Star Trek: Beyond (2016) – Movie Review

star trek beyond

The third mission of the U.S.S Enterprise in the rebooted alternative timeline version of the original “Star Trek” goes a little less boldly than its two predecessors, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The most notable change is that J.J. Abrams abandoned the captain’s chair (for the other franchise starting with “Star”) and handed duties to Justin Lin of the “Fast & Furious” franchise. On scripting duties, Simon Pegg (who plays Scotty) and Doug Jung take over from Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof. Orci and Abrams still retain roles as producers, but that’s a pretty significant creative shift, and “Star Trek Beyond” ends up with a much different look and feel.

Tonally, 2009’s “Star Trek” and also “Star Trek Into Darkness” were a bit darker, more dramatic and theme-driven blockbusters. This was in following with the mold of most franchise reboots at the time, which demanded more grit and maturity to elevate ‘geeky’ pop-culture source material for 21st century sensibilities. “Beyond” jettisons that notion into the vacuum of outer space.

This should come as no surprise given Lin’s proclivities with the “Fast & Furious” movies, which made their fortune on wowing audiences with outlandish action sequences and a familiar, lovable ensemble cast. The formula works for the “Star Trek” universe, because nothing seems too ridiculous in space, plus most audiences are familiar with the current crew of Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin and John Cho. They’ve earned a chance to just have some fun.

“Beyond” is definitely fun, maybe bordering on mindless. It trades in the dramatic elements and character-building conflict of the last two films for a standalone outer space adventure. In that sense, it’s more in the tradition of older “Star Trek” movies, which operated independently and felt like long “Star Trek” episodes.

After a few years of status quo space exploration, the Enterprise crew docks in a snow globe-like starbase called Yorktown. There, the Federation picks up a distress signal from an alien who says her ship and crew are in danger on the far side of a treacherous nearby nebula. The Enterprise springs into action, but after they navigate to the other end of the nebula, they’re viciously attacked by an alien force and stranded on the aliens’ planet.

This first major action set piece is a pretty exhilarating launching pad into the bulk of the story, and it comes not a moment too soon. In classic fashion, it splits the crew up into small groups, and the second act sees these teams trying to reunite and escape from the clutches of Krall (Idris Elba), who is looking for a weapon of mass destruction in the crew’s possession. A bit of a “Mission: Impossible” factor (another Paramount franchise with Simon Pegg) sneaks in here as well, though the plot isn’t quite as clever.

The movie really hearkens back to “Star Trek” episodes and memorable films that take place off-ship and bring the crew to a strange new world where the audience gets to discover a new species right along with them. No knowledge of “Trek” lore required to enjoy this one, yet it’s still immersive like any good sci-fi movie should be.

This shift away from narrative continuity between films, diving into important themes and shooting for emotional catharsis is almost a relief. No film should shy away from that challenge, but there’s something pleasant about the way “Beyond” lets go of those notions and opts for a classic form of geeky science fiction that’s more about dazzling fun, witty banter and big action.

By the same token, “Beyond” lowers the “Star Trek” franchise’s ceiling. It’s still possible to have an action-filled, funny sci-fi romp that challenges its characters and tackles universal ideas beyond merely that unity is better than divisiveness. Pegg and Jung’s script is fun, but it’s clear that they were encouraged to go simple.

So the “Star Trek” franchise has traded ambition for a little more reliability. Three films in, that’s not necessarily a bad swap. Ambitious blockbusters can fall flat, and some would argue “Into Darkness” already did. When you consider that “Star Trek” is not a series that’s ever had neatly packaged trilogies or other overarching narrative structures, switching to a more episodic format helps maximize longevity. In other words, we got a slightly lesser “Star Trek” film that’s better for the future of “Star Trek.”

 

7 out of 10 stars

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Star Trek (2009) – Movie Review

star trek

It’s a little-known fact that none other than Lucille Ball is responsible for the birth of “Star Trek”. As the titular head of Desilu Studios in the 1960’s, she green-lit former LA cop Gene Roddenberry’s idea of an intergalactic western and championed the series during its brief three-year run on NBC. It is amazing to consider how the franchise continues to thrive 43 years later, so much so that director J.J. Abrams (“Lost”) and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have been able to re-imagine the legacy of the series without sacrificing the fidelity needed to satisfy the throngs of rabid fans who pushed the grosses north of the $200 million mark in its first week of release. As someone who is not remotely a Trekker, I have to admit the creators have done a fine job of reincarnating the familiar characters into their youthful counterparts and concocted an engaging, time-traversing plot that smartly avoids heavy exposition in favor of action and pyrotechnics. The result can be sometimes mind-numbing and trivial, but the 122-minute movie is never dull.

