Film review – Star Trek: Into The Darkness

JJ Abrams serves up an entertaining but surprisingly shallow sequel to his hugely successful Star Trek reboot of 2009. It is ultimately a glossy remix, which under scrutiny falls well short of maximum warp speed into your wonder cortex.

Anticipating the stylish lens flare on the whiter-than-white decks of the USS Enterprise, and with the same young cast of the previous Trek film, it looks like we are in for another treat from this director in his Hollywood ascendancy – Abrams was announced as the first director of Star Wars Episode VII while Into The Darkness was in post-production.

The film opens on a primitive world with an Indiana Jones-style pursuit of shrouded people by members of a tribal culture in threat of extinction from an erupting volcano. The white-painted tribal humanoids have glossy black eyes that are remarkably similar to the engineers from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. Behold, the same screenwriter, Damon Lindlehof, has his fingerprints on this film, too. It’s a stunner of an opening as Abrams again pushes the interaction of the Enterprise and the physical world to achieve a strange sense of astonishing scale.

The problems come when we get into the main plot: a terrorist, Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), previously a Starfleet agent, has blown up a sensitive Starfleet installation to attract the attention of its best and brightest to his nefarious doings based on the Klingon home world of Kronos.

As seen in the trailer, he shoots up the resulting Starfleet security meeting, scattering chocolate bourbons, spilling coffee and top brass blood that is close to the heart of Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine). And pine he does, very suddenly with tears rolling down his face as if he’s been kicked in the balls. The Enterprise speeds out to Kronos with specially issued high-powered weapons and instructions to fire them at Khan’s location, with the dubious side effect of a possible escalation to war with the Klingons and an analogy to Obama’s use of drones to fire and forget on enemy combatants (maybe, I dunno). Hmm, best furrow your ethical brow on that one, Kirk old boy. But before Admiral Akbar can say “It’s a trap!” from a galaxy far, far away, it turns out… it’s a trap.

The logic of the plot feels rushed, with extra stuff added in great arcs of improv screenwriting to quickly justify the machinations of the bad guy(s). There is much crying (characters, not the audience) in this outing and it felt odd. Out of character performances forced by direction occur incongruously again and again at moments that feel like speed bumps in the flat emotional terrain of the film. And that’s the real problem with Abrams, he’s great at style, wit and panache, but awful at building a real relationship between characters, so that when a credible level of threat approaches, the sobbing has no value post disaster. The near death of a major character is solved in a lightning fade to black with none of the poignancy of, say, oh I don’t know, a certain scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That film contained real emotion and a moving speech after the death of a fellow crewman.

Zachary Quinto takes more of a back seat as Spock, with some truly strange moments of domestic dispute between him and Uhura (Zoe Saldana). There are also some (surely?) unintentional comedic dramatic pauses, for instance, when Khan reveals his real name to Kirk in a blistering close-up using his most deranged English accent, there is the mother of all pauses where the audience at future Prince Charles Cinema quote-along screenings will say, “Dun-duh-daaaah!” in dramatic tones to Kirk’s befuddled expression.

Posters advertising the film show a badly bruised Enterprise descending through the Earth’s atmosphere, sans shields and power, at risk – it is said quite clearly – of burning up on re-entry. But wait, the next shot we see is of the ship dropping through clouds post re-entry, fully intact. So JJ, was there really a threat of losing the ship, or were you just throwing some drama at the grand finale wall to see if it stuck?

The film asks for investment in story arcs that exist for only a few of seconds at a time, like some kind of Goldfish-memory concept of screenwriting. I’m looking at you, Lindelhof. It’s not particularly engaging for the audience and I really wanted to invest more emotionally and be rewarded for that. We never did find out what the “Darkness” was that the title promised. Never mind. At least it looked pretty and things went bang.


Film review – Mud

America’s rural backyard has a tradition of coming of age tales. In 1986, director Rob Reiner made the film Stand by Me, a story of four boys (amongst them a young River Phoenix with a buzz cut), setting out one summer into Oregon County’s forests and rivers, in search of the mythical body of boy left by a railway track. It has become a touchstone for many 80s boys… and perhaps girls, too – a cinematic rite of passage.

