Star Trek(5/7/2009)

            Star Trek was once just a T.V. show, and not a particularly well produced show either, but that show laid the groundwork for a universe that would support five spinoffs, ten feature length movies, countless novels, and unlimited merchandising.  This is a series that elicits some of the most passionate fandom in all of pop culture, but that was also its undoing.  I for one love Star Trek; I own all the movies and I’ve seen every single episode of all five live action T.V. series.  In spite of this, I’d never call myself a full fledged trekkie, because that word conjures up disturbing images of grown men living in their mother’s basement who dress up as Vulcans to go to conventions and spend a fortune on toys.  No one wants to associate themselves with those Klingon-speaking freaks, and I think that’s a big part of why the last couple movies did poor at the box office, and why the last series got cancelled pre-maturely in spite of solid third and fourth seasons. 

            I may be in the minority I thought the last feature film in the franchise, Star Trek: Nemesis, wasn’t half bad.  It didn’t have a wildly creative story, but the battles were pretty cool and at its center was a nifty exploration of the debate between nature and nurture.  I would have loved to see the series go on with The Next Generation cast; after all, the original cast’s film series frequently recovered from lackluster installments, and the abandonment of the series left fans without the sense of closure they deserved.  As such, I wasn’t too thrilled when I heard J.J. Abrams was going to “reboot” the series.  As was the case with Casino Royale, I was afraid this was an extreme solution to problems that had simpler solutions.  What’s more, J.J. Abrams has always been hit or miss for me.  While I dig his show “Lost” and I thought Cloverfield was a pretty cool project, but I generally disliked his debut film Mission: Impossible 3.  Flawed as the previous Mission: Impossible films had been, they at least took themselves seriously; Abram’s third entry to the series on the other hand was a very smug film that used quirkiness as crutch.  That’s a very cheap tactic which I have a great distaste for, and it’s a style that Abrams very easily could have fallen into while making a Star Trek reboot. 

If Abrams was just going to turn the series into a great big joke I was going to be pissed.  Add to that the young MTV-ready cast and the general ambiguity as to whether this would fit into the continuity of the series and I was more than prepared for this to be a disaster.  Thankfully, most of my fears were only half founded.  The film does have a handful of problems, and I’ll get into them momentarily, but in general this is a pretty decent film and Abrams has clearly matured some since his debut.  Word of warning, while I will generally be a spoiler-free review, there are some surprises fairly early in the film that I will be discussing, so you may not want to read further if you want a completely pure viewing experience.

 The film opens with an attack on a Federation Starship by a very larger and mysterious Romulan vessel.  The Federation ship is destroyed, but a few people escape including a pregnant woman whose husband is killed on the ship, she soon gives birth to a son and right before her husband is killed he persuades her to name the boy James T. Kirk.  Twenty-some years later, James Kirk (Chris Pine) is a reckless young man roaming Iowa making trouble.  Fate will eventually lead him to meet a Starfleet officer named Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), who convinces Kirk to join Starfleet and put his considerable skills to work.  Kirk is an ace cadet but his skills will be put to the test when there is a crisis near the planet Vulcan which sounds an awful lot like the disturbance that occurred in the attack at the beginning of the film.

Obviously this entry of the series is a prequel of sorts going into the younger years of the cast of the Original Series.  Abrams has cast young actors in all the roles, so I suppose an analysis of the cast is the best place to start.  I was pretty surprised when I heard that Chris Pine had been cast as Kirk, mainly because I’d never heard of the guy or seen any of his movies.  I went in not knowing what to expect from the guy, but I was pretty impressed with his work.  The original Kirk was basically an All-American Flash Gordon-type space hero, and Pine is able to embody this without taking it too far.  Also he… never… does that… stuttery… William Shater… impersonation that I… was afraid he’d… do.  Pine is trying to embody Captain James Tiberius Kirk, not that hammy actor who’s turned his career into a joke.

Mr. Spock is portrayed by Zachary Quinto, who was a little more familiar to me from his work on television’s “Heroes.”  While I hated that show pretty much from the beginning, but Quinto and his character Sylar is one of the few elements of the show I liked.  In the previous shows they would occasionally mention that Spock was half human, but that element was rarely explored in depth.  This younger Spock is clearly trying a lot harder to come to terms with his partially human ancestry, and that’s an interesting take on the character. 

