Star Trek Into Darkness

In 2009, director JJ Abrams showed how it was possible to update Star Trek into a fun, entertaining film while still remaining respectful of its source material. The film was a hit, and after four years, Into Darkness arrives in theaters. But while Star Trek was a fresh, new experience, Into Darkness is already showing fatigue under its shiny gloss.

Into Darkness takes place where the previous film left off. The young, charming, and rebellious James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is the captain of the USS Enterprise, boldly going where no man has gone before and boldly defying Starfleet protocols. But when a threat emerges back on Earth, the Enterprise and her crew must do whatever they can to protect Starfleet itself.

Just like with the previous film, Into Darkness’ cast is a treat to watch. Pine plays Kirk with a swagger and cockiness that channels William Shatner without being parody, and Karl Urban’s portrayal of Leonard “Bones” McCoy is a treat to watch.

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Zachary Quinto is good, too. Logically.

The action, likewise, is exhilarating. Ships burn and crash through the atmosphere, and Abrams provides great set-piece action sequences that take full advantage of his cast’s youth and energy. Abrams has updated Star Trek for a more modern audience, and although it loses some of its intellectual nature, the rebooted franchise moves at a quick pace.

However, Abrams seems to have concentrated too much on delivering exciting action sequences than crafting an intelligible story. Into Darkness requires prior familiarity with the original movies in order to function as a cohesive experience. As a stand-alone feature, the movie fails to impart even the most basic information to the viewer, and leaves the uninitiated viewer feeling lost and confused.

One of the big “reveals” in this movie comes as the movie’s villain, John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), is being held prisoner aboard the Enterprise. Talking with McCoy and Kirk, Harrison dramatically announces that his name is “Khaaaan,” complete with foreboding and ominous music. But the film never bothers to explain why this is such an important reveal. It assumes the audience has at least heard of the villain Khan, and assumes that that knowledge is enough to satiate the audience’s questions. Even McCoy and Kirk look wary and unsure in the light of this new information, but in reality they should instead be asking, “uh…who?” For an audience member who has never seen Wrath of Khan, this reveal is meaningless, and the movie never deigns to explain who or what Khan is.

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“Guys, it’s all explained in this 1982 movie. You do have a VHS player on this ship, right?”

Even Khan’s back-story is senseless without prior knowledge of Star Trek canon. Into Darkness takes place in the 23rd century, but Khan is said to have been frozen for 300 years on one of the first sub-warp starships. After awakening, his superior intellect and strength were used by the Federation to design new weapons and starships. But to the average audience member, this information makes no sense. How is Khan from the early 20th century if that technology didn’t exist back then? Where does his superhuman strength and intelligence come from? The movie never bothers to explain these apparent discrepancies. Though these questions were answered in The Wrath of Khan, a reboot shouldn’t require outside knowledge in order for its basic narrative to work.

Moreover, Star Trek Into Darkness is disturbingly self-aware. Callbacks to the original series and set of films are so frequent and obvious that it feels less a Star Trek film than it does a parody, almost like it’s going down a “greatest hits” list of Star Trek pop-culture knowledge. Characters say their catchphrases within minutes of appearing on screen, tribbles make a random appearance, Klingons are here because, well, people have heard of Klingons before! The movie feels like a hodge-podge of classic Star Trek moments the writers desperately wanted to include in the new film, but had no real idea of how to organically work them into the movie.

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After such a fun and successful first film, it’s frustrating to see Star Trek fall into the same safe pattern laid out in its predecessors. One of the benefits of a rebooted franchise is that it allows the characters and story to start from square one, no longer beholden to byzantine plot threads or decades of convoluted canon. But Into Darkness is content to tread familiar ground, throwing reference after reference at the viewer at the expense of its own identity.

It seems the writers are at a point where good, original stories are not on their agenda. There’s literally a universe of possibilities they could take Star Trek, but instead we get more of the same. The effort of creating an alternate Star Trek timeline will go to waste if the new films simply repeat storylines from the past.

With such a great cast and talented director, the new Star Trek films deserve better. As it stands now, the film not-so-boldly goes where many others have gone before.

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Since its premiere at the Sundance Movie Festival in 2010, Exit Through the Gift Shop has been surrounded by doubt and controversy. Is the film, which presents itself as a documentary on urban street art, an elaborate hoax, or is it sincere in its portrayal of Thierry Guetta, a peculiar but genuine fan of street art?

