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Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Stunningly, startlingly brilliant.
The Star Trek franchise has been mined for decades practically to depletion. And while little would be gained from endlessly resuscitating the canon version, it seemed nevertheless a courageous, almost dangerous act to so completely reboot a body of work that has worked through ten movies and six series and wipe the slate clean as Abrams did with this film's predecessor. For a true Star Trek fan, it was a hard pill to swallow at first, but only at first.
J.J. Abrams' courage gave us almost everything we love most about Star Trek, with the inevitable exception of those things we could not have the original cast. The characters remain in place, gamely reimagined at the beginning of their careers, rather than, as we eventually came to know them, at the end. Of course, it would have been easy to expect a new and improved telling of the canon, complete with new and improved visual effects. Instead, we got a stunning opportunity to see our beloved comrades explore new adventures without the necessity, or tedium, of a simple retelling.
In this sequel, however, Abrams constructs delicately, almost lovingly, a story where familiar elements are unavoidable, but one where they are weaved into a thoroughly satisfying and viscerally thrilling path to endless years of new delight for Trekkers everywhere.
The cast are learning to occupy their roles, with one notable exception. Zachary Quinto is positively delightful as Spock, a role he clearly shows the ability to wear comfortably and expand in surprising new directions. Simon Pegg is Scotty on Steroids funnier, crankier, and vastly more entertaining. Perhaps most impressive is Karl Urban as McCoy. He is spot on perfect, almost disturbingly so, portraying McCoy just was we would have expected, while at the same time compensating for some of the thespian shortcomings of DeForest Kelly.
The glaring disappointment is Chris Pine as Kirk. Pine lacks even a hint of the powerful machismo of William Shatner, depending instead on simple unwarranted bravado. He comes across less as a hero and more of a simple jerk, and his wanton womanizing is less romantic than simply debauched. It is perhaps ironic that Shatner, long lambasted for his acting, ends up being the most difficult actor to replace convincingly.
To be fair, a fully satisfying replacement was probably not possible, as Shatner, for all his limitations, has, after decades of accretion, evolved into a once in a lifetime commodity. Still, it is difficult not to see Pine as miscast. But then, who? Channing Tatum? Chris Hemsworth? Most likely unavailable, so we have Pine.
The story is pure gold, pure Star Trek. It draws upon familiar themes and characters and casts them in brilliant directions. At times, this film seems almost a tribute to the legacy Abrams seemed to be totally rejecting in the prequel. Stunningly, startlingly brilliant and persuasive evidence that Abrams is the only man with whom fans can entrust, not only our beloved Star Trek, but, it turns out, the other crown jewel of Sci-Fi fandom Star Wars, the new episode of which Abrams will also direct.
I wondered during the movie whether those less familiar with the Star Trek canon would appreciate the many subtle inside jokes and references. To be sure, there were many that were not so subtle, but it seems obvious that people who are relatively uninitiated with get less out of the movie than hard core fans.
I'm not even going to discuss the plot details. Suffice it to say that nobody should leave the theatre disappointed, no matter what they were expecting. As for me, I left feeling as though all my years of devotion to Star Trek were fully rewarded, and renewed by this, one of the most magnificent achievements in the series' nearly half a century of delighting fans of all ages.
The Great Gatsby (2013)
Seductively entertaining and visually magnificent.
Watching this film requires a few concessions.
First, you must imagine the elegantly beautiful 1974 classic version does not exist. Trust me. It's painful otherwise, and I will avoid any reference or comparison for that reason. Second, you must also imagine that, notwithstanding Fitzgerald's masterpiece, the setting is not the Roaring Twenties but, rather, some over amped time warp netherworld where Jay-Z and Beyonce' get to be avant garde again because they're rather incongruously and anachronistically foisted on a film in which they really have no place.
If you make it that far, you're almost ready to watch The Great Gatsby 2013. Now brace yourself for Baz Lurhrmann's jarring postmodern deconstructivism that was thrilling a decade ago in Moulin Rouge, but has become by now almost as grotesque as Julie Taymor's murderous affront to Beatle music Across the Universe.
Thus prepared, you can now enjoy what is undeniably an entertaining, if uninspiring, film.
Tobey Maquire, of whom I am usually a fan, is somewhat flaccid as Nick Carroway, despite the fact that the story depends utterly upon him to drive it forward. He does, however, bring a decidedly literary dimension to the film by framing the main story within his own attempt at recovery. Joel Edgerton is a perfectly delightful Tom Buchanan. He embodies all the machismo brutishness with which Fitzgerald envisioned the character. He also has enough personal charisma to help anchor the otherwise riotous staging. And, of course, there is DiCaprio as Gatsby. I didn't hate him, although I was predisposed to, but I wanted to love this movie, and Leo was one of the main reasons I couldn't.
