The 2009 Star Trek reboot went into production on the eve of the writers’ strike and therefore had no right to be as entertaining — or to make as much sense — as it did. In fact, it was so successful that it has become the gold standard of dormant franchise resuscitation and I’m hoping that the lessons — what to honour, what to ignore, the mix of knowing humour and state-of-the-art action — are taken on board by the forthcoming Superman blockbuster Man of Steel.
A re-watch of Star Trek on Wednesday night confirmed my thoughts from the original review. It worked so well, on so many levels, that by the end I was eagerly anticipating my Friday night reunion with Christopher Pine’s Kirk, Zachary Quinto’s Hot Spock, etc. So, it is with a heavy heart then, that I have to report feeling let down by Star Trek Into Darkness. Everything seems a lot more self-conscious than before, as if the filmmakers have just realised that there are a squillion people watching and they’d better not make a mess of things. Which usually means that’s exactly what happens.
Not long after the Federation has been saved in the first film, our heroes are out exploring the galaxy, getting into trouble. As punishment for violating the Prime Directive (and incomplete paperwork), Kirk is relived of the Enterprise command but before he has time to properly lick his wounds, a terrorist bombs Starfleet’s London office and threatens to kick off an intergalactic (intra-galactic?) war with the Klingons.
dying is easy — comedy is hard
It’s the execution that disappoints this time around. The humour feels a bit heavy-handed, the attempts to incorporate beloved elements from the Original Series are clunky and the action is repetitive — there are several last second rescues, for example, and at least two of them involve actual on-screen countdowns. I can’t say more for fear of spoilers but — suffice to say — Star Trek Into Darkness is only a B minus while its predecessor merited an A. Read More
It’s clear that there are two kinds of people in the world. There are the people who get Harry Potter (not just get but devour, savour, relish) and then there’s, you know, me.
Over the last six years I have doggedly tried to review the HP franchise as if it was cinema, as if there might be viewers tempted along who hadn’t been exposed to the books and who might reasonably be expecting to watch a film that stands on its own two feet.
Well, to coin a phrase, “it all ends” now. I give up. With Harry Potter, you can’t divorce your response from your expectations. If you loved the books it would appear that you love the films and the less attention the filmmakers pay to unbelievers like me the better you like it.
What is there left to say about Harry Potter films? It seems like only yesterday that I wrote of The Order of the Phoenix: “this Harry Potter is not a hugely enjoyable experience. The young actors, despite lots of practice by now, haven’t got any better (poor Rupert Grint as Harry gets found out every time they point the camera at him). Daniel Radcliffe as Harry doesn’t seem to be able to carry the weight of the emotion or the action and Harry himself still seems like a bit of a wimp.” And nothing much has changed this time around.
In the latest film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry is under pressure from headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon)to find out the truth about returning potions professor Slughorne (Jim Broadbent) who knows the secret of Dark Lord Valdemort’s whereabouts. But Dumbledore’s motivations are murky and the loyalty of Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) is called in to question. There is also a humourless and tedious diversion into the romantic lives of our heroes that does nothing but confirm the absence of acting talent on offer.
It’s a little known fact in the movie industry that most cinema releases serve no greater purpose than to provide some advance publicity for an inevitable DVD release. This week seven new films were released into the Wellington market and barely more than a couple of them justified taking up space and time on a big movie screen.
First up, I Love You, Man — another in the endless parade of cash-ins on the formula literally coined by Judd Apatow with 40-year-old Virgin and Knocked Up. In this version usual side-kick Paul Rudd takes centre-stage as mild-mannered real estate agent Peter Klaven, engaged to be married but with no Best Man. All his friends are women, you see, and hijinks ensue as he attempts to generate some heterosexual male friendships and get some bro-mance in his life.
The key thing to point out here is that I love You, Man isn’t very funny and is very slow, but it will trot out the door of the video shop when the time comes, thanks to people like me giving it the oxygen of publicity. Dash it, sucked in again.
