Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Star Trek

It seems weird to give a summer tentpole four stars, especially when it has glaring flaws. But that's the grade for Star Trek. I'm grading the experience, paying tribute to the fun I had. Star Trek moves at warp speed (!), but unlike the previous weekend's boxoffice champ XO: Wolverine, Star Trek is happy to develop it's characters (each and every one). The visuals are exciting, the humor surprisingly amusing (I was expecting campiness), and the science fiction nerdery in the plot just accessible enough not to anger the audience but keep us talking about more than the budget after the movie.

Flaws? Well, Eric Bana has very little to do as the villain. His ship (oh, what a COOL ship!) makes more of an impression than he does. I'll fault the writing over Bana, but still, a film with such rewarding heroes needs villains to match. The acting? Solid, but I still think some of the actors (Quinto as Spock and Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy) were trying to emulate rather than create. Obviously, this was a danger from conception. Luckily, Chris Pine (!) makes Captain Kirk his own. He's charming, disarming, funny, and just badass enough to be an adventure's hero. It's not the calling card of the next great actor of our generation, but it may be a calling card of the next great star(?).

And for the filmmakers, the summer blockbuster earns its stripes. It's epic and sprawling while moving quickly and deliberately while remaining accessible and entertaining. Director J.J. Abrams and writers Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman have made me care about a storied franchise that meant little to me before. And they did it with style.


The Wrestler

The Wrestler seems to alternate between very good and mediocre. Mickey Rourke is excellent, but his level of skill isn't enough to lift the film to great heights. And in criticizing it's flaws (as I'm about to do), I don't want to insinuate that The Wrestler isn't a very good film (it is). Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood, while both capable actresses doing solid work in each of their roles, seem to be the movie's weak points. The story, which is often void of underdog or indie drama cliches, seems to gravitate toward mediocrity in Rourke's scenes with either actress.

In truth, the film loses some of its authenticity when Tomei's stripper with a heart races to the arena for Rourke's title characters triumphant return. It's awkward. And even when the wrestler goes the unconventional route in that scene, it feels forced, awkward though clearly true to character. Good final shot though. Ram Jam.

In it's favor, The Ram is a real man. He is sad, incorrigible, sweet, kind, and manipulative in real ways. When he tells Wood his sob story, I sobbed. Rourke earned that kind of genuine response. Even when the story doesn't take us to unexpected places, Rourke is new. He's a completely new (thing). He doesn't look the same. He doesn't sound the same. He doesn't ACT the same. It's a highlight of his career, clearly, but also one of the best male performances of recent years.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

What Doesn't Kill You

What Doesn't Kill You is an actors' showcase for it's stars and a fine drama for any interested in honesty over style (or honesty as style). Their isn't much pizazz to the way the filmmakers tell this story, but there is plenty to love about writer-director Brian Goodman's autobiographical tale of men making or avoiding the tough choices that make good men just that. I get a sense this is how "organized" crime really works. Strip away the style and larger than life characters of The Sopranos or Goodfellas and I suspect you'll get WDKY - mid-level lackeys miserable and depraved with only the notion that it's supposed to be better to move them on to each new day.

Ethan Hawke has never been better. The twitchiness to his "method" is toned down and instead of the sniveling loser or dreamy eyed slacker, Hawke becomes a witty, dangerous man with vague ambitions and no smarts to achieve more than he's already know. Lead Mark Ruffalo is excellent as well, lending an intensity and vulnerability to his character. Goodman has an ear for authenticity and a no-nonsense sensibility, but he needs to learn dramatic pacing, editing, and develop a more captivating aesthetic to match his actors' skills. I'll say this - he can cast like a crackerjack. The child actors who play Ruffalo and Amanda Peet's (solid as usual in a supporting role) quietly suffering offspring. They don't show off. They're not playing at anything (over-thinking, over-physicalizing, etc.), they're just being real kids in a rotten situation.

WDKY hit me like a ton of bricks, but it's dramatic finale was stale - a kin to a Movie of the Week. It's as though Goodman, in wanting to avoiding a Hollywood ending, didn't know how to provide any sense of closure to match everything that came before it. Still, for the performances and the real dramatic heft to it's story, WDKY (kudos for ending the title at that) is one of my favorite films from 2008.


X-Men Origins: Wolverine

While not an utter failure, XO: Wolverine does create a considerable amount of disappointment in this fan's memory. From the opening scene, something Watching the sickly young Wolvie lashing out in grand fashion was played for drama and shock, but instead introduced the audience to the film's most glaring fault - actors playing for dark, deep drama and missing at most every turn. Nothing about about XO: Wolverine rings with any authenticity. After facing this flaw early on, I was ready and willing to just accept the film on another level - a fun summer blockbuster. That doesn't really work either. The film employs a mess of side characters and a blistering pace to head toward its even bigger mess of a climax. At the point Wolverine learns he's been duped, I said to myself, "Well, duh. It was choreographed a long time ago." When Ryan Reynolds (?!) shows up ragged and mad and evil in the end, I was not surprised nor interested at all. Was he really ever a good guy? Was he ever important to the story before this? No for both. How about after the bad ass surgeries? No. Hugh Jackman as Wolverine is really the only bright spot (though the opening credits war montage was stunning in its own irrelevant way). It's clear Jackman cares about the character and brings that interest to the role each time out. But he can't make any new impressions when the director Gavin Hood, writers David Benioff and Skip Woods, and their film editors won't allow their story to find any footing in any given scene before blasting off to the next sequence (even if it's just Jackman and the awful (but awfully attractive) Lynn Collins chatting and/or making lovey dovey eyes at each other. A sense of real weight to ANY (ANY!) of the scenes would have paid huge dividends. Sadly, Liev Shreiber (my great hope for a compelling villain) can't save his dialogue. Likewise, the wonderful, Danny Huston (please see The Proposition) fails to improve or match Brian Cox's performance as General Striker in X2. I'll watch it again with lowered expectations with the hope of new entertainment, buy my first viewing left me hungry for Terminator: Salvation (and McG?!?). Wolverine is a great character. The franchise is far from dead. I just hope new blood behind the scenes can renew my interest again.