Wednesday, May 13, 2009

"Star Trek" Carves Out New Frontier; "Soloist" is Really a Duet

STAR TREK

directed by J.J. Abrams
starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Eric Bana, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Winona Ryder, and, of course, Leonard Nimoy

Will the newly rebooted “Star Trek” live long and prosper? That’s hard to say after just one movie and one opening weekend, but early word of mouth and box office returns bode well for the health of the once-moribund franchise. And justifiably so – because this “Star Trek,” simply put, is a hell of a lot of fun.

This is true whether you’re a Trekkie/Trekker, an occasional “Star Trek” watcher, or a “Star Trek” avoider. Director J.J. Abrams, by his own admission, once belonged to the last category. Yet his take on the “Trek” origins story treads that delicate line between showing respect to the die-hard fans and offering something to appeal to the average Joe or Jane who might know that Spock is the pointy-eared dude, but not much more. His trick is to focus on the dynamic between the central characters while using action (and lots of it!) to help map out how that dynamic might have developed.

The result is a movie that sometimes feels a bit like a “Star Wars”-ized “Star Trek,” from its early view of young Kirk (Chris Pine) as a cocky, impetuous farm boy with a dormant heroic streak, to a later scene on an icy world that bears a surely-not-accidental resemblance to the planet Hoth from “The Empire Strikes Back.” Consistent with the new MO, the pacing is sharper than it’s been in any “Star Trek” film that I can remember (admittedly, I haven’t seen all or even most of them). The opening—in which we’re introduced to the villain, a “very troubled Romulan” named Nero (Eric Bana, without hair and with Maori-like tattoos, and still oddly hot), and the sequence of events that literally set Kirk’s life in motion—is riveting, if occasionally verging on melodrama. The film then fast-forwards seven or eight years to show Kirk and Spock as little boys, and though these parts provide a welcome breather, they also feel unnecessary and heavy-handed—especially with respect to Kirk. But if nothing else, they confirm that this “Star Trek” will be primarily about the future captain of the Enterprise and his future CO.

Which is just fine, given that the original “Star Trek” at its most basic, stripped-down level, was always the Kirk-Spock show: much of its drive came from watching how the man of action both chafed against and complemented the man (er, Vulcan) of reflection. The new movie posits that these two, in their initial encounters, were hostile and at cross-purposes—hardly a groundbreaking notion, given their contrasting temperaments. More intriguingly, however, it also suggests that the personality of the Spock we know—unruffled, unemotional, and coolly logical—was the product of conscious choice and struggle rather than pure nature, a point underlined by early scenes between young Spock (played as a young man by Zachary Quinto, aka Sylar on “Heroes”) and his Vulcan father (Ben Cross) and human mother (Winona Ryder, who appears just long enough to make me nostalgic for the ’90s). Quinto is excellent as a Spock-still-in-formation, and Pine acquits himself well with a character who’s inherently less conflicted and thus less interesting. Both have some flat lines to get past, especially in the early going, but do a good job quickly establishing their characters so that what comes out of their mouth soon ceases to sound hammy or stilted.

“Star Trek” also introduces the rest of the key crew members of the Enterprise, including McCoy (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), “Scotty” (Simon Pegg), and Chekov (Anton Yelchin). Pegg is a hoot, despite a relatively late entrance; the others, partly because they’re given considerably less back story than Kirk and Spock, are merely serviceable, though credible in their respective parts. Adding gravitas to this youthful group are Bruce Greenwood as a noble if thinly sketched surrogate father-figure to Kirk, and none other than Leonard Nimoy himself as Spock from the distant future. For yes, there is a time travel element to the movie’s plot, which, without revealing too much, seems designed to soothe long-time fans by flashing a symbolic seal of approval from one of “Star Trek”’s most iconic figures while simultaneously giving the filmmakers free rein in all future installments to reinvent the entire history of the Enterprise. It’s a bold move, and a smart one in principle, if not perfect in execution; the time travel storyline is about as logical as these things usually go, which is to say not very (though no more illogical than the time-shifting on Abrams’ “Lost”).

