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Column Fri May 08 2009
I've noticed a lot of people who have reviewed this film so far have felt obligated to detail their personal history for the Star Trek franchise over the decades. Fair enough, although one of many beautiful things about J.J. Abrams' indecently entertaining take on the Trek universe is that it truly doesn't matter how much history you have with many series and feature films. My Star Trek history is simply: I worshipped the original series, never watched a single episode of any of the follow-up series, and faithfully lined up every few years to see each new film version on the day it opened. I loved that the original series wasn't afraid to laugh at itself as often as it took itself with a degree of seriousness usually reserved for medical dramas or detective shows. When I was young, I never noticed that almost everything was done on the cheap and that Captain Kirk seemed to care as much about his hair and his blinding-glow tan as he did about saving his crew and his ship. I focused on and admired the moral code that Starfleet operated under, on the that the show's creators saw space travel as more than just jaunts from Earth to the moon or to Mars. This was the first indication in my mind that space went on forever in every direction.
What I've had to endure in recent years (through subpar TV episodes and lesser films) is a franchise that has been bleeding integrity. J.J. Abrams' job with his new Star Trek film wasn't to reboot it — anyone who calls this a reboot is truly missing the essence of this movie — it was to save it and breathe new life into it by making us see these characters in ways we'd never dreamed possible. These are the same men and women who took us into space in 1966; none of the characters have been radically reinvented, and their core personality traits and flaws are all still here for all the faithful to see. What Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have done is build a world before the series that will impact the world during and after the series. They haven't hit the 'Reset' button exactly, but they have taken the events we know, rewound them to the beginning, and laid out the possibility that things may not play out the same way this time around. I'm making this sound far more complicated than it actually is, because what I'm really impressed with is that the creative team behind Star Trek have made the first real film in the franchise that doesn't feel like an extended version of a TV episode. That said, I have no idea where Abrams and Co. could possibly go from here in a way that won't feel like episodic television. I can't imagine these characters in anyone else's hands right now, or anyone else playing these fine folks, but time will tell.
You've probably already read 50 plot synopses of Star Trek at this point, but let me just point out a few thing I particularly liked. Chris Pine is the shit. He doesn't have to try too hard to remind us that James T. Kirk liked to bed women of every race, type and species. But I'm guessing that Kirk had just as big a boner when he was doing something death defying. The man was an adrenaline junkie, and the look in his eyes when he's hanging off an ice cliff or getting ready to trade photon torpedoes with an enemy ship is the same one he has when he sees a new woman he wants to conquer. Pine walks through this film like he's packing a 12-inch dick right alongside his phaser. I also like that the film unapologetically acknowledges that Lt. Uhura is a stone cold fox. She was the Pam Grier of the stars, and while Zoe Saldana doesn't quite have the slow-burn quality of Nichelle Nichols, I had no trouble believing that more than one member of this crew had the hots for her.
Karl Urban is Dr. McCoy, plain and simple. Perhaps more than any other cast member, Urban delivers lines that have worked their way into the lexicon, but he manages to do so in a way that sounds like actual dialogue and not like verbal homages to the series. It kind of give me chills to hear him say, "Dammit Jim..." and realize that it was the first of thousands of times he would say it. I love that John Cho's Sulu is a brilliant swordsman and proves it the first chance he gets (and no, that's not a gay joke), and that the on-board computer has trouble penetrating Chekov's (Anton Yelchin) thick Russian accent. Almost more than anything, I love how Mr. Scott (Simon Pegg) is introduced into the story; I can honestly say I did not see that coming.
Eric Bana in full berserker rage plays Nero, a Romulan from the future who couldn't give a shit about the time-space continuum or how badly he's going to fuck up the future by doing things in the past that weren't done the first time around. In fact, that's kind of his point. He effectively creates a world in which people are dead who aren't supposed to be dead, worlds are destroyed that are clearly a full-blown part of the series and movie worlds. Nero makes us realize that it is time, and not space, that is the final frontier. And Bana's performance is almost too good to believe, and you can't quite hate his character because there's clearly so much pain behind his black eyes and warrior face tattoos. His villainy is built on raw emotion: he's carrying the weight of billions of dead Romulans in his heart, and he wants Spock (whose future self is somehow responsible) to feel his pain. Nero is one of the most layered and interesting foils these people will ever face.
So let's talk about the many faces of Spock. One of the best things about Star Trek is that, with just a few adjustments here and there, the role of Spock from the future (played, of course, by Leonard Nimoy) didn't even have to be in this film. This story could have been told without him, and it would have worked just fine. But by including him and his deep, gravely voice and well-etched wrinkles, we gain a sense of meaning and history in the movie that could not be achieved any other way. More importantly, Spock Prime shows far more of his human side than the young Spock (Zachary Quinto) realizes is possible. Quinto is quite good in this role, especially when he allows his emotions to get the better of him and he lashes out at those who push his buttons. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss Nimoy's baritone voice and rising eyebrow, which always made me laugh. I'm sure after seeing the film a second time that I'll get over these small things... maybe.
I'd be horribly remiss if I didn't also say a thing or two about the inclusion of Bruce Greenwood as Capt. Christopher Pike, the Captain of the Enterprise before Kirk. "The Cage" was always one of my favorite "Star Trek" storylines, and I love that Pike's fate in this movie is one of the first indications that the future is being rewritten as the result of Nero's actions.
The special effects in Star Trek are beyond reproach. They are furious and magnificently realized, and it's clear to me that Abrams learned a little something from the way "Battlestar Galactica" space battles were staged and shot. The hand-held quality of these sequences are unmistakable, and the way that the noise from inside a starship turns into dead quiet when a person or shuttle leaves its confines is something I've been dying to see (and hear) for a very long time.
