Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Short Take: Star Trek: The Motion Picture

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

Star Trek has been described as the middle ground between the unabashed pulp fantasy of Star Wars and the philosophical science fiction of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In 1979, the initial TV series received an upgrade to feature-film status with Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The filmmakers, namely producer Gene Roddenberry and director Robert Wise, were clearly eager to identify it with the 2001 end of the genre spectrum. They went ridiculously overboard. The story takes place a few years after the end of the television series. A massive, destructive, and apparently omnipotent alien entity is making its way towards Earth. The Star Trek crew’s ship, the Enterprise, is the only vessel in range to intercept it. This is a solid premise for a science-fiction adventure film, but the picture is too bloated with its own sense of importance to be entertaining. Action scenes are kept to a minimum, and the story seems less about drama than pseudo-philosophical blather, such as questions about the nature of one’s relationship to the Creator, the quest for knowledge’s role in the meaning of existence, and so forth. These never go anywhere worthwhile, and their conceit is insufferable. The screenplay, credited to Harold Livingston and Alan Dean Foster, also has little feel for the character relationships that helped define the TV show. A central dynamic was of the man-of-action Captain Kirk (William Shatner) squaring the circle of the opposed views of his two main lieutenants: the cold, logic-minded Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and the passionate, emotion-driven ship’s doctor (DeForest Kelley). That’s all but gone, and the other series regulars (James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, and Walter Koenig) are little more than extras. Like 2001, the film seeks to end on a moment of lofty existential transcendence, but it’s reactionary rather than hopeful--the threat has been contained--and it seems ridiculously pretentious. The film clearly follows 2001’s lead with other elements, and at times it’s blatantly derivative. One example is the leisurely, symphonic-music scored piece of sightseeing around an immense spacecraft; another is a prolonged effects-laden “Stargate” sequence. The film also mimics 2001’s slow, deliberate rhythms. However, the effect here is tedium; there’s none of the grandeur that 2001’s director, Stanley Kubrick, was able to evoke. The picture was poorly received, and it proved a false start for the movie franchise. The series wouldn’t begin in earnest until the second installment, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The only thing introduced that proved worth keeping was Jerry Goldsmith’s majestic score. The cast also includes Stephen Collins and Persis Khambatta. The cinematography is by Richard H. Kline. Douglas Trumbull oversaw the special effects.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Short Take: Pretty Poison

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Critics’ favorite, cult film, sleeper--these are all terms that apply to Pretty Poison (1968). This quirky film is an intelligently made psychological thriller. Anthony Perkins stars as a young man who was institutionalized in his teens, and is now getting a fresh start in a small New England town. He enjoys fantasies of himself as a spy, and in order to impress a pretty high-school student (Tuesday Weld), he begins acting the part. But the playing out of his fantasies gets increasingly out of hand. The girl’s fun-loving air proves the mask of a psychopath. Industrial sabotage leads to murder, and the young man gets pulled further into the girl’s vicious conniving. The film, quietly and very effectively, pulls off a remarkable dramatic reversal. One starts with concern over the girl getting involved with this rather creepy misfit. However, one ends in complete sympathy with the fellow, and wholly caught up in the horror of watching their relationship upend his life. Director Noel Black, working from an excellent script by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., keeps the pacing loose. The scenes are thoughtfully staged, and the fine use of the western Massachusetts locations helps the story breathe. Black emphasizes character drama over sensationalism every step of the way. The two stars are superb. Perkins is a little hard to take at first. He plays his character's oddball antics with an arch smugness, and it’s off-putting. But he also keeps the viewer aware of the fellow’s insecurities and fundamental decency. His carefully developed performance is a balancing act that’s key to the story’s overall power. Tuesday Weld dazzles. No performer can make giddy thrill-seeking seem more delightful, and as the film goes on, she turns that reaction inside out. The girl’s high-spirited, game-for-anything manner is at first charming, then startling, and ultimately terrifying. The film also stars Beverly Garland as the girl’s brusque mother, and John Randolph as the Perkins character’s probation officer. David Quaid provided the cinematography. The screenplay is based on the novel She Let Him Continue, by Stephen Geller.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Short Take: Bull Durham

