Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Review of Star Trek Into Darkness

It's been out for about a month now and I finally got around to seeing Star Trek Into Darkness (2013). First of all I must say that I think it was a better film than the original Star Trek (2009). It's not that the first film was bad, but it had just a ton of plot holes that I still can't get past. The current film feels much more cohesive, if derivative (but I'll get to that).

Oh, if you haven't seen this movie yet, this is your one and only warning that my review contains major spoilers. You have been warned.

The movie starts out with Kirk and Bones on an alien planet where Kirk has pissed off the locals by taking some sort of artifact or god or something. They're running for their lives and Kirk, confronted by a huge monster that came out of nowhere, stuns the beastie, only to learn from McCoy that it was their ride.

Meanwhile, Spock, Uhura, and Sulu are in a shuttlecraft heading into a live, about-to-erupt volcano to stop the fireworks. Failure to do so will result in every living being on the planet dying (that's some badass volcano), even though their orders from star fleet said only to survey the planet, not save it.

Spock is lowered down in some super heat resistant suit with a fusion bomb (why that would make a giant volcano inert is beyond me). His line to the shuttle breaks and the heat threatens to destroy the shuttlecraft so Sulu is forced to fly (limp) back to the Enterprise, which is hiding under the nearby ocean.

Spock is alone and if he can't get out of there in just a minute or so, Young Spock will die and there'll be no Genesis planet to revive him.

Kirk breaks the prime directive to save Spock by pulling the Enterprise out of its watery cover so they can beam Spock back. All the pre-industrialization aliens see the ship and there are strong indications that it becomes their new god.

In the original series, Kirk broke the prime directive with such regularity, it seemed like the law was made to be broken.

Not so in the reboot movies. Kirk loses his command (thanks to Spock filing a truthful report...Jim's log was full of "half-truths") and the Enterprise goes back to Pike. Kirk goes back to school.

Fortunately villainy is afoot and the mysterious John Harrison saves the life of a star fleet officer's daughter in exchange for that officer blowing up an archive...which just happens to really be a secret star fleet weapons development center (or should I say "centre") in the heart of 23rd century London.

Pike calls in some favors and gets Kirk assigned as his first officer (Spock is reassigned to the USS Bradbury and Kirk is still pissed at him for not understanding why Kirk broke every rule in the book to save his life). Kirk is the only one to figure out (but not in time) that after a disaster such as the one in London, all starship captains and first officers are called into a mandatory confab at Star Fleet headquarters...a perfect set up.

And it was. Harrison swoops in with a ship and peppers their meeting room with gunfire. I must say Star Fleet air security was really lax. In the 21st century, air traffic controllers and the military know when an aircraft is anywhere near restricted air space. If the room in the film had been the White House, the President would have been toast.

Admiral Marcus makes it. Kirk not only makes it but brings down the attacker (but Harrison beams himself halfway across the galaxy before his ship actually crashes) Spock makes it.

Pike isn't so lucky.

Amazingly Admiral Marcus gives Kirk his command back, reassigns Spock as first officer, and gives Kirk seventy-two highly classified photon torpedoes to kill the attacker with, who has beamed himself to an uninhabited area on Chronos, the Klingon homeworld. Kirk's orders are to hang at the edge of Klingon space, lock onto Harrison, and fire without warning.

Kirk is OK with this morally, but Spock, Bones, Scotty, and just about everyone else isn't and try to talk Kirk out of it. Scotty even quits his job over it. A new, and might I add beautiful science officer Carol Wallace (Alice Eve) is assigned to the Enterprise right before launch.

So far so good. Kirk got a good talking to by Pike before he bit the dust and frivolous, womanizing Kirk has had this "comeuppance." Pike was the closest thing Kirk had to a father and watching him die right before his eyes has left him hungry for revenge. In that sense, we can almost forgive him for not noticing that a star fleet admiral has just ordered him to commit murder and risk interstellar war all for the sake of getting one man. No attempt at a capture, not even a warning to be issued. Why would Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) even do such a thing?

On top of all this, Spock and Uhura are barely on speaking terms but the reason isn't made clear until later. Neither is the reason that Spock could face his own death with little emotion but he was shocked the moment Pike died.

So off to Chronos the Enterprise goes.

I must say at this point that Scotty's transwarp beaming equation has made transporters too powerful. If Khan, uh, I mean "Harrison" (why the heck couldn't they get an actor from India or of Indian descent to play a Sikh warrior from India is beyond me) can beam from Earth to Chronos across hundreds if not thousands of light years, who needs starships?

