Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Star Trek Can’t Quite Escape its Predecessor’s Shadow


        J.J. Abrams’s 2009 reboot of Star Trek is, for me, the ideal blockbuster. It develops characters who are charming and utterly worthy of the audience’s attention and sympathy and allows them to drive the action sequences, which are, while not particularly innovative, at least not mind-numbingly tedious and carry actual weight. Just look at that heartbreakingly brilliant opening scene as evidence that the filmmakers’ understood the rich power of emotion, even in a movie stuffed with CGI, and the importance of making an audience feel before they can be expected to care. Eschewing the notion that escapist entertainment must be brainless and without substance, the film satisfies the heart, mind and pulse, appealing to both diehard Trekkies and franchise virgins like me, to those who simply want to relax and those looking for real quality in their popcorn movies. A sense of fun, lovable characters, excitement and an honest emotional core? What more could you possibly want? Abrams’s sequel strives to find that same delicate balance, but while Star Trek into Darkness is an enjoyable enough flick as it stands, it falls short of the expectations set by the original.

        In a way, the return of Captain Jim Kirk, Spock and crew falls prey to Hollywood’s “bigger is better” mentality, though it suffers from this less so than something like, say, Iron Man 2 or any number of other blockbuster sequels.  With the protagonists’ origin story taken care of, Abrams tackles a more expansive, ambitious plot that focuses less on his characters’ personal growth and relationships and more on external conflicts. This isn’t to say that they completely ditched the character-centric emotionality that highlighted the original, but rather, that the quieter, more dramatic moments scattered throughout have less breathing room and feel more like segue ways from one action set piece to the next, making the proceedings seem rushed and overly hectic. Covering themes of violence and revenge, loyalty and sacrifice, leadership and responsibility, not to mention the usual intuition/logic dichotomy inherent to Kirk’s and Spock’s relationship and an overt but relatively basic 9/11 allegory, the film bursts at the seams with a variety of ideas but doesn’t take or have the time to explore them as thoroughly as it could have. A couple of twists that I won’t describe here and shifting further complicate matters, and certain characters’ motives aren’t always clear, making it seem like some events happen just because the movie needs them to, rather than being causally linked to each other. Perhaps a repeat viewing would clarify some issues, but the convoluted, bloated narrative stands in stark contrast to the stripped-down simplicity of the previous movie.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Iron Man 3 Has the Fuel but Never Catches Fire


           Way back in May 2008, Jon Favreau directed a little movie called Iron Man that heralded the beginning of a full-blown pop culture phenomenon. With its effortless mix of lighthearted wit, relentless energy and flashy visuals (not to mention a star performance from Robert Downey Jr.), Iron Man went from a mildly anticipated flick featuring an “obscure” Marvel superhero and a bad trailer to a box office triumph that remains among the best superhero movies ever made. It’s no coincidence that the one-two punch of Iron Man and The Dark Knight launched the current obsession with men in tights: they both showed that superhero movies don’t have to be blandly cartoonish fan service; they can have life and character of their own. If The Dark Knight was gritty, nihilistic and politically charged, then Iron Man was fresh, mischievous and just all-around cool, the James Bond of superhero blockbusters.

           It’s too bad, then, how quickly the genre seems to have gotten worn out. 2012 gave us three, in my opinion, solid-to-good superhero movies with The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, but none of them were necessarily special or groundbreaking. Even Rises, my personal favorite, is exceptional mostly because it gave the landmark trilogy a satisfying, appropriately ambitious conclusion. Weirdly enough, the most unique of the three is arguably The Amazing Spider-Man, which seemed more interested in angst and romance than action (not to say it didn’t have a fair dose of explosions and CGI), though the tonal shifts were only intermittently successful. The bottom line is that none of the new entries into the genre have managed to live up to the expectations set by Iron Man and The Dark Knight.

           Iron Man 3, the third and potentially last installment of the franchise, epitomizes this growing superhero fatigue. Although not terrible by any means, it is, with a few exceptions, profoundly mediocre and generic, showing few signs of even aspiring to be something greater than an obligatory franchise sequel and summer tent-pole. The disappointing part is that buried beneath the convoluted plotline and seemingly endless action sequences are the seeds of a compelling, even inspired movie.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Office Finally Comes to a Bittersweet End


        2013 has been a tough one for me on the TV front so far. Sure, the midseason premieres birthed a handful of promising new shows, like Hannibal, The Americans and BBC America’s Orphan Black, that I might enjoy once I actually get around to checking them out, but the casualties have far outweighed the new recruits. In addition to Fringe and 30 Rock ending in January, ABC unsurprisingly canceled Happy Endings, whose virtues I extolled in my last blog post, and two of the other shows I recently discovered – The Hour and Enlightened – were also given the boot. That’s not even counting shows I don’t watch, like Dexter and Breaking Bad, which are both airing their final seasons over this summer. Yet, arguably no show’s impending absence will be more deeply felt by more people than The Office. After an astounding nine seasons, the NBC workplace comedy mainstay, the show that broke new ground for American sitcoms with its single-camera, mockumentary approach and paved the way for such hits as Parks and Recreation, Modern Family and perhaps even 30 Rock, is at last going off the air forever with a one hour series finale at 9 P.M. tonight.

        Unlike with the ends of Fringe and 30 Rock or the cancellations of those other shows, the close of The Office doesn’t particularly sadden me; in fact, it feels more like a relief, like when you finally leave your dead-end job so you can set off and do what you really want to do with your life. Let’s be real here: it’s been a good long while since The Office was actually, genuinely worth watching. At its best, the show was hilarious and relatable with moments of real poignancy to balance out the sometimes almost painful awkwardness, but somewhere around season 5, it took a nosedive into mediocrity and, like most TV shows, especially sitcoms, that last for more than a few seasons, gradually turned into a tired shadow of its former self. Still, while it’s no longer at its best and probably should’ve ended much sooner, The Office was a hallmark of modern television, and when the doors of Dunder Mifflin close for one last time tonight, it will feel like the end of an era.