The rest of the cast is given less screen time.  Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is given a sexy makeover, Saldana is certainly easy on the eyes and I hope her character is given more to do in the sequels.  McCoy is his usual caffeinated self, Carl Urban does a pretty decent DeForest Kelley impression and provides some of the film’s more appropriate comic relief.  Sulu (John Cho) is given a pretty cool action scene (he’s an accomplished fencer, a callback to an original series episode called “The Naked Time”), but is otherwise not given much to do.  Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty, is the only cast member I was particularly familiar with going in.  He doesn’t look anything like James Doohan, but he clearly understands the rhythm of what makes the character work, and his Scottish accent is significantly better.  The one performance I didn’t much care for at all was that of Anton Yelchin, who plays Chekov and maintains and magnifies the character’s horrible Russian accent, which is odd considering that Yelchin was born in Saint Petersburg (but raised in the United States).  There are extensive (lame) jokes about the character’s ridiculous accent, so I can only assume that this was Abrams’ doing rather than Yelchin’s.  If they could give Scotty a better accent why not Chekov?

Wait a minute… What’s Chekov even doing here?  Wasn’t Chekov first introduced in the series second season?  Well, Abrams has found a way to get around these kinds of continuity issues; this is a little bit spoiler-ish so you may want to skip to the next paragraph.  The mysterious ship from the first attack is a Romulan mining ship that has transported itself back in time from the Next Generation era.  The idea is that the actions of this ship have cause a butterfly effect that has altered history.  So Trek continuity before March 22, 2233 remains in place, but events after it are more or less fair game.  I don’t know if I like this, Abrams has basically wiped out forty three years of material, none of it ever happened.    Does this mean Kirk’s dogfight with Khan was all for nothing?  Does it mean Jean-Luc Picard never gets born?  Does it mean Captain Sisko’s fight against the Dominion was a big waste of time?  In fact, it means that the only Trek series that hasn’t been wiped to oblivion was “Enterprise,” and I’m sure that alone will piss off a lot of people.  That’s an unsettling development, and unusual considering that the one part of Trek continuity that really needed shaking up was the back story which claims that World War Three occurred in the early 90s.  On the other hand I like that Abrams found a way to reboot the series within its continuity rather than inexplicably rebooting it the way they did with James Bond.

In order to gain back some Trekkie-cred, Abrams has filled the movie with references and interesting aspects of pre-reboot continuity.  For instance, we see Kirk taking the Kobayashi Maru, a Starfleet exam referenced in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  Also interesting is the inclusion of Captain Pike, the leader of the Enterprise from an unaired pilot called “The Cage” who was established as the previous pilot of the Enterprise when footage from “The Cage” was used in a two-part episode called “The Menagerie.”  The film also includes various trademark lines from the series like “I’m a doctor, not a physicist” and “I’m giving it all she’s got, Captain.”  In fact there are probably a lot of smaller references I didn’t pick up on in one viewing, and many fans will probably be so busy combing through them that they’ll forget that J.J. Abrams has wiped everything that ever happened on their favorite T.V. show from the history books.

However, most people aren’t going to give a damn about these obscure references.  They just want to know one thing: “is this a fun movie?”  The answer is certainly “yes”.  As an action movie this is up to the standards of recent summer blockbusters in a way that most other Trek movies haven’t.  There are at least two good ship to ship battles, one shootout, and a particularly exceptional set-piece involving space suits, a giant drill, and a samurai sword.  Action has always been part of the franchise, but rarely to this level, and occasionally the technology that’s been established isn’t ideal for high octane thrills.  The Enterprise itself is a large and not overly nimble vessel, it was clearly meant to be more like a giant tall ship than a slick motorboat.  This doesn’t stop J.J. Abrams from constructing elaborate effects sequences that are occasionally too big for their own good.  For instance, the set in the final shootout is almost hypnotically huge and complicated; the action taking place there almost gets drowned out by the massive effects in the background.

There was however one action sequence that was blatantly misguided, and that was a completely gratuitous car chase in the beginning of the film.  The scene involved Kirk as a thirteen year old boy stealing a classic car and recklessly driving it off a cliff.  I question this scene firstly because it’s pointless, everything it says about the character is established just as well in a later bar fight scene, it does nothing to advance the plot, it comes very soon after another better action scene that is more than enough to kick off the movie and its style is generally out of place in a Space Opera.  This chase to the tune of The Beastie Boy’s “Sabotage” (a song choice I would more than aprove of in a better chase scene), feels more like something out of The Fast and The Furious than Star Trek.

