Thursday, May 28, 2009

Every Little Step: A Chorus Line That Really Sings

Every Little Step - the unfortunately titled documentary about the making (and re-making) of "A Chorus Line" - is a pleasant surprise and perhaps this summer's greatest diversion from the slew of special-effects laden blockbusters.

Don't let the title throw you off. This movie is basically The Chorus Line Story. Directors Adam Deo and James Stern have dug up fascinating archival footage of Michael Bennett's original production of "A Chorus Line," including the 12-hour tape session he did with a group of random dancers as his creative inspiration for the play. They've then interspersed this with film of today's dancers and hopefuls auditioning for the recent Chorus Line revival. The result is a fascinating story-within-a-story-within-a-story: how the stories of real-life dancers morphed into a play about the trials and tribulations of the auditioning process - how that play then morphed into a revival, and how the trials and tribulations of today's dancers, who are auditioning for this quintessential play about dancing, are reflected in the timeless material of the story and music.

Needless to say, it doesn't hurt to be a fan of A Chorus Line. But anyone who's enjoyed the Broadway musical will find this movie a fascinating exploration of both Michael Bennett's creative process and the dancer's journey to bring his phenomenal work back to life on Broadway.

In a day-and-age when we're saturated with the personalities of the lesser talents on shows like "American Idol" and "So You Think You Can Dance," it's refreshing, to say the least, to spend some time with people with real talent - people able to genuinely dance, sing, and act as they compete for the roles of a lifetime. Not for nothing, I think, does this documentary include the "So You Think You Can Dance" celeb Tyce Diorio in its selection of which auditioners to follow - his healthy dose of preening self-reliance provides an interesting contrast to other dancers who've spent more time, and perhaps had more disappointment, over many grueling years.

That isn't the only fascinating tidbit in this endlessly interesting documentary. The film shows us not only how Michael Bennett's tapes became the lyrics to some of the most recognized songs on Broadway (fascinating in and of itself), it also delves into Marvin Hamlisch's creative process, brings us interviews with (and footage of) original cast members such as Donna McKechnie, and creates the same superb drama as one gets on an Idol finale, as dancers with whom we've grown fond come closer to finding out whether they've made the final cut. The film nimbly switches us from 1974 to present day and back again, juxtaposing process, audition, music, and revival in endlessly interesting ways.

The film offers an interesting an emotional highlight in the search for a dancer to play the character of "Paul" - that's the character who reveals his early life working in drag and the shame he felt when his parents discovered him. The Paul speech is flamboyant, charged, emotional - but the character can't come off as too feminine, because it's the very masculinity in the character that makes the gender bending moment painful. The character really needs to be a very unique mix of masculine and fey, strength and vulnerability. In a way, he's a stand-in for author Michael Bennett, and also the group's tragic face (in the play, he ends up injuring himself and needing to be carried off before he can be cast). Now, we've seen a variety of dancers trying out for other parts already - most of them good, some of them very good - and we've seen that the selection process can be a bit of a struggle. The revival's directors go through a bevy of boys who deliver Paul's lines in a variety of awful styles: flat, prissy, overly gay, overly angry, one with a Brooklyn accent. It seems that attempting to cast Paul will be hopeless. Then on comes young dancer Jason Tam. Jason delivers the Paul speech with such spot-on intensity, everyone at the director's table is left in tears (as is most of the movie audience). I doubt you've ever seen anything like it, and they cast him on the spot (I'd like to see an "American Idol" contestant try to reduce Simon Cowell to tears.)

The remarkably of Jason's casting as Paul ends up providing just the right punctuation as the rest of the dancers end up competing in the traditional chorus line casting for the remaining parts. Here's where the movie dovetails into the play, replicating the same hopes, trials, and disappointments. The movie asks us, in a way, to see if we agree with the director's choices: who's interpretation of the streetwise Sheila, the artificially buxom Val (the "Tits and Ass" gal), or the old pro Cassie meets with our own expectations of those characters? Do we agree with the director's selections?

