REVIEW: Star Trek Beyond

31 07 2016

I took a bit of an unconventional route to “Star Trek” fandom: academia. Ok, fine, a high school mini-course. A history professor’s class, called “Making The World Safe for Democracy,” used the original Gene Roddenberry television series to illustrate the kinds of political tensions being played out in America during the ’60s … only on the small screen.

Perhaps more than any series, I have always approached “Star Trek” with tinted glasses. J.J. Abrams’ first two trips down an alternate timeline contained some faint elements of this social consciousness. But as both fans and malcontents of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” know, the director often spends more time paying fan service than charting bold new territory.

Abrams left the “Star Trek” series in entirely different hands when he departed for that galaxy far, far away. (Fear not, he retains a producer credit.) Director Justin Lin, along with writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, make a compelling case for the more frequent shuffling voices in franchise with their take expressed in “Star Trek Beyond.” While the film may lack the polish of the Abrams entries, it excitingly pushes the universe into both classic and unfamiliar territory.

Pegg’s influence most clearly rears its head in the startling humor of “Star Trek Beyond,” far more self-effacing and tongue-in-cheek than any portion of the canon I have experienced. Perhaps now that a new generation is more familiarized with Kirk, Spock and the Enterprise crew, more opportunities present themselves for character-driven humor. The gags are more developed than the plot, which often plays like a good outline still in need some additional finer details. The story often proves difficult to follow beyond generalities, a direct reversal of what made the last two scripts from Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman glisten.

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REVIEW: Finding Dory

21 06 2016

I was pretty much the target audience for “Finding Nemo” as an impressionable 10-year-old cinephile when Pixar debuted the film in 2003. It was back in the time when movies could stay in theaters for months, not just weeks, and I think I saw it five times that summer before fifth grade. I was rapt by the wit, creativity and storytelling sophistication.

But, as my mom was quick to point out, the film might frustrate or confuse viewers slightly younger. With its frequent cross-cutting between the split storylines of Marlin/Dory and Nemo, the delicate back and forth is a far cry from most children’s entertainment with a singularly focus and strict linear plot.

I can only imagine how some of them reacted to the sequel, “Finding Dory,” which is so frenzied and frenetic in its storytelling that I often wondered if the Pixar brain trust was attempting to replicate the scattered mind of its memory-troubled protagonist. The film moves quite jarringly about, cramming every scene full of joke lines, plot points and sentimental reflections. It is frequently fun and enjoyable, but the tagline of the movie should have been Dory’s oft-repeated mantra, “Just keep swimming.” The film requires constant motion to keep up and stay afloat.

Still, this is a Pixar product, so it still manages to provide all the typical stirring and sweet moments that define the studio. (Even “Cars 2” had these.) As Ellen DeGeneres’ Dory fights her way through a labyrinthine aquarium unit – as well as her own mind – to find her parents, she has many an opportunity to reflect on the importance of family. This means not only where they are, but who they are; always a step or two behind are Marlin and Nemo swimming to keep up with her.

“Finding Dory” celebrates these improvised families and impromptu units, proclaiming what makes them different is what makes them beautiful. This message might ring a little more profoundly were it not cheapened by silly shenanigans like an octopus driving a truck, but I’m willing to let that one slide given that there are more clever running jokes. For example, frequently throughout “Finding Dory,” a male and female pairing will appear on screen to provide directions or information. Each offers slightly different information; they bicker; the woman wins out. In many ways, these duos provide a mirror of Marlin and Dory’s character dynamics offered up in hilarious microcosm. B2halfstars

REVIEW: The Jungle Book

17 04 2016

I do not have a strong attachment to the 1967 original Disney animated film “The Jungle Book.” I do not have strong feelings one way or the other about Jon Favreau’s 2016 live action Mowgli/CGI animal version of “The Jungle Book.” I remain, for the most part, fairly ambivalent, unable to summon strong words to praise or condemn any aspect of the film. And that makes for the hardest kind of review to write.

