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Star Trek Into Darkness
dir. JJ Abrams
From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, there are tales aplenty of people desiring to “play God” and take fate into their own hands. Star Trek Into Darkness is an action-packed and intelligent addition to that well-endowed history of storytelling.
The story begins with Kirk, Spock and the Enterprise crew on an exploratory mission to Nibiru. a planet doomed to destruction when an impending volcanic eruption threatens to obliterate an entire species. They impede the extinction, putting their lives on the line to save Spock in the process. Changing the fate of this planet (where the natives now worship the Enterprise as their diety), Kirk faces demotion in Starfleet for his decision to intervene.. When he is about to serve under Admiral Pike, the Starfleet headquarters is attacked by a branded terrorist by the name of John Harrison. Many are killed, and Kirk insists on commencing in a manhunt for Harrison, who now hides on the Klingon home planet. So begins a furiously paced journey to bring the wanted fugitive back to Earth.
Altering the course of events has been of particular interest for Abrams and the writing team. Ever since the move to time warp in the 2009 film, the focus of Star Trek has been less on creating new characters but rather reforming well-known characters into people who are more relatable to today’s audience. This has led to interesting results. Positively, you have a whole host of Star Trek enthusiasts who are interested to see the new rendition of old characters, as well as the movie fans who want to see it because of the action-oriented makeover that Abrams and his team have given the franchise. However, this retread no doubt will make the altering events idea begin to feel at times “not logical”. Throughout Into Darkness, I couldn’t help feel as though this film wanted to be a throwback, one that constantly winks at the audience to remember the ‘good ole days’ of Shatner and Nimoy. Perhaps this was not Abrams intention. I’ve found there are far too many films coming from Hollywood the past few years that focus on this almost obsessive need to be nostalgic. Oz: The Great and Powerful is a recent example of this. And yet, the use nostalgia for Into Darkness provides an entirely different feel to most other prequel or reboots.
In all of the Star Wars prequels, one of the biggest issues was a lack of realism surrounding the constant danger that the characters are in. In the new Star Trek series,JJ Abrams exercises his experience in the action-adventure genre, putting life or death scenarios back into play for the movies. The ability to change one’s fate becomes a major theme in Into Darknes and brings a more legitimate suspense to the audience.
It was highly enjoyable seeing the deepening of friendship between Kirk and Spock in this film. Similar to Toy Story 2, their relationship is no longer about learning to get over jealously but how the friendship pushes each character to a new dimension, making them more realistic and giving us as the audience a greater empathy towards the duo. As in any second film in a well-made trilogy: it’s more like seeing old friends going backpacking than people meeting for the first time for summer camp. And needless to say, metaphors are abundant with Karl Urban’s witty role as Doctor McCoy, still one of the most enjoyable parts of the film.
For months (if not years) before Into Darkness was released, the identity of Cumberbatch’s character was largely ambiguous. Though I will not delve into his real identity, his reveal did bring up a few questions in my mind. First, how we are introduced to John Harrison is very dramatic. How his actual identity is discovered? Not very engaging. It surprised me and in many respects reminded me of the unimpressive return that Bruce Wayne had in the finale of Dark Knight Rises. Anytime a dramatic entry is possible of a hero or villain, it’s an opportunity that need not be wasted - especially for action or sci-fi films. Cumberbatch’s acting was absolutely riveting, and the brutality that he exhibits will at times make your jaw drop. They delve into an interesting cat-and-mouse game between Kirk and Harrison, providing the impetus for the second half of the plot. The acting work between Chris Pine and Benedict Cumberbatch is one not to be missed.
There are a surprising number of Trekkies who take issue with this film. Listening to and reading reviews reveals a much more conflicted fan base. Much of this I believe is because of a switchover in focus - Into Darkness is a taut, razor-sharp action adventure told through a nostalgic filter rather than a philosophically driven character-based piece - all the while choosing to include details from the originals in order to make it a believable addition to the series. All this said, it provides an interesting look into creative liberties for beloved franchises - a situation that will no doubt continue when Abrams journeys to a galaxy far far away.
