Star Trek Beyond

July 26, 2016 by  
Filed under Movies

The third installment of the rebooted “Star Trek” franchise takes the best elements of the 2009 film and leaves out the weakest elements of the 2013 sequel, “Into Darkness”. The series has hit its stride with “Star Trek Beyond”, this time directed by Justin Lin (“The Fast and Furious” series), and packs an entertaining punch while also keeping a comic tone intact.

The screenplay was co-written by Simon Pegg, who plays Montgomery Scott on board the Enterprise. His keen awareness of the importance of the chemistry between the characters is very evident, making this probably the most rewarding experience of the three films so far.

The film begins much like “Into Darkness” did, with Kirk doing everything he can to mess up what seems to be a simple mission. The creatures he speaks to look a bit like “Star Wars” prequel rejects, but turn out to be cute little miniature Jumanji hybrids. Though chuckle-inducing, I hope this doesn’t become the standard in subsequent scripts. In fact, the series should probably take a new direction after this one, so as not to become stale too quickly.

The main plot of the film involves a husky lizard-like villain named Krall, who is looking for a relic that Kirk had in his possession in his mission to appease the creatures in the beginning of the film. Apparently this artifact has a lot of unknown power, but Krall is after it. They first encounter him after agreeing to a rescue mission from a distressed former captain of her own ship, Kalara (Lydia Wilson), and seek to aid her while going into the Nebula. While there, they’re greeted by a slew of aggressive ships, and it’s fairly evident that it was a trap laid by Kalara. It’s not at first clear why, until she admits that her crew is at the mercy of Krall (Idris Elba). This is no consolation to Kirk, whose crew is now also taken captive.

Kirk, Chekov, Scotty, Bones and Spock have evaded capture, and are aided by a rogue female being, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who has been living in an abandoned Starfleet ship, the USS Franklin. At first confused why there would be an older Starfleet ship stuck in the rock of this planet, it becomes evident that Krall may have had a link to Starfleet Academy.

Meanwhile, Uhura and Sulu try to release the captives, as they themselves are prisoners as well. Uhura is the one who realizes Krall may not be as simple as a foul tempered, scaly antagonist. There seems to be something deeper within his anger and resentment toward their race.

As mentioned before, the film is directed by the man who gave us much of the “Fast and Furious” sequels, and this film has moments of being too fast and furious for its own good. But for the most part, it’s very well paced and the character interactions are a joy to watch. Bones and Spock have some great scenes together, and Scotty and Jaylah enjoy some nice chemistry as well. The film is probably the most action packed of the three, but it’s never uninteresting; and even at its most brazen and contemptuous of suspension of disbelief, it doesn’t go so far as to take you out of the moment. As unbelievable as some of the stunts are, you’re still rooting for these characters to be safe and return home in one piece.

The strength of the series has always been its cast–that goes back to the original cast of the 1960’s in the first series. It always felt like an ensemble, and this cast preserves that. These characters like each other, and we like them for it. It’s bittersweet to see Chekov one last time, as actor Anton Yelchin tragically died this summer. But he has a nice role in this film, and we will definitely miss him.

Also mentioned before, the series should probably start to take a new direction after this one. They’ve rebooted the cast, rehashed a villain, and now I think we’ve had our fill of revenge plots. Much like the first series of original films, which went in new directions, this series needs to find other stories to tell. They have the cast at their prime, now give them something different. This film is forgivable for its messy antics at times and even confusing narrative; if this is repeated in a fourth film, the series could start to lose itself, and that would be a shame.

For now, though, sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s entertainment at warp speed.

My rating: :-)

10 Cloverfield Lane

March 16, 2016 by  
Filed under Movies

“Cloverfield” was a 2008 monster movie that wanted to be part “Blair Witch Project”, part “Independence Day”, and part “Godzilla”. For me, the film failed to even be close to any of those in quality and in execution. The characters were at best boring, at worst irritating; and the film’s guerrilla-style camerawork was either dizzying or too unfocused and felt forced as “amateurish”. Every actor was too good looking to be considered realistic, and some were even recognized actors, which completely betrayed the “found footage” number one rule: you should be thinking you’re watching real people, not actors. Years later I saw the film again and it dulled into a watchable, somewhat amiable B-movie. Maybe that’s what it was actually intended to be–but whenever J.J. Abrams is involved, you know it’s going to aim higher. So for that, I gave it very bad marks.

