Monthly Archives: May 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek Into Darkness film posterSynopsis

Directed by J.J. Abrams.  It starts on planet Nibiru where the crew fail to respect the prime directive (non interference in a developing culture).  Spock nearly gets incinerated trying to plug a volcano.  Then it’s London in the 23rd century and John Harrison (Beneddict Cumberbatch) is the villain who attacks London and then the Star Trek headquarters in San Francisco, killing Kirk’s mentor.  They go after Harrison who’s gone off to Klingon land, Harrison fights off the Klingons and is captured by Kirk.  Harrison is a member of a new super race and his fellows are to be found in torpedoes on board “The Enterprise”.  Kirk and his crew get involved in a fight over some bad history that Harrison shares with Kirk’s superior Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) whose daughter Dr Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) is on Kirk’s ship.  Does Kirk survive radiation, rescuing his damaged ship?  Who will win in the fight between Spock and Harrison?


The opening scene on planet Nibiru with its scarlet trees and chalky humanoids with black eyes is Star Trek’s acknowledgement that Avatar is a sci-fi game changer.  It’s quite stunning in it’s depiction of alienness, the volcano scene is impressive.  London in the future is a forest of gigantic ‘Gherkin’ buildings plus Golden Compass architecture and hospital hi-tech.  The movie focuses on the details of a star ship from the fabrics of the upholstery to the Pompidou Centre tangle of tubes and machinery in Scotty and Chekov’s engine room.  It’s a pity though that the Star Trek movies have succumbed to the long leather coated chic of the fist fight and the athletic run through the streets (why run when you’ve got space age vehicles).  There’s too much violence and crash bang and wallop, as if we don’t get enough of that in all comic book films and their endless CGI.  I had hoped for more imaginative issues in keeping with creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek’s mission in defending liberal values in an often brutal cosmos.  For me, it would be more exiting to see The Enterprise crew deal with the cultural development of a planet like Nibiru or show a more nuanced exploration of ethical issues rather than the (admittedly entertaining) personality conflicts of the Star Trek characters we all know and love.  Trekkie fans might be placated by the film’s presentation of the original ’60s characters as their younger selves.  I often thought the perfect Star Trek TV series would be the 1960s characters with the production values of the Voyager series in the ’90s.  Spock, as played by Zachary Quintano, is effectively apologizing for Leonard Nimoy’s very formal TV Spock.  Quintano’s Spock is more humane as his adherence to logic is not a geekish fetish based on fear of emotion but an attempt to overcome emotional devastation. this rather undermines the 60s scenario in which Doctor “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) detested Spock for his coldness.  Kirk (Chris Pine) is the cheerful, rule breaking picaresque oaf who never misses any fight going.  His relationship with Spock brings out Spock’s emotional reserve as strength rather than Nimoy’s blank evasion.  Spock has a relationship with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and they argue like any suburban couple.  Doctor McCoy’s use of colourful metaphors earns him a humorous rebuke from Kirk.  The humour usually works in the same way as it did in the 60s.  Scotty is played by Simon Pegg, the Scottish accent is straight out of Braveheart, he is yet another down to earth character with no time for the mystical pretensions that can infect the voyage.  Sulu (John Cho) gets to be in temporary command, ready to ambush any crew member with understated wit.  Anton Yelchin who plays the Russian, Chekhov, is himself a Russian but his accent made me think of the comical Ilya Kuryachin from The Man from Uncle.  Benedict Cumberbatch as the bad guy John Harrison (who is also Khan) has a voice like a purring echo in a pumping clamp of a jaw on a face like a latex covered machine.  I hoped for “Thus Spake Zarathustra” aphorisms but got rather conventional villain attitudes.  This is a missed opportunity for a more thoughtful film but it’s spectacular. Nice to see Leonard included, if only briefly.

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Posted by on May 18, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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The Paperboy

The Paperboy film posterSynopsis

Directed by Lee Daniels, set in 1960’s Florida.  The story is told by a black maid Anita (Macy Gray).  Nicole Kidman plays Charlotte Bless, she corresponds with death row cop killer Hillary van Wetter (John Cusack).  Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) is a journalist following a story that van Wetter is innocent.  He investigates with Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo).  Van Wetter will only be interviewed if Charlotte is present.  Ward’s brother Jack (Zac Efron) bums around and gets obsessed with Charlotte.

