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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Review- Star Trek: Into Darkness

Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013):  Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof.  Directed by J. J. Abrams.  Starring:  Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, John Choe, Simon Pegg, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, and Anton Yelchin.  Rated PG-13 for:  Sci-fi action and violence.  Running Time:  133 Minutes. 

Film as a whole- 2.5/4 
Special Effects and Visual Design- 4/4
Soundtrack- 4/4
Acting- 3.5/4
Screenplay/Writing/Plot- 2/4
Surprise “Twist” Ending- 0/4

*note- this review will spoil all the major twists and reveals in the movie (or at least the ones that matter).  A second warning will be placed in the necessary spot.  This review will also be looooooong.  You have been warned* 

            While mentally preparing myself for Star Trek: Into Darkness (I’d thankfully been told the major twist beforehand, and thus was able to soften the blow), the thought occurred to me that the biggest challenge facing this new franchise is that Star Trek, as a whole, has never really worked as a stand-alone film series.  All the movies up to now have been continuations of the show in some way or another.  The obvious advantage of this is that, when you have a show backing your movie up, you can use the show to develop character arcs, establish who’s who and what’s what, and then use the movies to say, “Alright, you know the players and parts, now watch them have a cool adventure!”  When all you have are films, you have to pull time and energy away from the story and adventure to try and both establish characters AND give at least some of them a semblance of an arc.  In most cases, both the character’s development and the story/adventure setup will suffer as a result.

            As an example of how difficult it is to do this, let’s briefly revisit The Avengers.  Our current Avengers team consists of six people.  Backstories and characters are not explained at all in The Avengers, everyone is just tossed into a mixer and left to sort things out.  And the result was, to coin a phrase, AWESOME.  The only reason that movie was able to do this, however, was because they had a total of five feature length films (ten hours of screen time) prior to the main event building up characters, plots, and plot devices.  And yet, after ten-plus hours of film time to set up the ultimate movie, only four of the six Avengers had fleshed-out backstories and had gone through significant character arcs in one form or another (three if you don’t want to count the Hulk, due to the actor-change). 

            Now let’s consider Star Trek- the original crew of the fabled Enterprise consists of seven players that must, by fanboy law, be in any remake- Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Scotty, Tchekov, Sulu, and McCoy.  That’s one more than the entire Avengers team, and this new series has neither a baker’s half-dozen earlier movies  nor a TV series to back it up, meaning that Abrams and his crew have taken it upon themselves to try to do in 4-5 hours what the Avengers couldn’t fully pull off in twelve (The Avengers itself included).  

            This is not intended to be either praise or condemnation of Abrams, simply an acknowledgement of the difficulty of what he’s trying to do.  The question then is, how well has he done up ‘til now?  In the first film, I felt he succeeded admirably.  There were few character arcs besides Kirk and Spock starting their age-old bromance (plus the welcome addition of Uhura getting more attention), and the story and villain were interesting, if rather clich├ęd at times, but I felt it worked well enough because the whole purpose was just to establish the new universe, bring in each major character, and show how they all get thrown together.  Into Darkness is a bit more of a mixed bag.  In some ways, it surpasses the first film and expands the new universe in interesting ways, but on the other hand, it also contains the single stupidest scene I have ever witnessed in a Star Trek film.  But we’ll get to that presently. 

            First, let’s go over what we can without dropping into spoiler territory.  As we begin the film, Kirk and the crew are observing a primitive species on an unnamed planet, under strict orders to not reveal themselves (aka the Prime Directive).  Due to a crazy plan gone awry, however, Kirk reveals the ship to the natives in order to beam Spock out of an exploding volcano.  This is another of many, many occasions where Kirk breaks the rules and never really faces punishment from Starfleet (who are apparently the Gotei 13 from Bleach in this new series, only slightly less hapless).  His reprimand gets pushed the side as a rogue agent named John Harrison (played by the lovely Benedict Cumberbatch) launches a series of debilitating terrorist attacks on Star Fleet before fleeing to Kronos, home world of the Klingons.  On a side note, one of the attacks involves Noel Clarke from Doctor Who, whose handful of scenes I actually found to be some of the most impressive and moving of the film. 

              In the second attack, Captain Pike, Kirk’s mentor at Starfleet, is killed.  Kirk, determined to seek out Harrison to exact revenge, convinces Dick Cheney….I mean, Admiral Markus to send him and the Enterprise on a lone mission to Klingon space to either eliminate or retrieve Harrison without provoking a war between the Federation and the Klingons (by the way, I think the new designs for both the Klingons and the Birds of Prey are fantastic).  When they arrive, Harrison willingly surrenders, although we soon find out that he wanted to be captured (just one of the screenwriter’s little “borrows” from other movies, albeit a small one).  However, the ship’s engines seem to have been “mysteriously” damaged somehow, and as they try to repair the ship, Kirk learns that both Harrison and his own mission are not what he thought they were, and even learns of a possible threat within Starfleet command itself (that’s treated like a big reveal, but it’s not- if you’ve paid the slightest iota of attention to Iraq and the War on Terror in the past decade, you’ll know who it is instantly). 

            Before we go further with the movie’s story (which necessitates spoilers), let me quickly go over  the things that work throughout the whole film, things which, in my opinion, make the film absolutely worth seeing despite its flaws.  Star Trek, as many have observed, has been so great and enduring precisely because of the strength of its characters and how well they play off each other.  For any Star Trek film to be worth anything, it HAS to get the characters right and give them the time to just interact, and both this and the first film do an excellent job in this regard.  This is a solid cast from top to bottom, and there was never a moment (well, okay, one) where I didn’t buy these guys as THE crew of the Enterprise. 

            The soundtrack is even better than the one we got in the last movie, especially when the theme rises up to match shots of the ship.  There’s one fantastic image of the Enterprise, after nearly crashing into the Earth, rising triumphantly from the clouds to a brilliant orchestral swell.  It’s a moment that makes up for all the long years Gene Roddenberry had to put up with terribly low budgets, and is the sort of over-the-top, exuberant romanticizing of its own subject matter that only a long-established franchise like Star Trek is permitted to indulge in.  The effects and visuals, like the designs, are excellent, despite Abrams’ now-standard egregious use of lens flare (although, as one friend pointed out, whether or not it harms the film is a matter of taste).  I personally can’t stand the flares, but they never ruin the film for me.  The action is (for the most part) well-choreographed and well-filmed, with a minimum of the absurd shaky-cam that ruins so many potentially good action movies. 