With Scotty partying back on Earth, Chekov, who should be about 21 years old by now, is made chief engineer (people are promoted awfully fast in this version of Star Trek...Kirk was made Captain before he ever graduated the academy) and he's got a big problem. Somewhere near Klingon space, the Enterprise just stops dead. There's a leak in the warp cooling system and it's going to take Chekov hours if not days to track it down (he's no miracle worker).

Kirk, after much soul searching, which we don't actually see, decides to not fire the mysterious torpedoes (they're resistant to scanners...no one can even figure out what kind of fuel they use) and instead is going to lead Spock and Uhura (she can speak Klingon) on a covert mission to try and capture Khan (yes, it's Khan) and bring him back to Earth alive to stand trial.

They make it to Chronos but not undetected. They encounter first one and then several rather overly designed birds of prey and have no choice but to land. Uhura tries to negotiate with a group of rather overly designed Klingon warriors, all carrying overly designed batleths, but no go (it's like the folks in charge of making Chronos and everything Klingon decided that it all needed lots and lots of modular lumps, and knobs, and doohickies all over everything. The Klingon world and all the Klingon stuff looks like a bunch of black and white legos...but really, really sharp.)

Khan, of all people, comes in at the last second to rescue Uhura with some sort of big particle weapon and takes out almost all of the Klingons and their ships. Oh, he saves a few for Kirk to fight but it's really Khan who saves the say.

Khan surrenders after finding out that Kirk has exactly seventy-two specialized, long range torpedoes on board, and allows himself to be put in the brig.

And then Khan lays it all out for Kirk while Bones is studying Khan's highly unusual blood sample.

He's three-hundred years old. He and a group of enhanced human beings were launched into space as war criminals. Marcus found their ship, thawed only Kahn out and held the other seventy-two members of Khan's crew in status to force Khan to develop new ships and weapons technologies for the Admiral. After the whole mess with Nero in the previous film, Admiral Marcus decided that the only way to prevent another such happening is to turn star fleet into a military organization...and he plans to start a war with the Klingons to do it. The torpedoes, the Enterprise's break down, everything was part of Marcus's plan. Khan even gives Kirk a set of co-ordinates near one of Jupiter's moons that contains the proof.

As all this is going on, Spock discovers that Carol Wallace is really Carol Marcus, the Admiral's daughter, who is snooping around to find out why her father has gone so "black ops" lately. Kirk calls up Scotty and his alien friend and pleads with them to investigate the co-ordinates near Jupiter. Simon Pegg plays Scotty with lots of attitude and crankiness, but not much personal resolve. Off to Jupiter he goes.

Bones examines Khan in sickbay and is trying out some of Khan's blood on a dead tribble (yeah, but only one tribble).

Later Bones and the now confessed Dr. Carol Marcus try to open up a torpedo and find not only explosives but a highly enhanced human being in status...it was Khan's plan to try and free his people by hiding them in the weapons he built, but he was found out and Marcus took the torpedoes before Khan could smuggle them away from the weapons center. Khan's murderous attack is explained as revenge for the Admirals poor treatment of him and his people and in protest for his "evil plan".

And who should show up before Chekov's repairs on the warp coolant leak are finished...the Admiral in a secret attack ship that had just been assembled near one of Jupiter's moons.

I won't give you the rest of the blow-by-blow, but Kirk, backed into a corner, learns the meaning of responsibility and command, something he was sorely lacking by the end of the first film. I was afraid that J.J. Abrams was going to leave Kirk not only a jerk, but an inept one at that. This entire second movie is to develop Kirk into the Captain he's supposed to be. For the most part, it works.

We also find out that the destruction of Vulcan has left Spock more vulnerable than anyone imagined. Uhura was mad at him for risking his life and accepting certain death because he didn't care about her and how she would feel. But it was his feelings Spock was trying to protect. He mind melded with Pike at the moment of death and he has been trying to hide just how "emotional" he's been about relationships. Spock "felt" Pike's confusion, anger, and fear when he died, and those feelings mirror how Spock feels about Vulcan...and those closest to him if they should die. It's not that he doesn't love Uhura enough but that he loves her too much.

And then things get too rewired and it's like the ghost of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) moves in. After Kirk and Khan get on board the Admiral's ship with a little help from Scotty who stowed away, to rescue Carol, who Admiral Marcus beamed aboard once he realized she was on the Enterprise, Khan kills Marcus, beams the Enterprise trio back onto their crippled starship and as he's about to destroy them, they pull a surprise warp jump and head for Earth.

