The last time we caught up with the crew of the Starship Enterprise, a new audience was being introduced to some familiar characters who all had fresh faces. J.J. Abrams’ first attempt to boldly go where in fact many had been before, genuinely felt like maybe no one had actually gone there before. The 2009 STAR TREK was an incredible success; Abrams deftly reinvigorated a franchise that many thought was completely played out. He brought in a brand new audience without entirely alienating the original fanbase, which is all the more impressive when you consider how much he changed some of the long established lore of the series. In the follow-up, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, Abrams picks up where he left off and shows us that many of these young Star Fleet academy fledglings still have a thing or two to learn despite their success. The same can be said for Abrams himself.
Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) has just inherited the Enterprise after a rapid rise through the ranks of Star Fleet. His expedited journey to the captain’s chair may now prove to be premature as we catch up with him, and his crew, breaking as many regulations as he can, all for the pursuit of what he personally believes to be what is right for everyone. Meanwhile, his commanding officer, and complicated best friend, Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto), is facing the fact that though he may try to avoid emotion in most circumstances, he cannot control how others feel about him at the same time. Both must learn that their egos must be put aside from time to time to see what is going on around them and how it affects the people in their lives and, after they are both very briefly demoted and reassigned, they find themselves fighting alongside each other once again. This time, they will need to work hand in hand if they are ever going to defeat their new foe, the infamous Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch).
Original screenwriters, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, brought on frequent Abrams collaborator, Damon Lindelof (PROMETHEUS), to help bring STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS to a whole other level, with mixed results. On the one hand, as Kirk and Spock become more familiar with Khan and his plan, it becomes more and more difficult for them to discern the truth in their mission. Perhaps it is my lack of familiarity with the Trekkie history or perhaps it is Cumberbatch’s incredible ability to disorient the viewer with his nearly impenetrable stoicism, but I was riveted throughout the film while trying to decipher just who to trust. That being said, Abrams also allows the film to make the most of some of its more manipulative moments, sometimes so much so that it almost takes away from the overall credibility of the project with obvious music cues and blatant foreshadowing. The missteps are minor but the crew best not get too comfortable in future voyages. I wouldn’t want the final frontier to get any more mainstream then this.
Do not be fooled. Just because you see Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon above the title, does not mean you are about to watch another mindless romantic comedy. I’m not sure about Witherspoon but it would appear that McConaughey is done with those, at least for now. MUD, the latest film by independent filmmaker, Jeff Nichols (TAKE SHELTER), is also the latest in a string of films where McConaughey is clearly challenging himself as an actor. Here, he has shed his pristine shine and looks like something that washed ashore years ago and hasn’t bathed since. More importantly though, he is actually succeeding in his quest to reinvent himself and MUD may be his best work yet.
MUD is a fairly straight forward, yet still solidly engaging, coming of age tale. Ellis (Tye Sheridan, fresh off his debut turn in THE TREE OF LIFE) is content with his simple life living with his parents along a river in Arkansas until one fateful week where everything changes. One minute, he’s a normal teenage boy, getting himself into trouble by sneaking off to a neighbouring island at dawn to work on an abandoned boat he found in a tree. The next, he finds himself helping out a fugitive he meets on that island, named Mud (McConaughey). Mud is hiding out until he knows the coast is clear for him to reunite with his childhood sweetheart, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon, giving her best performance since WALK THE LINE), who is laying low at a motel in waiting. Their love is complicated and troubled to say the least but in Ellis’s eyes, Mud’s mission to be with her despite all obstacles is exactly the inspiration he needs, what with his parents just announcing that they are divorcing.
MUD reminds us that to come of age today does not have to mean getting lost is a barrage of social media and sexually explicit marketing ploys. And thanks to honest performances from the entire ensemble, which also includes Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson and a hilarious turn from Nichols regular, Michael Shannon, we are also able to get away from the distractions of our supposedly modern lives and remember what it means to truly fight for love while having no idea whether or not it is truly worth fighting for.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is generally considered by authorities on the subject to be one of the greatest American novels ever written, if not the greatest, and a cautionary tale on the more selfish aspects of the American dream. Before this year, it had been adapted for the screen four times, the most famous of which was made in 1974, directed by Jack Clayton, and starring Robert Redford as the title character, Jay Gatsby, a wealthy socialite and mystery to most who meet him. As effective and timeless as the novel is, the film versions have never resonated with that same weight or properly captured the souls of these seemingly soulless characters. Now, yet another attempt has been made to tame this beast of a work, by one of today’s most vivid filmmakers, Baz Luhrmann, and with it, yet another filmmaker fails to capture what actually makes Gatsby great.