            All of that said though, it is now time to dive into the two major spoilers of the film (although I suppose it’s technically three, but one of them is intimately tied into another one).  This is your last warning if you have not seen the film yet and want to go in cold, which I honestly would not recommend.  Knowing the ending allowed me to refurbish my mental barricades to ward off the approaching Stupid.  Decided?  Okay, here we go. 

            The first major “twist” (even though it isn’t) is that Harrison is really Khan, which should surprise no one who saw either Space Seed or Wrath of Khan and is paying attention when the other characters start describing Harrison as a superman.  Out of the three major twists in the film, this is the one that works the best, mostly because Cumberbatch sells the HELL out of his rendition of Khan.  He’s strange, he’s threatening, and until the end you never know quite exactly what he’s trying to do, which allows Cumberbatch to rise above the occasionally shoddy writing the character gets, especially in the film’s conclusion.  Whereas Wrath of Khan ends with Ricardo Montalban quoting Captain Ahab before blowing himself up just to get one last shot at killing Kirk, Into Darkness ends with Khan descending into animalistic howls of fury before getting beaten into unconsciousness and refrozen, “presumably” for good.  While it definitely falls short of the incredible finale to Wrath of Khan, it’s STILL better than getting taken out via PVC pipe

            The fact that the villain is Khan, however, brings us to the second major “twist” of the movie, and sadly, this one cannot rectified by the presence of Cumberbatch.  The conclusion to the film, with the exception of an incredible sequence where Khan drives his broken starship through half of futuristic San Francisco (destroying Alcatraz in the process- irony?), is a shocking drop from the solidness of the movie’s first two hours into the Big Wormhole of Idiocy.  Rather than try to build off their alternative story of Khan’s awakening to come up with their own ending to the movie, Abrams and his writers make the very, very foolish mistake of recreating the end of Wrath of Khan.  Not only do they re-do the ending (but with a role-reversal), they do so almost word-for-word

            The major difference here though (the ONLY difference) is that it’s Kirk sacrificing his life to save the ship and crew, and Spock is the one helplessly watching from the other side of the glass door.  After tricking Khan into thinking they killed his crew, the Enterprise loses power and begins to plummet towards the earth.  The reason is the same as in Wrath of Khan- the power crystals are unaligned, preventing the ship from regaining full power, but the compartment containing them has been flooded with radiation that will kill anyone exposed to it.  The role-reversal begins when Kirk knocks out Scotty and goes into the chamber alone to reset the crystals.  He succeeds, and Spock is able to right the ship just in time (leading to the previously mentioned F*** YEAH moment with the rising ship).  However, Spock soon learns of Kirk’s actions, and rushes down to the engineering room, where, as Kirk dies, we get a word-for-word retread of Spock’s death from Wrath of Khan (seriously, almost every line is plucked directly from the original Nicholas Meyer script). 

            Overwhelmed by Kirk’s death, Spock does the KHAAAAAAAAN shout (yes, that shout), and beams down to the surface to chase down Khan and beat him into unconsciousness.  He refrains from killing him though, because McCoy happens to notice that a dead Tribble he injected earlier with Khan’s blood (because, y’know, why not?) is now alive again, meaning that if that they take Khan alive, they can use his blood to bring Kirk back to life.  Which they do, Khan is refrozen, and the film promptly ends. 

            Hoo boy.  Where to begin. 

            The thing is, I can get behind the idea of doing a role-reversal of the ending of Wrath of Khan.  It’s not the worst way to pay tribute to the original cast while still creating your own version of it.  But that’s the catch- it has to be your own version, something unique, not a copy/paste job.  There is a fine, fine line between paying homage to something and leaning on it to make up for your own lack of creativity, and Into Darkness stomps across it with steel-tipped combat boots.  This is not paying tribute to Wrath of Khan, this is using the film as a crutch, and it just does not work.  The many minute details and throwbacks that these guys have written in to the script should mean that they genuinely want this series to appeal to both old fans and new, so why do something that no long-standing fan of the franchise could ever take seriously?  Any possible emotional investment in the scene is driven away by the constant thought of “Why are they ripping off Wrath of Khan?  WHY?”  Leonard Nimoy himself (in his utterly pointless, fanboy-pandering cameo) says, “You all have your own destinies, different from ours.  You must make your own choices.”  Okay, great, but why don’t the writers seem to know that?  They were doing just fine up until now.  Why did they feel the need to enslave their supposedly new franchise to the original series instead of actually letting them be their own versions of well-loved characters?  Did they just completely run out of creative energy at the very end?  It sure feels like it. 

            What makes this so baffling to me is that it’s been FOUR YEARS since the last Star Trek movie.  In FOUR YEARS TIME these people apparently never sat down for more than five minutes to really think about this scene and to try and come up with different ways of doing it.  Have Kirk make a life-threatening decision.   Have him sacrifice himself.  Let Spock have the emotional breakdown, let him do the final chase with Khan.  Let there actually be consequences for Kirk’s decisions so it’s possible for us to believe that he really is maturing, that he’s learning, that he’s becoming the capable captain we know he can be.  There are countless ways they can do all of this without resorting to fan service of the cheapest and most offensive variety.  Every Star Trek film, even the bad or mediocre ones (and there are several of those), has brought something new to the table, some new idea or villain, or a different story using a classic one.  Into Darkness will forever carry the (in my opinion) ignoble distinction of being the first Star Trek film to be so desperate as to rip off another Star Trek film.

            FURTHERMORE, the issues with the movie’s ending go beyond simply copying another, better movie instead of being original.  Here I am talking about the (completely invented) plot device of Khan’s blood that allows them to immediately revise Kirk with no ill effects whatsoever (other than him sleeping for two weeks, oh how terrible).  Even when they brought Spock back, it took an entire movie AND Kirk’s son dying before he was alive again, and it took ANOTHER movie before he recovered his memory. 

