The title Star Trek Into Darkness remains just as nebulous by the time the closing credits roll as it does during a chase prologue along the Class M Planet of Nibiru. Fortunately, director J.J. Abrams inadvertently provides a number of alternate titles along the way. Into Darkness is the second installment of Star Trek’s look into yesteryear, the continuation of an alternate timeline created in the 2009 Star Trek, also directed by Abrams, which chronicles the adventures of the fledgling crew of the Starship Enterprise.
Just call it Star Trek Babies II.
In essence, Into Darkness is really about the evolving relationship between Jim Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), although their bromance usually boils down to scenes like Kirk’s misty separation anxiety at the news that Spock is being reassigned to another ship, or Spock’s jealousy emotion being triggered when Kirk enlists the duplicative services of beautiful blond science officer Carol (Alice Eve). What hampers any emotional heft, however, is the misapprehension that their relationship has always been about the characters, discounting the time-tested rapport developed between William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.
That said, Pine and especially Quinto prove capable as they, along with a more prominently featured Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and the rest of the crew, face a threat from within: Starfleet officer-turned-terrorist John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a highly intelligent super soldier whose covert design goes sideways after he breaks loose from the moorings of his Federation minders.
Just call it Star Trek: The Wrath of Bourne.
Early on, Abrams hints at Star Trek’s political and social heritage with allegory critical of the current war on terror, including policies favoring indiscriminate hits on high-value targets and drone missile attacks. (Poor Klingons, formerly emblematic of the threat and decay of the Soviet Empire, are now stand-ins for modern day terrorists.) But any such high mindedness quickly evaporates in the fog of a script that is equally lighthearted and incomprehensible, along with a hellfire of 3D special effects and Abrams’ trademark visual quirks.
Just call it Star Trek: Into Lens Flares.
Unlike the sublime mix of rediscovery and homage that fueled the 2009 reboot, Into Darkness eventually chokes on the umbilical cord tethered to its heritage. Trouble with a Tribble or one of a dozen “manual auxiliary rerouted power couplings” are cute, but homage soon crosses the line into unoriginality, from the choice of villain to the mashed-up tropes to a scene in the final act featuring such shameless aping that it converts the sacrosanct into self-parody.
Into Darkness is an entertaining retread that also feels like an elongated TV episode with a bigger budget and explosions that come at the expense of the series’ humanism. This next generation Star Trek is reworked and replicated for today’s generation of moviegoers.
Just call it Star Trek: Attack of the Clones.
The latest and maybe final film from director Steven Soderbergh, Side Effects isn't the movie that it first appears to be. About halfway through, the story pivots and another film emerges. Then a most curious thing happens: It isn't that movie, either.
Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) stars as Emily Taylor, a formerly upper-crusty sort whose life is upended when her financier husband Martin (Channing Tatum) goes to prison for insider trading.
When Martin gets out of jail, Emily does her best to pick up the pieces, but she's paralyzed with severe depression and panic attacks. After a half-hearted suicide attempt, psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) prescribes a series of antidepressant drugs.
Some work, some don't, and some cause Emily to experience truly worrisome sleepwalking episodes. We also learn that the good doctor is participating in clinical trials for an experimental drug called Ablixa. Meanwhile, Emily's former shrink Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones) gets involved and the plot thickens.
It's around this point that Side Effects makes its first lateral leap. What appeared to be an issue movie about the evils of Big Pharma becomes a twisty thriller in the key of Hitchcock. Dark details emerge concerning Emily's past, and Dr. Banks' as well. A crime is committed and a murder mystery is hatched.
Filmmaker Shane Carruth made his bones in the indie film world with the 2004 science fiction puzzle Primer. The ultra-low budget film, concerning a group of engineers who accidentally invent time travel, collected the Grand Jury Prize at that year's Sundance Film Festival.
It's become something of a legend in filmmaking circles: Primer was made for a little over $7,000 with Carruth acting as director, writer, producer, cinematographer, editor, co-star and musical composer. For fans of thinky, conceptual sci-fi, it's a real gem. After seeing it on DVD, I spent hours online trying to figure out all the time travel paradoxes.
Carruth's long-anticipated second film, Upstream Color, premiered just last month in theaters and has already been ported to DVD, thanks to Carruth's typically unorthodox method of self-distribution. The film is still popping up in art houses around the country and, in fact, it may still wind up playing here in town.
Upstream Color is a fantastic film, one of the year's best so far, and a giant leap forward for Carruth as a storyteller and filmmaker. If Primer was startling, Upstream Color is stunning. It's like watching a pencil sketch artist discover oil paints.
Once again, Carruth writes, directs, acts and composes the music. Clearly, he's a hand-on sort of fellow. Like Primer, Upstream Color pleasurably confounds by refusing to play by the rules of traditional movie narrative.
