20 May 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness Review

SPOILER WARNING: It is literally impossible to tell you what I think of the movie without revealing what it has up its sleeve. But seeing as it's now plastered all over the Internet (it's on Wikipedia, for crying out loud), I figure that you, dear reader, are more likely to already know it than not. But for those who haven't yet seen it and wish to remain surprised, read on at your own peril...

Back when I reviewed the first the new Trek movies, I may have breathlessly extolled that JJ Abrams had the chops to become the new Steven Spielberg. With Into Darkness - and Super 8 in the interim, lest we forget - it's clear that whilst I wasn't exactly wrong, the road to that title is a lot longer than anticipated, and there are a few obstacles that he needs to hurdle before we let him grow The Beard.

On the surface, he's certainly built a thrilling experience. The Enterprise has never been so realistically depicted, with action sequences that pack an unprecedented punch - the highlight being a confrontation between two Federation ships that will be difficult to top in terms of scale and tension. It's all accentuated by terrific sound design - thunderous base helps, so choose your cinema wisely - and a beautifully weighted orchestral score. The story, too, is masterfully edited, serving to draw you in with carefully paced reveals that all tie together come the end.

But in spite of this sheen of slickness on the surface, there is a point almost precisely a third of the way through the film where you start to notice that this skin doesn't quite sit properly on its innards. From here, we're given a masterclass in how to give mediocre script work a triple-A makeover in the execution - that Abrams is able to defy the script's downward tug on the film's quality is somewhat miraculous.

Scenarios, both in terms of action and character development, are lazily recycled wholesale from the previous movie - with dialogue that sees our players openly admit on behalf of the screenwriters that they ran out of ideas. It also shares a fair few plot points with The Wrath of Kahn, though with a contemporary twist (Terrorism! We're suddenly relevant again!), and cunningly hidden inside John Harrison's unfolding character arc. Whilst this is the most interesting thing about the film, it also serves to artificially create a twist where one simply wasn't necessary. Yes, Harrison is in fact Kahn, and if you're a newcomer to the franchise, don't expect who or what he is to be properly explained, because lazy script writing. Also, do you remember how Wrath of Kahn ended? Notice any similarities? They tried to trick us by reversing the roles and throwing in some more deus ex machina - as if we hadn't had enough - but fumbled the sleight of hand. Because lazy script writing (And now lazy review writing! It's infectious!).

It's a shame, because performance-wise, there's joy to be had. Of particular note is Benedict Cumberbatch, - alternating between brooding darkly and kicking fifty shades of shite out of Kirk, Spock, Klingons, and anyone else who happens to get in his way. Cumberbatch is actually a revelation in that department - he fights here as a man possessed, scathing his way through his foes with a lithe brutality that serves to compliment Kahn's calm fixation on revenge. His showing is worthy of a newly forged character that tips his hat to the classic villain, rather than this lazy mark-two that ultimately ends up brushed under the carpet - though it's testament to the strength of the performance that it feels this way.

Zachary Quinto's uncanny portrayal of a young Spock is still excellent, and regardless of everything that's wrong with the climax of the film, he does a good job of it, managing to scream the iconic 'Kaaaaaaaaahn!' without shedding his dignity. Zoe Saldana provides the emotional core of the piece elegantly, and Simon Pegg - whilst still sporting an accent worse than Gerard Butler's Irish one - is enjoyably daft as Scotty. Rounding out the headliners is Karl Urban, providing the rest of the film's comic relief with aplomb. Sadly, Chris Pine seems to be under the impression that nobody's watching, playing Kirk on auto-pilot until the denoument, where he suddenly ramps it up to 11. The rest of the cast aren't really given much to do, ranging from painfully under-written, to shameless eye candy - but they all do more than is required of what they're given.

It's not that it's bad. Quite the opposite, there's a lot of fun to be had - as a sci-fi action movie, it more than delivers, with thrillingly kinetic action sequences, spectacular visual effects and in the few-and-far-between moments where the writers actually put some effort in, there's laughs and heartbreak to be had. But as a Star Trek movie, it falls flat somewhat - an echo in contrast to the first film's ballsy shout, meekly following in the footsteps of a now irrelevant predecessor. I'm sure we were promised different.

