Sunday, January 31, 2010

Film Review | Young Victoria

It’s not easy being queen

by Thomas Delapa

This is not your father’s Queen Victoria. Nor even your grandfather’s. The teen monarch of Young Victoria is hardly Victorian--sniff--at least not in the stuffy, we-are-not-amused sense of the word.

In this handsomely mounted but breezy chronicle of the early years of Victoria’s epic reign on the British throne, actress Emily Blunt abdicates pomp and circumstance in favor of a humanized portrait that doesn’t bow to the faded conventions of the historical biopic.

In the crowded gallery of recent royals, Young Victoria sits somewhere between Cate Blanchett’s lauded Elizabeth and Kirsten Dunst’s laughable Marie Antoinette, with all three head and shoulders below Hellen Mirren’s Oscar-winning The Queen. At their own risk, director Jean-Marc Vallee and screenwriter Julian Fellowes curiously gloss over the major events in Victoria’s reign--um, like her coronation--while Enquiring into her private life, principally her courtship and marriage to Prince Albert (Rupert Friend) of Germany. What Vallee gains in intimacy and Victorian secrets, he loses in depth and grandeur.

Blessed with courtly diction and a winsome demeanor, Blunt is the Vallee’s crowning attraction, especially when poised in the plush costumes and an array of palatial interiors from Lincoln Cathedral to London’s Lancaster House. In a supporting role, Paul Bettany stands out as Lord Melbourne, the shrewd Whig leader who becomes Victoria’s confidante once she ascends to the throne in 1837.

In a whirlwind 100 minutes, Vallee and Fellowes barely scratch the surface of a momentous reign that lasted longer than any other in British history, and one that saw England evolve (and downsize) from industrial empire into modern, 20th-century nation. What we do learn, rather fitfully, is that teen Victoria was at the center of a power play between volatile King William (Jim Broadbent) and Victoria’s manipulative mother (Miranda Richardson) and sinister uncle (Mark Strong), with distant uncle King Leopold (Thomas Kretschmann) of Belgium more than interested spectator. At issue is whether Victoria will duly take the crown at 18, or whether she will only nominally serve while her mother and uncle act as “temporary” regents. “Do you ever feel like you’re a chess piece?” she transparently asks the smitten Albert during their own game.

While satisfying on visual level, as drama Young Victoria is a stalemate. Fellowes often proclaims the obvious, yet seems to turn up his nose at nuance. He does only a passable job untangling all the political machinations afoot, such as the tempest-in-a-teapot that brews when the Queen refuses to dismiss her Whig ladies-in-waiting with the election of Tory leader Robert Peel as prime minister. While seemingly trivial today, the act almost brought down the House (of Commons).

In their quest to popularize this young, romantic Victoria, the filmmakers anoint the production with a king’s ransom of majestic eye candy. But calorie counters need not fret: Perhaps owing to Sarah Ferguson’s role as producer, this is assuredly Victoria Lite.


Film Review | The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

And now for something completely indifferent

by Thomas Delapa

Like The Dark Knight, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus shares a glum footnote in cinema history for containing a posthumous performance by Heath Ledger. But unlike the 2008 Batman blockbuster, Terry Gilliam’s film will likely expire quickly at the box-office.

When Ledger tragically died in January 2008, production hadn’t yet been completed on Gilliam’s star-crossed fantasy. Instead of throwing in the towel, Gilliam forged ahead, imaginatively substituting three Johnny-on-the-spot actors (including Johnny Depp) to complete Ledger’s scenes. The oddball results--along with some morbid ironies--are practically the only grounds to pay a visit to see Dr. Parnassus.

Long a Hollywood expatriate, Gilliam has begun to resemble the vagabond Orson Welles at the end of his career. Patching together eccentric projects, primarily backed by European investors, the American-born Gilliam is an auteur without a country, his quixotic imagination forever tilting (and teetering) at the windmills of commercialism. Indeed, while Welles’ legendary adaptation of Don Quixote was at least released, Gilliam’s 1999 version proved to be an impossible dream.

