Monday, May 20, 2013

Movie Review: "Star Trek" by David Pretty

Star Trek is a fantastic film.  Unfortunately, it bears as much resemblance to Gene Roddenberry's original creation as Donald Trump does to a human being.  I really wish they'd given J.J. Star Wars to play with first.  And, keep in mind, this is coming from someone who actually likes Star Wars more then Star Trek.  Or at least I used to.    

During his recent appearance on The Daily Show, Abrams confessed: "I never liked Star Trek as a kid.  It always felt too philosophical to me."  In a perfect world, this would have disqualified him from helming a reboot since any Trekker knows that philosophy is as much a part of Star Trek as phasers, klingons and Scotty getting his beam-on.  

I think Jon Stewart would agree with me.  Mind blown.

Honestly, it's kinda sad to hear Abrams say this.  With the general populace growing increasingly obtuse, fickle and addle-brained as time goes on, we could all use a bit of philosophy.  Although cerebral movies and T.V. shows are getting increasingly scarce nowadays, I never thought that such an admirable quality would ever by expunged from Star Trek.  I guess I was wrong.  

From a completely cynical standpoint, this version of the venerable sci-fi franchise is the ultimate evolution of mass-appeal Hollywood product.  It's the ADD-addled offspring of Star Wars, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Terminator and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  Funny  thing is, those older films kinda look like Apocalypse Now in comparison.  Not only could they be enjoyed on a purely superficial level they also had some interesting ideas purring away underneath the hood.  

Even though Wrath of Khan had its fair share of action and drama, it also dealt with weighty issues such as aging and mortality.  

Unfortunately those early happenstance box office monsters inadvertently screwed up movies but good. Nowadays people feel short-changed if a flick doesn't have two false endings and an obligatory large-scale finale.  And, like it or not, these jaded, popcorn-munching, thrill-seekers are the primary voters at the box office now.  Sorry, but most people don't care if a script tries to activate synapses in a disused, sealed-off region of their brain.  All they want are visceral thrills and they want 'em now, dammit!  

This Star Trek reboot was made with such truisms firmly in mind.  And frankly, it's such a flawlessly-crafted entertainment-related product that I feel churlish trying to criticize it.  I just wish an iota of Gene Roddenberry's original intent lingered somewhere in the soul of this hollow, lens-flare-encrusted cinematic pod person. 

In much the same way that 28 Days Later gave us a Cliff's Notes version of George A. Romero's Living Dead trilogy, Abram's reboot acts as THINGS THAT MOST PEOPLE (SORTA) KNOW ABOUT STAR TREK compilation package.  The purpose of this is two-fold: give die-hard Trekkers a false sense of optimism whist, and at the same time, appealing to those people who believe that Spock's official title is actually "Doctor".

We're quickly introduced to a pointlessly rebellious Jim Kirk (Chris Pine), who's LIVING IN THE SHADOW OF HIS LEGENDARY DAD WHO KINDA LOOKS LIKE THOR (Chris Hemsworth).  We also see the trials of the half-human / half Vulcan science nerd Spock (Zachary Quinto) who's forced to contend with planet-bound racism and the roiling emotions inherited from his obviously hormonal mom (Winona Rider...?).  Thrown into a disturbingly-militarized Starfleet Academy together, these oil and water personalities immediately start locking horns with one another.

"Although the Vulcan death grip technically does not exist I am prepared to improvise."

Kirk sneakily reprograms Spock's "no-win" Kobayashi Maru training simulator, which, by the Vulcan's own flawed logic, is supposed to teach prospective starship captains about "fear".  Sorry, but I've played hundreds of video games and not once have I felt "fear" when "death" was imminent.  Except maybe in Silent Hill, 'cuz that shit is just plain creepy.        

Since writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman only have about thirty minutes to compact years of Star Trek lore, the classic touchstones pile up at a breakneck speed.  Kick tries to bang a green chick.  There are shuttles and beamings and hot phaser action.  And then our favorite cantankerous country doctor Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban) shows up and conveniently explains that his future nickname has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with erections.

"Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor not a Freudian slip!"

One major difference from the original series is just how goddamned perfect everyone seems to be.  Uhura, once a utilitarian communications officer with average skills, has suddenly become a Xeno-linguistics genius.  In doing so, Zoe Saldana gets more lines then poor Nichelle Nichols got in the entire run of the original series.  Hey, I'm all for making the female roles more substantial but when the producers bumped McCoy out of the Kirk / Spock troika I fear they did it for purely superficial reasons.  Translation: Zoe Saldana is hawt.

Save for an amusing speech impediment, Anton Yelchin's Chekov is also devoid of any negative traits.  Walter Koenig's take on the character was a lot more interesting because he was cocky, easily-frustrated and a bit of an asshole.  Here Chekov is a freshly-scrubbed, seventeen-year-old wunderkind who conveniently knows how to do everything the script requires of him.

"Permission to scream in wery, wery girlish fashion, Keptain?"  

John Cho's Hikaru Sulu at least has the good graces to leave the ship's parking break on before the Enterprise jumps into hyperspace, er, warp.  The classic Trek episode "The Naked Time" must have been required viewing for Orci and Kurtzman since they reference Sulu's hypoglycemic fencing scene.  But since all of the characters are now iconic paragons, the helmsman has suddenly been transformed into a MASTER SWORDSMAN.  Oh, myyyyyy!           

Led by the chronologically-appropriate Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), this disconcertingly-flawless crew blasts off to confront the villain du jour Nero (Eric Bana).  Ever since Wrath of Khan's box-office receipts proved that revenge is easily grasped by even the dimmest slack-jawed troglodyte, the lion's share of cinematic Star Trek villains have been motivated by vengeance.  This really fucked up the Next Generation films, which forced the reserved and diplomatic Picard to become the galaxy's most awkward action star.

"Why the hell do I even bother to keep Riker around anymore!?"  

After Pike goes M.I.A. during their first encounter with Nero, Spock assumes command and immediately finds himself at loggerheads with Kirk, the ultimate alpha male.  To remedy this, Spock does something completely and totally out of character: he maroons Kirk on a hazardous ice planet instead of throwing him in the fucking brig.  Why would a notorious stickler for regulations do such a thing?  Merely to sustain the film's juggernaut-like pace and facilitate a required meeting between Kirk, Spock's future incarnation (Leonard Nimoy) and the last bridge crew puzzle piece, Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg).

The writers then make an appallingly weak case for the villain's motivation.  Apparently while Nero was off on a mining contract, a star went super-nova, destroying his home planet of Romulus and killing his family.  When Nero learns that Spock attempted to save his homeworld from stellar Armageddon, does he seek out the venerable Vulcan to offer him thanks?  Nope!  He captures Spock, goes back in time, gives him some primo Delta Vega box seats and then forces him to watch the wanton destruction of his own homeworld.

"This plot is highly...nonsensical."

Sorry, but this doesn't even make a lick of sense to me.  In fact, Nero's motivations are so dodgy I really wish they'd just said "Yeah, well, Nero's like...this rogue Romulan nut who wants to destroy the Federation".  Why?  Well, no reason, except that he's Coo Coo for Cocoa Puffs.  The only problem with this theory is that he's got an entire army of guys who are all totally complicit in this batshit crazy scheme.  C'mon, surely a few of these guys are lukewarm on the whole "mass genocide" plan?

Throughout all of this we're bombarded with space opera trappings to make sure that we're all paying attention.  Everyone is running around at breakneck speed.  People are constantly getting punched in the face or choked out.  Phasers blaze away like turbolasers on a friggin' Star Destroyer.  What did you say, Gene?  You wanted Star Trek to be your hopeful vision of a peaceful future wherein problems are solved with diplomacy and understanding?  Fuck you, get back in the photon torpedo tube, ya hippy!  We got box office receipts to tally up! 

What would The Great Bird of the Galaxy have thought about a guns-a-blazin' Star Trek reboot?   

