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Column Fri May 17 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness, Stories We Tell, The Iceman, Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's & Sightseers


Star Trek Into Darkness

There has literally never been a day of my life when Star Trek in some form did not exist. The original television series beat me to existence by a couple of years; I was 11 years old when the first film came out. And what I always loved about the ideas behind Star Trek was that it was a place on network television where science fiction was taken seriously, even when it got silly or opted for action over philosophy. It was that rare ground where pop culture met deep thinking, and even as a pre-teen, I understood that ideas were at work here, even if I didn't always fully comprehend the deeper meanings.

And the plain, wonderful truth is that nothing can ever take that away from me. So even though the films were hit and miss, and the franchise expanded on television to other heroes and villains and versions of our future. But none of it diluted my love for what moved me the most about being exposed again and again to the series and early movies. I know it inside out, have discussed and debated it to exhaustion, and have changed my mind dozens of times about my favorite characters, episodes, villains and conceits.

Then here comes this young upstart J.J. Abrams and his team of writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof, taking what Gene Roddenberry created and mixing it all up by throwing off timelines and such, and daring to show us in two movies where life began for the classic Enterprise crew. In a way, they could stop making Star Trek movies with Star Trek Into Darkness, because the film literally ends where the original series began. I'm sure more are coming, but to simply end here would be bordering on graceful.

A lot happens in Into Darkness, some I knew, some I anticipated, some that surprised me. Some of the film's best moments come courtesy of new characters (or at least new actors playing familiar characters). Peter Weller's booming Admiral Marcus is a great bloated (ego, not body) reminder of all that has gone wrong with Starfleet; right off the bat, he asks Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), and the Enterprise crew to transport torpedoes to the Klingon home planet, where the terrorist John Harrison (the magnificent Benedict Cumberbatch) has fled after destroying the Starfleet Archives in London, killing hundreds. At this point in history, Starfleet and the Klingons are not at war yet, but that's about to change.

But most importantly, carrying such weapons for purposes of an attack and risking war goes squarely against the Prime Directive that guides Starfleet as an explorative organization. But Marcus doesn't seem to care and gives the order to use the torpedoes as a means of outright killing Harrison, without discussion. And we begin to realize that Abrams and crew are planning something of a slash-and-burn approach to this storyline. Starfleet must be torn down in order to save it, much like the filmmakers did with the last film.

I can't bring myself to spoil for the 2 percent of you who don't know anything about who John Harrison really is. I don't think a single person in the audience I saw this film with seemed surprised by that poorly handled reveal; more people reacted at the sight of a tribble in Dr. McCoy's (Karl Urban) lab. But it really doesn't matter, since Cumberbach makes the character, borrowing very little from previous incarnations of... this dude. Most importantly, this might be the single most sympathetic version of this character we've ever seen. One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter; and when Harrison and Kirk are actually forced to join forces, the results are almost too manly to comprehend.

You see, as much as I admire (borderline worship) the original series, I love it when someone tries to shake things up a bit by being smart while changing things up. Into Darkness is not a remake of a particular movie or episode, although some may mistake it as such. It's a great setup for a five-year mission with characters we still care about and miss. Speaking of missing characters, the cast has grown so much in this second reboot film that some of the crew's screentime suffers (poor Chekov, played by Anton Yelchin) or their characterizations are misdirected. Zoe Saldana's Uhura, such a great character in the first film, is reduced to being an insecure girlfriend and affirmation junkie for a great deal of Into Darkness.

Characters that get a sizable boost include Simon Pegg's Scotty, who despite quitting the Enterprise crew at the beginning of the film, gets in some major story developments handed to him in the third act. John Cho's Sulu remains one of my favorite players, and a wonderful moment where he sits in the captain's chair for the first time is a highlight of the film. Also new to the lineup is Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), the new science officer and daughter of the admiral, whose presence on the Enterprise is suspect but critical when things get rough.

As much as I love Star Trek for its emphasis on ideas, Into Darkness is an all out adventure and action tale, a realm where Abrams feels most comfortable (he's going to be just fine directing the next Star Wars movie, as long as the script is solid). But that's not to say the film is without its thoughtful moments. Its plot points about the nature of terrorism, preemptive strikes, militarizing things that were meant for a peaceful mission, it's clear that the guiding forces behind this film are taking a look at America and the world and considering whether we'll ever be able to escape our nature. Then again, Holy Shit there's a starship that is three times as big as the Enterprise, built for nothing but kicking ass!

Are there plot holes? A few. Welcome to movies. Are they detrimental to the entire support structure of Into Darkness? Absolutely not. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that compared to the time-jumping nature of the first Abrams Star Trek, this new film holds together with a lot less chewing gum and duct tape. I complain often about how often bigger movies completely avoid any level of character development — and granted, I realize that any Star Trek movie has a history that helps in that regard — but there's a genuine effort to grow the established characters (most of them) and give us fleshed-out versions of the new ones. It doesn't always work, but I appreciated the effort. That, along with some fantastic action sequences, make Star Trek Into Darkness a damn-near perfect summertime movie and a great continuation of this revised universe.