Might as well start with the good: Bill Murray as Baloo. The actor has become a cult figure over the past few years for his erratic and endearing off-screen behavior (as well as for his partnership with hipster darling Wes Anderson). When not acting inside one of Anderson’s dollhouses, Murray’s iconography can often overcome the project in which he participates. That film becomes “The Bill Murray Show,” for better or for worse. Favreau finds a happy balance of letting Murray entertain while also ensuring that he never distracts too much.

The CGI is quite good, I suppose, yet should we not be asking for photorealism from all movies these days? Call me a child of the digital age, but I only tend to notice computer animation when it goes horribly wrong. The graphics impress, though not to the extent that they truly wow.

“The Jungle Book” glides along on lots of charm and slickness, which gets it decently far. Mowgli (Neel Sethi) makes for a rather bland protagonist, one we mostly follow for the talking animals he encounters along his reluctant and perilous journey to rejoin his human companions. The episodic nature of the plot makes it hard for momentum to build, which is something that does not bother me in particular though seems an odd choice for a film pitched at youngsters. The message of cross-species cooperation to raise and protect someone who might be a predator is – timely, I guess? (“Zootopia” did it better.)

There is a lot going on, although there is simultaneously not enough going on. I could try to resolve or reconcile my feelings, but I would rather just leave them be. Other films just seem more worthy of that time. B2halfstars

REVIEW: Zootopia

29 02 2016

ZootopiaTalking animals, a town whose title mashes up “zoo” and “utopia,” the Disney brand – all good signs for an evening of escape away from the madness of the world around us that seems to be going to hell in a handbasket, right? Actually, wrong. “Zootopia,” the latest in-house effort from the Mouse House, actually feels more plugged into contemporary problems than many “issues” movies manufactured during prestige season.

Given the escalation of the American presidential election even in the past month, writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston could not have imagined how relevant the message of their script would become when they started writing back in 2013. The titular city of “Zootopia” is a metropolis of the animal kingdom and a hotbed of diversity, like New York City or Houston. Predatory animals like tigers and foxes have learned to live in harmony with their former prey like rabbits and sheep due to the evolution and adaptation of their culture.

The promise of this pluralism attracts optimistic young bunny Judy Hopps, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin. Never one to let her size or species discourage her unbridled enthusiasm for justice, she defies the odds to become the first rabbit cop in Zootopia. The average family film would simply let Hopps flounder for a bit and eventually find her footing by tapping into some inner strength. With all due respect to the charms of “Wreck-It Ralph” or “Frozen,” the lessons of “Zootopia” go much deeper. They examine the very tenets that form the (now seemingly shaky) foundations of our society.

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REVIEW: Beasts of No Nation

23 10 2015

Beasts of No NationAlmost as if anticipating that the majority of people who saw his film would be through Netflix, Cary Joji Fukunaga opens “Beasts of No Nation” with a shot of some young African boys playing soccer literally through the outer shell of a television set.  The film was shot with the likely intention of a sizable theatrical release, so I made the decision to pay more than a monthly Netflix subscription fee to see it screened in this way.

As with the majority of critics who saw it projected (most at one of the three fall festivals at which it played in September 2015), I was wowed by the stunning visuals as well as the immersive aural experience.  I simply cannot imagine this work packing the same punch when the vast foliage of a jungle is reduced to mere pixels even with good bandwidth, nor do I think the layers of complex sound would even be discernible by fraying earbuds.  But, hey, tons more people could see it?!

Though as I sat there, particularly in the film’s more conventional third act, I wondered how many times I might have paused the movie or looked down at my cell phone if watching “Beasts of No Nation” at home. Fukunaga does not shy away from the horrors of civil war, including the separation of families, the slaughter of the innocent, and the conversion of young children into killing machines. He never goes overboard with gore or violence, yet the impact always gets felt like a dagger in the chest.

It takes a very particular mindset to watch this film, not to mention an iron will to stick through its unsparing depiction of atrocity. (Seriously, it’s enough to make anyone remotely squeamish run back to finish the first season of “Grace and Frankie.”) Fukunaga also does not provide much of a strong narrative arc to keep a light at the end of “Beasts of No Nation” faintly visible throughout. He offers little comfort to its viewers as they follow Abraham Atta’s young Agu in his reluctant transition from child to killer under the aegis of Idris Elba’s warlord known only as Commandant.

