REVIEW: Star Trek

1 11 2016

Is there a 101 class in film schools yet on franchise filmmaking or reboots? Because if so, I sincerely hope that J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” is assigned viewing. With the exception of perhaps Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy, there is no movie that has better relaunched a dormant (or, at the very least, stagnant) series. In one fail swoop, Abrams as well as writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman find ample reason to excite long-time fans and create new acolytes, all while providing motivation for revival beyond just profit margins.

In the seven years since this new “Star Trek” hit theaters, there have been no shortage of brand extensions and series relaunches – most of which struggle to take off due to paying excessive fan service with nostalgic callbacks. Sure, Abrams gives plenty here. The trademark pings of the intergalactic communication, the strategic peripheral views of the starship and the reappearance of a favorite character played by the same beloved actor are all enough to sate the casual fans of the classic television or film series.

“Star Trek” takes flight, however, because Abrams uses the show’s legacy as a kickstart into a bold new future, not an albatross to keep trotting in previously grazed circles. Utilizing an ingenious narrative gambit that sidesteps the original show’s chronology without erasing or ignoring it, the series gained the ability to boldly go wherever themes could lead it. The standard passion-reason dialectic between Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk and Zachary Quinto’s Spock is introduced from the get-go, and they don’t waste a second exploring its consequences.

But it doesn’t take a mechanical analysis of how Abrams guides decades of mythology to work in his favor to show “Star Trek” works. The proof is in the pudding; the film succeeds because it is just plain well-made. The characters are fun and fully developed. The action is coherent and engaging. The story flows effortlessly while also requiring some of our brainpower. The stakes are high, giving appropriate weight to a topic like genocide. (That may seem like a no-brainer, but plenty of movies have made light of it.) And, perhaps most importantly, this “Star Trek” recreates that first introduction to this universe of diplomacy and conflict.  A4stars

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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: 10 Cloverfield Lane

26 03 2016

I scarcely remember anything that happened in 2008’s “Cloverfield,” though I will never forget the nausea-inducing vertigo its constant shaky-cam gave me. I have a vague recollection of seeing the monster at the end (sorry if that spoiled something for anyone) and some kind of government cover-up of the whole thing. In other words, nothing had me clamoring for a sequel or offshoot.

Yet along comes “10 Cloverfield Lane,” directed by Dan Trachtenberg, written (to some extent) by “Whiplash” wunderkind Damien Chazelle and presumptively overseen by producer J.J. Abrams – and all of a sudden, they showed me that I did not know what I wanted. How refreshing to see a brand extension that serves as a brand revitalization. Rather than relying on the formula, mythology or beats of its predecessor, this bold new path in what now is supposedly a franchise delivers exactly what we need by giving us nothing we expected.

Most people remember “Cloverfield” chiefly for its marketing campaign. “10 Cloverfield Lane” arrived like Adele’s “25,” a teaser out of nowhere with the full product dropping shortly after. Ironically, the lead-up hardly presaged the experience. While the anticipation “Cloverfield” ultimately revealed thin substance, the somewhat muted hype machine surrounding “10 Cloverfield Lane” was only scratching the surface of the film’s tremendous impact. Trachtenberg’s film is like a master-class in suspense building, expertly and tautly edited to ratchet up the heat in every scene until it reaches a boiling point. In many ways, it could not be more different from “Cloverfield,” whose verité live video style relied on overwhelming the senses to communicate urgency and danger.

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REVIEW: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

20 12 2015

J.J. Abrams is perhaps the chief nostalgist of our time, and he often executes this fascination with such panache that we might as well call him a classicist. The reverence he pays to the films that inspired his own work serves to elevate those movies to a higher cultural plateau. And, as if anyone had not noticed the influence of “Star Wars” on a generation of moviegoers, they have definitive proof in the second relaunch of the franchise, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Abrams, working with original trilogy writer Lawrence Kasdan, finds that sweet spot between paying homage to the old and forging ahead with the new. The film’s action is primarily driven by two new heroes – the orphan girl Rey (Daisy Ridley) soon to discover extraordinary powers and ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) who gains a conscience after witnessing the slaughter of innocence. They go up against a new sinister antagonist in Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who works in tandem with the eerily fascist politician General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson).

Yet for all these new characters, there are also the old ones there in supporting roles – Han Solo, Luke and Leia Skywalker, Chewbacca, C3PO and R2D2 are all back. John Williams’ score livens up the film. The Millennium Falcon is back. Heck, Abrams even maintains the distinctive wipes and editing transitions from the original Lucas films. Anyone who feared drastic change in the series with the passing of the reins ought to be more than reassured by “The Force Awakens.”

The coexistence of the old and the new provides every bit as much tension as the plot, which I will continue to avoid discussing in any depth lest I reveal a spoiler. (I kept my head in the sand as much as possible regarding “Star Wars” news in order to experience the film with as fresh of eyes as possible, and it paid off.) Yet even with Rey and Finn as the primary engines of action in “The Force Awakens,” the film feels practically like a mirror image of the original 1977 “Star Wars.” This was no doubt intentional, I assume, but the amount of bowing Abrams performs before the mythology of the franchise keeps his film from standing as tall as it could.

