Star Trek, Duplicity, 17 Again
Film reviews for May 7
I have to confess something before I begin a review of J.J. Abrams´ Star Trek: before walking into the film, I had never seen an episode of the TV series (in any of it iterations) or any of the 10 feature films. Yet, because of how thoroughly Star Trek (particularly The Original Series) has pervaded pop culture, I was already familiar with the main cast, the enemies, the music, Kirk´s narration. “To boldly go where no man has gone before,” we all know where that comes from.
Well, that out of the way, I was floored by J.J. Abrams´ Star Trek, which is the kind of Hollywood blockbuster that hasn´t been seen since Spielberg and Lucas were in their prime. This is precisely the movie that George Lucas should have been aiming for with his Star Wars prequels, something that´s large-scale visionary while maintaining character detail, a slam-bang adventure without a whiff of self-indulgence, no intergalactic politics in sight.
Star Trek opens aboard the U.S.S. Kelvin, which is being attacked by the Romulan ship Narada, commanded by Nero (Eric Bana). George Kirk, who has taken over command of the Kelvin, sends his pregnant wife away in an escape vessel before diving into the Nero on a suicide run. If you´re a Star Trek fan, you´ll notice (I´m assuming) something is amiss - this isn´t how things were supposed to happen.
Years later, we get glimpses of a young James Tiberius Kirk driving a convertible off a cliff in Iowa; meanwhile, on Vulcan, a young half-human, half-emotionless-Vulcan Spock is tormented by his peers who try to get an emotional response from him. They eventually do, by invoking the name of his human mother (played by Winona Ryder). Always works.
Years later still, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is recruited into the Starfleet Academy by Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), who remembers his father. At the Academy, Kirk somehow passes the un-passable Kobayashi Maru training exercise, landing him an enemy in the creator of the exercise, Spock. When Captain Pike´s U.S.S. Enterprise is called into emergency action, Kirk sneaks aboard and joins what should become a familiar crew: Spock, Uhura (Zoe Saldana), McCoy (Karl Urban), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Sulu (John Cho). Soon enough, they´ll be joined by Scotty (Simon Pegg)
The rest of the film involves, in some order: time travel; ice-planet monsters; an older Spock (played by a returning Leonard Nimoy); alternate realities; planetary destruction; and some incredible action sequences, including one where Kirk and Sulu parachute down to the top of the planet-destroying device for a swordfight.
This ain´t your father´s Star Trek. It´s a loud, colorful, fast-paced, action-packed, breathless piece of filmmaking. It isn´t visionary sci-fi. It´s been watered-down for mass consumption, just intelligent enough to get by. It´s illogical and filled with coincidences (though one of the themes here seem to be fate, so I´ll let this one slide.) But it works, and it´s a thrilling ride.
Pine and Quinto could not be better as Kirk and Spock. They have none of the gravitas of Shatner or Nimoy, nor do they attempt any to mimic the original actors. Instead, they´re blank canvasses that allow these iconic figures to be written on their faces. Supporting cast plays it much broader, emphasizing the original cast to an almost comedic effect. Particularly Pegg and Yelchin. Urban, as McCoy, is the hammy best among the crew. Bana, unrecognizable as Nemo, makes for a disappointingly bland villain.
After every dark vision of the future possible, Star Trek conveys a refreshingly optimistic vision for mankind. This is fully realized in the set design and cinematography by Daniel Mindel, which creates some beautiful shots like a barren Iowa field with a massive futuristic cityscape in the far distance. Music by Michael Giacchino seems to recall John Williams´ Star Wars soundtrack more than the classic Star Trek theme.
Will Trekkies like the new film? I can´t answer that. At the very least, Abram´s film has won a convert who will go back and watch the original series and films. I´ve since seen The Motion Picture (not a prime Trek example, apparently), and there´s certainly something there that´s been excised completely from the new film. A level of self-consciousness that isolates Star Trek from any other work. Now, that isn´t necessarily a bad thing; Abrams´ film just works on a different level, trying (and succeeding) to appeal to a mass audience. Still, fans may be disappointed.
For everyone else, this is a summer blockbuster that absolutely delivers on summer blockbuster terms.
I have one problem with Tony Gilroy´s otherwise excellent Duplicity: the tone is all wrong, and it threatens to ruin the film. Here we have an intelligent David Mamet-like corporate espionage screenplay with rat-a-tat dialogue and delicious satire, and then it´s played out like one of Soderbergh´s Ocean´s films; two movie stars and a broad supporting cast and a knowing director, all winking at us in every other scene. They´re good at what they do, and I had a good time watching the film, but I kept pining throughout for the Gilroy who brought us Michael Clayton.
Clive Owen and Julia Roberts star as Ray Koval and Claire Stenwick, a pair of spies who first meet at a Dubai party; MI5 agent Ray gets Claire to go back to his hotel room, CIA agent Claire drugs Ray and makes off with some precious documents.