            The problem with this little plot device is that it results in the film ending with a massive, gaping plot hole hanging over the end credits- Star Fleet now has the frozen bodies of SEVENTY-TWO genetic superhumans, all of whom, we must now assume, have this Great Elixir Blood, just sitting around in stasis.  Meaning that they have a damn-near limitless supply of this blood available to use and test and spread throughout the galaxy, meaning that, in future films, NO ONE (even the red shirts) should be suffering from disease or injuries that don’t completely destroy the body.  One person suggested to me that, to do that, they would have to revive Khan and his people, which would be too dangerous.  Except McCoy himself kicks that argument in the groin earlier in the film when he takes one of the other supersoldiers out of their freezer to preserve Kirk’s body, and just keeps the person in an induced coma.  That’s technology that WE possess in our 21st century, so there’s no reason that Star Fleet shouldn’t be able to manage that hundreds of years in the future.  And when the body is in a coma, the blood runs normally, and certain amounts can be extracted for regular tests.  The movie also establishes that Khan (and, again, his crew) can recover astonishingly quickly, so they should be able to draw even more blood even more often from these people than they could from normal humans.  It does not make sense.  It reeks of a cheapie plot device they thought up on the spot to bring Kirk back consequence-free, without ever stopping to seriously consider the host of prickly questions this decision opens up.  Again, like with Kirk’s death, I can’t help but believe that Abrams and his team completely ran out of ideas and tried to make up for it in the most hackneyed way possible. 

            I really don’t like this ending.  I don’t like the fact that I have to beat up the movie so much for this ending.  As I said before, there really is a lot of good stuff worth watching here, and I still recommend seeing the film, but damn, the ending bites.  Abrams is in charge of two of the greatest sci-fi franchises ever at the moment, and after less than two movies, he’s apparently out of ideas, imagination, and creative vision.  It’s not *quite* enough to ruin this film, but it does not bode well for either the upcoming Star Wars films or the future films in this new Star Trek franchise.  Here’s hoping he gets a second wind, and soon. 

-Noah Franc



Friday, May 24, 2013

Review: Epic

Epic (2013):  Written by Tom Astle and Matt Ember, directed by Chris Wedge.  Starring:  Amanda Seyfried, Colin Ferrell, Beyonce Knowles, Josh Hutcherson, Christoph Waltz, Aziz Ansari, Chris O’Dowd.  Rated PG for:  mild action, brief language, and some scary elements.  Running Time:  102 minutes.  Based on William Joyce’s The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs

Rating: 3/4 Stars

In many ways, Epic reminds me a lot of James Cameron’s Avatar.  There is a story, and there are characters.  There is a villain, and a conflict.  At the end there are morals told and lessons learned.  All of that, however, is kept basic, superficial, and simple, because the focus of the film is ultimately not to tell a story- its intent is to create a world of magic and beauty and immerse us in it for an hour and a half.  Fortunately, for the most part, it does so quite admirably. 

                 The opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the film- we see a lone, awkward scientist, stumbling around the forest looking for evidence that tiny leaf people exist.  Eventually he stumbles across a hummingbird with a miniature saddle strapped to its back.  As he gazes up into the trees with a look of joyous wonder on his face, we zoom away to the tiny soldier who had been riding the bird, struggling to fight off an attack of small shark-esque gremlins riding crows.  It’s a slick, fun action scene that doesn’t abuse the 3D *too* much, and by the end, we’re excited and ready to see what comes next. 

                What does come is a taxi, bringing the scientist’s daughter to him after the death of their mother (we learn that the mother and daughter had left him some years previously, seeing his obsession with tiny leaf people as literally insane.  Can’t imagine why).  She’s lonely and a bit exasperated with her Dad, but clearly wants to give him another chance, and hopes to convince him to give up on his theories about tiny people being real.  He’s so wrapped up in his work that he barely hears her though, and within a day she’s already fed up and gets ready to leave. 

                While this storyline is being set up, we are taken to the gorgeous world of the leaf people, a world occupied by other strange creatures as well- people formed from all manner of plants, and more than a few talking animals (although it’s never explained why the slugs and frogs can talk but the birds, dogs, and deer apparently can’t).  We learn that the leaf people are essentially a race of soldiers, committed to protecting the Queen of the Forest, whose power sustains all life in the woods.  The captain of the guard fears an attack by the leader of the gremlin people (seriously, I have no idea what they’re supposed to be), especially since the time is approaching for the Queen to select her successor as the Forest’s protector. 

                These fears prove to be well-founded, as a massive army of gremlins strikes immediately after the Queen selects the flower bud that will transmit her power to the next Queen.  The leaf men fight ferociously and drive them off, but not before an errant arrow strikes the Queen down.  Right before she dies, however, the daughter from earlier happens to see her fall from the sky and catches the bud right after the Queen breathes her last breath into it, which causes the daughter to shrink to the size of the leaf people (and breathe).  Hoping to find a way to return to her normal size, the daughter has to team up with the captain of the guard, a trouble-making leafman novice, and two wise-cracking slugs to safely bring the flower bud back to the Queen’s hold so the next Queen can be chosen, all the while avoiding constant attacks by the gremlin king, who hopes to destroy the forest once and for all. 

                The director of this movie, Chris Wedge, is the same guy who brought us the brilliance that is Ice Age.  Sadly, unlike in that classic, nearly every character in Epic is pretty forgettable, with personalities and arcs that have all been done a thousand times before.  The sole exceptions are the Queen, who is interesting enough in her few scenes, and the slugs, who are genuinely funny, and bring a lot of that Ice Age magic to the table with their constant banter.  The villain is rather amusingly voiced by Christoph Waltz, but aside from that, there’s really nothing of substance to his scheme.  He has the power to kill anything he strikes, but he’s never terrifying or threatening enough to make up for the fact that his lone motivation is, “I want to kill because……...I’m EEEEEEVIIIIIIIIIL!!!!!”  Oh, and his son dies at one point.  Because, you know, that’s never been done before either. 

