Thursday, May 30, 2013

Frances Ha

          Ha?  Say Wha'?
     
                         Review by Ken Burke          Frances Ha

A marvelously quirky story, told in retro black and white, about an aspiring dancer, her usually-devoted roommate, and her life which just never seems to achieve lift-off.

Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.]

In the midst of the medley on what was the flip-side (that concept doesn’t mean much when you discuss CDs) of The Beatles’ 1969 Abbey Road album there’s a quick tune called “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” with the following lyrics:

“She said she’d always        been a dancer
She worked at 15 clubs a      day
And though she thought I      knew the answer
Well I knew what I could        not say…”  
(take a listen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3cxkYu4NyA to the song
or the entire 16:31 medley is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pM3PVzDUCY 
or the entire 47:33 album is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8y5kdiv0oY

 This could easily describe the life and “reflective attitudes” (to which we might say “Ha! Ha!” in that cruelly-condescending Stanley Kowalski tone if we were awful enough to be mean to one of the most charming characters you’ll ever meet on screen) of the protagonist of Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, Frances (Greta Gerwig, co-screenwriter with Baumbach)—we’ll get more clarity on the full title of the film as we go along here.  Frances is a struggling dancer, apprenticing with a Manhattan company but barely able to afford the rent on her Brooklyn apartment which she shares with her eternal BFF from her somewhat-recently-completed college days, Sophie (Mickey Sumner—Sting’s daughter, although that has nothing beyond trivia value to do with her role here).  Frances is lovable, determined, passionately devoted to her assumed-life-partner-in-all-things-except-romantic-love, Sophie (“We’re like a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore,” Frances opines about their relationship), and not getting very far very fast with her career or personal life (“Un-dateable,” friend Benji [Michael Zegen] constantly “reassures” her).  To say that this film is charming is to say that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is melodic or that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescos are colorful (which they are; if you’ve never seen the real thing or reproductions since the 1980-1994 restoration project, take a look at http://www.wga.hu/tours/sistina/index1. html)Frances Ha is mesmerizing in its charm, with a title character who’s so unique, so marvelously flawed, so determined to find some lemonade in the orchard of lemons that life seems to offer her that you feel you could comfortably spend a full 6-episode-Star-Wars-marathon-length-day in the theatre with her and not feel she’s overstayed her welcome (because, even as individual as she is, she’ll never pull a Jar Jar Binks moment on you), although the film’s actual running time of a mere 86 min. makes for a delightfully quick encounter of the best kind (that’s not what I had in mind, you pervert) where we get a pleasant dose of Frances, rather than an overdose.

When we first meet Frances (after a brief opening montage of scenes of her and Sophie) she’s in the process of what will become the breakup with her boyfriend, Dan (Michael Esper), when his suggestion that they move in together deteriorates into a clumsy refusal on her part because she doesn’t want to leave Sophie stuck with the lease and the need to find a new roommate (a constant problem for those who live in larger cities where specific-length leases are the norm rather than the month-by-month apartment arrangements that allow a lot more flexibility of lifestyle change; keep that in mind when you go off to metropolitan meccas to find your fortune but then get sidetracked because you find other opportunities instead—unfortunately, life and love don’t often run parallel, a situation that Frances could choreograph a dance to).  Ironically, Sophie then pushes the boundaries of their “eternal” connection by making the same decision herself, so as to snag a spot in her long-dreamed-of Tribeca (“Triangle below Canal Street” neighborhood in lower Manhattan, in case you need to know that) location, leaving Frances to her own devices until an opening comes at the place in Chinatown shared by Benji and Lev (Adam Driver).  While this arrangement keeps Frances off of the streets it proves a bit frustrating as both Benji and Frances remain “un-dateable” while Lev keeps them awake from the noise of his sexual conquests with a constant stream of changing partners.  That’s a mere discomfort, though, compared to the reality that Frances needs extra work through her dance company (she teaches classes to kids) in order to even pay her rent, but when that fails to materialize she’s seeing her future get desperate, even at the ripe young age of 27.  (Don’t ever get me started on how nice it would be to magically flow back to that time—well, for me, not to that actual year of 1974 [at least my mortal enemy, President Richard Nixon, resigned then, but there’s not much else from that era of disco and divorce; again, I refer to me on the divorce front, although the better second marriage with the dazzling Nina Kindblad would finally arrive after a mere 12-year wait]—more precisely, just to be that age again, if I could keep my present relationship, savings, and life-experience learned the usual hard way rather than just be the horny, almost broke, naïve grad student I was in 1974, but, as countless fantasy tales of such Dorian Gray-related adventures have shown, it wouldn’t work out well anyway so I’ll just have to remember what it feels like for Frances to think that your life has already foundered even before you’ve begun to approach the first years of middle-age, discomforting as the 30 mark is even when your professional and financial situations may seem stable.)