The densely populated plot throws us forward to the year 2233 (or backwards depending on your perspective on “Star Trek” lore) as the USS Kelvin confronts a major alien vessel captained by an embittered Romulan named Nero. An alternate timeline is revealed, and inevitable tragedies ensue. Years later, we meet the familiar characters from the TV series culminating in the USS Enterprise’s maiden voyage. James Kirk is a cocksure hothead with obvious Starfleet Academy potential, but he is haunted by the father he never knew. The half-human, half-Vulcan Spock is a brilliant student-turned-control freak by his nature but sometimes unable to reconcile the two sides of his identity. Their initially hostile relationship provides much of the film’s spark, as they one-up each other in the face of a common enemy in Nero. This provides a good excuse for the CGI-enhanced action sequences with a plethora of explosions and characters zooming in and out of frame. By the time you start to feel the excess and redundancy in this approach, the story wraps the viewer up in its core ethos – that the Enterprise crew is an extended rainbow coalition of a family even as entire civilizations are destroyed.

Abrams and crew are smart enough to recognize that the movie has to capture the heart of the original series in a way that doesn’t patronize fans yet engage us non-Trekkers. Most of the casting choices are solid, although a couple of them are rather distracting. With the lightweight veneer of a tween idol, Chris Pine captures the braggadocio and roughhewn manner of a youthful Kirk in a way that tethers him to Shatner’s real-life personality without doing an outright imitation of the elder actor. Even better is Zachary Quinto who has little latitude to vary Spock from fan expectation, yet he brings subtle but palpable currents of humanity to his stoic character. The rest of the crew is painted in broader strokes with Karl Urban coming closest to caricature as “Bones” McCoy; Anton Yelchin, laying on a thick, Cold War-era Russian accent as the extremely young Chekhov; and Simon Pegg (“Hot Fuzz”) pulling out all the comedy stops as exiled engineer Scotty. Somewhat more subtle are Zoë Saldana (“Guess Who”) as linguist specialist Uhuru, who has a surprising relationship with Spock, and John Cho (“Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle”) showing that he can handle action sequences with dexterity as neophyte helmsman Sulu.

Covered with latex, Eric Bana is hardly recognizable as Nero, although he makes the most of his character’s stock vengeance motives. It’s genuinely odd, however, to see Tyler Perry (“Madea Goes to Jail”) as the head of the Starfleet Academy and especially the still-doe-eyed Winona Ryder trying to look maternal as Spock’s human-side mother. Among cinema’s comic book franchises, this one is closer to “The Dark Knight” than “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” on the quality scale. Visually, it doesn’t disappoint with Daniel Mindel’s dazzling, kinetic cinematography and Scott Chambliss’ creative production design that mixes retro and futuristic elements seamlessly. At the same time, the convenient timeline jumble doesn’t really give rise to any complex moral quandaries beyond the importance of building friendships and trusting your colleagues. Nonetheless, the movie is propulsive entertainment which doesn’t tamper with its genesis and focuses squarely on the humanity of the familiar characters. For that accomplishment, we should all be grateful.

 

8 out of 10 stars

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Avengers: Infinity War (2018) – Movie Review

avengers infinity warAnd so begins the end of an era. Everything that has happened so far in Marvel’s shared universe that began in 2008, everything has led to this moment. Avengers: Infinity War is where this decade’s worth of narrative & world-building is supposed to pay off. And that makes this film more than just another instalment in the franchise. It’s an epic moment, no less than a cinematic event.

The 19th instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and first of the two planned Avengers films that will conclude their Phase 3 plan, Avengers: Infinity War follows the all-powerful Thanos as he travels across the universe looking for infinity stones that would grant him the strength to impose his will on all of reality and finally faces the Avengers in a battle that would decide the fate of all existing lives.

Directed by Anthony & Joe Russo, Infinity War begins where Thor: Ragnarok signed off and what unfolds in the opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the story. It’s no doubt an ambitious undertaking by the Russo brothers but Captain America: Civil War proved that it’s them who were best suited for tackling this massive assignment than anyone else. And for the most part if not all, they do a pretty neat job at it.

Having been teased only in small doses until now, Infinity War puts Thanos front & centre as if it’s his movie. There is more at stake here than previous entries and in Thanos we have a supervillain who lives up to the expectations. His motivation for the sick fantasy that he wants to turn into reality isn’t as strongly appealing but it’s still serviceable. However, the film actually lacks that smooth, perfect balance the first Avengers film exhibited in all aspects.