On the subject of youth, do you remember the first time your heart was broken and that pure ideal of love seemed shattered? Set in the southern US, writer and director, Jeff Nichols presses Mud from a Stand by Me-shaped mould; a coming of age tale set against the backdrop of the brown Mississippi river that is the backbone for a small rural community.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) lives with his parents on a floating house permanently moored to the riverbank and surrounded by forest. His father is a fisherman, landing his freshwater catch, processing then delivering it to customers in the nearby town. Ellis’ mother and father are obviously going through marital strain; they argue in the night as Ellis sneaks out his bedroom window and runs to meet his best friend, Neckbone.

Remember that River Phoenix buzz cut? Well just take a look at young Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) and tell me he isn’t the spitting image? Lofland plays him as calm and cocksure, supporting Sheridan’s lead in every sense of the word. Neckbone lives in a trailer with his uncle James; a laissez-faire man who just likes to play guitar, chase women and work at picking oysters off the wide riverbed. There is a knowing moment when James’ girlfriend storms out after an unusual sexual request (his “doing it” music, as Neckbone calls it, the Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda” is a “keep out” sign to his nephew). The gift he tries to placate her with – a necklace made of real pearls – is rejected so it is given to Ellis, who will gift it in his first romantic encounter with an older girl. The sexual allusion is cheeky, but symbolic of the adult world with which they are to collide.

The two boys steal away at night in a small motorboat, out to an island in the wide river, where a boat sits high in a tree after a flood. They only have fifteen minutes before the tide turns, so their first excursion is brief to claim ownership of their boathouse. The problem is, someone’s been living there.

His name is Mud, and his character is as clear as. Matthew McConaughey plays the sun-ripened, dirt-ingrained refugee living on the island. Superstitious and surrounding himself with talismans of protection against the “evils of this world”, he first appears like a ghost, leaving boot prints with crucifix imprints that stop suddenly in the sand. And then he is there. A gun pushed into the waistband of his jeans. It’s that delicious moment of fear you have as a child when you encounter a stranger in your territory. The adrenaline pumps, and this uncertainty could have been held for longer, though Nichols wants to get digging into the story, which is fair enough.

Mud has marooned himself to escape those from his past who wish him a sticky end, all except his beloved Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), for whom he waits with fevered anticipation. But a fever can also be a delusional illness, and love is in the dock to be judged, as young Ellis sees Mud’s mission to be reunited with Juniper as a winnable game compared to his parent’s fractured relationship. Reality will bite unexpectedly, like a snake in the safety of your bed, and Nichols questions the foundations of love, who might be the real snakes in life, and, with more than a little sting, the loyalty of some female partners. He asks us to consider, what does it take to be a man and where does the blame lie, for people are not always what they appear to be. This is the path along which Ellis fights his way, in that tumultuous period between boy- and manhood.

We’ve all been there; disappointed by the illusion of the relationship that was drawn flawless in our mind’s eye, and Ellis is no exception. Mud is a gripping tale of the lack of clarity in first and subsequent loves, its bitterness and confusion, but also the redemption of unhindered optimism. It seems you must seek the antidote before the poison sets in and protect yourself from being bitten again.

Both Sheridan and Lofland give outstanding, naturalistic performances, but it is the former’s film, with McConaughey as his adult reflection. The anguish Sheridan brings to Ellis is heartfelt and palpable. McConaughey continues his reinvigorated screen presence as a dramatic and complex leading man, enjoying his “McConaughssance” as he coins it. May it continue.

Film review – Spring Breakers

Director Harmony Korine bottles an American phenomenon for the big screen in a wild story of four ladies who would probably put the Pussycat Dolls in hospital.

Easter is the spring break in the US, which for most college kids means a trip to Florida to get drunk, high and laid – a welcome escape from their stultifying college lives. Four female students have not been able to raise the money to go, and so wander empty hallways, literally climbing the walls with excess energy and boredom. Cotty (Rachel Korine, Harmony’s other half), Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) hatch a plot to get them to the action, drawing in church-going good girl, Faith (Selena Gomez) for a hot time in the sunshine state.

Does this film want to show you something, or is it just a wet ‘n’ wild ride like spring break itself? There is something interesting in the way the girls become these cartoon-like bikinied gangsters. The first job with a water pistol is the kindergarten for what is to come. These privileged, well-educated university students speak to each other in faux gangster lingua, lines drawn from movies and video games, mocking each playfully as “bitches” but ultimately bonded by close and respectful friendships.  Their performances are naturalistic and convincing at this point and it’s clear that of the former Disney moppets, Hudgens metaphorically burns her bra and her mouse ears, clearly having a good old time of it.

