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Posts Tagged ‘George Takei’

The circumstances of what I laughingly refer to as my career currently dictate my living in London for a month or so. This is the first time I’ve been based in the great city for an extended period and so obviously I intend to make full use of the opportunity to explore the full depth and breadth of the London cinemagoing experience. For obvious reasons, I decided to begin my odyssey by enjoying a hugely popular summer SF movie, continuing a successful franchise and featuring Leonard Nimoy in a key role (he dies at the end).

The movie in question is, of course, Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which I discovered playing in grindhouse rep just off Leicester Square. (I hope no-one was expecting another film fitting roughly the same description.) Yes, I know, you wait nearly ten years for a George Takei movie review and then two come along in a row…

Anyway. The year 2285 finds Admiral James T Kirk (William Shatner, obviously) overseeing a Starfleet training program run by his best friend Spock (Nimoy). But Kirk is uneasy, struggling to come to terms with his advancing age and uncertain of his place in the universe.

Luckily, something comes along to take his mind off this when a starship involved with an advanced terraforming project stumbles upon a lost colony of genetically-augmented supermen on a hellish wasteland planet. They are led by Khan (Ricardo Montalban, who isn’t afraid to put pedal to the metal performance-wise), who has something he wants to get off his (non-prosthetic) chest. He blames Kirk for stranding them here fifteen years earlier. Seizing control of the research ship, the vengeful Khan sets about luring Kirk and the Enterprise into a trap…

I believe this was the fourth time I’ve seen The Wrath of Khan on the big screen (the last was at the legendary Hull Trek-a-thon in 1995) but I have to say it’s still as enjoyable as ever – winningly played and tautly written (legend has it Meyer had to write the script in only nine days to meet ILM’s deadlines), and tense, thrilling, funny and moving in all the right places (even if some parts seem ever so slightly camp nowadays). The screening I attended was practically singalong cinema (there was a lot of sniggering in the wrong places and William Shatner’s famous cry of ‘KHAAAAAANNNNN!’ was accompanied by virtually the entire back three rows of the theatre) but, tellingly, the beautifully written and performed scene in which Spock dies was met with hushed silence – right up until Scotty starts playing the bagpipes.

It became very fashionable (and understandably so) to mock the Star Trek movies of the 80s and early 90s as basically being Geriatrics in Space, with tales of an ever-more-elderly crew resolutely refusing to even acknowledge they were ageing. What makes this particular movie more than just a terrific adventure is that it doesn’t fall into this trap. The fact that they’re getting older and moving on with their careers is central to the story.

Most crucially, this is at the heart of the film’s story, which revolves around the mid-life crisis of James T Kirk. Kirk being who he is, this crisis is a little more histrionic than most (few of us are likely to find ourselves hounded by maniacal supermen fond of rewriting Melville and under the delusion they’re the Demon King of Space), but it still concerns coming to terms with growing old, facing the facts of mortality, and accepting the consequences of past decisions.

One can’t really imagine anything comparable happening in this kind of movie today, and one suspects it only happened here because there were no plans to continue Star Trek beyond this film. Following an underpowered final TV season and a disappointing (though financially successful) initial movie, The Wrath of Khan was essentially intended as one last milking of the concept – hence the decision to kill off Spock, probably the most popular character.

(Spock’s death was intended as a way to lure an ambivalent Nimoy back on board, and was originally intended to occur much earlier in the movie. Nimoy found himself regretting his decision to sever his ties with the series and agreed to leave the door open for a possible return. Nicholas Meyer, on the other hand, was unhappy about the material setting this up, which was inserted into the film without his involvement, feeling it spoilt the tone of the ending. One can see his point – it is a little too obvious.)

The irony is, of course, that Star Trek II‘s massive and deserved success led to a string of further sequels, and then new TV series, which in turn spawned their own movies, and so on (with the character reset button always to hand, of course). Not for the first time, a willingness to embrace the end proved to be a new beginning – a message entirely fitting for this particular movie.

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Well now, life being what it is, one of the rarest pleasures I get is that of Going In Blind. By this I mean going in to the cinema knowing nothing about a movie but the title and whatever I can glean from the poster. I call this a pleasure even though the results are frequently extremely unhappy: as I recall, the last time I did it was in Osaka in 2007 when a friend and I inadvertantly inflicted Roland Joffe’s highly objectionable Captivity upon ourselves. The joy, as with most things, is in the anticipation.

Anyway, this week all the major publicity has been guzzled up by a number of other major releases which have just come out. Not being moved to partake of a techno-porn movie based on a children’s toy range or a paean to incontinence, my choices were necessarily limited, and so in the end I went to see Larry Crowne.