Even less coherent than his 2005 The Brothers Grimm (which also starred Ledger), Parnassus is a nebulous fantasy set in the streets of modern London. Christopher Plummer plays the not-so-good doctor, boozy and bearded leader of a troupe of traveling players. Creaky and ramshackle on the outside, the troupe’s horse-drawn wagon conceals a magical, mysterious “imaginarium,” where paying visitors can see their wildest dreams-- and nightmares--come true.

With co-writer Charles McKeown, Gilliam cobbles together a story that begins in the realm of Doctor Faustus, dabbles in satire, and ends in critical care. Ages ago, Parnassus gained immortality in a wager with Mr. Nick (the eternally raspy Tom Waits), a devilish trickster in a bowler hat. Now the devil has returned, ready to claim the hand of the doctor’s doll-faced 16-year-old daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole).

Gilliam operates under the naive assumption that visual fireworks should be ample to amuse us while he pulls digitally generated white rabbits out of his hat. Eerily introduced near-death, a rope around his neck, Ledger’s Tony joins the troupe, catching Valentina’s eye while turning another suitor, Anton (Andrew Garfield), green with jealousy.

In this smorgasbord of myth and whimsy, Gilliam piles plenty on his plate, little of it edible. He holds up the glories of old-fashioned storytelling, pitting it against the onslaught of vulgar modernism, personified by street ruffians and a gaggle of middle-aged matrons (see Brazil) who seek to restore their youth in the imaginarium. But it’s Gilliam’s own imagination that seems flimsy and shopworn. The scattershot satire also extends to Tony, who’s vaguely portrayed as a crooked philanthropist who’s sold his soul to Russian gangsters.

Is there a script doctor in the house? It’s hard enough to keep track of Gilliam’s eccentric musings, but audiences will be further baffled by the revolving door of actors who take Ledger’s place inside Parnassus’ magic mirror. At the very least, this parlor trick goes a long way to explain Johnny Depp’s wizardly box-office appeal. Of all the actors playing Tony (including Ledger himself), Depp is the only one to survive Gilliam’s sour medicine.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Film Review | Me and Orson Welles

Et tu, Orson?

by Thomas Delapa

When it comes to wunderkinds, few, if any, have ever equaled the kinds of cultural wonders accomplished by the young Orson Welles. He directed his incomparable Hollywood masterpiece, Citizen Kane, at age 25. At 23, he infamously panicked the nation with his radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. And for his theatrical sensations, at age 22 he landed on the cover of Time magazine, which dubbed him “the brightest moon that has risen over Broadway in years.”

It is this latter Welles that triumphantly ascends in Me and Orson Welles, which features a stellar marquee performance by Christian McKay in the better half of the title roles. The lesser half goes to Zac Efron, heartthrob graduate of Disney’s High School Musical franchise.

Director Richard Linklater opens his curtain on 1937 New York City, where Welles (McKay) and his nascent Mercury Theatre are in rehearsals for its audacious modern-dress production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Waiting in the wings is Richard Samuels (Efron), a 17-year-old who bluffs his way into the small part of Lucius. At the center of the Mercury whirlwind is Welles, dazzling the mere mortals around him with bluster, brilliance, ego, and charm.

Considering McKay’s magisterial impersonation--even if he’s a trifle old for the role--audiences may feel cheated when he makes his exits. Yet looking directly at the sun can be blinding, which may account for novelist Robert Kaplow’s squinty focus on Richard’s coming-of-age story. The lad quickly mimics the sleight-of-hand tricks from his quicksilver mentor, especially in the ways of romance. Backstage, he makes time with the company’s starstruck, Vassar-educated receptionist (Claire Danes).

No hero-worshipping revival, Me and Orson Welles sketches a colorful, warts-and-all portrait of a man who would ruefully later say, “I started at the top and worked down.” At his zenith in New York, Welles would whipsaw between his theater productions and radio shows (like The Shadow), winging around town by ambulance. Like his own Charles Foster Kane, Welles’ brilliance was matched by a king-sized hubris that alienated friends and countrymen alike. At the Mercury, producer John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) plays Welles’ exasperated foil, complaining, “The primary business of the Mercury Theatre is waiting for Orson.”

