Saturday, 23 May 2009

Angels & Demons


Okay, I was obviously too hard on Star Trek. After watching Angels & Demons and another summer blockbuster I am not yet allowed to name, and hearing about Terminator Salvation, it could very well be that Star Trek is by far the best action film this season will offer, in which case I should have spent a little more time singing its praises instead of primarily expressing my disappointments. Sorry, J.J.

It won’t take long to sing the praises of Angels & Demons (sorry, Ron). The score was better than the one in Da Vinci Code (though Hans Zimmer used the same basic themes), the setting and cinematography as strong as in Da Vinci Code and the acting as mediocre as in Da Vinci Code (though Armin Mueller-Stahl was as great as ever in a supporting role). But the story, the all-important story, was a snooze-fest (I’m so glad I didn’t waste my time reading the book, which I’m sure must have been even worse than Dan Brown’s poorly written though at least occasionally fascinating Da Vinci Code). I found the Illuminati church-chase an interminable bore. And the surprise ending was one of the most predictable (and telegraphed) in the history of film. Unlike the critics, I actually rather liked The Da Vinci Code, but Angels & Demons ranks among the worst films I’ve seen in the past year.

What about its “message”, namely that science and religion (or faith) can coexist? Yeah, okay, but a nice obvious message conveyed in a very simplistic way doesn’t do much for me either. I prefer the crazy religious ideas of The Da Vinci Code, which are at least a little thought-provoking.

NEVERTHELESS, Angels & Demons did have one redeeming factor: it had a few marvellous quotes (I’m not sure whether or not this is a sarcastic statement). To begin with, in the “truer words were never spoken” category, we have the killer telling our hero: “Be careful – these are men of God”. If only he had been listening to himself talk! Then, in the “if only it were true” category, we have Ewan McGregor (who should try another musical) saying the Catholic Church is “a simple brotherhood who want nothing more than to be a voice of compassion in a world spinning out of control.” And finally we have the best line in the film, which is also in the first category above, with the added “if only people believed it”. The line goes something like: “Religion is flawed. Because men are flawed – all of them!” Amen!

Angels & Demons proves that this is also true of filmmakers, actors and writers. This film is, unfortunately, one of many this season which will prove my point below about mindless action. I’m not planning to waste my time on most of them, so I should be careful not to call Angels & Demons one of the worst. But I really can’t give this film more than **+. My mug is down.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Moon


Who would have thought that just a few days after asking for a quiet intelligent science fiction film, I would actually get to see one. Moon is a low-budget indie film (rare enough for science fiction) starring Sam Rockwell as a man working alone on the moon for three years, overseeing a largely automatic mining operation. Strange things start to happen and Sam begins to suspect that his robot/computer sidekick (voiced by Kevin Spacey) knows more than he’s telling.

Moon reminds me of Solaris and 2001 and Silent Running but the story is unlike any of those. The story does remind me of another sci-fi film, but I can’t mention it without giving away a major surprise element in the plot. Moon is a very quiet film, with only one actor on the screen for most of it, but there is a consistent level of suspense, a thought-provoking story, a strong sci-fi feel and, thankfully, a good acting job by the one actor, Sam Rockwell.

Still, Moon is not perfect. The one-man show doesn’t always work and the plot is neither as tight nor as intelligent as it could be. But for a low-budget film from a first-time director (Duncan Jones), this is an excellent effort and, for me, just as entertaining as Star Trek, which probably cost hundreds of times more. ***+

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Star Trek


I first fell in love with Kirk, Spock and Bones back in 1966 (What’s that? No, of course I’m not that old! I was watching from my crib.); I was among the earliest generation of Trekkies. The original Star Trek series filled me with a sense of wonder and with optimism about the future of humanity. It engaged both my mind and my heart on a regular basis. Despite the laughable sets and special effects (no doubt very innovative for their time), Star Trek felt like sci-fi – like I really was in a future world where interplanetary travel was commonplace. It regularly sent tingles up and down my spine. And despite the hokey acting and plots, the characters quickly became like family to me. Star Trek (The Original Series) remains one of my all-time favourite TV shows.

When Kirk, Spock and McKoy were translated to the big screen back in 1979, I was slightly disappointed by the way the more polished sets and special effects actually diminished some of the sci-fi feel (though the first, and least popular, film was the best in this regard), but I very much enjoyed those first four Star Trek films. Then things started to go downhill.