Poor Frances just keeps hitting the rocks, no matter what she tries to do in a more positive vein throughout the film.  Her attempted celebratory dinner with Lev (far right in this photo, Benji in the middle) after receiving a much-needed tax refund (In the shape she’s in she had to pay to begin with?  She must have listed her address as the Tea Party Arms.) goes awry when her credit card is declined so she has to hunt all over the area to finally find an ATM machine while he waits somewhat-patiently back at the restaurant; despite her hopes for holiday-season work in a Christmas dance revue she gets none so she heads back to Sacramento for the holidays where she squabbles with her parents and family friends; after she returns to NYC to live temporarily with a member of her dance company, in an attempt to show her acquaintances that she still has up-and-coming cachet, she makes charges she can’t afford to pay on a new credit card to spend a weekend in Paris only to sleep through much of her limited time and fail to make contact with an old college friend there until she’s on her way to the airport’s departure terminal; finally she ends up back at her old college (not specified; maybe Vassar, maybe not) up the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, NY where she takes a menial job as a dorm Resident Assistant (not that she’s the most available or comforting voice when a student needs her emotional support but she does make an effort), which also includes being a wine pourer at swanky institutional events.  There she meets up again with Sophie who had moved away to Tokyo with off-again-on-again flame Patch (Patrick Heusinger) but was back (with him) at the alma mater for a high-roller auction; Sophie admits that she’s tired of Japan, doesn’t want to get engaged to Patch, and desperately misses Frances, all of which seems to inspire our beleaguered protagonist to get back to NYC, force herself to choreograph a modern dance number that will be performed to public acceptance by her old troupe, find herself stable enough to rent her own apartment, and seemingly begin a nice, long-overdue romance with Benji (Sophie and Patch seem to be there in support as well—at least I think it was him that we see quickly in a short shot—but this film is intentionally limited on clear explication of much of anything, preferring instead to offer what Paul Simon cleverly called “incidents and accidents” [from “You Can Call Me Al” on his magnificent 1986 Graceland album (which also played into the ongoing success of marriage with Nina, but that’s a long story best saved for another time]; take a listen if you like at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0gUpzFPxk4, a brilliant music video where Simon does little except instrumental backup while Chevy Chase perfectly lip-syncs the lyrics in a seeming single shot throughout the song, one of the most simple-yet-effective-performances of this type that I’ve ever seen]).

Frances Ha has an intentional sense of 1960s French New Wave low-key spontaneity to its scenes, dialogue, and plot movements (along with the retro black and white cinematography there’s even use of soundtrack music from François Truffaut’s 1959 classic, The 400 Blows, while Frances is on her montage-ATM-odyssey) so that scenes have an unscripted quality to them, the characters are unpredictable but basically likeable, and Frances, an attractive-but-not-conventionally-beautiful-woman, dutiful-but-not-gifted-dancer, charms us with her optimism even in the face of constant personal shortcomings (she’s even perceived by many around her as not being emotionally in sync with her supposed-to-be-adult-by-now 27 chronological years).  We want her to succeed, which she seemingly does (the ending is more rushed than any of the previous quickly-changing-and-edited-scenes so that we get a good feel for her future more so than its confirmed success is explained to us); however, the allusions to the quirky style of the first of many mid-20th-century New Waves just reminds us of how conventional this purposefully-offbeat character study is when we already have such a rich heritage going back to Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960), Jules and Jim (Truffaut, 1962), etc. to draw on.  I’m not saying that Baumbach can’t conjure up his own New Wave facsimile (it was too wonderful a period in filmmaking not to pay homage to through contemporary revivals, even as Woody Allen did with Deconstructing Harry [1997]), but given the heritage that this film is intended to evoke I just can’t say that it does much more than that, despite the charming presence of Frances and Sophie especially, with their bond that can’t be duplicated (just as Frances tries to recreate the play fights that we saw between her and Sophie early on [as referenced in the second photo above] with Rachel, her later dance company roommate, but with a totally disastrous result, just as with Alvy Singer having a flat recreation of his previous lobster calamity with Annie as he’s attempting to date someone else after their breakup in Woody Allen’s 1977 masterpiece, Annie Hall [still very high on my all-time favorites list]).  So as not to overdo the Frances-Sophie connection we slowly lose their interaction, first when Sophie moves to Tribeca, then to Japan, catching Frances off-guard and with minimal contact after each move; this leaves Frances more vulnerable, more genuinely unsure of what direction to even attempt as her life stagnates, all of which is engaging to watch but none of which really takes us to a higher cinematic plateau once we’ve become accustomed to the recurring honestly of presentation being employed here.

I enjoyed Frances Ha a lot, especially the accessibility that I felt into the limited-reality-but-higher-aspirational-lives of Frances and Sophie, but once I got comfortable with the unpredictability of where this looking-for-life-in-too-many-of-the-wrong-places-still-maturing-girl-story was unfolding, I don’t feel that I got much more than what I came to understand within the first 15 minutes or so (despite the consistently effective acting and consistently-seeming-spontaneous-mood throughout) as the film progressed into just more of the same of Frances’ trials and errors.  It’s all very charming, certainly something I’d recommend over most of the high-volume, popcorn-chomping fare that’s dominating the release schedule as we roll into summer blockbuster season, but I just don’t think that Francis Ha (by the way, the title refers to her printing her name on a slip of paper to put into the mailbox slot for her new apartment; she can’t fit “Haliday” in the short space allowed so rather than rewrite it in smaller letters she just folds the paper so that her name to the world is now “Frances Ha,” keeping with her devil-may-care-attitude toward whatever challenges confront her in the big city and in her maturing years) gets enough beyond its initial attraction to rate any higher than 3 ½ stars of 5 (with the understanding that it takes the likes of The 400 Blows, Breathless, and Annie Hall to ever reach my lofty realm of 5).  I recommend the deliciously-unorthodox Frances Ha, but not as something that takes you to new cinematic heights and sustains such lofty achievements, rather as an enjoyable character study of some truly viable screen presences that you wouldn’t mind seeing again in a few years, in the manner that Richard Linklater’s Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) keep popping up every few years to update us on their evolving entanglement (with the latest episode, Before Midnight soon to be released and then reviewed here).  While you’re waiting for any of these folks to reappear, though, you might want to content yourself with my musical tribute to Frances Ha, a song seemingly (although there are all sorts of interpretations out there to ponder) about love hitting obstacles and possibly overcoming them rather than being crushed by the intrangence of past expectations, as was a once mighty ancient empire as alluded to in David Grey’s “Babylon” music video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jmK-YWSJ8Eg (a 3:28 version originally on the 1998 White Ladder album), but you might also enjoy a longer 8:22 live version at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOI4F3fGbzk preceded by some chatter on how the song came about that sounds like a scene right out of Frances Ha (and it's great to hear such a beautiful song done with just 3 acoustic guitars; further, this pairing reflects the 2000 American re-release of the album which also includes a concluding acoustic version of this mesmerizing song).  So, "Let go in your heart, let go your head" (just like Frances and Sophie) until I see you again next week.

