Thursday, May 23, 2013
It's called "Star Trek," the characters have the same names as the "Star Trek" characters who appeared on TV in the 1960s, and the plot borrows liberally from where many "Star Treks" have gone before. But this is a "Star Trek" Gene Roddenberry would barely recognize.
Director J.J. Abrams — already jumped ship to the "Star Wars" franchise — has put his distinctive mark on the "Star Trek" universe. Well, I say "distinctive," but how distinctive is a generic summer action movie with nothing to set it apart from the competition except Abrams' bizarre obsession with lens flares?
I'm not sure who the intended audience is. From beginning to end, "Star Trek Into Darkness" is a patchwork of allusions, in-jokes, and red herrings that depend on a working knowledge of the "Star Trek" mythos. Yet Abrams, his regular screenwriting collaborators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, and co-writer Damon Lindelof have so warped everything they've pilfered from Treks past that I can't imagine many longtime Trekkies (or Trekkers) being happy with the results.
And the movie's emotional high points are completely unearned. We may have known these characters for years, but as far as they're concerned, they just met.
Meanwhile, an unschooled viewer isn't likely to get much besides motion sickness.
When last we left the crew of the USS Enterprise, they had just been placed under the command of a smug rookie captain with almost no experience outside of the academy, because Starfleet will apparently hand over its newest ship to just about anyone. To its credit, "Star Trek Into Darkness" starts out addressing that issue, with Capt. Kirk (Chris Pine) so flagrantly violating Starfleet protocols that he is relieved of command.
There is a fine line between Kirk as charming proto-"Mad Men" womanizer (as played by William Shatner) and Kirk as oversexed fratboy douchebag. Pine's Kirk crosses it like the Kobayashi Maru crosses the neutral zone. But even that is easy to take compared to the lovebird bickering between Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana). I wonder if Uhura will remember she's dating a Vulcan? I wonder if Spock will remember it's illogical to date a junior officer? Eh, guess not.
Of course, Kirk isn't out of the captain's chair long before a terrorist attack aimed at Starfleet's senior officers puts him back on the Enterprise bridge, with orders to hunt down and kill the terrorist, allegedly a rogue Starfleet officer named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch).
It's hardly a spoiler to give away that Harrison is actually Khan in disguise, because apart from the name, this character is nothing like the one Ricardo Montalban portrayed in "Space Seed" and "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." Cumber-Khan, as I call him, is some sort of ridiculous super-ninja with magic healing blood. His midi-chlorians must be off the scale. Why call the character Khan when he's nothing like Khan, except as a bone to fans who would rather just watch "Star Trek II" again?
Well, this is, in part, a Lindelof script, and as he showed us with "Prometheus" and "Lost," stories that make sense and characters who behave somewhat rationally are not his forte. Ask yourself why anyone in "Star Trek Into Darkness" does what he does, and you'll unravel the tapestry.
And as brilliant and fun to watch as Cumberbatch is in the BBC's "Sherlock," he's simply tiresome here, as are most of the performances, apart from Karl Urban's underused Dr. McCoy, who does recall DeForest Kelley's cantankerous but humanistic portrayal.
Abrams has said he was never a "Star Trek" fan, and it shows. His two films play like a reconstruction from a CliffsNotes synopsis. Well, whatever. He is "Star Wars" fans' problem now.
Thursday, May 16, 2013
Sushi is also a dish best served cold, and "Sushi Girl" makes it a buffet of both.
The debut feature film by director, co-writer and co-producer Kern Saxton, "Sushi Girl" (DVD, Blu-ray and streaming on Netflix and Amazon) is probably the best Quentin Tarantino movie Quentin Tarantino didn't make. Admittedly, that's a low bar. QT has many imitators, some of whose films he even produced, but imitation has become the sincerest form of failure.
Saxton doesn't fail, but he doesn't entirely succeed either, delivering what basically is a remake of Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" in all but name. It even opens with a classic Tarantino trope: another movie's title song, in this case Shirley Bassey's "Diamonds Are Forever."
Six years after a diamond heist gone bad, Fish, the one thief who didn't get away, is unexpectedly released from prison — time off for good behavior — and whisked away to a gathering in his honor.
If Fish seems vaguely familiar, that's probably because he's portrayed by Noah Hathaway, who as a child played Boxey in the original "Battlestar Galactica" before becoming a teen heartthrob as Atreyu in 1984's "The Neverending Story."
The other four attendees are his former partners in crime. And the big boss, Duke, played by Tony Todd ("Candyman") has set out a feast to celebrate the prodigal son's return: sushi served on the nude body of a beautiful woman, paid not to react to anything she sees or hears.
This silent, unmoving "sushi girl" (Cortney Palm) is our window into their world.
So, after a little bit of reminiscing about old times, Fish's old crew has only one question for him: Where are the diamonds?