The VFX team deserves the maximum credit, for everything from the set pieces to numerous locations to changing backdrops & settings to characters’ appearances & outfits is an end result of their work. There are plenty of moments that will make the audience cheer at the spectacle they are witnessing but it could also be exhausting, for CGI-laden action segments don’t carry that lasting effect and may become tiring after a while, which is exactly what happens here.

Cinematography is splendid, utilising IMAX cameras to capture the images in sharp detail & crisp clarity, but it also fails to make the most of the available technology by operating them in conventional fashion. Editing is brilliantly carried out, making sure the action keeps surfacing regularly to keep the interest alive but there were several scenes that it could’ve trimmed from its already demanding 149 mins runtime. And Alan Silvestri contributes with a rousing score that effectively uplifts the film’s larger-than-life aura.

Coming to the performances, barring a few exceptions, the entire ensemble of the MCU return to reprise their respective roles of the Avengers, the Guardians & their allies but it’s Josh Brolin as Thanos who impresses the most. The years of careful threading that underwent into hyping him as the biggest & baddest overlord of villainy & darkness ultimately works out in the film’s favour, as Thanos makes up for one formidable supervillain who’s far more intimidating than past Marvel antagonists and Brolin’s conquering voice makes him stand out even more.

As for the rest of the cast, Robert Downey Jr. returns as Tony Stark (Iron Man) with all his charisma & magnetic charm in tact and delivers a confidently assured input. Chris Hemsworth is even better as Thor and is bestowed with the most interesting arc of all Avengers. Chris Evans as Steve Rogers (Captain America) is no slouch either and carves his own moments to shine. Tom Holland is effortlessly captivating as Peter Parker (Spider-Man) and steals almost every scene he appears in. Others do well with what they are given but every single one of them is overshadowed by Thanos’ imposing presence.

On an overall scale, Avengers: Infinity War is an enjoyable, entertaining & satisfying extravaganza that somehow manages to live up to its enormous hype. There are plenty of unexpected surprises & unforeseen tragedies in store, plus the ending is going to hit the fans hard, but all of it would’ve left a more powerful & unforgettable impact if we didn’t already know that much of it will be undone in the next Avengers film. All in all, Avengers: Infinity War nearly pays off 10 years’ worth of investment with an exhilarating action-adventure spectacle and signs off by setting up a perfect stage for the grand finale.

 

10 out of 10 stars

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Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) – Movie Review

avengers age of ultron

The original line-up of the Avengers are back for another go: Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow and a whole bunch of new heroes in Joss Whedon’s final turn in the director’s chair for Marvel’s ensemble franchise.

What’s the story about? Well it’s pretty simple, in the wake of Loki’s attempted invasion of New York City, Tony Stark attempts to create an artificial intelligence whose sole task is to protect Earth against future threats. Of course, this backfires and the Avengers end up creating their deadly enemy, Ultron. The rumors are true: one Avenger will die and it might not be who you expect.

Is it worth watching? Well, first the good stuff: the battle between an enraged Hulk and Iron Man in an unnamed African city is the highlight of the movie and it happens around the midpoint. Supporting characters in the first film like Hawkeye, Black Widow and the Hulk finally get center stage though at the expense of old stalwarts like Thor (who becomes an inadvertent comic relief throughout most of the movie) and Captain America (who turns into a one-dimensional boy scout). Iron Man is the Jimmy Neutron of the team- a tortured genius who tries to create a solution to a problem that has yet to exist and ends up creating a Frankenstein monster of sorts- it’s not that Tony Stark is the villain but this does tie in nicely with the upcoming Captain America: Civil War movie.

This brings into focus the central weakness of the movie: namely too many characters and not enough screen time for each one to be fleshed out. The movie not only serves as an origin story for Ultron as well as new Avengers Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and the Vision but it ends up making the story a paper thin pastiche of short character building vignettes around huge swirling chaotic battle scenes- many of them too enamored with fast editing to the point that they are almost too quick to follow with the mind’s eye. Additional cameos by the Falcon, War Machine and Nick Fury only adds to its ad-hoc nature and myriad narrative.

In the end, Avengers Age of Ultron is ultimately satisfying but if you look closer, it seems to be nothing more than a placeholder for future plot lines in the upcoming Marvel Universe movie franchises.