If you’d like to know more about Frances Ha here are some suggested links:



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y08JRewL29I (32:30 interview with director/co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach, actor/co-writer Greta Gerwig, and actor Mickey Sumner from the 50th New York Film Festival)





We encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  You’ll also see our general Spoiler Alert warning that reminds you we’ll be discussing whatever plot details are needed for our comments so please be aware of this when reading any of our reviews and be aware of our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control, as well as problems we’ve encountered with the Google RSS Feed Alert when used in conjunction with iGoogle and Google Reader.

Please note that to Post a Comment you need to either have a Google account (which you can easily get at https://accounts.google.com/NewAccount if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at kenburke409@gmail.com.  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What Maisie Knew

     "Suffer little children ..."  (Matthew 19:14)
           
                Review by Ken Burke            What Maisie Knew

Based on a novel by Henry James, this is the sad tale of a child carelessly left behind as her parents’ marriage crumbles only to find happiness with her new stepparents.

[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.]

While box-office cash is flowing non-stop toward such pop-culture fare as Fast & Furious 6 (Justin Lin; just over $117 million after 1 weekend), The Hangover Part III (Todd Phillips; just past $62 million in the same span), and the animated prehistoric The Croods (Kirk De Micco, Chris Sanders; over $179 million, but, admittedly, after 10 weeks), I have the luxury of ignoring all of that sound and fury in favor of a very small film about a very small child almost lost in the whirlwind of the seemingly-more-important aspects of her parents’ lives in Scott McGehee and David Siegel‘s direction of What Maisie Knew, based on the 1897 novel by Henry James.  The setting has been changed from London to Manhattan, most of the names and all of the occupations have been adjusted as well, but the essence remains:  2 constantly-bickering people, Suzanna (Julianne Moore) and Beale (Steve Coogan), who have lost all touch with their former feelings for each other, play their little daughter, Maisie (Onata Aprile), like a ball bearing in the pinball machine of their loud, ricocheting lives with no regard for her well-being except as it serves their individual egos and warped sense of parenthood.  Sadly, even after 4 weeks in theatres, What Maisie Knew is making a fraction of the turnstile-heavyweights’ grosses (which also include Star Trek into Darkness* [J.J. Abrams; over $156 million after 2 weeks], Iron Man 3* [Shane Black; close to $373 million after 4 weeks, past the $1 billion mark worldwide], and The Great Gatsby* [Baz Luhrmann]; almost $118 million after 3 weeks], all of which I’m glad I saw as opposed to the others above which I’m glad I skipped [although the latest Fast & Furious sounds like it would be a fun thrill ride if I should suddenly be blindsided by some free time and a bargain matinee), a bit over $301,000 so far (a pittance in contemporary film-income figures, no matter how low Maisie’s unreported budget might be), which is a terrible shame that reception has been so tepid for this film (not surprising, given that it’s expanded to only 27 theatres while most of the ones noted above are playing in anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 venues) because the acting is superb throughout—especially by Aprile, whose camera presence portends great possibilities as she grows—and the tale of a child sidelined by her parents’ selfish individualism is easily as relevant today as it was over a century ago when first put to paper by James.


* Star Trek into Darkness reviewed in this blog in the May 24, 2013 posting, Iron Man in the May 11, 2013 posting, and The Great Gatsby in the May 17, 2013 posting.

Maisie’s parents are an odd pair to begin with, Suzanna as a successful-but-aging-rock-star (with the success indicated by her lavish Manhattan multi-story apartment with a recording studio on an upper floor and the aging aspect indicated by the tour she leaves on at the end of the film—the bus is nice but hardly the vehicle [or fleet of them] that implies the continuing attraction of a major star [Mick Jagger probably has one this size all to himself, if not a private jet] and the tour city list isn’t that impressive either), Beale as an art dealer, probably Susanna’s equal in income and certainly in temperament, although she’s the one who usually flies off the handle first at any comment or situation, no matter how innocent the actuality.  They aren’t married and don’t even have joint ownership of that major-league apartment (which works against Beale when Susanna throws him out, but he retaliates by upping the ante in the custody fight through marrying Maisie’s young Scottish nannie, Margo [Joanna Vanderham]; not to be outdone, Susanna retaliates by marrying Lincoln [Alexander Skarsgård], a decent young bartender from an upscale establishment in their tony neighborhood), but in an effort to satisfy their own self-important self-images they make surface efforts to put Maisie at the center of their lives, at least temporarily, but that quickly devolves to Beale flying off to Italy leaving the child with Margo (not a bad thing at first until Margo realizes how little the marriage means to her once-attentive husband and seeks her own privacy away from Maisie) or Susanna too invested in her devolving career to be available for her daughter, resulting in one night where Lincoln has to watch over the child at his bar (he realizes immediately that this is not an acceptable arrangement, but he has little option within his 10-day supervision of Maisie until he attempts to force the girl back onto distraught Margo).