Best just to say that what follows involves a chair, duct tape and lots of everyday household implements both sharp and blunt. And while Duke and his gang try to get answers out of Fish, the film dribbles out a few answers of its own, in flashback.
An imposing 6-foot-5 with an even more imposing voice, Todd, who also served as executive producer, brings much-needed gravitas to the proceedings, while Hathaway plays on our sympathy by working those expressive brown eyes of his. Hathaway hasn't been in front of a camera in nearly 20 years, but he hasn't lost a step since he was a kid actor having to react to imaginary creatures just off-screen.
Rounding out the gang without making much of an impression are James Duval as the one member who has sympathy for Fish and Andy Mackenzie as the team's muscle.
That leaves only the resident psycho, Crow, played as a gay stereotype by Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill. Hamill has spent so long as a voice actor for cartoon characters it seems to be his default mode, and he plays Crow as a cross between his own Joker from "Batman: The Animated Series" and Heath Ledger's Joker from "The Dark Knight," complete with a tangled mop of greasy blond hair.
You get the feeling Hamill is not acting in the same movie as everyone else. He'd be more at home in Gotham, perhaps discussing the merits of market fresh strawberries with Bane. And that's got to make anyone looking forward to Hamill possibly appearing as Luke in the upcoming "Star Wars: Episode VII" just a little bit nervous.
Tarantino veterans Jeff Fahey, Michael Biehn and Danny Trejo show up for glorified cameos, as does the legendary Sonny Chiba as the sushi chef, who might as well be — and probably is meant to be — Chiba's Hattori Hanzo character from QT's "Kill Bill."
Overall, "Sushi Girl" is a pleasant enough diversion, with a twist you'll probably see coming. But its main fault is that nothing lives up to the promise of the stylish opening titles.
Thursday, May 09, 2013
Don't believe me? Open the latest "Invincible Iron Man" comic book and you'll see the character now more closely resembles Downey than the Stark of old. The movies have become the real Marvel Universe, while the comics have become a kind of fan fiction, except the writers get paid.
Joining Downey this time is writer/director Shane Black ("Lethal Weapon," "Monster Squad"), who has inherited the franchise from "Iron Man" and "Iron Man 2" director Jon Favreau, although Favreau still gets screen time as Stark's chauffeur/head of security Happy Hogan.
No stranger to the action-comedy formula, Black handles the alternating punches and punchlines so deftly you barely notice that it's all just a high-octane feint for his real agenda: a critique of the war on terror.
After the somewhat disappointing "Iron Man 2," which had to do too much heavy lifting to set up the Marvel movies that followed, "Iron Man 3" gets us back on track, with a more personal story that puts a new spin on Stark's "I am Iron Man" confession at the end of the first film.
Following the world-changing events of "The Avengers," the formerly confident Stark is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He's finally in a committed relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), but he doesn't know how to protect her from the threats he knows are out there. So, he retreats to the security of his workshop and his armor.
He's only forced out of hiding when Happy is critically injured in an attack apparently staged by the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), the mysterious terrorist hinted at in the first film.
The Mandarin is behind a bombing campaign that has American intelligence agencies baffled. What they don't know is the apparent suicide bombers aren't detonating bombs, they are bombs — living bombs caused by an experiment gone wrong.
That experiment is extremis, a biotechnology created by Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), who sought Tony's help with it — unsuccessfully — years before. Now extremis is in the hands of Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), another scientist Tony brushed off back in his playboy days.
What extremis is supposed to do is regenerate lost limbs, making it a godsend for veterans who have returned from the war on terror missing arms and legs. What Killian wants it to do is create super soldiers. And when its recipients literally go off, well, that's where the Mandarin comes in.
Under all of this is the subtext: an indictment both of the war on terror, as being largely a fiction exploited by military contractors, and the government's treatment of injured veterans. It's a coincidence that "Iron Man 3" opens as the Veterans Administration's case backlog reaches critical mass.
Between the Mandarin's living bombs and Stark's PTSD, this is a movie about wounded warriors.
Also back from "Iron Man 2" is Don Cheadle as Tony's best friend and government liaison Col. James "Rhodey" Rhodes, whose Stark-designed War Machine armor has been given a red, white and blue makeover and rebranded the Iron Patriot.
For Tony and Rhodey it's a joke. War Machine is a much cooler name. But as far as the subtext is concerned, it's a more honest name. The "war machine" is what everyone in "Iron Man 3" has been put through.
The Tony Stark we all know and love is still here, and "Iron Man 3" is up there with "Iron Man" and Joss Whedon's "The Avengers" as the most entertaining Marvel films. But Black has done something surprising. He's given the Marvel movie universe depth. Now it's Whedon's turn to answer.
Tuesday, May 07, 2013
The year before, George Lucas, who revolutionized movie special effects with Star Wars in 1977, paid the ultimate tribute to Harryhausen, using the master's stop-motion techniques for the thrilling Battle of Hoth sequence in The Empire Strikes Back (1980).