If there's anything missing from this lovely film, it's getting a chance to see more of the final cast in action. Perhaps we are meant to be ponying up for our Broadway ticket, for that. And yes, we do end the film with the play's signature number, "One." But a little more time to see how the winning contestants filled out their roles would have been nice.

But then, after having learned this much about the making of "A Chorus Line," perhaps the only thing that can satisfy now is to go get tickets to the play. And then watch this entertaining and informative documentary again.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian Merchandise

I was dreading Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, until I saw the trailer, and actually laughed at a few of the jokes. That's because I thought the first movie was one of the lamer films to come out the of Ben Stiller ouevre - well below Zoolander and hanging out slightly below Dodgeball on the Stiller scale. And maybe I'm not a big fan of Stiller's borscht-belt humor. But I felt the first Museum was moribundly slow, overly pretentious, and leaden with Stiller shtick. Yes, the coming to life was a cool concept, but it was buried under too much schmaltz and plot device to be worth wading through.

So I'm pleased to report that the sequel vastly improves upon the original. Gone is the over-long backstory setup (Stiller's character, Larry Daley, is now a successful inventor, and that's all we need know). Gone, too, is most of Stiller's camping for the camera (there are just a few such moments) and the lard ass direction of venerable comedians like Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney. Instead of trying to create a Ben Stiller movie with a cool "coming to life" effect, the makers of the sequel have a much clearer idea of who the audience for this film is: little kids. And they have gone after them squarely.

Pretty much all of the original museum come-to-lifers are recruited for this second chance at Stiller humor, including Robin Williams as Teddy Roosevelt, and Owen Wilson as the tiny Jedediah Smith and Steve Coogan as his miniature rival, Octavius. This time, the exhibits at New York's Natural History Museum are being shipped down to the Smithsonian for long-term storage. When Ankmenrah's tablet ends up going with them, it comes into the posession of his elder brother, Kahmunrah (played with sniveling effetery by Hank Azaria). Azaria's performance of this cream-puff villain is aimed squarely at the Sponge-Bob Squarepants set. Meanwhile, the tablet performs its same magic on the creatures at the Smithsonian, pitting them in battle against the visitors from New York and creating the same come-to-life wonder as the first movie.

What makes this outing more bearable is that Stiller is given more of a back seat to the interesting incarnations, which include characters from the Smithsonian archives, the Air and Space Museum, as well as the Lincoln Memorial and the Art Galleries. The creativity of these new animations is quite fun - including the animated art and the industrious NASA flight engineers.

Indeed, this movie ends up being quite an effective advertisement for the art, exhibits, and history stored in the museum. The kids we were sitting with were having a great old time. And if this movie instill in kids an interest or love of visiting the museum, I'll rate it a great success.

As for the adults who accompany them, well, you could do worse for two hours. You could have to see the original. At least Jonah Hill has an uncredited walk-on as a security guard, the animated artwork is cool, and Amy Adams makes a passable Emilia Erhart.

So how would I rate this film? If you're five years old or less, I'd give it five stars: it's a classic, right up there with Teletubbies and Spongebob. When it comes to entertaining little kids, these guys hit the nail on the head. For everyone else, I'd give it two. So that's how I get to my average of three.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Terminator: Salvation - A Post-Apocalyptic Heavy Metal Rendezvous With Cinematic Destiny

The latest Terminator movie (Terminator: Salvation) fits neatly into the time-travel mythology created by the first three movies, starting with the 1984 original Terminator in which a large, naked weight-lifting robot (Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his signature role) is sent back from the future to 1984 in order to find and kill Sarah Connor, the mother of the resistance, whose son John Connor is destined to grow up to lead the fight against the machines that rule the world. The resistance sends its own time traveler back to the past - Kyle Reese - whose job is to find Sarah and protect her from the nasty Terminator. Kyle also ends up impregnating her, thus fathering the very son who will one day send him back to ensure his own birth. Lovely little time-travel loop of logic, that.

Now, with Terminator: Salvation, we are finally in that distant and dystopian future: it is now 2018, and the machines - led by the self-aware Cyberdyne systems - control the world. Los Angeles and much of the civilized world lies in post-nuclear ruins, and Cyberdyne has turned San Francisco into something of a very loud Metalica concert replete with belching industrial waste and human hostages. What the machines want with all those humans is never clear, unless it's just simply that since the Matrix and War of the World movies, machines are now naturally built to be harvesting humans in some grandiose reversal of fate: but really, wouldn't they much rather just be free of all the rust-inducing sweat and excrement?

