Friday, May 17, 2013

The Wrath Of Khan Goes On

Reel To Reel: Star Trek Into Darkness

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana (and yes, Leonard Nimoy!)
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Action violence, phaser shooting, one very brief sexually suggestive scene involving aliens

I liked what director J.J. Abrams did with the first Star Trek reboot. With the second, he is walking a fine line between reboot and remix, as he walks that other fine line of staying true to the vision Trek fans love while bringing in the next generation. Star Trek Into Darkness borrows a little too liberally from 1982's Star Trek II, but at least it cribs lovingly.

The film opens with Capt. James T. Kirk (Pine) and Spock (Quinto) cribbing from another 1980's film as they run from an indigenous tribe in an alien jungle. I'll pause here while you film geeks make a few guesses. In the process of escaping the planet and trying to save it, Kirk violates a list of Starfleet regulations. He loses command of the Enterprise, which we're amazed to find also works as an amphibious vehicle.

Just as Kirk is contemplating life out of the command chair, a terrorist threat hits Starfleet in the form of one man with explosives and a portable transporter beam. He takes out part of headquarters and Kirk's mentor, leading to the former captain getting a new mission: find this guy and take him out, even if it takes him into Klingon territory.

And who should this guy be but -- cue the drum roll -- Khan! Only it's not Ricardo Montalban's Khan, with that chest too buff to be real and flanked by Chippendale's dancers. It's Benedict Cumberbatch (of Sherlock fame) with a voice that oozes sinister the first time you hear it. The new Khan doesn't need alien baby armadillos to invade people's ears and do his bidding. He's a master manipulator, playing everyone's brain like a piano. Can he work on Spock? Or is he locked into that infamous two-dimensional thinking?

The crew's all here, faithful to their classic counterparts: Uhura (Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), Bones (Urban, comfortably hilarious in the role), and Scotty (Simon Pegg in full Scot mode). I admire Abrams' and the writers' campy cool, especially Spock, although Quinto's version suggests the First Officer may be illogically taking a few uppers. Leonard Nimoy's Spock had a restrained rationality. New Spock has a mind running at warp speed, and it makes me wonder how he can remember to be half-human.

One of the most rewarding parts of this re-imagining is how it leaves overdone ethical dramas behind, if you don't count Spock's motor-mouth morality -- and just about everybody else does. Gene Roddenberry would have hated this amped-up version of his space saga, devoid of some blindingly obvious takeaway. Into Darkness plays more like Star Wars in some portions. But can you imagine Han Solo having to tolerate Spock? "Watch your mouth, kid, or it's gonna be a long walk back to Vulcan."

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Have You Seen Any Of Those Talking Pictures, Old Sport?

Reel To Reel: The Great Gatsby

Going Rate: Worth full price admission (in 3D)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Brief Violence, A Few Curse Words, Two Sexually Suggestive Scenes (Notice I didn't add "Smoking" like the MPAA did. I refuse to lump cigarettes into a new category of film obscenity, something that comes more from the health police than the moral police.)

F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece has made it into countless high-school literature courses, except for the ones I took. So I will not try to tell you whether or not it lives up to the novel. Honestly, asking any movie based on a classic novel to achieve the same level of prestige ignores the fact we are dealing with two different mediums: one speaks to our imaginations, the other to our senses. Expecting full faithfulness of a film adaptation is not setting the bar too high -- it's moving the bar to a different room.

In the broad outlines of plot, The Great Gatsby sticks to the source material. But director Baz Luhrmann's film is focused on what Fitzgerald was trying to do in words: capture the flavor and decadence of the Roaring Twenties. By that measure, he succeeds glamorously. The movie bathes us in lavish sets and stylish wardrobes. Computer-generated imagery transforms New York City into its Jazz Age self. We jump headfirst into over-the-top parties drowning in glittering girls, gangsters, bootlegged booze, dapperness, and debauchery. They're circuses without animals. The film is tailored nicely to 3D, with confetti and streamers flying in our faces. At times the dialogue explodes into brisk binges, as if the characters are reciting blank verse in a musicless musical. Some of it seems there only for rhythm. Every scene feels choreographed rather than directed. You may have already heard tsk-tsking about Luhrmann substituting hip-hop music for 20's jazz in some sequences. His rationalization: jazz was the hip-hop of its day. It's supposed to make us connect more closely with the film, but I didn't buy into that. Luhrmann does such a fine job recreating the past, so why not go all in?