                Despite these very noticeable issues, Epic makes up for them (mostly) with its stunning animation and production design.  The world of the leaf people looks fantastic.  The entire movie bursts with sunshine and forest green, making this ostensibly normal, average New England forest seem like an exotic world completely detached from the realm of man (which, in a sense, it is).  Several scenes- a carriage of leaves carried by a flock of hummingbirds, a formation of leaf soldiers flying into the sunlight, the appearance of a deer in the brush- are done with such loving attention to detail that my brain literally stopped thinking temporarily so it could coo at the pretty colors.  Say what I will about the characters, I can’t help but acknowledge a genuine sense of reverence for the forest that permeates the entire movie. 

                And that, actually, might be one of the biggest advantages Epic gives itself.  As easy it would be for them to throw in references to “the sacredness of nature,” or to somehow shoehorn in the standard “Nature Good, Man Bad” message that turns so many people off so many movies, they don’t.  They just create the world and let the characters do their thing in it.  As a result, you find yourself wanting the good guys to win and the forest to survive NOT because someone makes a speech about it, but because the whole place looks so damn beautiful you don’t want to see it spoiled.  Not only is Man NOT the problem this time around (gasp), but a bit of 21st century technology actually plays a key role in saving the day. 

                The action is well-done as well.  Fist fights, sword fights, blasts of magic, and air battles are all well-choreographed and a ton of fun to watch.  They also build up each progressive action piece effectively- as the stakes get bigger and bigger, the amount of action and number of people involved gets bigger and bigger as well.  In fact, the film almost builds itself up too well by the end.  As the armies of the leaf people and the gremlins gather for the final smack-down, I was pretty much expecting them to re-create the Battle of Gondor in the sky, with bats and hummingbirds in place of war elephants (admit it, you ALL want to see that).  And we do get the battle, and the final boss fight, but it doesn’t quite measure up to the level of….well….Epic that I’d hoped.  Not that it’s a bad ending- it works just fine, all loose ends are tied up, the villain dies, the necessary character arcs are completed- I just found myself wishing for a *little* bit more than what I got.  If they really had given me the LOTR Smurf-style, I might have completely absolved the film of its many flaws and given it a 4/4 rating.  But, you review the film you have, not the one you wish you had. 

                So, even though Epic falls a bit shy of living up to its own name, I would still highly recommend it, for both the slugs and the animation, if nothing else.  The only other animated film coming out this year (that I’m currently aware of) is the Monsters prequel, and I honestly do not know how high my expectations for that should be, so this will probably be the only interesting animated film to come out for a good while.  It’s no masterpiece, it’s not great, but damn if I didn’t have fun.  

-Noah Franc 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Review: 42

42 (2013):  Written and directed by Brian Helgeland.  Starring:  Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, and Alan Tudyk.  Rated PG-13 for:  thematic elements and language.  Running Time:  128 minutes 

Rating: 3/4 Stars (3.5 for baseball fans)

                As I sat down to watch 42, it occurred to me that, even though baseball has been woven into the fabric of American society for nearly a century and a half (and has ingrained itself into our culture and language), there has been a relative lack of good baseball movies based on true baseball stories.  Seriously, not counting fictional classics like Field of Dreams or Sandlot, how many genuinely good baseball movies can you think of that are based on real events?  Eight Men Out, A League Of Their Own, Moneyball, maybe a few others.  Compared to the huge number of incredible stories baseball has to offer, that’s a really small number. 

                Thankfully, 42 is a solid enough film that it will probably join that unfortunately short list of great baseball films, despite being far from perfect itself.  In just over two hours, the film covers the two years immediately following the now-legendary decision by Branch Rickey (then the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers) to break one of the biggest unspoken rules of the baseball world by signing Jackie Robinson for several thousand dollars, making him the very first black player to play for a professional (read “official”) baseball team.  After he signs the contract, Robinson spends a year in the Dodgers’ farm system (another, lesser-known innovation of Rickey’s), after which he is sent to the major leagues.  The film ends with the Dodgers clinching the pennant at the end of the year, and with Jackie Robinson winning the first Rookie of the Year award shortly afterwards.  And from day one, he is forced to silently and passively endure racism in all its forms- anonymously-mailed death threats, unending cries of “Go home nigger” from countless stadiums and opposing teams, hostility and resentment from his own teammates, and every so often the threat of actual, physical violence. 

                There’s a very telling scene in the movie when Rickey asks Jackie what he thinks about the Dodgers getting to the World Series.  Robinson, in his quiet, stoic manner, responds, “I don’t think it matters what I think.  It matters what I do.”  The film seems to take Robinson’s word for it, as the focus of the movie is less on Jackie’s own, personal experience and far more on the perspective of us, looking back now and able to more fully comprehend what he (or, to be more exact, his career) meant to the world of baseball.  In this, the movie loses a chance for some real depth.  We get bits and pieces of Robinson’s feelings- a few conversations with his wife or with Rickey, and one genuinely excellent scene where he leaves the field so one can see him break a bat to let out all his pent-up rage- but it never amounts to any definitive image or statement about the man himself.  Most of what we see in the film is what the world saw when he actually played- a man quietly and determinedly proving everyone wrong with his outstanding abilities on the diamond. 

                That’s not to say Jackie is a blank slate in his own film- Chadwick’s performance is as subtle as it is quiet, able to make the audience understand how pressured he feels without needing to shout, or curse, or grimace.  And all the abuse he endures (including a hilariously unexpected turn by Firefly’s Alan Tudyk as the racist Phillies manager) never prevents him from enjoying the game he’s dedicated his life to.  The highlights of the movie are his scenes with Harrison Ford’s Rickey, a performance that could very well end up on a lot of nomination lists next January- the two play off each other perfectly, and their frank candor with each other is a welcome relief from the constant meanness and pettiness that fills the rest of the film.  The film also deserves credit for openly acknowledging that Rickey’s intentions in signing Jackie were not *just* philanthropic in nature- in his very first scene he tells his assistants, both concerned about the fallout from this decision, “Dollars aren’t black or white, gentlemen.  They’re green.  Every one of them is green.” 