That this future dystopia is under-imagined is not really meant to be a criticism. The first three Terminator movies left it under-imagined and intentionally so - it was meant to be the unimaginable horror that was to be so assiduously avoided. It was what Sarah Connor was willing to go crazy for and the destiny that gave her son, John Connor, the serious willies. Now that the series has finally brought us here - crossed over the threshold into Wonderland, so to speak - it would be difficult to paint this future in all its unlikely glory and still provide a credible story and movie. This film does a fairly good job of it, most of the time, giving us Resistance fighters stowed away in fortified desert camps, abandoned gas stations, post-nuclear ruins, underwater command subs, and other assorted locations where human vermin need to be eradicated by the machine civilization. Where it seriously falters, I believe, is at machine headquarters, which have the look of a much more B-movie sci-fi, and reminded me most of all of Halls of Justice from the campy Sylvester Stallone featurer, Judge Dredd. (They also make use of an animated Schwarzenegger that is disturbingly un-menacing.)

What's clear about this Terminator, however, is that it is a serious departure from the three movies that have come before, and anyone who is a fan of the series should understand that what they are going to get this time is a very different movie. That makes this a very difficult film to review. On the one hand, I was disappointed, as the Terminator chase has become the reward for slogging through all the films. We don't get that, and quite honestly, it's hard not to resent its absence. All of the first three Terminators center around a very simple premise: survival in the face of an unstoppable killer. They are essentially horror movies, in which the killer can be stopped by nothing: not time, not place, not power. Each movie gave us a different - and delightful - incarnation of that killing machine. The first was a brute. The second, a sleek and efficient chameleon. The third a wily female seductress.

Clearly, the story has moved into territory that perhaps it was never meant to travel (in the best sci-fi, the dystopian future remains unimagined, to give the story more power): by crossing over from the present into the future, from a John Connor wishing away his destiny to one who is leading it, we have altered the nature of this story dramatically. We have a movie that is no longer about running away from the future, but what to do with the future that's here.

This movie is having none of the old adrenaline-pumping endless power-chase, and if you go looking for it, you will be sorely disappointed. Instead, what we have is a war movie, a War of the Worlds / Mad Max / Matrix type of affair, complete with military structures, chains of command, and an enemy that has grown lazy and fat with power. It's as if Cyberdine is being run by the Bush Administration, replete with bloated military budgets, lazy intelligence, incapable armies, little overriding vision, and a cronyistic despotism. The Rebellion, meanwhile, has fashioned itself on the Matrix's Zion, and with John Connor being played by Christian Bale, seemingly they are the ones being led by a machine. (I've always enjoyed Bale's presence in a movie, but even before this film, I considered his performances robotic.) Clearly, this is a movie about insurrection - and the parallels, and reversal of position, to Iraq are no mere coincidence: it's everywhere in the movie, from the washed-out cinematography borrowed from Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan to the long-takes as we follow Connor through the battlefield. The film takes a cue from "Battlestar Gallactica," here, putting us in the point of view of the scrappy insurgents, and making the superior mechanized forces the bad guys. As it was for "Battlestar," the POV makes the moral questions more complex and resonant, even if this film doesn't quite know as well as "Battlestar" how to develop such complexities.

So we are left with a story that is at once less focused, and more complex, than the three that have come before. The first reaction is to want to disparage it for that. It's also riddled with post-apocalyptic clich├ęs, which are very irritating, to say the least. But despite all that, there's something here - something new, for a Terminator movie - and it can't be dismissed all that easily.

What animates this movie is the introduction of a brand new character, Marcus Wright (played with wonderful passion by Sam Worthington). The movie opens in 2003 with Marcus, a convicted murderer, about to be put to death. But Cyberdine gives him a second chance, and Marcus signs away his body to the corporation. Now, in 2018, Marcus finds himself resurrected, and so the movie becomes a journey for Marcus to find out how he's been compromised by the machines - as well as to find his essential humanity.