As far as casting, however, the jewel of this film is the deliriously sensuous and beautiful Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan. She makes it easy to believe that Daisy broke hearts with just a smile back in Louisville and inspired Gatsby to bring the world to her dock for her sake.
This film mines Fitzgerald's novel for more complex themes than predecessors have explored. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. Ironically, it also strips all the novel's major themes of any subtlety whatsoever and reduces them to stage settings for an unrelenting onslaught of elaborate music videos.
But if I reel in my disappointment for a moment, I can only conclude that this is a well-made movie that is seductively entertaining and visually magnificent. Maybe it isn't fair to expect more.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
For Pete's sake, Chris - enough already.
All right. I've said this before, and I'll say it again. Christopher Nolan is a great director. Few people can put a story on the screen like Nolan does. But the problem is that he's a terrible writer. How many more times does he have to absolutely assassinate a perfectly good story idea or character franchise with his amateurish, ham-handed writing before he and everyone else realizes this?
First, he always sets clocks in motion. Really? Is that all you've got? A real writer can create a sense of urgency based on time constraints without introducing an actual clock, especially one that is strapped onto a device that seems to have no other need of a clock than to display its imminent intent to blow everything to kingdom come.
Then of course, there's character development, or the lack of it. Batman is conflicted as to whether he should be Batman or not. Bane is conflicted by, oh, let's say puppy love. Catwoman is conflicted by whether or not she really wants to be bad. I mean, I know this whole franchise is based on a comic book, but with a price tag of a quarter of a billion dollars to make, does it have to play like one? Come on, Chris. Hire a writer.
Basically, this is a movie that consists of lots of scenes of people either fighting, or walking aggressively toward a fight, with the central characters standing still like a Greek chorus of narrators long enough to tell the story, rather than participate in it, by presenting long, boring diatribes and monologues like a bunch of kids breathlessly setting forth a cowboys and Indians scenario before they run around whooping and shooting, only to repeat, in this case for three tedious, exasperating hours.
I love superhero movies when they are able, like all good science fiction, to transcend their admittedly contrived premises by presenting witty and profound issues in clever and unique ways without hammering you over the head or numbing your brain with endless sequences of violence and destruction. Once again, Chris, you have failed in the former by wallowing in the latter.
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)
Cheap and tawdry and really unnecessary.
There seems to be as little reason to review this movie as there was to make it, but it was made, so I'll review it.
Well, that's not much of a review, although it's more than the movie deserves, since it isn't much of a movie, but I'll elaborate.
I love Guy Pearce in supporting roles, but the thinness of his talent becomes all too evident the more we see of him. Add to that a character that isn't even remotely likable, and you've had enough of him before the first act closes. Likewise for Katie Holmes, who as an actress has little to offer other than being beautiful.
In fact, the only character in the movie that is even remotely interesting is the house and its impending Architectural Digest debut. Being a fan of the magazine, I kept waiting for something that would warrant a cover, but even that never came through.
All you end up with is these creepy little goblins, tooth faeries, perhaps, as it seems they feed on children's' teeth (is that even possible given their lack of any nutritional content?) And they fancy the teeth of Sally (Bailee Madison), poor little abandoned Sally whose mother and father just don't love her enough (cue violins).
The tooth faeries hiss and sigh in an endless sibilant whispering that only little Sally can hear. In short order, she succumbs to the siren song and the beasties set upon her. The rest is all sound and fury signifying nothing except a few "boo scares" now and then, cheap and tawdry and really unnecessary, just like the movie.
This movie is a remake of a cult classic made for television in the 1970's, twisted somewhat around a younger protagonist. Absolutely nothing about it works, and it doesn't improve on the original in any way. I really expected more.
The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
Dazzlingly successful in portraying the cutthroat fashion empire.
It may be unfair to say this, but this would have been a much less entertaining movie without the marvelous Meryl Streep. Actually, one could say that of any movie she is in, as she so completely overwhelms most of what Hollywood has to throw at her. The same is true here, with the exception of Stanley Tucci, whose counterpoint to Streep is so effective it was repeated almost immediately in Julie and Julia.
It's no secret that Streep's character is based on Anna Wintour, the tyrannical editor of Vogue, but Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly really reminds me very little of Wintour, a credit to Streep's ability to create effective characters even within the persona of someone as well-known and contemporary as Wintour.
