Star Trek Beyond

I often complain about a movie if it doesn’t take any chances.  Especially in these series movies, like Star Trek or Star Wars, the filmmakers are particularly risk adverse.  They have whole story generating universes to explore but are unwilling to do it, particularly in the summer.  TV is where all the creative action is right now and I’m really looking forward to this new Star Trek series.  That’s where Gene Roddenberry’s vision will ultimately be carried on.

Now, of course it’s possible to make a good movie that doesn’t challenge formulas.  After all pushing the envelope all the time can be just as tiring as seeing the same old thing time and time again.  Thus when the movie is a summer blockbuster that costs millions, us fans are dependent on the filmmakers’ ability to make a good movie within the formula.

So Star Trek Beyond gives us a Big Bad, Idris Elba playing Krall, a new fearsome enemy with seemingly invincible weaponry, an angsty Kirk and a plucky crew.  Yeah, they destroy the Enterprise but we’ve seen that before too.  Believe me there’s nothing new in this stew.

The plot is immaterial.  You know it; you’ve seen it a million times.  What you don’t see is a lot of the action because the screen is so dark at times.  I saw the 2D version so I can’t even blame the 3D glasses.  Plus the action scenes are cut too tightly and the camera is too close.  It’s really hard to follow especially in the beginning.  But of course it’s impossible to get lost in this linear hackneyed plot.

And yet I enjoyed it.  That’s partly because I’m a lifelong Star Trek fan and the franchise always gets a pass.  Into Darkness had many more flaws than this one but I still bought the DVD.  But also because the new crew of the Enterprise is exceptionally well cast, or rather re-cast.  Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk is consistently interesting.  He’s evolving.  The beginning of this film shows him worn down by the responsibility of his position and the drudgery of routine to the point where he applies for a desk job.  He’s on the verge of totally suppressing the wild child we saw in the first film.  It’s interesting to see him resolve this internal conflict.

Zachery Quinto is probably the only person other than Leonard Nimoy who could play Spock.  He has the mannerisms and the character almost perfectly.  I think they are making him too emotional, but that’s just something the geek in me is going to grumble about while I enjoy the movie.

And finally, finally they have given Karl Urban’s Dr. McCoy something to do.  His performance is exemplary in this and he has all the funny lines.  His banter with Spock is reminiscent of the show.

Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty and wrote the screenplay along with Doug Jung, also has a lot of good moments.  And he is even beginning to resemble James Doohan.  Scotty was always good for some comic relief in the series and Pegg has continued that.

Idris Elba is incapable of giving a bad performance, even when playing a stock bad guy with comic book motivations.  I liked newcomer Jaylah, played by Sophie Boutella, a black and white striped alien and a tough survivor.  At the end it looked like they were setting her up to replace Chekov, since J.J. Abrams has already said they probably won’t replace Anton Yelchin, who died in a tragic accident.  I don’t think that’s a bad move.

Star Trek Beyond is a summer action film.  It’s a good one but it really doesn’t aspire to anything more than that.  But I hope that one day they return to more thoughtful and daring stories.

Ghostbusters 2016

I liked the original Ghostbusters.  It was funny, generally well written and well-paced.  I think it is a rare example of an actually funny modern American comedy.  There are great lines in it that I still quote today.  But for some reason it never obtained the status of sacred text for me that it has for other geeks.  And when I saw it again last year, I was bothered by the Libertarian anti-regulation themes in it, and I’m sorry but the older I get the more I dislike Venkman’s Junior High School taunts.

Consequently, I was not offended by rebooting it with female characters.  There are some very funny women out there and they rarely get a chance to shine.  Putting them in a high profile tent pole production like this is an extraordinary opportunity to possibly change attitudes about casting them in comedies.  Paul Feig is the perfect pick as director.  He did Bridesmaids, which also had Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy in it, and several other female centered comedies.  He doesn’t quite hit this one out of the park but it is a solid triple.

First of all is the casting.  I knew that Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy were talented comic actors but I didn’t know about Kate McKinnon, since I don’t watch SNL.  She absolutely steals the show with her off-the-wall gonzo antics and impenetrable weirdness.  Her performance made me think of John Belushi in Animal House, a totally loose cannon.  If nothing else this performance should make her a star.

Leslie Jones is funny as Patty, although the character borders on stereotype.  They do give her a vital role in the plot.  I just wish she’d had a little moment to show that she was more than a sassy black woman.