Certainly future installments in the new “Star Wars” will go deeper and bolder, making an even greater case for the series’ relevance and importance. For now, though, this served its purpose to reawaken the vanguard of longtime fans and excite a new generation. I must say, I am on board for what comes next. B+3stars





REVIEW: Star Trek Into Darkness

19 08 2013

I’ve been wrestling over my angle on reviewing “Star Trek Into Darkness” for quite a while.  I really did like the movie, although not nearly to the extent as J.J. Abrams’ 2009 rebooting of the franchise.  Just because it is not as good does not mean it is not any good, and I certainly do not want to imply that.

It’s still a solid summer movie, full of impressive and fun action as well as a dastardly star-making villainous performance by Benedict Cumberbatch.  Once again written by the dream team of Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof, the story delivers in a big way.  No longer burdened with reintroducing the once-iconic characters to audiences, they can focus on weaving an allegorical tapestry of many moral issues facing the post-9/11 world.

I’m far from disappointed with the latest voyage of the USS Enterprise.  However, it never reached the levels of excitement that led me to declare it my second most anticipated film of 2013 back in January.  “Star Trek Into Darkness” is still a great movie, don’t get me wrong, but it’s definitely a notch below the giddily fun “Star Trek” from four years ago.  While that’s still light years ahead of summer blockbusters “Man of Steel,” J.J. Abrams heads into directing “Star Wars” on a bit of a down note.

He made a decently acceptable action film.  It just won’t be particularly remarkable in retrospect.  When I go back and think about summer 2013 a few years down the road, I suspect I might forget that “Star Trek Into Darkness” was even released (although writing that line in my review might change that).  B+3stars





LISTFUL THINKING: Most Anticipated Movies of 2013

2 01 2013

I’ll still be stuck in 2012 at least until the Oscars are handed out and until then will be filling in with reviews of some of the movies I missed from the year.  But it’s time to move forward and look ahead to 2013, which could be a great year for cinema.  Several of my favorite filmmakers have projects due this year, which is what I will have to remind myself as I have to slog through a year that reportedly will give us 31 sequels and 17 reboots!

I had originally prepared a top 10 list for my most anticipated of 2013, but then I realized that since so many were TBD, there’s a chance we won’t see some of these movies until 2014.  So I added three movies at the beginning of the list that premiered on the 2012 fall festival circuit but will hit theaters for paying audiences in 2013.

Without further ado…

To The Wonder

#13
“To The Wonder” (April)
Written and directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, and Olga Kurylenko

A year ago, Terrence Malick was critical darling with his “The Tree of Life.”  Yet when “To the Wonder” arrived at Toronto and Venice, you’d have thought they were reviewing a Michael Bay movie.  How someone goes from hero to zero that meteorically is curious.  If nothing else, “To the Wonder” could be the most anticipated disaster of the year.

Frances Ha

#12
“Frances Ha” (May 17)
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig
Starring Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, and Adam Driver

Upon its many festival stops in 2012, it was called a mixture of French New Wave with early Woody Allen.  Combine that with the fact that it’s written and directed by Noah Baumbach, whose “The Squid and the Whale” knocked me off my feet, “Frances Ha” sounds like a movie custom-made for me.

The Place Beyond the Pines

#11
“The Place Beyond the Pines” (March 29)
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Written by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder
Starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, and Eva Mendes

They called it a sprawling, multigenerational epic when it played Toronto.  And from the trailer for Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to the harrowing “Blue Valentine,” it looks ambitious.  And honestly, I may be looking forward to this far more than several of the movies that made the ten.

Nebraska

#10
“Nebraska” (TBD)
Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by Bob Nelson
Starring Devin Ratray, Bruce Dern, and Bob Odenkirk

Alexander Payne’s “Election” alone makes anything from the director worth anticipating.  After a second writing Oscar back from a seven-year hiatus for “The Descendants,” he shortens his gap with a new movie within two years.  I’m a little skeptical, though, since the cast lacks some of the pop of Payne’s previous films, and he also didn’t write this one.

Inside Llewyn Davis

#9
“Inside Llewyn Davis” (TBD)
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, and Justin Timberlake

The Coens have gone from 1960s Jewish suburbia in “A Serious Man” to the 1880s Wild West in “True Grit.”  And now … back to the 1960s for the folk music scene of Greenwich Village?  They sure like to keep us on our feet.

The Wolf of Wall Street

#8
“The Wolf of Wall Street” (TBD)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Terence Winter
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, and Matthew McConaughey

Scorsese.  Enough said.  I suspect this will be the role that wins DiCaprio his Oscar, provided he doesn’t take Best Supporting Actor for “Django Unchained” this year.  With “The Great Gatsby” (see below) moving back to 2013, it assures us yet another fantastic one-two punch within the same year from DiCaprio.  “Gangs of New York” and “Catch Me If You Can.”  “The Departed” and “Blood Diamond.”  “Shutter Island” and “Inception.”  Boom, Leo comin’ at ya!