In “10 Cloverfield Lane”, it seems that only part of the title is used to connect the two films together. We get the feeling that there will be a giant monster at some point. However, we’re introduced to a more intriguing, and unsettling story when we’re introduced to a boorish but somewhat likable hero/villain, Howard, played wonderfully by John Goodman in one of his best roles in his colorful career.

A young woman, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), leaves her fiance after a fight, and heads into the abyss of Louisiana, only to be forced off the road and losing consciousness at the end of the car wreck. She finds herself cuffed to the wall of a small basement room attached to an IV. Howard comes in and introduces himself, feeds her, and tells her he saved her life. After she attempts to escape, Howard realizes he should level with her and tell her that he’s brought her to his bunker because of an attack. He’s not sure what the attack was, except that toxic air has been released into the atmosphere and it’s no longer breathable. They are seemingly the only survivors, save for one other person–Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), who is around her age. Emmett knows Howard, and worked for him. He believes everything Howard says, to the dismay of Michelle, but there’s a hint of doubt coming from him as well. She can tell he doesn’t want to believe Howard.

Howard eventually introduces Michelle to his entire bunker, complete with kitchen and living room, board games and a TV with a VHS/DVD player. He believes they may have to stay down there for years, which Michelle also has a hard time swallowing. It’s hard to tell if Howard is telling any sort of truth, because he has some logic to his theories about what has happened. Then he mentions aliens, and she really loses her faith in him.

As time goes on, they learn to accept each other in some ways. No one truly trusts the other, except perhaps Emmett begins trusting Michelle more than Howard, and begins to hear her out in her plans to escape. She attempts to leave the bunker at one point, only to be confronted by a hysterical woman seemingly afflicted with burn marks all over her face. The woman is at first seen as a victim of some sort, but then becomes aggressive and starts screaming at Michelle to the point where Michelle really can be the only one seen as a victim in all of this.

This incident, however, allows Michelle to finally believe Howard. But then, things start to fall apart again when she starts to learn about his past, especially involving his daughter Megan. As the story unravels, a very creepy question emerges: What if you were stuck in a bunker following an apocalypse, and your only company was a psychopath?

It’s at this point where the film really begins to crackle and pop, and there are many surprises as the mystery unfolds. The film has plenty of jump-scares, and even becomes a full on thriller towards its climax.

The climax is where the film may divide audiences. This film was not originally conceived as a “Cloverfield” sequel, spiritual or not. It does have some elements that will remind you of that film. However, it becomes something entirely different toward the end. Howard morphs into something utterly monstrous, lumbering and menacing, and though he is still a human being, we see less of one as the film reaches its surprising and audacious conclusion.

Goodman’s performance isn’t the only one to point out, though; Winstead is steady and balanced as Michelle. She reveals to Emmett in an emotional scene that she may have been abused in the past, but always runs away from everything instead of confronts it. She tells him a story about a young girl being publicly assaulted by her own father, and even if it’s not serious or life threatening, Michelle’s resolve is simply to leave the scene rather than help the little girl. This gives insight into her leaving her fiance, who may also have been abusive (voiced briefly by Bradley Cooper, as Ben, who tries calling Michelle after she’s left).

The three characters are engaging and their chemistry is very good, keeping us interested not only in the unfolding of the story, but in their lives as well. We want to see what happens to them, as much as we want to see what happens in the plot.

As stated before, the ending shifts everything to another level, and you either accept it or you don’t. But by that time, I believe the film has achieved something the original “Cloverfield” never did–a believable cast, a credible and appealing story, and a satisfying journey. Whether you like how it ends up or not, to me, isn’t as important as being completely enthralled by the events leading up to the conclusion. It is, essentially, a great ride.