They hit the spring break scene in Florida, have a mild but jarring brush with the law, then meet Alien. An almost unrecognisable James Franco, Alien is a white, bling-laden rapper and wannabe badass who is the epitome of the “gangsta” cliché; ostentatious jewellery on his knuckles and teeth, big shiny semi-automatic pistols and a sports car with spinning rims that belong in Chris Rock’s stand-up routine.

Compare him to the established gangsters who drive a sensible Lambo (I use that term loosely), but also deliver comedy lines such as “He’s [Alien] taking the money from our babies mouths. He’s starving our babies,” while sitting in a massive mansion with a Flymo-quantity of weed piled on the coffee table (I’m sure Korine’s having a laugh at their expense). Alien’s all show, a big kid out of his depth with the big boys. He trampolines on his bed as he seduces the girls with bigger guns and more money – until they start to play with this newly bestowed power. They’ll soon graduate his school and go beyond him.

Spring Breakers is a curiosity, but ultimately is a victim of its own publicity. It doesn’t shock or provoke as expected because the crimes committed by the girls are not based in reality: it’s a neon, cartoon world of violence and fetishised female bodies from the pages of a graphic novel. There’s something of female empowerment here, sexually and socially, but it’s taken to the nth degree, and Korine’s lingering voyeurism undoes it’s legitamacy. Who knows though, maybe time will class this as a classic exploitation flick of interest.

The film has flash and style, but stock footage repeated throughout makes it feel padded out and a little wearing. It’s more atmosphere than plot – a springbreak on acid.

Film review – Side Effects

Side Effects is director Steven Soderbergh’s last film for the cinema, ever (ever, ever, ever?), and he will next be seen directing the HBO TV movie Behind the Candelabra about the extravagant pianist, Liberace. His departure from Hollywood is rooted in what he called the “absolutely horrible” treatment of directors by financiers, with respect to their disregard of the needs of the audience.

Soderbergh’s always been interested in individuals up against a greater foe, whether that’s against film producers (him, apparently), a polluting corporation (Erin Brokovich), a Las Vegas casino (Oceans 11 onward), or the entire drug trade (Traffic); he likes to put characters out of their depth to see them fight through to the end. Side Effects looks to be a similar story, but for his grand finale, he’s added a twist.

Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is a 27-year-old ad-agency worker, who has a nice job and a nice flat, but her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum, rejoining Soderburgh after starring in his writing debut, Magic Mike) is about to be released after four years jail time for insider trading. She seems to have everything together, but the day after Martin comes home, she attempts to harm herself. After treatment in hospital, she agrees to attend the clinic of psychologist, Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law).

After first prescriptions fail to remove the blanket of depression she suffers, Banks tries a new drug, one introduced to him by a pharmaceutical rep at a paid-for dinner in a swanky restaurant. Unfortunately for him, Emily has a bad reaction to a combination of his prescribed drugs and commits a terrible crime while under their influence.

Soderbergh navigates us through his familiar territory of courtrooms and non-descript offices, taking apart how the vulnerable are prescribed drugs with unknown consequences, by doctors who are embedded in a big-pharma relationship that greases the wheels of the medical industry. Banks faces scrutinisation by medical board investigators, and his practice partners, concerned for their reputation, put the pressure on him. Meanwhile, Emily is in custody awaiting the result of a trial hearing on her likely state of mind.

It seems as if no one person is to blame, and Soderbergh does an excellent job of spinning the characters around the crime, each with a viable get-out clause. Emily’s crime appears to be a case of unfortunate circumstance that no one could have foreseen. Certainly, we are presented with questions about the wisdom of the corporation-doctor-patient relationship. Then, things shift into a much more thrilling Hitchcockian gear of personal jeopardy.

This is where Mara really begins to disturb. Her performance of someone caught in the shadows of mental illness is so perfect. She flits from a weak, vulnerable person to someone darker, chilling, just as quiet, but with a design at work. What seems to be one plot melds into a different one entirely. Don’t expect a righteous, Soderbergh courtroom battle royale; this is a battle of minds, duking it out in a game of guilty or not guilty? The frame of “victim” shifts sharply against Banks, with swift consequences for his professional and personal life. Law plays it pretty straight, like ol’ Jimmy Stewart would have done; an ordinary man in a tweed suit jacket, up against the odds.

