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Double Feature Review: Star Trek versus Iron Man


Time for another of my Double Feature reviews.  This time it’s:

Star Trek Into Darkness

Science Fiction, Action, Adventure; U.S.; 2013; 133 minutes; directed by J. J. Abrams.

Medium:  Currently in Theaters (including 3-D)

Rating:  4.5 (5-point system)

Versus

Iron Man 3

Science Fiction, Comic Book Character, Action, Adventure; U.S.; 2013; 130 minutes; directed by Shane Black

Medium:  Currently in Theaters (including 3-D)

Rating:  3.5 (5-point system)

Star Trek Into Darkness

First up:  Star Trek Into Darkness.  I have a confession to make before you delve deeper into this review.  I’m a Trekker from way back.  How far back?  Try September 8, 1966.  That’s when the first episode aired on NBC.  I also consider latter characters and offshoot developments a departure from the original concept, and not in a good way.  And just how big a fan am I?  Someday I’ll have to post photos of my studio-grade, museum-quality replica of the original USS Enterprise NCC-1701, complete with exterior lighting.

That’s not to say that I was all that happy with the 2009 remake using new actors in the original roles.  There was much in this movie about which to be disappointed.  The Captain Kirk of 1966 was not nearly the rebel portrayed in the remake.  The Enterprise was incapable of landing on a planet; the gravitational field would rip it apart, which is why starships were built in orbit (not on the surface of the Earth as depicted).  Most of the actors chosen came very close to nailing their respective characters, but Chris Pine was a bit of a disappointment.  It was a good effort, but it simply fell short.

Chris Pine as Captain James Tiberius Kirk

Not so this sequel.  I like action, but not when it gets in the way of storyline and character development.  This action-packed visual extravaganza served up heaping helpings of all three, and Chris Pine actually took this role seriously this time.  Alas, some of the mistakes carry over from the 2009 version, including ridiculous depictions of the Enterprise not only enduring a planetary landing (and departure), but even substituting for an oceanic submersible at one point.  Gene Roddenberry would probably have slapped J. J. Abrams up the side of the head and yelled, “Don’t you understand the physics of all this?

Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison

Still, the storyline and characterizations quickly overcame such distractions.  This was, quite frankly, just a fun movie on every level.  And the star of this show?  That distinction has to go to Benedict Cumberbatch, whose acting ability I’ve greatly admired ever since I viewed him in BBC’s Sherlock Seasons 1 and 2.  His portrayal of the villainous John Harrison, aka (well, that’s a secret) was stunningly brilliant.  All in all, of the entire Star Trek film franchise, this effort is probably the best or at least a very close second to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

* * *

Iron Man 3

The next film Ursula and I viewed this past Sunday was the less-than-stellar Iron Man 3.  Not much I can say here except that it suffers from the same affliction that in my opinion taints all the recent offerings from the Marvel stable of comic book heroes — story and character development don’t just take a back seat to the visuals and over-the-top special effects; rather, they get left standing at the curb searching their collective pockets for enough change between them for a cup of coffee and a stale doughnut.

Now for the good.  It’s better than Iron Man 2.  Alas, that’s not saying a whole lot, as Iron Man 2 was a huge disappointment on almost every level.  Fortunately, all is not lost.  We get much more of Tony Stark in this film, and with the incredibly talented Robert Downey, Jr., that’s an immensely pleasurable thing in itself.  Mr. Downey owns the role of the self-absorbed, ego-driven Tony Stark, and in this outing he goes out of his way to prove that.

* * *

In this battle of the blockbusters, Star Trek came out by far the clear winner between the two.  And that’s not a lifelong fan talking now.  Ursula, who has never enjoyed Star Trek, absolutely loved this film and everything about it.  She was enthralled from beginning to end.  Not so the latest Iron Man effort.  Indeed, if I were to allow her to influence my rating, I’d have to knock off at least another half point, and possible a whole one taking it down to a dismal 2.5 rating.

In conclusion, if you want an action flick for the kiddies then send them off to Iron Man 3.  If, on the other hand, you want entertainment that will engage the whole family, get in line for Star Trek Into Darkness.

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50 Years of OO7 and the Sky is Not Falling — Movie Review


Skyfall

Skyfall

Action thriller, Adventure, Suspense.  2012, U.S., 143 Minutes, directed by Sam Mendes

Medium:  Currently in Theaters

Rating:  5.0 (5-point system)

In one word:

Incredible.