That misguided chase scene isn’t the only mistake J.J. Abrams makes in order to reach a larger audience.  I think there are generally a few too many attempts at humor going on in the film.  There are plenty of jokes that are brief, unobtrusive, and funny, and I’m more than happy to see them in the film.  Then there are other jokes that are long, misguided and out of place.  I’ve already mentioned that they go too far with Chekov’s thick accent, and that’s more than apparent in a lengthy portion of the film in which he bungles a monologue to a lame comedic effect.  There’s also a dumb joke about enlarged hands and a goofy effects sequence about Scotty getting stuck in a series of tubes.  Other jokes aren’t so bad in and of themselves, so much as in their quantity.  I have no problem with Abrams using occasional humor to lighten up the mood, but at time there are a few too many light moments in a row for comfort.  That said, the humor here isn’t anywhere near as smug or obtrusive as it was in Mission: Impossible 3, so Abrams is clearly learning a little restraint.

I was more than willing to give this a pass for a lot of continuity errors, but there are a few larger qualms I have with its adherence to the larger themes of the show.  In particular, I object to the way that McCoy has been relegated to the role of comic relief.  I’ve always viewed the trinity of Spock (logic), McCoy (Emotion), and Kirk (a mix of the two) to be essential to the dynamic of the Original cast.  Here they’ve made Kirk more impulsive and turned focused on a duality between him and Spock.  I hope they make McCoy, and the rest of the cast for that matter, more important in the next film. 

The more insidious problem here is the focus on action over ideas.  J.J. Abrams has said that he wanted to explore the optimism at the center of Gene Rodenberry’s vision, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the film.  Previous Trek films have all managed to explore philosophical issues in the midst of adventure, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was an examination of death, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was an elaborate political allegory, even lackluster installments like Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Star Trek: Insurrection had more thematic ambition than this.  There’s none of that here, this is an action movie, a very fun and well crafted action movie that establishes interesting characters, but an action movie nonetheless.  That’s why I cannot rank this new film among the best this series has offered, but that’s not to say I didn’t have fun along the way.  This is a good movie, but on the spectrum of summer entertainment it’s much more in line with Iron Man than The Dark Knight, though there are of course much worse things to be in line with than that.

*** out of four

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Observe and Report(4/10/2009)

            My relationship with Hollywood comedy has been shaky at best for the longest time.  I’ve long been at odds with public opinion about 70s and 80s comedy “classics” like Caddyshack, Airplane, and Animal House, which all seemed like half-assed unfunny messes to me; and it wasn’t just those three movies either.  I was about ready to dismiss film as a strong medium for comedy in favor of standup and television… then a man named Judd Apatow came along.  It was with Judd Apatow produced films like The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad that I finally began to laugh at movie theaters again.  And it didn’t stop at Mr. Apatow’s work either, a lot of other comedic talents were given the freedom to follow his example and put out like minded films.  This seemed to reach its peak last year with the release of such films as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express, Zach and Miri Make a Porno, and to some extents Tropic Thunder which all seemed to be inspired by this wave to some extent.  But after all that… I was beginning to think I’d finally had my fill of comedies where people curse a lot and talk bluntly about sex.  I skipped a few of these movies like Role Models just because I was getting sick of the formula.  Hopefully I’ve had a long enough rest because it appears that the 2009 wave of these movies is being kicked off by the new Seth Rogen vehicle Observe and Report.

            The film centers on Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen), a mall security guard with delusions of grandeur.  Barnhardt takes his job very seriously and views himself as a real officer of the peace.  These delusions are only enhanced by the emergence of a flasher (Randy Gambill) who’s been… flashing… in the mall parking lot.  Ronnie views this as a call for him to step up and right a wrong in this world, his reaction to this minor sex-offense is disproportionately violent.  Ronnie begins a stalker-ish fixation with one of the flasher’s “victims” (Anna Ferris) for whom Ronnie believes he has a particular responsibility to protect.  It soon becomes apparent that Ronnie is not just a mildly delusional loser, but an increasingly dangerous sociopath; he’s been prescribed to take anti-psychotic drugs and he has a rather twisted (but not incestuous) relationship with his mother (who he still lives with). 

