I'm not entirely sure why you would make films based on a franchise that you never liked. I'm on record as believing that the first JJ Abrams Star Trek flick was a reasonable popcorn flick but it didn't share anything with the original product except some character names. That's not true for the second movie. Into Darkness (to use its weird, not-really-a-subtitle subtitle) isn't just bad Trek, it's loathesome filmmaking.
The low-hanging fruit is that the plot doesn't even try to make sense for more than five minutes at a time, but since the original series was hardly airtight, I have a number of other bones to pick, including:
Sure, much of this probably seems like nitpicks and nerd rage. I've watched a lot of Star Trek, probably more than most people, and so there are a lot of things that to me are instinctively not right but aren't necessarily invalid. I think it's a shame to lose those parts of the Trek canon (and I tend to think that Abrams' alterations are worse than the material he's replacing), but I'm hardly objective. Lance believes that he's just trolling us, and I'm not sure that's wrong.
I find the movie's general incoherence to be frustrating. But that's not what actually makes me angry.
At the end of Star Trek Into Grim Serious Incoherence, Khan crashes his spaceship into San Francisco. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people are killed, but that's okay because they're not the protagonists and presumably their psychological issues were less attractive. This is, to put it lightly, not really what Gene Roddenberry had in mind when he pitched "wagon train in space" to some bored Desilu executives.
Speaking personally, I'm getting a little sick of the whole "it's been a decade since 9/11, so let's crash a flying vehicle into a city and call it emotional resonance" thing that every hack director with a render farm has been on lately. Abrams is doing it, apparently the new Superman movie does it, The Avengers did it. It's a cheap, transparent ploy to make otherwise airy summer entertainment seem important, so that critics can write that your otherwise incoherent summer tentpole flick has "real-world allusions" in it. Blowing up a planet in the first reboot movie wasn't enough, I guess.
Nowhere is that more true than in Star Trek No Subtitles Just Darkness. Khan doesn't really have a good reason to crash his ship into a major city. It doesn't particularly help him achieve his goals. He just does it because, as with every other reason that anyone does anything in a JJ Abrams movie, it's part of the story checklist they wrote before actually getting to outmoded concerns like "dialogue" or "motivation" or "character." City destroyed: tragedy achieved. On to the next setpiece!
Reboot or not, there are some things that a Star Trek movie shouldn't do, and mass murder is one of them. I'm under no illusions about the ideological purity of Star Trek, especially under Paramount's management, but I like to think that Roddenberry's vision should mean something regardless. As it is, there must be a little whirlwind somewhere around the ionosphere where his ashes are spinning. If JJ Abrams wants to participate in a little cinematic disaster porn, he's welcome to do so, but I wish he'd restrict it to some other, less established franchise. It's probably just as well that he's moving on to Star Wars: this kind of bankrupt cheesiness will fit right in there.
Shorter District 9:
Sure, we could have done something thought-provoking with our premise, but it was that or the giant robot shootout. The choice was clear.
Nobody doubts director Neill Blomkamp's technical chops, or his gift for visually juxtaposing science fiction elements (robot policemen, aliens, mecha) over footage of his native South Africa. It is, however, unclear that he knows what it actually means when he does so. District 9 betrays a lack of insight--but just as much, a lack of interest--in the implications of his special effects.
Arturo R. Garcia raises several valid questions at Racialicious, in the brilliantly-titled post Shrimpin' Ain't Easy:
Why is [head alien] Christopher so much smarter than his fellow refugees? How could he be the only one trying to find a way out, or to know/care enough to clothe himself in a 'human' manner? And, if humans and Prawn are able to understand each other by the time the 'footage' is released, why did the documentarians - because that's how the first half of this film is framed - exclude interviews with any of the aliens in favor of black South Africans telling us how threatened they feel, and white South Africans denigrating the species as a whole?