With suggestions of both Beckett and Pirandello, the Mercury players wearily wait for Orson’s entrances, and he never fails to deliver on cue with inspired Shakespearean interpretations. For his Caesar, he exchanges togas for 1930s fascist uniforms, boldly incorporating expressionism, Chicago gangsters and stark lighting design mocking Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies.

In this film, the play is admirably the thing, and Linklater and company pay tribute to Welles’ genius--and live theater--in a medley of scenes from Caesar, right down to the silhouetted spittle sprayed by the actors. Perhaps a mite too self-consciously, offstage Welles whispers in soliloquy, “How in the hell do I top this?”

As eager as Linklater is to build up Welles, he’s not shy about plunging in a few daggers. Ever the opportunist and manipulator, Welles lets his minions know who’s boss, bellowing “I own the store!” to any who might challenge his imperial edicts.

Owing to McKay’s shining, if all-too-brief, performance as Welles, we can second Antony and say to all the world that “This was a man.” Opposite McKay, and given to weepy emotionalism in his climactic scenes, Efron pales. What is one left to say but “This is a boy”?


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Film Review | The Soloist

Minor Key

by Thomas Delapa

Among other variations on a theme, The Soloist plays a mournful ode for the American newspaper in the post-print era. A few years ago, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez plucked a violin-playing, schizophrenic homeless man off the streets and turned him into a local celebrity of sorts. But don’t stop the presses for director Joe Wright’s discordant adaptation, which hits few high notes.

In his first film since the Oscar-nominated Atonement, Wright struggles to find the proper tone to translate Lopez’s front-page columns that first discovered Nathaniel Ayers back in 2005. As everyman-journalist Lopez, Robert Downey Jr. reprises his dithering, semi-manic performance mode that’s become as familiar as Beethoven’s Fifth.

In Susannah Grant’s screenplay, the solitary, divorced Lopez is nearly as much of a “soloist” as his pathetic discovery, played by Oscar winner Jamie Foxx, whom Lopez finds accompanied by a derelict shopping cart beneath a downtown statue of Ludwig van. Once a Juilliard student, Ayers now only plays for pigeons, his dark refrain of schizophrenia soothed only by his transporting passion for music.

What might have been a dramatic duet between the two leads is instead conducted as alternating asides, led by Ayers’ flights of rambling paranoia. During Foxx’s Rain Man-style riffs, Downey can only take five and wait--probably tapping his foot in dismay out of camera range.

Wright strikes a better chord during the claustrophobically subjective flashbacks to Ayers’ brighter past, first as child prodigy on bass in Cleveland and then as the clouds gather while a student at New York City’s prestigious Juilliard School in the 1970s. As Ayers grows up poor (seemingly without friends except for his mother and sister), a babel of threatening voices in his head grow stronger, dragging him to an abyss of mental illness. While Ayers plays his instrument amid the impersonal, car-created cacophony of L.A., you can’t escape feeling that his music isn’t just a refuge, but the only sane response to an unbalanced city.

The other melody at work in The Soloist is equally somber, and that’s Wright’s Dantean picture of the city's skid row. Perched on the edge of downtown, it’s a hellacious landscape of the homeless, mad, huddled and drug-addled, mostly black, where the American Dream has gone to curl up and die.
As living proof of the power of the press, Lopez’s columns become a lightning rod, exposing a civic disgrace and causing the city to allocate millions of dollar in funds into the blight. Loyal readers of Lopez also respond to his human-interest story, one donating a vintage cello for Nathaniel’s use.

As oppressively gritty as the movie is, Wright is saddled with a crusading, committed Hollywood-accented hero with ink coursing through his veins. Composed in bold type, Downey’s Lopez is as idealistic and passionate as any Frank Capra crusader from back in the days when newspapers really did have all the news that was fit to print. The tinny--and fictitious--role of Lopez’s editor and ex-wife (Catherine Keener) should have been blue-penciled before production started.

Despite Wright’s grand, near-operatic ambitions, the soaring interludes are rare. After all Lopez’s noble efforts to help Ayers, there’s more than a little counterpoint telling him (and us) that maybe people like Nathaniel are largely beyond therapy. That’s not the five-star finale that Hollywood might want, even if it does resound with the truth.


