Saturday, May 18, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

Space, the final frontier.  These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.  Her five year mission: to explore strange new worlds.  To seek out new life and civilizations.  To boldly go where no one has gone before.

(I could not think of a way to talk about this movie without spoiling it.  You have been warned.)

J.J. Abrams' 2009 reboot of Star Trek was (mostly) a triumph of outside-the-box thinking.  Tasked with both honoring the copious continuity of the already-established Star Trek universe, and allowing the beloved characters from the original series to have fresh new adventures, Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman cut the Gordian Knot with a time travel plot that, while it may not have made a lot of logical sense, created a universe which honored the past while not being beholden to it.

Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and company return in Star Trek Into Darkness no longer having to justify their own existence, able to simply have their own adventures, wherever they may take them.  A new threat to Starfleet in the guise of cadet John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) emerges, first blowing up a Starfleet intelligence outpost in London and then, when the top brass gather together to determine how to respond, attacking the meeting and in the process killing Kirk's mentor, Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood).  Harrison escapes to the Klingon homeworld of Kronos and Kirk is sent on a clandestine mission to assassinate him by Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller).  But neither Harrison nor Marcus are what they seem, and Kirk is faced with a series of difficult choices as he slowly uncovers the truth.

Harrison, of course, is no such thing, and is in fact the infamous Khan Noonian Singh, genetic superman and primary antagonist of Star Trek II.  Where the Khan of Star Trek II was completely driven by his hatred of Kirk, this Khan is mostly indifferent towards Kirk, and seeks his revenge against Admiral Marcus, who awoke Khan from cryosleep to help Starfleet develop weapons to use against the Klingons, and holds his colleagues hostage to force him to comply.  Kirk and Khan develop an enmity towards one another as the film progresses, but their relationship lacks the depth that "Space Seed" gave to Star Trek II.

Star Trek (the film) pointed towards a future for this franchise that was free from the series' continuity, that could blaze its own path in whatever direction it desired.  I saw a version of Star Trek Into Darkness that honored this idea, very briefly, when Khan and Kirk team up to take down Marcus' enormous prototype ship in the 2nd act.  That was a scene that said, we do not have to be defined by the past.  Perhaps Khan doesn't have to simply be a villain, perhaps he can be something more than that, a character who exists in an all-too-unusual grey area within the Star Trek universe.  Khan had done terrible things, granted, but so had Marcus, and maybe the script could have figured out a way to thread that needle, to at least partially justify Khan's actions and make him into something different, a character who wore neither white hat nor black hat but could be useful in certain circumstances and would be, going forward, a wild card out on the edges of space, always in the back of our heroes' minds.

But then it all fell apart, as Khan returned to the previous status quo, seeking petty revenge against Kirk and being foiled by the crew of the Enterprise.  "Where no one has gone before", it's the last goddamned words of the intro, the ones right before the music kicks in.  Did no one pay attention to this fact?  Did no one think, at any point, that this movie so thoroughly and completely refuses to boldly go anywhere but the same place that previous people had already gone?  We have Khan running through the same character beats, with a brief respite in the middle before the plunge back into outright villainy.  We have Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), inserted into the franchise at the exact same time point that she was in the first film series, here mostly just taking up space aboard the Enterprise but I swear to God I expected her final scene to reveal her to be pregnant (it didn't, which is something I guess).  We have a death in a radiation chamber, and the film practically begs audiences to be impressed by the fact that it inverts the scene from Star Trek II, putting Kirk in the chamber and Spock angrily screaming for vengeance against Khan as Kirk dies.  And the emotional response to this scene is completely muted given the realities of 21st century blockbuster franchise - there is no way that a second film in a series is going to kill off its hero, so the only reason that this scene exists is to remind audiences of the earlier film.  Everything here, ultimately, relies so much on the goodwill of audiences who loved Star Trek II that it forgets to actually create an interesting and believable story for its heroes to play around in.

In the end, this is a movie that posits that we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again, that people are incapable of changing in any meaningful way and we are all fated to play the same roles, in the same way, with the same people, again and again and again.  That would be alright if the film cared to explore that idea with any sort of depth, but this is a movie that seemingly couldn't care less about anything but to make cheap references and remind audiences of an old movie that it actually loved on its own terms, rather than just as one enormous exercise in self-referencing.  Star Trek put together a new cast of actors playing a beloved set of characters, and discovered that those characters could still seem fresh in the 21st century.  Star Trek Into Darkness puts them together again, and weighs them down so thoroughly with the stale remnants of the previous century's stories that it suggests the filmmakers have already given up on the idea of boldly taking this franchise anywhere but backwards.  C-

The Bourne Legacy

The first act of The Bourne Legacy, director Tony Gilroy's sideways reboot of the Bourne franchise with Jeremy Renner's Aaron Cross as the new lead, revolves very heavily around a drone strike carried out against Cross.  With the Treadstone program from the first three films falling apart around them thanks to Jason Bourne's having gone rogue, the people who run even more top-secret clandestine personnel programs at the CIA, particularly Eric Byer (Edward Norton), have decided that the programs, and everyone involved in them, need to be terminated.  Cross and another agent within his program (Oscar Isaac) are targeted for assassination by Byer and his team, and a drone is used to fire a missile into the cabin in which they are temporarily staying.