The story, so far as it can be told:
Amy Seimetz (The Killing) plays Kris, a young urban professional who is assaulted in nightclub by a nameless thief. She's forced to ingest a rare larva, which we learn has been taken from the root system of a particularly exotic orchid. The larva drains her free will and the thief spends the next few days in Kris' home, walking her through the motions as she liquidates all her assets and hands them over. He also forces her, for some reason, to transcribe Thoreau's Walden.
Kris awakens several days later with no memory of what happened. But her life as she knew it is gone, as is a portion of her mind and personality. She is subsequently summoned by another mysterious stranger, who surgically removes the larva and seems to be somehow harvesting her psychic misery. Kris returns to the city a shell of her former self.
One day she meets a kindred spirit on the train. Disgraced financier Jeff (Carruth) appears to have suffered the same trauma as Kris. Together they try to assemble their fractured memories. The two seem to be developing a gestalt-mind bond, where identity and memory blend and merge. Details elsewhere in the film suggest that Kris and Jeff have become part of the life cycle of another organism entirely. They sense, too, that there are more people out there in the same desperate situation.
In every conceivable way, Tony Stark’s foe in Iron Man 3 is himself. It starts with an enemy born of Stark’s chronic dickishness, a spurned fan-turned-supervillain not unlike Buddy Pine-cum-Syndrome in The Incredibles. It continues with a superhero whose egotistical compulsion to unmask his true identity continues to put an ever present bullseye on him and his scant loved ones. But Stark’s biggest adversary is his own psyche, an id now fractured by insecurity—indeed, it’s wry genesis that the film is essentially a 130-minute psychiatrist’s couch confession.
Beneath his renowned wisecracks and cocksuredness, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) faces a new reality spawned from the Big Apple battle royale finale to The Avengers. It bears mentioning that Iron Man was the first installment of the now-interwoven Marvel Cinematic Universe. The years since have seen gods and genetic behemoths as heroes, and mutants and aliens from other dimensions as villains.
Against this backdrop, Stark is a self-described “man in a can,” seized by fits of anxiety when a child fan merely asks about “what happened in New York.” (More 9/11 allegory? Never mind, let’s just move on.) While the 42 iterations of armor Stark has fashioned in the basement his cliffside laboratory appear the embodiment of an obsessive mind, they are actually the ongoing realization of Stark’s fateful “I am Iron Man” declaration at the end of the first film. The man and the machine are becoming inseparable, an evolution propelled by equal parts ego and envy.
If you only pay attention to what cycles around to Redbox, Netflix or your old-school video rental place, you might get the sense that only a handful of new home video titles get released each week.
Not so. While the high-profile Hollywood titles get the most attention, new DVDs, Blu-rays and digital releases in any given week number in the dozens — new movies, old reissues, TV series collections, independent films, documentaries, foreign films and a disturbing number of Hallmark Channel original movies.
If you're willing to spend an entirely disproportionate amount of time in front of the TV — and I am — you can find some odd gems. To wit: The archivists at Paramount have started rolling out Blu-ray season set editions of the enduring syndicated classic Star Trek: The Next Generation. The series' third season is being released this week, with all 26 episodes plus some nice bonus materials, including a writers' reunion hosted by Seth MacFarlane. (Several ST: TNG writers went on to create shows like Battlestar Galactica, CSI and 24.)
They've also released the frankly awesome one-off Blu-ray special The Best of Both Worlds, a feature-length presentation of the series' high-water moment: The two-part cliffhanger in which Captain Picard is kidnapped by the nefarious cybernetic villains known as the Borg. I geeked out on this Blu-ray before the plastic wrap hit the floor.
For the uninitiated, the Borg are one of science fiction’s all-time great villains, a collective hivemind of cyborgs who fly around the universe in a giant cube, “assimilating” any culture they come across. In the two-episode story arc presented here, the Borg abduct Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) and subsume his consciousness into the collective.
The period L.A. crime drama Gangster Squad — starring Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn and Emma Stone — is best known for its poor timing. Following the movie theater mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado in July 2012, the release date for Gangster Squad was bumped. The film's centerpiece action sequence depicted, yes, a mass shooting in a movie theater.
The cast reassembled in August for additional shooting and the scene was replaced for the film's rescheduled opening in January, 2013. But critics didn't like it, audiences didn't notice it, the marketing was halfhearted and picture quickly sank from view.
New to DVD, Blu-ray and digital this week. Gangster Squad is hoping for a second chance on home video. It's not a great film, but it's not bad and it has a nice feel for the genre delights of tough guys and Tommy guns.
The premise — kinda-sorta based on a true story — is made-for-Hollywood material: After World War II, vicious gangster Mickey Cohen (Penn) is king of the Los Angeles criminal underworld. Cohen has so terrified the citizenry that one will inform or testify against him. And he's bought off all the important cops and judges, so no one will prosecute him in the first place.
L.A. police chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) decides there's only one way to beat Cohen. He assembles an off-the-books team of hardcase cops — the Gangster Squad — to wage guerrilla war against Cohen's syndicate. Their mission, should they choose to accept it: Smash Cohen's rackets, burn down his operations and dispose of his goons by any means necessary. The team accepts, with enthusiasm.
