Thursday, May 30, 2013

Oblivion - Guest Review

Oblivion – 126 Min – PG-13
by C. L. Cadwallader

Tom Cruise gets a bad rap with a lot of people. “Tom Cruise Crazy” anyone? Is it the Scientology? The couch-hopping? Breaking Nicole Kidman’s heart? (She seems to have come out on the top side of that deal.)I don’t know. What I do know is that he seriously brought his ‘A Game’ to this movie. Oblivion is beautifully shot, well-acted and exciting. It gets a green light from me.

The movie opens on a near-future Earth ravaged by an alien invasion. Jack Harper (Cruise) is a drone repairman, one of the last humans remaining on the planet. He lives with his partner/lover, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) on a kind of floating station. Together they keep the machines harvesting the last of Earth’s resources while they wait to join the rest of humanity on Saturn’s moon Titan.

I’m going to stop there with the summary and talk instead about the trailers for Oblivion. For months leading up to this movie, I watched the trailers, growing increasingly intrigued. Cruise’s voiceover tells us that humanity won the war, but lost the planet. He pretends to play a little football in a ruined stadium. Morgan Freeman’s voice says everything we believe is a lie. Flash! Bang! Action! Something kills some humans and Tom Cruise doesn’t like it. What do we know from this trailer? We know Tom Cruise is some kind of hot shot pilot who like sports and might be a bit of a goof-off, probably not too concerned with the rules. Morgan Freeman is a mysterious stranger who may or may not be on his side. We suspect there’s something going on beneath the surface.
What is it? Who are the good guys really? What’s the deal with Jack and Victoria?

We don’t know. That’s the key here. Now, I will admit, I do like a good Tom Cruise movie (Top Gun, MI:Ghost Protocal, The Last Samurai, Jerry Maguire, etc.). I’m also a sucker for flashy sci-fi movies, so I would probably have seen this movie anyway, but the trailers sealed it for me. The premise was intriguing; it had Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman, and I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT. The trailers gave me just enough information without giving away ANY of the secrets. I enjoyed following along with Jack Harper as he learned the things that had been hidden from him. At each step, I was asking questions, and eagerly awaiting the answers. I felt satisfied at every point through the film. I wasn’t left hanging with questions for too long, nor were the answers too easily provided. The trailer did exactly what a trailer is supposed to do. It made me want to see the movie.

I think this is important to point out because so many trailers have turned into a mini summary of the movie. The recent RomZomCom Warm Bodies comes to mind. The trailers for that movie told me at least 80% of the entire plot. Sure, the details are what makes the film, but if I want a recap, I’ll read Wikipedia. The trailer should raise questions, but never answer them. The trailers for Oblivion do that, and even if the movie hadn’t lived up to expectations, I would applaud the producers for their good work getting me there based on the trailer.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness - Guest Review

Star Trek Into Darkness - 132min - PG-13
By William L.Brown,MBA

The first thing to remember about cinema is that the primary purpose is to entertain. Audiences, generally, will forgive the worse story telling if they are entertained. Motion pictures entertain through collective emotional experiences; the theatrical experience being the greatest of these. Technique and artistry are second fiddle to entertainment in the eyes of most audience members and, therefore, should be considered differently when reviewing a movie. At least that’s my opinion.

So let’s start with Star Trek Into Darkness being incredibly entertaining. The fanhandling is funny and usually progresses the story. While the dialogue might not be “witty” or overly “clever” it is all motivated by characters that we’ve come to know and love. The concept is fun and handled in a way that allows you to feel like you’re joining in the fun. There’s a reason most everyone, even fellow filmmakers, came out of this movie satisfied. It did everything it could to give you a good time, even though it wasn’t perfect.

The first major issue of enjoy-ability is the heavy Nine-Eleven and War on Terror metaphor. It starts off as a heavy coating in the beginning with the inciting incident and following aftermath then continues to only get heavier and heavier until, at the very end, there is more metaphor than story. This culminates in a speech that is entirely meant to preach at the audience with little intention of entertaining them. I know these kinds of speeches because I often find myself writing them and having to write them out later.

