Sunday, May 31, 2009

Layer Cake

Like Pulp Fiction, Layer Cake’s title hints at the irregular path the film takes to tell its tale. It follows an honorable crook, which we know only as XXXX (Daniel Craig), who specializes in trafficking cocaine. XXXX’s strategy is to never get involved directly with the criminal element, surrounding himself with other honorable criminals who in turn conduct themselves professionally. It’s all a very neat arrangement on the surface, and XXXX thinks he’s got the system beat. He plans to retire and disappear from the business. WARNING: As we eat this cake, there’s bound to be some juicy spoilers inside.

Peel back a layer… and it turns out that XXXX actually has a boss, Jimmy Price (Kenneth Craham). He demands XXXX personally track down Charlie, the daughter of Price’s fellow crime boss Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon, an evil version of Dumbeldore!). This violates XXXX’s rule of never getting personally involved, but he has no choice.

Peel back a layer…and Price also wants XXXX to organize the distribution of “super ecstasy” tablets from The Duke (Jamie Foreman). Except that the drugs were actually stolen from a Serbian gang, who is intent on tracking them down and murdering everyone involved.

Peel back a layer…and we discover that Price is quite vindictive. He wants XXXX to actually kidnap Charlie in a twisted revenge plot against Temple. It seems Price doesn’t like the idea that XXXX thinks he can retire and wants him dead – if Temple’s men don’t kill him, drug dealers certainly will.

Peel back a layer…and we finally get to the best part of the cake. Nobody is innocent. The professional associates have all committed their own heinous crimes for petty reasons: clubbing snitches to bloody pulps, killing people they dislike, and hiding corpses in freezers. This awful truth requires XXXX to get his hands dirty and he does so in the most thuggish fashion.

The visual direction in Layer Cake is superb, using Matthew Vaughn’s trademark whiplash style that he perfected in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. It makes what could be a standard drug dealing tale much more interesting. Although the accents are hard to follow at times, the acting is top notch. XXXX is a complex character that gives Craig an opportunity to experience extreme violence, utter defeat, passionate lust, and a host of other emotions beyond the reach of the Bond films.

Although Layer Cake narrative can be circuitous, stick with it. There’s one more layer at the end of the movie, a surprise twist that shows we were looking at the wrong cake all along.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Star Trek

The original Star Trek series took time to establish itself as the premiere franchise it is today. The movies steadily improved the characters and special effects, building on a large canon of established Trek lore. The best movies gleefully embraced this rich history; the failures ignored or contradicted it. Star Trek is simply too big to reinvent, and J.J. Abrams knows it. So he did the next best thing by tweaking the established universe of Star Trek just enough to carve out his own little patch for the movie.

This is the beginning of Star Trek re-imagined as a futuristic Earth that incorporates the go-go 60s with iPod style. We see Kirk as a kid on the farm, Spock struggling with his half-Vulcan nature and Bones becoming a crotchety windbag—which, it becomes quickly apparent, he always was. We witness Kirk’s solution to the Kobiyashi Maru, Spock’s acceptance to Starfleet, and the construction of the Enterprise. In short, this is a true and proper launch of a Star Trek movie, from the beginning, so that all those non-Trekkies won’t feel like they missed out…

But if you are a non-Trekkie, you missed out. There are so many nods to Trek lore that my head nearly exploded. SPOILER RED ALERT.

Sulu fences! There’s a splash of light over the captain’s eyes when he sits on the bridge, just like the original series. Red shirts die! The same sounds beep and bleep in the background, from the sensors to the transporters. There are several Wrath of Khan references, from Spock’s famous last words to creepy worms that take control of your brain. There’s even old-style Romulans and Klingons. Fans worried that Abrams was going to remake the series in such a way as to make it unrecognizable can rest easy; this is the Star Trek we know and love, dusted off and buffed to a 21st century shine.

The plot involves time travel, a guest cameo, and references to the central conceit of the series: Spock follows the rules, Bones doesn’t, and Kirk floats above it all, waffling between the two ideologies and blazing his own path as his ego suits him. The movie has no qualms about portraying Kirk as a womanizing jerk or using him as the butt of some hilarious slapstick. It also isn’t afraid to push the envelope with the aliens, going beyond makeup to ensure they’re just unnerving enough for you to notice them even if the rest of the crew doesn’t. This is more than just a new Star Trek, it’s Star Trek done right with a bigger budget.

There are some flaws. The villain is one dimensional. Uhura’s headstrong personality has to carry the burden of embodying all females in Trek, which begins to grate. Winona Ryder (age 38) seems to have wandered onto the set to play Spock’s (Zachary Quinto, age 32) mother. And an uncharacteristically vengeful tactics from the good guys at the end of the movie borders on “ludicrous speed.”

