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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Into the mouth of Darkness and Back

Back in 2009, über-nerd director and producer J.J. Abrams breathed new life into the Star Trek TOS franchise with his sleek and stylish alternate-universe reboot 'Star Trek,' which is no mean feat considering how demanding and picky the passionate and outspoken Star Trek (Trekkies) fanbase can be.  Four years later, the eagerly awaited follow-up is finally upon us.  'Star Trek Into Darkness' had large shoes to fill, but with Abrams at the helm (or in the 'Captain's Chair') again, the return of the dynamic writing duo of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, plus the addition of talented 'Lost' scribe Damon Lindelof, 'Prometheus' notwithstanding, I had absolutely no doubt that we have yet another winner in our hands.
 
Despite the movie's overwhelming positive reviews (87% on Rotten Tomatoes), some diehard Trek fans criticized the movie for being overly action-packed at the expense of character development and interaction.  While I do understand to a certain degree, since 'Into Darkness' is more furiously and frenetically paced than 'Star Trek,' the movie does not suffer at all for it.  Like its predecessor, this movie upheld the Star Trek tradition and mythology with the utmost respect.  For instance, if you pay attention you'll find numerous references to the source material in the characters' speech and exchanges, such as the popular Freudian concept of id, ego and super-ego reflected in McCoy, Kirk and Spock.  Once again Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban and Simon Pegg captured the essences of their respective roles with aplomb, as did Zoe Saldana, John Cho and and Anton Yelchin, while British 'Sherlock Holmes' thespian Benedict Cumberbatch shined as the movie's believable villain (despite the fact that his true identity was never a secret, I will not divulge it).  Although the many fight and chase scenes are undoubtedly exciting, the movie is at its absolute best during those invigorating, tension-filled moments when Kirk and crew are staring down the barrel of a gun (or Federation Dreadnought) in a high stakes game of brinkmanship, bluffing for their lives and buying time to escape by the skin of their teeth.
 
Action packed with a good dose of humor and heart (such as the 'bromance' between Kirk and Spock), 'Star Trek Into Darkness' is another solid contribution to the Star Trek canon that fans should be proud of.  This is an end as well as a beginning.  As Abrams has taken on the challenge of continuing another beloved sci-fi franchise for Disney, something called 'Star Wars' I believe, the future of Star Trek may well lie in the hands of others yet unknown.  But he couldn't have left it any better, as the USS Enterprise begins its five-year mission ”to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no man has gone before."  Cue music please.
Grade: A

"Houston, we have a problem..."
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There's Something about Daisy

Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great American Novel about an ill-fated love triangle (as if there's any other kind) during the Roaring Twenties is the fifth screen treatment since its publication.  Set in the glitz and glamour of 1922 New York, 'The Great Gatsby' vividly portrayed a golden age of boundless optimism, an era of wanton excess and decadence before it all came crashing down during The Great Depression.  Like 'Moulin Rouge!' and 'Australia,' 'The Great Gatsby' is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, with each scene set up like a framed picture, gorgeously shot and mesmerizingly beautiful.  But unlike those other films 'The Great Gatsby' also had more substance, proving that it is more than mere eye-candy.
 
Told as an engrossing narrative by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), the story of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a fascinating one.  Just who is this Gatsby, the mysterious and seldom seen Long Island millionaire who held lavish and extravagant parties at his palatial estate attended by the cream of New York high society?   The man is a living legend: An Oxford man, American war hero, rumored relative to Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany.  Well, it turned out that Gatsby is the epitome of the 'American Dream,' a rags-to-riches story that you can do anything if you just set your mind to it.
 
Unfortunately, Gatsby devoted his considerable attention to the object of his affections in the guise of Daisy (Carey Mulligan), with whom he fell in love five years ago but who's now married to Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), ex-polo star and heir to 'old money.'  Driven by the yearning of lost love and desperate obsession, Gatsby pursued her with single-minded determination in the naïve belief that she still loved him and will leave her husband when she comes to her senses to live happily ever after with him.  Since you, like me, have probably read the book or its Cliff Notes as part of your high school English Lit requirement, I won't get into details here.  Suffice it to say that the tale ends in a manner worthy of Shakespeare.