Film Review | Anvil! The Story of Anvil

Rust Never Sleeps

by Thomas Delapa

Of the few heavy questions raised in Anvil! The Story of Anvil, here’s the heaviest: In the name of Led Zeppelin, how can you tell the difference between good heavy-metal music and bad heavy-metal music?

Before you hazard to answer, consider the tragi-comic plight of the aforementioned Anvil, an obscure, Toronto-based band once called “the demigods of Canadian metal.” In Sacha Gervasi’s lightweight but amiable documentary, Anvil could easily be a Great White North cover version of the hopelessly inept and hilariously fictional Spinal Tap band.

More than two decades after Rob Reiner rolled out his mock rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, Gervasi tracks the real trials and tribulations of Anvil, led by co-founders Steve “Lips” Ludlow and Robb Reiner. While there’s no relation between the Ontario Reiner and Hollywood’s own, the Anvil pair might be close cousins, eh?, of hosers Bob and Doug McKenzie from the late, lamented SCTV comedy series.

Whether enduring the low notes of a botched European tour or singing the dream of becoming rich and famous, Ludlow and Reiner play uncannily close to warped parody. Now in his fifties, Lips is the band’s heart, soul and biggest fan, talking up its rosy future even while working as a delivery driver for a lunch caterer.

If we can believe Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, Anvil was the “real deal” back in the early 1980s, notably after the forging of its Metal on Metal album. Now that the big hair has flattened out and gone south, Anvil’s gigs today are mostly at weddings and local bars instead of sharing the bill with the likes of Anthrax. But a comeback beckons out of the blue when a Swiss wannabe promoter books the boys for a whirlwind European tour.

Like it’s comically redundant title, Anvil! The Story of Anvil is a blunt object, hammering away on the pair’s quixotic dream of success (the other two current Anvillians barely share the spotlight). Lips’ family members, including his wife and mother, steadfastly back him up. But another sister, Droid, says that Anvil’s last blow has sounded. “It’s over. It’s been over for a long time.”

If there’s an unexpected backbeat to be found in Gervasi’s ditty, it comes from the genial and boyishly earnest personalities of the pair, notwithstanding Lips’ mundanely profane refrains. Sentimental and given to emotional crescendos, Lips fits the bill as drama queen as much as vee-guitar hero. Not only is the band stiffed on several stops of its fly-by-night European tour, a stop at the “Monsters of Transylvania” (really) concert translates into another rocky horror show.

This Is Spinal Tap touched a nerve--and not just the funny bone--because it nailed the grandiose pretensions of the metal scene as well as the idol-worshipping conventions of the rock documentary. The Anvil story doesn’t hit the same groove, though it does show that even head-bangers have a soft spot.


Film Review | Angels & Demons

Papal Bull

by Thomas Delapa

You may need a secret decoder ring--and a degree in symbology--to make sense out of Angels & Demons, the latest Dan Brown best-seller to wing its way to the big screen. Director Ron Howard’s hurly-burly potboiler is a witches’ brew of Vatican conspiracy theories, flighty sci-fi and unsavory violence that might even put off the Spanish Inquisition.

Fearlessly treading the same path as 2006’s blockbuster The Da Vinci Code, Angels chronicles the further adventures of Tom Hanks' Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor of “symbology” and expert on the cryptic history of the Catholic Church. Now that Langdon cleared up the mystery of Jesus’ less-than-godly relationship with Mary Magdalene, it’s up to him to deliver Vatican City from a man-made apocalypse.

Twisting fact and fiction in an arcane but compelling fashion, Brown’s books delve into the fascinating, often juicy history of one of the West’s most enduring and monolithic institutions. Given the quakes and tremors that have rocked the church in our era, Brown has opportunistically positioned his missives, exploiting the secular tastes of mass-market modernism.

It’s no Roman holiday when Langdon is called to the Vatican itself after the pope suddenly dies and four of his would-be successors are kidnapped by the Illuminati, a dark secret society thought to be dead since the Renaissance. The real bad news is that agents of the Illuminati threaten to blow up Vatican City to kingdom come with a canister of antimatter stolen from a Swiss laboratory.