            In case you haven’t noticed, this comedy has a very dark streak to it.  In fact this is probably the first comedy ever made to claim Martin Scorsese’s blood soaked masterpiece Taxi Driver as a primary influence, unless you mistakenly categorize Scorsese’s own very good but decidedly un-funny film The King of Comedy as an actual comedy (which it isn’t in spite of the title).  In fact the parallels between this and Taxi Driver frequently move beyond conceptual inspiration to the point of being an outright parody.  Anna Ferris is in the Cybill Shepherd role, A coffee shop clerk named Nell (Collette Wolfe) is in the Jodie Foster role, her boss (Patton Oswalt) is in the Harvey Keitel role, the movie’s ending is clearly in the same fantasy territory as the final scenes of Scorsese’s film and there’s even a voice-over double take clearly inspired by De Niro’s “listen you fuckers” monologue.   The idea of turning this material into a broad comedy is inspired, but the idea is easier said than done and without expert execution this movie was doomed. 

Sadly, I’m not sure that director Jody Hill was really quite up to the challenge of bringing his inspired vision to the screen.  Hill rose to relative prominence on the strength of his debut film The Foot-Fist Way, a micro budget production that gained a distribution deal after it impressed Will Ferrell and Adam Mckay.  I was not as impressed by that movie as that pair of comedic all-stars, but I did see a lot of potential in its star Danny McBride (who has a very small cameo in Observe).  I was even more impressed by McBride and Hill’s HBO series “Eastbound and Down,” but again I was more convinced of McBride’s talent than Hill’s mastery of comedic structure by that project. 

Finally after seeing this project I think that maybe Hill should stick to writing at this stage, because this movie falls prey to some very inconstant tone that may have been acceptable in another film but which torpedoes the meticulous balancing act this film absolutely needed.  The key decision that Hill fails to clearly make is whether the film conveys the perspective of an omniscient observer or whether it’s showing what’s in the head of its disturbed protagonist.  If it’s from an omniscient perspective then why are there so many bizarre occurrences?  Why is Ronnie able to fight so effectively?  And why are his actions placed on a pedestal at certain points?  But if it’s from Ronnie’s perspective why does he still seem like a buffoon for much of the film’s running time?  Why do we still hear people mock him behind his back?  The answer is that the film wants to have its cake and eat it too.  If the movie began to be told entirely from Ronnie’s it would have stopped being funny fast, because Ronnie doesn’t see himself as funny.  As such the film never really commits to one side or the other in its flawed third act. 

            This is a real shame because in spite of the film can’t commit to a tone, Seth Rogen unquestionably commits to his role and gives what is easily the best performance of his career.  Rogen is hardly the lovable loser here that he is in films like Knocked Up, he’s certainly a loser but he’s hardly lovable.  Subverting your normal persona like that is hardly easy, just ask Jim Carrey how well The Cable Guy turned out, but Rogen clearly understands exactly what this film is supposed to be and delivers what’s needed.  Reportedly Rogen agreed to star in the film under the sole condition that the studio not screw with the darkness of Hill’s vision.  I was beginning to worry about Rogen before this, but now I really think he’s going to have a very long and successful career, he seems to be challenging himself and picking interesting roles rather than coasting on his reputation.    

            I wish I could say as much for the rest of the cast, but I think a lot of the supporting performances are a bit inconsistent.  This is actually the first film I’ve seen Anna Ferris in, she was all right but I can’t say I really see what the fuss is about.  Ray Liotta seems to be capitalizing on his usual barking persona, but I’m not sure he does enough to differentiate himself from his straight performances; the jokes seem to be missing whenever he’s on screen.  Aziz Ansari gives his all but is limited by dialogue that feels a bit like recycled “fuck you” humor from other Apatow-esque films. Finally, there’s Michael Peña, whose character would probably feel more at home in a Will Ferrell movie than in a dark comedy about a sociopath. 

            The movie really does have a pretty decent supply of laughs, and if that’s all you need this movie probably is recommendable (assuming the dark tone is right for you).  However, I really can’t help being pretty damn disappointed by the whole affair.  The concept and performance of a brilliant movie are here and it’s just undermined by some shaky direction the whole way, I just don’t think Jody Hill had the chops to pull this off.  I think that in the hads of someone like Terry Zwigoff, Spike Jonze, or David Gordon Green (who lends his usual cinematographer to the project) this could have been brilliant, but without directorial genius to match the genius of its concept I think the film falls apart.

**1/2 out of four