 

7 out of 10 stars

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The Avengers (2012) – Movie Review

avengers

A colossal wave of fevered anticipation preceded the arrival of ‘Marvel’s The Avengers’, the culmination of five incredibly successful standalone films. Not only has helmer Joss Whedon weathered the immense scrutiny, he has amazingly managed to surpass the loftiest expectations with a movie that towers over the rest that have come before it, combining jaw-dropping action, tongue-in-cheek humour and poignant drama into a dazzling piece of summer blockbuster entertainment.

Proving that the whole can be so much more than the sum of its parts, Wheedon has distilled the best elements of each of the preceding movies into this assembly of Marvel superheroes- Iron Man is wiry and snarky as ever; Thor is just as Godly in his might but human in his compassion; and Captain America is still appealingly old-school. The Hulk, or Bruce Banner in his human form, is quite something else altogether though (being the only character to have a change of actor from the previous films) and all the better for it.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the one movie which ‘Avengers’ is most intimately associated with is ‘Thor’, given that both share the same villain- Thor’s adopted brother and fellow Asgardian Loki (Tom Hiddleston)- and that Wheedon did shoot the post-credits scene with Loki and S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Opening with a recurring character from that movie, Dr Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) is now assisting with experiments on the Tessaract which has quite unexpectedly displayed a life of its own.

Turns out that the fallen Loki has been drafted by an alien race to lead its invasion of Earth, using the same Tessaract as a portal to cross over from their universe to ours- and his arrival not only leads to the decimation of the S.H.I.E.L.D. base, but also the takeover of Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Dr Selvig to do his bidding. With the fate of the world in the balance, Fury activates his ‘Avengers’ initiative to gather this group of heroes, including two S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives – the Black Widow and Hawkeye.

From the outset it’s clear that there is relative poetry in Wheedon’s storytelling as he expertly weaves together the recruiting exercise by Fury and his trusted agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). The best he saves for last, so even though Thor only first appears half an hour into the movie, his is a spectacular entrance befitting a God, crossing paths with Iron Man for a thunderous one-on-one clash in the middle of the woods.

True to the spirit of the books, the assembly of these superheroes begins on a fractious note- chiefly due to Stark’s distrust of Fury and disdain for the star-and-stripes outfitted Captain America. Instead, Stark teams up with the only person he deigns as his intellectual equal- Bruce Banner- to locate the Tessaract and uncover what dirty secrets Fury has been keeping from the rest of them. The answer to the latter isn’t all too unexpected, but kudos to Wheedon for tying this little detail nicely with the events in ‘Thor’.

It will take a colossal event to bring these disparate heroes together, resulting in the first of two action set pieces in the movie that will undoubtedly qualify amongst some of the most spectacularly thrilling stuff you’ll ever see on the big screen. And just when you think it couldn’t get any better, Wheedon tops it with an even grander and absolutely breathtaking climax set in the heart of New York City.

The reason why the finale works so brilliantly is that Wheedon loves and respects each and every superhero character just as much. Wheedon gets the action pitch-perfect through reinforcing the individual powers of each one of the superheroes before uniting their strengths to form an even mightier coalition. It is nothing less than pure ecstasy when they join forces as a team, and you’ll find it difficult to resist getting up from your seat and cheering for them at various points throughout the remarkable finish.

This review however won’t be complete without a special shout-out for the Hulk, many fans of whom have been disappointed by both the Lee Ang and the later Louis Leterrier iteration of it. Here, Wheedon has finally gotten it right, blending both the character’s brains and brawn to crowd pleasing effect- even more so through some clever plotting that ensures Banner’s eventual transformation from man to beast is as rewarding as it should be.

Calling it the perfect summer blockbuster is probably not enough to do justice to just how brilliant it is, and it certainly ranks as one of the most- if not the most- entertaining and exhilarating experiences you’ll have at the movies.

 

9 out of 10 stars

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Thor: Ragnarok (2017) – Movie Review

thor ragnarok

The ultimate cinematic dilemma is how to make the next comic book movie stand out from the (many, many) others? The brilliant answer comes from director Taika Waititi and co-writers Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost – a screwball superhero action film that delivers not only intense action scenes, but also a compelling villain for the ages in a movie that may be the funniest of 2017.

For those who prefer their superheroes dark and brooding, you’ll be in for a shock. Prepare for Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster – the most polite villain we’ve seen in awhile, and one who looks to be straight out of the 1960’s “Batman” series. Chris Hemsworth as Thor is one of many returning actors/characters, only this time he really gets to flex his comedic timing on top of his Thunder God biceps. His love- hate, trust-no trust, see-saw relationship with brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is in full force, as is the rivalry and banter with The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). It’s certainly more in line with Guardians of the Galaxy than the previous Avengers installments.