This molestation of Gene's original vision is so egregious that it physically pains me to praise the film from here on in.  Indeed, as a slick, dynamic, piece of action entertainment, Star Trek is almost without parallel.  

The production design alone is stellar.  Despite the occasional Leni Riefenstahl vibe, the environs of Starfleet Academy are pretty convincing.  Although the bridge of the Enterprise looks like it should be populated with bespectacled, lanyard-wearing hipsters, the design is fresh and slick.  Having said that, there is one significant demerit in this category.  Despite the fact that I'm a fan of shooting in existing locations, the Enterprise "engine room" looks suspiciously like a contemporary microbrewery or a milk bottling plant.  Sorry, but I like to think that things are gonna be a little more efficient-looking in the future.  

When you do the Enterprise brewery tour make sure to try the free samples of Romulan ale!    

The starship designs are also quite memorable.  The revamped shuttles evoke shades of the original series without looking like interstellar Volvos.  Spock's gyroscopic flying, thing is also fun to watch.  I also have to give ample praise for the slick-yet-retro Enterprise design.  The classic saucer, curved nacelle armatures and wind-tunnel tested secondary hull all make for a pretty pimp little ride.  

In fact, the only ship that looks like interstellar ass is Nero's mining vessel.  It's comically impractical and designed for one purpose and one purpose only: to look evil and menacing.  Also, can someone please explain how one mining ship can take out an entire Federation task force?  I think the Romulan High Command should discontinue production of those expensive warbirds and just contract Haliburton to build an armada of these fuckers. 

I always suspected that H.R. Giger was a Romulan.  

Many of the classic Trek props have also been updated, but they're still familiar enough to be evocative.  After the addition of some badly-needed texture, those iconic tunics suddenly look great.  And although the phasers suddenly resemble art-deco Flash Gordon pop guns from the 1930's the flip-style communicators are pretty boss.  Also big ups to the make up department for producing some memorable new aliens and faithfully recreating the original Vulcan and Romulan designs.

Armed with a plethora of shiny new toys, J.J. Abrams serves up a visually-compelling final product.  Even during the quieter moments, his camera is constantly in motion, virtually demanding that the audience sit up and take notice.  In the hands of a lesser director, this technique would have most viewers reaching for the Dramamine, but Abrams knows how to shake things up with an arsenal of Steadicam and hand-held shots.

"It's Star Trek...TO THE XXX-TRM!!!"   

This goes double for his action sequences.  From the opening battle between the Narada and the Kelvin to the point when Nero screams "FIRE EVERYTHING!!!" in a moment of gleeful Star Trek-ian wish fulfillment, the audience is bombarded by a constant barrage of visual catnip.  You've got pitch starship battles, Zero-G free-falls, black holes, phaser skirmishes, swordfights, mass genocide, supernovas, rampaging snow beasts, fisticuffs, and no less then two annihilated planets.  Not only is the action cranked up to warp speed, even the warp speed effect has been "punched up".

The film's lone visual fumble is, of course, the oft-ridiculed over-reliance on friggin' lens flares.  Honestly, if this new movie is inflicted with the same palsy I'm gonna track Abrams down and beat him to death with a sack filled with rusty d'k tahgs.  Yes, I know that your brain unconsciously screams "REAL!" whenever you see something like this in a fictional motion picture, but when it's usd this frequently it becomes distracting.  A part of me seriously hopes that Abrams takes the subtitle Into Darkness literally this time out.      

"Thanks to the nictitating membrane of my inner eyelid, Captain, I've managed to retain my eyesight." 

But, by far, the film's greatest asset is its phenomenal cast.  Chris Pine wisely eschews any broad Shatnerian interpretations and concentrates on embodying the swagga and supreme confidence of James T. Kirk.  Also, if Zachary Quinto didn't exist, the film's producers would have been forced to subject Leonard Nimoy to an invasive cloning procedure.  Although Quinto certainly looks the part, he also does a great job portraying Spock's cool, know-it-all qualities as well as the Vulcan's considerable dark side.