None of these 4 adults (and I use the term very loosely where Maisie’s real parents are concerned) dislike nor abuse the girl (except by their varying degrees of absence in her world), but far too often she’s just an inconvenient reality within lives that weren’t intended nor ready to share with a child.  Margo has a marvelous daily connection with her when the film begins, but that’s based on a job structure that allowed Margo to go on with her own existence at the end of each day; when Maisie becomes what Margo’s entire life is supposed to be about (based on Beale’s blasé indifference) the kid becomes an occasional burden.  For the others, she really never should have been there in the first place, except to stroke the assumed relationship development of Beale and Susanna, along with the collateral reality that Lincoln acquires with his new marriage (leading to possessive jealousy from Susanna when he attempts to show interest in Maisie, further providing proof that she the WORST. MOTHER. EVER!—despite the underlying but poorly-expressed love she has for her daughter—as acted in a disgustingly-effective manner by Moore, whose general likability as a person is about all that keeps you from reaching into the screen and strangling her selfishly-childish character).  For much of the film, Maisie is the most adult of all of them, not from annoying precociousness but rather from a need for self-protection in situations that too often leave her otherwise defenseless—especially when not being retrieved at appointed times, taking solitary cab rides across town, and generally not having parents available to give her guidance on how to navigate life’s questions and mysteries.

Gradually, as stepparents Lincoln and Margo share more time in their singular-evolved-into-mutual-care of Maisie their attraction grows as does the little girl’s affection for them as a loving couple that is not only there for her needs but also that has a heart connection long lost in her biological parents (possibly they did feel that way when their affair first began, but that’s another lifetime removed from the story at hand).  When the new spouses decide upon a getaway to a beach cottage that Margo has access to, they are visited by Susanna on her bus, who assumes she’s come to retrieve Maisie and take her along on the tour south to some exotic places intended to fascinate her daughter (as best my memory serves, that included South Carolina, where infidelity seems to be no restraint on people’s careers—at least if you’re trailblazin’ Republican former Governor/current Congressman Mark Sanford—but even if I’m wrong in that specific destination [it could have been North Carolina, where Democratic former Senator/Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards gave a new meaning to infidelity by fathering a child with a campaign worker while his wife was dying of cancer, later was indicted—but not convicted—for alleged violations of campaign laws; clearly, Susanna’s going to feel at home wherever it was that her tour was headed] the reality is for Maisie that anywhere outside of NYC would be a new place for her, potentially an exciting trip to take with her now-more-maternal would-be parent).  However, while Maisie accepts the lavish gifts that Susanna brought for her she decides she’d rather stay with her stepparents than go on the road with Mama.  This provides a nice ending for what had previously been a heartbreaking story of child neglect (however unintentional, as her parents and guardians were just too wrapped up in their own lives to give the nurturance needed, as none of them were really ready yet to be parents), but it does come as a rather facile wrap-up for all of these lives—Susanna now alone trying to keep her faltering career alive, Beale back to England for awhile (with no thought of Margo accompanying him and only a passing, then rejected, consideration of taking Maisie), and the new spouses seemingly ready for their anticipated post-divorce lives together, likely graduating to adoptive parents of our young heroine.  It’s a sweet resolution for Maisie after all the trauma she’s endured, but for me it just felt too obvious and easy, even if it does follow the original book.

Ah, but there’s the rub:  It doesn’t follow the book to completion, just to the point of this supposed happy ending.  In the original narrative (no, I didn’t read it—I have a reputation to maintain, after all—but summaries abound with a little Web surfing) we follow Maisie into her early teenage years, where she sees the possibility of throwing in her lot with the newly-minted couple of Sir Claude and Miss Overmore/new Mrs. Farange (Lincoln and Margo in this cinematic adaption) but instead chooses the dull but reliable Mrs. Wix, who evolves from governess to guardian (we get a quick version of Mrs. Wix [Paddy Croft] in the film but only as an undesirable alternative to Margo, soon to depart from the current plot), as the literary Maisie determines that the love bond of her stepparents will likely deteriorate just as did that of her actual progenitors.  Thus, what Maisie knew in the book seems to be a bitter but useful life lesson about human frailty whereas the filmic Maisie only seems to know that younger, less self-absorbed parents are a better deal than what she’s been negotiating for the previous 90 or so minutes.  That could have been a much more insightful conclusion for this film, which takes a well-prepared shit sandwich and puts a little whipped cream and a cherry on top to leave us all with a more pleasant taste after what we’d had to digest from the lives of Susanna and Beale up to the finale.  The existing easy ending is what holds this film back for me from a higher rating, that after all of the carefully-explored dialogue and deterioration of a relationship and how it collapses under the weight of its self-indulgent co-conspirators we come to such a conveniently-pleasant conclusion, apparently as an attempt to salvage something uplifting about the possibilities of human warmth and caring.  Maybe I’ve just seen too many Bergman films—where satisfactory resolution was never an option—to allow me to have better appreciation for what happens here, but after such a masterful buildup in the filmic version of this story of a too-long-under-appreciated child I just felt at the end that the whole potential of the presentation got on the bus and went south with Susanna with the assumption that true love is secure back at the beach house where Maisie’s life will continue to blossom.  Maybe so, but I think that literary Realist Henry James, despite being a life-long bachelor (possibly gay, not that there’s anything wrong with that), had a better grasp on what likely awaited his novel’s central character due to the vicissitudes of human relationships.

