Boldly Going Pt 13 (Star Trek Beyond, 2016)

Star_Trek_Beyond_PosterAfter Into Darkness, Trek lost Abrams to Wars. Simon Pegg stepped up as a screenwriter with Doug Jung to try and get the Kelvin timeline back on track.  The studio also decided to try out an action director, Justin Lin, who had success with the Fast and the Furious franchise.

I have already reviewed this, and one of my early criticisms was that the film is a bit slow going at the open. But after repeat viewings, I found that I really am not sure what I would do to speed things up.

After a fun little bit that sets up the film’s macguffin, the film focuses on where the characters are at.  They pick up about half way through their five year mission, which finds Kirk feeling lost and unsure.  In a clever bit of dialog, he comments that their mission has begun to feel “episodic”. Spock receives word of the passing of his future self (as Nimoy had passed away by this point) and questions whether he should stay with Starfleet or focus on the survival of the Vulcan race.

But after a mysterious pilot arrives at the space station where the Enterprise is docked, the Enterprise and her crew head to help the pilot’s disabled ship on the other side of a nebula.  After they are attacked and the Enterprise is destroyed (the second time in this timeline!) Kirk and the team find themselves trapped on a planet with aggressive aliens bent on getting the piece of a weapon that the Enterprise had.

Beyond is pretty much a 180 degree turn from Into Darkness.  It is fun, Elba plays a solid villain with a twist.  Sophia Boutella is a highly entertaining character named Jaylah who is befriended by Scotty and Kirk.  There is some solid character stuff with McCoy and Spock.

This is an action packed film that I find myself enjoying more each time I watch it.  It makes me wish a follow-up in the Kelvin timeline were a lock instead of so uncertain.  Of the timeline, I have really enjoyed two of the films, so I am definitely open to more.

 

Going Boldly Pt 12 (Star Trek Into Darkness, 2013)

ST_Into_Darkness_PosterAfter a pretty successful first outing, the whole team came back. So, my hopes were riding high for another exciting Star Trek film.

But early on I saw a danger sign. They were basically doing a Man of Steel. It was clear that they were going to use Khan.  The film makers denied this aggressively, especially after Benicio Del Toro left and was replaced by Benedict Cumberbatch.

When the film begins, it starts out okay, I guess…I mean, they still have not started their five year mission yet, and I have no idea why this could not have been set within that…but Kirk and crew save a primitive civilization from extinction and this gets Kirk demoted. But when a terrorist named John Harrison attacks Star Fleet headquarters killing Captain Pike, the Enterprise crew is sent to kill Harrison on the command of Admiral Marcus.

When they find Harrison, Kirk gives into his conscience and takes Harrison Prisoner.  As they speak with him, they discover is is actually leader of a genetic super community.  His advanced intellect is being used by dark areas of the Federation called Section 31…this knowledge puts the Enterprise in danger and they must work with Khan.

Clearly, Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman thought using Khan would excite fans, after all, we all loved Wrath of Khan, right?

Except, Khan and his vengeance had tremendous weight because Kirk and Khan had a history dating back to the original series.  This creates a tension that this film cannot recreate, quite simply because they do not know who Khan is. In fact, they have to reach out to Old Spock to have him give the rundown, because Khan is not even famous historically here.

They also try and flip the Wrath of Khan’s ending by having Kirk Sacrifice himself and send Spock to capture Khan.  Except, when Spock gave his life in the Wrath of Khan, it hit the viewer. We were losing a friend for the good of the many. And here? Kirk is barely dead two minutes and we find out they can resurrect him…and they do…we never get to feel worry or loss for Kirk…he was never in danger.

This film is just lacking the emotional resonance that it is attempting to duplicate. It is an empty and uninspired adventure.

Boldly Going Pt 11 (Star Trek, 2009)

ST_Kelvin_2009_PosterIt is often not really a great sign when a franchise seems to go dormant. After the struggle at the box office with Nemesis and a large amount of negative fan reaction, Paramount’s Star Trek team started trying to figure out new ideas, most which put the Next Generation Crew out to pasture.