The cast of the film is tremendously uneven. Streep and Tucci are the stalwart cornerstones, without whose truly inspired performances the film would disintegrate tragically into banality. Anne Hathaway, good as usual though still a lightweight compared to Streep and Tucci, is the nominal star of the film, but she is more often than not a foil for the dynamic duo. Emily Blunt, as a devoted fashionista, nevertheless looks a bit odd from time to time, including her first appearance in the film criticizing Hathaway's conservative attire while she herself sports a sort of post-apocalyptic Goth Judy Jetson garb. She seems strangely underutilized and stretched a bit thin at the same time here, but she is delightful nonetheless.
Then there are the boyfriends. Adrian Grenier is definitely fighting above his weight class, and it doesn't work. He does a creditable job of moving dialog along with Hathaway, but he has to work too hard to appear interesting, and fails miserably. As for Simon Baker's Christian Thompson, aside from the fact that he's a bit self-obsessed, there seems to be no reason why Andy would not choose him, handsome, suave, successful, well-connected, over the scruffy, dreary and ultimately insecure character presented by Grenier.
Despite all its shortcomings, however, the film is dazzlingly successful in portraying the cutthroat fashion empire presided over by the ruthless, Cruella DeVil-ish editor of "Runway" magazine. Some people put on music for background noise. I put on a movie. This movie has been my background noise dozens of times, and I still love having it on. I savor every word, every gesture from the truly magical Meryl Streep as, in my opinion, the greatest Bitch of all time.
The soundtrack is wonderful, and one can enjoy this movie simply by listening to it. There are plenty of delicious surprises too, like the minor appearance of Gisele Bündchen, who just happens to be the richest (her net worth exceeds the rest of the cast combined, even if you throw in Anna Wintour) and most successful supermodel of all time, as Serena, a work-friend of Emily Blunt's character.
In the end, I'm not sure why, but I absolutely love this movie. I can watch it twice in a row and have done more than once. You may not become that attached to The Devil Wears Prada, but it should definitely be worth the investment of at least one serious watch.
Love Actually (2003)
I love "Love Actually."
"Love Actually" is a film of exquisitely delicate emotions blended with just the right touches of humor to keep it from becoming maudlin. Everyone in the film appears to be an emotional train wreck waiting to happen. They dangle precariously at the end of their respective ropes over chasms of heartache. But what is so rewardingly beautiful is that each survives through different kinds of strength, inspiring viewers to find within their own strength in facing similar disasters.
The incidental entwining with the Christmas season lends the many disparate stories a sort of framework that supports their almost imperceptible weight. Writer/Director Richard Curtis, true to form, constructs a brilliant and complex work that in the hands of lesser directors might have come off as diffused and ineffective, but in his hands comes together with astonishing elegance and power.
Craig Armstrong's score is so beautifully subtle and yet powerful that it weaves with the delicacy of silk and the strength of steel throughout the film, masterfully setting its tone and unifying the diverse subplots into a seamless whole. The additional music is cunningly selected to provide counterpoint to Armstrong's score while at the same time complementing it perfectly.
The cast is beyond compare, superb to the last detail. I can't even imagine where to begin singling anyone out, so I won't try. Suffice it to say that, in typical British style, the entire ensemble shines as a whole without any one cast member overshadowing another, no mean feat when the credits read like a Who's Who of what I would call "serious cinema." There are so many moments to treasure that, once again, I will not even attempt to single any out. You simply must experience them for yourself, which I recommend without reservation. This is yet another of those incidentally Christmas-themed movies that I watch without fail every holiday season. I could continue spewing superlatives, but I think you get the idea. I love "Love Actually."
We're No Angels (1955)
Utterly delightful, astonishingly well-acted, and beautifully directed.
Beautifully adapted from a French play La Cuisine de Anges, fresh off its brilliant success on Broadway, We're No Angels is one of my favorite "overlooked" films of all time. Villainously remade in 1989, the original "We're no Angels" is a lyrically beautiful tale of the most unlikely sort.
Three escaped convicts on Devil's Island plan to rob and murder an innocent family until they become absorbed in their comically desperate lives. Maintaining a light comedy throughout, without once devolving into farce, "We're no Angels" is wickedly charming and deviously funny, owing in no small part to the epic talent of its all-star cast.
