Star Trek Into Darkness review

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Spock and Captain Kirk interrogate Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness

Almost fifty years after Gene Roddenberry conceived the original television series, the American institution of Star Trek thrives. Paramount Pictures pumped an astronomical $190 million into the newest film, Star Trek Into Darkness. In an era when dull action movies dominate the box office, it’s nice to see a studio take care of a franchise that celebrates science, exploration and the unity of humankind.

Unfortunately, those values must have gotten lost somewhere in the giant bales of money. Into Darkness is so crowded with laser fights and space crashes that there’s little room for the things that make Star Trek worth preserving. The director, J.J. Abrams, has turned a franchise about ideas into one about glossy special effects and explosive action scenes.

The plot is hardly worth explaining, serving only as an empty bookshelf to stack special effects sequences on. A villain from the old series, the genetically enhanced Khan, is terrorizing Starfleet in an effort to free his fellow supermen, who have been cryogenically frozen for centuries. After he escapes to enemy territory, the crew of the Enterprise sets out to capture him, tiptoeing to avoid starting a war with the bellicose Klingons.

Into Darkness is, at least, a well-made action film. The space chases and fistfights are riveting, seamed together with a witty script, flawless special effects and Abrams’ good sense of pacing. The cast is successful at channeling the personalities of Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), Bones (Karl Urban) and Scotty (Simon Pegg). Benedict Cumberbatch plays Khan as an icy villain, with an arrogant stare and a disturbingly precise British accent — much different from the hotheaded performance by Ricardo Montalban in the original series.

Abrams succeeded in making a funny, exciting action flick, but he ignored the opportunities available in the rich Star Trek universe. Many scenes are set in 23rd-century London and San Francisco, a bonanza for Trek fans who hunger for depictions of post-warp drive human society. Yet all Abrams offers are the typical backgrounds of glass and steel scrapers seen in dozens of movies about the future. He could have delved farther into the relationships between the humans and the Klingons, but all that’s exchanged between them are laser beams. Instead of exploring the friendships among the Enterprise crew, he only tosses in a few token catch phrases.

The worst crime occurs near the end, when Abrams plagiarizes a touching scene from Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan almost in its entirety. Was this supposed to be a remake? There are enough differences for it to avoid that epithet, but it has hardly more originality than if it were one.

Spring Break in The Big Easy

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Oversize beads hanging from a tree in a sculpture garden in New Orleans.

On a windy Monday afternoon, my friends and I slipped into the Spotted Cat bar on Frenchman Street in New Orleans. We ordered a round of Abita beers and listened to Sarah McCoy’s Oopsie Daisies, a 1940s-style blues lounge band. Sitting on stools in the middle of the bar, we shared a cigar while watching the lead singer in a red dress croon love ballads.

Only in New Orleans could you stumble on such a great band on a Monday afternoon. The town is saturated with great musicians. With the older ones, you get the sense they’ve been playing in New Orleans for decades and long ago passed the line of virtuoso into whatever comes after. You feel that the young ones came because they love music and know there’s no city where they’ll be more appreciated.

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Sarah Mccoy’s Oopsie Daisies perform in the Spotted Cat on Frenchman Street.

You don’t have to worry about whether they’re good or not. New Orleans doesn’t tolerate bad musicians. Even the street musicians are high caliber and play with passion. We saw great jazz bands, blues bands, funk bands, rock banks, and the wonderful Treme brass band, which pulled my friend Liz on stage during their last number after she distinguished herself in the crowd with her dancing.

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The Treme band.

I’ve heard New Orleans called the most unique city in America. Although I’ve been taught to be skeptical of the word “unique,” I think the title is deserved. The city’s past as part of the French and Spanish empires has left it with a perceptibly non-American cultural strain. In most of the United States, houses are decorated modestly, but not there. They paint their houses as if they’re competing to have the most colorful one on the block. They put rococo frills wherever they can, especially on their metal balconies. Even weeks after Mardis Gras, it’s not uncommon to see a tree whose branches are so dense with hanging beads that it looks like it came from the candy paradise scene in Willy Wonka.

