Monday, 13 May 2013

'I'm So Excited' and 'Star Trek Into Darkness': review round-up

'I'm So Excited' - Dir. Pedro Almodovar (15)

Pedro Almodovar returns to his early trashy sex comedy roots with this unabashedly frothy and disposable little number about an airline cabin crew attempting to calm passengers after it's revealed the plane they are on has a faulty landing gear. In the wake of this news the various colorful occupants of this otherwise routine flight from Madrid to Mexico find themselves diving headlong into hedonistic excess - taking drugs and openly copulating left and right, with three extremely camp air stewards (and their sexually conflicted pilots) leading this descent, both literally and metaphorically.

While it's the Spanish director's least overtly serious movie in some time, there is clearly something else going on here beneath the veil of froth. It's telling that only first class passengers are kept awake for the entire movie, with the rest of the plane put to sleep by the crew before we join the flight - either because the director finds the lives of the extreme personalities and colourful characters at the front of the plane more interesting than those he imagines at the back, or because he is saying something about social class. For the record, I have no idea which. It's possibly a bit of both, but maybe he's saying something about modern Spain and those leading the country to ruin in the wake of a financial crisis that hit his country worse than most.

A real-life scandal surrounding a disused La Mancha airport lingers in the background; a high-profile businessman on the flight is trying to escape fraud charges by heading to central America; one of the passengers is world famous dominatrix; another is a hitman; and all put unwavering, superstitious faith in the words of a spacey and naive clairvoyant. Between these broad, larger-than-life caricatures and the eccentric and debauched goings on of the crew - freely swigging alcohol and staging pre-planned dance routines to their customers bemusement (and anger) - the film paints a picture of a reckless and extremely tacky Spain. A place where nothing works and nobody can be trusted to look beyond immediate gratification (the mechanical fault itself is the result of a distracted and incompetent ground crew in Madrid, as played by Almodovar regulars Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz), but where (SPOILER WARNING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) everything somehow turns out OK in the end. It's an affable place, but not without frustration. Much like the film itself.

Beyond a gloriously camp set-piece which sees the stewards dancing to Pointer Sisters' number of the English language title, the whole thing feels strangely flat. It seems to want to be this dizzying, extravagant romp - full of naughtiness and cheeky laughs - but it never quite gets there. Some of that may be lost in translation, with Spanish-speaking friends telling me the English subtitles lose a lot of the humour, which comes from the use of language (comedy is a notoriously tough genre to effectively translate), but from my vantage point it just wasn't funny. And not just because I didn't laugh at the jokes, but because I could rarely see where the jokes were - unless, of course, I'm just supposed to laugh if someone talks about bi-sexuality and oral sex. Ultimately it wasn't nearly as entertaining as its premise or the record of its director would suggest, even if there's potentially some interesting social commentary lurking beneath its perhaps deceptively shallow surface.

'Star Trek Into Darkness' - Dir. J.J. Abrams (12A)

The "re-booted" 'Star Trek' - which "re-imagines" the crew of the original Starship Enterprise as super-slick trendies, each with one distinct personality trait and often also a funny voice - is back, along with the world's least inspiring filmmaker ('Lost' creator and Spielberg super-fan J.J. Abrams) and a script born from the minds that brought us the 'Transformers' trilogy (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) and 'Prometheus' (Damon Lindelof). It's promising stuff on paper, especially as this sequel is going the fresh, rarely-trodden path of being "darker and edgier" than what's come before. (Because everything wants to be 'The Dark Knight' so, so badly now.) The director's surely by now self-parodic love of lens flare is back too, along with a lot of others things which return from previous movies and which it would be churlish of me to spoil here.

If I read as unduly cynical about this whole project then I apologise, but I can't take these new Trek films seriously. Or as light-hearted fun. Or as anything else in particular. It's a big bag of ready salted crisps - maybe even those weird old ones where you used to have to add your own salt. It's quite clear that even the makers don't really know who they are trying to please, with fan service and nods to the original series (or should I say "timeline"?) every other second even as they take the bold step of turning it into a straight-up action film - jettisoning all of franchise founder Gene Roddenberry's principles and core ideals into deep space along the way. It's an action flick in Star Trek uniforms and science fiction only because there are spaceships. New Trek (or Nu Trek as I'm now calling it) is superficial and vacuous in the extreme, wearing the clothes of a beloved pop culture icon in quasi-ironic fashion - in crass American high school terminology: it turns the beloved property of bullied nerds into something more suitable for their jock tormentors.

That's not to say there aren't people involved who genuinely love the "franchise", just that these people - like those who made/continue to make the 'Lord of the Rings' films - think faithful adaptation of clothing, character names, places and the so-forth represent what something is about, whilst not thinking any deeper about what's actually at that property's core. So here a series that's always been about an idealised and optimistic idea of an evolved human race, that ventures out into space to spread the love and for the sake of discovery, becomes about horrible humans destroying each other because they're a bunch of dicks. Star Trek is, traditionally, a pop cultural counter-point to knee-jerk revenge fantasies, irrational bouts of anger and massive bodycounts - it was humanist, even to the point where it was sometimes a bit preachy and smug. I don't particularly like Star Trek as a thing, but I like this far less. I might not personally like Star Trek, but I have more respect for what it is and what it means - beyond clothing and laser guns and badges - then these people seem to. If anything about these middling films - and both films are 100% OK - has the power to annoy me, then it's that.

Like I say, the film itself is exactly alright - too bland and inoffensive for me to review without ranting around the subject (see Philip French's barely two paragraph write-up in The Guardian) and, like all of Abrams' work, built around so many twists, surprises and mysteries that you can't really properly talk about what happens either without spoiling it. I'll just say there are moments when it's laughable and some where it's genuinely funny. There are bits where it's exciting and others where it's lame. The performances are pretty solid across the board (Zachary Quinto is an excellent Spock and Karl Urban steals every scene he's in as Bones, whilst Benedict Cumberbatch is predictably good to watch as the baddie), though that depends on your tolerance for dodgy accents in many cases. The action scenes are uninspired on the whole and Abrams has some annoying visual ticks (his constantly zooming camera is one such distraction), but the film is not un-enjoyable for much of its length. Just not particularly memorable either. And (potential SPOILER depending on how sensitive you are!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) it leans uncomfortably on another film's reputation.