Years after the cold war, however, there´s not so much money in the CIA/MI5 business anymore; Ray and Claire both have new professions in the world of multinational corporations, working (coincidentally) for competing giants in the personal care industry. Or rather, for the same corporate giant. You see, Claire is a counter-espionage agent for Burkett & Randle, run by Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson), but she´s really a spy for Equikrom, a rival company run by Richard Garsik (Paul Giamatti). When she starts to stray, however, Equikrom calls in Ray to reel her in, and the two are reunited.
This is the kind of film where you never trust anything that´s happening on the screen, but you enjoy watching it all unfold anyway. So when Tully announces a super secret new product that Burkett & Randle is developing, we immediately know something is up, and the film is smart enough that some of the characters should have known, too. Or maybe they do know, but you can´t trust them to show it. In any event, the spy game is set into place as Equikrom dives in head-first after this secret product.
After about 20 minutes, the picture twists on itself, and then it keeps on twisting for the duration. Flashbacks slowly reveal more and more about Claire and Ray - or do they? Are they playing the corporate giants or are they playing themselves? “Nobody trusts anybody,” Claire says, rationalizing their relationship. But these two have good reasons not to trust each other - they know themselves too well.
Gilroy´s script is flat-out excellent, the kind of Hitchcock throwback that many attempt but few deliver these days. Peppered with Mamet-like dialogue, full of flavor (love the frozen pizzas), topped with two good star turns by Owen and Roberts, the kind of performances that define a movie star in the classic Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck way. Things are rounded out by a excellent supporting cast, not just Giamatti and Wilkinson, who have some great moments, but also Tom McCarthy as Claire´s colleague, and Denis O´Hare as the head of Equikrom´s espionage team.
But the movie is just too damn goofy, and it feels all wrong. Especially in the current economic climate: here are two spies, about to destroy one giant corporation or the other, not sparing a thought for the employees or stockholders, and they´re doing it with a wink and a smile. We´re complicit in their scheme, you see. That final twist (and you know it´s coming, especially in this film) is good, but not enough. The director should know better.
Still, it´s a great ride. Fun, engaging, and intelligent, it´s only problem is that it gets you to think, and you end up thinking too much.
There´s something appealing about body-switch comedies, which date back to 1976´s Freaky Friday and were popularized after 1988´s Big in a slew of films like Vice Versa, Dream a Little Dream, and yes, 18 Again!, in which George Burns became Charlie Schlatter. 20 years later and they´ve shaved off a year: Burr Steers´ 17 Again stars Matthew Perry, who becomes a younger version of himself in Zac Efron - but not the other way around, as is typical in these films. Good thing, too, as it spares us from Perry trying to act like Efron.
Perry plays Mike O´Donnell, a star basketball player in high school who walked out off the court during the big game to be with his girlfriend and future wife Scarlett (Leslie Mann). Seventeen years later and he´s unhappily married to her, with two kids he barely knows, he´s just been passed over for that big promotion at work - he´s played by Matthew Perry, so you know down and out. I bet he wishes he could be 17, again. Now, screenwriters love coming up with a device for the body switch, you´ll recall that fortune telling machine in Big. Here, Mike is led to a swirling vortex by the side of a bridge by the mysterious school janitor (Brian Doyle-Murray). How interesting.
Next thing you know, he´s Zac Efron, the 17-year-old version of himself. Only best friend Ned (Thomas Lennon), who initially attacks him on sight in a bizarre fight scene, knows the truth. So Ned enrolls Mike in the local high school, where he gets a chance to be young again, but instead of reveling in his rebirth, he gets a new look at his family: his son Alex (Sterling Knight), tortured by the jocks in the locker room; daughter Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg), about to ditch college to be with the school jock; and his wife still loves Mike - especially this new younger version. Kinky.
The film sounds awful, I know, and it´s nothing more than formula, but the formula works. These films are appealing because we´d all like that chance to be someone else, or to be ourselves twenty years from now or twenty years ago. 17 Again also throws in a bit of a Back to the Future vibe, with Mike´s daughter making eyes at him and the young Mike making eyes at his older wife.
Ultimately though, it´s too goodie-two-shoes, with Mike espousing the virtues of abstinence to his high school class, Ned refusing to let the now under-21 Mike drink alcohol, etc. A little high school realism would have gone a long way. And there´s something a little off when Mike is terrified of his daughter´s relationship and potential intercourse, but he´s more than happy to help hook up his (younger) son with a ditzy cheerleader.
Despite the top billing, Perry is in the film for 10 minutes or so. Instead, Efron is asked to carry the film, and he carries it well; he´s an undeniably charismatic young actor who is slowly coming into his own after the fame (or infamy) brought by the High School Musical pictures.
I have to ask what they were thinking with the casting, though; Efron and Perry may bare the slightest of physical similarities (they are, in fact, both Caucasian) but personality-wise they couldn´t differ more, what with Perry´s sullen, sarcastic attitude and Efron´s teen idol charm. Efron doesn´t even attempt Perry´s intonation or mannerisms, which is mostly a good thing, but it´s a bit shocking to see Mike realize the errors of his ways and make everything all better with his family, and then wham! He turns back into Matthew Perry at the end. How depressing; I was hoping he´d turn into an older version of Zac Efron this time.
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