New Orleans also stands out among American cities by allowing open containers of alcohol on the streets at any time of the day, which people take great advantage of in certain quarters.

That’s not to say the city isn’t American. The most prominent culture in the city, probably, is African-American. There’s been controversy over the city’s shift toward a whiter population since Hurricane Katrina led to the evacuation of black neighborhoods, but it’s still 60 percent black. The black community has established the blues and jazz core of the local music and seem to make up most of the musicians.

The iconic New Orleans sandwich, the po’ boy, also originated with the community. I wouldn’t recommend eating a po’ boy every day if you plan to live past 40, but they’re delicious in a greasy way, and they do a great job of preparing your stomach for a night of beers.

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New Orleans also has a distinctively southern character. While eating New York-style sandwiches in Stein’s Deli, a place we became addicted to during our stay, we started talking to a pair of older ladies who seemed to come from the southern gentry. The more talkative of them proudly told us that the other lived in the house Jefferson Davis died in (her friend nodded proudly). We confirmed this afterward.

The talkative southern lady insisted on giving each of us hugs after our conversation, even though the four members of our group ran the spectrum from loving hugs to reserving them for weddings, graduations and funerals. This was one of countless examples of extraordinary friendliness we encountered in New Orleans. The night we arrived, a group of twenty-somethings devoted nearly a half hour of their night to giving us advice on where to go. It’s not uncommon while walking down the street for passersby to give you an earnest “good times!”

The supreme act of friendliness was our encounter with Wendell Pierce, the New Orleans native who played Bunk on The Wire and Antoine Batiste on Treme. We read in the Times-Picayune that he would be opening a grocery store on the outskirts of the city in an effort to eliminate a food desert, so we stopped by on our way to see the beautiful marshland at the Jean Lafitte National Park.

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The alligator-infested marshland in Jean Lafitte National Park.

We were bashful about approaching Pierce, who was busy talking to neighborhood folks in the crowded supermarket. We almost left, but then we saw Pierce suddenly standing alone. He shook all our hands (we agreed that his handshake was really soft, but not in a bad way), and asked where we were from. He was happy to hear we were from Mizzou, and asked some sports-related questions I didn’t understand.

Later, we worried that he thought we were in town as part of a charity effort instead of being on vacation. Still, I’ll always remember his generosity in opening the grocery store and taking the time to ask questions of four strangers on that busy day.

I only spent a week in New Orleans, but I think I’ll carry a little bit of it with me for a while. It makes you want to be more passionate about music and to take more out of life, in a friendly way.

Review: Lincoln

Lincoln and his cabinet.

Lincoln and his cabinet.

In a scene in the middle of Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, a Radical Republican congressman, chides Abraham Lincoln for waiting so long to make an attempt to end slavery.

Lincoln responds that if he had tried to end slavery after the war began in 1861, the border states would have joined the Confederacy, leading to the Union’s defeat and making the chances of emancipation even more remote. Stevens sits there with a defensive expression on his face, unable to offer a rebuttal.

Abraham Lincoln’s character – his blend of compassion and pragmatism – is the focus of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, as its title makes clear. Most Civil War epics focus on the great battles between the Union and Confederate armies, but Lincoln concentrates on the role the 16th president played in the great legislative battle over the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery.

Those who pay $9 to see artillery fire and bayonet charges will be disappointed by the film. The few battle scenes are short and brutal, serving only to remind viewers of one of the many pressures weighing on Lincoln’s mind as he decided the best way to end the war.

The ongoing carnage has led the Democrats and the conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives to oppose passage of the 13th amendment out of the fear it will ruin peace negotiations. They pester Lincoln for even bringing up emancipation, while the Radical Republicans pester him for not pressing emancipation hard enough.

In his portrayal of Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis plays a man aware that his role in history is to herd his hard-headed colleagues toward emancipation and peace. He does this mostly through slippery legislative techniques we would associate more with LBJ: patronage, cajoling, and even a little bit of dishonesty. Moralizing is used only as a last resort.