Stories We Tell

When is the truth not the truth? When it's a story told by somebody, anybody. Then it becomes a version of the truth, sometimes misremembered, sometimes with emphasis placed in the wrong place courtesy of the storyteller. These and many other concerns about how to reach something close to the truth is at the center of writer-director Sarah Polley's latest work (after Away from Her and Take This Waltz), the documentary Stories We Tell. The story at the core of Polley's film literally concerns her very existence.

Since she was a kid, her brothers and sisters (even her father) used to joke that Polley didn't look anything like her dad, the one-time actor Michael Polley, but as she grew up, the jokes and dark humor courtesy of her family started to bug her, and she sought out friends and other family members to talk to her about her mother, Diane, who died when she was very young. It turns out that there was a mystery gap in Diane's life when she was away from her Toronto-based family for several months doing a play in Montreal. And since Michael visited her while she was in Montreal, it was always believed that Sarah was conceived in that period. The problem is that certain people close to Diane at the time knew she's had an affair with someone while away.

And while this is the mystery Polley is attempted to solve, she also become obsessed with the fact that everyone she interviews has a different telling of the same events (including who her mother had the affair with), and this strange phenomenon becomes the real focus of the film for the director. It feels like a great thesis that shifts from Polley attempting to piece together a timeline in her mother's life to current interviews with people in Diane's life in that period to how this search is impacting her current family. Interestingly enough, the two voice we hear the least are Diane's and Sarah's. Through archival footage and tasteful reenactments, Polley gives some flavor of the whirlwind, slightly manic life her mother led. Diane was a woman of passion; Michael was more stoic. They worked well together, but when Diane got a chance to return to acting, he passions got away from her.

Sarah gets so caught up in documenting these tales that we never truly get a sense of what she thinks the truth may be, and strangely enough it doesn't hurt the film even a little. It's strange what Polley chooses to reveal and what she holds back. The entire incident inspired Michael to return to an early love of his, writing. And he wrote out his account of Sarah's search and his remembrances of his wife, which Polley uses as the narration for the film. But the odd thing is, we see Michael recording this deeply personal narration while Sarah watches him and reacts (or doesn't) to some of the most intimate moments in his life with her mother. It's so naked and raw, you almost want to turn away, but of course you won't.

Without hesitation, I submit that Stories We Tell is one of the most elegant, funny, revealing, intelligent and moving films (documentary or not) that you will see in 2013. It goes to the heart of who we are as a planet of storytellers and digs deep into why we remember certain details of an incident, while other critical details simply escape our memory without reason. The film also reveals something so special about its maker that you come away feeling closer to her in a way that so rarely happens in the moviegoing experience anymore that it almost feels foreign. This is one of the great ones, people, and it opens into more markets this weekend after a limited release last week. It opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Stories We Tell writer-director-subject Sarah Polley, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Iceman

With a devastatingly great cast and a propulsive true-ish story about contract killer Richard Kuklinski, you'd figure The Iceman pretty much had it made in the shade. But even the cooling power of shade can't keep this film from melting into a sloppy mess. Israeli-born filmmaker Ariel Vromen (Danika) could not have cast a better actor to play Kuklinski that Chicago's own Michael Shannon, a cold-blooded guy who started his career as a copier and distributor of adult films in the 1970s. But he quickly moved up in the mob after coming through on an order for mob boss Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) and before long he's Demeo's top hitman (Kuklinski is said to have killed more than 100 men for the mob).

While Richard is building a reputation in organized crime, he's also trying to meet the right lady to settle down with and perhaps stabilize him. He finds Ms. Right in the form of Deborah (Winona Ryder), and before too long the two get married and have a couple of cute daughters; none of his family knows a thing about his day job, and he does everything in his power to keep it that way.

Most of The Iceman simply follows Kuklinski through the '70s and '80s, falling in and out of favor with his boss, with a parade of familiar faces playing victims, partners and associates, including James Franco, an almost unrecognizable Christ Evans, David Schwimmer (as Richard's best friend and consummate fuckup), Robert Davi and Stephen Dorff. Having known actors play these roles makes it easier to keep everyone straight, but it doesn't really add up to much; the exception being Evans, who just nails it as a fellow contract killer named Mr. Freezy who operates out of an ice cream truck (the kids love him). The Iceman works or doesn't work from scene to scene. Shannon and Evans have great professional chemistry; and Shannon and Ryder have a surprisingly moving love affair. But much of the film simply mirrors Kuklinski's coldness in terms of both style and charactization. Seriously? Liotta and Davi playing gangsters? Thank goodness the filmmaker didn't resort to pigeonholing. And Schwimmer's Josh Rosenthal is just annoying. The gangsters keep threatening to have the guy killed, but Richard protects him. I was rooting for his death; it would have made everyone's lives so much easier.