They almost make it. But the engines are damaged. Kirk (and not Spock) enters the radioactive chamber to fix the engines so the Enterprise doesn't crash on Earth. After the touching "I shall always be your friend" scene, it is Spock who has to helplessly watch his friend Jim die, so soon after he's lost Pike. It's Spock (and not Kirk) who screams in rage, "Khhhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaannnnn!!!!!!!!"

Spock has also pulled a fast one and agreed to beam seventy-two torpedoes on board Khan's (well, it's Khan's ship now) ship but really, the people and cryochambers were removed before hand...not so the explosives which Spock armed.

The Enterprise is saved but Khan's ship is hopelessly crippled by the exploding torpedoes and crashes into San Francisco. Khan (of course) survives, and Spock goes after him and revenge.

Meanwhile, the dead tribble that Bones had treated with Khan's blood revives and the resurrection of dead Kirk (minus a Genesis planet) is assured. But Bones needs Khan alive to get enough blood to save Kirk.

Khan, for his part, isn't all that easy to kill, or even stun. He's absolutely ruthless in a way that Ricardo Montalban's Khan never was...and a lot stronger. Even Spock's neck pinch doesn't work...and when Uhura beams down to stop Spock from killing Khan, even her phaser on heavy stun doesn't quite do the job. But using some piece of machinery like a boxing glove, Spock beats and beats and beats Khan up which finally does the trick.

But we had far, far too much "Wrath of Khan" storyline for my tastes and just how emotional is Spock going to be from here on in?

Months later, Kirk has recovered, and one year later, at the Enterprise's re-christening ceremony (she was pretty badly beaten up), Pike is eulogized by a much more mature and worthy Captain James T. Kirk. With the crew and ship in top shape and ready, they finally embark on their five year mission, the longest ever attempted by a starship.

Space, the final frontier.

It was good. It was long. All the stuff pulled from that 1982 movie was way over the top. The actual origin story for Khan and his people (not one of them were revived, although you'd think Bones would have wanted to test their blood, too) was never detailed so how they were created on Earth sometime in the twentieth century remains a mystery. At the end of the film, Khan is refrozen, begging a sequel.

Oh yeah, Bones synthesized a serum from Khan's blood so in theory, now star fleet medical has an immortality potion. If you die, it's not permanent. If you want to go to the other end of the galaxy, you can just beam there. Things happen fast in this version of Star Trek...and they're getting more powerful by leaps and bounds. Pretty soon, they'll even be able to stop Superman...except at the box office.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

DVD Review: Green Lantern (2011)

So I finally got around to seeing the 2011 film version of Green Lantern. The movie was generally panned by critics and audiences alike, but I felt that I owed it to myself to see if it was really that bad.

First, the stuff I liked.

Taika Waititi as Tom Kalmaku was great. I was wondering how or if the film was going to include Hal's best friend "Pieface." OK, Tom was introduced in 1960 when (white) people didn't consider it racist to call the Inuit people "Eskimos" or to refer to an Inuit native as "Pieface." Pie, uh...Tom was originally Hal's aircraft mechanic at Ferris Aircraft and Hal's best friend (on earth) but he got an upgrade to best friend and engineer. In the silver age GL comics, Tom actually chronicled Hal's adventures (that book would be worth a lot of money) not unlike Dr. Watson's role relative to the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Sometimes, the reader is treated to a GL adventure from Tom's POV.

In the film, Tom is a fun and smart engineer who can readily out think Hal but who still makes for a good "wingman" and reminder of just what an irresponsible jerk Hal can be sometimes.

Peter Sarsgaard in the role of Hector Hammond pre-transformation. He was brilliant, quirky, but likable and approachable. In spite of his intelligence, he was vulnerable and always living in the shadow of his powerful Senator father. If "Daddy Dearest" had just left him alone and kept him out of the investigation into Abin Sur and his spaceship, Hector would have gotten along just fine. It kind of ruinned it when the Parallax fear energy started infecting him, resulting in him murdering his own father (the guy was a douche, but not worth an execution by fire douche) and committing other heinous crimes including turning the earth over to a superpowerful alien (the aforementioned Parallex) for destruction.