The Bourne films are, ultimately, about inwardly-turned post-9/11 paranoia.  Where the era of classic spy films was mostly about the fear of the Other (the Soviet Union or some related stand-in, and then some terrorist group or other after its collapse), this series of films is about the fear of ourselves, of the power we have granted the government in the name of defending America and how little ability we really have to step on the brakes with any of it.  These films are suffused with a dread of government-backed technology, programs that use neuroscience and biotechnology to create assassins and supersoldiers, and the use of a recognizable piece of controversial technology like a drone draws the connection explicitly between the fictional world of the film and the very real world in which we live.

Cross has been physically and mentally enhanced chemically by project Outcome, the sister program to Treadstone, and after he escapes the attack his path intertwines with Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a researcher who is involved with the science behind Cross's chemical enhancement, and who has narrowly escaped being eliminated by Byer under the guise of a workplace shooting.  Cross and Shearing travel to Manila, home to project Outcome's chemical manufacturing facility, in search of Cross's medications, as they are slowly but methodically tracked by Byer and his team, including an operative in an even higher security program (Louis Ozawa Changchien), project LARX.

Tony Gilroy wrote or co-wrote the first three Bourne movies and here he adds the title of director as well, taking over from the departed Paul Greengrass.  It's always an open question with action films as to how much the script actually matters - for every Shane Black, who parlayed his distinctive voice as an action movie writer into a genuine name-brand, there are 10 writers like Steven E. de Souza, who co-wrote, among other things, both 48 Hours and Die Hard, not that you'd know that both of those films came from the same writer.  Gilroy isn't a writer who is going to give you a lot of interesting turns of phrase, but he is one of the most gifted writers at crafting the mechanics of a taut thriller, and the way the Bourne Legacy accomplishes the twin goals of tying into the continuity of the earlier series while also striking out in an interesting new direction is remarkable in and of itself, before getting to the nuts and bolts of the film itself.

Because the Bourne Legacy is built much more on those plot mechanics than it is on raw action, and yet it still manages to move along at a brisk pace.  The first act is a bit clunky, with the action ping-ponging between Byer in Washington, dealing with the fallout from Jason Bourne, and Cross in some sort of alpine retreat, not yet aware of the imminent danger he is in.  The two halves of that equation don't fit together terribly well, with Cross' more action-heavy half ironically slowing the film down from Byer's pedal-to-the-metal energy.  Norton is a notoriously difficult actor to work with, which is the only legitimate reason he doesn't work more often, because he has a preternatural ability to breathe life into even an underwritten character like Byer.  Renner's performance is more along the path of mere adequacy - he's good enough at selling 21st century action-hero roles, but he doesn't bring a lot of charm to the proceedings.  Weisz's character is the pivotal one plotwise, which makes it particularly unfortunate that she spends a lot of the film as baggage, following Cross' various enhanced-soldier orders and simply trying to stay alive; she falls very distinctly on the "escort mission" side of the Female Lead In An Action Movie spectrum.  She's a smart and capable actress who is good in the role, but Gilroy could have tried to write his way around this cliche rather than through it.

I have gotten this far without mentioning the action in the film, and that is mostly because I didn't find any of it all that memorable.  It gets the job done of moving the film along between conversations, but I found the conversations, and the plot, to be almost universally more interesting.  Mediocre action in an action movie might sink a lesser film, but Gilroy's ideas here, and his ability to spin off this world in a fascinating new direction, manages to carry the day regardless of the fact that the action disappoints, which can either be taken as a great compliment for a film that resurrects a series that seemed dead while plugging directly into the current zeitgeist, or an indictment of a franchise which has lost its drive.  I know which side I fall on.  B+

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Iron Man 3

We're in uncharted waters now.  Prior to The Avengers, there were five Marvel Universe movies (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: First Avenger) that all served, in some fashion, as leadups to the big, Whedon-directed team-up film.  The burden on each, besides building their own worlds and their own characters, was to build anticipation for The Avengers, and building anticipation is, all things being equal, not really that difficult.  A glimpse here, a glimpse there.  Just enough to whet the appetite.