O ye of little faith, if you think “antimatter” is only found in the bible of Star Trek, think again. Brown is hell-bent on tossing any sort of convention, fiction or nonfiction, sacred or profane, to serve his plot. It was lucky for Howard and his crew that they shot several scenes for Angels during the Da Vinci production, anticipating that the Vatican wouldn’t put its imprimatur on this release, starting with its portrayal of the Swiss Guards and the Italian police as bumbling, if not brethren to the conspiracy.

With the bomb set to explode around midnight--releasing the “God particle”--Langdon teams up with a raven-haired physicist (Ayelet Zurer) to discover the location of the captive cardinals. No Sherlock Holmes, Langdon is habitually late on the scene, resulting in a string of grotesque murders that Howard serves up for sadistic, arguably sacrilegious, thrills. In his race against the atomic clock, Langdon also must negotiate his way into the sanctum sanctorum of the Vatican Archives, sidestepping the gruff head of the guards (Stellan Skarsgaard) while winning the blessings of the late pope’s protégé (Ewan McGregor).

Merely byzantine when not sinister, the inner workings of the Vatican come cloaked in lavish production design, from the James Bondian subterranean archives to the dank grottoes leading to the tomb of St. Peter. As if the plot lines aren’t tangled enough, there’s also the scarlet-robed College of Cardinals, who bizarrely insist on meeting in conclave to pick a new pope during the doomsday crisis.

Like Jerry Bruckheimer’s National Treasure flicks, Angels breathlessly flits from scene to scene, genuflecting before the Hollywood god of action and special effects. Along the way, Howard narratively loots 2000 years of holy Roman history, from such sites as the Pantheon and the Castel Sant’Angelo. In his second coming to the screen, Langdon swoops in as an American know-it-all, thus proving that that Holy See is as blind as a bat.


Film Review The Girlfriend Experience | One or Two Things I Know About Her

by Thomas Delapa

In the 20 years since Steven Soderbergh made his name--and the Sundance Film Festival--with sex, lies and videotape, his career has careened between big-budget juggernauts like Ocean’s Eleven and risky art-house projects that haven’t made great waves either critically or commercially. The odds are again stacked against him in The Girlfriend Experience, a Godardian treatment of upscale prostitution that bucks the axiom that you can’t buy love.

In the case of a ravishing, high-priced Manhattan call girl named Chelsea (Sasha Grey), love means never having to say you’re sorry, at least not at $2000 an hour.

At a scanty 77 minutes, Soderbergh’s film gets under the skin of the crass, transactional world of New York’s moneyed set on the eve of the 2008 presidential election. In this seamy side of sex and the city, prostitution is casually treated as just another profession, to be promoted and branded with all the latest business buzzwords. An independent working girl, Chelsea wants to launch her own website so she can “grow the business.” In a semi-autobiographical fillip, Grey is making her mainstream debut after four years of experience as a high-priced porn star (sample title: Sporty Girls 2).

Voyeurs beware, for Soderbergh’s camera is rigorously chaste, keeping the audience at a Brechtian distance through clandestine long shots and light levels permanently set at dim. As in Godard’s legendary sixties films like The Married Woman, Soderbergh isn’t interested in sex per se, but how it’s being debased in an explicitly post-modern, if not post-human, culture.

Chelsea’s tolerant boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), is cool with her career, acting the supportive significant other. He only objects when she capriciously decides to spend a weekend with one her married clients, who just might be Mr. Right. A personal trainer at a fitness center, Chris is struggling with his job, which also has been co-opted into the corporate world.

Wedded to Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s spare script, Soderbergh’s episodic, almost desultory style will be a workout for most audiences. But the seeming lack of polish masks an aesthetic that exposes the airy superficiality of these
relationships--as easily disposable as hitting your computer's delete button. A sultry enigma, Chelsea reveals next to nothing about herself to either her boyfriend or to the journalist (Mark Jacobson) interviewing her, perhaps because there’s nothing to reveal. In the scenes with the writer, Soderbergh so buys into the Godard style, the interviews should be subtitled Dialogue with a Consumer Product, a la Masculin-Feminin.