And fellow commentator Nicole Stamp is more blunt about the film's use of stereotypes:
Why can't the Nigerians just be people with logical motives like money and weapons? Why do they have to go out of their way to be ooga-booga savages? The film would still have held up without the narrative elements of cannibalism and interspecies sex. Why do the blacks have to be sexual degenerates who will eat filth and violate the oldest human taboo by committing cannibalism? The only reason I see is to shoehorn some cheap visceral thrills into the movie. It's lazy, sensationalist writing, and it diminishes the potential for intelligent, nuanced allegory. And it doesn't even make sense.
The portrayal of the gangsters bothered me for another reason. As I was sitting in the theater, when one of the "documentary" interviews comments on the Nigerian crime syndicates, a chuckle went around the audience. The implication was pretty clear: for Americans, Nigeria means spammers and criminals. Three cheers for international stereotyping!
But ultimately, I found District 9's problems to be rooted less in racism and more in a reluctance to engage. Despite being set in South Africa, it's not really an apartheid movie. Despite dealing conspicuously with refugees from outer space, it's not a post-war movie. Nor is it a first-contact movie, or a film about immigration and cross-cultural boundaries. Its goals are modest: to be an action movie, and a showcase for an admittedly impressive set of special effects.
To some extent, this might be preferable to higher ambitions but less success. Executed badly, movies in many of these subgenres are lucky to be hackneyed, if they're not even more offensive than what they decry. From that perspective, it's tempting to absolve Blomkamp for his film's toothlessness--although I think no-one can realistically argue that we live in a post-racist society, it's also hard to say that we need to be told, once again, that apartheid was a bad idea.
Then again, to give him that pass is to treat science fiction simply as a way to rehash simple object lessons from history--a failing often embodied by Star Trek's well-meaning aliens-as-minority trope, which is rarely flattering to anyone involved. In the last few years, we've seen some great sci-fi that uses artistic license to examine political questions (both new and old) from interesting directions: BSG, Torchwood, Pan's Labrynth, Children of Men, The Dark Knight--although they range widely in subtlety, intelligence, and complexity, these movies are undeniably engaged.
District 9 is not. While social redemption might be asking too much, the film is notable in that it hardly ever, in the first half-hour or so--and never after that--bothers to draw a comparison between its South African setting and the alien segregation that theoretically drives its alien-buddy-cop plotline. Nor does it consider the other parallels--colonialism, technological exploitation, literal class warfare--that might be drawn. In fact, by the end of the movie, the status quo has been largely upheld. The resulting experience feels like a bit of a let-down. Given such a compelling setup, you want to say, this is the best you could do?
Torie Atkinson at Tor notes that the new Star Trek movie is a pretty good action flick, but it's really bad Trek:
Nero's just seen his entire planet destroyed, yet when he goes back in time he utterly wastes the chance to change things. Why on earth does he not get his ass straight to Romulus, tell them about that supernova thingawhatsit that's gonna happen in the future, and give them some of his technology to plan for the eventuality? No, he's a boilerplate villain hellbent on a boilerplate revenge plot.Atkinson also, as you'd expect from a geeky sci-fi blog, points out a whole host of science-related plot holes. And although it's tempting to dismiss that kind of complaint as nerd nitpicking, particularly given Trek's non-reputation for scientific accuracy, there is a deeper point to be found there. Here's the thing: when the writers in the original series threw another minute of 'technobabble' onto the page to cover up a blatant last-minute deus ex, it was entirely in keeping with the earnestness of the show as a whole. It sprang from the same source as the preachiness that sometimes overwhelmed it. Fans mock its silliness, but there's also fondness there, since it meant the writers were still trying to say something.
...There are Big Issues tossed around, but they're not explored in any meaningful way. The destruction of Vulcan is only there to make Spock emote--there's no hint as to what this means for anyone else, including humanity, the Federation, or the future. Nero annihilates his cousin race. The implications are astounding and interesting and never engaged with at all. We're talking about full-scale genocide. If you can't address that idea beyond 'It makes someone sad,' then you shouldn't be using it in your film.