I will go into more details in the second half of this review where I give spoilers.

With the overly heavy metaphor in mind, let me say that at least it carries some substance. Many other reviewers are comparing Into Darkness with Iron Man 3, and I feel the need to commit the same sin. (Warning: Possible Iron Man 3 Spoiler Ahead.) The armor as a cocoon metaphor was completely without pay off and was difficult to sympathize with.

So, Tony Stark is supposedly hiding inside his armor until he can get over the psychological damage caused by the battle in The Avengers Assemble film. Unfortunately he still uses the armor to solve all of his problems and still suits up at the end to save the day. The pay off doesn’t exist where Tony finds the strength of the man outside the armor. Also, as a middle-class person, I struggle to stay interested in the existential crisis of a self-professed “…billionaire, playboy philanthropist.” Use some of your billions to get a therapist and shut up.

At least the terrorism metaphor in Star Trek is of substance, it’s something the characters can’t just wish away or pay someone to help them fix. It is a problem, an almost insurmountable problem that once overcome makes you feel a sense of accomplishment. Unlike Tony Stark, Jim Kirk and Commander Spock aren’t wealthy and gifted beyond almost all reason. The antagonist is powerful and a threat to everyone there, completing the metaphor in stakes and opposition. Star Trek’s metaphor was a near miss where as Iron Man 3′s metaphor was almost a complete misfire.

My next big criticism of Star Trek Into Darkness is in regards to outside characters solving everything. This was just about my only complaint in the first J.J. Abrams directed Star Trek and it looks as though the filmmakers kept to tradition with the sequel. Characters outside the story come in and provide critical information that allows Captain Kirk and crew to get the drop on the antagonist in a similar fashion to how Old Spock (played by Leonard Nimoy again in the sequel) shows up and whisks Kirk and Mr. Scott back onto the enterprise with little to no effort on their parts.

Old Spock almost word-for-word says, “Here is your formula for beaming. Beam yourselves someplace safe. Oh and make me cry so you can retake command of the Enterprise as I remember.” Into Darkness, like its prequel, also has some very essential goals that the main character should overcome that side characters circumvent on Kirk’s behalf. Kirk, being the protagonist, ought to be the driver of the story and the one who overcomes all obstacles or fails at the climax of the movie. Having other characters solve his problems for him diminishes the strength of his character and reduces the sense of urgency in the film. Especially when you have one antagonist versus a whole starship, her legendary captain and her entire crew.

And, while we’re on the topic of Kirk, that brings me to my last complaint.

No one cares that a real fleet of any kind would never give a man like James Tiberius Kirk the command of an advanced vessel. When William Shatner played Kirk he wasn’t fit to command a starship. He used his ship as his little hookup bungalow and he endangered his crew consistently without any regard for their health and well-being whatsoever. That’s the character, that’s the original series and that’s what should be reflected in anything derivative of that fiction. It’s not realistic? Well, that’s why it’s called science fiction. It’s fantasy with laser guns instead of magic. It’s not reality.

It seemed like the filmmakers went to great lengths to legitimize Captain Kirk as someone who would be entrusted with the Enterprise. But, in both films, he’s never entrusted with it. It’s dropped into his lap circumstantially, both times because the Captain is unable to fulfill his duties aboard the ship. He needs no legitimization because he’s not earning the job legitimately and I’m satisfied by this. You need not show or even make a major story element out of him discovering the weight and consequence of command. Just tell the story with the characters fans love and we should be happy.

I honestly believe filmmakers open themselves up to worse criticism when they try to reconfigure their story to meet the needs of “reality.” As a writer, a director, a filmmaker, an artist the reality inside of your works is by your own design. Maybe the U.S. Navy would never let a man like James T. Kirk command a carrier or destroyer, but this isn’t the U.S. Navy. This is Starfleet, in the future, where there are aliens and stuff. And Starfleet is relatively young and naive. So Kirk gets the Enterprise in this reality. Movies lose a lot of wonder when we work to hard to make them just like real life. We don’t need to pay $10 for real life, we are forced into that theater by our very natures.

