The Star Trek reboot entertains, but where's the love? Elsewhere, State of Play offers old-fashioned thrills, and Tyson breaks your heart.
Because I hate reviews that don’t warn you about spoilers, I’ll keep all of Star Trek’s plot points secrets. But I will divulge this: I don’t get why people love the movie so much.
Star Trek (Paramount Pictures) I'm not a big enough Trekker to care about the creative licenses J.J. Abrams has taken with the Star Trek universe for his origin-story reboot. But I think Abrams' statements about never being that much of a Trek fan are important nonetheless. You don't have to have a pair of Spock ears in your closet to recognize a vaguely irreverent tone permeating this new film – and sometimes that tone tips toward .... well, have you watched Abrams’ Fringe? That sci-fi show wields a poking-you-in-the-ribs, isn't-this-goofy-and-fun attitude that has never quite jibbed with the program's darker, more serious elements. (Put another way, the show’s damn cheesy and self-conscious when it wants to be hip.) Star Trek isn't cheesy, but it's "entertaining" without being really thrilling. I'm forever being mocked for my praise of Bryan Singer's uber-faithful Superman Returns, but at least Singer absolutely loved the source material – that love translated to the audience so that even if you weren't really a fan of the source material, the director made you care through his eyes. In the Star Trek universe, this new movie draws mostly from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (still the best in the series) but also cribs certain aspects of The Voyage Home, the series' riskiest film because of its time-travel element and cheeky humor. But that’s not the same thing as love. (As for Abrams' long-time writers, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, they haven't produced a script I've ever fully liked, and, really, they should give up on humor altogether.) So after all this complaining, why would I say I still liked Star Trek? Because I think Abrams moves things along at a brisk pace, and I enjoyed the movie moment to moment. But to me, Star Trek isn't that different than the critically-savaged Wolverine – they're entertaining and frenetic, and if I will myself to ignore the clunky dialogue and fan-boy excesses, I have a fine-enough time. But I'm worried this might be the best summer popcorn movie we're going to get this year. And in that regard, it’s not nearly good enough.
State of Play (Universal Pictures) It’s a cliché to compliment a thriller by calling it “crackerjack,” but there’s no better description for State of Play. Directed with efficiency, well cast from top to bottom, and written so that every scene is a model of “good writing” (i.e. punchy dialogue and tight construction), State of Play might be this year’s “they don’t make ‘em like this much anymore” studio thriller – brains over effects, characters over explosions. Based on the acclaimed British series, this film only steps wrong in one area – it takes itself way too seriously. When this whodunit involving a possible corporate conspiracy and a political scandal revels in its pulpy twist-twist-twist cleverness, all you need to do is sit back and enjoy the big-name actors (particularly Russell Crowe) filling their roles with authority and spunk. But when director Kevin Macdonald starts pining for print journalism’s glory days or bemoaning the military-industrial complex … hey, I’m on his side, but the film’s not built for high-mindedness. High-level craft is State of Play’s calling card – if we’re allowed to think too deeply about any of this, that’s when the problems start. Macdonald’s most crucial assignment is to keep this sucker moving, and after the ponderous Last King of Scotland, State of Play is a major step up. I still miss Macdonald the documentary filmmaker, though – One Day in September and Touching to Void are still more riveting than his subsequent fiction efforts. Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Abramorama Films) Because I spend a certain amount of my time writing about music and interviewing bands, I have a tremendous sympathy for Anvil, the once-promising ‘80s metal outfit that never broke through. Director Sacha Gervasi knew Anvil back in the day, and his documentary benefits from the band members’ level of comfort with him and his cameras – the band members seem relaxed, which produces some wonderfully candid moments. Especially after suffering through the belabored angst of the Metallica therapy-session Some Kind of Monster, Anvil! feels wonderfully honest and raw – the worries of artists struggling to stay afloat financially are so much more compelling than superstar acts’ identity crises. But not unlike another popular recent word-of-mouth documentary, The King of Kong, I found Anvil! to be a touch too smug toward its subject. In both cases, the filmmakers enjoy playing up their on-camera protagonists’ weirdness to a degree that felt unnecessarily cheap – we’re supposed to sympathize but, at the same time, we’re provided with a comfortable distance so that their misery doesn’t necessarily feel like our problem. Perhaps an insignificant point, but this tendency in documentaries bugs me – it makes them too glibly crowd-pleasing and sacrifices a certain amount of honest insight. Still, Anvil! has plenty of insights to spare. Plus, it’s poignant – anybody who’s chosen the tough life of art over the comforts of “a real job” will probably swallow hard in recognition of what Anvil have struggled to keep upright over three decades. Sin Nombre (Focus Features) Writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s feature debut is a smorgasbord of styles and moods. Sin Nombre brings together a young girl from Honduras (Paulina Gaitan) and a young thug from Mexico (Edgar Flores) who have different reasons to cross the border into the U.S. Fukunaga is nothing if not ambitious, and his film feels like the work of a young guy who wants do everything at once – crime thriller, different-sides-of-the-tracks love story, travelogue, immigration commentary, neorealist drama. Sin Nombre bounces around with that energy, and if it’s not quite as great as he’d like it to be, it’s still a pungent, brutally effective experience. I like how the film examines the culture of gangs dispassionately, demonstrating their sadistic cruelty and casual stupidity. (By comparison, Scorsese’s mob movies feel like slick studio outings.) And Sin Nombre’s unbridled enthusiasm for storytelling keeps the movie humming along. Granted, some of the plot points are either obvious or a bit of a stretch, but the overall impression is that this guy is going places – he’ll get there faster once he calms down and focuses some.