Along with her body, Chelsea lends her clients (which don’t number Eliot Spitzer) an ear, which they fill with trite but true confessions that invariably revolve around making money, not love. Given to condescension toward these vapid males, Soderbergh is almost as detached as Chelsea is, falling into the trap of superficially treating the superficial.

But in Chelsea’s quickie tryst with a Hasidic jeweler, Soderbergh unearths a gem of a deadpan ending. It may be the safest sex ever filmed...and the most anticlimactic.


Sunday, January 24, 2010

Away We Go Film Review | Road to Nowhere

by Thomas Delapa

Just how much of a slog is Away We Go? Had it not been directed by the Oscar-winning Sam Mendes, it would have probably gone straight to video.

A road movie with less traction than General Motors, Away We Go is Mendes’ latest take on the American couple running on empty. Starting with 1999’s smash American Beauty and most recently with 2008's Revolutionary Road, Mendes seems driven to distraction by stories of couples on a collision course with an ugly American dream.

Behind the wheel for this spin are thirtysomethings Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph), unmarried underachievers and soon-to-be parents. A surprise revelation by Burt’s flaky parents (Jeff Daniels, Catherine O’Hara) sends the downwardly mobile Colorado couple on a cross-country odyssey to find a place they can truly call home.

The script--by novelists and novice screenwriters Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida-- amounts to a series of sputtering vignettes tracking Burt and Verona as they travel by plane, train and automobile from Phoenix to Miami and Montreal to Madison, WI. Like guests on a late-night talk show, a few stars casually drop in to do comic bits and then go away unannounced, all while Burt and Verona sit back as dazed and unamused bystanders. From an obnoxiously desperate housewife (Allison Janney) to a loopy New Age college professor (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Mendes’ flat caricatures had me crying out loud, “Are we there yet?”

Cast from U.S. TV, Krasinski (The Office) and Rudolph (Saturday Night Live)--definitely an anti-Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet--are pictured by Mendes as contemporary salt-of-the-earth types whose drab simplicity has allowed them to dodge the excesses of American vulgarity and weirdness. While Rudolph seems to be suffering a nonstop case of morning sickness, the bearded and bearish Krasinski runs out of gas first, settling on his wide-eyed impression of a deer caught in the headlights.

Road kill is everywhere in Away We Go, trailed by Alexi Murdoch’s monotonous set of folk songs that drone on from sea to shining sea. Strewn among the couple’s whirlwind encounters are the writers’ pedestrian attempts to jump-start the dialogue with Generation-X parental pointers. “You have to be so much better than you ever thought,” Burt says expectantly.

Poorly conceived and delivered, Mendes’ film also negates the very essence of the American road movie, namely, the landscape. For Burt, Verona and Mendes himself, these United States are at best a blur and at worst a confederacy of dunces. The only respite on the duo’s travels is a detour to Montreal, where they find Burt’s old college roommate and his wife living a seeming idyllic existence, littered with so many adopted multicultural kids that even Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie would be jealous.


Star Trek Film Review | Lost in Space

by Thomas Delapa

By virtue of bold title alone, Star Trek shoots for the moon, attempting to re-launch perhaps America’s most beloved sci-fi franchise. But in the less-than-stellar world of prequels, director J.J. Abrams’ retro rocket lands somewhere between Butch and Sundance: The Early Days and Star Wars I The Phantom Menace.

Since its modest beginnings as a mid-sixties TV series created by Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek has beamed up into the pop-culture pantheon, living long and prospering into three additional series, a galaxy of mass-market spin-offs and a half-dozen feature films, including at least two generations of crews making the universe safe for democracy and humanoids aboard the USS Enterprise.

Traveling backward instead of forward, Abrams (creator of TV’s Lost and Fringe) and co-writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman transport us to the days before Captain Kirk and company boldly embarked on their original five-year mission that was cancelled by NBC after only two-plus seasons. In their place is a crew of fuzzy-faced young millennials, including the aptly named Chris Pine as the brash proto-captain, James T. Kirk. An Iowa daredevil with a chip on his shoulder, Kirk is cajoled into Starfleet Academy by Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood)--another salute to the program’s star-crossed past.