SPOILER ALERT!  Van Wetter is released and lives with Charlotte in the Everglades.  He kills her and could kill others.  He is caught again.  Ward is off to fulfil literary ambitions…


This movie feels as sweaty, languid and torpid as it looks.  It’s like a stroll through a steamy greenhouse decorated with orchids and iguanas.  This is Tennessee Williams land, the youthful Marlon Brando had the time of his life in this ambience.  This is the era of the anti-racist civil rights movement, we are in the deep south and we get reptilian looks and attitudes from white officialdom.  Yardley, of course, is the easily targeted victim of this as a black man, though he subverts their racist stupidity by dropping his English accent to speak like an aggressive American.  The policemen are like Rod Steiger getting a deserved comeuppance from Sidney Poitier. Nicole Kidman’s Charlotte is a Blanche du Bois party piece, a steely self respect under the vaudevillian tartiness.  She is all peroxide hair and trowel-applied mascara, she looks like a permanent two o’clock in the morning.  When interviewing van Wetter, Charlotte takes off her underwear and rubs herself, the men in the room look hypocritically embarrassed.  In another scene Jack is stung by a jellyfish and the only cure is a urine shower on his skin which he gets from Charlotte.  Ward is gay and gets beaten up by thugs and the movie sinks even deeper into a hungover lassitude.  It’s all blood sweat and tropical steaminess.  The revolting van Wetter is a homicidal animal, you wouldn’t imagine Truman Capote wasting much time on this guy.  Van Wetter’s folk are jungle denizens.  An alligator carcass hangs in the sun and van Wetter rips into the reptile like a feral hunter in some primeval blood rite.  I’m a big fan of David Janssen’s 1960s series The Fugitive (in which a wrongfully convicted doctor is on the run) and I kept wondering which of these characters would have betrayed him and which would have helped.  Jack’s family would doubtless have grassed him up, they are trip wire white supremists,  gargoyle ugly, and ever alert to insubordination.  It’s like a pastiche of TV characters from 60s programmes: the newly confident black person, the sassy peroxide blonde, the alcoholic wife, the irritable confused kid, the always decent older brother, the pantomime murderer, the redneck racist police.  Their resentment lacks focus, it lashes about looking for weak spots in a potential victim.  Ward is the decent character who will write about all this.  This is not supposed to be as good as the novel but I found it enjoyable even if it felt like too long in a sauna.


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Posted by on May 16, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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In the House

In the House film posterSynopsis

Directed by François Ozon.  About a school teacher, Germain (Fabrice Luchini) who teaches literature in a provincial French town.  He is married to Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) who’s in charge of an art gallery.  They have no children.  Germain has an imaginative pupil Claude (Ernst Umhauer) who writes well on “what I did last week”.  The other pupils are hopelessly inept at writing.   Claude has a friend Rapha whose parents are affluent, they are Rapha and Esther.  Germain nurtures Claude’s talent and asks him to write about the lives of Rapha’s parents.  Is Germain encouraging voyeurism in Claude?  At the end Germain and Claude are building fictions from what they see in windows…


This is a film about writing and film.  The school is Lycee Gustave Flaubert which refers us to the highly meticulous and perfectionist writer.  This film tells us of the danger of manipulating reality in the name of art, of the danger of making fluid boundaries between fantasy wish and realisation of such fantasy.  We get Purple Rose of Cairo-like situations where an actor playing Humphrey Bogart dispenses worldly wisdom to Woody Allen, only he can see Bogart.   In the House works as a satire on our expectations from film, Claude dreams of making love to Esther and we will him to go and do it.  As viewers we are complicit in the proceedings though we don’t get as stern a lecture as Haneke is prepared to give us in his films.  It’s about the writer/artist as observer and the boundary between artistic perception and voyeuristic manipulation.  Claude shows a gift for observation, writing about the “singular smell of a middle class woman”.  Rapha’s parents are cheerfully philistine and unacquainted with the rigours and perils of artistic aspiration.  Rapha’s home is in stark contrast to Claude’s broken home, Claude is the resentful outsider.  Germain eventually realizes he is playing a dangerous game by mentoring the unflinching gaze of an emerging talent.  Manipulation comes with consequences and Germain learns this to his cost.  His fostering of Claude has repercussions on his own relationship with his partner Jeanne.  He gets jealous and violent.  This reminds me of the novel The Act of Love by Howard Jacobson in which a husband arranges a relationship between his wife and another man and then tortures himself with jealousy over it.  The answer to this and Germain is “serves you right”.

At the end of the film Germain and Claude are observing lives going on behind the windows of houses.  This is an obvious reference to Hitchcock’s Rear Window and of course the camera”s balefully swivelling eye in Psycho. The house of the title could be a metaphorical house of art in which we are invited to watch the libidinous imagination play havoc with bourgeoise domesticity.  We last saw Fabrice Luchini play the pompous bourgeoise husband in Potiche, and in House he is similarly as comical as he gets out of his depth.  Absorbing.