Blake Lively as Carol Ferris. I thought she struck the right balance between corporate responsibility and human vulnerability, the heir apparent of the Ferris Aircraft "empire." She could be a little too "dippy" at times, especially for a woman who knows how to handle all of that responsibility, but in the end, she managed to keep her head long enough to save Hal from Parallex's clutches so he could retrieve his ring and save the day.

I was a little disappointed that the writers made her a test pilot and a corporate executive, not because I have anything against women being test pilots, but Carol was always the yang to Hal's yin, the level headed responsible person to Hal's irresponsible adventurer. Putting them both in high performance aircraft and literally making her Hal's wingman crossed the line and disrupted the balance between their characters. Carol and Hal shouldn't be on the same playing field.

I'm glad the movie maintained Hal's family including his brothers and nephew. The silver age GL comics always made a point to show Hal and his brothers together, each one having their own skill sets and all of them being highly competitive as brothers. It humanized Hal for the readers in a way the "only children" heroes of the 1960s (Superman, Batman, Flash, and so on) never did. In real life, most of us have some sort of family.

The scene between Hal and his young nephew Jason was one of the better ones in the film. Hal, the fun, favorite uncle, who screwed up and almost got himself killed, freaking out young Jason, not unlike how Hal felt the day he watched his father die as a test pilot in an experimental jet.

The portrayals of Sinestro (Mark Strong), Tomar-Re (Geoffrey Rush), and Kilowog (Michael Clarke Duncan) were great. Although the dedication and heroism of Sinestro was an especially strong presence in the film (foreshadowing Sinestro's fall from grace later on), Rush's Tomar-Re was my favorite among the "alien" GL's. As a kid, Tomar-Re was my favorite GL after Hal. He was Hal's best friend in the Corps in the silver age comics. Although the DC writers may not have intended it, the friendship between Hal Jordan and Tomar-Re showed that no matter how different, how alien two intelligent, compassionate beings can be, it's the desire to do good and to uphold justice that beings us together. Fitting that their relationship should have started during the early civil rights era.

In the film, Rush lends a calmness and warmth to Tomar-Re's voice. You can trust him. He's a little bemused at Hal pretty much all the time, but it's like a father relating to a young child who knows one day that child will grow to far surpass him. Tomar-Re is the kind of friend (and father figure) who would give a son just the right amount of encouragement and the time it takes for Hal to grow up.

What didn't I like. 

Everything else.

From the first few moments of the film and the opening narration, I could tell I was going to be disappointed. It was like reading a comic book and not a particularly well written one. The opening just screamed at me: "Don't take this film seriously." In relation to the Dark Knight Trilogy and the soon to be released film Man of Steel (the trailers look fabulous), Green Lantern was nothing to write home about.

I think Ryan Reynolds was well cast to play the version of Hal Jordan the writers created, but he wasn't the Hal Jordan. In the original comic books, Hal already had the heart of a warrior and a hero. He had the personality of a policeman, albeit a somewhat rigid one. Right and wrong were polar opposites and in his heart, he always knew the difference, a fact that writer Dennis O'Neal used to good advantage when he and artist Neal Adams created the now legendary story No Evil Shall Escape My Sight (Green Lantern #76 - 1970).

Of course "perfect" heroes, such as DC tended to create in the 1950s and 60s don't make good movie characters because they have no room to grow. But having grown up loving the Hal Jordan Green Lantern and wishing for a really good film version of my favorite DC hero, I just didn't "feel it" watching Reynolds play Hal on the screen.

Frankly, I think the film's approach was all wrong. I'd never have introduced the "outer space" aspects of what it is to be a Green Lantern and certainly wouldn't have introduced the Corps and the Guardians so early in the game.

Hal had virtually no time to come to terms with the ring and the lantern before being whisked away to Oa, and even then, his training was about fifteen minutes long before Hal "quit," took the power ring, and with his tail tucked between his legs, scurried back to earth.

In the early silver age comics, Hal didn't know anything about the Corps. He periodically got "orders" from the lantern about specific "assignments" but he didn't know where they came from or what they meant beyond the immediate mission. I would have liked to have seen Hal trying to deal with the ring and the lantern more on his own first, discovering himself as a hero but only beginning to get a glimpse at the true implications of wielding that kind of power.

The writers could have even introduced a sort of "symbiotic" relationship between Hal and the ring, as if they both had something to give each other, the ring giving Hal power and Hal giving the ring the means to use it for good.