Despite some strong performances, The Iceman doesn't offer up a lot we haven't seen before. I genuinely liked the more personal tone the film establishes, but after a while, it resorts to mob cliches and a few overly staged and very bloody executions. Nothing wrong with a little blood, but it's hardly ground-breaking stuff. Shannon maintains his status as one of the baddest motherfuckers out there, and I'm dying to see him cut loose in Man of Steel next month. In the mean time, if you need a Shannon placeholder, you could do worse. The film opens in Chicago today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's

There seems to be a rash of documentaries about individuals involved in the world of fashion, whether they be about designers, magazines that feature the latest wears, or about people who photograph the most stylish folks and clothes. But I don't think that a doc has been made (at least not recently) about the venues in which such clothes are sold to the filthy rich. Case in point, Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's is a truly eye-opening look at the long history of New York's Bergdorf Goodman, and it features a who's who of clothing and shoe designers (even those who design high-end makeup), most of whose names will be familiar even to the fashion ignorant.

The filmmakers also talk to some of the stores high-end clientele (Joan Rivers' comments are particularly funny and insightful) as well as the folks that run the store, from the CEO to the personal shoppers to the window decorators. I've frankly never witnessed such goings-on in a store in my life, and it almost makes you wish you cared an iota about the things these people do; they all look so happy in their shallowness. But the fact is, the store pulls in more than a billion in revenue annually, so this isn't just some chain department store; when a salesperson can pull in average annual commissions in the mid-six figures, there's something special about this place.

The most interesting aspect of the film for me were the history of when Mr. Bergdorf and Mr. Goodman first came together to open the store; the archival footage and photos were a fascinating peak into the lives of the ridiculously wealthy, the kinds of people the Great Depression didn't make quite as depressing as the rest of America. I also loved watching the holiday window displays come together. The people responsible have little to do with fashion and more to do with great art (the dresses are practically an afterthought), and watching them put together custom pieces for the displays is wonderful.

I've always loved documentaries about subjects I know next to nothing about, and fashion would fall into that realm easily. But with the recent glut of films covering the topic, I feel a little more well versed than I might have 10 years ago. It was incredible to see how much Bergdorf Goodman was a part of the New York scene, Americana and world fashion. It's the place every would-be designer wanted to get a line into, and even established designers wanted a shot. If you have even the slightest interest in the subject, you really shouldn't miss it; and if you don't, you might still find it as entertaining as I did. It opens in Chicago today exclusively at AMC 600 North Michigan Ave. theaters.


I make no secret about my admiration for the work of writer-director Ben Wheatley. I thought his debut feature, Down Terrace, was one of the finest first films by a genre director in quite some time; his follow-up, Kill List, was a clever spin on the hitman character; and now he's brought us his twisted take on the romantic comedy with Sightseers (executive producer by Edgar Wright) about a somewhat dull newly linked couple who get in an RV and travel the countryside as tourists visiting some of the dullest locales imaginable.

The twist here is that boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram, also the co-writer) has had just about enough of people who litter, or otherwise think they're better than him and don't have to follow the rules of polite society. If he feels he's been offended, he simply murders the offender. His girlfriend is Tina (Alice Lowe, also one of the writers), who lives with her possessive mother who doesn't trust Chris. The film is quite simply constructed, as it takes us from destination to destination, and we wait for someone to make too much noise or act snooty to Chris.

But the film's added twist is that when Tina finds out what Chris has been up to, she doesn't reject his methods or him; in fact, it adds some much needs zing to their relationship and sex life. Tina finds his ruthless killing so interesting, she decides to get in on the game, something that doesn't sit well with Chris. Turns out living with her oppressive mother for so long has done some long-term damage to Tina's sanity.

As the film goes on, Christ begins to regret ever letting Tina in on his killing ways, as she begins to murder those who simply rub her the wrong way, and aren't true offenders of the public good as Chris defines it. Oran and Lowe are absolutely perfect as average, everyday folks with habits and interests that most of us would consider dull. The way that almost unnoticeably transform into vicious killers is quite shocking and amusing, but it speaks to a more interesting truth, which is that if you act like boring, normal people (and not creepy loners), people probably won't even consider you as possible criminals for quite some time.

The greatness of Sightseers lies in the details. The murders are sometimes funny, often quite nasty. But they aren't what makes the film so interesting and successful. Watch what becomes of Tina by the end of the film; she has become what she had beheld and then some. As he has in the past, Wheatley strikes a surprisingly even balance between humor and dead seriousness, and since you're never quite sure what direction the film is going to go, it keeps you a bit on edge. Wheatley keeps getting better with each new film, and the fact that he's already got his next film, A Field in England, already finished makes me quite happy and eager to see what he's got next. The film opens in Chicago today at the Music Box Theatre.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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