Go and see this film. Better yet, see the original Star Trek films after you see this film (save for the very unfortunate effort of The Final Frontier). These two series are very different visions, but each provide their own gravitas to the Star Trek universe. A universe where technology is used in a practical and useful manner, outer space is seen as an opportunity for discovery, and where people around the world learn to see that differences make humanity stronger, so that one may boldly go where no man, woman or child has gone before.
dir. Brian Helgeland
The year is 1946. Branch Rickey, the team executive for the Brooklyn Dodgers, presents Jackie Robinson the opportunity to play for the Dodgers. After a successful season with their minor league ball club, Robinson goes on to become not just the first black ballplayer in Major League history, but becomes one of the greatest baseball players the world has ever seen.
Often in stories of hardships, especially with sports, the films far too often stray towards the triumph of winning, rather than the journey that it takes to get there. In 42, the focus is the journey of Jackie Robinson. Through it we get an earnest look at the struggles he had to face.
First and foremost, this movie was a pleasant surprise. By no means a great film, but it is a very well told story. The stakes are high, and the direction given by Brian Helgeland for the baseball game scenes are surprisingly riveting for a sport that isn’t based on a game clock. Being an avid fan of baseball, I was very pleased at how well paced the ballgames were. You feel drawn into the game by both the convincing performances of the actors and the energetic cinematography by Don Burgess (whose DP works of Forrest Gump, Spider-Man and The Book of Eli are by no means small efforts).
It was an enormous gamble on Warner Brother’s part to hire Chadwick Boseman for the role of Jackie Robinson. Baseball movies as a whole do not play exceptionally well in the States (or worldwide for that matter), so to have someone who is not a large box office draw was a risk. However I think it will more than payoff for 42. It gives Boseman an anonymity that allows him to be Jackie Robinson without the audience thinking constantly about the actor. It’s not an Oscar-contending role, but it will certainly give Boseman well-deserved attention.
Another role that surprised me was Harrison Ford’s portrayal of the pragmatic bushy-eyebrow character of Branch Rickey. Gruff, bull-headed yet filled with a nuanced heart for equality, Ford acts out this role with a flair of forceful certainty in his own decisions. It was particularly interesting to see how morality worked Rickey’s business pursuits of hiring Robinson – an action that essentially jump-started integration in America. I think often true stories omit a certain amount of moral complexity in people so as to appeal to a potentially larger audience circle. In this case, Helgeland writing doesn’t hold back. Rickey is a Methodist whose beliefs in God goes hand-in-hand with his desire to help give a great ballplayer a chance to succeed – a character complexity that Harrison Ford chews on as much as the unlit cigars in each scene.
The one thing that I believe separates this film from the ‘great’ status is the duration of the film. The trim 2 hours and 8 minute running time allows for all the right kind of emotions play out, but I believe that it doesn’t allow the audience to better understand Jackie Robinson as a whole. As was the problem with James Mangold’s Walk the Line, great stories about great people at times needs more minutes. The one scene that I think most honestly captured Robinson’s struggles was well-paced and took its time to really bring out the utter obscenity that is racism, brought out into the light in an ugly way by the normally likable Alan Tudyk. 42 could have used another 20 minutes of dramatic character development at least.
As a whole, this film looks to be the potential sleeper-hit of this spring. 89% of those on Rotten Tomatoes liked the film, with it so-far holding a 7.8/10 on IMDb. With its victorious run at the box office this weekend, and great word of mouth 42 could be the hit that sport films have needed this year.
In the beginning of the film, they describe baseball as the sport closest resembling how democracy functions. There is no difference, no advantage or disadvantage given to any player - just the end results that the players bring and how each of them all work together as a collective whole to bring about success. It is good to see a film capture that idea, and even better that it features Jackie Robinson. For not only was he a great baseball player, he was a man that showed enormous courage and discipline of character every time he went up to the plate. In this, 42 swings for the fences.
Oz: The Great and Powerful
dir. Sam Raimi
The call to adventure is a familiar structure. A person, in an ordinary situation, is put in a situation that creates in them a greater understanding of who they are and their purpose in the world around them. Superhero and fantasy films in particular focus on this point and whether consciously or not, this structure affects the story’s entire being.
Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great and Powerful follows that very structure, with James Franco playing Oscar (nicknamed Oz), a trickster magician with an affinity towards Thomas Edison inventions and breaking women’s hearts. Oscar’s meddling in romantic flings gets him in trouble, and in his flight via hot air balloon he finds himself being carried via twister to the magical (and CGI-laden) land of Oz. On his arrival, he is believed to be the wizard prophesied to free the people from the evil reign of the wicked witch and become ruler of Oz. The catch? He’s a con, with a gleaming greedy eye gazing upon the Kingdom’s gold.
This is a tale rife with storytelling logic problems. Much like 2010’s TRON: Legacy, Oz attempts to steer the audience away from some of the glaring pacing problems by giving them some of the most visually engaging material since Avatar and Life of Pi. The colors match that of Victor Fleming’s original classic, past the point of a nostalgic homage - it’s a 2013 modern-day replica of the Candyland-colored 1939 film. With an incredible sound design, along with a particularly moving and refreshingly bombastic score from Danny Elfman, it ALMOST carries you away on the yellow brick road. But not quite.
First, is the ineffectiveness of the characters. James Franco’s rendition of Oz is perplexing in regards to his motivations. His monologue about being ‘a great man, not a good one’ makes well-enough sense, as well as his desire for wealth and power, and the character wields it in actuality like a child going out to a nice dinner but ordering the chicken fingers instead. His perception of power to attain significance (and with it, his idea of happiness) without the responsibility that power brings is a very thought-provoking theme to focus on, especially from a studio that proclaims its name alongside with what will make people happy. Unfortunately, this development of the character is told via stiff dialogue, instead of through actions where you see the character changing from the inside out (Disney’s Aladdin is a better take on this lesson).
Another problem that arose was the use of three witches, played by Rachel Weisz, Milan Kunis, and Michelle Williams. Though all effective in their roles (Kunis in particular), none of them provide much depth to characters that have the benefit of story mythology already in place. Another problem I had with the three of them is that they seem to passively watch Franco meander about in Oz without doing much (until, because of his misguided charm, one of the witches reveals her true colors). It seems like a somewhat lazy move to make female characters either seem completely helpless or suddenly all-out and overly motivated. Why can’t female supporting characters have more complexities and nuances? I find it often isn’t the case.
The term ‘tentpole franchise’ is a familiar term in the Hollywood studio world. It essentially is a franchise the studio plans in order to prop up the rest of their business (Paramount has Transformers, Universal has Fast & Furious, Warner Brothers has Harry Potter, etc). The problem I have is the blatant use of unnumbered prequels to create a franchise and claim it as a ‘new vision’. At least in the Star Wars prequels trilogy, there was a consistency of knowing there would be more films, but no more than 3 before the original trilogy begins. For Oz, it’s like Disney forced Raimi to create a blockbuster film, with a tail-end finish that blares, ‘if this film does well, we’re making a sequel to this prequel!’ The way they do it in this film is just plain silly. I greatly look forward to the day when studios will create blockbusters without the obsessive need to tack on an extra (and unnecessary) storyline in order to make a sequel possible. Sure it may create ‘good business’, especially overseas, you can only use one creative well for so long. Pretty soon it’s going to run dry.
With this all being said, there is enough throughout the film that fulfills the expectations it gives - that being an amusement park ride. With some of the most convincing CGI for two particular characters seen since Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, these two help the movie along the somewhat uneven ride. But what a ride it is. With a dose of humor, Rami’s direction, and incredible sound design, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. It’s just a pity this film’s potential success will lead to other ‘behind the story’ prequels like it. Next up? ET: The Great and Galactic Botanist!
Days of Heaven
dir. Terrence Malick
America has been defined for over a century by its ambitious ideas. The ambition for land, freedom, and opportunities. To improve one’s living and to see their loved ones do the same. It is in our blood: a land filled with the descendants of those from distant shores to find a ‘promised land’.
