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Hulu’s “Castle Rock” Is, for Better and Worse, an All-You-Can-Eat Stephen King Buffet

In its first ten minutes, Hulu’s horror-drama Castle Rock establishes itself as something of a Stephen King buffet, a comfort-food miniseries providing familiar, undistinguished fare that’s lightly spiced with proper nouns you might recall from earlier, better meals. Here’s Castle Rock, the small town haunted by the memory of horrors everyone politely agrees not to mention out loud, a miserable burg where the only jobs are at the local prison, Shawshank. (That name is lingered over in the pilot, a revelation.) Here’s the usual missing kid, searched for by the whole town, though this time — a twist! — he’s found safe and sound, before the prologue ends. Then cut to years later, witness a mordant suicide more Edward Gorey than gory, and find the brand-new warden of ol’ Shawshank on her first day posing this immortal query to her idiot subordinates: “You’re telling me that my predecessor left an entire wing of this prison unoccupied for thirty years?”

Two minutes after that, of course, a pair of those subordinates are searching through the aquamarine gloom of abandoned Cell Block F with flashlights set not for “illumination” but for “atmosphere.” I won’t spoil the precise nature of the inciting incident they discover there, but rest assured it sets off two standard King plots. First, just like the writer-protagonists of It and Salem’s Lot, that onetime missing kid must come back to town as a grown-up (now embodied, lucky dude, by André Holland) to face at last the evil that lurks in the backstory. Second: There’s something about light and dark, good and evil, “the devil himself” doing whatever it is the devil gets up to in unincorporated Maine townships.

So, yes, Castle Rock is more a King-flavored time killer (why, yes, the town does boast a psychic, played by the excellent Melanie Lynskey) than some grand statement of Kinglyness. It’s a thing to watch rather than something you can’t miss. The series subject is the slow revelation of precisely what kind of wickedness its protagonists are dealing with (and, in previous generations, have dealt with). Perhaps out of some concern that their story is both routine and somewhat flimsy, the creators (led by Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, who wrote the series, and executive producer J.J. Abrams) make a sort of game out of shared-universe referentiality. They tease viewers with mention of the corpse found in Stand by Me (or King’s story The Body) or by giving a passing character the last name of Torrance, just like in The Shining and Doctor Sleep. Rooting through Castle Rock for these truffles might divert the hardcore King faithful, but I found them scattershot and meaningless in a way common to Abrams projects, which often at their start survey full fields of seeds that never sprout into anything.

Based on the first four episodes, Castle Rock’s world is more like Trivial Pursuit: Stephen King Edition than a Yoknapatawpha County or even a continuation of King’s all-my-fictions-are-one epic The Dark Tower. Knowing that the sheriff character played by Scott Glenn appears in King’s books Needful Things and The Dark Half doesn’t reveal the cop’s depths so much as suggest that this is how Maine sheriffs work in King stories.

But here’s credit where it’s due: You can tune that stuff out, and the presentation is often outstanding. Here, the creators apply the production values and cinematic storytelling of so-called prestige TV to pulp fare that is almost aggressively inconsequential. The cast is strong, though the actors don’t always get strong scenes; when they do, though, a couple of times per episode, Castle Rock clicks. Suddenly, you have to watch rather than fold your laundry. The best moments, as in King’s novels, tend to be those in which the uncanny infects the everyday. Lynskey’s character, a real estate agent who has seized on a doomed plan to revitalize Castle Rock, is sensitive to what’s happening in the minds around her, especially that of Holland’s character, Henry. His thoughts take over her brain like a migraine. She lurches amusingly from chipper booster of the failing downtown to a swearing, sneering woman who hides behind sunglasses — while live on the air at a local midday TV show.

The more traditional horror sequences are hit or miss. Until the climax of the fourth episode, a bravura bit of town-changing terror unfolding across a bank of security monitors, Castle Rock mostly keeps its scenes of overt suspense in dreams and flashbacks. The dreams, which mostly afflict Lynskey’s Molly, are cheap cheese, an excuse to offer up some jolts and clues in a narrative that is, in the first episodes, primarily about the people of today circling around whatever went down in the Castle Rock past. You can fold your clothes right through them. Much of the series comes down to scenes of men digging up dogs or dogs digging up men, and then veteran actors — Sissy Spacek — talking around what it all means.