Zoe Saldana also manages to eke out some memorable moments for herself.  Her comedic delivery during the umpteenth run of the Kobayashi Maru scenario is pretty amusing and her scenes with Quinto's Spock are genuinely heartfelt, if not strangely arbitrary.  As soon as their incongruous intimacies are revealed, Uhura's throwaway comment about displaying "oral sensitivity" suddenly casts Starfleet nepotism in a decidedly sordid light.

"Seriously, is this the real script or someone's fanfic?"

Apparently only Karl Urban was brave enough to attempt an out-and-out impersonation of an original cast member.  Although this could have been disastrous, Urban actually does a fine job evoking shades of the late, great DeForest Kelley.  Unfortunately, in lieu of Uhura's "promotion", many of McCoy's lines boil down to Vulcan insults or permutations of the old "I'm a doctor, not a (fill in the blank)" chestnut.  C'mon, where are the knock-down, drag-out verbal battles between Kirk, Spock and Bones?    

I was quite pleased to see that Simon Pegg had inherited the role of our favorite shore-leave-allergic Scottish engineer.  Rocking a legitimate accent, Pegg lends a light comedic touch to his scenes while retaining the character's quirky qualities and penchant for getting flustered.  Now if they could only retcon his little reptilian midget sidekick out of existence, we'd be all set.  Honestly, I have no idea what the writers were smoking when they came up with that borderline Binksian idea.

"I don't care what that the l'il punter said, our relationship is strictly professional!"

Before he's sidelined by script requirements, distinguished Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood is also a commanding presence as Captain Christopher Pike.  He's so good, in fact, that I really wish he didn;t have to become a victim of continuity.  Seriously, if Star Trek ever goes back to television where it truly belongs, I'd love to see him back in the captain's chair, even if that chair has wheels.          

Although Anton Yelchin's Chekov isn't nearly as interesting, he certainly has the character's frenetic qualities down pat.  Above and beyond his inability to pronounce the letter "V", Yelchin exhibits boundless enthusiasm and some amusing, throwaway Russian asides that make him compelling to watch.  Rounding out the bridge crew, John Cho displays plenty of humble charisma as Sulu, but I can't help but miss George Takei's unmistakable baritone.  

"Look, if you ask me to 'Set phasers to fabulous' one more time..."

About the only character to get shortchanged is Eric Bana's Nero.  Since the writers spend most of the film furiously mashing the reset button, he really doesn't get an opportunity to become anything more then a self-righteous thug.  Nevertheless, his fleeting on-screen moments are intense and his first ship-to-ship face off with the Enterprise crew dispenses with years of stuffy, predictable protocol in one glorious moment of informality.

As I've said before, only a joyless dick could possibly hate this film.  In order to cram all these disparate pieces into place, the writers didn't have a lot of time for character development or exploring BIG IDEAS.  I also know that the concept of bankrolling a slow-moving and *ick* philosophical film like Star Trek: The Motion Picture is downright laughable in this day and age.

"Aw, man, now that Sherlock guy is all pissed off!"

Having said that, I really hope that Into Darkness tries to embody the heart and soul of Star Trek instead of just wearing its face.  Why?  Because Star Wars is Star Wars and Star Trek is...not.  Honestly, do we really want everything to become increasingly interchangeable, homogenous, predicable and boring?

Tilt: down.


Friday, May 17, 2013

Movie Review: "Iron Man 3" by David Pretty

Iron Man 3 represents Robert Downey Jr.'s last contractually-obligated Marvel film before he renegotiates for what will probably turn out to be the Gross Domestic Product of Portugal.  Even if he doesn't return to the role, he certainly leaves the character on a high-note, presiding over an unconventional action blockbuster that defies expectations right up until the obligatory whiz-bang finale. 