In spite of the fact that Hal was given a virtually overwhelming villain to defeat and the task of protecting the planet earth, I just didn't get any sort of personal angst or anguish...something to really overcome. Sure, Hector Hammond captured Carol and threatened to infect her with the Parallax energy, but I was really hoping Hal would have been able to face something even more personal (or maybe it was just the writing and the performances that didn't convey what I was looking for).

I recall in the issue 34 (1966) Green Lantern story "End of a Gladiator," Hal learned about the ring's "mortality fail safe." An emergency store of energy that's available, even when the ring's energy charge is exhausted, that can save a Green Lantern's life, even when the ring wielder is unconscious. During a battle between GL and one of his foes, Tom is mortally wounded. The villain tricked Green Lantern into thinking he had recently charged his ring, but in fact, it was an illusion and at the height of the battle, Hal's ring runs out of power. On the one hand, Hal is about to be shot. If he does nothing, the ring's emergency reserve will save his life. On the other hand, Tom is seconds from death. Hal does the impossible and orders the ring to use the emergency reserve to save Tom's life. Tom lives, but Hal is shot and presumed dead (a highly unusual set of circumstances results in his being revived).

It's that kind of conflict that would have made the climax of the film. The stakes didn't have to be a world, just the struggle for discovery of how heroic, how courageous, how honest Green Lantern member Hal Jordan could be.

In spite of all the special effects, the best efforts of the actors involved, and the decades of source material to be drawn from, Green Lantern the legendary hero of my childhood never materialized on the screen in 2011. It was just another movie.

With the potential for a DC Universe set of films culminating in one or more JLA movies in the future, I'm hoping for a Green Lantern reboot. Let's do it better next time.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Batman: Year One (2011) A DVD Review

Two men come to Gotham City: Bruce Wayne after years abroad feeding his lifelong obsession for justice and Jim Gordon after being too honest a cop with the wrong people elsewhere. After learning painful lessons about the city's corruption on its streets and police department respectively, this pair learn how to fight back their own way. With that, Gotham's evildoers from top to bottom are terrorized by the mysterious Batman and the equally heroic Gordon is assigned to catch him by comrades who both hate and fear him themselves. In the ensuing manhunt, both find much in common as the seeds of an unexpected friendship are laid with additional friends and rivals helping to start the legend.

-Written by Kenneth Chisholm

That a summary of the video Batman: Year One (2011) which I saw on DVD a couple of weeks ago. I saw and subsequently reviewed the 1989 Keaton/Nicholson Batman film on the same weekend, but I couldn't summon whatever I needed to write my "Year One" review at the same time.

Maybe that's because the video reminded me so much of the Batman: Year One graphic novel (2007 -- originally published February through May 1987 in the regular Batman comic book series) by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli. The graphic novel gained rave reviews if you can believe Amazon (and most people do), and I remember the work favorably as well. Why do I feel so "cold" about the video based off the graphic novel?

Maybe because it was so similar to its 136 page source. I mean, having read the graphic novel, why did I need to see the 64 minute video?

Don't we want films made from books to be true to their source? Well, yes and no. If I were talking about a text-only novel, there'd be no visual component except what was generated in my head as I was reading. With a graphic novel, you get words and pictures. With an animated video you get spoken words and moving pictures, but it (in this case) looks pretty much the same.

It was as if the makers of the animated film said, "Let's make the graphic novel story again but make it move." In other words, I didn't learn anything new or have much of a different experience than when I read the graphic novel a few years ago. Any film should be more than just a moving, talking version of its source. I want to have a different experience, related enough to the original to recognize it, but different enough to be worth my while.

If I had a choice, I'd probably just read the comic book version again because print typically includes more story detail that's cut for time in a film presentation.

This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy the animated film. It was watchable and entertaining. I could certainly see the portions that linked into Batman Begins (2005), such as Batman "calling for backup."

You see the less than honorable side of a relatively young Jim Gordon, cheating on his pregnant wife, struggling to rise above his failures, fighting criminals with almost the same darkness as Batman. You see a young Bruce Wayne donning the mantle of the Bat for the first time, making rookie mistakes that almost get him killed, nearly killing the legend along with him. You see a different "Catwoman" with a (apparently) lesbian twist (it's only hinted at, but you get that vibe).

If you've never read the graphic novel or the original series of comic books, you'll enjoy the film. If you've read the graphic novel, seeing the film will be like deja vu. It's that simple.

If I watch Batman animated films, I'll try to pick those that don't follow the print material so closely. I want to be surprised as the story unfolds in front of my eyes.