As is often the case with my reviews, I’ll leave you with a musical allusion to what I think you’d experience in the film, with my choice this time being Jackson Browne’s “In the Shape of a Heart” (from the 1986 Lives in the Balance album) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AWIJ8RAcsHQ, a performance from the Jackson Browne: Going Home 2010 DVD.  This sad song about a failed relationship gets to what was “coming apart” between Susanna and Beale; there’s no child in Browne’s narrative to be either traumatized or rescued (depending on how you think Maisie will develop in her post-biological-parents years), but it’s just as well so that another innocent soul doesn’t have to endure the “shallows and the unseen reefs that are there from the start,” a tragedy that Susanna and Beale simply refused to acknowledge or correct, even if they ever had the ability to do so.  “I guess [they] never knew …”

If you’d like to know more about What Maisie Knew (because she probably won’t tell you on her own just yet), here are some suggested links:



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkY2v5N4beI (for once, an interview with a film’s screenwriter, Carroll Cartwright, rather than the director and one that runs 43:35 to boot)





We encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  You’ll also see our general Spoiler Alert warning that reminds you we’ll be discussing whatever plot details are needed for our comments so please be aware of this when reading any of our reviews and be aware of our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control, as well as problems we’ve encountered with the Google RSS Feed Alert when used in conjunction with iGoogle and Google Reader.

Please note that to Post a Comment you need to either have a Google account (which you can easily get at https://accounts.google.com/NewAccount if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at kenburke409@gmail.com.  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Star Trek into Darkness

     Boldly Go!

          Review by Ken Burke      Star Trek into Darkness

J.J. Abrams continues his successful reboot of the Star Trek movie franchise with an epic battle between the Enterprise crew and their deadly foe, the mighty Khan.

[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.]

Let me begin by admitting to the Trekkies (or Trekkers or whatever nomenclature those of you who are of the orthodox Trek faith would prefer) that I’ve seen only a few of the original Gene Roddenberry TV Star Trek episodes from 1966-1969 (sorry, but I was a college undergraduate in those days with little access to a TV set), even fewer of the Star Trek: The New Generation episodes from 1987-1994 (by that time I was working at my current job at Mills College, Oakland CA, with little time to watch the TV set that I did have access to), and absolutely none of the other Trek TV manifestations, although I have seen all 11 of the previous movies, from the original Robert Wise Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) to the J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot in 2009 (where he cleverly included a time-space-anomaly-shift so that everything that had previously taken place after the events of what is essentially a prequel to most everything else we’ve ever seen in the various Star Trek narratives [except for possibly those times when Federation troopers made their way back into the past—often our present, as in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home [Leonard Nimoy,1986]—is now no longer required to happen so that occurrences can be modified as Abrams and future directors might see fit as they rework the lives of Kirk, Spock, etc. [even with such life-changing new situations as the destruction of the planet Vulcan in the 2009 Trek continuity (which may demonstrate even further that Abrams is the right guy to be directing the new Disney franchise of Star Wars—disturbance in The Force with the destruction of planet Alderaan, anyone?)]), so please forgive me from the beginning if I fail to even be aware of how the current Star Trek into Darkness might reference all sorts of Trek-lore that the fully-initiated among you would easily recognize and expect for me to cite.  (I even had to do some research to realize that Ricardo Montalbán played the original version of Khan in both the first TV series and in the first sequel of the previous Trek-movie-cluster, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan [Nicholas Meyer, 1982]—oops, have I already gotten into Spoiler Alert territory here?  Well, if so, I compliment my readers for somehow having avoided all of the other Kahn revelations put forth by now in endless commentary in various media, but I was just confident that this is no longer much of a secret.  To my credit, I did understand the Tribble’s [look it up if you must, possibly starting with http://www.startrek.com/database_article/ tribble] appearance in the current movie, so maybe I’m not totally hopeless.)  However, even if I don’t note “the obvious” in my review of this latest manifestation of the Federation’s universe (or maybe it’s just our galaxy, as is the celestial limit of travel in that long ago and far away location of the Star Wars narratives—for which I again admit my limitations, having only seen the mainline films, not all of the TV series nor read all of the many sanctioned books that have probed far in the past and future of what is presented in the days of the father-and-son Skywalker clan) I've still found plenty to appreciate in this adventures of Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto), and the rest of the highly-familiar crew of the Starship Enterprise as they encounter the newest level of danger that they could hardly be able to imagine while collectively finding ways to triumph over it, even as death literally hangs in the balance.