Will it all mean something? I dunno. Castle Rock lacks the pop urgency of the previous Abrams-King TV project 11.22.63, a series about now crashing into then rather than the other way around. But if it’s your taste in comfort food, you probably won’t regret watching it.

Castle Rock premieres on Hulu on July 25.

 

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The Outsider Is Full of Shopworn Action Flick Sequences

The Outsider takes place in a world of endless lens flares, a J.J. Abrams–inspired visual tic as derivative as the rest of this vigilante B-movie in which no-nonsense British military contractor Lex Walker (Craig Fairbrass) returns to L.A. upon hearing of the overdose death of his daughter, Sam (Melissa Ordway).

When he gets to the city, he discovers that she’s not really dead, thus initiating a search-and-rescue mission defined by lots of stale skirmishes and shoot-outs with anonymous thugs, as well as numerous shots of Lex scowling at everything from investigating detective Klein (Jason Patric) and crooked corporate bigwig Schuuster (James Caan) to Sunset Boulevard’s rows of palms trees.

Fairbrass proves a hulking wannabe ass-kicker without much distinctive charisma, and his leaden performance is matched by sleepy, one-note supporting turns by the slumming-it Patric and Caan.

Eventual twists involving an identity-theft ring are apt given the imitative nature of The Outsider, whose fatal failing turns out to be a man-on-a-mission story that — between its unimaginative fisticuffs, its laughable habit of depicting its baddie only in shadows, and its rote celebration of Death Wish–style justice in the face of a useless U.S. legal system — operates like a shopworn blunt instrument.

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Lens Flares and the End of Film

Daniel Mindel, A.S.C., is part of an ever-shrinking population: cinematographers who have yet to shoot a feature digitally. He acknowledges that he “will be forced” to do it eventually by “the corporate entities that drive our industry,” but he believes “there is no need to use an inferior technology at this time.”

Hollywood hardly debated that “inferior technology” before studios, filmmakers, and exhibitors began adopting it over a decade ago. The digital transition is now nearly complete, with 35mm screenings already special occasions trumpeted by fans and preservationists. Proponents routinely cite the benefits of digital photography: the freedom to shoot in low light; smaller, more mobile cameras; the elimination of the laboratory process. But what is being lost, and how do those most directly affected by the change—cinematographers—feel about it?

Mindel is best known for his feature collaborations with Tony Scott and more recently with J.J. Abrams (Mission: Impossible III, this decade’s Star Treks). In a phone interview, Mindel told me how he developed the most distinctive feature of Abrams’s visual signature: the analog-specific phenomenon known as lens flare, in which a too-bright light source creates a visible halo on the lens.

“The training that I had as a camera technician was such that we were taught to stop any flares to protect the integrity of the photography,” Mindel explains, echoing wisdom that dates to the silent era. “It always occurred to me that halation is something that we live with on a daily basis. Things halate—car windshields, light bulbs, everything. I wanted to allow that to happen in a way that brought more realism to what I was photographing. J.J. and I were looking at dailies on Mission: Impossible III, where we were getting incredible lens flares. He really loved what was happening, and it was sort of an open invitation to let it happen more.”

The flares became a hallmark in Abrams movies. “With Star Trek,” Mindel says, “it [became] a tool for me to allow the sterility of the sets to be amplified by distorting the light on the lens.”

Lens flare is nothing new; although traditionally considered an error, it can be seen in mainstream Hollywood films from the 1960s onward, particularly those shot by Conrad Hall and Haskell Wexler. As Mindel points out, it is an attempt to lend verisimilitude—to enhance the illusion of reality by allowing a naturalistic visual “flaw” to occur as it would when the right kind of light meets a curved glass surface.

As digital takes prominence, film-like visuals are disappearing, kept alive by filmmakers who insist upon shooting in the medium in which they were trained—the medium upon which the art of cinema was founded. Cinematographers—including those who have shot digitally and like it—are wary of new dangers.

“One of the greatest people I ever worked with, Tony Scott, taught me that magic comes out of the accidents—to never be fearful to try anything,” Mindel says. “The beauty of cinematography was that it was an amalgamation of art and science: the science of photography, or the science of postproduction, or the science of photochemical reaction with light.”