Star Trek could be a painfully sincere program, a tendency that only got worse with TNG. It had faith in people, in progress, in technology, and it wore its heart on its sleeve. The technobabble was a part of that sincerity--sure, it said, we're just papering over the cracks in this episode's premise, but we refuse to let it slip by. We'll even draw attention to it with a jarring, pseudotechnical expository speech, that's how deeply and awkwardly we've bought into Roddenberry's vision of the future: one that might still have contemporary problems--racism, the Cold War, William Shatner--but can overcome them with a little human ingenuity and logic.
In the new Star Trek movie, they don't bother with the
plot black holes created with
'red matter?' Scotty's transporter formula that can somehow hit a
spaceship in warp from light-years away? (One wonders why anyone bothers
with the ship in the first place, then.) Time travel that's a paradox
only when the script demands it? Taming the franchise's runaway
explanation habit was probably a good idea, but Abrams takes it too far
in the other direction. It's just lazy: trying to get to the next action
scene while avoiding any of the pesky social commentary (no matter how
outdated) or sincere moralizing of the original. It's thrown away the
heart and soul of the show for the sake of streamlining.
It's a pretty good movie. But it's not really Star Trek.
Noburo Igichi's The Machine Girl is basically what you'd get if Peter Jackson had sat down with revenge-epics Oldboy and Kill Bill instead of a bunch of slasher flicks before making Dead Alive. Like Jackson's classic gross-out horror comedy, The Machine Girl is low-budget, outrageously gory, and perfectly cast. And if it never reaches quite the same heights ("I kick ass for the Lord!"), it's also far more consistent and doesn't suffer from the dragging pace of its predecessor.
Warning: trailer may contain both spoilers and awesomeness.
Without spoiling things too much, The Machine Girl is about a student named Ami whose brother is killed by the son of a local Yakuza boss. Ami tries to take revenge, but loses an arm in the process. She's taken in by the parents of her brother's friend (also murdered), who join her in her quest for vengeance by constructing a prosthetic chaingun arm. Ultraviolence, and no small amount of stupidity, ensues.
I hesitate to say that it's a good movie. But then, to call something like The Machine Girl "good" is to miss the point. This is gleefully juvenile, not high cinema: it's Takashi Miike without the class, early Sam Raimi without the playfulness. At one point, someone is stabbed in the neck so hard that they spit out their intestines. If you can handle that, and if you finished the trailer with a stupid grin on your face, you'll probably enjoy it. But like Dead Alive or Miike's less artful outings (Gozu, for example), it's definitely not for everyone.
On a second viewing with Belle, Iron Man is a much more ambivalent film than it seemed the first time around. It's a movie about a superhero who does very little in the way of superheroics except defend his corporate interests. It's about an industrial magnate who wants to give up building weapons, but still for some reason has missile systems loaded into his post-conversion set of armor. And at heart, its main character is a guy who is capable of doing good not because of training or ideology, but because he was born rich and was once forced to confront his own unwitting privilege through a loss of control.
Many of these issues are inherent to the source material: any decent movie based on the Iron Man character, coming from a comic book as he does, is going to have to work around the shift in the medium. Successful adaptations--and Iron Man is very successful--have done so by minimizing the silliness of the genre, often keeping the main character out of costume as much as possible (the Spiderman movies use much the same strategy, as does the new Hulk, apparently). That said, the weakest part of the film is certainly at the end, when Obediah Stane goes on an armored rampage for no other possible reason than to fuel the movie's closing confrontation. After all, Stane is otherwise shown to be a shrewd manipulator and businessman, who's already working to move Tony Stark out of his position through channels both legal and illegal. There's no particular reason he should be bothering with a waldo-powered fistfight, except that it makes for exciting comic-book cinema.
Still, never mind all that. Because for a large chunk of its running time, Iron Man purports to be both self-contained and realistic-ish, meaning it doesn't matter that I know nothing about the comics and the characters that they set up. I don't need to know that Tony Stark, in the Marvel universe, is a long-time alcoholic, nor the complicated twists and turns of his business empire. I can happily ignore those in favor of the movie itself.
And what that movie presents, speaking glibly, is Batman without the ninja correspondence courses.
