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: Pete’s Dragon

14 08 2016

Disney has been trading on easy callbacks to their animated classics for the past half-decade or so, using new technologies to reiterate their well-established old stories. This style is valid, sure, but largely empty. From “Alice in Wonderland” to “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book,” the Mouse House shortchanges the creation of childhood memories by pandering to adults (or at least older) viewers who already have such experiences.

With “Pete’s Dragon,” however, the studio takes a step in the right direction. Co-writer and director David Lowery, working with one of Disney’s lesser known archival properties, makes a more poignant homage to the iconic French short “The Red Balloon” than to the original 1977 film. It’s a glimpse of what these remakes can be when unyoked from nostalgia and blatant commercial pandering.

Lowery brings an elegant simplicity to this fairytale-like story involving a hairy green CGI dragon and the wilderness-dwelling orphan named Pete (Oakes Fegley) with a unique ability to corral the giant mythical creature. When a plucky park ranger, Bryce Dallas Howard’s Grace, stumbles upon Pete during a routine walkthrough, the discovery transforms his life by bringing him in contact with people once again.

But the beginnings of Pete’s reintegration into polite society also raises the possibility that others might find the dragon – and they might not possess the same magnanimity of spirit as Grace. When the dragon ultimately does become known to the small Pacific Northwestern town, his mysterious intent instantly divides the community into those who fear the unknown and those who have faith in its goodness.

“Pete’s Dragon” soars towards its powerful close as Lowery and writing partner Toby Halbrooks celebrate our capacity for belief. This ability need not be tethered to some childlike wonder; rather, it is an inherent quality accessible to anyone should they choose to do so. The film’s folksy, plucky spirit only underscores the authenticity of this yarn about listening, learning and loving. B2halfstars





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: Red

26 01 2011

There’s more to the fun of “Red” than Helen Mirren firing away like a madman with a machine gun.  It’s an action movie not afraid to flash its AARP card, which makes its rather typical action and plot feel a lot fresher than it probably is.  With Bruce Willis finally embracing his age, rather than doing movie after movie that’s one “yippee-ki-yay” away from complete implausibility, it’s a nice change of pace for the action star that could signal better days ahead.

As Frank Moses, the retired and extremely dangerous (hence the acronym RED) former CIA agent, Willis is having a rough time adjusting to life after his time in black-ops.  He’s trying to do the whole suburban thing, but the only thing that gives him real joy is chatting with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), a federal pension phone customer service representative.  Of course, at 55, main street Americans only wish they could be receiving retirement benefits as opposed to unemployment benefits.

But whatever normalcy he built in suburbia is shattered as he’s drawn back into the bullet-ridden world by an attempt on his life.  Frank discovers that thanks to being part of a Guatemalan mission back in the ’80s, he’s being targeted for death.  Gathering up a gang of other Baby Boomers including the incredibly paranoid conspiracy theorist Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), Frank’s terminally ill mentor Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), and Victoria (Helen Mirren), a former assassin with class and grace.  Yet the best part of all is that Frank brings Sarah, oblivious to the perils of the, along for the ride.

The trigger-happy travelogue through the United States is a wild romp that excites and entertains at surprisingly high octane and high thrills.  At 110 minutes, the premise ages quickly and begins to drag a little bit.  Yet the entertainment is always solid as the bullets fly and bombs explode, even as the trek through the plot gets a little … dare I say it, old.  But it has a plot, and that’s more than I can say for most action movies nowadays.  B