Each year’s new digital cameras are often promoted for their ability to create film-like images, which raises the question: Why switch if only to pursue the look of the original technology? A Photoshop filter allows users to place flare effects in a reasonably accurate way, and CG effects shots in feature films often incorporate digitally created “flare” to mesh with the rest of a film’s look (see Star Trek, for example).

Roger Deakins, A.S.C./B.S.C., has shot three films digitally, including last year’s James Bond spectacular, Skyfall, for which he received his 10th Oscar nomination. He’s best known for his collaborations with the Coen brothers and with Sam Mendes, who directed Skyfall.

“I stayed away from digital for a long time because I’d been in love with film,” Deakins tells the Voice. “It was only when digital had something more to offer—not only in terms of the quality of the image, but in terms of what you could do with a digital camera that you couldn’t do with film. Now I find myself shooting in lower light conditions than I could shoot film emulsion in.”

The celebrated Gordon Willis, who shot the Godfather trilogy, Annie Hall, Manhattan, All the President’s Men, and Zelig, sees digital as having a potentially corrosive effect. “In today’s moviemaking, you have lost the integrity of the original image. You’ve lost the integrity of the person who’s thought things out and wants a certain thing to be achieved on the screen. Because if you don’t have a contract that says no one can change anything, everyone who loves a dial—and they all seem to love dials—gets a hold of it and things turn into magenta, they turn into yellow, they turn into some of the most insane applications of ‘creative thinking.’ There are people who should know better, who have been making movies for a while, who get into this damn room with those dials and they start doing things they never would have thought of doing. They go, ‘Well, we’re here. Let’s blow up seven bridges.'”

Mindel shares these concerns.

“Until very recently, most cinematographers were left alone to shoot and manipulate because people were afraid to engage in any technical conversations—because they really didn’t understand the process,” he says. “What has happened with the advent of Photoshop and iPads is that a lot of people know a little. Therefore they feel, especially directors, that they can manipulate the film in any direction.”

He pauses, the language of this new world having not caught up with the reality. “Should I rephrase that? Not ‘film’—’images.’ So, the relationship between the director of photography and the director has to be built on trust.”

With digital, he says, that amalgamation of art and science doesn’t exist.

“[Digital] is something else, and that’s fine,” Mindel says. “But personally, I love the aberrations that film gives me—the grain exploding under stress from light sources that one doesn’t want to control. It enables me to add texture and sympathy, empathy, something that’s indefinable.”

Digital photography continues to replace film. Physical prints of feature films will no longer be distributed by studios to theaters by the end of this year. So even if directors and cinematographers continue to shoot on film, the result will still end up being projected and seen in a digital format. The larger issue here, as Mindel points out, is not new technology and equipment, but the loss of an art form that took a century to develop on the basis of a particular (analog) medium, and its usurpation by an imitative one that is unresponsive—and, ironically, too responsive—to tactile craftsmanship.

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Star Trek Into Darkness Boldly Goes Where Star Trek’s Been Before

“Who are you?” pleads a doomed man as Benedict Cumberbatch looms into his first close-up in Star Trek Into Darkness. The answer is Khan. And that’s not a spoiler—it’s a selling point. A less secretive director (i.e., all save the ghost of Stanley Kubrick) would trumpet that his $185 million movie stars Star Trek‘s greatest villain, but J.J. Abrams has so suppressed this fact that I suspect if you rearrange the letters in Khan Noonien Singh, you’ll find the location of the Lost island.

Abrams’ mystery-box marketing gave a boost to weaker, cheaper films like Cloverfield and Super 8, but if Star Trek Into Darkness bombs, the trick is on him. Cumberbatch, a tweedy Brit with an M.A. in Classical Acting and a face like a monstrous Timothy Dalton, has beefed up to become a convincing killer. He’s brutal and bold, and the film around him isn’t bad either. In the opening minutes, Khan terrorizes London, then makes like Osama and flees to the mountains of an enemy planet, causing Starfleet Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller—welcome back, RoboCop!) to make like Dubya and order his assassination, sans trial. Picture Zero Dark Thirty with bright pullovers and laser guns and you’ll have Darkness, whose heavy-handed political parallels just might feel smart in a summer of Vin Diesel crashing cars.