But you know what? I forgive all that. This movie made Trek worth watching all over again and reminded us why it’s okay to travel through time and space, encounter green alien hotties, and bed them. Because it’s FUN.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

I didn’t expect much from the Wolverine movie. Billed as X-Men 4 by the movie theater (says so right on my ticket), it is anything but. This is Wolverine getting the full Weapon X treatment, a mystery that took forever in comic-land to finally reveal. And with a few exceptions, Wolverine gets it right.

Whereas the previous X-Men movies became increasingly complex, with jumbled storylines and too many characters, a single character sharpens Wolverine’s plot to a knife’s edge. Nigh immortal and capable of regenerating from the most grievous wounds, Wolverine and his brother Sabretooth slash their way through the century, engaging in every major war and some minor ones too. For a little while, that’s enough, until Sabretooth’s propensity for raping and pillaging gets out of hand. A firing squad doesn’t do the job (that whole immortal thing), which is when General Stryker offers a devil’s deal.

There’s nothing new here with the exception of the movie’s primary x-factor: Wolverine. Jackman transforms Wolverine from a passive loner to an outraged spirit of vengeance as everyone he loves dies. And behind it all, pulling the puppet strings, is Stryker, channeling Hannibal from the A-Team.

Throughout his adventures, Wolverine is surrounded by a cadre of other mutants with their own abilities. Unlike the other X-Men movies, each mutant serves a very specific purpose. Nothing feels forced. Except for maybe the Blob, but he’s amusing enough in early and later incarnations to provide some much needed levity that borders on the game Super Punchout.

The real revelation here is Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool. Reynolds did a great job as a sword wielding antihero in the last Blade movie and he’s largely the same wisecracking nut job here. Only he’s much cooler and plays a larger role (think Darth Maul without the makeup).

There are some odd points where the Wolverine movie isn’t sure where to go. Stryker, for all his duplicity, often seems content to pull the movie villain mistake of letting people just walk out of his grasp. Some twists are emphasized with a theatrical exclamation point as the character tells us in no uncertain terms exactly what their plans are. And a few feats of derring-do border on the ludicrous…

But then I remember this is a movie about a comic about a guy who has metal claws between his knuckles. If you can keep that perspective, Wolverine is a lot like the titular character’s signature move: it tears through crowded plotlines with deadly efficiency. And if you’re a fan of other members of the Weapon X program, stay to the end of the credits. You can thank me later.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Six-Legged Soldiers

Six-Legged Soldiers is an interesting look at how bugs have been drafted by humanity as vectors to spread disease. Be it to destroy crops, sicken an enemy, or torture a captive, insects have been our unwilling minions for as long as mankind has been around.

The first third of the book is dedicated to insects and their use in history. The critters that steal the limelight are the creepy-crawlies we loathe, like spiders, wasps, and scorpions. But according to Lockwood, the real threat isn't just from the direct harm an insect can inflict by bite or sting, but from the diseases they carry. Mosquitoes carrying yellow fever can inflict far more damage on an army than a hive full of angry bees.

From there, Lockwood moves on to conspiracy theory. Rife with allegations alternately unfounded and confirmed, it traces the Japanese government's top-secret experimental program conducted during World War II and America's subsequent dark dealings with the scientists from that same program. Do we have knowledge of bio-weapons capable of spreading plague vectors? Lockwood seems to think so. The real controversy is: have we used them?

The second third of the book discusses this at length, as well as other governments' possible use of insects in modern warfare. The problem is that the evidence is nigh impossible to prove. The very nature of insect warfare, a vector that spreads at its own pace and on its own terms, is its greatest strength and weakness. Modern militaries supposedly reject using insects because they're unpredictable; countries attacked by irruptions of plagues claim the insects were unleashed precisely because they're so innocuous.

Lockwood comes to the conclusion that the most obvious use of insects in warfare isn't on the modern battlefield at all, but as part of a terrorist attack against civilians. He drags out such horrors as the parasitic screwworm, vegetation-devouring beetles, and crop-destroying aphids. Eminently transportable, easily unleashed, and capable of inflicting immense damage with comparatively little effort, Lockwood emphasizes that the next Weapon of Mass Destruction is actually very tiny indeed.

There's a lot of meaty content here, but it's at times overshadowed by Lockwood's narrative, which is reminiscent of a carnival barker. He's enamored with alliteration, to the point of distraction. Six-Legged Soldiers also lacks focus. It's alternately a historical review of insect warfare, a conspiracy theory on government cover-ups, and a modern drama about terrorism. If you're a fan of all three topics like I am, this book is a compelling review of insects as weapons.