In Hollywood parlance, at least half of Abrams’ saga is back-story, rewarding fans with a check list of Star Trekian lingo and catch phrases, from deflector shields to Vulcan mind melds, and re-introducing familiar names from the new crew. Chief among them is Spock (Zachary Quinto), that ultra-logical, pointy-eared, half-human Vulcan, who immediately locks horns with Kirk at Starfleet Academy. In this PG-13 update, not only does the ever-randy Kirk bed down a buxom green alien, but he locks his phaser on fellow cadet Uhura (Zoe Saldana), the Enterprise’s future communications officer.

While Abrams is fairly dutiful to Star Trek lore and legend, he sloppily violates prime story directives on several counts, most pointedly with Spock. Heavens to Tribbles, only in warped parallel universe would Spock be caught making out with Uhura, that is, without suffering an astronomical breakdown. Abrams also kills off Spock’s human mother (Wynona Ryder)--a woman who curiously appears in one of the show’s original episodes.

A virtual black hole in terms of star power, Star Trek 2009 appears assembled willy-nilly from old episodes, spot-welded by furious and fairly illogical action sequences. As the villain, Abrams beams up Nero (Eric Bana), a vengeful rogue Romulan with Mike Tyson facial tattoos and an eerily monstrous spacecraft shaped like a ganglia of metallic seaweed. Equipped with plasma of “red matter” and the biggest drill bit in the universe, Nero is on a mission to blow up planets real good, starting with Vulcan. While cinematographer Daniel Mindel adds epic visuals (like the sight of tiny shuttlecrafts fleeing a doomed starship), Star Trek’s fascinating uniqueness rested on interpersonal dynamics rather than luminous special effects. Set for stun, Michael Giacchino’s score bombards the audience with blaring horns that you could hear all the way from the Earth to the moon.

Trekkies in search of familiar faces will not find the scenery-gobbling William Shatner anywhere in this cosmos, but Abrams does hail an aging Leonard Nimoy, the once and future Spock, who materializes long enough to give his blessing to Quinto, who could double for Spock’s young clone. While Nero fiddles with mass destruction, the crafty Kirk has to figure out just how to get into Spock’s brain and take command of the ship.

Nostalgic Trekkies (or Trekkers) may look past the glaring errors and weightless plotlines in Abrams’ finite universe. For other earthlings, Star Trek will be a two-hour improbable mission that should have been scrubbed before take-off.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

Tyson Film Review | Requiem for a Heavyweight

by Thomas Delapa

At age 20, he was the youngest heavyweight champ in history. But “Iron Mike” Tyson was no Gentleman Jim. Nor would anyone confuse the scowling brawler with the charismatic showman Muhammad Ali. A surly, gold-toothed brute who once declared he wanted to pound a foe’s nose “back through his head,” Tyson was the leading contender as America’s worst sporting nightmare.

In a career that had more ups and downs than a punchy ham-and-egger, Tyson won and lost a lifetime of titles, served time in prison, chewed the ear of a foe, was eaten alive by Robin Givens, and been knocked out of boxing. Now retired from the ring, he’s back slugging in Tyson, an incisive, no-holds-barred documentary that packs a wallop.

In the filmic arena created by director James Toback, Tyson sits comfortably on his couch addressing the camera, his monologues at times delivered in a flurry of split-screen images. Toback skillfully combines Tyson’s revealing confessions with fight footage chronicling a career that began in the early 1980s under the tutelage of the legendary trainer Cus D’Amato. In this first-person memoir, Tyson takes the gloves off, riffing on (and sometimes ripping) everyone from Don King to ex-wife Givens. It’s an ideal set-up for Tyson, since no one is allowed to punch back.

Of all the people who are conspicuously absent from the interviews, the most pivotal may be D’Amato, who became Tyson’s legal guardian as a teen. After a troubled Brooklyn boyhood striped with stays in reform school, Tyson found in D’Amato both a mentor and father-figure who made him believe he could be a champion. It doesn’t take a Freudian to recognize that D’Amato’s death in 1985 was a punishing blow to the young fighter, and one he’s perhaps never recovered from.

With that lisping, high-pitched voice (and now Maori facial tattoo), Tyson has always been a contradiction, even when he was knocking peoples’ blocks off. In place of that fearsome stare, Tyson here counters with an emotional and articulate side that confesses to fears, addictions and a self-described inferiority complex. He still remembers the shocked hurt he felt as a boy when a man robbed him on the streets of Brooklyn.

