Monday, May 18, 2009

Monday Movie Day Reviews

Star Trek (2009): I was initially introduced to the fascinating world of Star Trek by my childhood friend Paul. He showed me "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and made me watch movies like "Star Trek: First Contact" and  I learned about Jean-Luc Picard, Data the android, and that guy from Reading Rainbow My father also enjoyed watching the mid-90s show "Star Trek: Voyager." But I had never really been drawn into the Star Trek world the same way I was captivated by Star Wars. Star Trek was too nerdy for even me with its numerous alien species and overly technical rhetoric. And I was the skinny pale kid with a lack of social skills.

I share this brief history of my Star Trek experience because J.J. Abrams has managed to create a Star Trek film that can be universally enjoyedThis spoof from The Onion about Star Trek fans being upset that the film is "fun and enjoyable" is funny because it's true. Star Trek has a cult following because only particular people can truly appreciate horrible scenes like the one below:
Abrams has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility between Trekkies--er, Trekkers--and the rest of society. Star Trek gives us the history of classic characters like James T. Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Bones, Chekov, Sulu, and Uhura. Relative newcomer Chris Pine--whom I recognized as the prince from The Princess Diaries 2--is wonderfully cast as the maverick young Kirk. He exudes charm, charisma, and wit as he battles aliens and his own impulsiveness. This guy is going places in the film industry. Zachary Quinto is equally compelling as Spock dealing with his dual identity of human and Vulcan. Come to think of it, the entire casting in this film is solid. Simon Pegg is hilarious as Scotty, Karl Urban captures Bones's raised eyebrows and exasperation, and Eric Bana makes for a vicious villain as the Romulan captain Nero.

I realize that I haven't even touched on the story yet. But perhaps it's best to know as little details as possible, discovering the characters as they discover themselves. It's truly a coming-of-age film as the young Starfleet cadets are drawn into a dire conflict where the fate of entire planets lies in the balance. Each character must grow, learn, and push themselves to the limit. There is internal conflict, identity issues, and an overall sense of destiny for each character. This is Star Trek: Adolescence. The story moves along at a perfectly intense pace, keeping me fascinated for the entire two hours. The battle sequences are more intense than any Star Trek film I've ever seen, with flying debris and physics-bending maneuvers all on a beautiful backdrop of stars and galaxies. 

Fascinating characters, perfect pacing, intense action, moments of brevity, a bit of romance, and a great story. This is what the summer movie season is all about. I was chatting with Gus and Dylan while walking out of the theater this past Friday when Gus wondered aloud, "I don't think there was a single scene in the movie that I didn't enjoy." I'm with you, Gus. I'm with you.

Frozen River (2008): If there is a film that could capture the current American zeitgeist, it would be Frozen River. It encompasses economic turmoil, families struggling both financially and relationally, underlying racial tensions, illegal immigration, and the gritty determination to thrive at all costs in our land of freedom. In the dreary December months near the New York-Quebec border, Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) attempts to raise her two boys after her husband drives off with their life savings. When she sees a young Mohawk woman driving her husband's car, a confrontation is sparked and Ray is suddenly launched into the world of illegal border smuggling. On the Mowhawk reservation near the frozen St. Lawrence river, smugglers drive over the ice into Quebec to pick up illegal immigrants. Enticed by the money, Ray continues to smuggle with the Mohawk woman, forming a strange bond between the two mothers.

There are no apologies from Ray; she knows that what she is doing is illegal and dangerous. Yet her desire to see her boys live in a house instead of a trailer pushes her to pursue the unthinkable. There is a strange sense of ethics in the film, a moral compass as gray as the frozen river itself. Should Ray smuggle illegal immigrants? Definitely not. But she isn't motivated by a higher ethical code; she's motivated by the love for her sons. Arguably, she isn't content to surviving in the trailer home, but wants--no, needs--a house for her family. She embodies American idealism; I see it, I want it, I'll work hard to do whatever it takes to get it.

There is a cultural clash here as Ray enters the world of the Mohawk. Their laws and rules don't make much sense to Ray, and she is instantly met with distrust for being a white person. The audience enters this world as clueless as Ray, learning as we go about the culture and lifestyle of these American people. This is what makes the film so strikingly American for me--the variety of cultures and people groups all wanting to be in America, viewing it both as a sanctuary and a bastion of hope, yet also filled with contempt for its harshness. America is easy to both love and hate. I also found it fascinating to see a part of our country that seems so foreign to me. Raised in the northwest and now living in the Arizona desert, the reality that there is an enormous frozen river separating yet uniting Mohawks, Canadians, and seems a world apart from me. Yet this is the country that I live in. These are human beings with families and struggles and dreams. This is as American as it gets.

Melissa Leo received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal as Ray, and the film won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize last year. It's a touching and complex film that moved me to tears in its final moments. You may want to give this indie American film a shot.

JCVD (2008): It must be hard to be an action film star. Your body is constantly pushed to the breaking point. You have the pressure of defining masculinity for a generation raised on TV and movies. You're not really taken that seriously as an actor, having always to portray a caricature of yourself. JCVD deconstructs the action genre, allowing the titular character Jean-Claude Van Damme to give the best performance of his career.

JCVD's story borders on "creatively original" to "inane." Van Damme is at the lowest point of his life. Struggling as a B-action film star while losing roles to Steven Seagal, he's also fighting a custody battle for his daughter. On a trip to his home country of Brussels, Van Damme enters a post office to make a wire transfer to his lawyers in Los Angeles. Seconds later, gun shots ring out in the quiet neighborhood and Van Damme is seen barricading the windows. Apparently it's a heist by three robbers that has gone horribly wrong. The rest of the story unfolds as a gritty hostage drama with humor and existentialism mixed in. It's not a typical action film; you won't find Van Damme's signature flying roundhouse kicks here. Instead, it's a character study of an action star that has been broken in the later years of his life.

The film is a bit heavy-handed at times, especially during a six-minute uncut monologue from Van Damme about his life. He laments about being made into a caricature of a person, a regular guy that was thrust into fame too quickly, a man who believes all people are beautiful and worthy of life while making films where he roundhouse kicks people in the face. Yet this monologue is the defining moment of the film, where Van Damme believes he will die in this post office and offers up his final thoughts on his life and career. He breaks down the fourth wall, staring directly into the eyes of the audience while both begging for a second chance at life and revealing his heart. It's difficult to tell if this is Van Damme the man or Van Damme the character. The two seem almost inseparable, reminding me of The Wrestler and Randy Robinson's identity wrapped up in his wrestling career. Both films beg the question, where does my on-screen identity end and my true identity begin? Where is the separation of real life from art? If you can call direct-to-DVD action movies art.

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