"We're no Angels" stars Aldo Ray, Peter Ustinov, and Humphrey Bogart, all marvelous and at the peak of their prowess, and is directed by Michael Curtiz, whose most notable efforts include not only Academy Award winning "Mildred Pierce", Joan Crawford's triumphant comeback film, but also another Humphrey Bogart masterpiece, "Casablanca." There is a heartwarming Christmas theme throughout the film, but it never gets overly saccharine. To the contrary, the convicts remain unrepentant and incorrigible to the end, despite their dubious good deeds. In a nutshell, the Ducatel family runs a shop for their absent relative, who shows up unexpectedly to audit the books and, most likely, discharge the hapless shopkeeper family. But things begin to go seriously awry, thanks to a reptilian interloper, Adolph, with a ruthless ability to do what is unthinkable to the rest of the cast. Adolph is never seen, nor is any violence or menace, and the film ends up being perfect for family viewing, despite its dark themes. In fact, I include the charming gem in my Christmas traditions, and I highly recommend it for yours.
The supporting cast is almost too good to be true. Leo G. Carroll is the shopkeeper, delightfully muddled and well intentioned. Joan Bennett, whom most will remember as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard on television's "Dark Shadows", is his slightly put-upon wife. Basil Rathbone plays the evil cousin from France with villainous aplomb.
Why this film is not better known escapes me. It is utterly delightful, astonishingly well-acted, and beautifully directed. It leaves me with a warm feeling worth its weight in gold, and certainly worth a watch if you've never seen it.
War and Peace (1956)
A perfectly ridiculous farce.
Any allusion to Tolstoy's masterpiece in connection with this film can only be considered libel. The film fails on virtually every level and bears no thematic, emotional, intellectual or philosophical relationship to that great novel. With so many flaws, all that remains is a perfectly ridiculous farce. But it is pretty.
One can gain a cursory introduction to Tolstoy's novel from this film, but little else. Tolstoy envisioned a colossal and sweeping epic of cultural upheaval amidst an intricate tapestry of human drama set against the French invasion of Russia by Napoleon. King Vidor seems to have in mind something a little more akin to a saccharin, tawdry melodrama with great costumes.
The casting decisions are completely incomprehensible. Although I adore Audrey Hepburn and, when properly cast, she was beyond compare, as the complex and conflicted Natasha Rostova her strengths become weaknesses. As the sprightly ingénue, or the naïve gamin, she set the screen on fire. Moreover, as she was, in fact, an aristocrat, her regal bearing is sublime.
There are, however, qualities in the great characters of Russian literature that were simply not within Hepburn's repertoire. Her memorable turn as Holly Golightly may have transformed Capote's layered character into a shallow, though thoroughly delightful, scatterbrain, but her incomparable radiance made it all worthwhile. Sadly, a similarly simplified Natasha did not play as well.
Hepburn's then husband, Mel Ferrer, was equally miscast as the vain and sardonic Prince Andrei. To be fair, he would have been miscast in any serious role, as he was a positively dreadful actor, but like most of the cast, he fails to reflect any of the impact that war can have on people's lives or the epic cultural shifts that were taking place in Russia at the time.
Neither of these sins can hold a candle, however, to the casting of Henry Fonda as Pierre Bezukhov. First, he was, by his own acknowledgment, far too long in the tooth for the role, which he says he merely took for the money. More to the point, his bumpkin blank stares and cloying American earnestness, and a ubiquitous curiously pained expression that defies explanation, his stock in trade in more successful efforts, smother any subtlety that the role requires. Wandering through epic battles like a cow grazing mindlessly in a football field, he could not be more ridiculous. Granted Pierre's application of gematria to determine that Napoleon was the Biblical Antichrist may have been a bit much to put on the big screen in 1956, but are we truly to accept Fonda's placid counting to one thousand to keep his feet from freezing as a reasonable substitute? I suppose that had the film been called "Pretty French and Russian Uniforms" it would have been less objectionable and certainly more honest, but then who would have watched it? As "War and Peace" it is more epic failure than truly epic.
In one scene Fonda as Pierre stands inexplicably on a great battlefield and mutters, "Damn you Napoleon. Damn you to hell." He should have directed this curse at King Vidor, the true villain of the piece, for squandering the legitimate talents of Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda and, one must not forget, Leo Tolstoy on this travesty. Damn you King Vidor. Damn you to hell.
The Black Stallion (1979)
The Black Stallion is a lyrical, rhapsodic experience of breathtaking beauty.
Adapted from Walter Farley's beloved novel, and exquisitely filmed by legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, The Black Stallion is a lyrical, rhapsodic experience of breathtaking beauty.
The cast of The Black Stallion is superb and their portrayals are often astonishingly magical. The standout in the film is young Kelly Reno. Preternaturally, disturbingly adult, yet intensely vulnerable, his electric presence illuminates the screen. Tragically, his protracted recovery from an accident involving an 18-wheeler cut his career short, but as Alec, he is the stuff of cinema legend.
