Friday, May 31, 2013

STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS, brightly 3-D color darkness

What a nostalgia trip, especially for millions of Trekkies! STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS takes us where we have been before but with pizzaz, actual character development, Klingons, Leonard Nimoy, and even Tribbles. When J.J. Abrams rebooted the franchise in 2009, he cannily went back to origin stories for the beloved characters and successfully reminded us of the traits we loved in the originals while avoiding slavishly imitating them.

In the sequel the action is virtually non-stop with all of the major characters in mortal danger most of the time. Captain Kirk has become a firebrand who breaks rules to save lives while Spock continues to be logical to the point of losing his.  There is a new and inexorable threat to the galaxy in the form of Commander John Harrison, a super-human who (SPOILER ALERT, even though true trekkies know he is the dreaded Khan). He is hell-bent on destroying the Federation. He allows himself to be captured and is kept in isolation on the Enterprise. Played by British actor Benedict Cumberbatch (yes, that's his name and he's the one who has made the new BBC Sherlock Holmes series such a joy to watch), this villain is mesmerizingly attractive in his unflappable English way. It's fun to watch Chris Pine (Kirk) explode against two Mensa superiors. I won't give away too much of the plot, except to say that San Francisco is partially destroyed, as is London. Don't worry, St. Paul's Cathedral survives.

There are loads of inside trekkie jokes and even a budding romance between Spock and Lt. Uhura, the most beautiful officer I've seen in a Star Trek film. Or is that a statement that will get me into trouble as when President Obama recently called Kamala Harris the "the best looking attorney general." All the actors imbue their characters with far more personality than I can remember from Shatner and the crowd, especially Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as Kirk and Spock.
The colors in this film are spectacular, especially in the fantasy version Jupiter and other areas. All in all, STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS is a real trip and a good one. It's by far superior to the other "summer action movies" we've seen so far because it has more sense, action, and real feeling.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Sunday night PBS brought two of their period dramas to the end of their seasons. One is the new drama Mr. Selfridge about a driven, optimistic American businessman who opens a classy department store in the staid London world of the years before World War I. The other, Call the Midwives, in its second season ended with dramas (births) and several cliffhangers.

I had reservations when I watched the first episode of Mr. Selfridge, which is loosely based on a true story, mostly because of the casting of Jeremy Piven (winner of 3 Emmy awards for Entourage on HBO), but his fast-talking glibness has become less annoying, and in the final episodes where he loses a few battles, he has shown a depth I didn't suspect. Harry Selfridge is a man who believes in himself and in making things work, particularly for profit. As he rises in the commercial world, he has the most successful store in London where stage stars, lords and ladies, and even the King of England shop. Unfortunately, Harry falls for a show girl who becomes the face of Selfridges and more for Harry. Meanwhile his wife Rose is intoxicated by the art scene, particulary the handsome man painting her portrait. Complications ensue until Sunday's episode in which everything comes tumbling down. There are many other intriguing plotlines as well and so many involve lovely Edwardian ladies and shop girls. If you haven't tried Mr. Selfridge, I suggest dvds or streaming. It's lovely to look at as well as a edifying look at Edwardian England outside a certain castle in the country.

Set in the 1950's in East London, Call the Midwives describes the challenges of a group of nuns and nurses who serve the poorest of families near the docks. The central character is Jenny Lee, who after adjusting to these harsh realities, becomes an excellent nurse and midwife, but it is not an easy journey. The series sports an array of women, from sprightly to nearly senile, cantankerous to loving. Their stories are intermingled with their clients, whose situations are often filled with pathos. What has impressed me most about the show are the actresses who play those clients. Each has been outstanding, wringing tears and laughter without cheap sentiment. I often wonder about acting awards, especially the Emmys. The actresses in Call the Midwives are far more capable than many American winners. Again, the first season is already available, and this second season should be soon.

A footnote: Mad Men. Sunday's episode brought the series a much needed spurt, primarily through an energy injection given to the butts (read that as you wish) of the ad guys and gals. Some went creative, some went romantic, and Don just went crazy. But at least it broke the malaise, I hope, of Don's continuing malaise!

Friday, May 17, 2013


At the beginning of Bahz Luhrmann's paean to Bohemia Moulin Rouge, a mournful poet types his tragic tale while his voice and chaotic images whirl forth. As Luhrmann's newest orgy of beautiful and profane behaviour The Great Gatsby begins, Nick Carraway is writing a memoir at a recovery home for alcoholics and hopeless romantics (he's both). The letters start floating towards us as they dissolve into the snow outside. From time to time we hear both narrators in voice-overs.

