Customer: I’m looking for this movie. It’s about a guy who is killed and he’s kind of stuck in limbo, and he watches over his girlfriend.
Me: Oh, that sounds like Ghost.
Customer: No, no. That’s not it. It also has this woman in it who is a fake psychic, and these creepy kind of shadowy people.
Me: No really. You want Ghost.
Customer: No, I don’t think so. So, it turns out that the dead guy was killed by someone who he thought was his friend.
Me: Sir, I’m serious. You want Ghost.
Customer: I know it’s not Ghost, but it’s LIKE Ghost.
And that’s pretty much how I felt as I sat through the closing credits of Star Trek Into Darkness, director J.J. Abrams‘ second installment in the rebooted franchise: I hadn’t just seen a Star Trek movie, but I had seen a movie that was LIKE a Star Trek movie.
Because he’s ever the one to disregard rules, the brash Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) has once again found himself in trouble with Starfleet Command, thanks in large part to Spock (Zachary Quinto). In fact, Kirk is in so much trouble, he is demoted to First Officer and his mentor, Pike (Bruce Greenwood), has taken over the captaincy of the Enterprise. After the bombing of a Starfleet installation, Pike, Kirk, and the other captains and first officers meet to discuss next steps. At that meeting, they are attacked by ex-Starfleet agent John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), and many, including Pike, are killed.
This moves Kirk back into the Captain’s chair of the Enterprise (sound familiar?), where he is authorized by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) to hunt down and kill Harrison. With help from his usual crew – Spock, Bones (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and newcomer Carol (Alice Eve) – Kirk is ready and willing to take on the mission and avenge his mentor’s death. But will he be able?
I am not a Trekkie. I am not a Trekker. I am not a Trekkian or a Trekkudite.
I am not Trekkish or Trekksome or Trekkulous.
In addition, I am not a Kirkle and I am not Spockly.
Allow me to be more clear: As much as I liked growing up watching the reruns of TV’s original Star Trek, and as much as I loved Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and as impressed as I was with, and thrilled by, Abrams’ 2009 reboot/origin story Star Trek, if the world of Star Trek leaked its own red matter and opened a black hole upon itself and was destroyed, never to be seen again, I would pay my respects and move on.
I mention all of this to make clear the fact that when I say this film is not very good, I say it as a lover of movies, not as some scorned fanboy who blogs his disdain because they got the point sharpness of Spock’s ears wrong or something like that. I wish the issues with this movie were that trivial. It would make this part of my day easier.
When you look back at sequels of successful action or action-heavy films, you find a trend that illustrates a very base way to approach making sequels: if something works in the first film, then more of that something should work even more in the next film. Car chases beget faster car chases. Explosions beget bigger explosions. Stunts beget crazier stunts. And Star Trek Into Darkness is no exception. Upon comparison to its 2009 predecessor (and you really can’t compare these two to any of the other 10 films in the franchise), this film has a bigger feel all the way around – bigger set pieces, bigger action sequences, a bigger (in presence) villain, and so on, much of which is executed to excellent effect.
But the filmmakers didn’t stop there. They make their characters and their characters’ situations bigger too, and that’s what I mean when I say that this isn’t a Star Trek movie so much as it’s a movie that is LIKE a Star Trek movie, where the characters constantly remind you of exactly who they are supposed to be, but bigger.
Pitch: We need a macho guy like Kirk, but with more Kirk! He needs to be more brazen, more insubordinate, and more go-with-his-gut than the actual Kirk. Oh, and remember that scene in Star Trek where Kirk is in bed with that green girl? We need another scene like that, only lose the green girl and get me TWO hot alien-looking women he can sleep with!
Pitch: We need a logical guy like Spock, but with more Spock! He needs to be more cold, more calculating, and more talk-to-Kirk-until-Kirk-wants-to-leave-the-room. And complicate his storybook romance.
Pitch: We need a curmudgeonly doctor like Bones, but with more Bones! He needs to be more cantankerous, more negative, and, most importantly, he needs to say his catchphrase – “Damn it, I’m a doctor, not a (noun here)!” – as many times as we can possibly fit it in!
All of these things actually happen in Star Trek Into Darkness, and each of these characters comes with his own dreadful plot contrivance.
As for other elements, the humor that was so organic in the first film goes for bigger laughs here, and it feels forced and intentional. That’s not to say there are no funny moments, because there are, but there was enough humor in this for the film to come close to adding ‘comedy’ to its sci-fi/action genre description. There’s even some clunky self-referential humor concerning Bones’ endless use of metaphors that they managed to slip in.