If you have not seen the film and fear spoilers, you may want to stop reading now. For it is beyond this point I go through the film moment by moment.

So, Star Trek starts off with a great and entertaining hook. Kirk and Bones are running from tribal natives of an alien world to distract them while Spock stops the eruption of a volcano that would cause their extinction. They of course only marginally succeed after several errors and blunders, but the primitive aliens catch sight of the Enterprise as it races to save Spock from the mouth of the volcano. This incident causes Kirk to lose command of the Enterprise when he files a report omitting any violation of the prime directive while Spock, his first officer, files a complete report without any omissions.

In this time, a man named John Harrison, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, saves a child from death with his blood in exchange for a man working in Starfleet Black Ops detonating an explosive at a secret facility in London. This action causes for an assembly of Captains in San Fransisco where First Officer Kirk shows up with Enterprise Captain (again) Christopher Pike to discuss what actions will be taken against the perpetrators of this attack. Kirk begins to speak out of turn and is subsequently chided by Pike and the senior officer, Admiral Marcus, until he’s finally told to express his opinion.

As Kirk is discussing his observations with Admiral Marcus, played by Peter Weller, Kirk begins to piece together that the attack in London was about getting all the most important people in Starfleet into one room for slaughter. And at this point the rogue Starfleet officer, Harrison, attacks and kills Captain Pike and many other captains. Thus returning the Enterprise to Kirk’s command. Harrison uses a personal teleporter device to escape to the Klingon homeworld, Qo’nos, before he can be apprehended.

Because of this event, Kirk is once again given command of the Enterprise and Spock is once again First Officer. And after Kirk demands that he be allowed to chase Harrison to Qo’nos from Admiral Marcus, he’s given permission along with experimental torpedoes that have the capability to hit a man-sized target from just outside a star system. And thus we begin the drone warfare metaphor, although subtle at the moment.

The next few scenes indulge this drone warfare metaphor even further as every crew member weighs in on the morality and legality of bombing Qo’nos. Should these weapons be utilized to strike against a man hiding on a world filled with antagonistic natives that Starfleet hasn’t declared war on? Few, if any, encourage Kirk to go along with Admiral Marcus’ plan while many, most notably Scotty, tell Kirk not to even let the torpedoes onto the Enterprise let alone utilize them. Scotty is so passionately against it that he resigns from his post on the Enterprise and Chekov takes over for him.

Due to the passionate pleas of some in the crew, Kirk decides instead to do a covert operation to land on Qo’nos and attempt to apprehend Harrison. Spock asks to go with him and Kirk takes Uhura for her skill in speaking Klingon. Of course, this trip may be uneventful so the writers added a spat between Spock and Uhura regarding Spock’s willingness to die without any concern for Uhura’s feelings. Unnecessary in and of itself but it added to a touching scene later in the film. The only thing I found irritating about this moment was that it diminished any strength in the writing of Uhura in the last film. Before she was a woman but she was assertive, driven and had enough self-respect to rebuke Kirk’s advances. In this film all that is given up as she decides to have a lover’s spat on a planet where the natives may very well torture, rape and kill the crew because she’s “being a woman.” Disappointing.

Of course the Enterprise away team gets captured, even after some death-defying flying by Kirk and Spock. And Uhura attempts to negotiate the Klingon’s aid in capturing Harrison but ends up falling short as they are unwilling to accept humans have invaded their homeworld. And then a masked stranger, who we quickly realize is Harrison, goes to work massacring squad after squad of Klingon warriors. In fact he dual wields a phaser rifle and some sort of anti-aircraft weapon to do so. We soon come to realize that Harrison, after he surrenders and is unmasked, is more than just human. And when Kirk can’t beat him down in a fit of rage, we realize that he is not entirely human.

Jump to the chase, Harrison is Khan. That’s right, “KHAAAAAAAAAN-nuh!” Khan. Admiral Marcus discovered him in space, fearing the growing aggression from the Klingons he used the ruthless iceman to create super-ships and super-weapons to go beat down the Klingons. Why did Khan do this? Because Admiral Marcus had his crew from the past hostage and demanded it, that’s why. So Harrison, now Khan, went rogue when he thought Marcus had killed his crew. It turned out his crew is still on ice inside the experimental torpedoes waiting to be saved by Khan.

