FRESH POUR: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) / The Iceman (2012)

Clint takes a look at two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal.

Star Trek Into Darkness / dir. J.J. Abrams / Paramount Pictures

Star-Trek-Into-DarknessAs of the time of this writing, Star Trek Into Darkness, the second and latest in J.J. Abrams’ alternate-timeline reboot of the Star Trek universe, has been out for nearly a month in some markets. The Internet being the Internet, everyone’s already heard what happens, but I’ll go ahead and say THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS for those who have managed to avoid them thus far.

The plot is as follows: following a terrorist attack on Starfleet Headquarters, James T. Kirk (a much improved Chris Pine) is thrust back into the captain’s chair after a brief decommission for violating the Prime Directive to track down mysterious bomber John Harrison (a scenery-chewing, though somewhat lackluster Benedict Cumberbatch). The whole crew is back, and acquit themselves well for the most part – Karl Urban is as crotchety as ever as Bones, Simon Pegg gets more to do in Scotty’s expanded role, Zoe Saldana manages to kick ass as Uhura (despite the unfortunate need to make much of her role in the film about her lover’s quarrel with Spock), and so on. John Cho and Anton Yelchin do the best they can with what few scenes they get; Cho’s Sulu is a consummate professional while Yelchin scrambles around in an adorable frenzy as the always-befuddled Chekov. The crew doesn’t quite feel like a family yet, but they’re getting there, and this film takes some tremendous strides toward that end.

The film is not perfect, to be sure, but its energy and surprising intelligence manages to be indelibly exciting – in the ensuing chase for Harrison, the character relationships between the crew are also given greater attention, as is the general tenor of Starfleet itself. The primary question the film asks, echoed by Scotty in one of the best dialogue scenes of the film, is whether or not Starfleet is a military or a force for exploration: the actions of Section 31 and Admiral Marcus (a deliciously hammy Peter Weller) throw that initial mission statement into question. There’s a lot of 9/11 imagery and thematic material to work from, which adds a surprisingly progressive subtext to the film. Harrison/Khan is a terrorist who we used in the past to benefit us, now back to take revenge on perceived slights against his people, which we retaliate with by sending an incursion into enemy territory and unleashing automated weapons against him from a safe distance. In this way, the crew of the Enterprise become Seal Team Six, and Kirk’s dogged determination to track down Khan is shown to be an extension of Starfleet losing its way.

Despite the film’s plot being ostensibly about revenge and retaliation, the eventual message of the film is that these are not the answers: Kirk is rewarded by refusing to follow his play along with the extrajudicial assassination he was ordered to give, and even Spock’s vengeful pursuit of Khan is stopped by the sensible Uhura, who manages to be the one to take down Khan. (Both this and Iron Man 3 see the villain undone by the protagonist’s love interest, which I think is interesting.)

Naturally, just like with the first film, there are criticisms, often by Trek nerds who don’t see this as “their Star Trek,” even going so far as to make the distinction between this being a good action movie, but not a “Star Trek” movie. The most notable criticism levied against the film, one which is admittedly difficult to dispute, is the film’s use of reference as fanservice – there are many callbacks to previous Trek films, and at times the film makes deliberate reference to small memorable moments from the first Abrams Trek film. The film even borrows wholesale the end of The Wrath of Khan, as well as its antagonist (though I hesitate to call this a remake of said film, unlike other reviewers). However, with the scene in question, I actually quite liked it; I’ve failed to mention that one of the most important parts of the film is the evolution of Kirk and Spock’s friendship, one which they’ve been told they must have because they have Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy, who still cameos here in the one bit I did roll my eyes at) telling them it’s their destiny. Throughout the film, you can see these two struggle to be friends, and seemingly only still working at it because they’ve been told they have to. They know there’s something between them, but they don’t quite see it yet. Quinto and Pine are incredibly charming in these scenes, and they both seem to share equal time as the leads of this film.

However, what this film in particular does well is organically show how their relationship evolves in a different way to the one we’re used to: the moments of mutual respect feel earned, and Kirk’s death scene in particular is very well played. This scene doesn’t feel so much as a ripoff as it does a recontextualization; in an early moment where Spock’s life is in Kirk’s hands, Bones notes that Spock would let Kirk die if he were in the same position. By the end of the film, however, we actually see a scene where their positions are reversed – this time, it is Spock on the other side of the glass while Kirk faces death (much less gracefully than Nimoy did in Wrath of Khan, as could be expected). I really liked this scene, and while the basic letdown of a new Star Trek universe not taking us where no man has gone before is still there, I think there absolutely is value in going where we’ve gone before from a different direction.

