Raymond Soltysek's Blog

“Star Trek: Into Darkness”

Posted in film review by raymondsoltysek on May 28, 2013
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Star Trek: Into Darkness

Wow.  That was loud.

I love Star Trek.  I especially adore Jean Luc Picard, surely the most complete poet warrior ever to grace our screens.  I could watch him all day and forgive TNG for Ryker and Troi and Worf and pain-in-the-ass Geordie and anodyne android Data.  He was far, far better than James T. Kirk.  And that James T. Kirk was far, far better than this James T. Kirk.

I’m getting grumpy about characters and plots these days.  Chris Pine, while occasionally catching us off guard for a moment when he gets William Shatner just right (“Bones, will you get that off my face…”),  comes across as just too callow and unthinking.  The old Kirk, for all his hormonal imbalances, had the capacity to stop, to think, to take a deep breath and actually outwit his opponents; Pine simply bulldozers his way through problems.  It’s tempting to think of it as an age thing, to see Pine as a more youthful version: but Shatner was 35 when he first took the Kirk role; Pine is now 33, and so should, therefore, have some of those high school jock tendencies knocked off him a bit.  If you could forget the original, Pine does a good job; but the problem is, you can’t forget the original.

And I know there has been a new timeline created for this series, but the Federation now has sinister fascist overtones the orignal rarely expressed; Gene Roddenberry’s conception, brilliantly realised in TNG, was of a utopia without money, without class; reward was achieved through self-actualization and achievement, through being the best one could be.  Now, with its shining Canary Wharf skyscrapers and military-minded plutocrats and its grey uniforms, one can’t help feeling that Earth is on the knife edge of totalitarianism, which makes Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan a pretty sympathetic villain.

And of course the plot is daft, with holes you could pilot a starship through.  Just how did it happen that the nasty Admiral had  in his possession exactly the same number of torpedoes that Khan needed to hide his crew in, and how did it come to pass that they were the very same ones installed on the Enterprise?  If the Admiral’s plan was to start a war with the Klingons, why did Khan assist by fleeing to Chronos?  How come Kirk’s short-range communicator made calling from Chronos all the way to Scott in a sleazy bar back on Earth seem as simple as calling 118118 on your mobile?  And how come this whole plot feels like watching the inanities of “Skyfall” all over again?

But, do you know, I didn’t exactly hate it.   Space  looks beautiful, even in 3D, and the Enterprise is as stunning as ever (though I wish they had resisted the temptation to make this ship look several centuries ahead of the original).  And the characters are fine generally, especially Zachary Quinto as Spock and Cumberbatch, though Simon Pegg – who I think is a genius – mugs awfully as Scott and Alice Eve has a long way to go to prove she’s not just eye candy who looks stunning in a three second flash of her underwear.  It’s also undeniably exciting, the final sequence as the Enterprise drops like a stone through the atmosphere quite genuinely thrilling.

Overall, though, this was a disappointment, and I think its because it’s yet another ‘threat to Earth’ scenario.  At the end, Kirk is handed his five-year mission orders, and hopefully we’ll now move onward and outward, with the Enterprise facing hostile alien life forms out on the edge of knowledge and reason.  Those were the very best of the original and the TNG series, and I hope the next film captures that ethic.

Just, please, no bloody Q.

“Frankenstein”, NT live broadcast, GFT, 14/7/12

Posted in Theatre review by raymondsoltysek on July 15, 2012

Danny Boyle’s NT production of “Frankenstein”

This is a retrospective of last year’s smash Danny Boyle production which starred Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller alternating in the main roles as the good Doctor and the hideous Monster; this time round, Cumberbatch gets to do ugly.

Frankenstein isn’t a story I feel particularly strongly about.  To me, it’s too old-fashioned, despite all the connections people make with genetic engineering.  Naa… it taps in too much to the ethic of the travelling freak show for me, and it was quickly left looking outdated by the real breakthroughs in science, medicine, evolution and psychology that thundered through the rest of the 19th century.

I have to confess, too,  that I don’t particularly enjoy Miller or Cumberbatch as actors; Miller has been in some clunkers like Dracula 2001, while I found the rebooted Sherlock really irritating and a terrible under-usage of the excellent Martin Freeman.  I’ve also not really got into Danny Boyle films either – it’s heresy in Scotland to admit you can’t stand Trainspotting – so I have to say I wasn’t convinced I’d be blown away in the way the critics and last year’s audiences seem to have been.

However, faults aside – and there are a few – this was pretty damned good.  The central role is clearly the monster, with Frankenstein reduced to a bit of a cardboard cutout sexually inadequate egomaniac.  There is much to admire about Cumberbatch’s performance (and, presumably, Miller’s on the nights he got the role) in that it generates real sympathy, and there are moments when creation appears far more wise and mature and intelligent than the creator (“Don’t be so… inconsistentttt…” he admonishes the Baron at one point).  In his erratic pleading and threatening and wheedling for the mate he so desperately needs to make him whole, he captures the emotional fragility of the man /child /monster very well indeed.  Especially good, though, are his scenes with Karl Johnson as De Lacey, the blind, impoverished university professor who teaches him to read Paradise Lost and introduces him to the concept of morality and who inadvertently unleashes his taste for revenge.

It’s a little unfair to describe Miller as a cut-out.  There is a definite sense of the maniacal self belief that he feels gives him the authority to pull everyone’s strings, including those of his fiancée Elizabeth as he baits a trap for the monster, in his barking, flat prose.  The two actors obviously work well together, so much so Miller is appearing in a future Sherlock storyline.

But there are significant issues, I feel.  The long opening spell, with the monster rolling around the stage as it learns to control its limbs, is overwrought and far too long.  I also think it weakens the story that the Baron doesn’t appear until that process is almost over; the monster should imprint on his “master”  the way a bird imprints on its mother if we are to believe his investment in and connection to  Frankenstein.

In addition, the staging is far too filmy, I feel.  There are big effects that are so underused they seem intrusive, especially a steam-punk train that represents the industry of the town the monster first flees too (I think) that appears onstage for about two minutes, then chugs off.  Not enough bangs for very big bucks.  And there are some clumsily stereotyped stagings, such as a grinding rock track to represent the city immediately followed by a pastoral choir to indicate a change of setting to a countryside complete with flocks of birds flushing from hayricks.  The set is also dominated by a huge cone of lights suspended over the stage which does various things from twinkling starlight-like to burning achingly bright, and I kept being reminded of Boyle’s sci-fi acid-trip borefest Sunshine.

The central characters totally dominate the play, and so other actors don’t really get a look in.  Even so, some of them don’t convince, and the part of Elizabeth is a shockingly inadequate vehicle for an actress of the quality of the beautiful Naomie Harris.  Finally, there are some moments of real humour but some badly misjudged episodes, including a teeth-grindingly offensive caricature of a couple of Western Isles yokels.

All in all, though, this was a quality production that didn’t reach the heights for me that it seems to have done for many others.  There is a huge number of teen thesp types in the audience tonight – I overhear one saying she hadn’t been to see anything in the theatre she wasn’t in herself for ages, and one lad goes out the door dreamily saying “Ben, what a man he is, what a man, what a man…” – and I get the sense they are encouraged here by the triumvirate of the three big names from TV and film, Boyle, Miller and Cumberbatch.  That’s fine, and they all deserve big plaudits for this; but, really, they didn’t quite carry it off, I think.

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