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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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) – Movie Review

When a sequel is released following in the footsteps of a popular and well-loved movie the bar is set high by any and all going to see it. Expectations are high and if the follow up doesn’t equal that of the first film it could result in the end of a series or low box office figures. Termed the “sophomore slump” more than one second film has fallen prey to this occurring.

I’ve loved all of the Marvel Universe films (and Netflix series) to date, more so than any that DC has released where only WONDER WOMAN has succeeded. I enjoyed GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY immensely, a perfect combination of action, comic book love, special effects and humor. When the sequel, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 came out I was there the first week to see it. I left disappointed feeling it hadn’t lived up to my expectations. So I was anxious for it to come out on disc so I could watch it again and see it through different eyes, eyes not filled with expectations of the previous film. I’m glad I did.

The movie starts in the distant past as Peter Quill’s mother Meredith rides down the road in an open topped convertible singing “Brandy” as her handsome young beau (Kurt Russell) drives. They end up in a woods where he shows her something he has planted in the ground and both convey their love for one another. Fast forward to outer space.

The Guardians have been hired by the Sovereign to protect their all-important batteries from a marauding inter-dimensional monster. As it arrives the battle begins as does my favorite part of the film. Baby Groot hooks up a sound system to play music, something Peter aka Star Lord (Chris Pratt) enjoys. With the tune “Mr. Blue Sky” blaring from the speakers baby Groot dances across the battlefield oblivious to the raging fight taking place around him. If it doesn’t make your heart dance with joy to see him you have no heart.

The team is victorious and get their reward – Nebula (Karen Gillan) Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) sister. Peter warns them to be cautious as the Sovereign are an easily offended group which of course results in Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) cracking wise at their expense. Heading out into space they are then attacked by the Sovereign, looking for the batteries stolen by Rocket which he failed to mention. As things appear to be at their worst another spaceship shows up with a man on top who obliterates the remaining Sovereign ships.

Crash landing and beginning repairs that same spaceship lands and out walks a man known as Ego who informs Peter that he is his father. Here before him is the man he’s been searching for all these years. A man who has been searching for Peter as well. While Rocket and Groot remain behind to fix the ship, with Nebula still a prisoner, the rest go with Ego to his planet at the far edge of the galaxy. But what is it that he really wants? This will become the problem all face eventually.

As this unfolds we also find out what has become of Yondu (Michael Rooker), Peter’s once father figure and the man who was tracking him down in the first film. We learn that his particular group of Ravagers were exiled because of his taking Peter years ago. At his lowest he is approached by the Sovereign to find the Guardians and retrieve their batteries.

Two themes run throughout this film. The first is that of family and fathers in particular. The Guardians are more than just a rag tag group of adventurers. Each has lost something or someone in their past and they have bonded together as a family in their time together. And each father figure has some flaw that makes them not the father they could have been but all attempt to redeem themselves for the most part save one. This presents a much deeper film than one would expect from a comic based movie.

The movie entertains on all levels from the stunning special effects visuals to the story telling itself. The acting is amazing when you consider that beneath the bluster and wise cracking heroics on display is that search for answers to familial matters. This includes not just fathers but sisters as well with Nebula and Gamora trying to find their own answers. In addition to that there are some belly busting funny moments as well, nearly all involving Drax (Dave Batista) who does a fantastic job with them.

On second viewing, without preconceived ideas in mind, I loved this movie. It might not be equal to the first but it is very close. The concepts that run through this film strike at the heart which is never a bad thing when handled well. Here it is handled exceptionally well. This is a movie to be added to any and all collections and watched more than once.

 

9 out of 10 stars

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Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – Movie Review

guardians of the galaxy

You might expect a movie studio at the top of its game to play it safe rather than strike out in new, bizarre directions. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine any other studio giving the greenlight to Guardians Of The Galaxy – a huge blockbuster movie based on a title unfamiliar to anyone who isn’t a comics aficionado, starring a relatively unknown actor playing a character most people have never heard of. And yet, Marvel scores once again with its willingness to head off the beaten track. GUARDIANS is a fun, fizzy delight, even as it mines some surprising depths of emotion from its ragtag group of anti-heroes.