Eventually, they opted to focus more on the Television side while they tried to crack a new approach.  And then they reached out to J.J. Abrams. He and his team came up with an idea… what if we went back to the beginning? What if we go back and meet the Enterprise crew all over again? Captain Kirk? Mr. Spock?

This seemed like a risky proposition…the original cast was tied to those characters and the idea of bringing new actors in to give the crew new life and adventures had a huge chance of going wrong.

Abrams chose to go back to the start of the series…but with a twist.  On the day James T Kirk is born, his father sacrifices himself as a Romulan ship appears from a black hole. In the original series, Kirk grew up with his father…and with this change Kirk grows into a rebellious and responsibility avoiding lout. But one night in a bar, he meets Cadet Urhura- and ends up in a fight with several of her fellow cadets. The fight is ended by Captain Christopher Pike who convinces Kirk to apply to Starfleet.

Kirk’s recklessness in the academy puts him at odds with the Vulcan Spock.  But when the Romulan ship reappears 25 years leader, Bones helps get Kirk on the  Enterprise and the crew must face the mad Romulan and also deal with interpersonal conflicts.

The casting of the film is interesting, as only Zachary Quinto bears any likeness too Nimoy. Yet, give Karl Urban the right haircut and let him channel DeForrest Kelley and he is uncanny in his likeness.  Really, the entire cast does so well, that I quickly found myself not paying attention to the details that said it is not the same person. This cast is… well, a lot of fun to watch. They have a real chemistry and work very well together.

I confess, I am one of those people who kind of gets annoyed when Trek has a prequel series with better tech than the original series.  I get this is mostly due to budget changes and better tech for film and television. But it always bugs me a bit to see a setting from before the original series with sleeker tri-corders. However, here? I find it pretty easy to excuse this world on the simple “history has changed” rationale.

The Enterprise here is bright and vibrant and feels wide open in a way prior television and film never really managed.

The film took some heat for being a little more Star Wars than Star Trek, and Abrams has openly stated he was always more of a Star Wars guy.  This is true of me as well.  I like Trek, but Wars was always a bit more my jam. And so, I do not really dispute the criticism, but for me it is a bit of a bonus.

The villain Nero is kind of lackluster…Eric Bana is not really given room to flap his wings. He almost feels like an afterthought.  While I enjoy seeing Nimoy return to the role of Spock, I also feel like he is being used in the film to shortcut mountains… specifically the relationship of Kirk and Spock.  Theirs is a friendship that feels deep and real because we got to spend decades with it. Here, Old Spock has to give pushes to Kirk and his younger self in the right direction. It feels a bit like a cheat.

Oh…and all the damn lens flares…

But those points aside, this was an incredibly fun new approach to characters we know and love and begin to get to know again.  It is a blast and a new start that had me very excited for the next film.

Oh foolish youth.

To Rule Them All Thrice (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2003)

LOTR_Return_PosterAll stories must conclude.  Some just take longer than others.  A lot longer. But more on that later. Sauroman is defeated, Aragorn and the people of Rohan have defended Helms Deep and Frodo, Sam and Gollum are at the door of Mordor.

Te film actually opens by jumping back several hundred years before the story we have been watching where we see hobbits Sméagol and Déagol fishing in a small boat.  After being pulled into the water, Déagol finds… The Ring. Both are gripped by obsession for the ring, resulting in murder.

Aragon and the others make their way to Gondor to unite the armies of men against Mordor and it’s seemingly endless forces.  We see most of our characters reunited.  Sam and Frodo’s relationship is tested by the duplicitous nature of Gollum.

Without question, the visual effects, costume and set design are top notch.  There really is not much to say here that I have not recognized in my previous reviews.  Sure, there are minor slip-ups (hobbits that are clearly height doubles wearing masks of the actors) and a few of the “Legolas being amazing” sequences in battles are surely CGI.