What elevated 'The Great Gatsby' above simply another fluff piece abundant in style but lacking in substance were the fine performances by DiCaprio, Maguire and Mulligan.  DiCaprio's Gatsby oozed the charisma and magnetism of the novel's title character, and no doubt is a main reason why so many women flocked to see this movie.  And when it comes to facial expressions displaying a mixture of awe, wonderment and disbelief, there is perhaps none better than Tobey Maguire.  Carey Mulligan never looked better as a dame from the twenties and played the role of a socialite torn between her heart and her 'unhappy' marriage with consummate skill.

With its vibrant art deco/art nouveau visual spectacle, solid performances and a great contemporary soundtrack produced by Jay-Z including rap and a strangely pleasing cover of Beyoncé's 'Crazy in Love,' 'The Great Gatsby' is a modern take on a classic that--I can't believe I'm saying this--actually works.  Well done, old sport, well done!

Grade: B+

"She loves me, she loves me not."
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Sunday, May 12, 2013

How Tony got his groove back

The third and hopefully not final installment of the Iron Man saga (why limit them to 'trilogies'?) sees our titular armor-suited hero suffering from night terrors due to PTSD after saving New York City from the ravages of the alien Chitauri in 'The Avengers.'  Wrestling with his 'inner demons,' Tony Stark represents the very antithesis of his billionaire counterpart from the DC universe, Bruce Wayne.  True, both are egotistical, borderline psychotic albeit brilliant playboy philanthropists with a predilection for high tech accessories, but the similarities ended there.  Bruce Wayne valued privacy, lived in a well hidden cave, and guarded his alter ego like a state secret; Tony Stark craved the spotlight like a Kardashian and literally opened his door to enemy attack by recklessly announcing to the 'Mandarin' on live TV that he lives at '10880 Malibu Point, Malibu, CA 90265' so come and get me.  And while the Dark Knight in his situation would have gritted his teeth, donned his mask and cowl with stoic determination, and patrolled the mean streets of Gotham City with a vengeance, Tony Stark retreated into his private sanctuary workshop of techno gizmos, finding solace in upgrading and improving his Iron Man armor oblivious to what's going on in the world outside.  So therapeutic was his tinkering that when IM3 started, the version of his suit had gone up to Mark XLII (from MK VII the last time we saw him in 'The Avengers').   Though JARVIS is pretty much what I would envision Alfred to be if he was an AI.
 
But this is also what I love about Iron Man.  Its bright, shiny and chrome world is an optimistic counterpoint to the bleak, brooding and gothic atmosphere of the Batman universe.  Tony Stark is a flawed hero (not 'superhero' since, like Batman, he has no inherent or superhuman powers), known to hide his insecurities behind a quick wit and a ready supply of smart-alecky one liners, but he also epitomizes that American 'can do' spirit of industriousness and proved to his enemies' chagrin time and again that, if you push him too hard or one too many times, he's going to shove back even harder.  And I'll be damned if the Iron Man armored battlesuit MK Whatever isn't one of the coolest things Stan Lee ever created; it's like having your own personal, fully integrated, form-fitting fighter jet.

Directed by Shane Black, who worked with Robert Downey Jr. in 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,' IM3 maintained the tone and mythos of the previous movies from Jon Favreau, who took a break from the directing chair and did a bit of acting this time around as Happy Hogan, Stark's former bodyguard and current Head of Security for Stark Industries, now run by Stark's former secretary and love interest Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).   Shane Black's stamp is evident throughout the movie: the helicopter attack on Stark's Malibu mansion is reminiscent of the one in 'Lethal Weapon 2,' which Black co-wrote, and the final battle took place on the docks with lots of cranes and intermodal cargo containers, another favorite setting of his.
Other than being a great action movie, IM3 is also filled with wry, tongue-in-cheek humor, satirizing our society's media obsession and need for heroes and symbols.   War Machine had a Captain America makeover and was renamed 'Iron  Patriot.'  And in the movie's greatest 'Gotcha' moment, (Sir) Ben Kingsley channeled his inner Russell Brand as the 'Mandarin,' Iron Man's arch nemesis who had more in common with Osama bin Laden in the movie than any oriental Chinese worthy of the name. 

Grade: A

She's a pepper, wouldn't you like to be a pepper too?
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