Instead of Jessica Chastain’s overrated ice queen, vengeance here will be served by the blubbering James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), who so bleeds his humanity across the Enterprise‘s deck that it’s a wonder Chekov (Anton Yelchin) doesn’t slip. Again, the central conflict is between the captain’s swaggering impetuousness and the cold-blooded logic of First Mate Spock (Zachary Quinto). Even more than in the first film, Quinto’s Spock is emotionally disjointed—even dangerous. In his first scene, Spock sacrifices himself to preserve Starfleet’s Prime Directive. Kirk breaks the rules to save his life, and Spock is furious, which is to say he pens a memo of complaint. Demoted, Kirk struggles to reconcile his feelings for his friend. “He’d let you die,” cautions Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), while Spock’s girlfriend, Uhura (Zoe Saldana), is so enraged by her boyfriend’s death wish that she threatens to “tear the bangs off his head.”

After setting up its War on Terror allusions, Star Trek Into Darkness becomes Paradise Lost in Space: It’s a battle for the good captain’s soul. Dispatched to Khan’s hideout, Kirk is torn between Spock’s wisdom and Admiral Marcus’s war-mongering. Will he let his crew quit or die in his quest for justice? Can Khan destroy him simply by smashing his moral code? In Darkness‘ darkest scene, our hero beats a prisoner who’s already surrendered. It’s shocking stuff, but Abrams’s screenwriters don’t trust the popcorn audience to get their psychological implications. Instead, they externalize Kirk’s turmoil by making him spend every second scene suffering unsolicited advice about what to do. That even his subordinates treat him like a passive sap neuters the character, despite an early romp where he beds twin hotties with tails. His only real love is for the Enterprise, that hermaphroditic ship shaped like three phalluses and a flattened boob.

To validate his 2009 reboot, Abrams worked in a space-time splice so Leonard Nimoy could cameo as old Spock, or “Spock Prime,” as though he specializes in overnight shipping. Ironically, in 1982, Nimoy (who had already penned the bristling memoir I Am Not Spock) was so desperate to abandon starship that he only agreed to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan when promised his character would die. Spock croaked, but Nimoy’s Vulcan heart was so warmed by the fan agony that the actor returned to direct Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and, post-resurrection, has clung to the franchise, even titling his follow-up memoir I Am Spock. Today, while William Shatner is sealed in his pop-culture terrarium chanting lounge covers of “Space Oddity,” Nimoy returns again so that old Spock can advise young Spock on how to defeat Khan decades before the original Khan defeats the original Spock, causing such a doubled-back crimp in the chronology that in our universe, Wrath of Khan may now no longer exist. Thus freed, Abrams lifts Khan‘s climax, thievery that will enrage the devout as it suggests the Star Trek saga is merely a game of Mad Libs into which he plugs characters and catastrophes.

Hey, why not? Trek diehards have long-since proven they’re impossible to satisfy. Instead, Abrams’ glossy relaunch is tailored to fans who don’t care for canon but know enough to grin when Dr. McCoy pokes a Tribble. Darkness is a cheery combo of classic catchphrases and young Hollywood heat, like blond babe Alice Eve as a weapons expert who can only examine torpedoes in her underwear.

Having crumpled up the franchise for kicks—not that I’m complaining—Abrams won’t have the chore of smoothing out the Enterprise‘s future. Pine, who may yet prove to be a leading man in the model of Harrison Ford, will be pressed to return in sequels, as will Saldana, Quinto, and Simon Pegg’s Scotty. (If the openly gay Quinto hasn’t had the same big screen success as his co-stars, I hope it’s because he sincerely prefers the theater.) But their intergalactic overlord will be in another universe entirely. Hey, Luke—who was your father again?


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WILD THING

Comedian T.J. Miller may be best known 
as the one behind the video camera in J.J. Abrams’s Cloverfield, but, with any luck, you may soon get to see much more of him (he’s been cast in Mike Judge’s new comedy pilot, Silicon Valley). Until then, you’ll have to catch the Second City alum—named one of Variety’s “Top 10 Comics to Watch”—at Gotham Comedy Club, where he’ll be performing for two nights. The star of the hit comedy short Successful 
Alcoholics (see it on Funny or Die immediately) and the cohost of the podcast 
Cashing in With T.J. Miller on the Nerdist Network will regale with you stories on a range of his favorite subjects, such as terrible pickup lines, “creepy” everyday hand gestures, and his medical marijuana prescription.

