Thursday, May 16, 2013

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Should all the varying factions of nerd and geek culture ever go to war, the final battle would be waged by two groups: Star Trek fans and Star Wars fans. And in the event of this ultimate confrontation, I'm going to side with Star Trek. I've never been one of those "dress in a Starfleet uniform and learn Klingon" type of hardcore Trekkers, but I've proudly enjoyed Star Trek since I was a kid. It started with Star TRek: The Next Generation when I was five years old and it's stuck with me ever since.

But long before any of the TV spinoffs and J.J. Abrams's blockbusters, there were only the original adventures of Captain Kirk and the USS Enterprise. Despite the pop culture impact it's had over the last several decades, the classic series aired on CBS for a mere three seasons between 1966 and 1969. Despite its short life span, it developed a devoted following even back then. It found new life in syndication, and inspired a similarly short-lived Saturday morning cartoon that ran for only 22 episodes during the early '70s. But it didn't come back in a truly big way until the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. The Star Trek franchise would grow by leaps and bounds in the years afterwards, but its initial foray into the cinematic realm would be more of a stumble on the road of bigger and better things. If I may be frank, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is just plain dull.

A massive cloud of energy is heading directly for Earth, destroying everything in its path. The Enterprise is tasked with intercepting and investigating this cloud, despite its crew not having worked out all the kinks from its recent refitting. Seeing the opportunity to break away from his boring desk job, Admiral James Kirk (William Shatner) asserts his authority and takes command of the vessel, forcing the Enterprise's new captain, William Decker (Stephen Collins), into the secondary role of "executive officer." Reunited with his ship and much of his old crew, Admiral Kirk sets out to determine just what the hell this cloud is. But the crew of the Enterprise finds itself unprepared when it encounters the being controlling the cloud, a mysterious entity calling itself "V'Ger."

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one of those movies that, on paper, look like it could turn out very well. And there are some elements of it that I enjoyed quite a bit. But on the whole, the movie could have been a lot better. You know that whole stigma about the odd-numbered Star Trek movies being lame? That all starts right here. While it's not outright terrible, it suffers from a potential for greatness that simply went untapped.

Helming this initial cinematic voyage of the Enterprise is the late Robert Wise, directing one of the last movies of his long and storied career. Wise's direction is solid, but the movie suffers from having spent too little time in the editing room. No matter whether you watch the original theatrical version or the extended "director's cut," Star Trek: The Motion Picture is an overlong chore of a movie that spends more time spinning its wheels than anything else. It desperately wants to be some kind of bold, almost operatic epic. But it just lurches along with not a lot of excitement or reason to care. The problem is that a lot of the movie is boring. You could honestly cut ten or fifteen minutes out of the movie and absolutely nothing would be lost. I know this movie has its fans and defenders, but I honestly don't get it. There are some honestly cool, intriguing moments, don't get me wrong, but they're so few and far between that I often found myself losing interest.

The movie's script doesn't help anything either, but there's a heck of a story behind that. It was announced in 1977 that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry began developing Star Trek: Phase II, a continuation of the original series that would have aired on a new network called the Paramount Television Service. Neither Phase II nor the Paramount Television Service ever saw the light of day, but after the success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the script that Alan Dean Foster had written for Phase II's pilot was rewritten by Harold Livingston and became the script for the movie. And you can definitely tell this is a TV script that had been extended to feature length, because there's what feels like an awful lot of padding.

The movie has some plot threads that are either underdeveloped or simply go nowhere. For example, the Kirk/Deckard rivalry and Deckard's relationship with Ilia could have both been further elaborated upon. The script doesn't do much with either and until the movie's climax, they aren't even wholly relevant to the plot. It honestly feels like something that could have covered over several episodes or even an entire season of a TV show. But we end up with this hot mess instead.

Even the cast isn't given a whole lot to do. Most of the actors remain in the background and are unimportant, while Stephen Collins is just kinda there. Meanwhile, Persis Khambatta is boring and lifeless. Her character is transformed from a flesh-and-blood person into an emotionless synthetic duplicate halfway through the movie, and there's absolutely no change in her acting style. They could have swapped her out with a mannequin and nobody would have noticed.

But the actors returning from the TV show all provide fun performances. Nobody has or ever will accuse William Shatner of being a master thespian, but I've always enjoyed his portrayals of Captain Kirk. He doesn't have the best material to work with here, but he still does a damn good job. The same can be said for Leonard Nimoy as Spock, while DeForest Kelley is fun as always as the irascible Bones McCoy.

There's a great Star Trek story lying beneath the surface of this movie. It's just handled in a way that makes the movie ungodly boring. As much as I like Star Trek, I spent the entire movie wondering if there was anything else I could be doing instead. It does have the occasional flash brilliance, and you can see that there's something deep in here. But it's not approached in the best way. I'm no sci-fi expect and I'm not the guy to ask how to improve it. And besides, after thirty-four years, what can you do? I mean, at least the Star Trek movies would get better from here, right?

Final Rating: **

Monday, May 6, 2013

Iron Man 3 (2013)

It was around this time one year ago that we saw the release of The Avengers.
The climax of "Phase One" of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Avengers brought together characters from five different movies to create a comic book geek's dream movie. But if all of those movies were building for one billion-dollar epic, where do they go after that? There's only one thing you can do: go forward with "Phase Two" of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And it begins the same way that Phase One began, with a new movie starring Iron Man. And like the previous movies starring the character, Iron Man 3 is a fun watch.

