Saturday, 18 May 2013

Week Four - Star Trek into Darkness & The Three Musketeers at the Synetic Theater

18th May - Star Trek: Into Darkness, AMC Theater, Courthouse Plaza, Arlington

The poster shows a flaming starship falling towards Earth, with smoke coming out. At the middle of the poster shows the title "Star Trek Into Darkness" in dark grey letters, while the production credits and the release date being at the bottom of the poster.I approached the 2011 film of the Hobbit with some trepidation. The book was such a beloved part of my childhood; perhaps more responsible than any other single book for pushing my tastes down the (geeky) path they have taken since. If Peter Jackson had replaced those wonderful memories with something superficial and twisted I would have been distraught. Luckily he didn’t. For some reason there had been no such fears about the 2009 ‘reboot’ of the Star Trek franchise, despite Star Trek, in repeats of the original series, in the film versions with Shatner et al and, perhaps most of all, in the Next Generation incarnation, being an equally well-loved and significant part of my childhood mental furniture. Part of the reason was that Star Trek has never really taken itself seriously (i.e. the Tribble episode of the original series). Partly this was also because there have already been so many frankly awful films made already (at least half of the films with Kirk in, all of the films with Picard in and every TV episode with Scott Bakula as captain). So one doesn’t approach a new Star Trek film expecting great things. Nonetheless the 2009 film confounded my pessimism – most of the actors were excellent replacements and the plot device of the disrupted timeline overcame the major drawbacks of setting a film in an earlier period (i.e. that we normally know what is going to happen). But this means, rarely for a Star Trek film, that Star Trek: Into Darkness begins with the disadvantage of bearing higher expectations. Luckily it fulfils them.

A couple of initial observations. Cumberbatch is best known for playing Sherlock Holmes and the character of Spock is based on Sherlock Holmes, so there was an extra soupçon of enjoyment for Conan Doyle fans in the Spock/Cumberbatch tussles. As an Englishman I almost feel obligated to decry the Hollywood ploy of having heroes talk with American accents and villains sound like posh Englishmen. But, really, deep down we all actually like it. If anybody was going to give Spock and Kirk a run for their money it’s good to know it was Englishman (though I couldn’t really have objected to a Latino choice in this case…) So Cumberbatch is a great villain – tough and fiendishly clever, he joins an elite company of English baddies who we secretly admire (Superman’s General Zod, The Lion King’s Scar, The X-Men’s Magneto, and Christopher Lee as Saruman, Count Dooku, and countless Count Draculas). As an Englishman it was also nice to see that the Union Jack still flies in London in the twenty-third century – I’ll stop worrying about the Scottish independence vote in 2014 now. And the moral qualms felt over Kirk’s mission to kill a terrorist without trial, using log-range photon torpedoes, looks particularly relevant in the week that Obama announced new limits on America’s use of drones to kill terrorists.

My opinions on casting haven’t altered from the 2009 film – Spock, Uhura, Chekhov, and Sulu were and remain fantastic choices. Kirk and Scottie – not so much. I like Simon Pegg in other things, but his Scottish accent is diabolical, his body shape and face are all wrong, and the slapstick comedy attached to his character never hits the right note. Kirk is ok, but not great. I’m doubtful whether anybody else could have really convinced as Kirk, though the news this week that scientists have now successfully cloned human embryos does make one wonder if the reboot should have been put on hold until we could have cloned and raised a new Shatner.

Finally, the plot was predictable in places – it was fairly clear who Cumberbatch was long before it was revealed, and an important plot device from the final segment was also too obvious. Nonetheless, it was a fun film and it definitely found the right mix between adding enough novelty to surprise and amuse us, whilst at the same time keeping enough of the old Star Trek to pull at our nostalgia strings. A welcome addition to the franchise.

18th May - The Three Musketeers at the Synetic Theater, Crystal City

My program informs me that the Synetic Theater’s name derives from its ‘synthesis’ of different art forms and its emphasis on ‘kinetic’, dynamic movement. For a Hellenophile like me, using Greek words gets it off to a good start before I even sit down. The program also describes the Synetic Theater as Washington DCs ‘premier physical theatre,’ though I was less sure of what that would mean in practice (do we have ‘physical theaters’ in England? My cultural education continues…) The theatre is approached from the metro station by the tunnels of Crystal City, which doesn’t make it a particularly scenic walk on a quiet evening - it brought back memories of the chap being chased and eaten on the London Underground in American Werewolf in London. It’s a small venue (‘intimate’ in estate agent and theatre program-speak) and the stage is not what I expected would be the case to produce ‘physical theater’. The music before and during the play is mostly classical, which doesn’t match the avant-garde expectations built up by the program description, but does evoke the atmosphere we expect of seventeenth-century Paris.

The story needs no explanation – there have been plenty of film versions, and for anybody my age the Dogtanian series of the 1980s is still the zenith of musketeer (muskahound?) adaptations, though the Michael York/Oliver Reed versions of the 1970s run it close. Like Star Trek, the humour of the other versions and occasionally awful remakes (i.e. the 2011 film with the flying galleons) mean that you approach any version of Musketeers with realistic expectations – it’s not going to incite any profound insights into the human condition, but as long as it doesn’t take itself seriously and has some good fight scenes you’ll exit satisfied.

This stage version maintained a number of strong points from previous versions, and especially the earthier humour of the 1970s films. Occasionally the comedy didn’t quite come off, and I couldn’t work out whether Porthos was supposed to be a grunting simpleton or a deaf man with simple tastes (he is deaf), but mostly it worked well. The fight scenes were strange though – much more realistic than equivalent scenes from a ballet/dance, but still too stylised to be realistic. The result was dissatisfaction on both counts. The weakest aspect was the dialogue, which was uniformly two-dimensional and stilted. And the acting was mixed. Athos was adequate, Richelieu was good, and the outright comedy roles were excellent (Louis XIII and Aramis especially). None of the female characters ever rose better than average. Milady was at her best whenever she wasn’t speaking – she had two assets for the role but neither of them was her acting ability. In fairness, Milady’s acting was not the worst on show, and as the understudy we might expect that she is not yet the finished article. The actor playing D’Artagnan reminded me most of a successful Hollywood actor. Unfortunately, the actor he reminded me of is Keanu Reeves. And even more unfortunately, it was the Keanu Reeves of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, not the Keanu Reeves of The Matrix. The combination of naïve idealism, bloodthirsty toughness and comedy is difficult to pull off, but this D’Artagnan never really came close. The best scenes were those which showcased the synthesis and kinesis of the theater’s name. The erotic tango between Milady and Richelieu, in the middle of a chaotic, violent melee, was sublime. Likewise, D’Artagnan’s meeting with the musketeers in a busy crowd was a brilliantly choreographed hybrid of ballet, acrobatics and slapstick. 

The production reached its peaks of fun during the musketeer fighting scenes, but the story’s tragic elements were much less convincing. In summary, the synthesis is not quite balanced yet. A really good writer and some acting lessons would be a good investment before the Synetic produces its next ‘talkie’. But the choreography of movement was fantastic, and I keenly await their silent production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream later in the summer. 

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