From It Came from Beneath the Sea to The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (and its sequels) to The Valley of Gwangi, Harryhausen has thrilled generations of moviegovers and fueled the imaginations of generations of filmmakers.
Harryhausen died today in London. He was 92.
At the end of Clash of the Titans, Zeus, played by Laurence Olivier, delivers an epilogue that seems to serve equally as the epilogue of Harryhausen's career.
Like the stars, Harryhausen's inspiration will never fade. Never. It will burn 'til the end of time.
The epic skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts:
Thursday, April 25, 2013
For the first month, every household that subscribed to basic cable got Cinemax free of charge. The first taste is always free. But as it turned out, one weekend would have been enough.
The following Monday at school, every boy in class knew. So did quite a few girls, too, if memory serves. We all knew there was a reason why Cinemax was nicknamed "Skinemax."
So it began: our torrid teenage love affair with clandestine, sound-turned-down, soft-focus sex. Mustn't wake mom. Earlier generations had "dirty magazines" by flashlight. We had Cinemax After Dark.
That was a long time ago, before the Internet. Now, "the good parts" of just about any movie you can name are just a click away, if that's all you really want. So, how does a premium cable channel remake itself for a brave new world where Skinemax is merely the bare Skinimum?
Answer: The same way HBO and Showtime did, shifting focus away from movies and onto original and exclusive programming.
I mention HBO, and you think "Game of Thrones" or "Boardwalk Empire." I say Showtime, and you think "Homeland" or "Dexter." These are prestige shows. Audiences love them. Critics love them. They get people talking, and if you spoil an episode, you risk grievous bodily harm. It's that serious.
Cinemax has nothing in that league yet. Of its three original prime-time series, one is a British import ("Strike Back") and one has already been canceled after one season ("Hunted"), leaving only "Banshee," which has been renewed for a second season to air next year, to generate something of a cult following. As of now, onetime also-ran Starz reaches more viewers and generates more buzz with its lineup of shows like "Magic City" and the recently concluded "Spartacus."
Still, Cinemax hasn't forgotten its target demographic. Cinemax After Dark remains, but equally retooled for the new TV landscape.
The new After Dark is filled with original series, from "Chemistry" to "Co-Ed Confidential." And if HBO can bolster its reputation with shows with a literary pedigree, like "Game of Thrones" and the upcoming "American Gods," based on Neil Gaiman's novel, then so can Cinemax, after a fashion.
Cinemax's "Zane's Sex Chronicles" is based on the works of erotica writer Zane. And "The Girl's Guide to Depravity" is based on producer Heather Rutman's blog and book about her dating experiences in Hollywood.
But the crown jewel of the Cinemax After Dark lineup is "Femme Fatales."
Taking its title from a long-running entertainment magazine that focused mostly on B-movie actresses and "scream queens," "Femme Fatales" is an anthology series that blends film noir plots and O. Henry twist endings with the maximum skin After Dark is known for.
Given that film noir typically involves poor saps falling for deadly dames, scorned women and murderous love triangles where three adds up to a shallow grave, at least the sex scenes are somewhat related to the plots — both story and burial.
The first season of "Femme Fatales" has been released on DVD and includes all 14 episodes over three discs, with deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes featurettes and audio commentaries for every episode. The second season is set for release July 16.
As yet, there's no announcement of a third season, so "Femme Fatales" may have run its course.
Sex sells, but in a buyer's market, Cinemax is still trying to differentiate itself. But when MTV no longer plays music videos, it's somehow reassuring that Skinemax still tries to live up to its name.
Thursday, April 18, 2013
Hollywood's newfound eco-awareness led to "serious" films like "The China Syndrome," which was nominated for four Oscars, and sci-fi thrillers like "Soylent Green" and "Silent Running," in which a psychopath, played by psychopath specialist Bruce Dern, kills his shipmates in order to save Earth's last forest, which, as the credits roll, floats off into deep space to the strains of a Joan Baez song.
Some consider "Silent Running" a classic.
Yet by far the dominant genre of ecological cinema in the 1970s was the "nature strikes back" movie.
Iron Eyes Cody might shed a tear at the sight of trash on the roadside, but Mother Nature wasn't having any of it. She was ticked off, she was going to make sure everyone knew it, and she had an army — basically the entire animal kingdom — at her command.
Whether spawned by pollution, genetic experimentation or just plain old revenge, these animals were out for blood.
Insects and spiders posed the greatest threat. Michael Caine and an all-star cast faced off against killer bees in "The Swarm." Ants became super-intelligent and threatened to overrun the planet in the head-trippy sci-fi flick "Phase IV." And William Shatner had to Shatner his way through a town infested with deadly tarantulas in "Kingdom of the Spiders."
