Thursday, July 28, 2016

Star Trek: Beyond! and "Light's Out!"

Star Trek:

A clever script and intense action sequences allow the crew of the Enterprise to deliver one of the best films in the franchise. As a partial “trekkie” (I enjoyed the original series, Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, half of Voyager, and some of the largely panned “Enterprise” series), there was plenty about the new reboots to love despite a few annoyances. Fans were willing to embrace the inconsistencies of the first film from JJ Abrams, but man felt the second film went to the “Khan Well” far too soon in the series and that it was done very poorly. For me, it was largely entertaining (though I did feel bad about Pike’s “unhappy ending”), but mostly just popcorn entertainment and not so much the “science fiction epic” that I was hoping for.

Justin Lin (Fast and Furious sequels) takes the director chair with a script co-aughtored by Doug Jung and genre favorite Simon Pegg. The story takes place three years into the Enterprise’s five year mission- they’re weary, frustrated, and daily life aboard the ship has become monotonous with an occasional spark here and there. Of special note is that the original series had run three seasons- so the crew is likely to have had many of the same missions of that series during the space between the past film and this one. So we are moving past the known universe and we are telling a new story- and this one calls to question the very purpose of Starfleet.

A renegade alien has been watching from a distance. Resentment has grown, anger with the Federation itself, and we finally question the nobility of Gene Roddenmerry’s future Utopia and whether it’s our conflict or our unity that offers humanity it’s growth and strength. And while there’s no subtlety to the question being asked, the film doesn’t spend much time running their moral question to the ground- they have a world to save, an enemy to confront, and near-death experiences to avoid.

I’m not going to bore you with the praise I have for this film: I just loved it. It is easily the best of the new series, easily better than many of the films in The Next Generation and Original series, and well worth the time in catching the movie on the big screen. This is Chris Pine’s defining moment as Kirk and the other characters are all well-represented, not only for their moments as characters but their moments as officers of Starfleet.

9 out of 10.

Lights Out

Based on the original viral video of the same night, this full length adaptation attempts to take an atmospheric and haunting film that leads up to a single jump scare and expand it well beyond the two minutes or so of the original run time. When the lights go out we can see “her”… Diana. A ghost? An apparition? A creature of pure darkness? Whatever she is, she is a creature of darkness and she is unable to exist in the light.

First: let me talk about the “good”- as an allegory, Lights Out is an effective exploration of mental illness and the effect it has on the family of those affected by it. The story follows a pair of siblings, one a young boy and the other an older sister who has already moved out and has been avoiding her mother for some time. After the death of the mother’s second husband, the boy continually sees her talking to her friend, “Diana”. The older sister remembers a time when “Diana” paid visits to her mom as a young girl and the mysterious things that would happen. And we learn fairly quickly that “Diana” has no intention of sharing the mother’s affection with others- even with children.

Second: The “Bad” is that the film actually lacks some of the tension of the short. Creaking noises, pounding feet, and little silhouettes framed against a slightly lit backdrop tend to grow more annoying and less scary the longer they go on. There are a few moments where the film goes where it’s strongest and plays with the idea of the light switches being turned off- but it never really goes very far. There was one moment where I did, literally, jump in my seat- but the film never really goes far enough in just building the tension.

This is a very standard type of film and it won’t be the “best new thing”, but it a largely satisfying enough piece of “light horror”. It’s a film that truly deserves the PG 13 rating without having to really reach for it- there are few things that could have elevated the film to an “R” rating and it didn’t truly deserve it. Basically, if you have time to kill and you want to see something a little tense and spooky, this is the film for you.  

6 out of 10.

Monday, July 18, 2016


GHOSTBUSTERS (2016)                 

There has been a LOT of controversy surrounding the latest Ghostbusters film. Let me get that out of the way right off the bat, because it’s going to be relevant to what I have to say about the film in general. The basic thing is this- there was a lot of flak from people regarding the “all female” cast of the new Ghostbusters. To some, it felt like “stunt” casting- to others, it felt like a long overdue recognition of female empowerment. The honest truth is that this pretty much felt a little “in the middle” for me- it felt like a stunt, it could have been decent, but I was incredibly skeptical with hope for a good feature. And then the trailer hit- and the backlash was almost immediate and it was brutal. Let me say that I think it’s a poor trailer at best- it kills the comedy, highlights poor special effects, and it relied too much on familiar iconography to sell something that was supposedly moving away from the original source material.

But all of that would be almost meaningless if not for the backlash from Sony and, specifically, Kevin Feig. They decided that the best way possible to spin all of this controversy would be to attack anyone with an accusation of sexism- and they proceeded to unleash one of the most bizarre instances of “shaming” an audience into attendance. Seriously?

Well, my son is a big Ghostbusters fan. My wife was interested in seeing the movie as well. And I had nothing better to do than to make certain my family spent some time together at the cinema…

And it wasn’t awful.