Despite how cute it is, the love story between Uhura and Spock strains credulity in the first film because of Spock and his emotionless ways. But because everything here is all about more, it strains it more here, and the lovers find themselves on the outs … and bickering. I think it’s supposed to give us insight into Spock’s emotionlessness, but it mostly serves as a breeding ground for punch lines and unnecessary personal conflict. Speaking of Spock and love and conflict, Kirk and Spock bicker about logic versus instinct throughout this film so much (certainly more than in the first film), you either want them to get a room or get a divorce. We understand: Kirk + Spock = passion + logic = oil + water, but this is well-established in the first film. We don’t need to be reminded endlessly throughout this 2-plus hour jaunt.
But I think my greatest disappointment is the inclusion of Alice Eve to the cast.
By the end of the film, it is clear that her character is ultimately unnecessary (yet another contrivance), but, in the holy name of more-is-better, if a quick glimpse of Uhura in her underwear was good enough for the first film, then surely a longer look at a half-dressed hot blonde will work for the sequel. It’s that base. Don’t get me wrong; I’m no prude. I like to look at the Alice Eves of the world as much as the next guy. But the whole thing just wreaks of pandering to the young male crowd that, guess what, would have bought the damn tickets anyway, with or without the Maxim tie-in.
There are redeeming qualities to Star Trek Into Darkness, all of which involve the technical aspects of the film. But the price you have to pay for suffering though the bombastic characterizations is simply not worth the trip to the theater. I’ll see this film again when it is released on home video, but until then, the filmmakers have gotten enough of my money; this is one thing more they won’t get from me.
While some may have had a quiet, relaxing Mother’s Day weekend, ours had a jam-packed schedule that included everything from room-decluttering (fun, right?) to a family outing to the gym. (I opted for an hour on the recumbent bike because you get to sit down the whole time and if my legs turned to jelly, I could still type.) Also on the agenda for the weekend was, naturally, a movie. It was my wife’s pick and by Saturday night, she had narrowed it down to Baz Luhrmann‘s much-anticipated The Great Gatsby (on opening weekend, no less), or the lesser-known, lesser-publicized film from writer/director Jeff Nichols, Mud. She chose the latter.
I don’t know what drove her decision – maybe the Palme d’Or nomination at Cannes, maybe the fact that the limited release was playing at only one theater close by (still 30+ miles form home) and would be gone long before the Gatsby popcorn got stale, or maybe because of the possibility that star Matthew McConaughey would surely take his shirt off at some point in the film (he does).
Honestly, I don’t care why. My wife made a GREAT choice. Mud is one of the best movies of 2013, and I couldn’t help but notice that a film we saw on Mother’s Day was all about fathers, sons, father figures, male archetypes, and the expectations of love.
There’s a boat in a tree and two teenage boys plan to claim it as their own. So begins Mud, a film about Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), two best friends who live a bluer-than-blue collar life on an Arkansas river. When not in school, Ellis helps his father (Ray McKinnon) sell fish door-to-door from a cooler in the bed of his truck, while Neckbone helps his Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon) dive for oysters in a homemade diving suit. When they aren’t helping the patriarchs in their lives, they’re out in the water on Ellis’ small outboard, and their latest adventure takes them to a small island where, rumor has it, there is a boat in a tree.
And indeed there is. The boat had found a home high in a tree as a result of a flood, and the boys – as teenage boys are wont to do – plan to make it the coolest treehouse ever. But the boat they thought had been long abandoned is actually a makeshift home for Mud (McConaughey), a fugitive from justice who wants nothing more than to reunite with his longtime love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Mud enlists the boys’ help to communicate with Juniper and secure the materials necessary to get the boat out of the tree and into sailing shape. But a man from Mud’s past (Joe Don Baker) has other plans.
Mud is one of those movies that you expect to be one thing or suspect might be another, but it turns into something else entirely. First, it has some hot southern thriller aspects to it, with McConaughey practically typecast as the devilish (and devilishly handsome) fugitive on the run, with a pretty blond waiting in the wings, cops on his heels, a man chasing after him and fixed on revenge, and a couple of kids who will surely find themselves in peril. It also has elements of a villain-with-a-heart-of-gold tale, all but ready for one last hug from the kid who wants him to become a surrogate dad, all before the cops throw him in the back of the car and drive away into the sunset. It’s neither of those, and be thankful.
Instead, the film deftly addresses the issue of love and relationships in a world dominated by men. Ellis’ father is more boss than dad, preparing his son for the rough road of life while simultaneously facing a divorce from Ellis’ mother (Sarah Paulson). Galen is a father-by-proxy (and totally unqualified) to his nephew Neckbone. Mysterious figure Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard) is a father figure (at least) to Mud, and there when the fugitive needs him most. Baker, as King, is fueled by the memory of his own son as he pursues Mud. Even the relationship between Ellis and Neckbone has the latter somewhat looking up to the former. And then, of course, there is the relationship between Mud and Ellis.