Faramir and the hobbits all get better deals here. Both Merry and Pippin get to be more than comic relief, with downright heroic moments and emotional moments.  There is a scene between Pippin and Gandalf where they say nothing, but share a look of great heart break from across the room, as if Gandalf knows Pippin is about to face some truly unfair tests.

Gimli, unfortunately, has never recovered from the Two Towers and remains embarrassingly frustrating comic relief.

Elijah Wood tells the story of how Jack Nicholson told him he left after the first ending. And this film has, like the book, several endings.  Though, most lamented is the scouring of the Shire, which the extended edition and theatrical cuts never included (the first film paid tribute to it in a vision with Galadriel). Here, the extended cut moves the unceremonious end of Sauroman from the scourging to earlier in the story.

But the frustrating part is that each “ending” feels somewhat necessary. Each gives a certain sense of closure to the tale. For all their flaws, the trilogy comes together and has far more to love than hate.  The strengths of the performances, the overall writing, the effects, the set design, the costumes…brings together one great epic.

Two Rule Them All (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, 2002)

LOTR_Two_Towers_PosterPicking up in the aftermath that split the fellowship apart, the Two Towers has a lot on it’s shoulders. Frodo and Sam are now on their own, making their way for Mount Doom to destroy the ring.  Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are trying to rescue Merry and Pippin, who are believed to have been kidnapped by Orcs.

We quickly learn that Merry and Pippin found escape from the orcs on their own.  Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are diverted by Gandalf who directs them to Rohan.  Gandalf realizes the time has come to prepare the armies of men for an epic battle against Sauron and his forces.

Rohan is under the influence of the Wizard Sauroman.  Their king is in a sickly trance, poisoned by Wormtongue, the agent of Sauroman.  Upon arrival, Gandalf excises the presence of Sauroman and chase out Wormtongue.  They warn the people there of the coming danger, and all agree they must make their way to an old fortress to protect everyone.

Meanwhile, Merry and Pippin discover the ancient race of Ents.  The Ents are ancient and sentient trees.  Pippin becomes determined to convince Treebeard and his fellow Ents to fight against the advancement of Sauroman and his orc army before it can join Sauron’s army.

And of course, there is Frodo and Sam.  Theirs is a somewhat less exciting route, as they are trying to avoid being seen.  Frodo confronts Gollum, who has been shadowing he and Sam in his attempt to get the ring back. Frodo takes pity Gollum, and chooses to take him along as a guide.

In the first film, we only had glimpses of Gollum.  This character presented a huge challenge and still stands as a monumental achievement in CGI effects.  Coupled with a terrific performance by Andy Serkis, Gollum comes to tragic and frightening life.  Serkis takes on a voice that can seem almost painfully childish and monstrous…sometimes at the same moment.  The film has a great moment using reflections and camera angles in which Gollum argues with himself over serving Frodo faithfully versus betraying him and stealing the ring back.

In the book, the stories are separated into two parts.  The first half follows Frodo and Sam and the second half follows the other characters. In one way, this does allow some interesting storytelling moments.  Frodo and Sam’s story will reference them seeing stuff we only see played out in the second half of the book.  But it also can make the Two Towers a tough read.  It does not break up the story enough.

Gimli continues his slide into little more than comic relief and Legolas even ends up having plenty of his swashbuckling antics coming off as comedic and cheesy (using a shield as a surfboard).

The film also undermines the character of Farimir, brother of Boromir.  In the book he is not tempted by the ring in any way.  He is a strong and confident man in ways his older brother was not.  Unlike Tom Bombadil, this not being tempted is an effective statement of Farimir’s character.  The film makes him much less sure of himself.  He is haunted by the ghost of his brother and his father’s greater love for Boromir. He does, of course, make the choice he makes in the book, but the overly wrought drama of giving him severe daddy issues works against the character in frustrating ways.  Yes, it allows Sam to be a dramatic voice of reason…but it really is an unnecessary detour that also makes Farimir come off as needlessly cruel at times.