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

Bull Durham, Ron Shelton's 1988 directorial debut, is a wonderful romantic comedy, and perhaps the most entertaining movie about baseball ever made. Kevin Costner stars as Crash Davis, a thirtyish minor-league catcher who's called upon to mentor a promising, though dim-witted, young pitcher (Tim Robbins). Both catch the eye of a local baseball groupie (Susan Sarandon), who systematically has an affair with one player per season. It's her version of a mentoring relationship, and the goal is to give the player the best season of his life, all with an eye towards helping him graduate to major-league play. She settles on the pitcher, but her heart is with Crash. He's drawn to her, too, but he wants romance; he has no interest in being her project. Shelton's terrific script does a fine job of playing Crash's mentoring role off his antipathy towards the pitcher's relationship with the Sarandon character, but its real brilliance is in the wealth of offbeat moments and quirky detail. Shelton also gets superb performances from the three stars. Tim Robbins never fails to make his character's dopiness and headstrong behavior charming, and Sarandon and Costner deliver what may have been career bests. Sarandon's character is an eccentric mix of literary pretensions, know-it-all expansiveness, and brazen sexuality, and she plays it all with the deftness of a master comedienne. Costner's role is less flashy, but he shows ace comic timing playing straight man to his co-stars, and he's strikingly charismatic as a romantic lead. The picture keeps one smiling from the first moment to the last. Ron Shelton was once a minor-league baseball player himself, and he couldn't have come up with a more delightful valentine to the game.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Short Take: The Searchers

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

Director John Ford's The Searchers (1956) is a mainstay on lists of the best movies ever made, and it is perhaps the greatest picture in the Western genre. It is certainly one of the key American adventure films. The story begins in 1868, when a disaffected Confederate veteran (John Wayne) returns to his brother's home in Texas. Shortly afterward, the brother and most of his family are murdered in a Comanche raid on the house. There was one survivor: the brother's nine-year-old daughter, whom the Comanche have taken prisoner. Wayne's character and the girl's adopted adult brother (Jeffrey Hunter) embark on a quest to rescue her. But there's no easy resolution: when they locate her years later, they find she's become a Comanche. The picture set the stage for the anti-heroic adventure films that came to dominate Hollywood in the decades that followed. The Wayne character is an abrasive, alienated misfit, and a vicious racist to boot. (It's easy to imagine anti-hero icon Clint Eastwood in the role.) The basic plot--an outsider searching for a girl who's been taken from her family, only to find she's been assimilated by the people who have taken her--has been lifted by innumerable films and TV shows since. The picture also set the standard for epic-style location shooting. Most of the picture was shot in Monument Valley, on the Arizona-Utah border, and the use of the landscape pretty much defines the word "spectacular." The scenery would be awe-inspiring by itself, but Ford and his cinematographer Winton C. Hoch make it even more impressive by effectively integrating it with the action. It's one of the few pictures that's worth seeing for the visuals alone. The film also stars Ward Bond, Vera Miles, and as the blue-eyed Comanche chief, Henry Brandon. Natalie Wood plays the kidnapped girl at 14; her sister Lana plays the girl at nine. The screenplay, based on a novel by Alan Le May, is credited to Frank S. Nugent. Max Steiner provided the score.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Short Take: The Imitation Game

This review originally published at Pol Culture.