This new story, the film does quite well. Marcus finds some interesting characters who help him to find his humanity along the way (including, yes, the young Kyle Reese, who's survival is key to the affairs of the entire time line), as well as comes to understand the nature of his bargain. That he does so in the midst of a human apocalypse and a nasty little war means something important, I think, to us in our present moment. And this is what I've always liked about the Terminator movies: that every few years, we get a movie that we deserve: in 1984: a brutish and instinctual killer that cares not about trendy fashion. In 1991: servitude to sleek technology, but a sense of hope. In 2003: supremely efficient and alluring marketing marching us to final annihilation. And in 2009? A war movie in which us humans, who have become machines, have a chance to re-find our heart.

This Terminator also takes great pains to fit us into the assiduously studied time lines of the series. The characters all fit well with their destinies - and with their struggles to elude them. In all four Terminator movies, it is clear that even with time travel or the greatest human efforts, destiny will win out, and destiny awaits us all. The question is how we face it. This movie gives us that at least as much as the others, and sets us up nicely for what surely will be the fifth, and final, episode in the series.

So I liked these things about the movie, even if the ending is a bit cheesy and the gestures feel too neat. While this Terminator doesn't deliver the thrills or the sardonic wit of the others that have come before, it takes a chance on giving us something more: a metaphor for ourselves. Despite all my qualms with it, it's worth seeing, and a Terminator worthy of the name.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Angels and Demons – A Catholic Scavenger Hunt, With Malice

Angels and Demons - Ron Howard's febrile sequel to 2006 telling of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, resurrects symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) as our plucky Harvard-educated hero battling the forces of religious mysticism and occult history. Only this time, instead of unmasking the church, Langdon is recruited to help save it: specifically, to help track down a ruthless gang called the Illuminati - a sect of persecuted scientists who have a long-running centuries old feud with the church, and who have apparently kidnapped the four cardinal "preferrati" (the cardinals favored to replace the recently deceased Pope) in order to sacrifice them spectacularly over a specifically planned schedule of evening activities designed to advance our plot with exacting precision; and who also have, as well, acquired a spooky can of anti-matter, and planted it somewhere in the Vatican where it is poised to blow the whole church - and its admirers - to Kingdom Come, at the end of the entire charade, sometime around midnight.

While the first twenty minutes of getting us to this set up - including the plodding theft of the anti-matter from the CERN laboratories - seems unimaginative and a bit unpromising, there are, I admit, times in Angel and Demons when I feel Ron Howard’s yeoman direction and Salvatore Totino's Raphaelite cinematography ineluctably drawing me into the delicious tension of the movie. This occurs principally about twenty minutes in, as we start on the chase for the first clue: A church of earth, where one of the captured Cardinals may meet his fate. (The other churches complete the Earth, Wind, and Fire setup, giving us Air – Fire – Water as the other cornerstones of the Illuminati’s scientific faith). Never mind that this seems more like alchemy than science: or that this was the same plot device used to illustrate the final puzzle of the much more breezy and fun The Fifth Element. Howard pulls the suspense taught, the camera worms its way into dark corners and creepy alleyways, and the candlelit priests’ conclave is beautifully composed. It’s a religious scavenger hunt, replete with symbol and mysticism, and I’m game for scavenging.

Unfortunately, the clues in the first church turn out to be a bit stretched (basically, Renaissance statues pointing unpersuasively somewhere in the distance), but hey, there’s no fun if the clues don’t build. The second clue is equally convoluted, though the open-air Basilica does make a nice metaphor for Air. And the religious sado-masochism of the killings is intriguingly suggestive. But it’s by the time we get to the third church/clue – fire – that I realized that in none of these locations would we be provided with any greater mystical, or even motivational, insight. The beautiful cinematography and click-a-pace directing is designed to sum up to nothing more than pure ticking-clock potboiler, the kind of artificial movie deadline with which both Jack Bower and Dick Cheney would feel right at home.