Sugar (Sony Pictures Classics) Ryan Fleck's debut film, Half Nelson, was a good idea well told – that's not the same as being terrific, but it was a good start. Now with his co-writer Anna Boden assisting as co-director, he's made that terrific film. Half Nelson took a conventional storyline and tried to make it real (would-be inspirational teacher goes into the inner city), and Sugar is somewhat similar in that regard – it tries to reanimate the "poor kid trying to become a sports star" clichés. And at first, I feared that that was all it was going to be – just another good idea well told. But Fleck and Boden slowly start to bring the whole story together – not just plot twists you don't expect but also subtly layering in socioeconomic points that aren't preachy but accurate. The achievement isn't quite as stirring as Maria Full of Grace, but it's in the same, ahem, ballpark. If you harbor any romantic notions about the life of a minor-league baseball player, now you know better.
Tyson (Sony Pictures Classics) Young men who came of age in the era of Mike Tyson's Punch-Out look at the titular heavyweight champion as the original bad-ass – ferocious, powerful, indestructible – until the Buster Douglas fight changed our impression totally. As a portrait of the bad-ass, James Toback's documentary is absolutely fascinating because it lets Tyson talk – he may not be a wholly reliable narrator, but the brute bluntness of his words is quite seductive. There's an undeniable conventionality to Toback's narrative arc – Tyson's nobody, then he's an up-and-comer, then he's king of the world, then he hits bottom – but the compensation is getting to hear Tyson describe his rise-and-fall from the inside. In a better life with a better upbringing, Tyson's natural smarts would have propelled him far in whatever arena he wanted to pursue. But instead he was a street thug who learned how violence and a laser-like discipline could take him out of poverty and make him rich. Only later in life is he slowly coming to the realization about the limits of those gifts, and it's part of the film's heartbreak that Tyson can't quite articulate that but that the audience can. Still despicable in certain ways, Tyson at least gets to have his say. God, the guy used to be such a physical specimen – Toback includes a lot of excellent clips from his many fights, and watching Tyson's evolution from compact ball of muscles to the doughy failure of his later years is one of the great examples of physicality explaining character psyche. I grew up playing Punch-Out and fearing/admiring Tyson – so much so that when I watched this movie I discovered how much I identified with him. Considering how much the film deals with masculinity, success, failure, and love, I don't think I'm the only one.
Il Divo (MPI Media Group) In the rush of end-of-the-year movie-watching, I failed to get around to writing a review of Gomorrah, the acclaimed Italian film from Cannes that I admired, even if I didn't think it entirely cracked the problem of how you remake the conventions of the mob movie in the 21st century. Il Divo, the other acclaimed Italian film from last year's Cannes, has a similar problem – how do you make the familiarities of the political biopic interesting? Writer-director Paolo Sorrentino has a simple answer – you shoot it like an action movie. Sorrentino has said his film is "a metaphor about power," and while Il Divo does have a somewhat standard through-line, this look at the pivotal years of Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti in the 1990s – when his seemingly endless political run seemed close to ending – gets by thanks to the filmmaker's brash visual style, which plays up the allure of power without ever worrying about moralizing it later. The other great help is Toni Servillo, who plays Andreotti like a Peter Sellers-esque figure who somehow didn't make it into Dr. Strangelove. No junkie of Italian politics, I'm at a loss when it comes to evaluating Il Divo's recreation of real events – it would be like watching W. without living through the Bush years. But like W., Il Divo feels to me more like an op-ed than a news story – Sorrentino is showing his audience what it felt like to have Andreotti in power. The guy was a monster who was also a husband and a bit of a lonely weirdo – all aspects of his personality matter. I found that Sorrentino's hyper-style got tiring after a while, but he's not just another filmmaker with a lot of flash and no brains. He plays his cards right and someday he may even get to direct a Terminator sequel.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.