My rating: :-)

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

December 23, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

“Star Wars” has become less a film franchise and more a cultural phenomenon in the past decade, and a new film–the first not to be helmed by George Lucas–seems almost moot when it comes to critiquing its merits as a film. We know what to expect at this point. Episodes IV, V, and VI all told the story of the Rebellion versus the Galactic Empire. Small fry versus big guy. David vs. Goliath. It was a story we all could relate to; we all wanted to be like Han Solo, but were probably more like Luke. The Force, the Jedi, the Dark Side, were all defining storytelling elements that made that trilogy a classic. Next, Lucas wanted to go back and tell the story of Luke’s father Anakin with episodes I, II, and III. He attempted to tell a backstory that really fell flat, and didn’t create very engaging characters. He certainly managed to create some really annoying ones, though. Through the years, the vitriol for the prequels has abated, and now–for better or worse–they are a part of the “Star Wars” film canon. There’s even a DVD release that puts them in order so you can watch I-VI, as George Lucas, er, intended (if you really want to believe that).

Episode VII resembles the first trilogy (that is, the middle episodes). It begins with action and ends with action, and in between we have a very predictable story arc that is plucked right out of “A New Hope”. We are introduced to a few new characters: a disgruntled Stormtrooper (cloning went out of style) named FN-2187 (well played by John Boyega) opts out of the program and joins a new rebellion called the Resistance to overcome the First Order, which are the remnants of the old Galactic Empire. FN is paired with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, in an appealing role) who nicknames him “Finn”. The big driving story is that Luke, the last of the Jedi, has gone missing and both the Resistance and the First Order are trying to find him. The Resistance obviously wants him to help their cause; the First Order wants to vanquish him. The map to Luke’s whereabouts is given to a cute little droid named BB-8, and that map becomes an obvious MacGuffin very quickly. Meanwhile, a girl, Rey (Daisy Ridley), comes into contact with the droid, and also Finn after his ship crashes on the planet she’s on, presumably killing Poe. Finn, Rey, and BB-8 stumble upon the Millennium Falcon, and we are soon reacquainted with two familiar and very welcomed faces: Han Solo (Harrison Ford, always a pleasure), and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). Solo is back to being a smuggler, but he has left a little legacy behind: Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who just happens to be a part of this First Order, taking orders from a mysterious leader, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) that looks a little bit like a middle earth reject from “Lord of the Rings”. It’s fitting Serkis would play him. Ren has the Force, because his mother happens to be Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), a General with the new Resistance. Ren obviously is torn by two worlds, in a way that Darth Vader was. Ren also wears a mask and has his voice modulated–but here it’s by choice, rather than because of being disfigured and dismembered. Ren is younger, and more unsure of who he really wants to be. It’s a good choice for a character arc, as we know Ren will most likely be the focal villain who we want to like a whole lot more than we wanted to like Darth Vader. But Kylo Ren is capable of some pretty horrible things as well, including dispatching a very well liked character. I still think it was a mistake to be rid of this particular character. But J.J. Abrams, the director, must have wanted to shake things up early.

He does a very good job of balancing the action with the character narrative, and the film’s pace is snappy. Like the original trilogy, the film never feels as long as it actually is. There’s even some good humor peppered in, something that was severely lacking in the prequels, and something that really added to the entertainment value of the film.

And as a film, it does work quite well. As a sci-fi yarn you do have to suspend disbelief at times. But there’s never a point where I felt “out” of this movie. I was sold, from the first moments of the opening crawl, and the film never let me go as an invested viewer. Of course, it ends on a cliffhanger, and so it’s hard to judge how this will all work out in the end.

But it certainly is a very strong start to hopefully a redeeming trilogy, one that can stand the test of time that the original has. It has a lot of pressure riding on it, but I think Abrams & Co. are up to the task.

My rating: :-)

Star Trek Into Darkness

May 21, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies

In 2009, we were treated to another incarnation of the original “Star Trek” cast. After all, after “Nemesis” it was evident that there was no more room for the “Next Generation” cast as it seemed their film arc was all washed up. I still don’t know how that happened as they were a bright, fun cast with an introspective and classy captain. I chalk it up to unimaginative writing and stagnant directing by Jonathan Frakes, who played also played Riker.