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The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines film posterSynopsis

Starring Ryan Gosling as Luke, a motorcyclist stuntman and bank robber, and Bradley Cooper, as Avery a police officer and aspiring lawyer.  Ryan Gosling has a child, Jason, by Romina (Eva Mendes) and tries to provide for him by robbing banks.  On one robbery he is chased and shot by Avery, what will happen?  Avery is contacted by corrupt cop Ray Liotta who finds the robbery money in Eva Mendes’ house.  We then jump fifteen years to where the son of Avery (Bradley Cooper) is bad and the son of Luke (Ryan Gosling) is impressionable.  There is a confrontation between Jason and Avery.  Will it end well?


Ryan Gosling is supposed to be the big star at the moment, he’s certainly cornered the motoring and motorcycling roles.  He seems to have James Dean’s ability to root a presence and its mood and let those around him respond to this.  I’m impervious to his supposed acting charisma though I was intermittently sympathetic with him as the failed husband in Blue Valentine.  In this film, he’s the confused drifter looking in at domestic bliss as he watches the christening of his boy, reminding us of Glenn Close looking in at unachievable happiness in Fatal Attraction.  Bradley Cooper is watchable as the ambitious cop (with the inevitable legal bigwig of a father whom he must please).  Romina’s new partner is the predictably nice and bland Mr Reliable in contrast to the feckless Luke.  Ray Liotta is convincingly menacing as the corrupt cop, scarily alert to imagined belittlements, the controlling bully.

There are creaking implausibilities in this film.  Would it really be so easy for Luke to rob banks by just walking in with a sack?  Given today’s technology I doubt this would be possible.  Wouldn’t the perspex screens afford more convincing protection to the bank clerks?  Wouldn’t all the banks be on the alert after his first robbery?  He expertly speeds off on his motorbike, so wouldn’t his stuntman job make him a prime suspect?  Was his accomplice caught, if not, then how did Avery know he was Luke’s friend?  Avery eventually deals with the corrupt Ray Liotta but what was he doing with these bad cops in the first place given his career aspirations and ethical concerns?  Avery’s confrontation with Jason looks very contrived, an enactment of attempted revenge for the killing of his father by Avery who is guilt ridden and seeks absolution.  I think this is meant to be a sort of resolution as he finds his spiritual father.  The two sons are prodigal sons who suffer for the sins of their fathers.  This becomes all rather biblical, the predictable binary of good father/bad son, bad father/good son.  This is very neat and dramatically absorbing but it has an ultimately unconvincing symmetry to it, it’s too black and white.  As usual in such crime dramas, women take stereotypically passive and suffering roles. They are either single mothers trying to make a living or decoratively beautiful wives always amenable to the requirements of the male ego.  Watchable but badly flawed.


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Oz the Great and Powerful

Oz the Great and Powerful film posterSynopsis

Starts in black and white at a Kansas fair in 1905.  James Franco plays a fairground trickster who doesn’t want the responsibility of marriage to Rachel Weisz.  His magic is fraudulent.  He escapes from aggrieved colleagues in a balloon in which he gets into a tornado and ends up in Oz.  He meets two witches (Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz) and a winged monkey.  Later he rescues a porcelain girl.  He must prove himself to the Munchkins and the citizens of Oz against the wicked witches….


If MGM has the rights to the Tin Man, the Lion, and the Scarecrow, how come this film can show the Munchkins which MGM presumably has the copyright on?  Oz the Great and Powerful takes full advantage of its seventy five years of cinema technology over the Selznick film, so I suppose it’s unfair to compare them as spectacle.  This Emerald City is a green version of the red palaces of Tim Burton’s Alice.  It’s of course much superior to the painted cardboard of 1939 which was magical enough in the world of depression and impending war.  The new film is a highly efficient CGI extravaganza but cannot claim the earlier film’s magic.  We are too consumerist and sated, “less is more” is not a respected precept in today’s cinema.  The scene at the funfair in black and white is a throwback to the opening scenes of the Garland film, but that was the contrast of reality to dream whereas in this film it feels like it’s from gimmick to gimmick.  The only new character we get is a china doll and with this ‘Shrek-like’ midget we romp through the latest computer tricks with no human depth.  James Franco’s fairground magician reprises Heath Ledger’s role in Imaginarium, the film works like a Terry Gilliam project as we get reminders of that film.  Oz The Great and Powerful share the same limitations as other productions of the L Frank Baum stories in that the characters may look weird and a bit threatening but they lack the violence and terror (for children) of the books.  The Munchkins, the doll, and the monkey are all reduced to the lowest common denominator of bland amenability and acceptable character changes through predictable plot developments.  The bad guys look like cereal packet monsters and the good guys are the usual contenders for the Prom Queen’s favours.  In the end, love and sincerity must prevail over deceit of self and others, a conventional message of hope.  Sometimes fun but could have been more imaginative..


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