The plot twist does go a bit too far, mind. Emily’s previous psychiatrist, the viperish Dr Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones, who admitted recently to suffering depression), is part of a more elaborate leftfield plot addition that seems far-fetched to say the least. I think it would have been better if only Banks and Emily were locked into a desperate struggle to find the truth, a tale of a wayward professional caught by an individual who could end his career.

Who knows, maybe Soderbergh wanted to make a sharp swerve from his usual shtick, just to mess with our minds. It’s still a gripping film and should be seen for Mara’s performance.

Film review – Trance

Danny Boyle’s Trance is a sub-Nolan twist on the heist movie, employing Boyle‘s visual style of fast cuts, garish colour and humour to tell the story of Simon (James McAvoy), an art auctioneer who suffers a head injury during a robbery and is then captured by the gang, who need to recover the location of the desired painting from his repressed memory. After the usual London industrial-wasteland torture sequence fails to reveal where Simon hid it, they resort to having him choose a hypnotherapist, Dr Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) to dig up the location from his frazzled neurons.

Amid a supporting cast of the usual shouty tough guys, Dawson’s performance as Lamb is the most interesting in this maelstrom of memory. She shifts subtly, from innocent bystander, to vulnerable victim, cool-headed partner and sensual provocateur, teasing our sense of security in that what may or may not be real. McAvoy plays Simon with increasing desperation and volume as we near the end of the film, but not much more. I couldn’t help but feel he would have been interchangeable with the other cheeky-chappy and Boyle alumni, Ewan McGregor. Vincent Cassel as chief villain doesn’t get to do much but sneer with a slightly curled lip-Français as Lamb’s progress proves slow, but to be fair to the cast, the star of this film is Boyle’s plot contrivance, they are merely directed to dance around it in circles.

The problem with Trance is that the narrative is broken up by so many flashback, nay, flash-sideways scenes it is hard to reconstruct everything in chronological order. It left me trying to put the pieces together to make a sensible whole, with half-remembered and slightly muddled character motivations swimming against one another in my head. Ah, you say, that’s the director making you feel like the protagonist. Well, up to a point, but if you make a film heavily dependent on restructuring reality, it must give the audience a reasonable shot at remembering how the threads fit together. The ending is quite unsatisfactory, a soft coda to the jarring aggression that had so effectively been sustained throughout. I can’t even believe that the character in question would have any sympathy for the other. It’s a Boyle trope that he used in The Beach. Why the need for reflection and drawn-out goodbyes?

Boyle’s hyper-real shooting style is always a pleasure to experience and I enjoyed the thrill of being bounced around by the editing and Anthony Dod Mantle’s hallucinatory cinematography, but this time Boyle has reached too far at the cost of telling a coherent story.

Film review – Small Apartments

Many of western cinema’s directors first had a hand in commercials or music videos before moving on to feature films: Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Alan Parker and David Fincher to name a few. But for those who go on to make memorable films, there are always a few McG’s out there, employing visual gimmicks with little attention to narrative.

When I saw that Small Apartments was a first feature helmed by Jonas Akerlund, director of Telephone for Lady Gaga and Beyonce to name drop a few of his previous works, I prepared myself for the worst. I’m happy to say, I was wrong to do so.

Adapted by Chris Mills from his 3-day-novel prizewinner of the same name, Small Apartments is a cheeky but darkly comic story of a European sensibility.

Franklin Franklin (Matt Lucas) is a simple, naive man living a hermetic existence in a run-down LA apartment block. Wearing only his huge, white underpants and a series of wigs on trips to the store for bottles of soda, he dreams about escaping to live in Switzerland, where he can wear lederhosen and blow his giant Alp-horn surrounded by frauen, instead of his irate neighbours who don’t appreciate the noise.

In the meantime he pins postcards of the Alps to the wall and tries to make sense of cryptic messages and toenail clippings sent by his brother, his only friend, who is in a mental hospital. He also has the small problem of disposing of his landlord’s body, which is lying on the floor.