Exit Through the Gift Shop follows the exploits of French amateur filmmaker Thierry Guetta as he records the actions and art of various graffiti artists across the globe. Guetta, with a camera always in hand, looks like a modern day anachronism: his wild facial hair is arranged into mutton chops and a handlebar mustache, and his personality is equally bizarre. An aspiring but fairly clueless filmmaker, Guetta owns an urban clothing shop which he uses to finance his many trips around the world, all to record the processes of several well-known graffiti artists. Among those featured in Exit Through the Gift Shop is Shepard Fairey, the young man responsible for the iconic “HOPE” poster used in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. But though he meets an array of eclectic and interesting street artists, one particular individual remains out of Guetta’s reach: the mysterious and elusive Banksy, an English artist whose stenciled works became the subject of international news after he created a set of images on the West Bank wall in Israel.

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“I hearby dub this West Banksy. That’s not lame, right?”

Through some rather convenient and fortuitous circumstances, Guetta eventually comes into contact with Banksy, who, shadowed and with a modulated voice, provides commentary interspliced into the documentary. After meeting and befriending Guetta, Banksy encourages him to use his thousands of hours of film footage and turn it into a documentary about street art. Guetta obliges, producing “Life Remote Control,” a “film” that consists of little more than quick cuts of street art accompanied by nightmarish audio. “It was at that point that I realized that Thierry wasn’t actually a filmmaker but maybe just someone with mental problems who happened to have a camera,” Banksy says. Soon after, Banksy encourages Guetta to become a street artist himself and makes plans to open an exhibition featuring Guetta’s original art. Banksy takes over Guetta’s documentary and has it feature Guetta himself, with the end product being Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Because Guetta is focus of the film, and its only real “character,“  it is important that the audience comes to empathize with him and his actions. Though bumbling and oblivious, Guetta is presented as a genuinely caring and motivated individual whose obsession with filmmaking is rivaled only by his obsession with street art. The last half of the movie deals with Guetta’s astronomical rise to stardom in the Los Angeles art scene, and how he deals with his newfound (and some may say undeserved) fame. As art enthusiasts flock to Guetta’s exhibition (under the pseudonym Mister Brainwash), Banksy becomes increasingly surprised at Guetta’s level of success, and the lack of experimentation and failure he faced in attaining it. After all, Guetta’s art is pastiche of other artists’ work, only not as thought-provoking or fresh as the originals. Despite his newfound fame, Guetta never comes across as jaded or ungrateful, but as someone overwhelmed by his current situation.

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It’s like Ron Jeremy and Wolverine had a lovechild

Whether or not Exit Through the Gift Shop is a true documentary isn’t important. The issues it raises and questions it asks have no bearing on the true intention of the film itself. The film is an exploration, and at times exploitation, of the urban art scene. Though many talented artists are shown, the film also documents artists who “art” has no message and no real creativity, but is instead a blight on the urban environment. “Sorry about your wall,” is one such message, written sloppily in spray paint. By juxtaposing this with legitimately interesting and provocative artistic statements (such as those by Banksy), Exit explores the difference between mere graffiti and art. It is a complicated and highly controversial subject, but Exit manages to carefully avoid generalizations and condemnations, all while staying entertaining to the average viewer. The film doesn’t tirelessly dwell on “what is art?” but merely poses the question to the viewer. How much this seed germinates depends entirely on you.

Much like the street art it documents, Exit Through the Gift Shop manages to be entertaining, funny, clever, and thought-provoking. Guetta, resembling a real-life cartoon character, charts the escapades of various street artists, climbing and shimmying up buildings alongside them like a fearless madman. Many times, Guetta is caught up in the legally grey area street art occupies; a fateful trip to Disneyland with Banksy provides the film with real tension and an interesting view of the Magic Kingdom. Banksy’s occasional quips give the film some levity: after all, he’s as incredulous at Guetta’s success as we are, and he doesn’t pull any punches when describing Guetta’s eccentric personality. Real or not, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a fascinating look at the culture of street artistry, as well as a great character study of the…unique Thierry Guetta. Perhaps a few years from now we’ll see a follow-up documenting Mister Brainwash’s level of success, but until then, Exit Through the Gift Shop succeeds in providing a highly interesting and compelling look into two forms of art: street art and filmmaking.