Screenwriters Drew Pearce and Shane Black continue to world-build the Marvel Universe with a script that closely references the events in last year's Avengers flick.  After his near-death encounter at the hands of aliens and extra-planar beings, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has developed a chronic anxiety disorder.  He can't sleep at night and spends every minute of every day tinkering with new Iron Man designs.

Tony's emotional distance also tests his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).  This is heightened by the sudden re-appearance of Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a brilliant and handsome scientist in charge of A.I.M. industries.  Killian has developed the ability to re-sequence human DNA, which Pepper wisely characterizes as highly "weaponizable".  

Things get even more complicated when super-terrorist the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) appears on the scene, hell-bent on destroying American hegemony.  In a moment of pure hubris, Tony goads the villain into a confrontation by giving out his home address to the media.  After the Mandarin pops by with the equivalent of an exploding fruit basket, our hero loses everything in a flash.

Like Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises, Tony is forced to claw his way back to contender status without the aid of his gadgets.  With help courtesy of proactive security chief Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), Iron Patriot ally James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), genetic scientist Dr. Maya Hensen (Rebecca Hall) and pint-sized fan Harley (Ty Simpkins), Tony attempts to puzzle out the unconventional nature of the Mandarin and foil the evil villain's scheme.   

Iron Man 3 genuinely surprised me.  After the meandering, committee-tainted, color-by-numbers Iron Man 2, this entry comes as a welcome relief.  A lot of the credit goes to writer / director Shane Black, who's Lethal Weapon pedigree is gleefully on display here.  In fact, there are times when the interplay between Robert Downey Jr. and Don Cheadle evoke tones of a Riggs and Murtaugh-style bromance.  

This third film in the trilogy is superior to its predecessor merely because there's a strong narrative arc that leads to a satisfying conclusion.  Indeed, the script builds up its narrative like a perfectly-balanced Jenga puzzle.  Tony's small-town sleuthing yields a revelation about the Mandarin's methods.  His encounter with Harley yields some low-fi solutions and allows him to infiltrate the villain's hideout.  The action hero-style dust-up's spring organically from plot complications and provide some genuinely compelling sequences.  

Although this script is a deliberate effort to scale down from the epic, world-ending threat posed in The Avengers, there are still plenty of engaging action set pieces here.  When Tony is confronted, sans armor, by a super-powered duo (James Badge Dale and Stephanie Szostak ) he's forced to come up with some truly creative tactics.  Similar to The Dark Knight Rises, we don't see a lot of Iron Man, but when we do, it's pretty spectacular.  For example, the free-fall, in-camera mid-air rescue is one of the most authentic and thrilling sequences I've seen in any action film recently.  

The script is also a fine showcase for Shane Black's characteristically-snappy dialogue.  The interplay between Tony, Pepper and Happy is lively, but not distractingly cheeky like it was in Iron Man 2.   Of particular note is the relationship between Tony and his temporary / incidental ward Harley, played by nuanced newcomer Ty Simpkins.  In a lesser film, Harley would be dragged along as a demographic-friendly sidekick, but here the kid serves his narrative function and is logically dispensed with.  Thanks to a few shockingly blunt lines and some excellent comedic delivery from RDJ, sanity is immediately restored to the film. 

Which brings me to the performances.  Even with the Iron Man action scenes at a premium, Robert Downey Jr.'s omnipresent charisma instantly makes this a moot issue.  He's compelling to watch since it's virtually impossible to catch him "emoting".  Scientists really need to puzzle out the aging process since no-one on the planet could possibly inhabit this role so seamlessly.  

Although the general populace seems willing to write Gwyneth Paltrow off as a quirky, spoiled little rich girl, I applaud her consistent presence in this series.  Most creepy Hollywood types would have cast Pepper as a twenty-five-year-old, flavor-of-the-week ingenue fawning over a forty-eight-year-old man.  I'm also thankful that Black and Pearce actually gave Paltrow something to do other then serve as "girl hostage".  In fact, Pepper plays a pivotal part (try saying that five times real quick!) in the film's shocking denouement.