Fri., Feb. 8, 8 & 10 p.m.; Sat., Feb. 9, 8, 10 & 11:45 p.m., 2013

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Super Fun, Super Loud, Super 8

A big-bang demolition derby, J.J. Abrams’s much-anticipated, greatly enjoyable Super 8 seems bound for box-office glory. Opening three weeks before July 4th, this Steven Spielberg–produced, kid-centric 21st-century disaster flick could well hang on at theaters till the 10th anniversary of 9/11—an event that haunts Abrams’s surefire blockbuster nearly as much as it did his earlier production Cloverfield, or his major influence, the master’s War of the Worlds.

Set in a small rustbelt town during the summer of ’79, Super 8 basically refracts—or re-refracts—a familiar ’50s sci-fi trope, even as Abrams riffs on the freshly minted sense of suburban wonderment that Spielberg brought to the material in the late ’70 and early ’80s. Newly motherless Joe Lamb (neophyte Joel Courtney) is making a Super 8 Night of the Living Dead with a bunch of fellow 14-year-olds. In a nice touch, the most obnoxious is the director (Riley Griffiths, another first-timer), while the star, most convincingly, is Elle Fanning, a nice girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Joe’s puppy love is sealed by her playfully bestowed zombie kiss, although Abrams may himself identify with the second most obnoxious goony, an annoying little firebug who lives to blow things up (Ryan Lee).

The kids are out late one night, secretly filming by the town railroad, when a pickup truck apparently stalls on the tracks, precipitating a massive flaming-boxcar-hurling apocalyptic derailment of terror—not the first instance of total Ground Zero devastation this Ohio town will endure. Before long, unseen whatzits are liquidating various characters, stealing car engines, cutting the electrical power, and frightening the town’s dog population into scampering out for neighboring counties.

The U.S. Army, even more sinister here than in Close Encounters or E.T., takes control, leaving legitimate, if overly uptight, authority to Joe’s father (Kyle Chandler), a local deputy sheriff. (The movie has a fair amount of emotional backstory, which mainly comes down to what makes a good dad.) “This feels like a Russian invasion,” someone insists at a chaotic town meeting—and that’s before the army’s red-faced commander (Noah Emmerich) orders a mass evacuation. Soldiers are ubiquitous, but, as in Cloverfield, Abrams rations out the whatzit appearances in fragmentary bits and pieces. The movie manages to keep its secret for nearly 90 minutes and, although not hard to figure, you won’t have it spelled out by me.

Drawing on George Romero as well as Spielberg (teenage 8mm filmmakers both), Super 8 is part travesty, part homage. Abrams has something of Romero’s skepticism and cheesiness. He’s less cloying than Spielberg and hardly concerned with superficial verisimilitude—although it is possible that the first Walkman in America showed up in an Ohio 7-Eleven. Abrams’s kid-clutter mise-en-scène is more extreme; his sense of humor is wilder. (The obligatory wall of scribbled messages is entirely devoted to missing pets.) Before the movie ends, suburban heaven becomes a war zone of tanks and explosions, while an instance of mind-melding rapport between the kids and the whatzit is near-hilarious in its deadpan sentimentality. And through it all, the kids keep working on their project. In a sense, that movie is Super 8 itself—the intensity vaporizes thought as the galloping pace tramples narrative logic into dust. (According to the press notes, the actual Super 8 movie was shot and directed by Abrams’s teenage cast.)

Named for an obsolete cinema technology, Super 8 is involving enough to create its own reality. (Exiting the theater, you may instinctively duck to avoid an SUV plunging out of the sky.) The movie begins by evoking a mom crushed to death in a steel-mill mishap, and it never wanders very far from the spectacle of smashed metal and shattered glass. The whole thing feels like one long car crash—not meant as a put-down. Machines exist to pulverize or be pulverized. Without necessarily meaning to be, Super 8 is an American tale, dramatizing the long-ago crack-up of the nation’s industrial infrastructure.

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J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek

It’s difficult for this long-time Trekkie to review J.J. Abrams’s relaunching of the U.S.S. Enterprise. It’s difficult to dispassionately dole out compliments and complaints per the job description. Because, yes, the professional critic understands: This is Paramount Pictures’ latest effort to jump-start a profitable but long-stalled franchise, to do for James Kirk what MGM did for James Bond. Studio execs know that just enough time has elapsed since the original to engender just enough nostalgia for characters named Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. For the professional critic, this reboot has all the trappings and trimmings of the quintessential summer blockbuster: shiny things that fly through outer space and make boom. Plus plenty of merch: Mommy, can I have a phaser?