Although reviews of this film thus far have been across-the-board positive, this inevitably means that the contrarians are right around the corner. Star Trek is not perfect (the transitions between deadly serious moments and the often downright silly humor could have been a little less jarring), but it is exactly what I needed to see from this world and these characters. At this point, I think fans (both diehards and the those of the more casual variety) don't need Star Trek to be perfect; they need it to be good. This film exceeds those desires to be one of the most consistently entertaining large-scale films I've seen in a very long time, one that fulfills the needs of longtime admirers while still acting as an inviting entry point into this corner of the science-fiction galaxy. Whatever your background, I'm guessing Star Trek will hit the spot.
The Limits of Control
No one will every accuse filmmaker Jim Jarmusch of being one of the world's most accessible directors, but even so some of his more recent work (including the remarkable Broken Flowers, the exceedingly funny Coffee and Cigarettes, and Ghost Dog) have been fairly easy to move along with and slip into their introspective groove. If you've never experienced a Jarmusch film, The Limits of Control would be a terrible jumping-in point. Although there's no mistaking some of the hallmark Jarmusch touches, the film for even the most devoted enthusiast might be a bit of an endurance test. The wonderful Isaach De Bankole (who has been in several other Jarmusch works) stars as what we suspect is some sort of assassin, or at least some dude who is up to some super-secret bad shit. He travels throughout every corner of Spain, meeting with a new contact in each city (each beginning their conversation with "Do you speak Spanish?"; the joke gets old after about the third person). De Bankole often sits stone faced through each encounter, answering only direct questions while exchanging matchboxes containing messages inside with each new person.
Not surprisingly, the point of The Limits of Control has nothing to do with this man's exact mission; it's about the journey and each new person that drifts in and out of his life in each city or town. Both familiar faces (John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Gael Garcia Bernal, Hiam Abbass, Bill Murray) and unfamiliar ones (including the lovely and often naked Paz de la Huerta) come and go, each offering up the smallest bits of information and philosophy into this drifter's life. What became increasingly fascinating to me was that as his journey continues, we begin to notice small visual cues that relate back to previous meetings. In many ways, it reminded me of the small moments in our everyday lives that somehow manage to creep into our dreams as major events.
There's also something comforting in the way De Bankole approaches his job and each meeting. He's habitual and cold in his methods, but there's a professional calm to his manner and means of interaction that took the edge off what could have been played as a series of for more tense or awkward moments. I believe that much of the dialogue is improvised here, which is probably something I should have mentioned earlier, but the fact is, even if Jarmusch had written everything out and made his actor follow his script to the letter, I don't think the resulting film would have been much different. Even Jarmusch's greatest failures are more interesting than 75 percent of everything I see in a given year, although I'm pretty sure I'm not recommending The Limits of Control to anyone outside paid-up executive members of his official fan club. The movie is just a bit too meandering and unfocused, even for Jarmusch. But as a statement on "the journey" of life, and the power we have and don't have in our own lives... well, there might be something in here about that too...if you feel like digging around a bit. Oh, hell. I don't know. Jarmusch officially stumped me with this one. Good luck.
Next Day Air
I'm not sure what to tell you about Next Day Air, something of a cross between an unapologetic modern blaxploitation film and a Guy Ritchie Joint with a black and Latino cast. And much like some of Ritchie's more recent work, it focuses on the things that aren't nearly as interesting and sacrifices some potentially far more engaging elements. The story is simple: overnight deliveryman Leo (Donald Faison from "Scrubs") accidentally delivers a package filled with 10 bricks of cocaine to the wrong address. The guys in the apartment (Wood Harris and Mike Epps) he delivers the package to happen to be low-life hustlers who immediately begin to plan to sell the drugs for some much-needed cash. The guy who the package was meant for (Cisco Reyes) needs to find out what happened to his drugs before his very scary boss (Emilio Rivera) gets involved. The entire film builds to the inevitable merging of multiple storylines in a blaze of glory, with bullets, blood, cash and powder scattered and splattered in every direction.
On paper, Next Day Air has the makings of a supercharged, sex-and-violence orgy. But the film has other ideas; it thinks it works best as a comedy, and the filmmakers are so terribly wrong on this point. With his debut feature, director Benny Boom (maker of dozens of memorable hip-hop videos) has a great visual flare and a true gift at cutting action to exactly the right music. The trouble starts when people start talking. Every line of dialogue is delivered as if the Caps Lock key was jammed on screenwriter Blair Cobbs' keyboard. Screaming is the only language this multicultural cast speaks, and they speak it fluently. Also, the film's greatest asset is only in the film for about three minutes. Mos Def pops in near the beginning of the film as Leo's coworker to perfectly complement Faison's broad-stroke comic talents. Every word out of Def's mouth is funny, and even when it's not, he makes it funny. And as quickly as he appears to give the film some desperately needed weight, he vanishes. You can almost hear the "Poof!" as he delivers his final words on screen. His character doesn't die or become otherwise disposed of. He just isn't in the movie anymore. What a gargantuan disappointment.
What kept me from simply dismissing Next Day Air is its absolute commitment to being as brash and narcissistic as it possibly could. It practically celebrates its Neanderthalic views on women and life in general. Sometimes it's funny, because it's clear we're supposed to think most of these characters are idiots, but after awhile it just gets depressing because we realize these people are less the exception and more the norm. I'm absolutely not recommending this film, but Boom's skilled directing and a mindset that the 25-year-old Quentin Tarantino would embrace make sitting through Next Day Air less painful. But some bizarre pacing choices, including an abrupt ending that will make most audience members throw up their hands in frustration, and the disappearance of Mos Def (he may have been kidnapped during production for all I know) make the film a massive letdown.