30 July 2009

Extremely Belated Movie Reviews

[I'm not even sure if any of these are out in theaters any more, but when the DVDs come out I recommend all of them. I'm looking forward to District 9, which comes out in 2 weeks. Hopefully I'll have a more timely review of that.]

Star Trek — Very good movie, very bad science fiction.

First of all, I have to give them credit for striking a fine balance between making a movie that was fun and exciting for Star Trek novices and one that acknowledged the lengthy legacy of the series. For instance, there were more than a few lines that were explicit references to previous Star Trek movies, but they were worked in so seamlessly that you would not recognize them as being significant unless you were a fan. Lesser creative teams would have shoe-horned them in more obviously, and it would have been fun for fanboys and jarring for everybody else.

Secondly, I thought it looked great with the exception of a truly preposterous number of lens flares. I heard J.J.Abrams give an interview in which he admitted they went way over board with this, so points for honest self-critique there. I agree with Bryan Caplan that the future looks too much like the present: 300 years into the future, and nothing much is different, except we've got spaceships and floating motor cycles. The implied rate of growth is tiny, but Star Trek has always been pretty economically illiterate.

My big gripe is all the coincidences. I'm willing to suspend disbelief for some sci-fi. You want huge space ships and FTL drives and teleportation and time travel? Okay. Done deal. But there's no way I'm going to swallow Kirk's cadet-to-acting-captain promotion, or really the total lack of junior officers generally. There's no way I'm going to believe Spock is going to maroon someone in an escape pod on a desolate planet rather than putting them in the brig. And by the way, that desolate planet happens to have our one conspicuously missing main character AND Leonard Nemoy on it! No way. If you want permission to fake the big stuff you need to make the small stuff realistic, otherwise the whole conceit of science fiction falls apart.

The instant promotion thing really took me out of it because I kept being remind of David Feintuch's Midshipman's Hope, which is about a middy on a year-long voyage inter-stellar voyage rising to command through a combination of freak accidents, alien encounters and horrific melanoma. It gets it right: if you want me to believe the jibber-jabber about warp drives and giant, vacuum hardened amoeba, then it's imperative that you treat the little stuff believably. On this score, Feintuch does, and Abrams doesn't.

Up — Wow. So very, very good. Not like previous Pixar movies: more adult, more emotional. I'm always seduced by Pixar's visuals, because, (a) I'm a sucker for good CGI and (b) they're amazing. They're so good it's easy to overlook the fact that Pixar's true strength is great story. They craft these scripts for years, literally several years, and it shows. They have turned out more consistently good narratives than any studio, ever.

Up has the best montage I can remember seeing. When's the last time you were brought to tears in the first reel of a film? I'll tell you when: never. One wordless montage in Up and the theater is all dusty within 20 minutes. It makes Bambi's mother's death seem like a cheap, melodramatic ploy.

The only thing that bothered me about Up was the villain. I don't want to give too much away, so I'll just say that he could have returned in triumph even without the thing he was looking for. I suppose he was supposed to be monotonically single-minded about that particular goal, so it's not a huge issue, but it was still a little annoying. Oh, and Russell really kept reminding me of Doofus Drake, Huey, Dewey and Louie's Junior Woodchuck friend from DuckTales.

The animation was as good as ever. We keep getting better and better with things like subsurface scattering, but doing realistic humans is going to be a problem deep into the foreseeable future, so get used to human characters modeled like this. (It's no coincidence Pixar started out with movies about plastic toys and chitinous bugs: those are much easier materials to shade.) I think they did a great job of creating character models that look real and cartoonish at the same time, which is exactly how you need to play it. Had they used to same level of detail they used in Geri's Game I think it would have been much harder to relate to the characters, so I'm glad they dialed it back a lot. (In fairness to Geri's Game, the point of the short was to demonstrate sub-d modeling for character and cloth animation, and it was a huge advance, but the combination of more realistic modeling with comparatively less realistic shading makes for some prohibitive dissonance in a feature-length film.)

The Hangover — Can't remember the last time I laughed so much in a theater. I've seen funnier movies, but never at the theater. Laughter was tempered with equal parts gasping "oh no ... OH NO! that just happened, didn't it?" I really appreciate the way it cuts right from pre-party toast to the aftermath. Lesser film makers would have been tempted to include a little montage there of funny shenanigans, and the movie would have suffered for it. they reached a nice compromise by including stills from the night itself as the credits roll, which are definitely worth watching, especially for the Carrot Top cameo and the ... thing ... in the elevator.

I don't really have much more to say, besides that Rachel Harris' character was such an over-the-top bitch that I was a little distracted for a few minutes after each of her scenes by how much I hated her.


  1. Dude and the bad guy in "Up" was definitely not old enough - he was the same age as the main character essentially at the end of the movie, and yet he was the main character's "young aspiring gentleman" idol when he was younger

  2. Up was cool.

    Star Trek, to many liberties. The series and movies would periodically play up the Spock - mother- emotion angle. And the kobayashi maru, Kirk is supposed to trash the place, but now has an apple. I'd say Steve Jobs has taken product placement to far.