Franklin is the subject of a farcical series of events that see him awkwardly dispose of his landlord’s body, while bewildered by the random ills and fortunes of life, among these the cruelty of others toward him. He’s the simpleton, there to reflect how bad and uncaring society can be to the innocent.

It’s not just Franklin who has problems. Mr Allspice (James Caan) is a grumpy artist who moved in temporarily and got stuck for good. Tommy Balls (Johnny Knoxville) is a convenience store clerk and happy pot smoker who draws up productive “to do” lists each day, but has to deal with his alcoholic to evangelical mother trying to convert him. Fire investigator Burt Walnut (Billy Crystal) drinks to forget the wife who shagged his cousin. Everybody has their own form of escape from life, be it fantasy, drink, drugs, religion or suicide.

Small Apartments is a quirky film; quirky in the odd characters that live next to Franklin; quirky in the wide-angle lenses and bright colour grading; and quirky in that short film, oddball quirkiness with a few scenes of brutalism to balance it out. The resolution is itself a self-help platitude, but Lucas gives a vulnerable and moving performance as a child-like man who just wants to things to go right for him. Bar the Benny Hill cartoon sauciness at the end – Akerlund has made a story of great pathos.

Film review – Stoker

Chan-wook Park peeks through his dark looking-glass for Stoker, a tale of family dysfunction, dark secrets and incestuous desire.

India (Mia Wasikowska) is an 18-year-old girl living in the rural setting of a 50s-style Americana, but in the present day. Her father is killed in a car accident on her birthday, leaving her to live with her mother (Nicole Kidman) and housekeeper in the family’s large country house; styled with expensive, but restrained taste. Then her father’s younger brother Charlie turns up unannounced at the wake. His precise, calm manner imposes a quietly compelling presence on India and her mother, but there is something unseemly about Charlie’s fascination with his niece.

You are defined by your nature, so make your peace with that and life will be easier for you. That is the sentiment offered in voiceover by India at the start of Park’s mesmerising new film. She is a wild child of nature. Brought up by her father to hunt animals with a rifle, she runs free in the grounds of the house and is on the cusp of adulthood, just beginning to discover her power – psychologically and sexually. She claims to hear and see details in the world that other people cannot, and the sound department excel themselves in portraying this with amplified wind, insects, bodily sounds and even a squelching pencil sharpener into sensual soundscapes.

Since birth, India has received a pair of identically-styled shoes for her birthday, gradually marking her progress to womanhood. Suspend your disbelief for she appears not to know who gave them to her, these shoeboxes wrapped in yellow ribbon and hidden for her to find in an outdoor treasure hunt each year. And this female is a hunter, make no mistake about that. For her 18th birthday she receives, not shoes, but an old metal key – substantial and with looped metal fob, pregnant with mystery as to which lock it will fit. There are echoes of the Bluebeard myth here – the pursuit of a young female by a predatory man.

Matthew Goode is hypnotic as Charlie. An inhuman, robotic man with a hint of menace beneath that still exterior. He is a nightmare of preppy perfection; his clothing neat and pressed, his skin a flawless tan colour. He cooks refined meals for India and her mother, espouses on the qualities of wine (“The young wine is not ready to be drunk. It has too many tannins”), but never touches food or drink himself. His eyes gleam at India, producing in her a fearful eroticism. He offers her wine from his glass and she drinks in deeply, but warily. The tension is brought to a crescendo as he joins her at the family piano, playing a rolling bass accompaniment to her high-pitched treble, his hands brushing hers, their obvious synchronicity hinting at something similar in both of them. He’s a character born of Hitchcock, as is this hyper-real world Park has created.

The visual style is glossy, even a little oppressive, but it matches the story well. Chung-hoon Chung, Park’s long-time cinematographer, renders interiors in rich, dark tones; day exteriors in bright, almost celestial light and nights in high-contrast moonlight. The tilt-and-shift split focus in close-ups is quite all-encompassing, drawing the viewer into India’s private world.

If IMDb is correct, this is the first writing credit for Wentworth Miller, star of the TV series Prison Break. It’s an incredible debut.

I love Stoker and was absolutely taken with the sense of forbidding mystery in which it is steeped. It is a film rich in the symbolism of old European folk tales about coming of age, unbound natural forces and the power they endow; a story to be held up against Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth for representing the feminine archetype – with a twist. Things are not what they seem.