It was a fairly standard film utilizing the best elements of CGI in order to create some truly awful looking effects that we could ultimately dismiss as being far too colorful, goofy, and cartoonish than it was frightening. It introduces a villain that is, quite frankly, one of the most boring representations of male ego and rage. This is, literally, a basement dwelling troll who hates the world above him- and he has no real personality, no real identity, and nothing all that impressive in his performance. His interest in the paranormal is barely scratched, his ability to create the technology is dismissed and never addressed, and whole of the plot seems lost with an inability to actually tell a story arc with any real beginning, middle, or end. The film, largely, manages to exist and does little more than that.

Actresses Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy are school friends grown apart in recent years. A recent resurgence of an earlier book published by the two scientists provokes their reunion when the uptight Wiig finds herself up for tenure. Supernatural stuff, they’re both humiliated, they both decide to start investigating the paranormal once again, and so they do. And while McCarthy is an interesting character to follow, Wiig seems largely over directed with only a few moments of pure comedic brilliance. Her scenes with Chris Hemsworth and a few other moments with the ensemble allow her to shine, but she seems largely pulled back from any real reactions in a number of scenes. Actress Leslie Jones seems to be a little lost in the mix- a character searching for her voice and relegated to screaming, yelling, and over-acting in a number of scenes. She’s somewhat shoe-horned into the group as their resident Local Expert.  

Now, I know it seems I’ve been real negative till now- but here is the kicker: The first two women are joined by Kate McKinnon in what has to be one of THE best comedic and iconic performances I’ve seen in years. She absolutely owns her scenes, owns her character, and delivers in each and every moment that she is on screen. Whether she is delivering her lines or just reacting to the situation, this is a fully realized performance and it deserves some serious praise. What’s more, I want to see more movies with this character- and there’s enough in her performance to make me want to see her interact with the other characters in the film, as well.

And that brings me to the weird crux of the film- this is largely a Jeckyl and Hyde kind of film- when it works, it’s really good. Moments between the four leads are fairly well done and establish their characters, interaction, and relationships with one another. There are moments caught on film where the four women seem to be having some genuine fun with the script and their story; interviewing for a secretary, challenging a hoax debunker, and some of the earlier “investigation” scenes work to their strengths. Their eventual confrontation with a series of ghostly creatures is excitingly cut. But all of this is cut with a poor script, a terrible story, and a lackluster villain- a number of plot contrivances pull the characters toward one scene after another and many jokes are left dangling or fail to hit.

The film itself is actually about a 6 out of 10- EXCEPT for the performance from Kate McKinnon, whose presence alone elevates the film a whole two stars. So 8 out of 10.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Shallows - A couple of thoughts on this fish film.

The Shallows

Ready? Here we go…

I took the bait.

I had a few hours to kill and a gift card burning a hole in my pocket so I went and caught the latest Shark film- “the Shallows” over at the Maya Cinema. It had some decent buzz surrounding it and I happen to like these types of films. So the card when through and I dropped two fins off the total. I grabbed a bucket of popped corn and a cup of soda, I took my seat in what I thought would be an empty auditorium- but alas, others were soon to join me in my Thursday screening. The film started to roll and we were already off and swimming.

So here’s the story- a woman (played by Blake Lively) is on a journey of “self discovery” after the passing of her mother due to cancer. We get a bit of lazy exposition drop early in the film- she’s a med student who just dropped out, she’s been on this journey for some time, and she has a younger sister that she helped raise. We learn all of this in the first ten minutes of the film and- actually, it’s all done quite well for what it is. This is who she is, this is what brought her to this largely abandoned beach, now let’s get on with the film and the direction handles this information very well considering my usual distaste for this type of writing. Suffice to say that we know everything we need to know about this woman in the first few minutes of the film and then the action moves on from there. And I was hooked!

What’s the action? Well, she’s out surfing in the breakers of this small beach when she is attacked by a shark. She manages to make it to a small island in the shallows, but the tide is going to wipe this island out eventually so she needs to either wait for a rescue or somehow outsmart the ultimate eating machine. It’s basic and there aren’t many frills to complicate the issue- and it’s really good. You might say it never flounders! Lively is an engaging actress and I can’t help but draw a little comparison to her real life husband and his performance in “Buried”- (Ryan Reynolds, trapped in a coffin the entire film.). She isn’t an actress I’m overly familiar with- I haven’t seen much of her work. But she is completely engaging in this film and she carries a strong lead throughout the piece. She spends the majority of the film trapped on a coral reef and vacillates between playing the helpless damsel and the fighting woman her parents raised her to be. And this is where that back story comes into play- because we see the journey she is on and the decisions she is making, why she is making them, and where they will ultimately lead her to. So while I groaned inwardly at the start of the film, the whole of it made sense of everything much later- and the film eventually asks the question: “How much do you want to survive?”

4 out of 5.