Tony Stark becomes Iron Man because he's held prisoner by a set of Afghani militants, and forced to recognize that his weapons are not being used to defend freedom and the American way, but also to arm guerrillas and terrorists. That's why he thinks he becomes Iron Man, but it doesn't address how he is able to do so, except indirectly. Because of course, Stark's ability to fight crime is based entirely on his wealth, his education, and his connections. He's an entitlement superhero. He has infrastructure.
This actually makes Iron Man a little old-fashioned, which is why a post-Cold War film adaptation is so interesting. As Matt Jones points out, Iron Man has a great deal in common with the classic Bond villains, who flaunted their wealth and power through elaborately-decorated lairs (or as Christopher Frayling is quoted in Jones' post, "machines for being a megalomaniac in.") The comparison with Batman, therefore, is actually flawed: when Bruce Wayne was traumatized, he responded by refining himself and acquiring new abilities separate from (although still funded by) his family's advantages. Tony Stark, in contrast, retreats back into the coccoon of Stark Enterprises. Batman is dangerous even when disarmed. Tony Stark, barring incompetent villains who provide him with raw materials, is not.
I don't think this makes Stark more or less sympathetic, although that's hard to gauge given Robert Downey Jr.'s charismatic performance. But it is illustrative of exactly how much the character is founded in privilege, and how much he still needs to grow. Indeed, you could make some very interesting social commentary with this as a starting point. In his 2007 book White Like Me, anti-racism activist Tim Wise comments on the rash of school shootings by white students at places like Columbine. He notes that those shootings by white students, which are characterized by their pointless, nihilistic goals, may in fact be spurred by the fact that white Americans are cushioned by their privilege. They are told by society that they are meant to be powerful and in control, and when they are placed in situations where that is not the case, they often lack the coping mechanisms to deal with them effectively. Privilege allows those mechanisms to atrophy, and the result is mania: school shootings, white collar crime, and other destructive behaviors far more common in white Americans than in the minority population.
As an explanations of Stark's transformations go, I think that's pretty good. His journey is roughly equivalent: a massive psychological shock delivered by the realization that he is not, in fact, an invincible force for good. And I think it's intriguing to consider the film in that frame. Because it's clear that while he's become more cognizant of the consequences of his actions, Tony Stark by no means understands how his new behavior is, in its own way, just as destructive as his previous arms dealership. He's trying to solve those old problems by using the same technocratic tools to reinforce his perception of self-superiority. The only change is the form factor--and the exaggeration of the privilege that caused his trauma in the first place, by placing Stark (instead of a trained military bureaucracy) directly in command of those dangerous technologies.
Of course, if Stark ever realized that, he'd have to conclude that the best thing he could do as Iron Man is take off the armor for good. And there's not a lot of Marvel marketing money in that scenario, no matter how psychologically or socially satisfying it might be.
If it had been released a year ago, Everything Is Illuminated would have probably been seen as the dramatic counterpoint to Borat. Both feature America-loving, Soviet-bloc protagonists with a penchant for misappropriating the English language and an ambivalent relationship with Jews. But where Borat uses language as a way to set his listeners off balance, Illuminated's Alex seems to instead have simply dragged its words into a configuration that makes him more comfortable, like bringing a footstool into reach. More generally, Borat puts a foreign character into normal situations to heighten their absurdity, Illuminated eventually reveals these oddities as only thinly exotic versions of typical indie-comedy quirks, which, as usual for this kind of movie, are soon pulled back for more affecting fare.
At heart, this is a road-trip movie structurally similar to Little Miss Sunshine or (more distantly) Y Tu Mama Tambien. Elijah Wood plays Jonathan, a Jewish-American writer who travels to the Ukraine in search of his family's history. He hires Alex (and his grandfather, who professes to be blind despite all evidence to the contrary) to guide him from Odessa to the town of Trachimbrod, where Jonathan's grandfather grew up before traveling to America during WWII. The three travel in a tiny Russian car through broad Ukrainian landscapes, accompanied by the grandfather's "seeing-eye bitch," a deranged pound-puppy named Sammy Davis Junior Jr.