In probably too many words:

In my opinion, the best of the OO7 film series are those entries that, through character development (rather than action), accurately portray the character of James Bond as his creator Ian Fleming intended.  And the more in-depth the character study, the better.  The original Fleming-penned Bond stories are, after all, what elevated the anti-hero to a literary art form.  As originally portrayed in the early Fleming series, Bond is not a likeable guy.  He’s a calculating, cold-blooded killer who goes through women, alcohol, and cigarettes like Donald Trump goes through hairspray, embarrassing tweets, and credibility.

It’s long been my observation that the longer the running time of the film, the more character development you’re going to get.  For decades my favorite Bond film was 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which at 2 hours 20 minutes held the record until 2006’s Casino Royale (2 hours 24 minutes) and this year’s Skyfall (2 hours 23 minutes).  But, whereas Casino Royale and Skyfall represent the early Bond (Casino Royale was first of the Bond novels; Skyfall has no direct affiliation to the original series), Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was a study of Bond later in his career — the phase in his life where women had become more than pleasurable pursuits, killing didn’t come quite as easily, and the flame of remorse began to flicker deep within him.  This is the Bond reflected in that 1969 movie, so it may not be your cup of tea if early Bond is more to your liking.

But, my, how this character has fallen.  The de rigueur pre-credit action sequence sets up James Bond’s (Daniel Craig) unexpected and premature “retirement” from MI6.  After the opening credits we’re transported to a time many months later.  Bond is pretty much washed up.  He’s slovenly dressed and appears to have a deep aversion to razors or even basic hygiene.  He’s a physical and mental wreck and a borderline alcoholic who still enjoys killing far too much, but is finally starting to show some remorse. In one scene, in which the MI6 psychologist is making the recently resurrected Bond go through word association, the psychologist says, “Murder,” and Bond without hesitation blurts out, “Employment.” It’s a rather chilling association when seen on the screen because it flows from the character’s mind to his lips so naturally.

Later however, in Bond’s first meeting with the new head of Q Branch, Q (Ben Whishaw) tells Bond, “Well, I’ll hazard I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do in a year in the field.”

When Bond then asks, “Oh?  So why do you need me?”

Q retorts, “Every now and then a trigger has to be pulled.”

Bond replies with words that offer a peek into his evolving inner soul, “Or not pulled.  It’s hard to know which in your pajamas.”

With these words it becomes very evident that this is not the young, brash, and needlessly reckless Bond of Casino Royale.  This Bond is finally starting to awaken to the consequences of his chosen occupation and the folly of acting on whim.

This film is dark, dark, dark.  There are very little of the trappings of the previous Bond films here — few tuxedo-clad scenes, almost no gambling, very muted sexual innuendo, and little in the way of silly puns and ill-timed humor.  This film is about what makes operatives of the OO-Branch tick.  It’s a study into how they are chosen, what qualities they possess, and why they look to their boss (M — portrayed by Dame Judy Dench) as a parental figure.

It’s also a study into how the inner child of a fellow operative reacts when that parental figurehead betrays him.  Without giving too much away, the villain of Skyfall (Javier Bardem) is precisely this sort of betrayed child, throwing the ultimate in temper tantrums while still displaying in the end a chilling love/hate relationship with the person who betrayed him.  This setup and the consequences will shock you when the dénouement finally arrives.

Pleasantly gone from this film, as with the two Daniel Craig films that preceded it, are the ridiculous gadgets (save one, which I’ll get to in a moment) that perpetually save Bond in the nick of time in some dramatic yet silly way.  This propensity for gadgetry has been the Achilles heel of this film series for decades because it detracts from the sheer inventiveness of the character and diminishes for the viewer his unrelenting will to survive against incalculable odds.

Skyfall was released in the U.S. fifty years and one month after the first Bond film (Dr. No) hit theaters in October, 1962.  But it follows in the more recent tradition of Casino Royale, which successfully rebooted both the character and the series in 2006.  By the end of Skyfall the reboot is complete — M is transformed into a figure much more in tune with Bernard Lee’s original.  Miss Moneypenny has returned to staff M’s outer office.  Q is back, but a Q who has more faith in Bond’s inherent abilities than any Q Branch gadgetry.  Even the monolithic MI6 headquarters and its modernistic trappings are gone at the end of this film.  In it’s wake is a return to an office for M that appears a recreation right out of the first Sean Connery films — dark, heavy wood; oppressively thick drapery; and that wonderful, tufted, leather-clad door that separates M’s office from Moneypenny’s.