Two of Lincoln’s great speeches, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, make it into the film, but they seem only rhetorical flourishes for Lincoln’s legislative masterwork. Unseemly political tactics are an essential part of Republican government, in any year; during the Civil War our country was lucky to have a brilliant president who used them to achieve great things.

I could think of no historical character more deserving of a portrayal by Daniel Day-Lewis, with his well-known thoroughness, than the complicated, monumental Lincoln. Ironically, the British actor brings America’s most revered historical figure to life. Instead of the booming voice most Lincoln impersonators use, he employs a more realistic reedy twang. He demonstrates Lincoln’s penchant for funny anecdotes well enough to get my theater laughing a couple times. With saggy eyelids, a slight hunch and a sad smile, he communicates the weariness and the spiritual burdens Lincoln acquired after four years of a wartime presidency.

He also gives him flaws. In scenes of discord with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), and his son, Robert Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he shows Lincoln as a man prone to indecision and anger, like the rest of us. Underneath it all, though, is the wisdom and strength of character that made Lincoln such an icon.

A great cast joins Day-Lewis in creating real people out of the historical figures known only through stodgy old photographs and dry academic writing. Sally Field plays Mary Lincoln as a woman so anxious, in large part due to the death of her son Tad shortly before the beginning of the film, that I both felt sorry for her and wanted to avoid her. Gordon-Levitt’s Robert Lincoln is a frustrated young man imprisoned at Harvard by his mother’s worries while he would rather be proving himself on the battlefield.

Thanks to the full-fledged performances and the attention to detail in the sets, costumes, accents and 19th-century lingo, the movie creates such a convincing image of 1865 that it felt like a precious window into the past. The United States of 1865 is a character itself, tired of war and uncomfortable with the great changes it is undergoing. The new capitol building is so blindingly white that it seems both inspiring and awkward amongst the dingy buildings and muddy streets of Washington, D.C. The telegraphs that bring news of the results of battles and their casualties seem to strike the characters as exciting and frightening, and the same could be said of the freed blacks who have just begun serving in the army.

At the end of the movie, when I stepped out of the theater into the parking lot, I felt like I had returned from a trip to the past. I was conscious of the fact that I and my surroundings were products of the historical currents portrayed in the movie. Some characters in the movie, including Lincoln, ask what America should be like after the war ends, how it can heal the scars of slavery. Stepping back into modern-day America, I had an opportunity to examine the way the United States chose to proceed from their eyes.

Review: Flight

Denzel Washington in Flight.

Most of Flight is slow-paced character development, but it contains a few scenes that make your heart thump. In one of them, Denzel Washington’s character, Captain Whip Whitaker, tries to pull his passenger jet out of a nosedive while the passengers scream in terror. In another, the same character, an alcoholic, discovers a mini-fridge full of liquor bottles in a hotel room and struggles with the temptation to break the week of sobriety he has achieved so painstakingly.

Both scenes made me lean forward in my seat, but I found the second more agonizing than the first. Although more than a hundred lives would have been lost if the plane had crashed, Whitaker’s soul was at stake while he stared at the glowing liquor bottles, and I felt invested in the condition of his soul.

It’s a credit to the talents of Washington and the director, Robert Zemeckis, that I cared so much about what choice the character would make. The movie they made together is rare in Hollywood these days – an intimate, realistic examination of a life.

Whitaker lands the malfunctioning plane with minimal loss of life by employing strange maneuvers that make his co-pilot scream in confusion, as well as terror. The scenes that precede and follow the flight explain how he could think clearly while the plane plummeted so fast that the altimeter was a blur. Before the flight, he snorts lines of coke, takes a puff of a joint and empties a few beers in his hotel room before strutting down the tarmac in his snazzy uniform. While addressing the passengers, he mixes a few mini-bottles of vodka with orange juice out of their view. It’s not that being drunk or high helped him control the plane. He’s just used to staying calm in the midst of horrible turbulence, thanks to his drug addictions. It’s a thrill for him.

