Wednesday, August 21, 2013


Leonard Nimoy is a big softy. After the financial success of Search For Spock, he was given greater creative control to direct Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and what kind of film does he make? Not a space combat film like Wrath of Khan or a sterile, alienating thinker like The Motion Picture, but a movie about friendship, teamwork and saving the whales. On paper, it's this film, not Final Frontier, that ought to be considered the big misstep, the one no one talks about. But instead Voyage Home is one of the best, and certainly most delightful films in the series.

Picking up where the last film left off, we find Kirk (William Shatner) and the rest of the crew in exile on Vulcan, deciding to return to Earth and face the consequences for all the rules they broke so they could save Spock (Nimoy). As they approach Earth, things get impossibly goofy: in a reworking of the V'Ger set-up from TMP, the planet is being devastated by a mysterious, alien probe. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) decodes the probes signal as a Humpback Whale song. Evidently, the probe had expected to make first contact with some kind of Whale based civilization and instead only finds the Humans who, in this world, had long ago hunted them into extinction. Consequently, the only way to save Earth is to go back in time and find some whales to talk to the probe. Yes, that is the actual set up and it's a real testament to just how good these actors are that they sell the gargantuan leaps necessary to move the plot along.

After a trippy time travel sequence, the crew sets down in 1986 San Fransisco and splits up into teams. Kirk and Spock case out a local aquarium while the rest of the crew concentrate on modifying and repairing the ship. It's at this point where the film gets to what it's best at: fish out of water comedy. We get a lot of fun scenes of the Enterprise crew trying to adjust to their 20th Century surroundings.The highlight might be Scotty and McCoy trying to figure out how to use a Mac Plus and handing out future technology willy nilly.

The film is unusually democratic in handing everyone screen time. For years Walter Keonig's Checkov has had very little to do but sit around and be the likable Russian (it's telling for a franchise where people are defined by their jobs that Checkov's skill set remains undefined), but here he finally gets his own subplot, scoring some of the films better laughs when his obliviousness to Cold War hostilities lands him in trouble when he has to sneak around a U.S. nuclear vessel.

We also have a small subplot about just how culturally displaced Spock is. He's unable to relate to his crew mates, the 20th Century is even harder. There's an endlessly amusing gag about him being absolutely terrible at swearing, even worse than Kirk, who charmingly thinks "Double dumb ass on you" is a real phrase people say in 1986. Spock's inability to act Human is interesting as he is indeed half Human. Because he was raised in Vulcan culture, he was never that warm to begin with, but he used to be able to fake it just a little. The film makes a point of telling us that the ritual that brought him back from the dead also reset his brain and erased all the years he'd spent trying to reconcile his two sides.

While this is a very small subplot in the film, and a character point rarely touched upon, Spock's regression is the flip of the direction the film's were taking. Like Spock himself, Trek has always had to navigate between brains and heart. At one point Trek was primarily about allegory and big ideas, but that began to noticeably shift during Nimoy's tenure as director, and it's most apparent here. The big ideas in Search for Spock where jumbled and confused, here they're stripped away almost completely so the film can romp around with the crew. No one's going to argue "save the whales" as a goal, and the crew is alarmingly unconcerned with altering timelines. This is the first Trek film that's more about the star-power of the actors than anything else. The human focus is a welcome 180 from where the series started, but in going for the opposite extreme it also sets precedent or the series most indulgent, least enjoyable entries as we'll see with Final Frontier and the mostly ego driven Next Generation films.

Voyage Home is goofy, strains all credibility, but it's funny and it works like gangbusters. While easily the broadest, and most accessible of the series, it's also the boldest departure. Until now, the series had followed the traditional "bigger, darker" sequel model, but after all the heaviness of the last few films, it's nice that the Trek series took a break and made an impossibly fluffy, vacation style movie like this.

Grade: B+

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Trekkin' It directory:
The Motion Picture
Space Seed / The Wrath of Khan
The Search for Spock
The Voyage Home
The Final Frontier
The Undiscovered Country

Best of Both Worlds / First Contact

Star Trek '09
Into Darkness (spoiler analysis) 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


Woody Allen is a national treasure. When his films work, they're as beautiful, funny and insightful as anything out there. It's absolutely incredible that he's managed to write and direct at least one film per year since 1982. But that frenetic pace also means we must accept a certain amount of unevenness to his work as proven by his latest film Blue Jasmine.