We're in the next phase of the Marvel film saga now and even though Avengers 2 is already on the horizon, each of the next batch of films has to convince audiences that yes, these characters each bring value to the screen all on their own, and their adventures are worth following even when they are split up.  Of the four major members of the Avengers, director Shane Black should, on paper, have the easiest time reintroducing a solo Tony Stark, since the first Iron Man movie took place more or less in a world in which an Avengers movie was more fantasy than reality, and Robert Downey Jr.'s performance has always been the most solid anchor in this universe, imbuing Stark with his own self-confident-verging-on-cocky charisma.

Black is reunited with his Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang star in Downey, and there is a conscious effort to bring some of that film's light/dark dichotomy into this movie.  The film opens and closes with Downey speaking in voiceover, a direct homage to their earlier collaboration, and Downey gets his own Val Kilmer to bounce off of in this film in the form of, of all things, an adorable moppet.  Stark's second-act sojourn that brings him into the orbit of a child named Harley (Ty Simpkins) seems like the most shamelessly pandering bit of horseshit this side of Clark's irritating "son" in Superman Returns, but Black and Drew Pearce's script somehow makes it work.  In the midst of Stark's very personal and mostly small-stakes battle with the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), his ability to banter never leaves him, even when he only has a young boy to bounce off of.

But hanging over Iron Man 3, like an unwanted guest, is The Avengers, and the film never finds a satisfying way to grapple with it.  Leave aside the fact that Tony Stark has a bunch of superheroic friends who never bother coming to his aid in his battle here - we'll just assume, like we will probably have to with everyone else's solo picture, that everyone else is busy with their own life-or-death struggle, and don't have the time to answer the call at the moment.  Iron Man 3 tries to find something to say about the way the events of The Avengers, with its cosmic focus, had a profound effect on Tony Stark's distinctively down-to-earth persona, and it almost entirely fails.  To be more explicit, and I don't think this is much of a spoiler, the film give Stark panic attacks that are supposedly related to what happened in that previous film, positing that his battle with the forces of another universe or dimension or whatever it was changed his outlook, and harmed his ability to interact with the world as it normally is.  The problem here is that, for anyone who has seen The Avengers, the threat in that film, other than Loki's scenery-chewing, is almost entirely superfluous, simple plot mechanics that are necessary to accomplish the primary goal, which is to bring our heroes together and allow them to bounce off one another.  So to deal with that film here through his connection to its (pedestrian) plot, rather than through his new friendships, is pretty much a complete misfire (one of the other Avengers shows up in the post-credits sequence, and it's pretty funny, so at least they're still around, somewhere or other).

The action in this film is a mixed bag, although more good than bad.  The best action sequence is a doozy, the Air Force One rescue scene, but the worst action scene is, unfortunately, the final one.  It occurs to me that all three Iron Man films have set their final action scenes at night, and I think it's not a coincidence that the final battles of all three movies have been fairly disappointing.  The final action sequence in The Avengers was filmed in daylight, and it is arguably the best scene in the film.  Iron Man, the character, is alive with primary colors, and why filmmakers insist on muting them with night shoots is a mystery to me.

Aside from that, the villains in this movie are probably the most interesting out of all three films - they're certainly better than Mickey Rourke's sleepy villain in the second film, and are probably better than Jeff Bridges' afterthought of a character in the first.  Besides Kingsley, Guy Pearce gives the film a decent shot of energy as Aldrich Killian, an entrepreneur with the heart of a sociopath, and James Badge Dale is appropriately sinewy and weird as the film's most pro-active henchman.  I'll confess that the 3rd act twist caught me completely off-guard, so much so that it took me a minute or two to even figure out what it meant to say; I'm not sure if that reflects a failure on the filmmakers' part, or a massive success.  It is an exceptionally weird twist, and I won't spoil it.  Gwyneth Paltrow, an actress who I mostly don't like, has acquitted herself well as Pepper Potts throughout this series, and some of the film's uncomfortable sexism (there is a scene that almost perfectly echoes the worst scene in Skyfall, and women are way too often treated as props here) is at least partially mitigated by the role Potts ultimately ends up playing in the final showdown.  I like Black as a writer and filmmaker, but the women of the Marvel Universe still mostly deserve better than they're getting, and that  was unquestionably on display in his script.  Don Cheadle continues to be mostly stranded as Jim Rhodes, and both his and Terrence Howard's inability to find anything terribly interesting in the character speaks to how superfluous he's been over the course of three films.

Robert Downey Jr. has played this character in four films now, with at least one more on the way.  It's been a good fit for him, allowing an actor of his remarkable gifts to inhabit a B-list character like Tony Stark and turn him into a de facto A-lister.  Iron Man 3 feels, at least to some extent, like a capper to this character, even though there is at least one more contractually-obligated Avengers movie, if not more.  But Downey's version of Stark belongs to a bigger universe now, and this film's small-scale threat is too small for Iron Man now, in much the same way that it feels like it's time for Downey to move on to bigger challenges as well.  B