At this point let me say that all of the characters keep much of what we love about them except for Uhura and Khan. We’ve already discussed Uhura, a victim of a writer needing conflict to fill travel time. But Khan, well, I’m not sure where the depth of Khan’s character went. One of the greatest things about Khan was his zeal for the finer things in life. After all, as a superior being, only the greatest works of culture and lesser men are worthy of him. And indulge in them he did, to full epicurean delight. Hell, in “The Wrath of Khan,” half his lines are quotes from Dante, Milton and Melville. For Khan, killing Kirk was as much about the chase and the contest as it was the satisfaction of seeing Kirk’s corpse in his hands.

None of that exists in Cumberbatch’s Khan. It’s just not in the script. To be fair, because Admiral Marcus also plays an antagonistic role for Kirk, there’s less time to explore Khan’s character. In that instance, however, it becomes the director and the actor’s job to find the depth of Khan’s character. Mr. Cumberbatch shouldn’t attempt to be Ricardo Montalban’s Khan, but I really missed Khan’s passion and his zeal for proving his own superiority over mortal men. This is a part of the character we know as Khan and Mr. Cumberbatch should have found how that kind of egotism, passion and zeal lives in him. This Khan is about killing fools and getting his crew back, that’s about all. He’s dark and cold and hollow. I miss Old Khan.

And upon this realization, Admiral Marcus shows up in one of these super-ships to get Kirk to hand over Khan. When Kirk refuses, Admiral Marcus lights up the Enterprise in an attempt to kill Khan and everyone on board who may know the truth about what has happened.

You see, this is why the whole, “we have to make him a legitimate captain,” storyline bugs me. He’s not a legitimate captain and for that very reason Admiral Marcus sent him after Khan. Marcus was hoping that Kirk would launch these torpedoes at Qo’nos, be discovered and start the war with the Klingons right then and there. He’s not a legitimate captain which is why he got the job. If they had given the task to Picard, then it would have never happened because Picard is a good captain. Kirk is an impulsive disaster around every turn and that’s what the story needed.

But this begs another question. Khan went rogue. He decided he wasn’t going to be a puppet in Admiral Marcus’ plan and decided to bring the whole thing down. If the plan is to start a war with the Klingons, why then would Khan go to the Klingon homeworld where one convenient torpedo strike cause a war if he has decided he no longer wants to be a part of this plan? I thought Khan had a superior intellect and a keen sense of tactics. Woops. The answer, “Well, we couldn’t go two Star Trek movies without seeing a single Klingon. Oh, and Khan mistakenly thought Starfleet wouldn’t chase him there.”

So, anyway, after some EVA heroics and some Scotty sabotage, we come to a third act that is almost entirely a remake of the same act in “The Wrath of Khan.” Except exchange positions with Kirk and Spock because it is Kirk this time around that has to learn what it means to be a Starfleet captain by sacrificing himself for his crew. And add a Lethal Weapon style chase scene where Riggs, I mean Spock, is chasing Mr. Joshua, I mean Khan, through San Fransisco to kill his ass.

Conveniently, Bones discovers Khan’s blood can resurrect an irradiated Kirk so Uhura goes down to stun Khan. The iceman returns to being a Khansicle, and all is right with the world. This will be convenient for the next time they want to bring Khan back. We have learned that we should not fly off the handle at terrorists after a very pointed speech is given by Kirk one year after the London bombing. Hooray, America.

And yes, Spock yells, “KHAAAAAAAAAAAAN-nuh!” Which made me laugh with glee.

The movie is fun as hell, even if it is poorly thought out and a little too reactionary. I would say go see it for a good time with special effects and shut your brain off. Let the plot holes and ridiculousness bother you later.

William is also a film maker and is working on a project called The Sonata Chronicles please take a look at his Kickstarter Campaign to help him get this project going.