The film centers around a pair of adopted sisters forced together after years of estrangement. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) married rich but looses everything when her husband (Alec Baldwin) is arrested for some Bernie Madoff-esque wrong doing. She is taken in by Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who lives in a poor, San Fransisco neighborhood with her two kids from a failed marriage to Augie (a well used Andrew Dice Clay).

Allen's attempt to difine the sisters through class distinctions, not to mention their relationships, is often insufferably shallow and repetitive. We get scene after scene of Jasmine being impossibly snooty and constantly embarrassed by her sisters poverty, while Ginger chews gum and carries on in her dislocated Jersey Shore accent. Allen's use of stereotypes is never as grating as it was in Whatever Works, but we could probably have done without Ginger's hotheaded, Italian fiance who's mostly there to rip the occasional phone off the wall. Also, take a shot every time he reminds us that Jasmine's husband was "a real crook who ripped everyone off" and that "she probably knew all about it!"

What Jasmine knew and when she knew is a central question here. It's clear that she's very aloof and has lived most of her life in denial, but at some point her denial becomes unreasonable. At any rate it's clear that she's trying hard to downplay her past to everyone she meets, particularly with a perspective boyfriend she meets at a party.  Her clumsy, comically circuitous attempts at reinvention are some of the best parts of the film, particularly a sequence where she takes a class in computers. Allen is a self-confessed technophobe and one imagines him paying the computer literate neighbor boy from down the hall five bucks to write a block of jargon for the film.

The film does try and add dimension to Jasmine's character by explaining that all the stress has induced some kind of ongoing mental breakdown. As a script device, it's clumsy and melodramatic. Poor Blanchett is forced to wave her secret pills at the screen in the most vaudevillian way possible, but strangely she makes the character work. As Jasmine's reinventions and deceptions unravel, we're left with a sense of just how much emotional damage she's done to herself and her family. It's touching and it's all Blanchett. The script Allen has written for her is bland, pedestrian and cliche but she saves it, in moments even elevates it, but like so many of Allen's films, it often feels like we're watching a first draft.

Grade: C+

Thursday, August 1, 2013


Nicolas Winding Refn has made good films in the past. He made a great film with 2011's Drive, but it's no surprise that his new film Only God Forgives falters. Refn's style is so extreme and out there, that it was inevitable that he'd make at least one outrageous failure.

Ryan Gosling stars as Julian, a shy, reserved gangster who runs a Muay Thai kickboxing gym in Bangkok with his sadistic brother Billy (Tom Burke). One night Billy gets himself killed after raping a 16 year old prostitute. At this point Julian is obliged to go out and get revenge but can't quite work up any enthusiasm after hearing about his brother's crimes. This leads to the intervention of his mother (Kristian Scott Thomas), who we learn has a rather, um, Game of Thrones relationship with her sons. She comes in to hire a hit on Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), the karaoke loving cop who ordered Billy's death and might be some sort of Daemon or something.

In interviews, Refn has talked up the film as a companion piece to Drive but the comparison is a poor one. Drive had a potent love story and thin characters rebelling against their own thinness in a very satisfying way, this film has nothing but its own style. Sure, Refn's depiction of Bangkok as a nightmarish, hallucinatory Hellscape is effective at times, but to what end? The film isn't really interested in anything other than wallowing in its own seediness and Kubrickian set pieces set to another one of Cliff Martinez's amazing synth scores. There's no meat here and it's very clear from the start that no matter how much it wants to do otherwise, Forgives isn't going to do anything but sit there. Even a climactic, and expertly constructed, fistfight fails to generate interest. The film is just too cold, too cromagnon in its approach. 

Even Gosling, America's foremost expert at saying nothing but communicating everything is a blank here. It's not his fault, as his character has no inner life and has nothing to do but sit on couches, flex his hands and occasionally terrify prostitutes. He doesn't play a character so much as he provides Refn with a life sized Ken doll to pose, same goes for all the other actors save Thomas whose self-consciously shrill, yet engaging performance is the best part of the film.

Strangely, the very same coldness that keeps the film from being good might also keep it off my worst of the year list. The film was booed at Cannes but I couldn’t muster up enough interest to hate the film that much. There are terrible, appalling elements here, the film isn't invested in them enough to appall me. The film is an utter failure, albeit one made by someone capable of doing so much better. The worst part of this film isn't its shallow use of weighty themes or the blank performances, it's watching talented people waste their talent.

Grade: D