It doesn’t help that one of the few key characters with whom we sympathize – and with whom a non-Catholic like myself can find a way in to relating to the story – meets his demise suddenly and early, and with no gleaned meaning.

Some moments do work quite well. Langdon finds himself trapped in the church archives along with one of the policemen when the power goes out, and they have only a limited amount of air. The decision of whether to expend air and effort trying to devise a method of escape – or simply wait for power to be restored – captures nicely the film’s questions about the balance between science and faith. As does the decision by Cardinal Strauss to reward Langdon for his service with a copy of the Galileo manuscript he’s been desiring for years. These are the kind of touches that gloss the story with a larger sense of theme and feeling.

Unfortunately – and this may really be the source material more than the filmmakers – the story goes off the rails for me with its unnecessary surprise ending, in which the true criminal is revealed. Though it makes sense enough plot-wise, the ending has been left completely unprepared emotionally and psychologically: the character has hidden throughout the movie as the complete philosophical opposite, and so the unmasking at the end feels more like a story cheat than something motivated by psychology. Yes, I know we get a brief two-minute (and rather confused) explanation of this character's relationship to the Pope, which might serve as his justification for what's been undertaken - and again, it takes a few minutes after the film ends to put this together - by orchestrating the entire shebang all along. But there just isn't enough told to us for us to figure out why this should make any sense - or even more importantly, why we should care.

Ultimately, the reveal at the end completely changes the film’s message. Whereas before, there seemed to be hope that the church might learn from its mistakes vis a vis science and progress, and adopt a new attitude, the ending reveals in fact the opposite: not only won’t the church learn, it will feel supremely justified in continuing to embrace its intransigent past, and to use any pretense to progressiveness merely as a further means of deception and control.

This, then, is where I disagree with those who read Dan Brown’s work as a palliative for religiosity. In fact, I see it as a scathing criticism of the church, wrapped in a cloak of consumerist mysticism. In Angels and Demons, Brown seems supremely aware that the church will view his work with animosity: if Langdon is a stand-in for the author, then his reception by church officials is chilly and suspicious, at best. And deservedly so. And while this story purports to be about how Langdon saves the church – and thus, in a way, is its deepest friend – the church he saves is corrupt and despicable and its core. And Brown's depiction of it is nothing short of brutal.

Perhaps, then, what is intended as Brown's palliative is this: that we are indeed meant to see that these religious institutions are in fact insidious, perverse, corrupt, retrograde, and deceitful. But the buildings are grand, and those Bishops look wonderful in flowing red robes, so we should love them anyway. And yes, though I agree that the robes are fabulous, I’m not sure it’s a message that works for me.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Star Trek:Young Kirk / Spock Kick Romulan Bootie

(in 70 mm)

As I write this, it's quite apparent that the new Star Trek Movie is a hit with both critics and audiences alike, receiving a startling 96% on the tomatometer and a two-to-one positive sentiment result on blog sentiment analysis tool newssift. Not to mention my informal analysis of the Twitter stream, which has yet to show a negative comment.

First, I must confess to being a Trekkie (yes, I've seen every original Star Trek episodes at least four times or more - starting as a kid, when they were originally broadcast - as well as the movies and series spinoffs), so I perhaps am not the most unbiased reviewer. Yet I'm certainly someone who awaited this movie, and the bold, origin story reinvention, with high anticipation, and so writing this review is perhaps one of the most difficult I've had to consider.

Perhaps that's too much anticipation for one movie, and no doubt I will see it again soon to re-assess my opinion. But though this new Star Trek is audacious and visually stunning, and refreshingly re-captures the zest and kitch of the original series, I did not find it quite the superlative that others have claimed, and maybe not even the best Star Trek movie (Nemesis had more menace; Khan a more ruthless and original enemy; and First Contact still takes the prize as the most fun, S&M inflection of the Star Trek universe yet).

That's not to say it isn't good - it is - and it's not to say I don't think the "reinvention" idea works - it does. It's just that the story these characters are given is a bit of a re-hash of past TV ideas and movies (the ship and world-destroying animus from Nemesis, with a special effect added from Fantastic Four; the slugs from Khanh; the Romulan-loving Spock from the "Deep Space Nine" series, and all the idiotic time traveling ideas from "Enterprise.") Yes, all Star Trek movies reference the Star Trek oeuvre, but there's just not enough new added to this soup to make the story interesting.