The Two Towers does start to feel a bit meandering at times.  The extended cut suffers from this even more, though some of the additional scenes are quite entertaining.  While not quite an Empire Strikes Back (which is a bit leaner storytelling) it still is a pretty impressive film.

And Starring Jeff Goldblum as Jeff Goldblum (Thor: Ragnarok, 2017)

Thor_Ragnarok_PosterThor has been a fun character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He is cheerful, boisterous and powerful.  He is also boastful and over confident. This drove his first film, while the second film seemed a bit aimless.

In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thor had a vision of the end of Asgard.  He left to get answers and was missing for Civil War.  After Thor and Loki locate Odin, they are warned of the coming of Hela…their sister and the goddess of death Almost immediately Hela arrives and destroys Thor’s hammer. In their fight, Thor and Loki are separated and tossed into space.  While Hela conquers Asgard, Thor finds himself on the planet Sakaar. Captured by the Grandmaster Thor must fight in the Contest of Champions..and the champion he must defeat? His pal Hulk.

Marvel has done pretty well in tapping directors with limited experience in big budget films and having it work out in their favor.  Here they brought on New Zealander Taika Waititi, who is known for his unique comedies.  Check out the films Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in Shadows and while laughing, you will likely not think “a Super Hero movie is next!”. But it pays off.

Thor is full of great action and humor.  Unlike the previous two films, which were very earth centric, Earth has a brief cameo in the beginning.  Otherwise the film is heavily focused on Asgard.  To be frank, the previous films really failed to let Jane Foster shine and the relationship never had the strength of either Tony and Pepper or Steve and Peggy.  So, the film quickly addresses that “they broke up”.

The film works to give most of the leads “something to come back from”. Thor must figure out who he is without his hammer, Hulk must get back to Banner, Valkyrie must reclaim her glorious standing as an Asgardian Warrior.  There is not a lot to these arcs, of course, but the performances and interplay of the characters make it almost easy to miss.

The cast really makes the film.  Hemsworth and Hiddleston have a solid chemistry together, where you buy right into their weird sibling relationship in which Loki will betray Thor over and over and Thor is still going to give him a chance.  Tessa Thompson gives a real spark to Valkyrie, who could have been a pretty one note character.  Cate Blanchett’s Hela is actually not any deeper than previous Marvel Cinematic villains, but Blanchett seems to have had a lot of fun in the role and the result is that I enjoyed her as a villain. It was great to see Mark Ruffalo back as Bruce Banner.  The character is a bit shell shocked, which makes sense, as he has been “hulked out” for about two years, ever since the rampage in Age of Ultron.

And of course, there is Jeff Goldblum.  The actor you hire when you want a Jeff Goldblum-esque performance. But seriously, Goldblum always delivers, and his Grandmaster is the Jeff Goldblumiest thing you will see all year.  Unless Jeff Goldblum is Jeff Goldblum in another film before December 31st, 2017.

Thor: Ragnarok is a real blast of a film.  It is light hearted, exciting and quite funny.

I Am the Law (Dredd, 2012)

Dredd_PosterWhen a new Judge Dredd film was announced, there was no real fanfare.  What people did not realize is that the film was being written outside of the Hollywood scene.  Alex Garland (writer of 28 Days Later and writer/director of Ex Machina)…Garland is a fan of 2000AD and Judge Dredd.

Keeping the story very simple, Judge Dredd is taking a trainee with him, a hopeful Judge named Anderson.  She has some limited psychic ability.  Dredd is tasked with evaluating her.  When three skinned bodies fall from the sky, Judges Dredd and Anderson arrive at a 200 story building that is pretty much a city unto itself.  Dredd and Anderson capture a drug dealer who works for notorious gangster Ma-Ma.  To prevent him from being taken out, Ma-Ma has the building in lockdown and then announces to the entire complex that she wants the two judges killed.