Shatner's "Star Trek" co-star DeForest Kelley arguably had an even worse time of it, trying to avoid being trampled by stampeding rabbits the size of Volkswagens in the infamous B-movie "Night of the Lepus."
The 1950s had its own menacing animals, often giant bugs created by atomic testing and communism. Director Bert I. Gordon made his name unleashing irradiated terrors like "Earth vs. the Spider" and "The Amazing Colossal Man." When the 1970s rolled around, Gordon returned, first with 1976's "The Food of the Gods."
Based on an H.G. Wells story, "The Food of the Gods" gave us giant rats and even a giant, killer chicken. But that was just the warm-up. For an encore, Gordon set loose giant ants on the Everglades and leading lady Joan Collins in "Empire of the Ants."
But some animals didn't need a boost from mankind's folly to get their revenge. They simply took matters into their own claws.
1972's "Frogs" finds Ray Milland, Sam Elliott, Joan Van Ark and a bunch of disposable character actors under assault by — wait for it — frogs. Very ticked-off frogs. And snakes. As well as a few other critters, all fed up with Milland's character killing them for no good reason.
By 1978, Australian filmmakers were joining in, and in "Long Weekend," we meet a bickering married couple who are so annoying every creature in the Outback decides to kill them. And we cheer.
The decade closed with director John Sayles' "Alligator," which turned the urban legend about alligators living in the sewers into a B-grade horror flick.
In "Alligator," a the baby alligator flushed into the sewer grows to monstrous proportions by feasting on discarded lab rats injected with growth hormones.
That was just about the last gasp of the genre. Moviegoers' tastes were changing, and Hollywood assembled a new army to take on a new menace.
As the 1980s got underway, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger would slice up the new threat: teenagers having sex.
Thursday, April 04, 2013
The first time I saw "Vampyros Lesbos," I fell asleep, which is surprising on two counts.
Franco, a Spanish filmmaker who directed, by some counts, more than 180 films, died early Tuesday. He was 82.
In America, Franco enjoys little name recognition outside the circle of cult cinema aficionados. Unfortunately, one of his worst major films is probably his most widely seen: 1969's "The Castle of Fu Manchu" became fodder for the third season of "Mystery Science Theater 3000."
It's hard to keep up with all the films Franco made because he made so many, often issued under multiple titles, and he directed many of them under pseudonyms. But his better-known films have made him a polarizing figure. Almost no one who has seen Franco's movies is neutral about him. They love him, or they hate him. The closest thing to a middle ground where Franco is concerned comes from those critics who divide his films into two groups: the ones they love and the ones they hate.
And Franco never made it easy. Even his most ardent fans admit he could go a little too far with his mania for zoom shots.
At best, Franco was an uneven filmmaker, but he was almost never boring. Except for "Vampyros Lesbos," but here I'm in the minority; most Franco fans regard it as one of his best films. You definitely have a polarizing filmmaker when even his fans disagree about which are his best and worst films.
Franco burst onto the horror and exploitation scene with "The Awful Dr. Orlof" in 1962. "Orlof" — sometimes spelled "Orloff" — was Franco's answer to Georges Franju's classic "Eyes Without a Face," released two years earlier. Franco would return to the character many times throughout his career, culminating in what was Franco's last good film, 1987's "Faceless" featuring Telly Savalas, Caroline Munro and Brigitte Lahaie.
For a director who seemed bent on erasing the line between art house and schlock, Franco collaborated with a lot of talented performers. He directed Herbert Lom in 1969's "99 Women," the prototype for the women-in-prison genre; elicited the most bizarre, over-the-top performance of Jack Palance's career in "Deadly Sanctuary" (aka "The Marquis de Sade's Justine"); and teamed with Christopher Lee on numerous occasions, including 1970's "Count Dracula," a tedious but unusually faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula."
Franco also may be the only director who claimed to have had no difficulty working with Klaus Kinski, whom Franco cast in "Deadly Sanctuary" (as the Marquis de Sade) and in his surreal thriller "Venus in Furs," which, despite the name, has nothing to do with book.
In one interview, I recall, Franco said he simply shot take after take until Kinski, exhausted, gave the performance Franco wanted. Who knew the trick to dealing with Kinski was so simple?
Most of what I think are Franco's best films are the ones he made with producer Harry Alan Towers. They include "Venus in Furs," "99 Women," and 1970's "Eugenie."
Those three starred Towers' wife, Maria Rohm, but Franco's two muses were Soledad Miranda, star of "Vampyros Lesbos," who died in a car wreck in 1970 when she was just 27, and the woman who would become his longtime companion, Lina Romay, who starred most memorably in 1973's "Female Vampire." They eventually married and stayed together until her death early last year.
For Franco there was no stopping. He kept making movies until the end.
His last film, "Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies," opened in Spain last month.