The series was rebooted and at the helm was “Lost” creator J.J. Abrams who had done a nice job taking an ensemble cast in that show and putting them in interesting situations while growing them as characters (for the first few seasons, anyway). Abrams was hired as director for the “Star Trek” reboot even though he was admittedly not a big fan of the show. That’s not always a kiss of death, however. In some ways it can help because there’s no fanboy bias that you have to worry about. The result, too, was a smashing success, putting together a great cast of young actors to reinvigorate the roles of the original star ship Enterprise. Although the villain was a bit cartoonish and weak, the main story of Kirk and Spock becoming friends was extremely well done.

Now, four years later, we say hello again to the same cast, and it’s a real pleasure seeing them again. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto have mastered the roles of Kirk and Spock respectively; though they are friendlier, there are still some kinks to work out. When we are first introduced to them this time around, the Enterprise is on an observational mission on a small planet of natives who are about to be wiped out by a volcano. Acting against their Prime Directive, they are seen by the natives and Kirk saves Spock’s life while he is in the active volcano, trying to save the race from extinction. Though it was a noble effort, Kirk is reprimanded by not only his superiors, but also by Spock because saving his life was “illogical”. Kirk is relieved of his captain status, and Spock is reassigned to another Federation ship.

But don’t think that means we’re not going to see them work together. A bomb explodes on Earth wiping out a department in Starfleet, and the culprit is a former officer known as John Harrison who, for unexplained reasons, has gone rogue. Kirk is given First Officer status on the Enterprise and is assigned to accompany Admiral Pike (reprised by Bruce Greenwood). Before their mission is underway, however, they are attacked at Starfleet Command, and Pike is killed by Harrison. Kirk finds out at this point that this terrorist plot is related to a secret that Starfleet is keeping, one that offers a bit of a twist on John Harrison that I won’t reveal–but you will be very familiar with it if you’ve followed any of the “Star Trek” films in your life.

With Pike dead, Kirk resumes his position as captain and reinstates Spock as First Officer. Their mission is also a secret one: to take out John Harrison on the Klingon planet Kronos, in an uninhabited city. The order is given by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), and the Enterprise is sent into Kronos. Once on the planet, however, Kirk decides to spare Harrison’s life and capture him rather than kill him. They are greeted unexpectedly by Marcus in another Federation ship, the USS Vengeance, and Marcus insists again that Harrison be killed. Marcus’ daughter, Dr. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) is on board the Enterprise, and when she learns that Marcus intends to destroy the Enterprise if needbe, she tries to intervene. But all Marcus does is beam her aboard, and Kirk is left in a very precarious situation.

There is a lot more going on in this film than the previous one, obviously. That should always be the case when it comes to sequels. Raise the stakes, make it more interesting, give the characters something more to work with. Abrams and Co. do this as best they can but they are somewhat hampered in this sophomore effort by a sophomoric script, co-written by former “Lost” buddy Damon Lindelof. As in “Prometheus”, Lindelof shows that he cannot seem to handle complexities in character and narrative arc, and some situations are handled more like a Sunday morning comic rather than a feature film. So expect some Deus Ex Machinas, and suspend your disbelief a little bit more than you’re used to, even in a science fiction action film like this.

It especially works against them in the character of Harrison, who is a very convincing villain played exquisitely by Benedict Cumberbatch. There is an open ending which begs for his return and I hope it does happen, because his character felt a bit rushed at times when this character deserves patient and deliberate writing to be a worthy foe for Kirk and the Enterprise.

But it is nice to see the cast again, and actors Simon Pegg, Zoe Saldana, Anton Yelchin, and John Cho are appealing supporting actors rounding out the splendid Enterprise crew. The only one that seems to still just “impersonate” his counterpart is Karl Urban who plays Dr. “Bones” McCoy. Every time he speaks he is trying too hard to “sound like” Bones rather than just be Bones. Other than that, the cast works perfectly.

The film delivers big laughs as well as big thrills, and although there are a few too many climaxes in third act that wears you down a bit, the ending is satisfying and it made me want to see where these characters will boldly go next.