                If you are a sports fan, and/or a fan of sports movies, I can’t think of a reason why you wouldn’t really, really like 42.  If you are indifferent to (or utterly abhor) sports films in all their romanticizing, this probably won’t convert you, although I would still recommend the film for Harrison Ford’s performance alone.  The film avoids delving into the big (and very sticky) questions of racism in American and its many, ongoing legacies, but it also never shies away from the fairly open racism that pervaded all of baseball AND the country, not just in the stereotypical South.  Pretty much every form of abuse that Robinson had to endure is portrayed at one point or another, including the petition that many of the Dodgers initially signed saying they would refuse to play if he was brought up (to which Rickey and his manager respond, “Okay.  Have fun being traded!”).  Even though it occasionally feels less like a movie about Jackie Robinson and more like a compendium of “bad things said to Jackie Robinson when he played,” 42 is a well-made, well-acted, and respectable tribute to one of baseball’s greatest players and icons, even if it dives a little too far into romanticism. 

-Noah Franc 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Review: Die Jagd

Die Jagd (2013):  Directed by Thomas Vinterberg.  Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, Susse Wold, Anne Louise Hassing.  This film is not rated.  Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: 2/4 Stars

            After a considerable amount of thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that Die Jagd is not a bad film.  But neither is it a good one.  I don’t like it (and can’t recommend it) mostly because I spent most of its running time trying to contain my simmering resentment of both every character on the screen and of the film itself for insulting my intelligence.  But on the other hand, at least the film evinced a reaction from me, even if it probably wasn’t the one the director wanted.  And I do get what the film WANTED to do.  I just don’t think it succeeded. 

            Die Jagd is a Swedish film about paranoia.  Specifically, the paranoia of a society that, worried about very real problems, goes a step too far and is willing to suspect and even openly persecute everyone and anyone accused of wrongdoing (even when there’s no proof).  The main character (I don’t remember his name, because he bored me- we’ll call him Lance) is middle-aged and recently divorced.  However, he seems to have a very positive relationship with his son, has found a new job working at a kindergarten, and even has a new girlfriend. 

            However, things start to go south when the daughter of his best friend (who may be abused?  Or have a perverted brother?  The movie’s too poorly written to tell) decides she’s in love with Lance.  However, when he tells her she shouldn’t kiss him, she tells the head principle of the school that Lance showed her his “tail” (roughly translated).  The principle, obviously, immediately accepts this as Gospel Truth, and suspends Lance’s employment at the school.  She then informs the police, who in turn inform the parents that a child has been abused and that other children may have been abused as well, resulting in a string of further allegations against poor old Lance.  Soon, everyone in town believes that Lance is a child abuser, and he is increasingly shunned by all but a handful of his friends as he struggles to maintain his sanity in an increasingly insane world. 

            Die Jagd ultimately shoots itself in the foot by committing the double sin of having both a lackluster story (The Crucible tackled social paranoia way better) and furiously uninteresting characters.  Lance puts in a laudable performance, and is indeed a sympathetic lead, but every other character ranges from flat and one-note to blitheringly stupid.  The girl who starts the whole mess never comes across as human, mumbling in an expressionless monotone throughout the entire film.  The scene where she first tells the principle she's been abused takes place at night, with the girl's face obscured by shadows- I honestly would not have flinched had she sprouted devil horns by the end.  Top prize, however, has to go to the principle, whose melodramatic reactions to a psychologist’s questioning of the child will probably (hopefully) be the worst acting I see this year. 

            It’s massive, massive flaws aside, I can’t really work up that much anger over Die Jagd.  I get what it’s trying to do- realistically portray the dangers of paranoia going too far.  At the end of film, you are genuinely unsure whether or not Lance will be murdered by the rest of the town, even though his innocence has been proven time and again.  And when seen from that angle, Die Jagd does hold up well- it’s very, very realistic, to the point that it could easily be a documentary about a real case of someone falsely accused and being cast out of society.  And it’s the degree to which Die Jagd feels like a reenactment of reality that saves the film from its own terribly-written characters.  However, as I have pointed out before, realism does necessarily a good film make.  

-Noah Franc 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Review: Ironman 3

Ironman 3 (2013): Written by Drew Pearce and Shane Black, directed by Shane Black.  Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, and Ben Kingsley.  Rated PG-13 for:  intense action scenes and intense camera-mugging.  Running Time:  130 Minutes. 

Rating: 3/4 Stars

            Whether or not you are a fan of the current Ironman franchise (and, by extension, this latest addition) depends almost entirely on whether or not you can enjoy Robert Downey Jr.’s version of the character.  Seldom have the identities of a celebrity and a superhero become so closely intertwined in the public’s mind (think Christopher Reeve and Superman).  Downey is an excellent actor with a multitude of great movies in his filmography (among them Good Night and Good Luck and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), but it’s the Tony Stark/Ironman persona he’s developed over 4 movies (Avengers included) that currently dominates his status in the world of pop culture. 

            Yes, the movies feature increasingly extravagant (and admittedly great-looking) special effects- this one has a scene that features a blow-up 3-dimensional hologram of a human brain- and huge, sprawling, CGI-laden action scenes, but that can no longer sell an Ironman movie.  There’s plenty of that to be found in every other Marvel movie of the past decade, and at no point does the very well-done action of Ironman 3 ever top the phenomenal third-act jamboree of The Avengers.  No, what sells these films is the huge popularity of Downey’s one-lining shooting, cynicism-laden, self-aware Tony Stark, who is as Tony Stark-ish as ever in this, the first major blockbuster of 2013.  If you love Tony Stark, you will love this movie.  If you are sick of him, stay faaaaar away. 

            It’s been a year since Lowkey’s invasion (or, as everyone oh-so-subtly refers to it, “New York”), and Tony Stark has issues.  Aside from the usual ones I mean.  In addition to blowing Pepper Pots off as coldly as he possibly can (and disregarding her safety more than ever), he’s also struggling with PTSD as a result of his near-death experience within the wormhole.  Every so often (but never at an inconvenient moment), sudden flashbacks cause him to break out in panicky sweats and run off from….whatever non-lethal thing he happened to be doing at the time.  He don’ have time fer no panicky flashbacks though, because yet another terrorist (possibly from the same group in the first film) has been systematically launching a series of mysterious bombings around the country, and occasionally hijacking all national airwaves to broadcast strangely-edited messages warning of a coming reckoning with the President.  The apparent leader of this operation is the Mandarin, who some have described to me as “Ironman’s Joker,” a strange figure clad in cross-cultural mystique (his title is Chinese, his garb Eastern, but he’s the head of an Arabic terrorist organization), and played by the ever-reliable Ben Kingsley. 