It was a smart decision to not try and recreate the chemistry of the original cast.  You can’t point to any one of these woman and say, “Okay, she’s supposed to Venkman and she’s Egon.”  The filmmakers let them develop their own chemistry and they do a good job.  You feel the connection between Wiig’s Erin Gilbert and McCarthy’s Abby Yates, which goes back to high school where they were two nerdy girls who loved science and the supernatural.  And they’re not really scared by the ghosts either.  Abby thinks they’re beautiful and wants to study them.  Erin has an unquenchable curiosity about them as well as a strong psychological need to prove to the world that they exist.  Their dialog also has a way of digressing into pop culture references like when they get into Patrick Swayze movies while talking to the police.  I love that kind of humor.

They bring in Chris Hemsworth as their incompetent but highly ornamental receptionist.  He has a role in the plot as well, but his main purpose is to extract revenge for every dumb blonde joke ever told.  Hemsworth demonstrates that he’s a pretty good comic actor.  We need to see more of that in the next Thor movie.

The effects are great of course.  They kept the look of the original but thirty years of technological improvements means that they look even better and are more seamlessly integrated into the live action.

There are a few things that keep Ghostbusters from perfection.  One is that the filmmakers are a little too reverent towards the original film.  There are a lot of cameos with the original cast, and while all of them are fun and welcome, they often mess with the film’s pace.

The film’s editing is also problematic.  There were a few cases where the transition between scenes was not clear.  It pulled me out of the story.

But Ghostbusters 2016 is generally an amusing summer diversion, just as the original was.  How does it fare in the inevitable comparison?  I’d say the original is probably a little ahead.  It has a clearer plot, and doesn’t have the pressure of living up to an earlier classic.

But the new one is well worth seeing.

The BFG

As I was looking back over Steven Spielberg’s films in IMDB, desperately searching for a first sentence for this review, I realized that The BFG is actually only his fourth film made specifically for children.  The others are ET of course, Hook and The Adventures of Tintin.  Now many of his films have children as protagonists, like AI or Jurassic Park, but those are made mostly for an older audience.  This was surprising to me; I would have expected him to have made more children’s films and frankly better ones.  If you look at that small list, it’s definitely a mixed bag.  Hook was a notorious flop.  I enjoyed Tintin but it failed to leave an impression on most people.  ET, of course, is a classic.  He’s never taken on anything like a Roald Dahl book and it doesn’t seem like a very good fit.

I’m afraid that The BFG is going to land somewhere in the middle of that range.  It’s not a horrible misfire like Hook but at the same time it can’t touch ET.  It’s a very pretty film with all kinds of beautiful floating lights and fantastical sets, which is part of the problem when Spielberg brings the momentum to a screeching halt to linger over the pretty pictures.  The computer generated elements are seamlessly integrated with the live actors.

Using motion capture technology, Mark Rylance gives a great performance as the BFG.  He’s friendly, sure but also a little sad and somewhat rough around the edges, speaking in an earthy cockney accent.  Ruby Barnhill joins a long list of child actors who have given great performances for Spielberg.  She is cute and spunky, encouraging the BFG to stand up to the other giants in Giant Land when they tease him.  He’s small for a giant.

There are some loose ends that bother me.  The BFG mixes up words coming up with unlikely concoctions like “buckswashling,” or “delumtious.”  When Sophie tries to correct him, he says very sadly that he doesn’t know why he mixes up his words and she immediately feels bad about criticizing him.  I was expecting this to become a plot point later but they never did anything with it.

Likewise when he is throwing his bullying brethren out of his cave he admonishes them that giants were at one time more courtly.  And yet when he goes to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen, played by Penelope Wilton, he has no idea how to act.  It’s not an important point but it does present an incongruity.

Nonetheless I think children will like it.  They will be charmed by the BFG, and identify with Sophie.  There are a few fart jokes thrown in.  As I said it is a good looking film that really should be seen in theaters.

As for Spielberg, he’s made enough masterpieces that I am always willing to give any film of his a chance.

The Shallows

When you make a shark movie, the bar is pretty high.  Comparisons with Jaws are inevitable and frankly they’re never going to be in your favor.  Fortunately, the creative team behind The Shallows realized that and didn’t try to top the Spielberg masterpiece.  They just made a taut, suspenseful thriller without pretension or much artifice.

Nancy, played by Blake Lively, is a young medical student who is considering dropping out.  Her mother recently died of cancer and she needs to take some time to think about things.  She decides to go to the same secluded beach in Mexico that her mother visited when she was a young girl for a few days of surfing.  Unfortunately the beach turns out to be a feeding ground for an angry great white shark.  Nancy gets stranded on a rock 200 meters from the shore with a nasty shark bite in her leg.