What else was brought back to this reboot from the original series?  It’s that most iconic of Q Branch gadgets to which I referred earlier, and the sight of its return had the assembled theater audience clapping their collective approval.  It’s the return of BMT 216A — “The Most Famous Car in the World.”  Still contained within the beautifully handcrafted aluminum body panels of this silver birch 1964 Aston Martin DB5 were the special non-factory “options” installed by Q Branch for the Goldfinger operation, including that marvelous ejection seat.  Enjoy your one last cinematic view of this ingenious piece of Bond history.  With the physical and metaphorical destruction of BMT 216A this reboot has come full circle, for as previously noted this reboot is about the man rather than the gadgets.

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The Dark Knight Trips, Falls, and Can’t Get Up (Movie Review)


The Dark Knight Rises

Action, Adventure, Fantasy Based on the DC Comics Character; U.S.; 2012; 164 minutes; directed by Christopher Nolan

Medium:  Currently in Theaters

Rating:  2.0 bat droppings (5-bat dropping system)

The Dark Knight Rises

First there was the superlative Batman Begins (2005, 4.5 Stars)—the best comic book-based movie ever produced bar none.

Batman Begins

Then Christopher Nolan managed to do something few accomplish in a sequel.  He topped himself and made a genre-defining motion picture that has set the standard for everything that follows—The Dark Knight (2008, 5.0 Stars—yeah, it’s really that good).

The Dark Knight

And that’s really the shame of it all in a nutshell.  Mr. Nolan set the bar so high with the third of the Dark Knight trilogy that anything short of perfection would be perceived as a dull thud of bat guano on the pavement in the shadow of the Wayne Enterprises Building.  And what a heaping, steaming pile this movie is.

The first two films had a laser-like focus, the first on the development of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and his eventual and reluctant transformation into his dark alter ego—The Batman.  The primary villain in this almost operatic melodrama is Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson), Bruce Wayne’s mentor in the blackest of martial arts  and teacher of skills more fitting an assassin.

It is the second in the series (The Dark Knight), however, that is and probably will remain for decades to come the benchmark for  movies based upon comic book heroes.  Heath Ledger’s Joker  is in my opinion the most evil character in cinematic history.  And every time you think you’ve finally got a handle on how evil and depraved this character is, he get even more evil and depraved.

But Heath Ledger’s incredible acting as a mere device in this second film—a means to an end.  For The Dark Knight is not so much a Batman movie as it was a cautionary tale of post 9/11 excess.  The message here is, if something is truly and incomprehensibly evil, it will eventually corrupt good until the two become indistinguishable.

And this is where The Dark Knight Rises gets tripped up, as it were, and falls flat on its face.  The underlying message here is contradictory to the tale that preceded it, contradictory to the point of incoherence.

Batman’s nemesis this time is Bane (Tom Hardy), a character who (like the Joker and Ra’s al Ghul before him) wants to destroy Gotham City . . . but not before turning the citizens of Gotham upon each other.  If it’s been done twice before, you’d better come up with something really novel the third time around.  Alas, Christopher Nolan does not.  And whereas the Joker was totally unpredictable in his evil, Bane is not.  Bane is pretty much an open book from the beginning, save for his deepest, innermost motivations, which are saved for the climactic battle near the end of the picture.

It is Bane’s predictability that makes him far less menacing than the Joker, even if the extent of the disaster he has planned for Gotham is more heinous.  Overall, the sense of dread facing Gotham over a three-plus-month period (no wonder the film runs nearly three excruciatingly painful hours) just starts to wear down the viewer to where I no longer cared.  The whole setup was dull, plodding, and interminable.

If you’re still inclined to watch this film, it is imperative that you view the preceding two or you’ll become irretrievably lost in the ensuing mayhem and the cascading litany of characters and references that rain down upon the audience like a monsoon downpour on the Indian subcontinent.

If not for the ending, I’d be giving this pile of bat guano 1.5 droppings, but the melding of all the elements in the last few minutes salvaged half a dropping for its inventiveness, if nothing else.

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