Good thing I’m not professional. Seriously, Mommy: Can I have a phaser?

Trekkies and civilians (those for whom William Shatner’s long-ago “Get a life!” jab didn’t have the same sting) alike can rejoice: Not only does this Star Trek proffer smart thrills and slick kicks, but it builds upon the original’s history–from its very first pilot episode to Robert Wise’s 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture and beyond–while creating an entirely new future.

Retooling Gene Roddenberry’s hoary, winded pop-cultural warhorse, Abrams has scrubbed, polished, and turned the volume up to 11 with admiration and affection for the original series, but little of the die-hard’s encased-in-amber reverence. All at once, he’s revived the corpse but wiped clean its memory–a fresh start. Star Trek is like all of the best offerings in the big-screen Trek series: “wonderful dumb fun,” as Pauline Kael wrote in her glowing review of 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the franchise’s high point from which Abrams and his longtime collaborators–writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, responsible for everything from Alias to Mission: Impossible III–crib so many plot points that Star Trek almost qualifies as a remake.

Even in a universe altered by that most worn-out of Trek plot devices–time travel–Abrams remains faithful to all of the things that transformed a modest science-fiction series, made popular in 1970s reruns, into a beloved touchstone. Trekkies already know half the dialogue by heart; it’s the sampled soundtrack to a misspent youth in front of a television. Except now, it’s set to the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.”

The story is no more complicated than that of your best Trek TV episode: A bad Romulan (Eric Bana, sporting the full Mike Tyson face tattoo) has come from the future in a tricked-out spaceship to destroy the past (specifically, planets Vulcan and Earth). His motives are barely explained and even harder to understand–unless one has read the four-part prequel comic book, ahem. No matter: Like most Trek baddies, Bana’s Nero is decidedly besides the point; he’s merely phaser fodder, the latest villain in possession of a doomsday machine who exists solely to threaten Vulcan and bring together on the bridge of the Enterprise Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), McCoy (Karl Urban), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), and Chekov (Anton Yelchin), who–at warp factor 10, red alert, damn the photon torpedoes–must save the universe, this time for the very first time.

The crew is a bunch of untested Starfleet cadets: Kirk is a know-it-all horndog with a penchant for green-skinned ladies; Pine plays him like he’s starring in an episode of Dawson’s Kirk. McCoy is, well, a simple country doctor who abhors space travel; some things never change, as Urban, among all the cast members, comes closest to spot-on imitation. As for the rest, places, please: Sulu is a guy who likes swords and steers the ship; Chekov is a wunderkind who speaks in a weddy, weddy tick Russian accent; Scotty is working miracles in the engine room; and Uhura is still trying to hail Starfleet on all frequencies to no avail. The more things change . . .

Spock is the centerpiece–not only as played by Quinto as the tormented youth in revolt raised by the Vulcan Sarek (Ben Cross) and human Amanda (Winona Ryder, almost unrecognizable), but also in the form of Leonard Nimoy, the once-dead first officer who’s lived long enough to travel back in time to offer sage advice to old friends in need of–dare one say it–the human touch. Nimoy’s scenes elicit genuine emotion, not just the nostalgist’s thrill of familiarity or the newcomer’s delight at discovery. When Spock tells a young Jim Kirk, “I have been and always shall be your friend,” or when he realizes a “Live long and prosper” salutation simply will not do, it’s enough to move even a Star Wars fan to tears.

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Cloverfield Is One Giant, Incredibly Entertaining ‘Screw You!’ to Yuppie New York

“I don’t understand why this is happening,” whimpers an awestruck participant in the Cloverfield calamity. Quaking amidst the rubble of shattered condos, stumbling over piles of decimated retail, choking on burnt flesh and smoldering plastic, witness to the collapse of proud Manhattan real estate in the wake of implacable, inexplicable fury, she really ought to have said, “I don’t understand why this is happening again.”