2008 is shaping up to be a year of great films about people being beastly to each other and the first cab off the rank is Tim Burton’s majestic adaptation of Sondheim’s broadway opera Sweeney Todd. Based on the true-ish story of the Victorian barber who murders his customers to provide fresh meat for his girlfriend’s pies, Sweeney Todd is positively Shakespearian in scale – meaty, savage, sinister and poignant. Johnny Depp plays the talented scissor-man who returns to London 15 years after he was transported to the colonies by crooked Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) who had desires on his pretty wife. Consumed with a passion for revenge Todd goes back to work above the shop selling London’s worst pies, made by the redoubtable Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). There, more by accident than design, they discover that his skills with a razor might be profitable in more ways than one.
Sondheim’s music and lyrics are as good as any other writing for the stage in the last century and the film version honours that talent unconditionally. When young Toby (Ed Sanders) sings “Not While I’m Around” (probably the most beautiful song ever written) to Mrs Lovett you can see the look in her eyes that shows he has just sealed his own fate, the temperature in the theatre seemed to drop a few degrees. Not just anyone can pull that off.
The best of the rest at the moment is Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, a pacy and observant look at the life of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), Harlem’s most notorious and successful drug dealer of the 1970s. Russell Crowe plays Richie Roberts, the only honest cop in New York. It’s an interesting story well told by three charismatic film personalities.
After the Wedding is a lovely, layered drama from Denmark starring the watchable Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) as an aid worker at an Indian orphanage who is summoned back to Copenhagen by a mysterious billionaire (Rolf Lassgård). Lassgård wants to donate enough money to save the programme – millions of dollars – but there are strings attached. Those strings turn out to be less nefarious than they seem at first but the choice that Mikkelsen’s Jacob has to make is still a heart-breaking one. Totally recommended.
Totally un-recommended is the Australian comedy-drama Clubland about an unusual showbiz family led by domineering mother Brenda Blethyn. Asinine in conception and horrible in execution, it struggles to get one good performance out the entire cast put together.
Death at a Funeral isn’t much better, although a couple of performances (Peter Dinklage and a doughy Matthew McFadyen) rise above the cheap and nasty script. The funeral is for McFadyen’s father and various friends and family members have assembled to form a quorum of English stereotypes. Standard farce elements like mistaken identity and accidental drug-taking are shoe-horned together with the help of some poo jokes.
Alien vs. Predator: Requiem managed to disappear from my memory about as soon as I left the theatre with my ears still ringing from the noise. An Alien pod being transported across the galaxy crash lands in Colorado and starts laying eggs – cause that’s just how they roll. A creature from the Predator home-world tries to clean up the mess and a whole bunch of random citizens get caught in the middle. All the signature moments from the original Alien (the chest-bursting, the almost-kissing a whimpering young woman) are repeated often, to diminishing effect and, I know I sometimes see cinematic racism everywhere, is it really necessary for both malevolent extra-terrestrial races to look like big black men with dreadlocks?
There’s a factory in China, I’m sure, stamping out films like Elsa & Fred on a weekly basis, making subtle cultural and generational changes where necessary but preserving the formula like it’s Coca Cola. And fair enough as these films will always sell: un-challenging, easy to decipher, vaguely life-affirming. Elsa (China Zorrilla) is a batty old woman in a Madrid apartment block. Fred (Manuel Alexandre) is the quiet widower who moves in opposite. She decides to point him back the direction of life and he tries to make her dreams come true before it is too late.
Finally, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution is an extremely well-made but overlong erotic thriller set in Japanese-occupied China during WWII. Stunning newcomer Wei Tang plays Wong Chia Chi, persuaded in a moment of youthful, patriotic weakness to join a student resistance group. She is sent undercover to try and woo the mysterious Mr Yee (Tony Leung) who is a senior official collaborating with the Japanese occupation forces. Unfortunately, for them both he is interested but a challenging mark and it is several years before she can get close enough to him (and believe me she gets very close) for the resistance to strike. Ang Lee is the poet of the stolen glance and he is in very good form – I just wish it hadn’t taken quite so long to get going.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 23 January, 2008.
Nature of Conflict: After the Wedding is distributed in NZ and Australia by Arkles Entertainment who I do some work for; Clubland is distributed in Australia and NZ by Palace whose NZ activities are looked after by the excellent Richard Dalton, who is a good mate.
At present Reading Cinemas are not offering press passes to the Capital Times. This means that their exclusive releases (such as Cloverfield) will go un-reviewed unless I can work something out with them or the distributor. Maybe I’ll just download them …