            I could set up the plot further, but at this point, I really shouldn’t have to.  Ironman is the only one with the technological capabilities (aka the All-Powerful God knows as JARVIS) to solve the mystery of where the Mandarin is and how he’s pulling off bombings that seem to feature no explosives.  There are a few plot twists involving both Stark and Pepper Pots, but they never really keep the film from following the now-standard Marvel formula, which I will not waste space refraining.  

            I enjoyed the film a lot while in the theater, although the whole thing started to crumble about 20 minutes later when I started to notice the strings trying to hold the movie’s disparate parts together.  As stated above, Downey is as Starkish as ever, which actually saves a few scenes that few, if any, other actors could have pulled off.  As for Pepper Pots, if you have been waiting for her to finally get a chance to do something other than be ignored, the reward for your patience has finally arrived, although by that time Ironman 3 adds so much more to the list of frustratingly unnecessary abuses to her character that some might not feel the wait was worth it.  Gwyneth Paltrow deserves full credit for matching Downey by being as subtle as he isn't, even if their relationship is just a few notches short of being straight-up abusive, and I really wish the next film (if there is a next one) gives her character the dignity it fully deserves.  Hell, give her a big role in the next Avengers film!  She's earned it, damnit!  

            If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned War Machine yet, well, I can’t really talk about him until the franchise decides to actually DO something with the character. 

            Aside from a few welcome shifts in tone and genre in a few moments that shake the narrative up a bit (and, in my personal opinion, make the film more interesting that it otherwise would have been), what really makes the film worth watching is the reveal concerning Mandarin, where he is, and why he’s doing all this.  I will not spoil it at all, except to say that it is the one moment of genuine brilliance in the movie, made even more fantastic by Ben Kingsley’s spot-on performance.  If you are a fan of the comic character, be warned- you might be pissed.

            For all of the films’ flaws, it does its job well enough, and a few very good moments here and there were enough to tip the scales in my mind towards 3 stars for this one.  Many (if not most of you) have probably seen the movie already, so for those of you who haven’t, I suppose I’d recommend it, although maybe not for the reasons Marvel would prefer.  It’s fun and entertaining, it’s got good action and solid acting, and for most of you, it’ll hold up long enough for you leave the theater and be halfway home before your brain restarts. 

-Noah Franc 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

My Top 20 Favorite Movies of All Time (So Far)- #10-1

           Well, hopefully you all read the first part of this list from last month.  And if you did not (shame on you), here is the link.  Highly recommended.  I now give you the second part of the list, my current top 10 favorite movies.  So far. 

10. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)

            The more I thought about The Social Network, the more I was struck by the similarities of its story to the tale of Goethe’s Faust, and also to the movie Amadeus, which you will hear more about presently.  Rather than try to accurately portray the legal drama behind the creation of Facebook (which, as the real Parker, Zuckerberg, and others have pointed out, was actually kind of boring), The Social Network chooses instead to use the start of Facebook as a setting for a mostly fictional (though no less relevant) tale of how greed, jealousy, and ego can drive people with tremendous intellect and talent to do admittedly amazing things, but for not-so-laudable reasons (which, again, relates less to the actual story of Facebook than it does to overall human nature).  I have seen far fewer films by David Fincher than I would care to admit, but thus far, this is my favorite of his cinematic accomplishments. 

9. Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001)

            As of right now, Waking Life is by far the best “dream film” I’ve seen, although Waltz With Bashir comes pretty damn close in some of its best moments.  I love how the lines of both the background and foreground constantly shift and blend into each other, and how the level of cartooniness in the animation style shifts from scene to scene (this was the film that also introduced me to the technique of rotoscoping).  What’s it about?  Pretty much anything and everything.  With a few exceptions, most of its scenes involve heady philosophical discourse of one form or another, touching on the nature of dreams vs. reality, the existence of God, the conflict of faith and science, the social order, and a loooooot more.  The animation and occasional strange or funny special effect aside, this is pretty much the epitome of a monologue-centered film, which, since I am a sucker for philosophy, suits me just fine. 

8. The Last Samurai (Edward Zwick, 2003)

            Out of all the movies on this list, this is the one I would name a guilty pleasure.  If you’ve seen it, you probably know why- it’s another Dances With Wolves clone, but with samurai.  And yet, despite the fair lack of originality plot-wise, I still love this movie.  Why?  Well, the Japanese/samurai aesthetic appeals to me personally a lot more than the settings of Wolves, Pocahontas, and Avatar, for one.  Also, despite his personal crazy, I really like Tom Cruise as an actor, and I think this is one of his more underrated performances.  On top of all that, the main samurai is played by Ken Watanabe, who can do no wrong in my book (if you do not know who this man is, watch Inception again, and then watch Letters from Iwo Jima).  Flawed and terribly historically inaccurate?  Yes, most definitely yes.  And I do not care, because samurai.
7. Apocalypse Now: Redux (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

            I specifically put the Redux (read Director’s Cut) version on this list because, like with Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven Director’s Cut (which you may recall was in my Honorable Top 10), the Redux is in many ways a totally different film from the one that hit theaters.  A lot of famous segments were completely re-edited, and whole scenes, characters, and subplots that initially got cut were put back in by Coppola.  Although some added scenes didn’t necessarily add to the emotional punch of the film (some new scenes show Marlon Brando in full daylight, taking a bit away from his character’s mystery), their inclusion, in my opinion, adds even more weight to a powerful film that reminds us of the potential darkness in each person, and that the line between that darkness and the light can be a very fine one indeed.  Warning: this is not a date film. Unless your date really, really likes Joseph Conrad. 

6. Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004)

            Credit for this one being on the list has to be given to the Nostalgia Critic, since I’d never even heard of it until I saw his top 20 list (he also recently included the two leads on his Top 10 Characters List).  Sideways is sort of a bizarre mash-up of a rom-com, drama, bromance, and road trip movie.  Paul Giamatti has long been one of my favorite actors, and this is by far my favorite performance of his (sorry John Adams.  You’re still awesome though).  He and Haden-Church have such a perfect chemistry with each other- they respect and admire each other, and their friendship is clearly genuine, but they never hesitate to call each other out when they do something stupid or immature (and they can both be very, very stupid and immature).  Also, I won’t spoil the ending, but it would be remiss of me to not say that it’s one of my favorite endings of any movie ever (right up there with In Bruges and Inception). 

5. Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, 2003)

            Yes, Finding Nemo is still my favorite Pixar movie, although Up and The Incredibles aren’t too far behind on that list.  Aside from the soundtrack being one of my favorites and the entire color scheme of the ocean being amazing, this is another movie that makes me feel like I’ve gone on a long adventure.  The ocean feels so vast, so deep, so warm, and so threatening, all at the same time.  I think it’s a film that perfectly balances its comedy and its serious drama, without one ever drowning out the other.  And….yeah, there’s really not much more I can say about this film that I haven’t said already.  It’s just a great story.    

4. No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)

            What makes No Country so potent, in my opinion, is how well it mixes brilliant dialogue with complete silence.  Mostly consisting of a basic cat-and-mouse game between two of the three main characters, a lot of the film just shows the characters quietly contemplating what their next move will be, often in darkness or shadows and without saying a word (there is only 16 minutes of music in entire film as well).  When someone does speak, however, you do not miss a word that they say.  It’s almost as if each character decided on their own they would never talk, to either themselves or others, until it was absolutely required, giving everything they actually do say that much more weight- they’ve mulled long and hard over their words, and no one says anything more or less than what they mean.  Tommy Lee Jones’ opening and closing bits are among my favorite monologues in any movie, and add to the somberness of the film’s ending.  Instead of ending right after the climax, like most films do, No Country (like Jones’ character) lingers on in pained silence, wondering what the point of it all was. 

3. Return of the King: Director’s Cut (Peter Jackson, 2003)

            I love the entire LOTR trilogy (both the theatrical releases and the Director’s Cuts), but if you held a gun to my head and demanded to know my one favorite, I would definitely have to go with Return of the King.  After 6-7 cinematic hours of establishing characters, developing the major plot points, and detailing the ins and outs of Middle Earth, Return of the King delivers all the payoff you could ever want in spades.  I love the Battle of Gondor.  I love watching Merry and Pippin get stuff to do aside from tricking Ents.  Obviously, I love the charge of the Rohirrim.  I love pretty much every moment Ian McKellan gets to just be Ian McKellan (even if he does basically murder Faramir’s father).  And gosh-darnit, I cry when Sam carries Frodo.  And I am not ashamed. 

2. In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008)

            Having actually been to Bruges by now, I can confirm that it is, indeed, “like a f***ing fairytale.”  Martin McDonagh has always used swearing the way that Mel Brooks used racism- he pushes it to such an absurd extreme that it ceases to be offensive or even immature and becomes simply amusing- you realize how empty and even pathetic such language really is when it’s used with such robotic regularity (like Hit Girl in Kickass, but well-written).  And the use of empty and pathetic language is perfect for the characters of In Bruges, since they all struggle with being empty and pathetic as well, albeit in their own unique ways.  In Bruges is that rare “perfect” movie; everything in it- every scene, every shot, every plot point, every profanity-laced bit of dialogue- is important in one way or another.  There’s no fat, no padding, no superfluous subplots.  Each part of the film comes together by the end to create a complete whole.  And, in my book, that’s as close to perfection as any film can get. 

1. Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984)

            Some things never change.  I have been in love with this movie since I saw it for the very first time, over 10 years ago now.  Like many of the films on this list, this is the kind of movie where, literally every single time I rewatch it, I notice something else- a line of dialogue, a particular shot, something in the background- that I’d never paid much attention to before, often heavily altering my interpretation of a scene.  This movie has almost everything that I tend to prefer in my movies- light humor, dark humor, heavy drama, fantastically quotable lines, unforgettable and sympathetic characters, religious drama, brilliant music, and on, and on, and on.  I except many films to come and go from my list of favorites, but Amadeus will probably always hold the #1 spot in my heart.  What can one say, but….Amadeus. 

And that, dear readers, is my official list of my 20 (or 30) favorite movies, as of right now.  However, this list is ever shifting, because, thank God, there are always great new films being made every year.  I eagerly await seeing what new works of art make the list the next time I decide to remake it. 

-Noah Franc 

Friday, May 3, 2013

Review: Beyond The Hills

Beyond The Hills (2013): Written and directed by Cristian Mungui.  Starring: Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur.  This film is not rated.  Running Time: 155 Minutes.  Based on Deadly Confession and Judges’ Book (non-fiction), by Tatiana Niculescu Bran. 

Rating: 3.5/4 Stars

*note- this review does contain potential spoilers.  Do not read if you want to see the movie cold.* 

           Ever since the massive success of The Exorcist several decades ago, there has been a small but consistent audience for “exorcism-horror” films.  If that has not yet been identified as a horror sub-genre unto itself (which, according to a brief Google/Wikipedia search, does not seem to be the case), it probably should be, because the number of films released since then with “exorcism” somewhere in the title is fast approaching uncountable territory.  The main problem with these movies is that, even when they’re well-made (see The Exorcism and….yeah, that’s about it), they bear near-zero resemblance to actual exorcisms.  Instead of depicting the rituals and prayers, most of these movies opt for easy shock-value- possessed people climbing walls, eating insects, contorting, and vomiting, while an overly-zealous priest stands on the side shouting about God’s Great Glory and nearby farm animals start braying in panic.  Why do so many exorcism films ignore the reality of their subject matter?  Probably because, well, actual exorcisms just aren’t that interesting to watch (plus they are insanely long and incredibly grueling- a truly realistic exorcism film would last about 3 days, and the audience would have to stand on their feet the entire time). 