The film plays like reading Agu’s biography – albeit one told with a bit of a tacked-on inspirational bent – rather than watching a story about him. Yet even at this pace, Fukunaga still finds a great rhythm for his audience, jolting them out of complacency as soon as they settle into a lull. Who knows how well that tactic is employed, however, on viewers who make liberal use of their television remote.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: Prometheus

17 12 2012

It’s rare to see any movie delve into deep theological, ontological, and existential questions that have puzzled humanity for millennia.  “Prometheus” isn’t even a pensive indie – it’s a blockbuster – and it still ponders them deeply in the far reaches of our universe to satisfying and intellectually stimulating effect.

Director Ridley Scott and screenwriters Damon Lindelof and John Spaihts don’t pretend to have any answers.  Thankfully, they don’t have that kind of hubris.  After all, these are the quandaries that have kept philosophers twiddling their thumbs.  But it doesn’t ever feel like a cop out or negligent writing.  They effectively stage a thoughtful drama in outer space and pose the questions to a new audience in an freshly compelling frame.

A number of people have quibbled about the small things in “Prometheus,” such as its fidelity to the “Alien” franchise, the plausibility of various events, the nature of the “engineers” that serve as the mysterious beings for the film, and the motivations of certain characters.  And if you really wanted to nitpick Scott’s film, I’m sure you could find some flaws and holes in the plot.  I, for one, really want to know why people are apparently unable to run laterally a century from now.

But to harp on the fine print is to miss the point of “Prometheus” entirely.  It’s a layered cerebral and psychological drama that just happens to use the framework of science-fiction.  The film finds fascinating parallels between the mysteries of extra-terrestrial life and the mystery of our own origins and existence.  Then, it heightens our senses and gets the heart racing.  The mind, naturally, wants to catch up and runs in overdrive after the movie to ponder what it just experienced.

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REVIEW: Obsessed

7 09 2009

This summer, I discovered the beauty of the public library.  They have an extraordinary catalog of movies, and you can see all of them for free.  It has allowed me to see some very strange movies I wouldn’t have picked on my own, but more importantly, it has allowed me to shamelessly watch some of Hollywood’s big-budget movies without lining the pockets of the people who give them to us.  “Obsessed” falls into the latter category.  Unfortunately, I put it off for a little too long and had to pay a 20¢ late fee.  The only reason that I was genuinely willing to waste an hour and 45 minutes to watch this was Beyoncé and the promise of watching her in a cat fight with Ali Larter.  Before you call me shallow, just think of how seldom we get to see cat fights.  And even then, we never get them with such attractive females as Beyoncé or Ali Larter.

The plot is stale and incredibly predictable.  It clearly wants to provide thrills on the level of “Misery,” but Ali Larter is no Kathy Bates.  The first half slowly exposes us to Lisa’s (Larter) infatuation with her new boss Derek Charles (Idris Elba).  If you weren’t watching a movie called “Obsessed,” you might think it was just a young girl looking to move up the corporate ladder through seduction.  But we know there is some sinister motive, so it comes off as annoying prolonged foreplay before they can show us to the eerie parts.  The second half is genuinely disturbing as Lisa turns into a true stalker, but it could have been even more so had the filmmakers been willing to throw some fresh material into her role.  The movie unfortunately reduces Derek’s wife, Sharon (Beyoncé), to such a trivial role in the first half that it seems her only purpose in the movie was to make an angry call to Lisa and get in a giant cat fight.

In an era where we need to look no further than Facebook to find stalkers, “Obsessed” fails to take the topic to a creepy enough degree to matter.  It tries so hard to be “Misery” in the big city, but it lacks the acting chops and the script to come anywhere close.  If you do choose to watch this, try to get a big group together to watch it.  I think it is a movie designed to be viewed by a crowd atmosphere to enhance the crazy moments, especially the climactic fight scene.  C / 2stars