16 May 2013

Iron Man Three Review

In a twist bewildering long-term geeks and nerds the world over, we now live in a post-Avengers world - not only is a movie about four superheroes teaming up one of the most successful films of all time, it's also been celebrated for being...y'know...good. What's more, after its clash of four separate stories, it's lain groundwork for a grandiose second act that bears nothing but promise. First up? Iron Man 3 (or Three...or 'the Third', or whatever the hell you like).

After the sheer scope of the Avengers' hoedown, it's surprisingly pleasant to skim back down to just the one primary hero in shot, and being reminded that Tony Stark will have problems of his own. Particularly after Stark's 'sacrifice play', which - we are informed at the beginning of the movie - has inflicted post-traumatic stress disorder on our hero, and he can't sleep. Couple that with a series of increasingly devastating bomb attacks overseen by a terrorist calling himself 'The Mandarin', as well as a shadowy figure returning from his past, Mr Stark has quite probably seen happier times. As you may have gathered, a dark tone has been set - words like 'shadowy' and 'traumatic' are being thrown about. It's that intense.

Snarkery aside, the story is cleverly structured and carefully paced, neatly balancing the newly introduced darker themes - pride coming before the fall, terrorism, industrial espionage, the whole PTSD thang - with the action-comedy tone of what came before. Most intriguing, however, is a mostly armour-free middle act that could've been a complete drag, even going so far as to have a mission where Stark's only tools are the contents of a local hardware store. It carries this coup off with aplomb, however - the emphasis on improvisation, adaptation and some good-old soul-searching brilliantly showcasing our hero's actual superpower. This also allows for a slow reveal of the Mandarin as both more and less than what he appears - genuinely, this is one of the biggest joys of the film: a most ingenious interpretation of a classic Marvel villain that subverts, twists, combines and stretches, but somehow fits perfectly within their new cinematic canon.

New director and co-writer Shane Black's fingerprints appear throughout - touchstones seemingly lifted directly from the cutting room floor of Black and Downey Jr's previous collaboration, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The dialogue has taken a silver-tongued turn towards Black's personal brand of quirk - to which Downey Jr is perfectly suited, let it be known - and he also retains his proven stylistic pretensions, giving the darker aspects of the story a deliciously noire-ish feel. This is particularly evident in its development of Pepper Potts from damsel in distress (in heels), to femme fatale (in track pants), with Black coaxing a fierce performance from Paltrow that surprises and thrills (and as evidenced by my choice of poster at the top, might be my favourite thing in it).

Elsewhere, Downey Jr is Tony Stark - if they intend to replace him at any point, they're going to have their work more than cut out. There would be more to say if he had put a foot wrong - but even with a slightly grimmer character to grapple with, his performance effortlessly adapts. Ben Kingsley is...eh...in the film. To say more about his performance is to spoil quite what makes it so good, so we'll move on. Guy Pearce is wondefully sly as industrialist Aldrich Killian, 'before' and 'after' aspects of the character juxtaposing mouse against snake. The transition is believable, and he does his fair share of service to the plot. Rebecca Hall, Don Cheadle and Jon Favreau are very much plot fodder, though they all do better than relatively under-written roles warrant. Best of the rest is James Badge Dale as First Henchman™, lip-lickingly evil and very much the deserving recipient of a comeuppance.

Come the end of it. the very best thing about the film - as I've been hinting at - is the way that it doesn't quite play out how you think it might've. The narrative heads roughly down the expected path, but there's a couple of surprising turns come the end of the second and third acts that really speak volumes about quite how bold they're being with this whole thing. And it works - it's a great sequel, both to The Avengers, and to Iron Man 2, and an exciting, darkly humourous ride in its own right. Plus I was late seeing it, so if you haven't seen it at this point...what exactly have you been doing with yourself? See it. Again, if you have to.