Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - May 17, 2013

Openings

Star Trek Into Darkness

(Century 16, Century 20) There's a speech in the old dramatic war horse "12 Angry Men" about reasonable doubt that an accused teenager has committed murder. "Now is this kid smart or is he dumb? To say that he is guilty you have to toss his intelligence like a pancake." That about sums up the feelings many fans have about the current state of the "Star Trek" franchise or, as fans have taken to calling it, "AbramsTrek." That'd be J.J. Abrams, the director and producer of 2009's "Star Trek" and its sequel "Star Trek Into Darkness."

Abrams and his screenwriting team of Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof have a gift for 21st-century spectacle and a deficit of subtlety. That, one must concede, is a winning combination for a big-budget actioner like "Star Trek Into Darkness," and the picture's entertainment virtues don't end there. As seen in the previous film, the iconic characters, handled with heart and humor, remain in the good hands of a fine ensemble, and Abrams' tone of science-fiction sensation and sentiment has already proven successful.

Still, there are tradeoffs in the hurtling pace, bombastic action and general breathless busyness of these pictures, which seek — like a good rollercoaster — to whip the customer out of conscious thought and into a heart-pounding visceral and emotional experience (now in 3D!). The approach allows and at times seems to demand a picture to turn on the dumb, in certain plot particulars.

On the other hand, the picture's ethical convolutions — as acted out by the arrogant but strategically skilled James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), the determinedly logical Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto), and a wild card from without (terrorist John Harrison, played by the splendid Benedict Cumberbatch) — feed into at least superficial sociopolitical allegory. Sidestepping spoilers, I can tell you that Kirk embarks on a mission of vengeance that eventually forces him to reconsider his moral position. Is he comfortable, as per the dubious orders of Starfleet Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), condemning a man to die without a trial as part of a military operation?

Shadow-government shenanigans complicate Harrison's motivations and, along with the remote missile attack heading his way, evoke American interventionist policies (the polar opposite of Starfleet's "Prime Directive" of non-intervention, the bone of contention in the film's opening sequence). They also evoke such specific modern-warfare tactics as drone strikes, and the larger issues of the freedoms we'll forfeit and the moral stances we'll compromise in the name of fighting a "War on Terror." The film dares to critique "shoot first, ask questions never" policy and slap Hollywood's wrist for so often celebrating violent revenge. I love "Star Trek Into Darkness" for that moral, even as ironically mitigated by nonstop phaser fights, pummelings and explosions.

I'm less enamored of what the picture shares with its summer-blockbuster predecessor "Iron Man 3": a lazy or even nonsensical approach to writing the story out of corners, as well as the implication that an arrogant hero could stand to learn a hard lesson, followed by a resolution that gives little weight to personal consequences. As 2009's "Star Trek" playfully engaged with the franchise's history, this second Abrams picture works out meta-riffs on the original crew's second feature film, 1982's "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," including a shamelessly underwritten Dr. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) and the motif of "the needs of the many" outweighing "the needs of the few," or the one.

While ostensibly clever, the "Star Trek II" references cause the biggest headaches for this sequel, which would have been better off boldly going where fewer movies have gone before. So is the kid smart or is he dumb? Yes, and he's fun to hang around with for a couple of hours.

Rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi action and violence. Two hours, 12 minutes.

— Peter Canavese

The Iceman

1/2

(Aquarius) True-crime enthusiasts won't want to miss "The Iceman," about a killer whose New York Times obituary was headlined "Richard Kuklinski ... a Killer of Many People and Many Ways, Dies."

Ariel Vromen's docudrama about Kuklinski proves as matter-of fact as its protagonist, a New Jersey man who happened into a gig as a Mafia hitman while no doubt suppressing the urge to tell his boss, "I shouldn't tell you this, but I would do this for free." The product of a wildly abusive father (a fact briefly established in flashback), Kuklinski would rub out those who rubbed him the wrong way well before veering, in 1965, into mob killing. Michael Shannon (of "Take Shelter" and HBO's "Boardwalk Empire") holds the screen with a typically intense performance.

Vromen's sturdy if unexciting direction has the feel not of a Scorsese movie itself, but a fine Scorsesean knock-off: say, "Donnie Brasco" on a smaller budget. The presence of Ray Liotta as the mob soldier who contracts Kuklinski — and a twin focus on the details of a life in ugly violence and a suburban domestic existence with wife (Winona Ryder) and two kids — bring to mind "Goodfellas," were it considerably more dour. There's little verve in Kuklinski's pursuits, marked by his "cold as ice" demeanor (his "Iceman" nickname also refers to his preferred method of preserving bodies until they can be most inconspicuously disposed of).

The main selling point here, and it's a considerable one, is Shannon, who shows new shadings in the role of Kuklinski, the focus of nearly every scene in the film. There's tightly coiled rage, hard-earned, beneath the man's icy exterior and hard worldview, and Shannon expertly delineates both the sensitivity that makes the anger possible and a disturbing confidence that develops over two decades.

Still, there's obvious mystery to a man who could — and does — kill upwards of 100 people with no compunction. Well, one compunction, teased by the film-opening interview query "Mr. Kuklinski, do you have any regrets for the things you've done?" Vromen saves the answer until the final moment, in one of many details that can be directly traced to the source material, Anthony Bruno's book "The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer."

The impressive supporting cast includes Chris Evans (disappearing into Richard's professional colleague Robert "Mr. Softee" Pronge), James Franco, Stephen Dorff, David Schwimmer, John Ventimiglia and Robert Davi, but it's all about Shannon — one of the most interesting actors working — and Kuklinski's jaw-dropping story. The film's big problem is Vromen's unfortunate ability to turn that story into something plodding, but Shannon compensates with his potent characterization.

Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language and some sexual content. One hour, 46 minutes.

— Peter Canavese

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