            I bring this up to provide some context for why I’m so relieved that Beyond The Hills exists.  Not only is the movie about a very real and very tragic exorcism in 21st century Romania, it’s also a movie that looks at, not just the idea of exorcisms, but also homosexuality, the strength of human friendship, the risks of fervent faith mixed with ignorance, and the danger posed by an under-funded health care system.  Not only that, the movie manages to succeed in incorporating all these heavy topics without ever over-simplifying one side or the another, or reducing any of its characters to one-note stereotypes (also with no sweaty girls screaming in tongues).  It stares at both the beauty and the ugliness that can be present in religion without straight-up demonizing either those who adhere to it or those who criticize it (ya see what I did there?).  There are no special effects, pretty much zero music- no dramatic trumpets, no weeping strings- and scenes are shot in either harsh, uncompromising daylight, or impenetrable nighttime dark. 

            Following the true story  it’s based on with incredibly minute detail, Beyond The Hills opens up with two childhood friends (and also, apparently, former lovers) reuniting at the train station.  Voichita, the quieter, dark-haired girl, has joined a small convent of nuns, where following a simple faith with her fellow sisters has allowed her to come to terms with the abuse they both suffered in an orphanage as children.  Alina, the taller, louder, and more aggressive of the two, has seemingly not fared as well.  Aside from a possibly autistic brother, she has no family, no friends, and has spent several years working in Germany, a strange land where she doesn’t fit in.  Thoughts of Voichita and a burning desire to never be separated from her again appear to be Alina’s only driving motivation in life.  As strong as Alina’s desire to be together with Voichita is, however, Voichita is equally as passionate (although not as direct) about her desire to maintain their friendship while getting Alina to accept God and renounce the sinfulness of their former “ways.” 

            We learn that Alina is struggling with something more than PTSD, although what that something is is never made clear (although that may have been a failing of the subtitles I had).  A psychologist watching the film could possibly come up with a diagnosis involving bipolar, schizophrenia, OCD, and/or some other related illnesses, but as far as the nuns are concerned, Alina is suffering for un-repented sins.  To the nuns credit, though, they immediately realize this is someone they are simply not equipped to handle, either materially or spiritually (one of many reasons none of the film’s characters cannot be dismissed as ignorant Bible-thumpers), and the moment that Alina has her first psychotic episode they send her to the hospital for proper treatment.  However, the hospital is apparently only slightly less destitute than the convent, and as soon as Alina is able to walk again they punt her right back to the nuns, even though the head doctor is fully aware they can barely pay for even the most basic of medications. 

            From there, the situation only deteriorates further.  Alina has the option of returning to Germany to continue her work, but her borderline-obsessive love for Voichita keeps her at the convent.  Voichita repeatedly toys with the idea of leaving the convent and going with Alina, but she’s found a genuine community at the convent, and a faith that has brought her real peace of mind.  The nuns and head priest, meanwhile, simply want to continue on with their daily rituals and routines, which Alina’s increasingly violent and offensive outbursts (at one point she knocks a holy relic to the ground after incessantly demanding that the priest show it to her) make more and more impossible. 

            This is the sort of material that could easily be warped by heavy hands into an outright condemnation of either religious or medical authority as “ignorant” or “wrong.”  It would be all too easy to make Alina out to be the poor, hapless victim of a self-righteous clique of religious fanatics let loose, but more often than not it’s her who comes out looking bad, taking every opportunity to attack and accuse the priest of all sorts of perversions, even though there is no evidence whatsoever for her to base such accusations on.  As the sisters bind her for the exorcism ritual, they don’t yell about how they’re about to conquer Satan, or recite prayers- they’re sobbing in fear and shame.  They know how much they’re hurting another human being, but, caught up in a situation none of them have ever dealt with before, they feel they have no other choice.  The movie does not excuse what they do, but neither does it allow for easy judgment of its subjects. 

            Given its sparse setting, sparse sets, relatively simple plot, and complete lack of music (and a lot of silent scenes), this is the sort of movie that can only be pulled off by smart directing and excellent acting, and Hills comes well-equipped with both.  More than one major scene (like when Alina’s brother is told of her death), are carried out without dialogue, with the camera set at a great distance from its subjects, as if reminding us how small and frail the people we’re seeing (and, by extension, us) are, especially when dealing with the great and unknown.  The acting is just as subtle as the camerawork and directing.  Even Alina, the “angry” and “possessed” girl, reveals her character far less through her psychotic and/or demonic fits than through her “normal” scenes, where scattered lines of dialogue suggest far more about her mental state than shouting about “killing the nuns” does.  Alina’s strength as a character is matched beat for beat by Voichita, who never raises her voice, and never shouts, and yet still manages to convey the anguish and uncertainty in her own heart just as effectively as the more outgoing Alina.  Although the quiet presence of the nuns (and the stoic, resigned presence of the priest) fills out the screen well, it’s the relationship between these two girls, and the deep, abiding love that they both clearly have for each other, that carries the film. 

            Like with P.T. Anderson’s The Master , Beyond The Hills is so quiet and downplayed (especially compared to the row of exorcism-horror pieces discussed above) that more than a few people will probably waive away this film as “all pretentious arthouse, no substance,” but I genuinely feel there is a lot of depth and heavy late-night-discussion material to be found in this movie.  Beyond The Hills raises a lot of questions about religious faith, human love, human error, medical science, and the relationships between them all, while offering no clear answers.  There are no villains or antagonists, no Satan horns, just people, making one mistake after the other, ultimately resulting in tragedy and death.  Should the nuns have tied Alina up for days on end?  No.  But then again, Alina had no cause to physically attack them.  Well, shouldn’t Alina have been taking medication and receiving therapy?  Yes, but the nuns are as poor as it gets, already barely able to keep their tiny church standing.  Well, shouldn’t the hospital have kept her there for proper treatment then?  Yes, but lacking plenty of resources themselves, they flat-out refused to, and the nuns were not about to kick her out onto the street.  Should Alina perhaps have kept working in Germany, so that she could support herself?  Perhaps, but her love for Voichita- whether it be misplaced and twisted, or honest and pure- would not let her live in peace without seeing her only true friend again.  Was she truly possessed, cursed by years of sin and living in a country of “false Christianity?”  I do not know.  I personally don’t think so, but like with everything else in the movie (like with most great movies, really), that’s left to you to decide. 

-Noah Franc