It’s actually quite difficult for a film to get a major release without impinging on my consciousness at all (then again, I have been quite busy for the last couple of weeks), especially when it’s directed by one of the biggest stars of recent years. Tom Hanks is the guy in question, but his contributions also extend to playing the title role, producing it, and co-writing the script. Hanks hasn’t appeared on screen in a major role for a few years now, and it’d be fun to speculate as to why, and how this relates to Larry Crowne, but – on with the review.

Well, I settled down to enjoy the film and did my best to ignore the structure of the cinema creaking and the vague rumbling noises permeating the theatre (both courtesy of the Michael Bay movie playing down the other end of the building). It starts as it means to continue, with a relentlessly perky and upbeat title sequence depicting Larry Crowne (Hanks – keep up), a middle-aged guy who’s happy and apparently secure in his job working for one of those mega-mall companies that haven’t quite caught on in the UK yet.

But lo! There is a screenplay to be contrived. Larry is sacked for not having completed college (shades of Somerset Maugham’s The Warden, but the movie doesn’t follow up on this). Unable to find another job, he decides to go back to school and enrols in a series of classes at his local adult education college. Here he meets a number of people, most importantly unhappily married and more than a bit cynical English professor Mercedes (Julia Roberts), and ever-so-boho fellow student Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – as Roberts’ character says in one of the film’s best lines, ‘What do men see in irritating free spirits?’

So, Talia gets Larry to be a bit more relaxed and to dress better, and invites him to join her scooter gang (all this seems equally implausible in the picture, by the way). Larry’s all-around decency and niceness, meanwhile, have not gone unnoticed by Mercedes, who has slung out her porn-loving waster of a husband. Thus I draw the dots; I leave the joining of them to you, my reader, to work out for yourself. Do not over-think this one – the script certainly doesn’t.

The bottom line is that Larry Crowne is a romantic comedy with aspirations to be a ‘feel good’ movie. Well, it didn’t make me laugh very much, nor did it really cause me to consider abandoning¬†celibacy as a lifestyle choice – but, on the other hand, unlike most ‘feel good’ movies it didn’t make me want to slip off to a quiet corner and open a vein, so I suppose that’s a point in its favour.

The main problem with the film is that it aspires to tell a proper story about supposedly real people and their lives. In a landscape currently dominated by shapeshifting robots, OTT pirates and CGI superheroes, all pursuing spurious plot McGuffins, this is to be commended, but the script here is executed with such broad strokes that it’s never for a moment completely convincing. No-one actually feels or behaves quite like a real person would.

Hanks’ direction is also more than a bit – well, to call it manipulative would be to make it sound more subtle than it is. The ‘How to Set a Mood’ section of Tom Hanks’ Guide to Film Directing would, I suspect, say something like ‘Choose some music. For happy scenes, choose upbeat music. For sad scenes, choose slow music. Play the music over the scene as loudly as you can get away with.’ The problem is that too often the music becomes a substitute for emotion rather than an accompaniment to it. When a character experiences a moment of great personal joy and the soundtrack duly bursts into life, that’s fine if you’re sharing the emotion. Most of the time I wasn’t, because what was happening on screen just didn’t ring true, and the effect was rather like turning up late to a party where everyone else was already drunk: not sharing the atmosphere and feeling slightly awkward and uncomfortable because of it.

I could go on to talk about how the central romance does a very good impression of appearing out of thin air, and the rest of the script is full of the slightly forced quirkiness that characterised co-writer Nia Vardalos’ My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but I think you get the idea. (And Larry Crowne also has possibly the worst closing credits I’ve ever seen.)

One thing this film isn’t short of is acting talent. To be fair to him, as a performer Hanks is charismatic enough to make you believe in Larry, although he’s trading heavily on audience goodwill throughout. Roberts has a slightly trickier task as a less immediately likeable character. Her career is, of course, entering the Forbidden Zone, inasmuch as Hollywood scripts really don’t cater for leading ladies past a certain age, and on the strength of this picture she’s going to struggle to make it as a character performer. Elsewhere people like Cedric the Entertainer and Pam Grier pop up and do okay, but the most consistently amusing performance comes from (of all people) George Takei from Star Trek, as a slightly preening economics professor. (There’s a Star Trek gag at one point in the film, which seems a little self-conscious as a result.)

The absolute best thing I can say about Larry Crowne is that it passed 99 minutes in a wholly inoffensive and mildly engaging fashion. As I said, it’s not really very funny nor is it especially moving, and it’s certainly not remotely believeable. In some ways it’s almost like the negative of a Woody Allen movie, in that in place of the relentless pessimism and misanthropy that have characterised Allen’s latter movies, nearly everyone is deep-down decent and understanding and actually a pretty good person. There are certainly much worse messages to put in a movie – but you need a bit more than a message to make a good movie.

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