The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum from a script by Graham Moore, is a watchable but fairly substandard piece of award bait. This biopic of British computer-science pioneer Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) gives itself two tasks. The first is to dramatize Turing's behind-the-scenes heroism in World War II. He headed the team of cryptographers who cracked the Enigma code, a supposedly impenetrable cipher system used by Nazi Germany in all its communications. (The solving of the code is estimated to have shortened the war by at least two years and saved millions of lives.) The film's second task is to portray Turing as a martyr to the mores of the time. He was homosexual. A few years after the war ended, he was prosecuted for indecency, subjected to a dubious form of hormonal therapy as punishment, and he committed suicide shortly thereafter. Tyldum and Moore do a poor job of reconciling their two goals. They repeatedly interrupt the Enigma project narrative with flashbacks and flash-forwards. The flashbacks tell of a near-romantic friendship the adolescent Turing had with another boy at boarding school. The flash-forwards deal with his prosecution and its aftermath. The time shifts are confusing at first, and they don't add much to the viewer's understanding of the Enigma story. Turing's homosexuality isn't relevant to the Enigma narrative at all. It's only referred to when he tells other characters about it; he's never shown taking a romantic interest in another man. The Enigma story, at least as presented, isn't terribly interesting in any case. Several of the scenes leading up to the code’s solution are hackneyed filler--Turing’s inability to get along with his co-workers, conflicts with the military brass, and so forth. And one can't take it seriously as history. There are just too many scenes that ring false. The most absurd moment is perhaps when Turing's team, in order to protect Allied strategic interests, decides to withhold news of the breaking of the code from their superiors. (This and many other things in Moore's script have no historical basis.) The film isn't even that interesting as an actors' showcase. Apart from the purring-voiced Mark Strong's too-brief turn as British intelligence chief Stewart Menzies, none of the performers are especially compelling. Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, and the other cast members do solid work, but apart from Knightley's amusingly delivered "Oh" during a briefing scene, they aren't very memorable. The film has solid production values, and Tyldum keeps the pace humming, but that's about it. The script is nominally based on Andrew Hodges' biography Alan Turing: The Enigma. The cinematography is by Óscar Faura. Maria Djurkovic is credited with the production design.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Short Take: Terms of Endearment

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

Until its shamelessly tearjerking final act, Terms of Endearment (1983) is an entertaining, quirkily funny treatment of the close, if stormy, relationship between an uptight middle-aged widow (Shirley MacLaine) and her unpretentious adult daughter (Debra Winger). The picture follows them through the daughter’s marriage to a philandering college professor (Jeff Daniels), and the mother’s affair with an astronaut neighbor (Jack Nicholson). There are also the daughter’s assorted domestic dramas, including a brief fling with an insecure banker (John Lithgow). James L. Brooks, who wrote and directed, was previously known for the TV sitcoms Taxi and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and the picture isn’t far removed from their style. Oddball characters of varying eccentricity are played off each other for pleasantly contrived humor. The actors are directed to stay loose, breathe with the material, and shine. The film is enjoyable enough for a viewer to forget about the its distastefully manipulative closing section. As with Brooks' sitcoms, the cast is first-rate. Debra Winger is probably the most impressive. She’s an astonishingly vibrant presence as the daughter, and in her quieter scenes, the character’s feelings seem to be emanating through her skin. Shirley MacLaine plays the cantankerous mother with terrific, almost show-stopping skill. She’s perhaps a bit too theatrical at points, but she demonstrates time and again how to use her timing for maximum comic and dramatic effect. As the astronaut, Jack Nicholson isn’t called on to play much beyond his standard over-aged bad-boy persona, but he may never have handled it as hilariously as he does here. John Lithgow’s earnest wistfulness is note-perfect, and while Jeff Daniels isn’t given much to do beyond playing straight man to the two female stars, he certainly holds his own. Among the behind-the-scenes artisans, production designer Polly Platt deserves special kudos; the mother’s grotesquely overcultivated garden is witty perfection. The screenplay is based on Larry McMurtry's 1975 novel. (The Debra Winger, Shirley MacLaine, and Jeff Daniels characters first appeared in McMurtry's 1970 novel Moving On; Jack Nicholson's role was created by James L. Brooks for the film.)