No sooner does the kid meet the fugitive, a bond is formed. Maybe some of that has to do with Ellis’ monotonous life and his struggling relationship with his father (particularly in the wake of his parents’ announcement that a divorce is forthcoming); maybe some of that has to do with the adventurousness of youth; and maybe some of that has to do with Mud’s yearning to reunite with Juniper (it’s never said out loud, but surely a man who has been in love with a woman for as long as Mud has been in love with Juniper has to wonder if he will ever be with his girl and someday start a family); Ellis, especially when he assumes the role of go-between for Mud and Juniper, seems to assume the role of son to the father played by Mud.
Speaking of Juniper, it isn’t as if women are completely ignored in the film. There are three key female characters: Mud’s mother, Mary Lee; Juniper; and Ellis’ first girlfriend, May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant). Each of these three women has an effect on Ellis, and while his mother is the most important to him, and while May Pearl is the most impacting, it’s his relationship with Juniper that is most fascinating. As he hears Mud talk of his love for Juniper, Ellis becomes an extension of that love – almost the embodiment of that love itself – and that love powers Ellis’ singular focus to get Mud and Juniper back together. Even when Juniper finds herself in trouble, Ellis doesn’t hesitate to come to her rescue.
Sheridan, whose credits include The Tree of Life and nothing else, does a remarkable job as Ellis, projecting onscreen such subtlety of emotion; he never overplays a scene nor does he confuse brooding for boring. Other solid performances abound, including Witherspoon who, while not in a lot of the film, shows the acting form that garnered her critical praise for her portrayal of June Carter in Walk the Line (and let’s hope this is the first step towards bigger and better things); Baker, who, for all of his ’70s bombast, is an interesting casting choice that paid off, thanks to a smartly subdued performance; and, of course, McConaughey, who proves that his good looks aren’t what necessarily make him so appealing – it’s his charm. He looks unkempt throughout the film, but you don’t care because he makes you want to listen to him, not just look at him. It’s a highlight reel performance.
Mud is a film delicate in balance, rich in character, and wonderfully satisfying in plot, theme, and execution. It always knows what it is, it never tries to be more, and even when it looks like it might go in a direction you hope it doesn’t, it knows when to stop and NOT go in that direction. I can’t wait to see it again.
I had a cute open for this review, even before I saw the film. It had to do with certain issues I have with flying and falling and great heights, and deciding to see a movie about a superhero who flies to, and falls from, great heights, and seeing that movie in 3D IMAX, a format that is supposed make you feel like you are flying to, and falling from, great heights.
But not too long into the first act I knew that my original open had to go. Something more relevant had sprung to mind.
In June 2012, I wrote a column where I expressed something of a lament for what I consider to be the traditional action film (think Die Hard) evolving into what we refer to today as the superhero movie (think The Avengers). It’s not as though I don’t like superhero movies; I like them a lot. It’s just that I come from the ’80s, that Golden Age of of action films, and I’m nothing if not nostalgic. So imagine my surprise when one of the masters of Golden Age action films took one of the most anticipated films of the year – the third installment of one of the most popular superhero franchises of all time – and turned it from a “superhero movie with action in it” to an “action movie with superheroes in it.” In the middle of the movie.
In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is unraveling. The events that took place in The Avengers – particularly the whole “portal to another dimension inhabited by gods and monsters” (plus that near-death experience) – are taking a toll on his psyche, causing insomnia and anxiety attacks. This is not only impacting his health, but also his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Complicating matters are Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a brilliant scientist with a connection to Stark’s past, and the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a mysterious terrorist with a penchant for random bombings who is threatening the White House. When one of the Mandarin’s bombings puts the life of Stark’s loyal man-Friday Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) in serious jeopardy, Stark fully engages the terrorist … but at what cost?
Out of the gate, Iron Man 3 offers another glimpse into the psychology (at least a little bit) of Tony Stark. In the first film, Stark comes to grips with the morality of defense contracting (read: being a death merchant). The sequel is about managing the memory of his brilliant, late father. This time, it’s about Stark’s own mortality and the danger in which his lifestyle places Pepper. Have no illusions; the film does not offer a deep exploration of Stark’s subconscious, but it does at least address the fact that, despite the genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist title he holds, and despite all the armor and gadgets, he’s just an ordinary person (as opposed to his fellow Avengers, who consist of highly trained spies, a god, a supersoldier, and an indestructible behemoth), and ordinary people are prone – and rightfully so – to freak out under such stressful circumstances, especially when those circumstances never seem to stop. Again, no full psych-eval is done, but the acknowledgement of the hero’s humanity is worthy of note. (Honestly, I think, as viewers, we forget sometimes that heroes are human too, or at least can be.)