On the other hand.

The movie takes a risk resurrecting the original characters in younger form, and this gambit certainly does pay off. Not only are Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto - dare I say it - better actors in the Kirk / Spock roles than Shatner and Nimoy, we also get fun younger versions of Sulu, Checkov, Uhura, and McCoy. And Simon Pegg is certainly scene-stealing with his ebullient interpretation of Scotty.

But the two principals, the Kirk and Spock here, are really the best we've ever seen of these characters. Pine backs up Kirk's bravado with an emotional energy and sympathetic sincereity that Shatner, after so many re-interpretations of it, had thoroughly drained out. Quinto is especially astute in giving us a Spock who really is a half-breed - a seething cauldron of emotion barely kept in check by mental discipline and a universe-sized desire to fit in. These kids chew the scenery and deliver the snappy dialogue with the kind of fun-loving bravado that Brannon Braga and other mystics of the Star Trek legacy so slowly and assiduosly excised from the franchise over four long decades. THANK GOD we now have a Star Trek freed of the painful PC platitudes of Counselor Troy, the cloying sentimentality of Data and the tiresomely explained references to Gilbert and Sullivan. Such strained political correctness really did stifle the other movies and drive away audiences, and perhaps a "reboot" was necessary to finally strip all that painful stuff away.

Additionally, Paramount has brought in a director in J.J. Abrams who is not enthralled with Star Trek pageantry (yes, there's some, but it's brief) and who has more in kin with Roddenberry's damsels & swashbuckling attitude towards space adventure than with the creeping corporateness evidenced by later interpretations of the series. Yes, this Star Trek is sexy and fun, and people who haven't seen the original series may be surprised by that. But I think Roddenberry would applaud Abrams as a fellow spirit, and the direction of the new Star Trek gets us back to the core excitement of space, which is something the series has desperately needed for a long, long time. The movie perhaps most takes off when a mouthy Kirk is dumped by a well-irritated Spock on an ice planet while Spock takes off to do his duty. Lifting a page from Lucas here, Abrams gives us a few fearsome snarling beasts and a warren of an outpost that looks like an abandoned high-school locker room, and inhabited by an equally loquacious young Scotty. It's a fun few scenes and for a moment, I felt I was back in the original series discovering a new episode we'd never seen before.

But I do have two problems with the movie. The first, as I mentioned, is the plot, which to me just didn't seem original. I've seen this revenge story before (and it feels like the writers just finished watching Fantastic Four: Silver Surfer before sitting down to dream up the big effects for this story), so even with the wonderful additions of extreme adventure sky diving, great Enterprise sets, and amazing special effects, it left me with a bit of a "so what." I suppose if this were your first Star Trek movie - or maybe your first sci-fi - that might not be a problem. Still, this film takes liberties with parallel time lines and destruction of worlds that just feel unnecessary. I know the minds at Paramount wanted to strip away our expectations of what might and could happen by sending us off into a parallel history, where they are now free to do things without concerning themselves too religiously with the text of forty years of storytelling. But it feels, to me, like a cheat: the first rule of good science fiction is, no one cares what happens in the "parallel" timeline, people want to know what happens in the real one. I kept wanting to get back to the Star Trek universe I know, and because we're so clearly meant to never return there, it feels false to me to also ask that we bring what we know of that universe into our love of the characters. My preference would be to have either one or the other: either totally break with the history we know, and introduce brand new characters - or resurrect the originals, but let them keep the history we love about them. Paramount obviously wanted both, and I'm not so sure I'm ready to jettison everything I know about a lifetime of watching Kirk and Spock in order to follow these two NEW versions of them who are free now to invent a totally new history of their lives.

There's also the - as Spock might say - extremely high improbability of how Kirk goes from F-student probationary stow-away, to captain of the fleet's flagship, all in one fell swoop. And why Spock would volunteer for a reduction in rank to follow him. But then, as has been made apparent, this movie is not meant to trek in your father's logic.