I won't try to rehash a plot many of you know except to say it revolves around mysterious tycoon Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio) who is trying to woo his one true love, Daisy (Mulligan). She's in a loveless marriage to Tom (Edgerton), living in a mansion across a Long Island bay from Gatsby's monstrous estate, site of his wild parties. Nick Carraway (Maguire) lives in a rustic cottage next door. He is a relative of Daisy's and narrator of both the novel and movie. However, the film adds the unnecessary device of placing Carraway in therapy, asked to write out his thoughts as a means of getting more of Fitzgerald's prose on screen. Luhrmann adds special effects to some of that text, making words float around the frame or allowing letters to drop like snowflakes.

In the book, Carraway is drawn into a fascination with Gatsby and becomes one of his few true friends. But Maguire's interpretation has him mostly along for the ride, alternating between innocent and awkward. The part doesn't seem right for him. As for DiCaprio, he could play Gatsby in his sleep. The heartthrob the girls gushed over in Titanic has perfected roles featuring mannered men of stature who've worked their way up. Mulligan and Edgerton do just fine.

I like this movie, even though I know people will consider it literary sacrilege. Four versions have been filmed, one featuring Robert Redford, but none seeming to nail it for the cultural elite. They are not going to like this one either because of its style over substance -- ironically, one of Fitzgerald's themes. They'll be disappointed the film doesn't weigh the novel's moral warnings heavily enough. They'll demand a Great American Film from a Great American Novel. It's an admirable goal, but... where did that bar go again, Old Sport?

Saturday, May 4, 2013

He Who Fights Evil With The Coolest Toys Wins

Reel To Reel: Iron Man 3

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Action violence, several references to sex, mild language

I wonder how Sigmund Freud would've analyzed Tony Stark. He could spend hours delving into the clash between Stark's id and super-ego, and how his psyche is constantly trying to mediate between the two. My unprofessional diagnosis finds hims to be a walking think-tank, an arrogant supercomputer with ADD that processes information at the highest possible data rate. He designs amazingly smart gadgets, but he's always smarter than any of them, which means Iron Man 3 isn't about the suit, it's about the man who wears it.

But we knew that. We knew it from the original, which turned out to be a bigger hit than people expected, largely because Robert Downey Jr.'s character is so compelling to watch. Iron Man 2 pushed Stark's quirks, which became too much of a distraction. Then came The Avengers, which should've been renamed Iron Man 2.5 for the way he stole the show. Now comes the official third chapter, one that's human and interestingly low-tech in many places.

Stark is constantly working to improve his Iron Man suits, and we see him working on a feature probably inspired from a Harry Potter summoning charm. Or maybe it was Luke Skywalker's light-saber procuring trick. Work seems to be helping him deal with anxiety issues he developed during The Avengers, and he has several shiny new prototypes ready to go.

It looks like he'll need them all. A maniac terrorist named The Mandarin (Kingsley) is breaking into television broadcasts and blowing things up. He's supposed to remind us of Osama Bin Laden, but he sounds more like Dr. Evil after walking onto the set of Kung Fu. What's more, tracking him is frustrating authorities because his handiwork doesn't leave the kind of shrapnel one expects from IED's. (The timing of this film had to cause concerns for Marvel and Paramount Pictures, coming less than a month after the Boston Marathon bombings. No doubt some of the images will be especially disturbing for people.)

Pepper Potts (Paltrow) is back as Tony's girlfriend and personal assistant, but she's getting tired of Tony's suit collection and work habits. She's running Tony's company by proxy when a suitor walks in. Aldrich Killian (Pearce) has a miracle treatment to regenerate lost limbs, only they run a little hot in the process. We learn this is the same guy Tony brushed off years ago during a 1999 New Years' Eve party, which means he must be evil under Hollywood's laws for movie villains. Also returning is Stark's buddy, Col. James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Cheadle) in a cheesy "Iron Patriot" clone.

Iron Man 3 finds the right dosage of Stark's character while giving him more vulnerability. At times he is forced to go old-school, playing more the detective than the mad scientist. He befriends a child (Ty Simpkins) as he tries to get his suit fixed. Their relationship is not an emotional tack-on designed to milk our emotion, but a working partnership that advances the story. Oh yeah, there's action, too. We have huge, over-the-top armor battles where Tony gets to surprise us over and over with his Iron Man gizmos, bugs and all.

I still think the first installment of the series is the best of the lot, but the third ranks a close second, with The Avengers a close third. A sequel to that picture is now in the works, and now the question is, how much has Tony Stark got left in his mind?