In many ways, Luhrmann would seem like the perfect choice to bring THE GREAT GATSBY back to life. The first half of the novel is all glamour and excess and parties that seem to go on for days at a time. If anyone knows how to party on screen, it’s Luhrmann, whose previous films, like MOULIN ROUGE and ROMEO+JULIET, showcased some of the most chaotic and crafty festivities I’ve ever seen. In those examples though, he was still able to cut through the pandemonium to get to the crux of the characters. In his latest, and most expensive, extravaganza, he doesn’t seem the least bit concerned with what’s hiding underneath all the facade. In fact, at times, the elaborate guise he constructs feels forced and, worse yet, often stinks of overcompensation for a glaring lack of depth. Luhrmann has never been one for subtlety but his work has never felt so far removed from reality either. And when you’re adapting a classic of this magnitude, missing the mark to this degree can almost be misconstrued as an insult to its legacy.
Luhrmann also seemed a good fit because of his ability to bridge the gap between the potentially dated and the contemporary. THE GREAT GATSBY is a commentary on class division and the social injustices suffered at the hands of the disenfranchised to allow for the excessive self-indulgence of the well to do. Given the current class issues faced by many Americans, I would have expected these comparisons to be glaringly obvious, but Luhrmann is too busy throwing money at the problem in hopes we don’t notice (which is ironic really, but not all that engaging). There are certainly elements of THE GREAT GATSBY that work, from Leonardo DiCaprio’s charismatic portrayal of the complex title character to the thrilling, and often thumping, soundtrack. Carey Mulligan is magnificent as Gatsby’s love interest; Joel Edgerton is appropriately creepy as her philandering husband; and Tobey Maguire is, well, competent at least, as the film’s narrator. The cast’s grasp of the subject matter elevates the occasional scene past its visual pomp, but ultimately cannot sustain the bumpy ride. In some ways, I suppose highlighting how the parties were meant to mask the emptiness of the era, is actually authentic to Fitzgerald’s message but, while hollowness on the page can often be haunting, on screen, it is often just hollow.
The world of genetically engineered seeds is about as intriguing a world as you would expect it to be. It’s aging farmers covertly cleaning seeds so that they can be reused; it’s men in suits following men in overalls, making sure they aren’t reselling seeds that are not supposed to be resold. It’s interesting from a historical perspective to see how the American farming industry has changed over the years from the backbone of the country to a corporate controlled and publicly traded commodity. To watch this on film though, is as exciting as say, watching corn grow. Fortunately for AT ANY PRICE, the latest film from independent filmmaker, Ramin Bahrani (GOODBYE SOLO), the farmer tending these particular fields is Dennis Quaid. His turn here as the modern farmer makes these doldrums at the very least watchable.
Henry Whipple (Quaid) does not share the same problems his father did when he was running the farm. He remembers being a kid and living on a family run farm where cows were milked and chickens laid eggs to sell at market. Now it’s his turn to run the fourth generation farm and he can barely keep it all together. His relationship with his wife (Kim Dickens) is strained, to say the least. This might be because he is seeing a former flame (Heather Graham) on the side. One of his sons (Patrick Stevens) has already left their Iowa home to climb mountains, while the other (Zac Efron), is his only remaining hope to inherit the farm. Of course, he has no interest in doing so as he would rather race cars instead. Then there is the nasty business with the seed tampering of course. The manner in which Quaid balances all of this is quite impressive really. There is a smile on his face at all times but you can see his entire life falling apart in his eyes and hear it in his voice. It is certainly one of Quaid’s finest performances, just not one of the best films to showcase it.
The rest of the AT ANY PRICE ensemble does a formidable job, including Efron, who continues to push himself, and expand his audience, with more marginal fare. This is Quaid’s game to lose though and, while years of working his own fields have led to strong performances like this one, it is almost all AT ANY PRICE has going for it by the time the cows come home.
And so Phase Two of Marvel’s Avengers begins with the release of IRON MAN 3. No pressure, of course, for the hotly anticipated return of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, arguably the most popular Avenger in the bunch. It’s been three years since Iron Man’s last solo outing but really only one since audience’s got a significant dose of him, and although Downey Jr. could play this part in his sleep if he wanted to, he doesn’t, which might easily explain why I personally have not yet had my fill of him. Still, while I had great fun at THE AVENGERS, I still remember how little fun there was to be had in IRON MAN 2. Tony Stark is a complicated human being and, if allowed to veer too far toward the morose, he can be a bit much to be around. Fortunately, his former depression has now given way for some mildly crippling anxiety, which somehow has allowed the IRON MAN series to come back from overly cynical to just jovially sarcastic. And just like that, Iron Man is fun again!