Moulin Rouge is a musical with all the freedoms of song and dance taken further than any musical in history. It works. The Great Gatsby is a serious novel, and Luhrmann, except for characters breaking into song, makes his film version work amazingly well. After all, what Nick discovers with Gatsby, Daisy, the big parties, and all the rest is excess. We are spared nothing, whether beautiful or tasteless. Daisy in her pristine loveliness or husband Tom's mistress in her garish red hair, dresses, and apartment (which  owes a lot to CITIZEN KANE's doll house set). When we enter Gatsby's music room, we're in the Emerald City of Oz with a gigantic organ that only a maniac can play.

If this were all, this version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's jazz age classic would have failed, just as a number of tries in the past, such as the Mia Farrow/Robert Redford pastel love letter from the '70's. But Luhrmann has given Gatsby life while keeping the love story and its complications intact. I'm not going into the plot, since most of us know it from high school or the ads on tv, but...SPOILER ALERT...for all the visual and aural dazzle, this version doesn't end happily either. Leonardo DiCaprio seems to grow into Gatsby as the film intensifies. His dream is to recapture the love of his life, the now married Daisy Buchanan. His opulent palace and his parties are there in order to snare Daisy's attention. DiCaprio gives Jay Gatsby a tender shyness but also a rough intensity beneath his chic wardrobe, mostly in pastels. English actress Carey Mulligan manages to give the impossible role of Daisy a charm that overcomes her spoiled and unhappy demeanor. Both Tobey McGuire and Joel Edgerton as Nick and Daisy's brutish husband, respectively, are nuanced in what could have been cardboard cut-outs.

In the most dramatic and climatic scene at the Plaza Hotel, Tom challenges Gatsby and tells of  his shady past, while Gatsby frantically urges Daisy to reveal their long love for each other. All of the principal actors display new aspects of their characters, including pain, hatred, and despair. But that's not all. We still have to drive back to East Egg and past the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg that overlook the Valley of Ashes where Tom's mistress lives. And, if that symbolism is a bit heavy for you, you can thank Fitzgerald and all those thousands of English teachers, myself included.

Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is not a perfect adaptation or movie. The use of 3-D seems superfluous and the shots of the mansions across the lake resemble Thomas Kincaide at his worst (or best). But he both moves us and almost overwhelms us with his ode to love and excess, one that resonates in our day with its failing institutions, greedy stock manipulators, crooked politicos, and ever-declining morality. Fitzgerald tells us through these characters that we can't relive the past, but that doesn't keep Nick Carraway from delivering the famed last line: "And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Let's pay to get bludgeoned.

Back in 1991 I saw TERMINATOR 2 at a local theater that had just been refitted with Dolby Sound. The first film in this series had been fast-moving, original, and emotionally involving. T-2 had some of these qualities, but the special effects, especially the sound, exploded beyond my imagination. When I left the theater, my head throbbed; I felt as though I had been pummeled to death. In the decades since big sound, 3-D, High Definition, et al, have hammered us action fans into submission.

The latest example of digital and sensual overkill is IRON MAN 3, as if we needed it. There are a few affecting moments in this two and a half hour explosion. Tony Stark is befriended by a sweet kid in rural Tennessee, Gwyneth Paltrow looks wonderful, and Don Cheadle is, as always, dependably appealing. The plot, such as it is, involves billionaire genius Tony Snark (aka, Stark) coming to grips with his own mortality, not to mention his inability to sleep, his usual sarcastic comments, and his addiction to work. When he challenges a world terrorist called the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley, who was once known as Ghandi!), his world crumbles, literally. The Mandarin's forces wage a missile attack on  Stark's Pacific view palace, probably mistaking it for Barbara Streisand's digs. This is the high point of the film for action fans and for those who dig watching one percenters' palaces crashing into the sea. There's not much more to say, except that the Australian actor Guy Pearce plays a mad man with gleeful abandon and the closing sequence is twenty minutes and about as many iron men too long.

On a quieter and far more interesting note, Tom Cruise's new sci-fi thriller OBLIVION avoids most of the excessive pitfalls of IRON MAN 3. Earth has been devasted by Aliens, and most survivors now live on Titan. Tom and his female partner (Andrea Roseborough) work on an observatory above the remains of New York City scouring the environs for alien remnants. In 2 weeks they will join fellow earthlings on Titan. 5 years earlier their memories were erased, but Tom keeps having disturbing dreams about him and a beautiful woman at the top of the Empire State Building. And it's not AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER or SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE. No, something far more sinister and exciting, but to say what would give away the fact that I never understood what was going on then, now, or in the future. But that's the nature of sci-fi, right? OBLIVION is a visual treasure with breath-taking special effects that are so beautiful and realistic that you don't notice they are special effects. Of course, Tom still looks the way he did 20 years ago. At 50, he's buff, gets to save what's left of the world, and have suitless love with his partner in their posh swimming pool. I mentioned that recurring dream, and she's played by Olga Kurylenko, a French/Ukranian actress so svelte, so gorgeous that you and Tom will forget all about the plot.