After waking up in the hospital with a mild concussion, Whitaker decides to become clean. His drug dealer, played by John Goodman with his characteristic obscene energy, offers him various substances from his woven handbag, but he turns them down. He holes up at his family farm, where he collects liquor bottles from his hiding places and empties them down the sink. While he does this, we see clues that he comes from a proud line of pilots and that his addictions have shoved his wife and teenage son out of his life.

At first, Whitaker is a hero, but before long word gets out that blood tests taken at the hospital showed he was drunk and high, meaning he could be charged with manslaughter and spend the rest of his life in prison. Ironically, this revelation sends him back to the bottle.

Meanwhile, his union representative and a lawyer from the airline (Don Cheadle) ask him to play along in their strategy to obliterate the toxicology report and blame the empty mini-bottles found on the plane on a flight attendant who died in the crash. Whitaker has to make a decision: will he stop lying to himself and others about his alcoholism, or will he tell the truth and face the consequences?

Apart from the crash scene, most of the movie takes place in mundane settings such as a hospital, Whitaker’s ancestral farm and corporate meeting rooms, but Washington’s performance takes the movie to the extreme lows and highs of human experience – especially the lows. The movie is so devoted to the character of Whitaker that it wouldn’t work if the Washington didn’t manage to make him so realistic and nuanced, as well as hinting at an underlying decency that makes us root for him.

The ancestral farm that Whitaker exiles himself onto may be mundane, but Washington’s performance makes it powerful through the contrast of its pride and simplicity – the rotary phone, the black and white family photos on the walls, the old Cessna plane in the garage – with his decadent behavior.

Zemeckis also deserves credit for the quality of the movie. This is the first live action film he’s made since Cast Away, which was similar in the way it focused on one character developing in response to trial and isolation. Most of his direction is straightforward and concise, like a well-written novel that lets its fascinating characters keep the pages turning. A few times, though, he uses flourishes that become even more powerful in contrast to the conservative shots around them, such as a zoom and shake of the camera when Whitaker snorts a line of coke before the flight, or a long close-up of a mini-bottle of liquor that Whitaker might or might not take. The emphases these shots place show what Zemeckis thinks is important in the film: the moral choices Whitaker makes.

Flight‘s budget of $31 million was anemic by Hollywood standards. According to the film’s Wikipedia page, Zemeckis and Washington took large pay cuts in order to make the film. They must have really believed in the project to make that sacrifice. Judging by what ended up on the screen, they were wise to have faith in the material, but their devotion itself is what pushed the film into the upper stratosphere of quality.

Review: Cloud Atlas

The enslaved fast-food worker Son-Mi struggles for freedom in 22nd-century Korea.

I would be hard pressed to think of a book more difficult to turn into a movie than David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

Mitchell’s book follows six plots from six eras of history. The stories are about, in chronological order, a man working on a slaveboat in the 19th century who has a crisis of conscience, an aspiring composer from the 1930s who must hide his homosexuality, a reporter in 1970s California who uncovers a deadly plot involving a nuclear power plant, an English man from the present day kept prisoner in a nursing home, a cloned fast-food slave from 22nd-century Korea who attempts an escape, and a man in post-apocalyptic Hawaii trying to protect his village from a predatory tribe. The plots are loosely connected by hints that some characters are reincarnations of the same soul.

As if turning that into a film weren’t hard enough, the book has a pita-sandwich structure, with the earliest story beginning and ending the book, the second coming second and second-to-last, etc. Only the chronologically-last story is unbroken in the middle, with the others cutting off abruptly, sometimes in the middle of a sentence.

When I saw the film version of Cloud Atlas over the weekend, I was amazed that the Wachowskis managed to turn the book not only into a coherent film, but an entertaining, thoughtful one. This took some serious story-telling skills and imagination (they are, after all, the directors of The Matrix), but also a talented cast and great stories to work from.