Terrence Malick’s sweeping Days of Heaven is story of that very ambition - through the eyes of a little girl, her brother and the woman that the brother loves. Followed by their troubles in the city of Chicago, the three vagabond Americans hitchhike by train across the majestic midwest American countryside. Through sweeping images and the unknown of the West in the mid 1910’s, the three find a place as wheat workers during the harvest. The owner of the land, known simply as The Farmer, falls in love with the woman, Abby, and from the encouragement of the man, Bill, for reasons of likely inheriting the land, she marries the Farmer. As the years go by, the issues of infidelity arise as it becomes evident that Bill has never really fallen out of love. He has fallen from grace. Through this unwavering desire, it begins a chain reaction that causes grief and destruction.
Days of Heaven is particularly affecting. Through the consistent form of immersion that Malick masterfully develops in his work, you immediately become aware of how much the surroundings around the characters affect the story, especially the sound. The wind rushing through the waves of grain. The booming drum-like pounding of the wheat tractors. The high-pitched whines of the hordes of locusts. Each of these factors help bring depth to the wide open spaces intermingled with the incredibly intimate story of these characters. Malick’s talent for such directorial decisions has proven time and time again why his films will be watched now and 100 years into the future. His sense of majesty equals to that of his riddling questions he asks through his visuals and characters.
WIth that said, Days of Heaven was a film that asked questions and presented problems without necessarily bringing them them to a point. The biggest issue that I found myself having with the film was how Malick never really presented you with the opportunity to latch on emotionally to a particular character. Most of his films are presented with a sense of acute detachment. We are allowed to observe, not participate in the story. This holds true in particular with Days of Heaven, where each character remains distant throughout the story to the audience. At the end of the film, it was puzzling how little affection or personally I felt towards any of the characters, even though I felt the opposite should have been true. Much of the decisions made by the characters are grounded by reality, yes, but it became evident that each character’s motives were somewhat vague (save for the Farmer and his foreman). This lessened the overall impact of the film, which is a shame, since the themes expressed in the film are both lofty and well-intended.
From a production standpoint however, this film is about as close to perfect as they come. The blend between sound and image is memorable, with the camera providing a sweeping eye to what often could be deemed as dull. So often (too often) the midwest of America is stereotyped as a place that is less beautiful than say a beach in Hawaii, or the mist-covered Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. Malick’s film gives us the look of beauty of a place so often marked by its deemed ‘monochromatic’-like terrain. And blended with the strong themes of the destruction that is caused by selfish and often rootless ambition, Days of Heaven is certainly a film worth watching, regardless of the flaws.
Epic and intimate, the story does a good job in presenting the big picture what it’s trying to tell. Unfortunately, it often lags with receptiveness of character choices and a somewhat lagging pace of direction in the editing. It is a memorable story, but not a great one.
As mentioned above, this is not Malick’s best work that I have seen (the only being out of contention for me presently is The New World, as I have yet to see it). Malick’s tone and consistency is evident in this film, but it’s not entirely polished nor as powerful as Thin Red Line or The Tree of Life. It is a fascinating look into his journey as a director however - no other film of his has so much focus on given the sound a sense of character.
Acting - 3.5/5
Malick’s films have actors in memorable roles, but not because of the roles themselves. Like Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston in Argo, Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, and Sam Shepard are memorable in Days of Heaven due to the presentation of the subject matter. There aren’t many particularly memorable dialogue moments per se, but they overall do a good job in carrying the story along.
Production Design / Art Direction - 5/5
The production design by Jack Fisk to this film perfectly supports and brings life to the story. Though relatively simple, Fisk and his team do an excellent job in portraying 1910’s Midwest American culture. There is a particular scene of folks playing music in the after hours that brings a sincere and honest peek into the past.
Music - 4/5
The music is a music score filled with the notes and songs from various composers of yesteryears. It is the effectiveness of their use that makes a film like Heaven have a particularly memorable soundtrack. Coupled with original music by the composing legend Ennio Morricone, the soundtrack does a great job in bolstering the film’s imagery and tone without overriding the themes.
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