Peter Quill (Pratt) – a human abducted from Earth as a child – has grown up into an intergalactic thief who has no idea what he’s getting into when he takes possession of a mysterious Orb. Little does he know that Ronan (Pace) – a genocidal Kree radical – will do just about anything to get his hands on said Orb, including sending alien assassin Gamora (Saldana) after it. Gamora, as it turns out, has an agenda of her own. Trapped in an intergalactic prison (long story), Peter and Gamora are forced into an uneasy alliance with three other misfits: a brainy, sarcastic raccoon-like creature named Rocket (voiced by Cooper), a giant tree by the name of Groot (Diesel), and the vengeance-minded Drax The Destroyer (Bautista).

The truth is that there’s almost too much going on in GUARDIANS. Not only do we meet a host of characters we’ve never met before, on a raft of new planets teeming with brightly coloured life and detail, we’re also introduced to several plot lines all stuffed somewhat awkwardly into the film. We have Ronan’s planet-destroying aspirations, which are somehow bound up with the evil plans of Thanos – that creepy purple- skinned dude who popped up at the end of The Avengers. Peter’s kidnappers turned surrogate ‘family’ are also on the trail of the Orb, turning up at moments both enormously convenient and inconvenient to the plot. It all makes sense in the end, but until it all clicks into place, it can make for a rushed, unsettling experience.

But, despite its occasionally unwieldy script, GUARDIANS triumphs because of the gang of scruffy losers (a term that will take on a different, more heartfelt meaning during the film) at its heart. Director James Gunn, who co-wrote the script, clearly feels a strong affinity for each one of these outcasts, all of whom are easily outlaws in some (if not all) parts of the solar system, each one battling – at least initially – to save his or her own skin rather than to save the world. It’s fascinating to watch the five members of this unlikely group slowly banter, bicker and batter their way into becoming a team.

Most joyfully of all, Gunn never loses sight of the prickly, selfish side of his characters. He gives them plenty of rich, emotional moments – whether it’s Peter and Gamora bonding over the loss of their parents, or Rocket’s ability to read a whole range of meaning into Groot’s extremely limited vocabulary (‘I am Groot’) – but never allows the film to descend into dangerously sentimental territory.

In fact, Gunn pumps up proceedings with a healthy, hearty dose of humour. Films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) have always been more tongue-in-cheek than the likes of the considerably more dour Dark Knight franchise, but GUARDIANS is a heady trip of a different order. It practically delights in bursts of odd, subversive comedy, and actually dares to punctuate its most epic face-off with a sly homage to, of all things, Footloose.

Pratt – so winning in TV’s Parks And Recreation – holds the emotional core of the film together. He exudes an easy, rakish charm that makes Peter both dashingly arrogant and achingly vulnerable. He’s matched very well by Saldana, who is clearly delighting in the opportunity to play the world-weary, no-nonsense Gamora – bred into a killer, born a fighter. The rest of the cast does justice, too, to the film’s cheerful swing from drama to comedy and back again: Bautista brings unexpected pathos to Drax’s occasionally comical determination to avenge his family against Ronan, while Cooper sounds completely unlike himself – in a very good way – as a creature who hides a world of hurt beneath his mouthy exterior. Even Diesel manages to find a great deal of depth in a CGI character who only communicates via the same languid burst of three words.

If anything, GUARDIANS is let down by a trio of not particularly threatening villains. Pace snarls and spits in heavy make-up, but can’t quite rustle up much in the way of nuance or genuine menace. Ronan is a one-note madman, with so little in the way of backstory that he automatically becomes less interesting. Thanos, too, now voiced and performed in motion-capture by Brolin, doesn’t get much to do beyond lounge on his space throne. Only Gillan’s cyborg Nebula manages a smidgen of complexity; even then, she struggles to be half as fascinating as her conflicted “sister”, Gamora.

Before the film was even released in cinemas, Marvel announced that a sequel would be coming in 2017. It’s a no-brainer as to why. The film is smart, funny and quite wonderful on its own merits. But, even more crucially, GUARDIANS is a gamble that pays off handsomely for Marvel. It opens up the MCU in, quite literally, all directions. Don’t be surprised if you see our more earth-bound heroes heading into space sooner rather than later. The film also adds a new cast of lovable rogues to the MCU’s roster of characters: a gang who, one might say, are actually all the more heroic for being people who would ordinarily be running in the opposite direction from any galaxy-guarding duties. Frankly, we can’t wait to see what they get up to next.

 

9 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