The root of Tony Stark’s sleepless nights and tortured nightmares is the increasing sense of helplessness he feels to properly protect what he loves. Ever since he came face to face with dozens of alien soldiers in New York city last year, he’s realized that there are threats that are bigger than even he ever thought possible. Sure he and his Avenger buddies vanquished those guys back to whatever galaxy they came from, but what else is waiting out there for just the right time to attack the planet and, more importantly, will anyone be able to stop them next time? To establish some semblance of control in his life, he decides to take on an enemy he can understand, a terrorist known to the world as The Mandarin (played by Ben Kingsley, with more range and commitment than I’ve seen from him in a decade). With Stark not at his best, The Mandarin is able to set him so far back upon his path that he must practically start from scratch. Finding himself stranded in middle America with no armor to protect him, Stark learns what it means to put one foot in front of the other and come back from extinction. It’s sort of like IRON MAN unplugged almost. Sometimes you have to strip away all the distraction to get back to the soul of the song.
There is a great deal of fresh blood pumping through the IRON MAN veins in this third installment, which could account for its revitalized tone. Shane Black, who came to fame for writing LETHAL WEAPON and essentially rewriting the action genre as we know it, takes over from Jon Favreau, who directed the first two IRON MAN entries (and appears again on screen as Happy Hogan, Stark’s unnecessary bodyguard). Black got into the directing game with KISS KISS BANG BANG in 2005, a film that helped Downey Jr. himself get his troubled career back on track. And even though he hasn’t directed a single thing since, let alone anything anywhere near as large as IRON MAN 3, Black manages to push our hero to great depths of despair without piling on heaps of self pity at the same time. The threats against Iron Man are stacked so high, that he has to dig deeper than he ever has before, to be the most super of super heroes he can possibly be in order to survive them. What then in turn endears him further to us, is that the strength he finds doesn’t come from the iron this time around, but rather from digging deeper within the man himself.
A wedding is meant to be a celebration of love and commitment between two people made in front of their closest friends and relatives. Unfortunately for those two people, bringing together all of these supposedly supportive friends and relatives, and then throwing that beautiful love in their faces, also brings out all sorts of crazy that has been simmering beneath the surface for some time, just waiting for the perfect occasion to boil over. The bigger the wedding, the bigger the potential for disaster, and, depending on where you’re sitting, the greater the opportunity for hilarity. THE BIG WEDDING, an oversized, glossy ensemble remake of the French film, MON FRERE SE MARIE (My Brother Is Getting Married), attempts to recreate both of these possibilities cinematically. While it does have disaster aplenty to speak of, no matter where you sit, it is a serious stretch to find any moments of even mild amusement, let alone actual hilarity.
From the moment THE BIG WEDDING opens on a peaceful, calm lake at dawn, you know that this serenity is about to be rattled beyond any recognition and all you can do is wait for it to come. When your cast is led by multiple Oscar winners, Robert DeNiro, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon and Robin Williams, not to mention fresher faces like Amanda Seyfried, Topher Grace and Ben Barnes, you might expect that the inevitable hijinks could prove to be well worth your attendance but sadly, you would be sorely mistaken. Much like a wedding is supposed to be about the couple but is more about the appeasement of the guests, a comedy is supposed to be funny, but THE BIG WEDDING plays everything so broadly that none of its guests are likely to enjoy themselves. For future reference for all filmmakers, the following plot devices are not actually funny: People thinking they’re having one conversation when they’re really having another because neither party speaks the same language, maniacal / alcoholic priests that say things you would never expect a priest to say, rich country club racism that everyone just swallows, people pretending to be married when they’re not to avoid angering Jesus, and 30-year-old virgins. You’ve got to give that last point another ten years before it gets anywhere near funny.
You know there’s a problem with a film when it has such an impressive cast and yet somehow Katherine Heigl manages to give the most emotionally engaging performance of the bunch. The problem is simple; THE BIG WEDDING is just a big paycheck movie for all involved. I can very easily forgive big action stars when they take on a franchise film just to pad their already overstuffed bank accounts, but when the talent is as reputed as this cast is, and the material is as lackluster as this is, respect is lost. You have enough money already; you shouldn’t need to subject fans of your work to this kind of perfectly catered torture. In the end, THE BIG WEDDING, was just like so many other large weddings I have been to before. I never really wanted to attend to begin with but felt like I had no other choice given the sheer size of it. And then, once there, I was constantly searching for an inconspicuous moment to sneak out and be done with the whole tedious affair. The good news for you all is that you’re not actually obliged to attend this event out of fear your family will shun you for staying home.