Catching Fire

#7
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (November 22)
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Liam Hemsworth

I enjoyed “The Hunger Games” this year, though I do see room for improvement in sequels.  Hopefully the writer of “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours” as well as the writer of “Toy Story 3” can elevate it because I’m certainly not expecting much from the director of the middling “Water for Elephants.”  And I just kind of need something to fill the void left from “Harry Potter.”

Elysium

#6
“Elysium” (August 9)
Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp
Starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, and Sharlto Copley

Anything shrouded in secrecy is enough to get me interested; that’s why “Prometheus” was at the top of this list for me in 2012 (that list was just mental).  And I think “District 9” could be merely scratching the surface of what Neill Blomkamp is capable of.  With Matt Damon and Jodie Foster headlining a sci-fi class warfare pic, this could be other-worldly levels of awesome.

Gravity

#5
“Gravity” (TBD)
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Written by Alfonso Cuaron, Jonas Cuaron, and Rodrigo Garcia
Starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock

Speaking of other-worldly levels of awesome, let’s talk Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity.”  He hasn’t released a film for 7 years, but his last three films were the incredible stretch of “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” and “Children of Men.”  His “Gravity” has been described as “if ‘Avatar’ had been released in 1927 a week after ‘The Jazz Singer.'”  What.  Warner Bros. pushed it back from 2012 for what I imagine was fine-tuning, which just has me all the more on pins and needles.

Labor Day

#4
“Labor Day” (TBD)
Written and directed by Jason Reitman
Starring Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, and Tobey Maguire

Jason Reitman, on a subjective and personal level, is probably my favorite director.  He’s had a flawless 4-for-4 stretch of films in his career, and though “Young Adult” might have been a step down from “Up in the Air,” that’s because the latter was basically perfect.  I’m fascinated to see what he can do with Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin.

Twelve Years a Slave

#3
“Twelve Years a Slave” (TBD)
Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by Steve McQueen and John Ridley
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, and Michael Fassbender

Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” was pretty good, but his “Shame” was an absolutely ingenious triumph.  I can only imagine how he plans to top it in “Twelve Years a Slave,” the story of a New York man kidnapped and sold into slavery.  It’s got one heck of a cast, from Michael Fassbender to Brad Pitt to Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry’s first roles post-“Beasts of the Southern Wild.”  Is it too soon to cry Oscar?

Star Trek

#2
“Star Trek Into Darkness” (May 17)
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Written by Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Benedict Cumberbatch

Abrams did one heck of a job turning around the “Star Trek” franchise in 2009.  And from the superb trailer, it looks like he plans to boldly go into Christopher Nolan territory with a beautifully lensed and incredibly emotional follow-up.  I can’t wait.

Gatsby

#1
“The Great Gatsby” (May 10)
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire

I heard today that Jay-Z is going to be scoring Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby.”  My first reaction was to rethink my placement of the movie as my most anticipated of 2013.  Then, I thought about it and realized that it might be a stroke of inspired brilliance that makes the movie even better.  Luhrmann is unparalleled in his ability to take old texts and make them feel alive, modern, and relevant.  Just look at how he took Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” and made it relevant for a post-MTV audience.  And think about how he seamlessly integrated pop songs into “Moulin Rouge,” set in 1900!  Luhrmann’s flair for the theatrical and opulent borders on gaudy on several occasions  but I think he’s the perfect match for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tale of the rich and the glamorous.  I have no doubt his use of 3D will serve the movie well too.  All in all, his “The Great Gatsby” will most definitely be for and by our times … and could wind up being the movie that defines 2013.





REVIEW: Super 8

12 06 2011

I’m not exactly a romantic or a nostalgic, but I have to admit that I sure wish summer movies looked a lot more like they did back in the ’80s.  There are very few visionaries who take on blockbuster entertainment anymore, and save Christopher Nolan, you really can’t sell a movie on a director like you could with fearless masters like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.  Few movies nowadays can produce the same wide-eyed wonder as classics like “Star Wars” and “E.T.” (in my mind, “Inception” is this generation’s equivalent).

But J.J. Abrams, the man who made us want to get “Lost” and made “Star Trek” cool again, is definitely trying to bring back some of that Spielbergian magic (and thus put his name on the poster) with “Super 8,” a movie that feels like it would have been a great way to spend $3 on a hot summer day in 1982.  It’s the kind of movie that a studio lets a director make after they deliver a big franchise hit, a true passion project that proves difficult to market because it has to be sold on Abrams’ name and story.  Using his suspense techniques from “Lost,” the character development of “Star Trek,” and the all-powerful weapon that is nostalgia, Abrams crafts a blast-from-the-past sci-fi movie that brings some substance and style back to a genre that has gone too long without it.

In fact, “Super 8” may be the first neo-Spielbergian movie as Abrams grew up on the director’s early classics and is now using his maturity and filmmaking bravura to pay homage and honor to his style.  Yet while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, Abrams doesn’t just stick to Spielberg’s conventions like white on rice.  Rather, he expands upon them and takes them further to make his story appeal to a new generation of moviegoers while also maintaing the timeless appeal that made Spielberg’s movies so enchanting.

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