The second problem I have has to do with the labor of the "Reboot," which is the idea of an origin story. How did Kirk get to be Kirk (or a parallel Kirk, I suppose), Spock parallel Spock, and so on. Clearly, the "reboot" itself has become a genre in Hollywood, with Bond, Batman, X-Men, Hulk, and now Star Trek all partaking. The problem with this reboot is that it is all mostly the labor of the set-up, and doesn't get to the good part until the very last seconds. In other words, this reboot is all about positioning the characters to take their chairs on the Enterprise. We'll have to wait till the second movie to see what they do in those chairs.

No doubt, with the success Star Trek is having, Paramount will green light Star Trek Two with this ensemble, and this new cast of characters will be able to finally go somewhere interesting - and quite boldly - introducing a whole new generation to the pleasures and thrills of exploring space with a rowdy ensemble of cocky and talented youngsters. I think the one thing this movie does well is set us up for where the series is going next. We have great actors in great roles, and a wonderful director at the helm. Now, we just need an interesting story for them to explore.

No doubt, I will be lining up for that movie on opening night as well, once again hopeful that the next outing, we'll finally have a Star Trek experience like no other.

UPDATE: May 19th, 2nd viewing in 70mm

Well, after receiving many urgings from friends and colleagues that this was really a much better movie than I gave it credit for - and of course, it is Star Trek - I saw it again in 70 mm.

What I noticed: the special effects really are excellent (70 mm is the real test, as poor effects don't hold up well. But this movie has a look that's crucial to the excitement the film has generated). For the end credits, Abrams decide to do a zoom into various planets - I think this particular sequence really summarizes the zippy mood of this film: at once a ode to the eye-popping wonder of 60's sci-fi combined with the visual poetry that today's CGI wizards are able to create. As I said before, this film really captures the slightly campy/sexy/adventurous mood of the original series better than any other incarnation, and these sequences exemplify that.

Also, the humor really holds up - better than anything that passes for humor in the Berman / Braga universe. Simon Pegg turns Scotty into a truly inspired comic character, and McCoy chasing Kirk around the Enterprise with a hypo is a wonderfully comic nod to the tendency of the McCoy of the original series to want to inject everything in sight.

In fact, there are really quite a few nice inside nods to what's come before - whether it's a reference to teleporting Archer's "prized Beagle," McCoy's eagerness with a hypo, Kirk being kicked out of his chair (remember all the times Kirk kicked others out of that chair?) or Chris Pine's near perfect Shatnerism as he takes the bridge in the final scene, Abrams gives us Trekkie's many inside tweaks and subtle send-ups that are really both irreverent and quite fun.

On the other hand, upon second viewing, the implausibility of the plot stands out even more. Why doesn't Nero try to save his home world when he easily could? If the drill is so vulnerable to a few torpedo shots, why not take it out earlier? How can Spock plausibly "see" Vulcan from a nearby planet? And why go to the elaborate time-travel ruse with Kirk when Spock could just beam on board with him and solve everything?

I know, I know - I'm getting too hung up in the logic, not seeing the full emotion of the film, or the wonderful exploration of man's emotional/logical duality. But I like the emotion...and the promised duality - so is it too much to ask that the logic hold up as well?

In the end, this film has hit a home run with both fans and non-fans, and deservedly so. After seeing it a second time, I do believe that most people will find the lapses in logic excusable (and perhaps less noticeable than I do). There really is no excuse not to see the film, so I've upgraded my recommendation.

Even so, I still expect the sequel to be better. This film has to do so much work to set itself apart from its predecessors - blowing up a major planet, twisting the timeline, and dredging up an uninspired villain - that I think it still suffers from all that strain. Next time, we will be blissfully free to finally go where no Star Trek has gone before.

Friday, May 1, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine. An X-Men Retread With Four on the Floor

The latest X-Men movie, which fills in the Wolverine back story that was so heavily alluded to in the previous three X-Men movies, delivers the first major punch of summer, and successfully so.