While anger, talent and a killer instinct propelled Tyson’s rise to the top, he also was determined to hit the books--learning his craft by studying fight films of past champs from Marciano to Ali. All the work paid off in worldwide fame and paydays amounting in the tens of millions of dollars. “In Japan they wrote comic books about me,” he proudly recalls.

A Raging Bull in living color, Tyson was his own worst enemy, going down for the count repeatedly, most notoriously in the 1992 rape conviction that sent him to an Indiana prison for three years. Soft-spoken but mercilessly blunt, Tyson saves his verbal pummeling for his accuser. He also lays it on shock-haired promoter Don King, who would “kill his mother for a dollar.”

Whether you’re in Tyson’s corner or not, Toback’s replay could have included a few outside observations without losing its punch. But Toback lets Tyson and the footage do all the talking, culminating with the fighter's ear-biting 1997 bout with Evander Holyfield, an appalling fiasco that may have sounded the death knell for heavyweight boxing as a legitimate spectator sport in America.


Tetro Film Review | Brothers Grim

by Thomas Delapa

What to make of Francis Ford Coppola’s confounding and highly theatrical Tetro? Running the gamut from baffling to beautiful, it’s a black-and-white mélange that begins with the story of two estranged brothers and ends crammed with so many cinematic homages, I thought I had died and faded into film-school heaven.

Shot down Argentine way, Tetro likely won’t earn high grades from commercial audiences, especially those still waiting for Coppola to return to his heyday when he was the godfather of 1970s New Hollywood. Aging into his second career as California vintner, Coppola at 70 seems satisfied to serve no wine before its time--not so unlike Orson Welles in the fallow years past his prime.

Again tapping the theme of blood brothers and twisted family ties, Coppola takes us to an Italian neighborhood in Buenos Aries, home to Tetro (Vincent Gallo), an embittered ex-writer living with his Argentine girlfriend, Miranda (Maribel Verdu). Resolved to reinvent himself, Tetro has “divorced” from his family--and that includes his young brother Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), a cruise-ship waiter who lands one day at his door, naively hoping for a happy reunion.

At the dark heart of the film are secrets and lies, made even more dire by cinematographer’s Mihai Malaimare’s obsidian night scenes that make forties film noir look like a Disney flick. As in Coppola’s Rumble Fish, saturated color flashbacks spike the narrative with reminders of Tetro’s once-promising youth.

One from the Freudian couch, Coppola’s tangled plot winds its way back to Tetro’s famed conductor father (Klaus Maria Brandauer), a suave tyrant who has no room in his life for his son’s artistic ambitions. Throw in the death of Tetro’s mother in car crash, and you have the makings of an Oedipal wreck.

Viewers familiar with Coppola’s own life will know his own father (Carmine) was a musician and conductor, but auteur autobiography only takes you so far in this jangly, self-financed symphony. Coppola often buries Tetro’s brooding melody, losing himself in a swirl of cinematic flourishes that pay tribute to the visual styles of such divergent directors as Fellini and Michael Powell.

Coppola conjures up the surreal at the expense of the real, for instance when Tetro, Miranda and Bennie travel to a playwriting festival at a Patagonia resort. Not just an exercise in Felliniesque baroque, the scene also serves as Coppola’s crowded stage to lob poison pens at a pompous superstar critic (Carmen Maura).

In the grand Godfather movies (excepting the dreadful III, of course), a good deal of credit for their smashing success goes to Coppola's classical storytelling techniques that allowed his extraordinary cast to shine. In his eccentric post-Godfather “personal” films, Coppola seems to want to disown his past, much like Tetro. As with numerous directors of both New and Old Hollywood, Coppola functioned best when working with the apparent limitations of genre and a tight script. Artistically--and perhaps financially--he's never recovered from the heartfelt disaster of One from the Heart.

So while Tetro may impress audiences with its visual bravura, it finally says more about Coppola’s nostalgic and anachronistic preoccupations than anything about its characters. As the famed French critic André Bazin once asked, “An auteur, yes...but of what?”