It also comes as a welcome relief that Don Cheadle is a legitimate presence.  Personally, I think a James Rhodes / Iron Patriot movie would be a great way to do some sly social commentary and Lord knows Cheadle has the gravitas to pull it off.  His scenes with RDJ at the end of the film effortlessly conveys a wealth of history between the two, even when things are degenerating into vapid pyrotechnics. 

At first I was irked by the script's unconventional approach to the Mandarin, but as the film unspooled I found myself becoming more and more predisposed to the idea.  In Iron Man 3 Ben Kingsley is a called upon to inhabit a nuanced and interesting persona and the result is an on-screen actor's studio.  Duly inspired by his performance here, I plan to set up an "Avaaz" petition ensuring that Kingsley gets a part in every good film that's made from here on out.  

Guy Pearce completes the villainous one-two punch as Aldrich Killian.  Although his overtly-dorky first appearance in the film makes him look like Kristen Bell's Marni in You Again, I gotta give the guy mad props for pulling off the metamorphosis.  Armed with a perfect storm of intelligence, smarm and lethal ass-kickery, you'll have no problem buying him as a serious threat.  

After watching Iron Man 3, I can't help but wonder if Robert Downey Jr. just wanted to avoid being in the suit as possible.  Whatever the reason, it resulted in a consistently-surprising script, at least up until the very end.  Pity Black and Pearce felt compelled to deliver big, dumb, splashy, explosive, barely-logical ending in order to appease the slack-jawed troglodytes who demand this sort of thing nowadays.    

Indeed, the eleventh-hour "fleet of Iron Men" cavalry scene (openly revealed in the trailer no less!) is particularly galling.  I assume Tony couldn't initiate this "Hail Mary" play any earlier because of the damage sustained to Jarvis and the remaining suit, but it's still a sad script convenience that's anathema to the low-tech theme of the story.  Frankly, I think it would have been a lot more thrilling to see Tony take on the Mandarin in a single, half-destroyed Iron Man suit.  

Regardless of any missteps into cliche, the film's supremely-talented star manages to single-handedly make everything forty percent more awesome.  When the suits at Marvel Studios screw up the courage to call RDJ's agent again, I think "YES", "SURE", "DEFINITELY", "ABSOLUTELY", "WE CAN DO THAT" and "NO, THAT'S A REASONABLE AMOUNT" should be their conversational mantra.   

Tilt: up.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Movie Review: "The 7'th Voyage of Sinbad" by David Pretty

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad has no pretensions or ulterior motives.  Its sole raison d'être is to thrill and entertain.  In that noble quest, the film succeeds admirably. 

The movie begins with the legendary explorer Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) leading his crew onto a seemingly deserted island to scrounge for supplies.  Almost instantly they're set upon by a giant cyclops who is intent on killing the ship's wizard, a shifty character named Sokurah (Torin Thatcher).  In order to facilitate their escape, the sorcerer calls upon a Genie in a magic lamp, but during all the chaos, the lamp is left behind.

Back on board, Sokurah tries to persuade Sinbad to return to the island and recover the lamp but, like a spawning salmon, our hero is intent on returning to Baghdad where he's set to marry (and subsequently knock pointy boots) with Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant).  Although the main impetus for this prearranged union is to unite two rival nations, the young couple are legitimately enamored with one another.   

As soon as they arrive in Persia, Sokurah asks the Caliph to bankroll an expedition back to the island.  Since putting the blocks to a hot princess is considerably more appealing then fighting with giant, one-eyed, club-wielding maniacs, Sinbad quickly nixes the idea.  Undeterred, Sokurah keeps on scheming.

After predicting doom for the marriage and war for Persia, the wizard is branded a heretic and banished from the city.  But when Parisa mysteriously gets shrunk down to action-figure size the Caliph is forced to crawl back to him for assistance.  Sokurah agrees to help, presumably out of the kindness of his own heart. 