If this sounds precious, it's no doubt far less so than the original novel, in which author Jonathan Safran Foer inserts himself as his own character, plays with multiple timelines, and writes partly in a magical-realist style--although, having read his Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I suspect it is less "magical-realist" and more "hipster-pretentious." One of the more enjoyable parts of the film adaptation is that it cuts the literary fiction flourishes and makes "Jonathan Safran Foer" just another character, which is much more interesting than a walking reminder of the author's cleverness.
Nevertheless, during the mandatory indie-comedy roadtrip, Illuminated slowly sheds itself of the kind of easy targets derived from culture-shock and "quirky" characters, and begins to pick at the underlying threads of discontent in Alex's family (helped in large part by the likable presence of Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hutz), as well as the uncomfortable history of Jonathan's grandfather. It would be easy to criticize this as a transition from one cliched genre to another--that of the belabored Holocaust film--but to do so is to ignore that these cliches are most frustrating when they're done poorly, or half-heartedly. Illuminated handles both its slapstick and its pathos with competence, if not greatness, and the transition is handled gracefully enough so as not to be jarring. In the end, I found it to be a sweetly touching movie--surprisingly so, considering its pedigree.
"I'm going to watch a three hour Russian film classic," I told anyone who asked last weekend, and a few people who didn't. Luckily, Stalker is one of those long films that justifies its own length--and watching it in two sessions didn't hurt. If the running time intimidates you, I'd highly recommend breaking it up into smaller chunks in order to watch it--it's conveniently broken into Parts 1 and 2 for just such an approach.
Like the game of the same title, Stalker is very loosely based on a science fiction story named "Roadside Picnic." It's set in and around the Zone, a dangerous, trap-filled area created through mysterious means. Three men--the Stalker, the Writer, and the Professor--enter the Zone in search of a room that supposedly grants wishes. The Stalker is their guide through this territory, and requires them to step through an elaborate series of pathes and tests on the way.
Although it's a high-concept sci-fi film, there are basically no special effects or technological machines in Stalker. It's shot in fields, abandoned buildings, and underground tunnels, and through dialog and character actions these locations are transformed into something unsettling and claustrophobic (although it should be noted that the production involved a chemical plant that probably led to fatal cancer for several cast members). The Zone is used as a hook for the character to expound on their philosophies, their plans, and what they hope to get out of the room at the end of their journey.
This makes the film very "Russian" to my mind, but it's well-written. And the cinematography is exquisite. Director Andrei Tarkovsky, who also directed the original adaptation of Solaris, indulges in slow zooms and long takes that would be excruciating if the images themselves--either in vibrant color or shimmering, gold-tinted black and white--were not so beautiful. I am not an analog film fanatic, but if I were so inclined, this would possibly be the film to convert me.
It's hard to imagine what they were thinking with this one. I watched some of the original animated shorts a while back, just after they released them on DVD. In its original television form, Aeon Flux was bizarre, perversely sexual, and incredibly (almost pointlessly) violent--an utterly-incoherent throwback to Heavy Metal's drugged out wanderings.
So how do you turn that kind of visual candy into a live-action film? Apparently, you don't try. You write a pastiche of future-dystopia, throw in a set of visual non-sequitors, and cast Charlize Theron--who is a fine actress, but simply can't summon the kind of gaunt, sardonic brutality that the role requires. Director Karyn Kusama likewise tries her best, but can't direct an action sequence worth watching. Perhaps this kind of thing is really best done on the cheap nowadays--fans of Equilibrium who watched Kurt Wimmer's disastrous Ultraviolet will note the similar feel of Aeon Flux's panoramic scenery and expansive color palette, which (oddly) rob the gunfights of their impact.
I respect the attempt to turn such a weird little property into something that MTV could license for Burger King soda cups, but let's be honest: it never had a chance of being a good mainstream movie. The only way it could have been great would have been to embrace the genuine weirdness of its inspiration--become something like Naked Lunch with guns and S&M couture outfits. Even then, it probably would have been terrible--the show doesn't honestly hold up well today, particularly in extended viewing sessions--but it would have been a lot more interesting.