TV auteur J.J. Abrams may have played coy with the marketing campaign for his ultra-mysterious, mega-hyped monster movie, but now that the thing looms fully into sight—whoa—it’s clear he isn’t beating around the Bush-era iconography. Street-level 9/11 footage would fit seamlessly into Cloverfield’s hand-held, ersatz-amateur POV; the initial onslaught of mayhem, panic, plummeting concrete, and toxic avalanches could have been storyboarded directly from the CNN archive. Cloverfield never stops to identify the why, whence, or whereto of its rampaging meanie—this relentless thriller stops for nothing—but as for what to call it, behold . . . al-Qaedzilla!

And how delicious that it comes to feast on the neo-yuppies. Cloverfield devotes the first 20 of its 73-minute runtime to a party—HOLY SHIT. Stop. Let me write that again: 73-MINUTE RUNTIME. Can we just take a moment to pause the action, set aside our differences, drop all beefs, join together as one, and give thanks, all praise due, shout joy to the world and hey, hallelujah—something has found us! Something that isn’t three fucking hours long!

As I was saying, the neo-yuppies. Cloverfield enacts its deft simulation of that infamous September morning in order to brutalize the society that flourished from its ruin like some tacky, tenacious, condo-dwelling fungus. The movie opens in the giant downtown loft of Rob (Michael Stahl-David), a fuckable, upwardly mobile, exceptionally boring twentysomething VP of some white-collar soul-suck. Recently promoted to the Japan office, and tenderly besotted with a Central Park West banality named Beth (Odette Yustman), Rob grins open his front door to the cheers and cameras of a surprise going-away party comprised of fellow smug, self-entitled whitest-kids-you-know.

The narrative conceit of the movie is that we’re watching a certain quantity of consumer-grade video retrieved by the government from the area “formerly known as Central Park” after an “incident” code-named “Cloverfield.” Plying a sly twist on this Blair Witch–craft, director Matt Reeves devises a meta-“cross-cutting” strategy: The main story, largely shot by a wiseass meathead named Hud (T.J. Miller), alternates via camera glitching with the original footage on the tape. This shows us Rob and Beth falling semi-plausibly in lurv while day-tripping to Coney Island. That, in toto, is the motivation for the swift, brutish thrust of the movie: Rob & Co.’s absurdly ill-advised odyssey to save Beth, wounded in her midtown high-rise, as all manner of giant-lizard, military-reprisal, angry-insectoid-parasite hell breaks loose.

This latter menace, a breed of vicious, super-charged, spider-like descendants of the Bugs from Starship Troopers, provides Cloverfield a nifty guerrilla threat. Shaken loose from the hide of al-Qaedzilla as he howls through the city, they pop up willy-nilly to deliver short, uncontrolled bursts of back-slashing, toxin-injecting, mega-hemorrhaging terror. Their introduction speaks to Cloverfield’s chief excellence: a shrewd, scary, playful sense of scale that locks the action in place and propels it forward whiplash fast.

Aside from an apparent space-time rift in the uptown No. 6 tunnel granting an impossibly convenient jaunt from Spring Street to 59th, the movie keeps faith with Manhattan reality. The specificity stings: a breathless regrouping hilariously staged in front of the upscale cosmetic emporium Sephora; a frantic emergence from a subway-tunnel nightmare into the over-lit horror of a triage center in Bloomingdale’s; an acknowledgement that the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle is, indeed, a very deep circle of hell.

With its emphasis on corporate infrastructure and the unimaginative consumer class that enables it, Cloverfield makes for a most satisfying death-to-New-York saga. Which is to say, the fatal flaw of Drew Goddard’s script—shallow, unlikable heroes—can be flipped to an asset: death to the shallow, unlikable heroes! Cynical, sure, but in any case the movie doesn’t belong to its writer, but to the macro-vision of Abrams as executed with micro-dexterity by his team. Michael Bonvillain’s cinematography is a tour de force of avid FX–laden pseudo-verité. Coupled with Kevin Stitt’s complex cutting, Cloverfield is a sustained triumph of expanding and contracting perspectives, its whip-pans from human-scale panic to skyscraper-toppling spectacle raising the bar set by Spielberg’s War of the Worlds—if not Sokurov’s Russian Ark.

The mechanism is the message in Cloverfield, a movie so aluminum-sleek, ultra-portable, and itsy-bitsy sexy, it’s amazing Steve Jobs didn’t pull it out of an envelope at Macworld.