This movie has more testosterone flowing than all the syringes of Major League Baseball, and three times the biceps. There's also a hefty dose of swordplay, gun play, grotesque medical experiments, and violence, so it's not for everyone. If I had an alter-ego who reviewed films from only the perspective of movies like, say, The Reader, I might give this a single star. There's no subtlety lost in this film. But for fan-boys eager for a big dose of masculine growling and brawling, and a pretty healthy dose of buff mutants going at it in Extreme Cage Fighting style, it's a hit. So take my endorsement with a grain of salt: I'm addressing it to fans of the comic-book action / brains-turned-off popcorn-movie type of flick.

First, let's review why this movie pleasantly surprised and gave me the first big thrill since last summer's Iron Man. For one, I'm thankful to finally be rid of the Good X/Bad X dynamic of the past three X-Men - not to mention the geeky uniforms and hokey cartoon elements like invisible super-ships. This film is free of those easy categorizations and cartoon gimmicks, so the moral dynamics are more complex and...shall we say...muscular...and really allow us to get more involved in the action. Even better, we finally get a full-on fill-in of the back story alluded to in all the other movies. For an X-Men fan, we finally have a film that pulls no punches, and does so in an environment where the powers are both new and powerful, a raw force tied to survival and passion. I found that both refreshing and invigorating - the kind of real emotion generated by the original Aliens or Terminator. There's also finally a real-life adult romance, and a rather nice use for an Indian legend - at least the best one I've seen in an action movie, of late. All of which is to say, this film really delves into character, as much as a cartoon can, and hits a raw emotional note that pulls the audience deeply into the film.

In this case, the raw emotion is revenge. You might call this film an action-man's Sweeney Todd, and it progresses inexorably towards a similar kind of dread and death. Yet it also presages the original three movies, allowing the ending to tie up nicely all the allusions the other films left hanging unsatisfyingly.

One does miss Bryan Singer on this outing. Singer has a particular felicity with ensemble films, and without him at the helm, this X-Men feels singularly thin: Hugh Jackman does his best imitation of himself, and now that he has to carry the entire film, we realize how much Singer allowed the other mutants to support him. He may not be such a star as recent Biography bit would have us believe.

On the other hand, Liev Schreiber makes Sabretooth come alive, and shares a masculinity with Jackman that adds a level of complexity and counterpoint that other X-Men really missed. This is a movie that trusts its instincts more than its intellect, that explores the dark side of violence and war, and shares more with military-inflected movies like Watchmen and Three Kings than typical X-fare.

There are also cameos by real actors like Will.i.Am and Ryan Renolds (giving one of his best performances) as well as interesting characters like Gambit - who I must confess is the only X-Man whose superpowers I can't figure out. It's like he's got some kind of a mutation of the Cool gene.

Ultimately, though, X-Men Origins is an origin story, or rather, a coming-of-mutation story, and so it is basically about how Wolverine got his claws. As such, we pretty much already know the plot...and there are a couple of glaring holes in how this one is told. Particularly, Stryker's plan makes no sense as it unfolds (how can one NOT have any contingencies for Wolverine when he's got the same contingencies for everyone else? Oh, I suppose because he's being played by Hugh Jackman. But Stryker's astonishment at Jackman's escape left me flabbergasted for a full twenty minutes before I could get back into the story).

Oh, but plot doesn't really mean much here: we get cool fight scenes, cool mutants, and some really disturbing military experimentation. All so much the creepier.

Star Trek also borrows and rehashes an old plot for its reboot. I guess the borrowing works better for me in X-Men because Wolverine vastly improves the plot it borrows: there's a nicely done contrast in this movie between the raw nature of the Wolverine, at home in the pristine pine forests of northern Canada, and the sterile medical creepiness of The Island, where Stryker experiments on his mutants. That contrast forms the backbone of the movie's evolution, and moves the story in a way that resonates much more viscerally than earlier X-Men films. Never mind that this is the exact same plot from X-Men II: this movie kicks ass significantly more. Plus, these X-Men are both deadly and pretty damn cool. They leap, float, fly, shoot, and swash buckle with twice the speed of their Matrix counterparts.

That may not equal double the fun, but it was more than I was expecting from a stew made of summer's past retreads. And certainly an entertaining way to kick off this year's summer movie season.