Five years after this documentary was released, its topic of concern--the Amish tradition of letting their kids run wild while they decide whether or not to enter the church--has become a staple of lazy writers on primetime dramas. ER and Law and Order, among others, have both featured rumspringa episodes. Typically, these shows use the Amish angle as a big reveal: those kids can't get their parent's permission for an operation, because they've been shunned! (Dun-dun-DUNNNN! cries the dramatic chipmunk from the back of the audience.)
But if memory serves correctly, television writers exploiting this dramatic device rarely allow the religious tendencies to overwhelm the feel-good resolution of their storyline, either because they believe that people couldn't possibly be so terrible or because there's an unspoken prohibition to hinting that radical religious sects really might just be a little crazy. And the Amish kids depicted, as far as I remember, are usually good citizens who have just landed in a tight spot.
What's noteworthy about The Devil's Playground is that it not only inspired these depictions, but that its takeaway message is so far from those heartwarming moments. If there is a subtle way to point out that the Amish are, in some ways, terribly cruel and manipulative of their children in the interest of "religious freedom," Devil's Playground does so, simply by laying out their actions in a dispassionate--even distant--light.
The filmmakers follow a set of Amish youth who, during this traditional ritual, are no longer required to behave according to the dictates of Amish society. So they can own and drive cars, watch TV, drink, and dance, and their parents do little more than register disapproval of this behavior. Unsurprisingly, like the kid you knew in college who was raised a strict Christian and suddenly let free, the Amish kids go completely overboard. One of them, Faron, is even a meth dealer--one that snitches on a couple of other Amish drug dealers to the local police, earning death threats and social ostracism. I never thought I would write the words "Amish drug dealers" except as a joke, but there you go. The police, it must be said, wearily see the Amish teenagers as trouble.
In theory, the Amish say, this period of teenage rebellion is meant to be a taste of the outside world, so that the kids can make a free decision whether or not to go into the church and remove themselves from the wider world. In practice, The Devil's Playground shows a religious culture that stacks the deck against these kids before they can make that choice. Not only are they tossed with little preparation into an exaggeration of normal life, but (one teenager points out) they're forced to stop schooling in the 8th grade, meaning that they would have no real chance of getting a decent job or going to college. They've got no future in anything other than service-industry or manufacturing jobs. What choice do they really have? Is it any wonder that only 10 percent break free?
I always thought of the Amish as cute, bearded people who make chairs and crafts and raise barns for fun. And granted, they're not violent or overtly ill-disposed. But between their regressive sexual politics and this hazing-like parenting ritual, The Devil's Playground presents a picture that's not nearly so adorable. It does so simply and without any malice towards its subjects--I'm sure the Amish who watch it would feel that they're treated fairly--but it's not flattering. And to some extent, it raises the question of what people should be able to excuse with religion. In any other context, when kids are deprived of their education and then abandoned to their own devices to choose between the horns of a dilemma, would we just let it happen?
Look: no-one ever thought Snakes on a Plane was going to be any good. I didn't think so. That's not why I watched it. I watched it because it had Sam Jackson on a plane full of snakes. I expected prominent cursing, scenery-chewing, and completely outlandish reptilian doom.
But instead, I got a movie that's mostly about people building luggage forts and sucking venom out of each other, while Sam Jackson was criminally underused. His most aggressive anti-snake action was a tazer. The man who educated us on the path of the righteous man restricted to non-lethal weaponry? What a copout.
Perhaps worst of all, he wasn't given any real room to build up a real Sam Jackson head of steam, so his triumphant line (in which he expresses his weariness with snakes, planes, and the combination of the two) goes completely to waste. From this point on, all directors casting Mr. Jackson are required to watch Deep Blue Sea:
That's how you do it. Sadly, I can't find a copy of the complete clip (in which Jackson explains that he killed the other survivors of a horrible mountaineering accident), which is a moment of brilliance in an otherwise unexceptional horror-comedy. More like that please. Less like Snakes on a Plane.