Curiously, no-one questions Sokurah when he insists that the only place to find the restorative spell components is back on the island.  Willing to do anything to return the princess to normal (for obvious reasons), Sinbad immediately sets sail, braving crew mutinies, deadly storms, a giant roc, an animated skeletal bodyguard, a dragon and some more hot cyclops action along the way.

The special effects in The 7'th Voyage of Sinbad were pretty mind-blowing back in 1958, akin to the dinosaurs featured in Jurassic Park.  I remember watching clips of this on T.V. as a kid and being totally mystified as to how all of those fantastic creatures were moving around.  Although this isn't Ray Harryhausen's finest hour (Jason and the Argonauts probably deserves that particular distinction) there are tons of memorable monsters on display here that exhibit a startling amount of personality.

Chief amongst them is the cyclops.  Not only is he one of Harryhausen's most iconic designs, he's also brilliantly animated.  You actually start to feel bad for the poor bastard since all he wants to do is sit down and enjoy a quiet lunch.  Instead he gets slashed at, blinded, tricked into falling down a cliff and then rail-roaded into a Hardcore wrestling match with a fire-breathing dragon.

Beyond the film's technical merits and a rousing musical score by famed composer Bernard Herrmann, the picture does show its age occasionally.  Back then, directors weren't necessarily hired for their artistic eye, they were often retained to visually document the script as quickly and efficiently as possible.  Even for its time, Nathan H. Juran's direction here is pretty flat and workmanlike.  It's a woefully inadequate mismatch for such a visually dynamic film.  

The leads are also miscast.  Although Kerwin Mathews and Kathryn Grant are pretty to look at, they're about as Persian as Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth.  Some of the performances in the film are almost shamefully hammy.  I have no idea why Sokurah isn't immediately tapped as the prime suspect for the criminal enshrinkination since he spends the entire film mugging evilly like Jafar in Aladdin.

Regardless, The 7'th Voyage of Sinbad is the product of a simpler time and the stop-motion, er..."Dynamation" effects are top notch.  Although crude by today's standards, this regrettably obsolete technique still seems more substantial to me than a bunch of abstract ones and zeros shoehorned into a computer program.

Watch it on some rainy Saturday afternoon.  Your inner child will thank you.

  Tilt: up.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Movie Review: "Battle Royale" by David Pretty

Battle Royale is The Hunger Games stripped of all the superfluous fat.  It's leaner, meaner, and a helluva lot more thrilling.  There's no time wasted on establishing life in some boringly-generic work collective.  There's no mandatory, up-front love triangle to wade through. There are no WTF? moments provided by a decadent ruling class and their improbably prissy haute couture.  There's only a bunch of teenagers killing the shit out of one another.

Since time immemorial Japanese youths have been expected to follow obediently in the footsteps of their parents.  This societal norm went along all clickety-boo until sometime in the late Eighties / early Nineties, when kids started to call this rigid paradigm into question.  Looking at their own stressed-out, unfulfilled, bitter parents, many young people refused to become an unthinking cog in society.  To the established old guard, this minor rebellion was practically inconceivable.   

Novelist Koushun Takami picked up on this trend and, duly inspired, he crafted the novel Battle Royale.  His story is set in the not-too-distant-future.  Japan has been swallowed up by a totalitarian collective called The Republic of Greater East Asia.  In order to tamp down youth rebellion, the government decides to institute the draconian BR Act.  

Under the pretense of a simple field trip, the students in the 3-B class are rendered unconscious and then wake up in an assembly room presided over by their beleaguered and exasperated former teacher Kitano (Takeshi Kitano).  During the odd lecture that follows, one of the students makes the mistake of talking out of turn and Kitano casually and brutally murders her with a thrown knife to the skull.  A similarly nasty fate befalls Kuninobu, who attacked Kitano a year ago with a knife. 

With the students now completely pacified, Kitano shows them a deceptively-cheery instructional video which explains what's about to happen.  The forty-two students are to be armed with random weapons of various usefulness and then set loose on a deserted island.  Their goal: to kill each other off until only one is left alive.  

