Summer 2013 … Shall We Begin?

The Great Gatsby (Warner Bros.)     ½

Directed by Baz Luhrmann

Written by Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan

And people complain about Michael Bay.  I instead blame Baz Luhrmann as Hollywood’s primary sucker of souls, grasping any material with the slightest bit of feeling or intellect and injecting his poisonous brand of superficiality.  He reduces all performances, including that of the normally brilliant DiCaprio, into just another element in his cartoonish backdrop of New York in the Roaring Twenties, forgoing any attempt at drama by structuring The Great Gatsby as a series of montage-style, visually incoherent sequences that are edited together like rap videos (how fitting to have a Jay-Z soundtrack then) and strung together only by Maguire basically reading the novel.

It is a painfully literal adaptation, incorporating contemporary elements and eye-popping visuals that are desperate to please, depriving the source material of all poetry, and poorly executing all of the elements it could have easily utilized in its favor.  Instead, for all it vomits onto the screen, Gatsby resembles little more than a wooden board; you feel nothing the entire time, and end up rather bored, yourself.  In the end, one learns not the folly of living in the past and holding false value in things that shine.  All you’ll want to do is put this film far behind you, and wonder how they thought something this shiny could possibly ring true.

CKEP’S VERDICT – 1.5/5

Iron Man 3 [3D] (Disney)     ★★★½   

Directed by Shane Black

Written by Drew Pearce & Shane Black

Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Kinglsey

After a fairly entertaining, but equally lackluster sequel, Iron Man soars back with this follow-up to both the first two movies and Marvel’s Avengers outing.  Excellent as usual, Downey leads the familiar cast through the occasionally choppy waters of plot incoherence (the Christmastime setting also raises some eyebrows), but arguably, this is one of the wittiest, most action-driven pieces of entertainment Marvel has ever released.  It’s edgy, visually spectacular, and thanks to Black’s direction and co-writing, a dark action-adventure with successfully comic, even satiric elements.

I will say, however, that the problem of Mickey Rourke being under-utilized as a compelling villain in Iron Man 2 is not successfully remedied with Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin, even with the placement of Guy Pearce’s character in the script.  Like many elements in Iron Man 3, the execution feels just a bit weird.  It seems determined to jump from one key moment to the next, the plot and editing sometimes feeling disoriented.  Yet the film still seems more acceptable than its predecessor, which basically lay dead in the water.  And for all it’s worth, the hyperactive package ends up being extraordinarily entertaining.

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I do wish there could have been a bit more drama and feeling packed into the romance in peril that should’ve been closer to the movie’s core strength, but hey, it ends up being emotionally satisfying, and for all the explosions and ass-kicking (sometimes without Downey even in the suit) the series hasn’t lost its humanity or affinity for character.  Robert Downey, Jr. became Tony Stark after likely the most turbulent period he will ever face in his life, and his attachment to that persona, like this movie, is still an infectious joy.  For a fresh beginning to the comic-book studio’s next line of cash-grabbers, it starts things off marvelously.

CKEP’S VERDICT – 3.5/5

Star Trek Into Darkness [IMAX] (Paramount)     ★★★★

Directed by J.J. Abrams

Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof

Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch

To be frank, I rank J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek as one of the greatest blockbusters of the past few decades.  Anyway you cut it, for Trekkers or first-timers, it really has the goods.  So one could say that my expectations were quite high for this sequel.  At least it’s a relief for Into Darkness to recognize the primary flaw behind its design – the Star Trek franchise is about exploration, discovery, adventure, and benefits/dangers to civilization that come from it, not simply action sequences that happen to be located in outer space.  The film never stoops that low, but it occasionally teeters close to the line.  Yet this Trek excuses itself through pure relevance in its place within the new series, by using such a structure to develop necessary character arcs.  It shows that sometimes danger finds us at our most morally vulnerable, often in the form of individuals who serve ethically indefensible purposes.

And while the decision to once again focus the primary antagonist as a single man may be questionable, Benedict Cumberbatch does an exceptional job.  Fans may be split on whether or not they appreciate the writers toying with popular plot elements of the franchise, but frankly, the execution is so well-done that Star Trek Into Darkness is nothing less than an exceedingly thrilling, engaging, funny, and yes, dark follow-up to what I consider to be somewhat of a contemporary classic.  I still love the cast beyond word, and the crew of the Enterprise, giving ever-terrific performances, surely earns our emotional investment more than ever before. 

While the visuals may be terrific, those helming the Abrams franchise have continued to indicate that this is a character-driven series, and their developments are what make it work, and what immerse us even farther beyond the wonderful excitement that everything else in the film offers.  While the plotting may be somewhat, umm … ‘illogical,’ audiences are likely to be pleased with how several layers are gradually unveiled, revealing the movie to be a tale of highly difficult decision-making in morally ambiguous times of distress, and how this effects the genuine relationships between humans (and half-humans).  It may not be Trek’s original mission, but this a series being shown to the generation of a different world, and for what it offers, Into Darkness makes you hungry for more, and instills promise that the series will continue to explore beyond the reaches of its proven intelligence, spectacle, and heart.

CKEP’S VERDICT – 4/5