Given that we all know by now that the villain in Star Trek into Darkness is the fiendish, almost-invincible Kahn Noonien Singh (Benedict Cumberbatch), what really needs to be explored here is how effective he is as a challenge to the Federation and the crew of the good ship Enterprise; for me, he’s marvelous in being a complete and consistent manifestation of the genetically-superior being that he was bred to be back in our present day, given that this movie begins in 2259 and he’s been in deep-freeze suspended animation for 300 years.  I must admit that it’s been a loonng time since I’ve seen Star Trek II so I can’t give an easy comparison between Cumberbatch and Montalbán (except for remembering those muscles, those muscles on Ricardo as he finds himself in battle-to-the-death-combat with Kirk and company; from what I’ve read those pecs were all his, so I guess that’s why he covered them up with such nice suits when he was hosting guests as Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island [1977-1984] and hawking Chrysler Cordoba cars with their “soft Corinthian leather” back in the mid-‘70s), although I’ll say that based on imperfect recall and just-completed viewing I’d rate them equal in terms of sinister persona, highest level of danger for our intrepid protagonists, and compelling presence as a villain who gives you every reason to believe that all hope is lost for our heroes.  Kahn is one superior specimen, so physically evolved compared to ordinary humans that when Kirk tries to punch him out after his capture about mid-way into the story he just absorbs the blows as if they were coming from a skinny teenager rather than the macho Captain of the Enterprise.  We learn as the plot unfolds that Starfleet head, Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller), thawed out Kahn in hopes that his extraordinary abilities would better allow Starfleet to upgrade its mission from galaxy explorations to military defense when the inevitable war with the Klingons comes to haunt the “love-is-all-you-need” idealists of the Federation, but Kahn and his several dozen equally-engineered colleagues wrecked havoc back in their origin days as their lofty abilities made them intolerant of those lesser than themselves (another play on the Nietzchean concept of the “superman,” which was nicely explored for its grossly-flawed philosophy in Hitchcock’s 1948 Rope, adapted from the 1929 Patrick Hamilton play inspired by the 1924 murder of a teenage boy by University of Chicago students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb), so they were frozen in an attempt to keep them from causing further homicidal disruption in our time or the Trek era.  Sure enough, after working for awhile with Admiral Marcus under the assumed identity of John Harrison, Kahn gets restless again and decides that the resuscitation of his comrades isn’t going to come about as planned so he goes renegade, destroying a secret Federation installation in London, followed by an attack on Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco (a scene right out of The Godfather: Part III [Francis Ford Coppola, 1990] with a helicopter attack on the High Command, resulting in the death of Kirk’s mentor, Admiral Christopher Pike [Bruce Greenwood]—which raises the revenge stakes for Kirk because Pike was not only instrumental in getting jumpin’ Jim into Starfleet but also kept him on active duty after this movie’s opening snafu on planet Nibiru [more on that below]), then hiding on the Klingon home planet of Kronos under the assumption that Starfleet wouldn’t dare invade such touchy territory (sort of like the Seventh Fleet just sailing into a North Korean harbor in our day) for fear of starting all-out war between the Federation and those imposing, hostile aliens.

Marcus is quite willing to begin such an altercation, however, being of the belief that such a war is inevitable so he wants to initiate a first strike, catching the enemy off-guard, thereby (in a strategy known fully only to the Admiral) sending Kirk and the Enterprise to unload 72 newly-created photon torpedoes just on Kahn (and we complain when a couple of drones are used for targeted combat purposes—sorry, I know that’s a controversial subject right now).  However, nothing’s ever as simple as it might be in this movie because Kahn learns that Marcus has secretly hidden Kahn’s fellow freeze-dried perfectos in those torpedoes in his two-birds-with-one-stone-idea of getting rid of the rest of these superior killers while wrecking havoc on the Klingon home world so as to secure an initial military advantage in what’s intended as a short-term war (any similarities to our invasion of Iraq totally coincidental, of course).  Thus, Kahn’s willing to help Kirk defeat a squad of Klingons that disrupt the attempt to simply capture Kahn rather than annihilate him (Kirk’s always spoiling for a fight, but the rest of the Enterprise crew, especially Spock, is trying to stay loyal to the original Starfleet purposes of deep-space exploration rather than becoming militarized) so that he can get onto Kirk’s ship and find a way to free his fellow frozens.  This gets quickly complicated, though, when Marcus shows up in a combat-ready starship, with the intention of killing Khan, Kirk, and the Enterprisers, then starting his personal war with the Klingons (in a maneuver as equally-not-well-thought-out as the rouge U.S attack on the Soviet Union in Dr. Strangelove [Stanley Kubrick, 1964] with results likely as disastrous as in that wicked satire where a previously-unknown Soviet Doomsday retaliation system threatens the continuance of the entire planet).  This leads to several marvelously-executed conflict scenes between Kirk and Kahn taking on Marcus, Kahn asserting his own command, the Enterprise attempting to retreat to Earth but being thwarted in that escape, a spectacular starship crash into downtown San Francisco, a great aerial battle on a small transport as Spock and Uhura finally subdue Kahn, and a last-minute rescue of the Enterprise’s jammed power system by Kirk but in the reactor core which leads to his death by radiation poisoning.  If this last bit sounds familiar to you from the original Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, it should because it’s the same situation as in that long-ago story only with the roles reversed as Spock was the one who died previously (but we get the same heartfelt hands-almost-touching-through-the-glass situation as in the previous version of this tragedy and the same assumption that a prime protagonist is no more for this enduring series—which had some plausibility back in 1982 with rumors that Leonard Nimoy was looking for a way to not get trapped into ongoing Trek sequels [although he did come back for 4 more and even directed 2 of them, The Search for Spock (1984) and The Voyage Home (1986), which explored the resurrection of his character and the restitution of all unbalanced situations that defined the expanded story arc of Star Treks II-IV]—a very disturbing plot complication given that it just wouldn’t be acceptable for this generation of Trekaphiles to go on without Kirk).  The crisis is resolved, though, with the second capture of Khan, whose enhanced blood provides a serum that revives Kirk (who’d also been put in deep freeze right after his initial stage of death so as to preserve his brain functions and organs), allowing his full recovery and the beginning of the long-delayed (at this initial stage of the Trek chronology, even as somewhat altered by the events of the 2009 Abrams movie) 5-year voyage into the unknown realms of the cosmos.