To ensure complicity, each student has been fixed with an exploding collar.  At certain intervals, huge swaths of the island will be designated as "Danger Zones".  If a student is caught in these sectors at the wrong time their collars will lethally activate.  If there isn't a sole survivor at the end of competition, all of them with detonate.  The balance of the story documents how alliances formed amongst social cliques don't always hold fast and how easily people will resort to murder if given the right incentive.

Despite a few changes to the assigned weapons and some of the character's backgrounds, the script by Kenta Fukasaku is actually quite faithful to the original novel.  Thanks to a brief title card establishing the dystopic setting and a few economic flashbacks, Battle Royale avoids the expository crush that hobbles the first act of The Hunger Games.  I'm sure that all of the establishment, selection, and training of Katniss will eventually pay off in the next two films, but Battle Royale dispenses will all of this and just goes right for the jugular.

With The Hunger Games we always know that Katniss is the primary character is.  Given all of the screen time invested in her, we know that her chances of being "Janet Leighed" are pretty slim.  In Battle Royale, the audience only gets a few brief recollections to flesh out the major players.  As a result, there's no way to assume that certain characters are immune to the whims of this insane scenario.

Director Kinji Fukasaku keeps things moving with some brutal and intense action scenes that makes The Hunger Games look like Splatalot.  Since these kids aren't trained in combat, their battles are frenetic, desperate and decidedly messy.  Witness the "do-I-trust-you-or-do-I-gank-you" early encounter between Mitsuko (Kou Shibasaki) and Megumi, the implied sexual violence between Kazushi and Chigusa as well as the inadvertent axe job that Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) performs on Oki.  

But it's the infamous "Spaghetti Incident" towards the end of the film that really sums up the film's ethos.  It's ugly, it's nasty and it involves six heavily-armed Japanese girls screaming at each other like banshees.  Thanks to some tight editing by Hirohide Abe, the scene is positively nerve-rattling. 

During the stark daylight scenes, cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima does a great job capturing the rugged environs, to the point where the island itself becomes a character.  Shots of the surf pounding the jagged rocks just off shore really makes the setting feel like a natural Alcatraz.  On an unconscious level, the interiors are interesting but inert enough to keep our focus locked on the combatants.  Unfortunately the film frequently stumbles during the night-time scenes.  Even while watching the film in high-def, the light is often so low that it's difficult to tell what's going on.  

The performances are also somewhat scattershot.  Most of the cast is young and inexperienced and many of them stray dangerously into melodrama.  It's almost as if the kids have based their performances on anime characters.  Tatsuya Fujiwara as Shuya and Taro Yamamoto as Shogo are generally quite good but even they're guilty of some pretty hammy acting at times.  Unfortunately I've seen this hyper-kinetic acting style infect more then one descent Japanese film.  In my opinion, it isn't engaging, it's distracting.  

There are some bright notes, however.  A crazed, manic performance actually fits nicely on Masanobu Ando's Kazuo.  Aki Maeda is cooly measured and sweetly sympathetic as Noriko.  And although Kou Shibasaki is comically villainous as Mitsuko, she's so gleefully homicidal that I really don't care.  More then once I almost jumped out of my skin after catching a glimpse of her skulking around in the background.  

Towering head and shoulders above the rest is Takeshi Kitano as the teacher.  Given his status as a veteran thespian, I'm sure it comes as no surprise that his performance is the best in the film, but even I sat up and took notice.  Via the script's clever use of periodic phone calls to reveal his crippled domestic life, Kitano gives us a character who's spirit has been completely and utterly crushed.  His last few moments on screen represent some of the most intense and darkly bizarre sequences in cinema history.

Although some may argue that The Hunger Games does a better job with world-building and giving a us a central character tho care about, I firmly believe that the absence of these elements actually makes Battle Royale a better film. The outcome is more in doubt, the action sequences are more thrilling, the violence is more vicious and the thematic relevance is closer to the surface.

Indeed, Battle Royale makes The Hunger Games look like a bloated, sanitized, rambling mess in comparison.  

Tilt: up.