I just hope the next script provides an equally interesting story that isn’t littered with plot holes and convenient resolutions.

My rating: :-)

Super 8

June 19, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

J.J. Abrams has recently become a mini-Spielberg, a guy he unabashedly worships as a hero and influence for his own films. But there’s something that Spielberg has had for a long time that Abrams lacks, and that’s vision. Nothing is more apparent in that criticism of Abrams than his new film in which he wrote and directed, called “Super 8′. He can basically thank screenwriters like Chris Columbus for a lot of the film’s first act, as he took most of it from movies like “The Goonies” or “Explorers” or any kids movie from the 80’s. The film centers around a group of kids led by Joe Lamb (played very well by newcomer Joel Courtney) who are trying to make a movie for an amateur film festival. There are some nice set ups for this premise as the director, Charles (Riley Griffiths) barks orders to everyone and takes immense joy in reading about film and storytelling, and wants to flesh out his characters and scenes, and loves saying the word “mint” and “production value”. Joe is the make-up artist and he’s overjoyed to know that they’ve cast a girl, Alice (Elle Fanning), that he likes. She starts to like him as well, and the two form a bond. All of this sounds like it’s going to be a fun little summer movie about kids wanting to make a movie. But there’s a caveat.

While they’re shooting a scene in front of a train, a pick up truck suddenly runs right into the train, and causes a massive wreck. The kids are okay, but the train and the pick up truck are dismantled. Surprisingly (and I use the word derisively) the driver of the truck is still alive, and is one of their teachers, who warns them about things to come. They find some strange little objects from the train, and then the military comes in and takes over. Then, the whole town begins to experience strange happenings as their power goes out, the sherrif goes missing, and other wild things occur while the ubiquitous military starts to impose their presence more and more. Meanwhile, the kids are still trying to make their movie, but they’re scared about what they know and what the military knows they know. Not to mention, they’re scared about whatever the military is supposed to be protecting them from.

There’s a subplot that’s supposed to bring a human element to the film in which Joe has lost his mother. We have no idea what kind of relationship he had with her or why that’s important to the “reveal” about what they have discovered as a result of the train wreck, and it seems very clunky and slows down the pace of the film in scenes where he’s watching old home movies of him as a baby and her taking care of him. While I know this is supposed to be poignant–and the performances during these scenes, especially by Elle Fanning are very nicely handled–the drama seems out of place in that it really doesn’t enhance anything about the direction of the plot nor does it really flesh out the characters. We never really understand the family element of the film because they don’t give the story enough life or time to develop anything. Joe’s father is an estranged man, but we’re not really sure why, nor do we understand why he can’t relate to his son. There’s a scene where he wants to send Joe to a baseball camp but that’s never mentioned again. Alice’s father is an alcoholic who is the bane of Joe’s dad’s existence because he was the guy who was supposed to be on the shift that his wife took that ultimately got her killed (she died in an accident at a warehouse). We’re not even sure how she died. All of these hinted-at elements just aren’t enough for the arc to stand on its own legs, and we’re bogged down so much toward the end with special effects and a climax that is so routine and predictable, you could easily get up and leave and know exactly how it ends, so it just seems disjointed.

The kids are very charismatic but their story arc of making their movie doesn’t really go anywhere either, and their characterizations don’t have any uniqueness in the way that “The Goonies” did. There’s a kid who likes to light firecrackers, but that’s never really explored. It’s offered as comic relief and then a cheap payoff in the film’s third act. The director, Charles, admits he wanted to cast Alice because he liked her and he was jealous of Joe liking her, but there’s no payoff in that storyline either. Even them capturing something they’re not supposed to doesn’t really have a huge impact on them because the military never really seeks them out. They really don’t have much at stake at all, except knowing something that’s eventually going to be revealed to everyone in town anyway.