What follows, of course, is a survival story where this plucky resourceful woman battles nature and her own demons.  The plot is as old as the art of storytelling but we never tire of a new iteration, especially if it’s well done and suspenseful.  And The Shallows is.

The director, Jaume Collet-Serra, employs a lot of Spielberg’s techniques.  For most of the movie you never get to see much of the shark other than blurry shots of a toothy maw coming towards you.  And for much the same reasons.  Spielberg couldn’t get his mechanical shark to work consistently.  I think the filmmakers here didn’t have the budget to do more than a couple computer generated shark attacks.  And from the effects that were shown it’s obvious that they couldn’t afford the best effects company.  The filmmakers knew enough though not to hold those shots for too long and the cheesiness of the effects doesn’t detract much.

There are also a lot of underwater, shark’s point of view shots.  Close ups of hands and feet below the surface are plentiful and nerve-wracking.  Get that hand out of the water before you lose it!

They build tension in other ways, too.  In the first scene, Nancy is being driven out to the beach by Carlos, played by Oscar Jaenada, who is a scruffy looking native she’s obviously just met.  Looking at him, you wonder if he is trustworthy.  Actually he turns out to be a nice guy, who encourages her to look at the scenery and won’t take any money for driving her out.  He has a family and lives near the beach.

There are also two surfers already there.  She keeps her distance from them when she’s out on the water.  Near the end of the day, they’re going home and she’s out looking for one last wave.  She watches them suspiciously as they pass by her backpack on the sand.  They don’t take it.  They’re nice guys too.  Nancy’s only enemy is the shark.

I like the constricted ambitions of this film.  They aren’t trying to push any boundaries here.  Their goal is to make as good a thriller as they can.

And they succeed.

Finding Dory

For me, Pixar fell from the exalted status of infallible some time ago, probably around the time they released Cars 2, which was a godawful film.  Don’t get me wrong; they are still capable of greatness (see Inside Out) but they produce duds as well, proving that the studio is run by humans after all.  Pixar is probably the victim of its own success.  They are expected to crank out two films a year now, and no studio can release two masterpieces a year over the course of time, not Pixar, not Marvel, none of them.  Pixar is simply regressing to the mean.

Around the time of the fall, I began to notice that they also made films that were neither great nor terrible.  They were simply OK.  Some of these were actually made before the Cars 2 disaster.  I never noticed them because they were outshone by the brilliance of The Incredibles, the Toy Story films and other titles.  The first Cars falls into this category as does their first feature, A Bug’s Life.

Finding Dory is solidly in the mediocre category.   It has the Pixar sentiment but it edges too far into sappy territory at times.  There are problems with the plot.  When they need to move it along, Dory’s (played by Ellen DeGeneres) faulty memory will cough up something.  Sadly the leads in the first film, Finding Nemo, Nemo, played by Hayden Rolence and his father Marlin, played Albert Brooks, are somewhat bland and not really critical to the plot.

And yet it’s almost impossible not to like Ellen DeGeneres’ portrayal of the delightfully dotty Dory.  The filmmakers make it clear that she has a disability and while they have a little fun with that they also handle it sensitively.  Dory was probably the best thing about Finding Nemo, although the surfer turtles were close and they are back for a short cameo in this one.  Ed O’Neill is good as Hank, a cranky Octopus, who helps Dory.  Kaitlin Olson is endearing as Destiny a nearsighted whale, who keeps bumping into things and Ty Burrell is Bailey, a beluga whale, having trouble with his echolocation.

The last thing that bothered me was that whenever Nemo and his father get into a jam they ask themselves, “What would Dory Do?” because they notice that she has a way of getting out of these situations.  The answer is invariably to latch onto the first harebrained and unlikely to work scheme that presents itself.  I’m not sure that’s the best message to give to children.

X-Men: Apocalypse

It’s easy to overlook the X-Men series these days.  As a whole it is better than the stinkers that Warner Brothers is currently putting out in the DC universe, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy excepted.  But Professor X’s protégé’s can’t touch what Marvel is doing.  The series is the very definition of middle of the road and it’s odd to think that such a beloved comic book franchise like the X-Men could inspire so little fanboy enthusiasm at this point.  It is probably another sign of the maturity of the comic book movie genre.

