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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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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Dredd (2012) – Movie Review

The basic aim of Dredd is simple – it needs to be bold, true to the source material and full of juicy violence, enough to wipe out the memories of the notoriously poor Stallone attempt of 1995 that threw plenty of money at the screen without bothering to work on anything resembling a decent script.

The character of Judge Dredd, now entering his 35th year in the UK comic 2000AD (they know it’s 2012 – don’t ask), isn’t a complicated one. He is, as he is fond of stating, the law. The time is the future, and amidst the wasteland that is America there is a single, massive city with 800 million inhabitants, appropriately called Mega City One. It’s quite the scumhole, and the only thing that stands between it and total chaos are the Judges, trained for years to be the ultimate in law enforcement, yet so outnumbered they can only handle 6% of the crimes committed. This, people, is as thin as the blue line gets.

The film is written by long time fan Alex Garland (28 Days later, Sunshine), and has had plenty of input from Dredd’s creator (and still main writer even now) John Wagner. Filmed in South Africa on what passes for a tight budget these days (especially for Sci-Fi), it could be compared to District 9 in terms of the sheer effort put into it, with a result that is similarly impressive although aesthetically miles apart. Director Pete Travis (Endgame) does an excellent job, and between them they have turned in a film that will stand the test of time as a superior, adult action movie.

The premise is reasonably simple, something that works well as an introduction to what is, in the comics at least, a sprawling future world. Dredd is accompanied on patrol by rookie Judge Anderson, very well played by Olivia Thirlby, who is on the verge of failing her final assessment but is being given a second chance because of her powerful, and rare, psi abilities. A routine triple homicide (it’s that sort of city) turns into a siege when they are trapped in a massive tower block by criminal nutjob Ma Ma (Lena Headey) and forced to fight their way out and stop her manufacturing the addictive new drug, Slo Mo. Obviously there’s a bit more to it than that, but this is the basic set up and it works very well indeed, allowing for plenty of violence, some character development and no few explosions.

I can’t write this review without focusing on Karl Urban, who has previously stood out for his excellent turn as Dr McCoy in the Star Trek revival. Not afraid to go through an entire movie with a helmet on, he is spot on as Dredd. He gives us an emotionless machine, a man who cares for nothing but the law, but a man you want to get behind and cheer on as he splats bad guys left right and centre. The humanity comes from Anderson, and it helps that Thirlby doesn’t have to wear a helmet herself, with the handy excuse that it interferes with her psi abilities. Between them they give us the tired old wardog and the 21 year old rookie on the streets for the first time, and you sympathise with the life of a Mega City Judge.

Some people have criticized the apparent similarities between Dredd and the recent film The Raid: Redemption, in which Indonesian cops storm a tower block and much chop sockey ensues. To be honest, I was a little worried myself, but having seen both films I can happily confirm that they are nothing alike. Whilst The Raid is a pretty intense martial arts film which is rather dull between fights (although the fights are awesome), Dredd is a tight film all the way through, with the plot more than an excuse to go from fight to fight.

In conclusion, I can heartily recommend this film, in case you hadn’t guessed. It’s sort of like a cross between Robocop and Die Hard, all moderned up and with better music. It’s no coincidence that those are two of the most kick ass action films ever, and Dredd borrows from the best, although as Robocop stole from Dredd in the first place it’s more like recovering pinched property. The 3D is actually worth shelling out for, and there are some beautiful sequences where it comes into it’s own, whilst the film itself is gritty and dirty, although not without a few lighter moments amidst the carnage. The humour in Dredd’s comic strips comes from the city around him rather than his own actions, and here’s hoping we’ll see Alex Garland penning a sequel that allows us to wander through Dredd’s world. Quite simply a superior action film, and whilst it’s no masterpiece (then again, it’s not supposed to be) it’s as good as fans could ever have hoped. Here’s to the sequels

 

8 out of 10 stars

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Star Trek: Into Darkness – Movie Review

star trek into darkness

Let me preface this review by saying I am not a Trekkie, watched very few episodes from the various Star Trek series on TV and didn’t care for the movies that were made prior to the J. J. Abrams reboot in 2009. So, I have no vested interest in what came before, I really just wanted to see a sequel which was as good if not better than the first one. And this movie delivers just that. It really is an amazing film with depth of story and shades of grey throughout the various plotlines. The performances by the actors are very good, with the exception of Zachary Quinto and Benedict Cumberbatch who are absolutely brilliant. If you’ve seen the trailer then you know that there are special effects galore, so no surprises there. My only disappointment was not seeing more of the extended crew as this film focuses very closely on the developing friendship between Spock and Kirk, but meh, it’s a minor complaint considering how much I enjoyed this film. This is the kind of movie that Iron Man 3 wishes it could have been.

 

10 out of 10