The movie abandons the pita-sandwich structure of the book. I imagine this was a difficult decision for the filmmakers, but the right one. They would be asking a lot of the audience to wait three hours (the movie clocks in at 2 hours and 50 minutes) to see the conclusion of the story that began the film. Instead, the directors and editors spliced together the six stories in parallel, matching their expositions, climaxes and denouements. In a feat that surely drew a lot of sweat from the screenwriters, editors and directors, they made this work. Although the pacing lags a bit near the end, they put the stories together in a way that makes their common themes clear and keeps the viewer hooked.

As in the case of all their work, the Wachowskis use their imaginative prowess to take the film to a higher level than the average Hollywood thriller, especially in their depiction of the 22nd-century Korea in which a “corpocratic” government rules over a mass of depraved consumers. A clone named Sonmi who is enslaved in a McDonald’s-style restaurant goes on the lam after glimpsing an inspiring movie clip on a customer’s phone. While reading the book, I savored every detail of this fascinating dystopia, and I felt the same way during the movie. The Wachowskis use special effects to create a brilliant vision of a brutal future that made me wish I could pause the movie to get a better look at Neo Seoul. The setting rivaled the Los Angeles of Blade Runner and the vast human-farms of the original Matrix in its horrible wonder.

Another ingredient of the glue that holds these plotlines together is the cast. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon play different characters in each of the stories, helping the viewer understand their cosmic connections. I especially enjoyed watching Tom Hanks show a versatility I didn’t know he had. I’ve always thought he had a knack at giving movies a moral center with down-to-earth roles, but here he pulls off a wild range of personalities – an evil doctor on a slave boat, a slimy hotel clerk, a conscientious nuclear scientist, a cockney tough-guy, and a schizophrenic tribal leader who speaks a pidgin future American English.

The Wachowskis were also successful in translating the themes of the book to the screen, if in a more digestible form. Each of the six stories follows characters who make the difficult choice to go against the grain of their historical setting to do what’s right. Obviously, the goodwill of the characters doesn’t keep society from going bonkers – that’s evident even from the trailer or the description on the back of the book. The message of the movie and the book is that even futile acts of charity are worthwhile because they elevate the human soul to an ether above worldly matters. Watching these stories, I felt the same revolutionary thrill as when Neo kills the agents at the end of The Matrix.

I was motivated to write this review by the lukewarm reception the movie has received elsewhere. I was bewildered by this, because Cloud Atlas got an emphatic check mark next to every entry on my list of what a movie should be. It was fun, it featured interesting characters, it transported me to different worlds, and it gave me something to think about after I left the theater.

David Brooks, “The Real Romney”

David Brooks is the only New York Times columnist I always make a point of reading, even though his politics don’t accord with mine. I like his insight and the way he strives for moderation. I like how he seeks out unusual topics for his columns when every other columnist lazily picks partisan themes.

Last week, he wrote a column in which he declared his support for Romney/Ryan because he thinks they will do something to halt the growth of Medicare. Yet, in the same column, he criticizes them for being unwilling to raise taxes. In his next column, he criticized Ryan for not voting for the Simpson/Bowles deficit-reduction plan. This sort of independent-mindedness and appreciation for nuance is the most important quality of a columnist.

Brooks doesn’t usually tickle my funny bone – the tone of his columns is usually as serious as he looks in his picture – but he did with today’s column, which made me laugh out loud more than once. It is top-notch political satire worthy of The Onion or MAD Magazine in its prime, poking fun at the way both parties distort a candidate’s history to inflame their bases.

Brooks has changed his tone radically for this column. Instead of reasoning about politics, he’s lampooning it. But he’s kept his independent perspective.

Hangin’ in the Treme

Albert "Big Chief" Lambreaux in Treme

When I was sick with a cold last week, I spent almost three entire days watching seasons 3 and 4 of The Wire, one episode after another. It was so enjoyable that I almost regretted getting better. I’m not sure which I would prefer: to have a stuffy nose and a scratchy throat while observing McNulty, Freamon and Daniels struggling against a miasma of crime and byzantine government institutions, or to be well and step out into the dull real world.

