chase story.
"The Adjustment Bureau" has a less threatening appeal than "Inception." Its clearly stated romantic connection is the heart of the puzzle. Eschewing the woof and boom of narrative false-bottoms, and faceless men firing blank rounds of ammunition, proves effective in putting across a simple story about two people who desperately want to be together. The simplicity works.
Rated PG-13. 106 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Spectacle Trumps Story
Tron Sequel Doesn't Know Where to Spend the Money
By Cole Smithey
I was working at the Campus Drive-In in San Diego in 1982 when Steven Lisberger's "Tron" opened up the computer "game grid" to allow for what was then a fairly dazzling display of special effects. At the time I didn't so much care that the story was severely lacking because the visuals were so unlike anything I'd seen before. The drive-in's gigantic screen served as a great canvas for the spectacle to mask the film's narrative shortcomings. Steven Lisberger ("Slipstream"-1989) did not go on to enjoy a notable career.
Nearly 30 years later audiences get a belated sequel that measures up to the original film inasmuch as it falls prey to the same priority of flash over substance. Enter Garrett Hedlund as 27-year-old Sam. He's the grown-up son of "Tron's" vanished hero Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges). Sam has a thing for riding his Ducati motorcycle at high speeds, especially if it involves escaping motorcycle cops. He lives a bare existence in a barely renovated garage under a freeway. .As primary share-holder in his dad's company ENCOM (think ENRON) Sam is finally coming around to the idea of taking some responsibility for the company's less than ethical business practices. Cut to Sam popping up inside the game grid where he survives a few rounds of death Frisbee before getting into a high-tech motorcycle game more suited to his testosterone-juiced skills. The beautifully designed cycles can collapse into a handheld bar of metal for portability. The race is the film's centerpiece. With better explanation about the rules of the game the audience might be better able to size up the action. Rounded walls and drop-through floors keep things interesting, but we don't really know how to judge the event.
Sam meets up with dad. Jeff Bridges's Kevin Flynn comes across as a Lebowski-inspired hippie who likes to call his son "man" and drop references to his "Zen" philosophy when he isn't waxing philosophical about "radical biodigital jazz." But Kevin is trapped inside the grid by CLU, an alter-ego evil twin he created who now rules the roost as a ruthless fascist dictator. For a prisoner in a system that grew beyond his control Flynn is a well-adjusted slacker. He doesn't seem to do much. Flynn is like a lazy rich person living within a gated community in a third-world country. He has what he needs so why bother with the rest of the world.
Michael Sheen injects some rock star theatrics ala David Bowie's "thin white duke" as a white-haired party maestro named Zeus. As one of CLU's loyal subjects Zeus is not a trustworthy fellow. A ticking-clock plot device means that Sam has just eight-hours to extract his dad from the grid and return home. Help from a super sexy Olivia Wilde as machine-girl Quorra promises to advance Sam's escape plan if only they can foil the do-it-all-villain CLU. Here again, character development is zero, but the up-for-anything Quorra exudes a warm fuzzy feeling that belies her artificial nature.
The filmmakers have gone to a lot of trouble to render out via CGI a youthful-looking version of Jeff Bridges as CLU. But it's a wasted effort. The character looks like a mannequin. As a figurehead of evil CLU is too sterile to make much of an impression. There's something off about the technology that makes the artificial character seem like some form of advanced robot that would turn to mush if someone kicked him in his circuit board. It's a missed opportunity that there's no mano-y-mano showdown between Flynn and his younger seeming twin. And since CLU never professes much in the way of character defining ideas, we're left to presume that he's mainly just not down with Flynn's "Zen" philosophy.
If you're young and easily impressed, then "Tron: Legacy" won't feel like a rip off. As for the film's non-window-breaking 3D effects, you'll be left to scratch your head about why the filmmakers even bothered.
Rated PG. 127 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)