Monday, December 30, 2013

Man on Film: Star Trek Into Darkness

The caution and hesitancy I had heading into Star Trek proved to be mostly unfounded. Unfortunately, that same caution and hesitancy I had for the first one ended up having been justified on J.J. Abrams's second time around as the man at the helm of the franchise. Star Trek Into Darkness (here on Blu-ray or to rent on demand) wasn't bad, exactly, but it had some major issues, something common in J.J. Abrams's works.

Honestly, the good in retrospect seems far outweighed by the bad. The things that stick out--Karl Urban's tone-deaf turn, the comically terrible opening that was basically a scene that belonged in the bastard step-child of an Avatar/Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls broken marriage, the meandering repurposing of the Wrath of Khan plot, Chris Pine just not quite having the gravitas to pull off Kirk (regardless of your actual feelings about the original Captain)--ring a lot more loudly in my mind than the good--Alice Eve, Zoe Saldana, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Weller.

In the end, it just didn't quite work.

Man on Film: Oblivion

After the surprisingly effective and stylized Tron: Legacy, there was reason to be fairly excited for Joseph Kosinski's follow-up, Oblivion (on Blu-ray or streaming to buy). While it didn't break any ground in the dystopian post-apocalyptic sci-fi realm, it wasn't entirely disposable. Kosinski's vision of the dystopian future is fully realized--the contrast of the clean, futuristic tech-driven society against the quasi-stone age survivors plays quite well on screen.

It's been ages since I actually saw the film, but the distant memories tell me I felt like the climax was a bit underwhelming, a bit too much focus on the set and production design--which worked well on an aesthetic level--but too little on the emotional impact of the scene. Its coda worked, tying the film into a nice little bow, but it was far from a perfect film.

Man on Film: Salinger

Here is the first entry in an attempt to catch up on some of these Man on Film entries today and tomorrow. 

Salinger was a fairly engaging look at the titular recluse. Having somewhat embarrassingly written my senior paper on Catcher in the Rye (in part because I could read the book in a few hours), the author was already a pretty well-established subject for me, but the film follows him through the tumult of his life. Director Shane Salerno pieces together a relatively complete picture of his life, though most of the content was more or less public record. 

It may not have broken ground on the J.D. Salinger front, and the praise for the author may have been so glowing as to be comically hyperbolic, but Salinger was relatively entertaining.

It's on Netflix now.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Reading Rainbow: Lionel Asbo: State of England by Martin Amis

Having read Money: A Suicide Note and Time's Arrow: or The Nature of Offence previously and having been entirely enamored with the latter while not getting what all the hubbub about the former was about, I went into Martin Amis's latest novel Lionel Asbo: State of England in the hopes that it would strike a chord much more similar to the one that Time's Arrow struck. While Lionel Asbo was a mostly entertaining read, it wasn't the propulsive work of genius that Time's Arrow was, which I suppose shouldn't be the expectation for any book and is an unfair standard by which to judge Lionel Asbo (buy it here) against but is nonetheless what I found myself thinking when all was said and done.

Judged on its own merits, without prejudice from having read other Amis novels, Lionel Asbo: State of England is an enjoyable comic novel set on the wrong side of the British tracks following Desmond Pepperdine, a mixed race orphan being raised by his miscreant thug of an uncle who has chosen to take on the last name of Asbo, derived from the abbreviation for an Anti-Social Behaviour Order--a civil order handed down to a person shown to act out in anti-social ways. For all of Desmond's strong suits, Lionel stands at the opposite end of the spectrum, allowing for Amis to get laughs, and in some cases ratchet up the tension, using the sharp contrast between the pair to that end. For the most part, this works. There are, however, moments where the character of Lionel stops being interesting and is just irritating, and this is where the novel loses a bit of its luster.

Is Lionel Asbo: State of England Amis's best work? That's a decisive 'no,' but not every book can be Time's Arrow.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Man on Film: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

There is no denying that the second installment in The Hunger Games series looks better than its predecessor; the fact that second film's budget was nearly twice that of the first is apparent from Catching Fire's onset. When you add the change in directors from Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) to someone with a résumé that would at least suggest more comfortability in the genre, Francis Lawrence (Constantine--which, for all its flaws, looked good--and I Am Legend), the fact that the film looked better should come as little surprise to anyone. When grouped with the facts that Josh Hutcherson steps up his game (his performance in the first installment was more than a little lacking) and Wes Bentley is traded out for Philip Seymour Hoffman, and that Jennifer Lawrence, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, and Elizabeth Banks are as good as they were in The Hunger Games, it is not difficult to see how the product on the screen is going to be better than the one trotted out a year ago.

Unfortunately for the film Catching Fire, the source material is lacking in that it is basically just a bridge to the revolution. While one could certainly attempt to draw comparisons between The Empire Strikes Back and Catching Fire, the real reason that Empire was the best of the original Star Wars trilogy was that George Lucas's involvement was more limited than in the other two films. Where Catching Fire was darker (similarly) than the first film, the limitations of the original story hurt the film as a moviegoing experience. The primary shortcoming of Catching Fire is that with a few exceptions the viewer is taken along on Katniss's journey. This obviously makes sense for the most part. Unfortunately, nearly all of the action takes place outside of Katniss's purview, meaning nearly all of the deaths, large- and small-scale, happen off-screen. In other words because of the nature of the narrative, the bulk of the action happens out of frame. This. Is. A. Major. Problem.

When you combine that with a major anticlimax, you've got a film that just doesn't quite work. As a chapter in a longer series, perhaps one can move past the shortcomings inherent in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire; but when isolating the film on its own merits, it falls significantly short of where it could have gone.

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