Some time has passed since the Avengers repelled the alien invasion instigated by Loki, but his near-death experience during the battle has left Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) suffering from severe post-traumatic stress. Unable to sleep and plagued by panic attacks, Stark spends every moment he can obsessively building new Iron Man armor, his suits now numbering in the dozens. His behavior is such that he's started alienating his girlfriend, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is left confused and agitated by Stark's emotional distance.

But life is about to get much more complicated for our armored superhero. A terrorist known as "the Mandarin" (Ben Kingsley) has been orchestrating a series of bombings around the United States, one of which leaves Stark's friend Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) in a coma. Stark publicly swears revenge, an act that leads the Mandarin to destroy his house and seemingly kill him.

While Jim Rhodes (Don Cheadle), in his own suit of armor as "the Iron Patriot," scours the globe in search of the Mandarin, an off-the-grid Stark follows a trail of clues that connects the Mandarin to Aldritch Killian (Guy Pearce), a bitter scientist whose ideas were rebuffed by a more egotistical Stark a decade earlier. Utilizing the research of Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), one of Stark's past one-night-stands, Killian has developed Extremis, an experimental treatment designed to assist with the healing of devastating injuries. As he follows the trail of clues further, Stark discovers that not only are the Mandarin's bombings are tied to Extremis, but that both the U.S. President (William Sadler) and Pepper are in great danger.

After the pure, unbridled spectacle that was The Avengers, Marvel Studios would have been out of their minds to try topping it so soon. I guess they had the same idea, because Iron Man 3 doesn't try to top or even match The Avengers. Instead, it's a more intimate affair. Yes, it still has the same action and humor one would expect from Tony Stark's solo adventures, but it's more about how the character is affected by his exploits than the exploits themselves. This shift in focus allows Iron Man 3 to be a more intriguing movie than it might have been otherwise.

Jon Favreau doesn't return to direct this third leg of the Iron Man trilogy, instead handing the reins over to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang director Shane Black. Black does an admirable job with the movie as he goes his own way rather than ride Favreau's coattails. The movie still boasts some tremendously fun action sequences, but Black instead brings the movie closer to the characters. Things are paced and composed in such a way that the movie feels more like a standard action movie than a grand superhero blockbuster. I honestly don't think that's a bad thing, however. It's actually refreshing to see a superhero movie where the human side of heroism takes center stage. Black throws everything into making the movie about Tony Stark and the world he occupies rather than Iron Man, and it really pays off.

I don't know if can say the same for the screenplay, though. Written by Black and Drew Pearce, the script takes the finale of The Avengers and uses it as the basis for what one could call Tony Stark's midlife crisis. Getting a glimpse of his own mortality really messed with Tony, and now he's not sure if he's building the armor or if the armor's building him. Black and Pearce don't delve into this quite as deeply as they could have; they could have turned the whole movie into a deep, dramatic character study, but were seemingly obligated to deliver a standard superhero movie.

That's where I felt Iron Man 3 stumbled. Black and Pearce come up with a number of really cool ideas, but don't quite build them together into something awesome. I understand that they probably wanted to write a movie that was a bit more low-key so the franchise could catch their breath after The Avengers, but they could have developed their ideas beyond something simple. Their script also suffers from being a little overlong and probably could have used a bit of trimming. I mean, did we need that subplot where Tony makes friends with some precocious kid? Did that kid contribute anything to the story that couldn't have been handled by another character?

I was also disappointed by the movie's 3D effects too. The movie was converted into 3D during post-production, and it really feels like it was done just because the Marvel Cinematic Universe's movies pretty much have to be in 3D now. There's no real need for it, and the movie is plagued by the same troubles that have plagued most movies that are converted into 3D. Not much depth is added to the visuals, with only a handful of scenes really benefiting from it. You honestly won't be missing much if you choose to see Iron Man 3 in 2D, to tell you the truth.

But as less-than-impressive as I thought the script and 3D conversion were, I thoroughly enjoyed the cast. Ben Kingsley is a lot of fun as the Mandarin, but I felt Guy Pearce's villainous turn outshined him. Pearce's character is such a snake, and he embraces the role and runs with it. While I think the movie could have benefited more from simply adapting the "Five Nightmares" comic book story written by Matt Fraction in 2008 and had Pearce play Ezekiel Stane, Pearce is still a damn fine bad guy.

I also thought Don Cheadle was really good as Rhodey. He plays the part like he was built for it and makes an amusing foil for our leading man. I don't know if they'd ever do an Iron Patriot/War Machine solo spinoff or include the character in one of the Avengers sequels, but if it means I get to see Cheadle play the character again, I'd be all for it. The same can be said for Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts. She plays Pepper as smart and strong, and you really believe that Tony Stark would fall in love with her. Paltrow provides some of the sweetest, most heartwarming moments of the movie, and the movie is better for having her here.

But once again, the movie belongs to Robert Downey Jr. For the fourth time, Downey contributes an absolutely excellent performance and once again steals the whole movie. He not only brings the charming irreverence he always approaches the character with, but also a vulnerability that makes him sympathetic. All you want to do is reach into the movie and give him a big hug. I honestly cannot imagine anyone being able to equal Downey were he to ever bow out of playing the role.

Rumor has it that this might be the last solo movie for Iron Man. A tag at the end of the movie's credits promises that "Tony Stark will return," but beyond Avengers sequels and cameos in other movies, the character's future seems uncertain. And while I will not call Iron Man 3 the best of the trilogy, it's a great way to end the story should this actually be the final Iron Man movie. It has its flaws, sure, but it's still an entertaining movie that I actually enjoyed a lot. It gets the Marvel Cinematic Universe's "Phase Two" off to a great start, and is certainly worth seeing. And between you and me, I can't wait to see where this franchise goes from here.

Final Rating: ***