Of course, there are people in peril and lives must be saved, but the overarching theme of Iron Man 3 is revenge. Some of this is made evident in the trailers, when Stark addresses the Mandarin via an impromptu statement to the press (“No politics here, just good old fashioned revenge.”). Discussing other vengeful threads would dance a little too close to spoiler territory, but they’re there. And while there is a singular main villain (with minions, of course) that must be defeated, other enemies aren’t always so clear, and I like that.
Other Iron Man staples are in the film, of course, most notably Paul Bettany as the voice of Jarvis and Don Cheadle as Colonel James Rhodes, aka Iron Patriot. You may remember Iron Patriot better as War Machine from Iron Man 2, but in one of the film’s many humorous moments, Rhodes explains to Stark that opinion polling found the name “War Machine” unfavorable, so a rebranding effort is underway. Also keep a lookout for the Stan Lee blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo; it’s cute. One staple not present? The music of AC/DC. This disappointed me; the group’s music has become anthemic of the franchise, and I wish it had been used here.
There’s also a great subplot involving Tony’s unexpected friendship with a young boy, Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins), who plays a role of consequence in Stark’s journey in this film. The chemistry between the two is genuine and warm and funny, and Keener gives Stark an opportunity to be something of a father-figure to someone, albeit briefly. (Let’s face it, between a superhero dad and a corporate mom, children don’t look like a viable option for the Stark/Potts household). Does this open the door for future plot possibilities? Sure, although I think only technically; I didn’t get any kind of vibe that the kid was the next generation.
That’s the second time I’ve mentioned humor, and while the previous two films in the franchise have their moments, Iron Man 3 is certainly the funniest of them, and this level of levity is one of several noticeable signatures of a Shane Black creation.
When I read the news long ago that the keys to the Iron Man franchise had been tossed to writer/director Black, my interest was piqued. Black is the screenwriter who created the (arguably) quintessential buddy-cop action film, 1987′s Lethal Weapon. He’s also responsible for The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Last Boy Scout, and others. But this was Black’s first creative effort with an existing universe and the rabid fan base that comes with it, so I was curious to see how someone with a specific creative style would script and direct a film featuring characters that come with great preconception. He didn’t disappoint.
I made a comment on Facebook immediately following my screening suggesting that Black’s fingerprints could be found on the first two acts. Little touches like the humor and a Christmas setting and the important role of a child and kidnapping all suggested Black’s involvement. There were even appearances of scantily-clad women (appearances that were entirely unnecessary to the advancement of the film), as well as far more gunplay than any superhero film I can think of (short of Captain America: The First Avenger, but that film’s gunplay was driven by the era in which the film took place), that took me back to the Black of the ’80s and ’90s. But he wasn’t done. In that same Facebook comment, I suggested that if Black’s fingerprints were on the first two acts, then he gave birth to the third act. And this is what ultimately pleased me the most, although in the moment I was torn.
The third act of this film is a full-tilt action experience in the vein of Golden Age action films. Yes, the players are superheroes and supervillains to varying degrees; yes (as the trailer suggests), there is a small army of auto-piloted iron men who come to the rescue to do battle with the villain’s henchmen; and yes, the conclusion of the action requires something otherworldly that a suicidal cop or soccer-mom assassin couldn’t possibly do; but the whole feel of it suggests it is an action movie with some superheroes as opposed to a superhero movie with some action. At first I was torn because, hey, it’s a superhero movie and my favorite superhero franchise and what the hell does this guy think he’s doing, but as the action kept coming and coming and coming, I was sold because Black managed to successfully combine the favorite of my present with the favorite of my past. It is one helluva ride.
(I must also give kudos to Black for devising and executing some very clever uses for Iron’s Man’s thrusters. Black recognizes that all that power can have nuance, too.)
As for the IMAX 3D experience, it’s a winner. My opposition to, and general disdain for, filmmaking gimmicks are well-documented, but Iron Man 3 outright earns an exemption from me because Black is smart enough to resist the temptation that other 3D films can’t: throwing things out at the audience. He’s also (and this was really surprising to me) gifted enough a director to fully understand and maximize the depth of an image. Several scenes, including the helicopter attack on Stark’s home and the finale, but particularly the sequence when people are sucked out of Air Force One and look to plummet to their doom, are breathtaking. (Confession: That particular sequence is so breathtaking, I had to glance at the seat in front of me once or twice to remind myself I wasn’t falling out of Air Force One with them.) And since Black had the clear vision and completely nailed the execution, projecting it all on a screen 52′ x 72′ makes it all the better.
There are purists of the Iron Man comic books who will be (and already are) unhappy with certain events in the film. And there are purists of the Iron Man films (including his cameos in titles not his own) who will be (and already are) unhappy with Black’s directorial effort. But if you want to strap yourself into a thrill ride for 130 minutes, you cannot go wrong with Iron Man 3, no matter how many Ds or what size the screen.