Sunday 17 May 2009

The return of Monday Night Film Club (Is Anybody There and Star Trek)

It's been too long since our Cameo Monday Night Film Club last met (though, in point of fact, it returned a few weeks back but I had to miss one because I was in London for the London Symphony Orchestra and another because I was in Glasgow for the BBC SSO launch, featuring Runnicles himself; that's a shame because I missed In the Loop and State of Play).

I must confess, I didn't have high hopes for Is Anybody There. I'm not quite sure why, but I felt I needed a light-hearted film and didn't think I'd be getting one. I'm not sure where this feeling came from, but suffice to say it was completely and totally misplaced.

The film is difficult to describe, and I'm not sure to call it a comedy would be entirely accurate, but that isn't going to stop me, not least because it is very funny indeed. Set in the 80s, the film tells the story of Edward (played by Bill Milner, who was in Son of Rambow, which for some unaccountable reason I've yet to see) whose parents have turned their house into an old people's home. No little suspension of disbelief is required here, since in the real world this outfit would have been closed down by social services before the film even started. Still, the film is sufficiently engaging that this isn't a problem. Edward is obsessed with death, what happens afterwards and, more than anything, ghosts. This includes leaving a tape recorder in the rooms of dying inmates and endlessly listening back to them, before noting no contact day after day in his journal.

Then Michael Caine arrives, a comudgeonly old magician who cannot bear that his life has come to this, and whose sardonic comments at the lives the others are reduced to provide much of the comedy. Milner starts off loathing him (and wanting his bedroom back), but the two form a bond, starting with giving him some leaflets on preparing for death (and one that is hilariously inapproriate).

Other aspects of the film are not so completely successful: Leslie Phillips is as completely over the top as one would expect. More crucially, the more serious, emotional lines of the film don't entirely convince. Caine's journey is quite moving, if predictable, but the story of Edward's parents (played by Anne-Marie Duff and David Morrissey) is not, and far too nicely tied up at the end. Still, it works gloriously for me as a comedy and can be thoroughly be recommended.

Then, on Saturday, it was back to the cinema. Sadly, though, not the Cameo, but instead the Vue at the awful Omni Centre. The reason: Star Trek (which isn't on at the Cameo, or any other civilised cinema that doesn't feature half an hour of adverts and leave you looking very embarressed when you try to pay for two tickets with a tenner). Topping of a progressively more awful series of trailers was G-Force, which appears to be about a commando unit of gerbils working for the US government; must see that one.

Now, I have a love hate relationship with JJ Abrams, the director hired to reboot the franchise. I first met him through Alias, a wonderful spy show starring Jennifer Garner which was unashamedly complicated and silly, and yet emotionally very real (I would still argue that the portrayal of the relationship with her father, played by Victor Garber, is one of the most realistic such examples I've seen). Then there was Lost, which only ever answered a question with another question, didn't have the bonus of Garner saving the world weekly in skimpy outfits and has unaccountably gained greater success. Then there is Felicity, which I'd love unequivically if she'd ended up with the right guy. I could list a few more examples, but I'll limit myself to just one: Mission Impossible 3. This was a bitter disappointment because it should have been perfect. In so many ways, Alias, with its unremittingly cool heists, was the mission impossible of the twenty-first century. As such, Abrams was the perfect choice for the film (indeed, I'd been saying as much for some time before it was announced). So what went wrong? Well, given it was in large part the plot of the Alias pilot and the episode where they break into the Vatican, just with lots more money, what could possibly go wrong? I think the answer must be just that: the money. Lack of money can be a wonderful spur to creativity, forcing people to think outside the box. Whatever the reason, it had nothing of the flair I would have expected.

Sorry, that's probably going into too much detail. But it spells out why I was concerned about Star Trek, a picture that would undoubtably have very deep pockets. However, it has received rave reviews, so my fears were allayed somewhat and I can pleasingly report that the reviews are fair: it's a lot of fun. Recreating the 60s TV series is something of a minefield, since if you do it too closely it might look very silly. Certainly, our views of what looks futuristic have changed somewhat. Hats off here to production designer Scott Chambliss (a long standing Abrams collaborator), who perfectly captures the look while at the same time updating it. In particular, I like how industrial the engine rooms seem - they actually look vast enough to be powering these huge star ships.

Cast-wise things are pretty good too. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto look the parts as Kirk and Spock and have a good chemistry together. There is a wonderful moment early on when Quinto instructs someone to "live long and prosper" with more scorn than I'd ever conceived the line having. I didn't warm to Karl Urban as Bones initially: he is no DeForest Kelley, always the best thing about the original cast, but then who is. However, his performance grew on me a lot as the film progressed. Zoe Saldana's Uhura is similarly fine, not least for the way she keeps Kirk's ego in check. Simon Pegg, though always great, seems somewhat miscast as Scotty (and has a slightly elusive accent). Bruce Greenwood is superb as Pike, who fans will remember as the Enterprise's original captain in the pilot episode.

The plot tells of Kirk and Spock's early lives, in particular showcasing the beauty of Vulcan, as well as just how alien it is. Things get shaken up as Romulan Nero, who is bent on wiping out planets, in best Star Wars tradition, embarks on a quest for vengeance. Leonard Nimoy, the original Spock is elegantly fitted into the film, in such a way that it doesn't feel like it's just there to please fans. In fairness, the plot doesn't entirely stand up to scrutiny in one or two moments (but it would be exceptionally geeky to point them out; one concerns the ease with which Kirk gets back onto the ship). Fortunately the film is sufficiently fun, in the best Hollywood blockbuster tradition, that it doesn't much matter. The effects are pretty good. We get a proper ship ramming another ship scene, unlike the embarrassment of Star Trek: Nemesis; all the same, it isn't quite so impressive as such examples as Babylon 5 and the new Battlestar Galactica have provided. Indeed, when one thinks about how innovative and visually stunning the latter show has been in its effects (think the rescue sequence from New Caprica and the atmospheric jump), there was no similarly wow effects moment in this film. Given the money involved, that's disappointing.

There are two bigger annoyances. The first is the sponsorship. I realise that a big film cannot apparently be made these days without some company paying millions to get their product into it. Still, you'd think you'd be safe in Sci-Fi. Particularly in a world which, I'd always got the impression, had done away with big corporations and the like. So it was especially galling when Kirk got a call on a phone made by a well known manufacturer (whom I will not give publicity to here), similarly some of the beverages in the bar scene. What's next: U.S.S. Enterprise, sponsored by Duracell (Because it just keeps on going)! We give awards here occasionally, one more must now be created to join them: The Star Trek Award for Out of Place Product Placement. It must retroactively be awarded to Die Another Day for having James Bond shave with an electric razor. More critically (SPOILER ALERT, though one I'd already got from every review), it turns out we're in a parallel universe. What this means is that we do not, after all, get the story of how Spock, Kirk and the rest of the crew meet and become friends and the team that would go on to such greatness. Instead, we've learnt the origin of a similar but different crew, and I can't help feeling slightly cheated as a result.

Still, it is nice to finally see Kirk defeat the Kobayaski Maru test.

Update - 30/5/09

One final thought occurred to me yesterday: JJ Abrams has managed to break the odd numbered Star Trek film curse - namely that they aren't, generally speaking, any good. Actually, in fairness, the curse was broken by the terrible Nemesis, which, as an even numbered entry to the canon, should have been great.

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