In the latest installment, a powerful mutant, named En Sabah Nur or Apocalypse, played by Oscar Isaac appears in Egypt.  Apocalypse may very well be the legendary first mutant.  He has the power to absorb other mutant’s power and has appeared at various times in history.  With every appearance he gathers four powerful mutants around him to serve as his main henchmen.  Get it?  The four horsemen.

As you can probably guess from his name, he has examined our modern world and found it lacking.  His goal is to destroy our civilization and make room for more mutants.  I really love comic book movies, but they need to find another plot.

This isn’t a bad movie.  Brian Singer, the director and co-screenwriter along with Simon Kinberg, knows what he’s doing, especially with these characters.  The film drags a little in the middle but otherwise moves along at a spritely pace.  There’s a long buildup to the main conflict but it is expertly handled.  Most of the leads here are inherited: James McAvoy as Professor X, Michael Fassbender as Magneto, Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique and others and they all know how to play their characters and do a good job.  The newcomers are pretty well cast too.  Olivia Munn isn’t given much to do as Psylocke, but she’s pretty good.  Kodi Smit-McPhee plays a young Nightcrawler with smarts and vulnerability.   There are lots of others worth mentioning that I don’t have time for.

Oscar Isaac deserves praise for making Apocalypse a compelling villain.  He knows exactly what his chosen henchmen need and gives it to them.  Even his casual disregard for the lives of regular humans is depicted as acts of fatherly love.  It is chilling.

And yet this movie fails to hit its mark emotionally.  I hinted at the reason earlier.  We’ve seen this before.  In the superhero world powerful megalomaniacs trying to destroy civilization in order to clear the way for something better crop up at least a couple of times a year.  I’m sure the superheroes circulate white papers amongst themselves on best practices for dealing with it.

Consequently, X-Men Apocalypse is a placeholder.  The filmmakers take no chances and do not advance the genre appreciably.  It’s a pretty movie; the effects are tremendous and you really should see it in a theater.  But it won’t rock your geeky little world.  Maybe it’s time for new blood to take over the franchise, or perhaps to give it a rest for a few years.

The Nice Guys

To me the plot of The Nice Guys poses a couple of questions.  If you have an anti-hero as your main protagonist, does he or she have to change at the end?  And if the anti-hero still manages to do the right thing but doesn’t change or actually changes for the worse is he or she still the hero of the story?  I should mention that the fact I’m asking these questions makes me uneasy about this film.

Holland March, played by Ryan Gosling, is a successful licensed private detective of questionable ethics and dubious valor.  Mrs. Glenn, played by Lois Smith, is a half blind old lady who hires Holland to find her niece, Amelia Kuttner, played by Margaret Qualley.  The girl’s disappearance seems to tie into the apparent suicide of a porn star named Misty Mountains, played by Muriel Telio.  Unfortunately for Holland there are some powerful people who do not want Amelia found.

This is driven home for him by Jackson Healy, played by Russell Crowe, who is a thug for hire.  If you want someone to stop messing around with your thirteen year old daughter, Jackson will take care of it for you.  He specializes in those kinds of cases, but he has trouble looking at himself in the mirror.  When someone hires him to deter Holland from finding Amelia, Jackson’s methods are direct and effective, putting Holland’s left arm into a cast.  But Jackson looks at Holland’s nice house and begins to wonder about his future.

Things get complicated and soon they find themselves teamed up and mixed up in a complex plot involving the Department of Justice and the porn industry.

The first thing I should mention is that Crowe and Gosling both have pretty good comic timing.  Since they are probably not the first names that come up when considering who to cast for an action comedy, this counts as a revelation.  They also bring out the inner depths and motivations of their characters.  Both of them deserve praise.

The rest of the film is well acted too.  Angourie Rice plays Holly, Holland’s teenage daughter who is much more sensible than he is.  She does a great job as a kid who loves her dad but also sees his faults.

The film is a little too long.  I would have cut the dream sequence and a lot of the party scene.  But overall it is a pretty entertaining time. The plot has twists and turns that are genuinely surprising.  Most of the villains and minor characters are quirky and memorable.  It is an almost perfect movie.

Until we get to the last scene, the falling action, where it is apparent that these guys are not affected by what they’ve gone through or at least haven’t learned any lessons.  It’s a small scene and perhaps it’s just a miscalculation on the part of director and screenwriter Shane Black.  But Black is a pretty experienced hand at this point and I don’t think he’d make a mistake like that.  So he’s trying to make a point.

And for the life of me I can’t figure out what it is.


July 2016
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