After my personal Wire marathon, I realized that I had seen every season of the show, some of them twice. Yet, I was addicted to the writers’ point of view of America. The solution was for me to give Treme a shot, since it was created by David Simon, the creator of The Wire, and shares much of The Wire‘s writers and cast.

I’d been reluctant to check out Treme because it has a reputation for being boring. When HBO approved a second season for the show, I remember seeing comments on the internet to the effect of, “maybe something will happen this season.”

I suspect that the people who claim that nothing happens in Treme only liked The Wire for its gunfight scenes. There isn’t much of that in Treme (only one scene that I can remember featured gunshots), but the same elements that made The Wire a brilliant show are there: compelling characters and a realistic, informative portrayal of American life.

One of the many themes Treme shares with The Wire is the inefficacy of America’s government. Both shows believe that America’s true character is in its people, not in the actions of its government, which is depicted as a distant, blunt force controlled clumsily by selfish hands. See, for example, the plotline in season 3 of The Wire in which Major Colvin establishes a drug-tolerance-zone (“Hamsterdam”) that works wonders for the community but that the police commissioners shut down because it makes them look bad.

Treme concentrates on the way the federal government bungled its response to Katrina. One of the show’s main characters, Albert “Big Chief” Labreaux (played by Clarke Peters, Lester Freamon in The Wire), occupies a housing project that was shut down despite the fact that it wasn’t damaged much in the storm. It’s implied that the “fucking fucks” in the federal and local government (as they are called by John Goodman’s character, a Tulane professor), aren’t eager to see New Orleans’ poor, black population return.

Another character, LaDonna Batiste-Williams, spends most of the season trying to figure out what happened to her brother, who was mistakenly jailed hours before the storm and was then lost in the system. With the help of an attorney working pro bono, she circumvents the defense mechanisms of the local government to discover that her brother died from head wounds that he supposedly got from a fall from a bunkbed. She finds his corpse stored in the back of a refrigerated semi-truck, next to dozens of other unidentified bodies.

One of the shows most powerful subplots, I thought, involved LaDonna’s ex-husband Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce, who played Bunk in The Wire), a trombonist who’s always desperate for a gig. After Antoine accidentally bumps his trombone into the side of a police car, the police arrest him. His instrument and his livelihood disappear. He is rescued by a Japanese man who loves New Orleans’ music so much that he flew in after the storm to help struggling musicians. When the man buys him a shiny new trombone, Antoine looks sort of sad and confused, and that’s the way I felt too. Why must a foreigner step in to protect New Orleans’ culture from the local government?

The characters in Treme come from different ethnic and class backgrounds, but they have one thing in common: a passion for New Orleans’ culture. In the first scene of the first episode, John Goodman’s character, Creighton Bernette, throws a British journalist’s microphone into the Gulf after the journalist suggests that New Orleans isn’t worth saving because its music and cuisine are over the hill. In addition to occupying the housing projects, “Big Chief” Lambreaux does all he can to bring his Indian tribe back to New Orleans to perform their traditional dances in feathery costumes.

At first I didn’t like Steve Zahn’s character, Davis McAlary, a goatee’d, overenthusiastic white guy who has disavowed his old-money family in order to embrace New Orleans’ traditional music and squalor. By the end of the season, however, I felt the same way about him that many of the other characters seem to: his passion made him worth having around. In the last episode, he tries to persuade his friend not to flee to New York by spending a day showing her the cream of New Orleans’ culture. His friend, a creole chef, is forced to move after her business fails due to damages done to her restaurant by Katrina.

Treme’s big message is that New Orleans is worth saving, and that it would save itself even without the support of its country. It seems ridiculous that a show would need to argue for saving a city with hundreds of years of history and culture behind it, not to mention millions of inhabitants, but the belief that New Orleans should be abandoned because of its unfortunate geographic position is disturbingly common. I’ve heard it not only from the media but from people I’ve met in real life. The fact that the wealthiest nation in the world has to even consider whether it wants to spend the money to save one of its oldest cities shows a big flaw in America’s culture.