The indie romantic dramedy Save the Date — new to DVD, Blu-ray and digital this week — starts in awfully familiar territory.
Twenty-something Sarah (Lizzy Caplan) is a bookstore clerk and aspiring artist who's about to have her sketches premiere in a small gallery. Her boyfriend Kevin (Geoffrey Arend, Body of Proof) is the lead singer of an appropriately hip indie band. They've just moved in together.
Meanwhile, Sarah's older sister Beth (Alison Brie, Mad Men) is planning her own wedding to fiance Andrew (Martin Starr, Adventureland), drummer for said indie band. Both couples are on the verge of making major life commitments. They process their feelings by way of late-night conversations in studio lofts with hardwood floors and stacks of vinyl in plastic crates. There's a lot of hand-wringing about The Future and several variations on the phrase: "I'm about to spend the rest of my life with this person!"
I've developed a low pain threshold, over the years, for indie films about attractive big city creative types and their romantic problems. I understand that you're supposed to write about what you know, but c'mon emerging Los Angeles screenwriters. Can't you stretch just a little?
All that said, Save the Date does what it does about as well as it can be done. The film's greatest strength is the lead performance from Lizzy Caplan, the future movie star whose past credits include Cloverfield, Hot Tub Time Machine and the late, lamented Freaks and Geeks.
And now for something completely different.
A loopy Buddhist fable in the shape of a blockbuster action pic, The Sorcerer and the White Snake features several big-name Hong Kong stars battling snakes, demons and one another in ancient China. The movie was a big hit overseas in 2011 and has finally rolled around to home video release in the U.S.
Based on a famous Chinese folk tale, the story concerns Abbot Fahai (Jet Li) — a battle-tested monk who leads his disciples in a perpetual war against the demons of the land. Fahai doesn't kill the demons he defeats. Instead, he traps them in the mystical Lei Feng Pagoda, to reflect upon their sins. The demons are an interesting lot — bat creatures, ice harpies, white foxes and the occasional door mouse.
Meanwhile, a curious snake demon named Susu (the celestially beautiful Eva Huang) assumes human form and rescues a young man from drowning in a mountain lake. The two fall in love and the stage is set for a showdown between the good-hearted demon and the literal-minded demon hunter. Fahai, it seems, does not approve of human/demon mixed marriage.
Sorcerer has some of the most gonzo visual effects you'll see all year, big screen or small. Between the martial arts action and the film's wild assortment of otherworldy beings, you get a real eyeful.
Gonzo does not necessary mean good, however, as evidenced by the second half of Hunter Thompson's career. The film's over-the-top fighting scenes feature the usual impossible swordplay, but also 400-foot snake demons and flying bat warriors that look like cutscenes out of a 2003 PlayStation 2 game.
Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines is a tattered melodrama that reaches fevered pitches out of nowhere and ambles with confidence through its baggy plot. It’s a sweaty ride, shifting in and out of rapid speeds that come in spurts, a lot like Ryan Gosling on his getaway motorbike, zipping through Schenectady, N.Y., against oncoming traffic to suddenly curve off onto a damp side street.
Gosling, as Luke, rocks patterned pants, bleached-blond hair and corny tattoos, synthesizing a goofy demeanor with blunt intensity (his voice cracks when he robs banks) that fits perfectly into Cianfrance’s brand of opera in Dullsville.
As Luke’s partner in crime, Ben Mendelsohn limps through his scenes like an outsider artist with homicidal tendencies. Every time he shows up, the jagged tone crackles anew. If his character ever intersected with Ray Liotta’s electric bad cop, you get the feeling the screen would crack in half.
Cianfrance also does great work with Eva Mendes, but she’s always good, and—feat of feats—makes smug jock Bradley Cooper momentarily sympathetic as a skittish cop.
“You’re medicine, Jack!” growls Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, in writer-director Brian Helgeland’s 42. He’s talking, of course, to Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), the Negro League player whom he’s hired to play in the big leagues, breaking baseball’s color barrier.
In this version of the story, Rickey never doubted himself, knew exactly how to make it happen and picked a ballplayer tough enough to deal with the nasty stuff he’d have to put up with, but smart enough not to fight back. Thank you, Jackie Robinson, for swinging the bat at the ball and not at anyone’s head.
Helgeland’s movie jumps back and forth from Robinson’s preparation in the minor leagues to the Brooklyn Dodgers preparation for his arrival: “He is coming!” bellows manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni), like John the Baptist prophesying about the messiah.
Combined with Rickey’s mentions of God as the ultimate baseball fan, and the way Robinson is picked almost randomly from a stack of files by Rickey and said to be blessed with “superhuman” talent, Robinson is made an incidental part of this scheme. It’s fate. There is no other way this could have happened. Of course, thinking Robinson is superhuman instead of smart and devoted enough to play the game well is its own more nuanced brand of racism. But that’s beyond the grasp of 42.