It’s a little unclear why Abrams decided to mimic the original Star Trek sequel in this manner, both with the Kahn confrontation and the hero-death-from-reactor-radiation scene (especially given that the original sequel’s Kahn story would have taken place a couple of decades later from this plot, but maybe that’s just to remind us that we shouldn’t expect any of what we think we know of the Trek timeline to stay the same, so that this event is now not only much earlier than we had previously understood it to be but also that it won’t recur again in their future because that future is now up for grabs as Abrams and his successors [he’s not likely going to be able to provide direct command over both this series and the new Star Wars episodes so we’ll just have to see who really runs the Enterprise over the next decade or so), but given how the ending of this yarn just keeps building further and further beyond what would seem to be its probable climax until you’re pleasantly exhausted from all of the complex plot action, you can’t really complain about Abrams’ motivations because he certainly makes it all work out well in the end, with a satisfactory sense of Trek morality woven properly into all of the action sequences.

One aspect of that morality comes with the enhanced presence of Uhura (Zoe Saldana) in this reboot of the Trek narrative, where she’s now in a relationship with Spock and has a much more active presence than in the earlier manifestations of the Enterprise voyages, even though she’s still cast as the Communications Officer.  Specifically, she proves herself to be a tough negotiator with the Klingons when she, Kirk, and Spock shuttle down to Kronos in their initial attempt to capture Khan, then she joins Spock in battling Kahn hand-to-hand in their final capture of this maniacal warrior after she has come to better accept the complexities of her half-Vulcan, half-human lover as a result of his opening up to her in his explanation of why he began this movie with a decision that could easily have gotten him killed with seemingly no consideration for how that loss would have been devastating for her.  Here we get into the whole concept that makes this movie more than just outer-space action, as there are a cluster of conflicts that demonstrate the difficulty of weighing ideals against pragmatics.  The Federation’s Prime Directive is that as the exploration of worlds and lifeforms far beyond those of the known planetary inhabitants is to be done from the perspective of discreet or neutral scientific inquiry:  Starfleet voyagers are not supposed to interfere in the structure or development of evolving societies, including the primitive one that the Enterprise crew has encountered on the distant planet of Nibiru.  However, not only does Kirk determine that a massive volcano is about to erupt, thereby killing the inhabitants of this planet, he also decides to send Spock down into the volcano with a device that will neutralize the catastrophe and save these beings from immanent termination.  In the process he also has to maneuver the Enterprise into a position visible to the Nibiruians so now their salvation has been engineered and they are aware of a higher civilization (reacting to the starship as if it were a god), which Kirk chalks up to the need to save Spock’s life even though it’s the result of defying several protocol imperatives.  This conflict between taking humane action (to save Spock as well as the Nibiruians) or following the directives of procedure intended to keep stability in the United Federation of Planets and adhere to the agreed-upon legal structures of a vast number of species is one that underlies the entire concept of Star Trek into Darkness as Kirk must decide whether to defy Marcus’ direct order to rain down the torpedoes on Kahn or follow another strategy in an attempt to prevent war, just as he must decide whether to join forces with Kahn in the attack on Marcus’ Starship Vengeance knowing full well that Kahn is both a prisoner and a murderer, just as he must decide whether he’s willing to risk his own life to restore functionality to the Enterprise’s engine room in a last-ditch effort to prevent the ship from crashing into Earth, likely killing most or all on board.  In all cases, Kirk makes a decision that Spock would not consider rational despite the eventual success of each action, slowly allowing Spock to better understand the human emotions involved in friendship and sacrifice, even to the point of allowing the human elements of his being to feel full rage as he pursues Kahn through the streets of San Francisco after the renegade has killed Admiral Marcus and purposely crashed the (appropriately-named) Vengeance into the city in an attempt to once again cause massive damage to Starfleet Headquarters.

What Spock explains to Uhura about his seeming disregard of her needs when he was willing to detonate the anti-volcanic device on Nibiru, despite the danger to his own life, is that he has consciously set his mind to detach itself from the fear and agony of impending death because he was so overwhelmed by such emotions when his home planet of Vulcan was destroyed in the previous movie (another aspect of that deviation from previous Trek continuity caused by the time-space warp is that it stranded the older version of Spock [Nimoy]—the one that we’ve become accustomed to from the previous TV series and the first round of the Star Trek movies—in this earlier era [for him] and presented both Spock and us with the oddity, that defies even a Vulcan’s superb reasoning, of two ages of the same person co-existing in one time period [whether this will somehow allow one last hurrah for William Shatner as the older Kirk to enter into these new stories is yet to be known]).  Yet, as this movie reaches its finale, young Spock clearly allows himself to understand the supreme sacrifice that Kirk makes for the crew of the Enterprise by entering the ship’s reactor core unprotected so as to find a fast way of correcting the faulty mechanisms and restore power just before gravity would have pulled the vessel to a horrible end; Spock is fully grieved by the noble death of his colleague whom he now better understands as a friend also, leading to his fierce attack on Kahn, even though this enhanced opponent is too strong to succumb to even the Vulcan nerve pinch so it takes further physical  support from Uhura to subdue the monster, allowing McCoy (Karl Urban) to get the needed blood sample for the rejuvenation of Kirk and for Kahn to be frozen again until such time as this emerging  storyline needs his return.  Just as McCoy provides a pivotal action at the movie’s climax, so do the other main members of the Enterprise crew find themselves with critical tasks as Abrams has to address what always is a concern for Star Trek directors:  how do you balance so many main characters into a story structure that gives all of them something useful to do when you know that much of the action must involve Kirk and Spock (and, increasingly so this time, Uhura)?  The clever solution was to allow some role shifting so that all of our primary folks got a chance to shine—Chekov (Anton Yelchin) by being temporary Chief Engineer when Scotty (Simon Pegg) refuses to share the Enterprise with the photon torpedoes, given their new, untested existence and the possible calamity they might cause in reaction with the nuclear power of the ship; Scotty by stowing away on the Vengeance, powering it down just as Marcus was set to destroy the Enterprise, then arranging for Kirk and Kahn to secretly enter that ship in order to take down Marcus the maniac; and Sulu (John Cho), who gets to be Enterprise Captain while Kirk and Kahn are on their clandestine mission, successfully surviving a tense face-off with Marcus when the two vessels come in contact, thereby demonstrating that his skills aren't limited just to navigation.