As much fun as Goldblum brings to the party, this is really Cate Blanchett’s show. She is the frightening Goddess of Death, long-lost sister of Thor and Loki, and daughter of Odin (Anthony Hopkins). With a costume which is very faithful to the comics (and we get a few versions throughout the movie), Hela’s enormous powers are powerful enough to destroy Mjolnir with little effort, not to mention much of Asgard and key players within.

Of course, with that title, we know that the story revolves around what could be the end of Asgard. Joining in the fun are: Idris Elba who is back as Heimdall, Tessa Thompson as a master of one-liners Valkyrie, Karl Urban as Skurge – rewarded with a wonderful exit scene, Ray Stevenson returns as Volstagg, and rocky alien Korg who is voiced by director Waititi. Fans of the series will be happy to know other familiar faces pop up periodically – one especially magical sequence teaches Loki a quick lesson.

In addition to the main rescue story line, the powerful villains, and crazy aliens, there are numerous nods and tributes to well known storylines from the comic books (notably Planet Hulk, and Fantastic Four), and a hilarious early stage play with three cameos that sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

Special acknowledgment goes to director Taika Waititi for adeptly taking the comic book film world down a different path. While he’s mostly known for his comedic projects like Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows, and his work on the brilliant but short-lived “Flight of the Conchords”, this is still very much a Marvel movie, with the visible fingerprints of Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby. It’s also a fantastic adventure film that sets the stage for 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, while also featuring the best use ever of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”. This is without a doubt a great addition to the MCU.

 

9 out of 10 stars

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Thor (2011) – Movie Review

thor

Thor is exactly what a comic-book movie ought to be – it’s packed with action and great effects, it’s true to its source material, it gives us characters we actually care about, and it’s a tense melodrama with connections to Shakespeare.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is an Asgardian prince, son of King Odin (check your Norse mythology). Hot-headed, impetuous, prone to violence, and quite full of himself, he is nonetheless next in line for the throne. Just before his coronation is complete, however, intruders from Jotunheimm infiltrate Asgard; although they’re quickly dispatched, Thor demands revenge, and against his father’s explicit orders, he and his friends (including his brother, Loki) travel to Jotunheim to seek answers – and kick butt, if necessary and possible. Odin finds out and saves them, but he strips Thor of his powers – including his great hammer, Mjolnir, and banishes him to Earth to teach him a lesson in humility.

This banishment serves to open the door for treachery in Asgard, allowing the Frost Giants of Jotunheim to wage war against the Asgardians. Meanwhile, some of that trouble is spilled out onto the Earth, where Thor has fallen under the romantic spell of Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Suffice to say that bad things come to a small town in New Mexico, with only a now-mortal Thor able to help them.

But this movie is about more than just bad guys plotting to take over the universe; it’s about father-son relationships and the rivalry between a favored son and “the other brother.” There’s a lot of Henry V and King Lear present, and this is due in no small part to the movie’s director, the great Kenneth Branagh. Branagh is not the first person you’d think of to direct a movie based on a comic book, but he skillfully manages to not only keep the expected characterizations and plot fresh but also to instill a sense of classicism and wonderment.

The CGI is pretty well utilized and what’s more important it doesn’t distract from the plot. In some movies, effects serve as noise to prevent the audience from discovering that the story doesn’t make much sense. Branagh isn’t subtle in his use of technology, but this isn’t a movie that really should be subtle. Thor himself certainly isn’t.

Hemsworth is perfectly cast in the title role. Sturdy and ripped, he fits Thor’s physical description, but also infuses the character with depth and likability. Portman, an Oscar winner, fills a role similar to Liv Tyler’s and Jennifer Connelly’s in the two Hulk films. Her character reminded me quite a bit of Jodie Foster’s character in Contact – a determined, resolved, super-smart researcher determined to uncover the truth behind the mystery being presented.

Anthony Hopkins plays Odin as you’d expect Anthony Hopkins to play a king: regally, with a weary toughness. Idris Elba, Kat Denning, Stellan Skarsgard, Tom Hiddleston, Ray Stevenson, and a couple of uncredited supporting characters are also well cast.

Thor is every bit as entertaining as I thought it’d be. It’s classy without being out of reach for the rest of us; it’s not a Royal Theater production, but neither is it a simple slam-bang cacophony of senseless violence.

 

8 out of 10 stars

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