My sense, though, is that Trekkies who see the new movie may be less concerned by the up-ending of canonical narrative than the subtler subversion of the fundamental ethos of “Star Trek.” Despite being fairly jam-packed with “Trek” references and allusions, the movie isn’t very Trek-ish in temperament. As noted, there’s a great deal of action, some of it pretty superfluous—at least two or three set pieces could and probably should have been cut without any adverse effect—but more importantly, there’s hardly any pause for the philosophical reflection that made up so much of Gene Roddenberry’s conception of the series, except to the extent such reflection directly advances the character development of Kirk and Spock. This means fewer homilies, which is not a bad thing, but it also means less of the meditative quality that distinguished “Star Trek” from other sci-fi franchises. One of the friends I saw the movie with, much more of a Trek fan than I ever was, remarked afterwards, “It was good, but it wasn’t Star Trek.” Therein lies the rub. Here’s hoping that Abrams will be able, in future movies, to recover a little more of the spirit that made “Star Trek” unique while continuing to pump in the new life it’s so sorely needed.

GRADE: B+


Also saw:

THE SOLOIST

directed by Joe Wright
starring Robert Downey, Jr., Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener, Lisa Gay Hamilton

If you’ve seen the previews for “The Soloist,” you might be forgiven for lumping it in with a whole genre of movies that I call “music = inspiration” movies, wherein a disadvantaged protagonist overcomes great adversity through talent, determination, and sheer love of music (or dancing, in the other variant of the formula, and sometimes other art forms) and ends with a triumphant final performance in front of a rapturous audience. Well, despite all appearances, “The Soloist” is not that kind of movie. Rather, it’s a movie about the unlikely bond that forms between Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.), a columnist for the L.A. Times, and a homeless schizophrenic (Jamie Foxx) he discovers one day on the streets of Los Angeles, playing a battered violin with a purity of tone that catches Lopez's attention. The journalist learns that the musician’s name is Nathaniel Ayers, and on further investigation discovers that Nathaniel was once a Beethoven-loving cello prodigy who made it as far as Juilliard before the demons took over his mind. Intrigued, Lopez not only writes about him in his column but also tries to help get Nathaniel off the streets and closer to the music he loves—with mixed results.

“The Soloist” is based on a true story, which the real-life Lopez wrote a book about, and here is where I have to admit the intrusion of my own personal prejudices. Because I am a fan of Steve Lopez, and Mr. Downey, to put it bluntly, is no Steve Lopez. Obviously, the portrayal of a living person shouldn’t be judged primarily, if at all, by its resemblance to the original, and Downey’s take on Lopez owes as much to the script as to his own interpretation. And if the filmmakers choose to turn the laconic, agreeable, and by all accounts socially well adjusted (and happily married) Lopez into a jittery, tightly wound, divorced loner, that choice should by judged on its own terms, i.e., how well it works within the context of the film.

The thing is, it does and it doesn’t. It’s clear that the object behind the changes was to offer the beginnings of an answer to why Lopez should be so drawn to someone like Ayers, and to suggest that the “soloist” of the movie is as much Lopez as Ayers, if not more so. And Downey’s too gifted and conscientious an actor not to put his usual conviction into that interpretation – frankly, he’s good at playing loners with obsessive streaks. Besides, anything that gives Catherine Keener (as the screen Lopez’s ex-wife) a part of any significance can’t be altogether ill-advised. But there’s something a bit too pat about the movie’s easy psychologizing of Lopez’s attitude towards his protégé and his ultimate journey to self-awareness. Also, the moments when he loses it with Nathaniel feel artificial, as if they were inserted to heighten the dramatic tension.

Foxx fares better with his character (or maybe I just think so because I only know Ayers through Lopez), and manages to evoke the ravages of mental illness convincingly without devolving into look-at-me-Oscar showboating. Indeed, both his performance and the movie are a tad too understated to be real Oscar bait, which might be why “The Soloist” was released this spring. That’s not to say the film’s entirely successful in its treatment of Nathaniel, as it tends to retreat into a kind of arty remoteness in its depiction of his breakdowns. We never really do penetrate the wall that surrounds him, but then again, perhaps we’re never really supposed to, given that this is Lopez’s story of how he was impacted by Nathaniel. True, Wright seems to gesture occasionally towards some larger social observations on the horrors of homelessness and the ethical dilemmas of treating those who are clearly ill but don’t want to be treated. Certainly some of the movie’s most memorable images are the long tracking shots (a Wright trademark) of the desolation and violence, tempered by moments of humanity, of LA’s skid row as seen from the outsider Lopez’s perspective. But at its core, “The Soloist” is most effective as a story of friendship between a columnist and his troubled subject. For all its imperfections, it’s a well-intentioned and thoughtfully executed study of the complicated shadings of a relationship that grows out of one man’s desire to both use and help another.

GRADE: B