There’s so much I haven’t touched on – Cumberbatch’s Khan, some of the more exciting setpieces, Alice Eve’s underused Dr. Carol Marcus – but in general, I very much enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness. I don’t feel the need to mitigate my basic enjoyment of the film with protestations of whether or not it’s really “Star Trek” (after all, some “real Star Trek” is real shitty anyway). The second film corrects some of the mistakes of the first, like taking the consequences of a brash freshman captain getting the fleet’s flagship to their logical conclusion, and sets the third film up nicely for the start of the crew’s five-year mission. While the color palette is a bit more drab this time around (I really hate the ugly leather jackets Scotty and the crew wear on occasion to cover up the bright t-shirt uniforms), the action scenes are well-staged, the pacing is great with only a few missteps, and the solutions to the crew’s many predicaments don’t just come out of thin air. Maybe in the third film we’ll get some strange new worlds and new civilizations; in the meantime, I really like what we were given.

Clint’s Verdict: Loved It

Drinking Rules for Star Trek Into Darkness:

1) Drink whenever you find a visual or verbal callback to a moment from a previous Star Trek film/episode
2) Drink anytime Kirk (Chris Pine) does the opposite of what he is ordered/advised to do
3) Drink whenever someone sheds a single tear (it happens more than you’d think)

Finish Your Drink When:
Spock (Zachary Quinto) shouts the name of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character.

The Iceman / dir. Ariel Vromen / Millenium Films

The-Iceman-PosterEver since he came to prominence in films like Bug and Revolutionary Road, Michael Shannon has made his bones as an intense, craggy-faced character actor, providing coolly menacing performances of characters who teeter on the edge of insanity. The Iceman is no exception; this film is a loose biopic of famed contract killer Richard Kuklinski, who claimed to have killed more than 100 people in his lifetime before being arrested and sentenced to life in prison. Director Ariel Vromen follows Kuklinski through his early life dubbing porno movies for the mob, his beginnings as a contract killer, his dealings with mob boss/mentor Roy DeMeo (a vital Ray Liotta), and his attempt to balance his shady dealings as a hitman with his tumultuous relationship with his wife (an effective, if underused, Winona Ryder).

The real Kuklinski was dubbed “The Iceman” not only for his methods of freezing his victims to obscure the time of death but for his unfeeling demeanor – it’s said that he doesn’t and can’t feel anything. While there are shades of that in Shannon’s mesmerizing performance in the film, there is a great deal of passion within Kuklinski, as the character’s main struggle is to provide for his family, whom he claims are the only people he cares about. This seems a bit of a change from the real Kuklinski, likely meant to provide the film’s protagonist with the needed bit of motivation for an audience to somewhat sympathize with him. Shannon, as with many of these kinds of roles, plays Kuklinski as an enigma – emotions are conveyed through mild face twitches, gritted teeth, steely eyes, the actor making so much out of stillness that it’s hard to look away.

Despite Shannon’s incredible performance, it’s hardly revolutionary – it’s not much that we haven’t seen from him before, and I’d honestly like to see him branch out a bit in future roles if possible. While Vromen deftly recreates the aesthetics of 1960s and 1970s New York City, down to the gorgeous sedans and beaten leather jackets, the film inside is a bit confused, with a somewhat glacial pacing and very little variation as the film and character progresses. Kuklinski talks to the mob, has a tense conversation with his wife, coldly kills somebody, has a fit of rage, rinse, repeat. The film deliberately evokes the HBO documentary interviews with the real Kuklinski by bookending the film with scenes of Shannon’s Iceman talking to an invisible interviewer offscreen (a strange choice that could have easily been excised).

The cast is great, but underused; I really wanted to see more of Ray Liotta, but after a slightly threatening scene near the end of the film, he’s gone. We get some incredible scenes with the rest of the strong ensemble, like Robert Davi, David Schwimmer, Chris Evans’ slimy Mr. Freezy, and the small cameo scene with James Franco, re-enacting one of Kuklinski’s most famous stories (where he gives the victim a half hour to pray to God to save his life). The film has a great sense of style, but the pieces don’t fit together well enough for me to hail it outright. Something feels missing, and it’s not the film’s pitch-perfect sense of nihilism; perhaps if Kuklinski’s life weren’t so purposefully static the pacing would improve. All the same, it’s still a fine, modest period crime film with a wonderful central performance, and definitely worth a look.

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

Drinking Rules for The Iceman:

1) Drink every time someone is murdered (regardless of method).
2) Drink whenever someone calls Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) “Polack”.
3) Drink anytime someone mentions how big Kuklinski is.

Finish Your Drink When:
Kuklinski shouts “I’m sorry! I’M SORRY!” in an elevator.

Next week, Clint buckles up for Fast & Furious 6 and finds out if The Hangover Part III can salvage its unfortunate predecessor! (This may even be a triple-header, as the DreamWorks epic Epic also comes out this next weekend!)

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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