Young Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno), at sea with his father (Hoyt Axton) is fascinated by a wild black stallion aboard the steam ship Drake. The purported owner calls the horse Shetan (Devil), and keeps him heavily restrained. After a storm at sea and a subsequent fire aboard ship, which claims the life of his father, Alec is shipwrecked on an island of the coast of North Africa with the mysterious black Arabian stallion.
The scene on the island is one of my favorite in all of cinematic history. As Alec forages to find food on the uninhabited island, he sees the stallion caught in some rocks by the ropes still attached to it. He frees the horse, but it runs away. Alec then decides to try to mount the horse, and after several attempts, which play out like a hypnotic pas de deux of almost astounding beauty, he succeeds. The two of them are as one as the magnificent horse gallops along the shore, and their bond is complete. This scene, without so much as a word of dialog, is one of my favorite in all of cinema. Its astonishing beauty alone should have assured Deschanel at least an Oscar® nomination, but, alas, he was snubbed.
After some time, Alec and the horse are rescued by some Portuguese fishermen, and Alec returns home with the horse, which he keeps in his yard, with some difficulty. Upon one of the horse's escapes, he and Alec meet retired horse trainer Henry Daily, portrayed with delightful understatement by a masterful Mickey Rooney. At length, they determine to race the horse against thoroughbred champions.
Alec's mother (Teri Garr) objects, but, as we all know, the race must go on. This is good, because we get to see Alec and The Black run as one once again.
Carmine Coppola's haunting score plays perfectly with Deschanel's cinematography. The result is sublime. The Black Stallion does justice to the 1941 children's novel, and the masterful production offers something for audiences of all ages.
Revolution OS (2001)
A poorly made propaganda film, but definitely entertaining.
An interesting "documentary." If only it were true.
This movie might just as well have been titled "Revenge of the Nerds: Nerds Destroy Microsoft." Don't worry about the intellectual property issue that someone else owns the rights to the names "Revenge of the Nerds" and "Microsoft." Intellectual property obviously isn't very important to people who champion an operating system built by systematically reverse engineering and copying, piece by piece, someone else's operating system.
Except the nerds didn't destroy Microsoft. In the second decade of the 21st century, Microsoft still has a 90% market share and MacOS is its only real competitor. Admittedly, Linux never expressed an interest in market domination, but this movie's tales of Linux's triumph over Windows are greatly overstated.
Two of the great success stories presented in the movie; Cygnus and VA Linux, simply no longer exist as presented. Cygnus was absorbed by Red Hat even before the movie was released, and VA Linux abandoned its business model, becoming an entirely new company with a new value proposition shortly thereafter, when a disastrous crash in its stock price proved its original value proposition was indeed weak as it had originally been described.
The movie presents absolutely no data from "the other side" other than a letter written by Bill Gates in 1976, when he was twenty and Microsoft had not even been incorporated. Moreover, the letter is read by a woman whose voice borders on a rage-induced hysteria accompanied by a disturbing and ominous soundtrack. I wonder how rational Torvalds would sound with a lurid Berlioz soundtrack accompanying a lunatic's recitation.
What is most disturbing/amusing/annoying is the constant insistence by commentators on comparing Linux with Windows NT. Let's see, Microsoft hasn't released a product under that name for more than a decade, so perhaps, if we are to insist on that comparison, we should be examining Windows NT, released in 1993, with Linux 1.0, released in the same year. Now that would be interesting.
In the end, this movie has the tone and sentiment of a poorly made propaganda film, and about as much intellectual honesty. Linus Torvalds actually seems slightly bitter at the success other people have achieved through Linux, and he remains unrepentantly in denial of Linux's origins in the GNU project. Many of the other commentators seemed to focus far too much on establishing their geek cred by claiming to have been doing "X" longer than anyone or having done "Y" first. Eventually, their endless ranting exalting themselves and their ideas became simply tiresome and made them appear more ridiculous than authoritative.
The one person who didn't come across as an embittered deludinoid is Richard Stallman himself. Stallman, despite a widely held public perception to the contrary, seems a rational and sincere advocate for his own ideals, however naïve they may be. It is perhaps ever so slightly disingenuous for Stallman to advocate working for nothing and giving your work away when he has been the recipient of numerous grants, including the MacArthur Grant the sizable so-called "genius" grant from the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Nevertheless, this movie made Stallman seem, to me, quite genuine and even likable.
I would call this movie a dramatization, not a documentary. It is definitely entertaining; a delightfully comic, though unintentionally so, look inside the bizarre open source community and their zealous, almost religious devotion to an operating system that, notwithstanding all the declarations of victory to the contrary, has never managed a significant market penetration and, in its prevalent forms, in all likelihood, never will.