This simple setup makes for a very effective story of survival.  Our leads must work their way to Ma-Ma to bring an end to their situation.  They are cut off from the outside world and must rely on their skills and wit.

The look of the city is grimy and lived in.  Full of pollution and decay, the sets of the film are effective.  The effects, specifically the sequences depicting the effects of the drug Slo-Mo (it makes the user feel that time has slowed down) are very well thought out.  The viewer sees everything in slow motion, with a shimmering effect.

Garland understands what makes Dredd work.  Keeping the story simple is such a benefit here.  There are no over the top conspiracies.  Karl Urban never shows his face without the helmet in this film.  And he wears a permanent scowl.  Never does Dredd break down.  Even when he seems to be relenting on his firm stances, it is in a fashion that he is in line with his attitude throughout the film.  Urban really embraced the character and does Judge Dredd real justice here.  Anderson is very sympathetic as a rookie and owns up to her mistakes.  At one point, she knows she has failed the evaluation but refuses to back down from the challenge of Ma-Ma and her gang. And Ma-Ma?  This is no glamor role for Lena Headey (Game of Thrones).  She is a drug addict and psychopath…cruel and vicious with scars to show for it.

Dredd has gained a cult following over the past five years, with people hoping for a sequel.  A few years ago an April fools announcement declared Netflix was doing a Dredd series with Karl Urban and Thirlby returning.  Fans were bitterly disappointed it was untrue.  But every so often, we get word of the filmmakers trying to press ahead.  And Urban has welcomed the possibility of returning to the role.  Most recently, there is the word that a series may be on the way after all, possibly with Urban back as Dredd.

Dredd is a very effective cop survival story, gritty and violent with strong performances.  The creators get the characters and manage to remain true to what made the character work in comics, without being alienating to those unfamiliar with the source material.

To Infinity And… (Star Trek Beyond, 2016)

Star-Trek-Beyond-PosterIn the third film since J.J. Abrams rebooted the Star Trek Universe, we get an original story.  And really? It is quite a bit of fun.  It begins a bit shaky with attempts to give us brief character moments that are not entirely effective.  It is nice to see McCoy taking a bigger role then the last film, and more of a focus on the friendship of he and Jim.  And hey, they are actually in the midst of their five year mission of exploration!  The previous two films were set before that.

We find James T. Kirk having lost his way in the far reaches of space.  Not literally, but spiritually.  He is not alone, Spock is having a personal crisis regarding his role on the enterprise versus feeling of obligation to his fellow Vulcans.  While visiting a space station, they are contacted by an unfamiliar species, a captain who begs for help for her stranded ship.  The Enterprise takes her out only to be attacked and (in the long standing tradition of Trek) destroyed.  To be honest, this sequence gets a little boring as it seems endless and kind of confusing.  But when the crew lands and is dispersed on a nearby planet, the film kicks into gear.

I was skeptical of bringing a director of the Fast and Furious (admittedly director of some of the best films in the franchise) in to direct.  But Justin Lin shows a lot of skill at making an energetic sci-fi film.  The villain’s full motives are mysterious at first, but when revealed it all falls into place.

Everyone’s performances are true to form and this feels like an action packed version of the original crew.  It is not that much deeper than the previous two installments, but it is far more effective in it’s story telling.  Personally, I found the interaction between Spock and McCoy tremendously enjoyable.  they had nice moments of expression of concern and admiration as well as some entertaining banter.  Kirk’s “ladies man” persona is downplayed in this film, he never even hits on Jaylah, the pretty alien girl.

If ranking the Altered Timeline films, I would say Beyond is easily the best as it hits it’s marks.  The villain is a strong and compelling threat (something the previous entries suffered at) and the villains plan at least makes sense and is not entirely dependent on complete coincidence.  Okay, maybe a slight coincidence.  But I enjoyed Star Trek Beyond, and enjoyed it very much.

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