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The Last Action Movie

Mission: Impossible III finds Tom Cruise downplaying the world’s single greatest piece of action music in deference to an Age of Fear vibe that’s a lot more grueling than rousing. Seems Lalo Schifrin’s adrenaline-pumping “dum-dum- dum-dum-dum-dum” is now as dated as the Cold War from which it sprang; maybe the star-producer should’ve sought the rights to “Taps” instead. Cruise’s second sequel to his remake of a TV show cuts straight from the Paramount logo to the unmistakably sickening sounds of torture, followed by the queasy sight of what appears to be our hero’s young sweetheart held at gunpoint, bound and gagged. Then comes the villain’s really bad news for tied-up super-spy Ethan Hunt: “We’ve put an explosive charge in your head.” Channeling the spirit of the times, Cruise’s approach is calculatedly invasive. In the current issue of Time, the icon praises his handpicked director J.J. Abrams as having been “born to impinge and invade pop culture.” Clearly the blockbuster has entered its true shock-and-awe phase.

Paramilitary hardware of the most disturbingly powerful variety takes up the bulk of the new Mission‘s high-tech toy box: If Hasbro hasn’t licensed the missile-toting fighter jets that cut the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to pieces at the movie’s midpoint, we need a regime change in the marketing department. Still, as the stakes of the star’s own epic battle are too high for him to target only jarheads in the audience, M:i:III‘s first full scene flashes back in time from the pre-credit torture-chamber atrocity and plays like an outtake from Jerry Maguire: Hanging up his PlayStation sunglasses and turbocharged Harley and whatnot, Hunt grinningly takes drink orders from well-wishers at the bourgeois party celebrating his engagement to resident nurse Julia (Michelle Monaghan). “Yeah, I’d marry him,” her friends agree when he’s out of earshot.
But enough of that mushy stuff: No sooner has one woman pulled Hunt out of the spy game than another—an outed operative (Keri Russell) held captive in a Berlin warehouse—pulls him back in. Hopeful message to any females who might still be susceptible to that megawatt smile: If Tom Cruise doesn’t marry you, he might at least rescue you.

Whether or not this spectacularly controlling, supernaturally driven star timed the birth of his new baby to coincide with the release of a movie about the competing pressures of work and family (you’ll recall that the actor heroically fled his fiancée’s postpartum room in order to make the scene at M:i:III‘s Rome premiere), even a nonfan has to grant that Cruise’s commercial instincts are at least the equal of his alarmingly purposeful workaholism. The very least of the icon’s clairvoyance has resulted in his prescient casting of this year’s Best Actor winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, here in check-cashing mode as a torture-loving trader of bioterrorist goods and seller of arms to Arab bombers and North Korea. (Deprived of the chance to give a performance, Hoffman merely mumbles his scariest lines: “Remember I said I was gonna kill you in front of her? I’m gonna kill her in front of you.”) Shrewder still is Cruise’s choice to ditch most traces of the ’70s-film fetishism that previously courted directors David Fincher and Joe Carnahan might have brought to this mission and take up with Abrams, a first-timer whose alternately slick and sappy work on TV’s Alias made him ideal for M:i:III‘s this-time-it’s-personal brand of spy melodrama and borderline sadism.

Cruise may be Mr. Hollywood, but he’s not above conceding that our purportedly lower forms of entertainment—namely cheap horror movies and series television—have tapped the torturous zeitgeist a lot more effectively of late than has studio fare. Thus the Mission comes full circle: Following the A-list auteurism of Brian De Palma’s amusingly chilly operatics (Mission: Impossible) and John Woo’s extreme-sports calisthenics (Mission: Impossible 2), a property that began as a Cold War–era home invasion to fill the gap during Hollywood’s last big slump turns back to address the small screen (at a cost of $150 million). But aside from a single jazzy image of Hunt taking a nosedive off a Shanghai skyscraper, Abrams’s movie is too oppressive, too enamored of its brutality to deliver anything like real thrills; its deeply unpleasant tone nearly makes you long even for Woo’s cartoon absurdities. In between the first of countless torture scenes and what looks like a standard-issue paparazzi shot of celebrity puppy love (Cruise’s own happy ending after the last junket is out of the way?), the witless M:i:III strains through its stud’s guilty tears to assert that the new millennium mainly affords a hardworking breadwinner the chance to take secret meetings in Vatican City and still get home in time for dinner. It’s the fantasy of an American hero who still has some explaining to do.