Sunday, May 19, 2013

Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

J.J. Abrams' second Star Trek movie is more or less just what you'd expect: it's a very big, very loud summer action flick that mines elements from the original series and movies and rearranges them into a modern cinematic experience. It's sort of the big-budget Broadway musical version of Trek: operatic, a tad melodramatic, and about as subtle as a space ship crashing into a city.

Oh. It's also a hell of a lot of fun. That last part's kind of important: like the first installment, this is pure summer escapism. If you're in the theater looking for something else, you're either in the wrong place or the wrong era. Sorry.

Part buddy comedy and part action movie, Into Darkness is fairly unrelenting. It throws jokes at you faster than most slapstick (and with far more success), even as it manages to ratchet up the excitement. The effects are as good as in part one, and the action is even better. The returning characters do an even better job filling the shoes of the original cast than they did in the first movie. Sure, the movie is riddled with plot holes... but who cares?

Let's see how much I can talk about the villain without delivering any major spoilers. For the past year or so, there's been a question as to the identity of the movie's bad guy. Abrams consistently refused to answer, which only fueled speculation. By the time the movie was released, neither answer would really have felt satisfying or shocking.

Going in, I was irritated Abrams had bothered keeping this a secret. Walking out, I thought he was a genius. It was slight of hand: while we were busy speculating on this one little detail, he'd managed to distract us from asking about the rest of the movie. Our premise was wrong, anyway. The figure we'd been wondering wasn't exactly a villain in the traditional sense: he was a character in the movie. And a fascinating one at that.

Interestingly, Into Darkness addresses (at least superficially) one major critique of the first film: that it wasn't about anything. In the style of the original picture, this was actually a metaphor for a contemporary issue. I doubt it will silence the critics complaining this still doesn't feel like Trek, but they were always a small (if vocal) minority of fans, anyway.

In short, it's a great summer action flick and worthy successor to its predecessor (actually, I think I liked this one even more than part one). It's also a good omen: apparently, Abrams' success wasn't a fluke, which bodes extremely well for the future of Star Wars, the next franchise he's taking on. Hopefully Trek will find someone competent to pick up where he left off.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Movie Review: Iron Man 3

I think I saw Ben Kingsley give the best performance of his life yesterday. Not in Iron Man 3, though he was good there too, but in an interview on The Colbert Report where he lied his ass off about the character he was playing, The Mandarin. I don't want to go into too much depth, but the big screen adaptation of The Mandarin had a lot of parallels to the Dark Knight Rises's portrayal of Bane. The difference was that Iron Man 3 was competently written and directed, and it owned the rather substantial changes it made to the character. I know there are a lot of fans who hate what they did with Iron Man's most iconic villain, but I kind of enjoyed it. I was more irritated by how they treated Maya Hansen, honestly.

Iron Man 3 is a bizarre movie, but I think I understand how it came to be. Imagine you're an executive putting together plans for this. Note that this is happening before Avengers hits theaters. You have no idea that it's going to have the largest opening weekend of all time: you don't even know whether it's going to flop. So you hedge your bets. Avengers, like Iron Man 2 and Captain America, is made for the die-hard fans, the ones more interested in the Marvel Universe than Tony Stark. You want to be prepared for the possibility the public is going to reject the connections in that Universe.

So you put together a movie that isn't about them. It acknowledges what's happened (in fact, the events of Avengers had a major impact on Tony's personality), but the expanded Universe didn't really show up, even when they probably should have: where was S.H.I.E.L.D. during all this?

In short, this one wasn't made for the comic geeks: it was made for fans of the first movie who didn't like part two. How was Marvel supposed to know those people would love Avengers?

I saw this with a bunch of friends who - like myself - are major fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I think all of us would name Avengers as our favorite movie of last year and Iron Man 3 as one of our most anticipated movies of this year. We're certainly not alone - there are a lot of Marvel geeks out there these days.

So... did we get what we wanted from Iron Man 3? Well, I'm not actually sure what we wanted. Maybe we wanted to be wowed, like we were for the Avengers. The movie didn't deliver that: it probably couldn't have. What it did deliver was a series of more modest surprises and twists, all wrapped in an classic Shane Black action-movie package.

As a pallet cleanser, it was kind of fantastic. It was what it claimed to be: a stand-alone film set apart from the rest of the Marvel Universe. It featured some great dialogue, and some amazing action sequences. Were they contrived? Of course - this is Shane Black, after all - but they were exciting and well executed. This was funnier than the previous installments while simultaneously being the first in the trilogy that didn't feel like a comedy: I was invested in the fights to a degree I haven't been in this series previously. The heroes felt more mortal, and the villains felt more threatening.

Was I bothered this was less a Marvel movie than a Tony Stark one? A little, honestly. But it was still a hell of a great summer action movie, and I'm no less excited about seeing Thor: The Dark World in November.

Huh. I feel like I'm forgetting something important about this movie. What could it be?