I would love to report that the new Star Trek film by J.J. Abrams (writer/director of Alias and LOST) is a return to form, especially since it has been getting such great reviews. But sadly that is not the case.

Yes, the filmmakers have done a great job of casting lookalikes of all the Star Trek regulars and of making them completely believable as the younger versions of the original characters. The interaction between these characters is certainly the highlight of the film, though I would have wished for more of Bones (maybe in the sequels). When the film focused on the characters and the often humorous dialogue between them, it had my complete attention (I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Leonard Nimoy). Unfortunately, the film was not dominated by characters or dialogue but by action. This was clearly a Star Trek made for the 21st century – all action and great special effects for those with short attention spans and very little substance. Just as I prefer quiet, intelligent thrillers, I prefer quiet intelligent science fiction films. This was not one of them. The action, violence and overwhelming soundtrack (sound effects and score) so dominated the film that I found little room for wonder and rarely felt that I was watching a real sci-fi film. And there was almost nothing to engage my mind; instead of interesting philosophical ideas, all we were given was the usual Spock/Kirk engagement on emotions versus logic. This was an interesting part of the plot but hardly anything new.

I won’t comment much on the time travel/alternate reality plot. This clever if illogical device allows the filmmakers to disregard the Star Trek timeline and do their own thing with our beloved characters. I don’t mind if this allows for some creative new storytelling. But that’s not what we get here.

I mentioned that the original series filled me with optimism about the future of humanity. This film does not do that. Instead of convincing me that humanity has basically set aside the need for wars and violence (and yes, I know the original series was often very ambiguous and hypocritical in this regard), it left me with the feeling that not much had changed during the intervening centuries – it’s still all about who has the biggest weapons or at least the most clever use of weapons. This is a dark film about what still seems to be a dark time. The careless and insulting way that the demise of the Romulans is depicted (almost as a joke between Kirk and Spock at the film’s darkest minute) shows how little the filmmakers have thought about their message in this regard.

Star Trek, the 2009 film, is an engaging bit of pop entertainment by one of the big pop entertainers of our time, J.J. Abrams. Does Abrams, who clearly has his fingers on the pulse of the masses, represent the direction of entertainment in the 21st century? His LOST TV series is the most popular TV show of the century. I watch LOST. I enjoy LOST. The intriguing plot and well-made flashbacks give hope that this series is intelligent and humanizing and worth watching, but far too often I get the feeling that the show makers are just manipulating the audience and do not have a clear idea of where they are going. It’s not about making us think or care but about making us come back week after week. And, like Star Trek, it relies far too much on violence as a necessary part of what constitutes entertainment. I, for one, am not entertained by violence or by action, but by the engagement of my mind and my heart. The offerings at the multiplexes this summer fill me with despair. Is mindless action and toilet humour really what we want our children to grow up with? Let’s demand more from those who make our films and TV shows (Aaron Sorkin, how are you at sci-fi?).

I give Star Trek an objective rating of ***+ because I think that is what the film deserves as a piece of fun entertainment but a subjective rating of *** because of my disappointment. My mug is up but the stuff inside, while spicy, lacks any real flavour.

Friday, 8 May 2009

State of Play


Do I love subtle sophisticated intelligent political thrillers involving a well-played protagonist trying to fight the system and expose the truth? You know I do. And if you add a decent level of characterization, an intriguing script in which Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, Duplicity) was involved in the writing, the sure direction of Kevin Macdonald (Last King of Scotland), a wonderful gritty film-nourish atmosphere, an excellent score, and some great acting by most (Ben Affleck should stick to writing/directing) of the cast (including Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren, Jeff Daniels and Robin Wright Penn), you surely must have a winner.

Yes, indeed, State of Play had all the makings for being one of the best films of the year. The failure of the ending to deliver the goods therefore comes as a very bitter disappointment. The ending is so important to me (and, I assume, to most people) and if it doesn’t work, the whole movie can die. Maybe it’s because there were three writers and Gilroy should have done it by himself. Or maybe he was the one responsible and everyone thought he would know best. Whatever, the ending did not satisfy me at all and I am tempted to demote the film to an average three stars.

But I loved the atmosphere, I loved the controlled use of action, I loved the suspense and I loved the interaction between Crowe, McAdams and Mirren so much that I must give State of Play ***+ for effort and set my anger aside. My mug is up but there are some bitter dregs near the bottom.