The biggest problem I have with this film, though, is that it’s so by-the-book and standard, it just feels like you’re being taken through a re-run of older, better movies. It’s part “Close Encounters”, part “Jaws”, part “Goonies”, part “Stand By Me”, part “E.T.” and because it’s this Frankenstein monster cut up of all of them, it comes off as just shoddy. Whereas movies like “The Goonies” and “Stand By Me” actually explore the characters and have them relate to each other, this movie just uses the kids ultimately as props and throw in some standard talking scenes–but nothing is really revealed about them as people.

There’s nothing special about this movie and I guess that’s what’s let me down the most. Much like “Cloverfield”, this movie had promise and it seemed to want to be a little different. But in the end it’s nothing but an average summer action flick that has nice moments, but not enough to make it a good movie. Instead of a work of art, it’s pre-packaged leftovers.

My rating: :(

Fringe (FOX)

September 9, 2008 by  
Filed under Entertainment

FOX, Tuesdays @ 8:00pm CT

Encore of Pilot Broadcast: Sunday, September 14th, 7:00pm CT

Put “Lost”, “Alias”, and “X-Files” in a blender, and this is pretty much what you get, with less endearing main characters and a fairly thin plot for an hour and a half long pilot.

The first five minutes were pretty mesmerizing. It felt very similar to when I watched the first episode of “Lost”; just completely gripped by the action. And guess what? This also begins on an airplane.

A mysterious skin disease infects and disintegrates an entire commercial airliner in Germany, and no one is left alive. The FBI is brought in, and pretty soon, they’re tracking an elusive man who may have had something to do with it. At first considered a terrorist plot, it seems this goes deeper. The main character, Olivia, finds that a doctor who used to conduct controversial experiments back in the 70’s (everything happened back in the 70’s!), may also have some insight into this since he was involved with what is known as “fringe science”. For those who don’t know, “fringe science” is anything involving paranormal, mind control, otherwise known as science fiction. The only problem is that he’s in a mental institution, and can only be visited by immediate family. His only living kindred is his son, who is in Iraq wheeling and dealing, and he’s not exactly interested in helping dear old dad out.

He comes around, and the three of them try and figure out what exactly is going on with this strange skin reaction that seems to make it completely transparent and induces some graphic results. The main interest for Olivia also involves her boyfriend, also with the FBI, who has been infected after coming into close encounters with the elusive man they’d been chasing to get answers, and he has a short time to live.

As the plot develops further, there are more layers to the story, as the man is eventually caught, and killed by Olivia’s boyfriend John for some unknown reason, and that leaves more questions than answers as it seems he has double crossed them? Well, of course the end of the show doesn’t really answer anything–I mean, it’s science fiction right?

The problem I had with this pilot, unlike “Lost” or “The X-Files”, was that it didn’t establish the characters nor a plot convincingly enough to keep me interested in seeing it again. While there were some very interesting moments, it all seemed borrowed–no, that’s too kind a word to use for J.J. Abrams now–stolen, from those shows previously mentioned. And, since he blatantly said he was using elements from “The Twilight Zone” and “Altered States”, I’ll say he stole from them too. And the thing is, it wasn’t even cleverly stolen.

All of the characters are very familiar and very predictable. The “insane” doctor has moments of brilliance followed by moments of random, rambling incoherence that I suppose is used as some sort of comic device. To me it falls flat, and is very patronizing, like it was focus grouped to middle aged housewives who laugh at animated cleaning products in commercials and still thinks anything involving a dog instantly makes it cute and buyable.

Besides the first five minutes of the pilot, “Fringe” settles into your average, garden variety “science fiction” show, and I use the quotations for a purpose: that it’s not really science fiction. It’s just what a couple of post Film student grads found on Wikipedia, thought it was cool, and decided to scribe a 2 hour show about it. Instead, in this case, it’s three writers who all have pretty reputable backgrounds in the TV/film industry, and decided to cash in on TV’s latest craze to create shows that look science fictiony, have a hot chick as a lead, have inexplicable-but-cool things happen, and hope that people’s attention spans won’t catch up to how boring, inane, and lackadaisical it is.

JJ–you’re no Rod Serling. And at this point, I’d say you’re not even Chris Carter. “Fringe” is hardly that. It’s as run of the mill as you can get.

My rating: :?