It’s this level of interpersonal care for all the characters that we’ve come to know in this long-running series (and the ongoing introduction of new ones, such as Marcus’ daughter Carol [Alice Eve], a Science Officer who rebels against Dad’s war-mongering obsessions and seems set to be a regular as the Enterprise continues its many voyages) balanced against the massive action scenes that just keep topping each other in terms of technical execution, choreography of movement, and surprise results (such as when the Vengeance is nearly destroyed because Spock accepts Kahn’s ultimatum to transport the 72 torpedoes into Marcus’ ship but tricks him by first removing Kahn’s frozen colleagues from the weaponry, then activating the torpedoes so that when they arrive they also explode) that makes Star Trek into Darkness so effective.  What I always found to be intriguing about the few Star Trek TV episodes that I’ve seen (more from the old series than The Next Generation) is how a tense dramatic situation fraught with action could be integrated with questions of ethics, conscience, and respect for unknown neighbors on distant worlds—as far as possible, allowing for retaliation if the newly-encountered turned unreasonably hostile—so that the more-typical outer-space-sci-fi plots of repelling dangerous aliens are replaced by something much more thoughtful, even in a mass-market entertainment piece (which I know was Roddenberry’s intention all along).  That’s why I liked the 1979 cinematic introduction of the Federation’s story, as it mixed a high level of tension and danger (Earth was on the verge of being destroyed, right off the bat) with a fascinating concept of machine intelligence and the desire of this evolved life form to better understand its existence (from what I understand, though, this concept didn’t prove too “wise” for a lot of die-hard Trekkies, so that when I met Robert Wise a couple of years after the debut of this cinematic “enterprise” [OK, enough with the puns] he wanted no mention of the movie at all, as if he’d never been involved with it; Nicholas Meyer was much more appreciated with his direction of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, which to me was very exciting and compelling in its intense battles between Kahn and Kirk, along with the added shock of Spock’s [temporary] death, but didn’t have much going in the way of deeper issues, except for the grief at the loss of Spock) and found this latest episode of the Trek experience to be equally satisfying.  They both work for me in a nice balance of intimacy and extravagance, demonstrating that J.J. Abrams has fully understood the public’s appreciation for both the concepts of the Trek universe and the appeal of the characters who populate it.

I still hold out great hope that Man of Steel (Zack Snyder) will be an equally successful reboot of the Superman saga, but until I find out in a few weeks I’ll say Star Trek into Darkness may well be the worthiest big-budget, high-expectation experience of the summer.  I chose not to see it in 3-D, but I hear it’s well produced for that technology and I can see from how many of the shots are designed that it’s probably quite impressive in that format.  I highly recommend seeing it on the big screen.  As always, though, until you get a chance to get out to the theatre I’d like to leave you with a musical allusion to this movie, which most appropriately should be about friends.  Now, I could go with the theme song from the famous ‘90s TV show of that name, but I guess that Ross, Rachel, and company were just too “next generation” of a different sort for me (I always preferred the slightly older, slightly stranger folks on Seinfeld, but maybe that’s just my odd sense of humor in that this sketch from “The Pitch” [season 4, episode 3] at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zb5bCDayoAw is one of the funniest bits I’ve ever seen on TV, especially when NBC exec Russell Dalrymple says “Not yet!”), but I think that this simple minor 1968 hit from The Beach Boys, “Friends,” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mm6eC2jmGwY (from the album of the same name, with video here of just innocent frolicking of the band with a lot of children) is more appropriate because it’s from the time period of the original Star Trek series and it just nonchalantly speaks to what Kirk and Spock are negotiating throughout Star Trek into Darkness, the need to be there for each other when problems are brewing all around, that discussion and explanation aren’t necessary when appropriate action is all that’s required.  Keeping that in mind as the deeper undercurrent of this frantic surface-action movie just gives it all the more resonance for me.

If you’d like to explore Star Trek into Darkness further here are some suggested links:



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-_VTnGBXd0 (my favorite suck-up interviewer Jake Hamilton [yes, he has an Emmy—for something—and I know I never will, but if his style is what it takes to win an Emmy then I’ll gladly go without] chats for 16 min. in short bursts of dialogue with actors Chris Pine, Zachery Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, and Alice Eve, director J.J. Abrams)





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P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.