The Tomorrow War

Release: Friday, July 2, 2021 (Amazon Prime)

👀 Amazon Prime

Written by: Zach Dean

Directed by: Chris McKay

Starring: Chris Pratt; Sam Richardson; Yvonne Strahovski; Betty Gilpin; J.K. Simmons; Edwin Hodge

 

 

***/*****

The creatures at the center of Chris McKay’s fast-moving and action-packed sci-fi blockbuster are microcosmic of the overall experience of The Tomorrow War. You can’t take your eyes off them despite how familiar they are, an amalgam of iconic elements and concepts from bigger, more famous genre titles of years past.

It’s not looking good for us humble humans in the year 2051. The global population reduced to something in the hundreds of thousands, we’re well on our way to losing the war against the Whitespikes, a race of vicious creatures who look like some hybrid between H.R. Giger’s beloved Xenomorphs and the chaotic Mimics from Edge of Tomorrow (2014). In a last ditch effort, future people are time-traveling back to our reality to recruit citizens into the war effort because we regular Joes are literally the last line of defense. May as well cancel the sunrise at this point.

The gregarious Chris Pratt is our ticket in to experiencing this future hellscape for ourselves, charged with leading a platoon on what essentially amounts to a suicide mission into a world overrun with beasts that move with alarming agility and aggression and have this nasty tendency to shoot spikes from tentacled appendages. Pratt again proves to be a supportable hero though this time he disconnects more from his goofball persona to slip into the fatigues of career-depressed Dan Forester, a retired Green Beret now itching to retire from the grind of teaching high school biology to disinterested students.

Too ‘average’ to fit in at the Army Research Lab, Dan is handed (more like strong-armed into) an opportunity to fulfill a destiny, if not also risk his sanity. His number gets called and despite the protestations of his wife Emmy (Betty Gilpin — redeemed) whose experience as a therapist for returning survivors gives her a good idea of the best case scenario, he’s quickly on board for a one-week tour of duty in which the survival rate hovers at a miserable 30%. Those who do survive get beamed back to the present day from wherever they happen to be at the time. While a pre-jump exchange feels shortchanged between Dan and his estranged father James (a beefed-up J.K. Simmons), whose methods of dealing with his own PTSD have never sat right with his son, leaving behind his bright daughter Muri (a wonderful Ryan Kiera Armstrong) is the tear-jerking moment Zach Dean’s pedestrian screenplay flubs the most.

This brief snapshot of an average family life discarded with, we plunge headlong into the film proper, to the part everyone is anticipating. Blasting through the most hurried boot camp you’ve ever seen — mostly a loading platform where we pick up fellow goofball Sam Richardson as the nervous chatterbox Charlie and a dead-serious Edwin Hodge as Dorian, a jaded warrior on his third tour — we’re soon dumped unceremoniously onto the terrifying field, a visually stunning combo of war-ravaged metropolis, oceanic fortress and gorgeous locales both tropical and tundral. The future-world sets are the film’s best assets, a series of battlegrounds rendered both foreign and familiar and across which we rip on a death-defying mission to find the almighty toxin that can bring down these bastards once and for all.

In reaching for Interstellar-levels of wisdom director Chris McKay, in his first live-action feature film, misses the mark with only broad gestures toward its themes of redemption and familial sacrifice. After barely surviving Miami Beach and awakening in a military compound in the Dominican Republic Dan is brought face-to-face with a challenge greater than the physical ordeal. Australian actor Yvonne Strahovski ironically puts in the most emotional performance as the hardened Colonel Forester, who gives her trusted soldier plenty to think about à la Matthew McConaughey as his lonely little self slipped, preposterously, toward the singularity-cum-bookshelf.

Yes, almost by definition even the best sci fi are inherently ridiculous. Unfortunately The Tomorrow War lacks the emotional gravity and force of personality that can distract from overthinking. This is a blockbuster designed to keep your eyes busy and your analytical mind at bay. The film editors are key, masterfully sowing together the three major movements into one kinetic, fast-moving machine whose biggest malfunction is being forgettable pablum.

The Tomorrow War is likable, lively but ultimately shallow. However you could do a lot worse for an unwitting hero and for a piece of home entertainment. As yet another casualty of the COVID disruption, this two-hour wow-fest is found exclusively on Amazon Prime and is bound to rattle walls with its unrelenting energy.

“I’m court marshaling you for your Thanos-related antics. You really could have cost us, buddy.”

Moral of the Story: The living room may not be the ideal environment in which to take in a movie of such size and scale — The Tomorrow War is Amazon’s biggest film purchase ever, priced at an eye-popping $200 mil — but the convenience factor makes this derivative sci-fi yarn more attractive. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 138 mins. 

Quoted: “If there’s one thing that the world needs right now, it’s scientists. We cannot stop innovating. That’s how you solve a problem.” 

Check out the (really long) Final Trailer from Amazon Prime here!

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Captain Marvel

Release: Friday, March 8, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Anna Boden; Ryan Fleck; Geneva Robertson-Dworet

Directed by: Anna Boden; Ryan Fleck

Captain Marvel figures to be a significant piece in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, acting as both a standalone origins story and a precursor to Jon Favreau’s standard-setting Iron Man; ipso facto it predates the entire MCU. That’s a pretty bold decision considering how much we are preoccupied with the present and the future of our favorite characters. Unfortunately the story this film tells isn’t quite so bold, the awkward way it ties into the overarching saga arguably a distraction more than it is an exciting talking point. Yet by force of personality Captain Marvel overcomes its weaknesses, and there is no denying the Avengers will be adding another nuke to their already impressive arsenal.

Unbeknownst to me, Captain Marvel is a generic name that actually refers to several characters, the very first appearing in 1967 as Captain Mar-Vell, a male (albeit an alien) military officer sent to our humble corner of the universe to spy on us and who, having grown sympathetic to the plight of mankind, ultimately switched allegiances, becoming a protector of Earth and a traitor to his own race. Multiple incarnations followed, with the character’s gender constantly changing (e.g. Phyla-Vell was female while Khn’nr and others were male) — justified by the episodic nature of comics and their need and ability to adapt.

That brings us to Carol Danvers, a half-human, half-alien super-being whose specific powers — supersonic flight, incredible strength, an ability to control and manipulate energy forms — identify her as one of the most powerful figures in the Marvel realm. As such, she wins the lottery to become the first female subject of a Marvel movie, its 21st overall. Captain Marvel is a reliably entertaining chapter that balances humor with heartache, becoming just as much about the struggle to find her real identity as it is about her discovering her powers and how she decides to wield them. It may not be winning many points in the original storytelling department, but it does have a winning cast of characters, fronted by Brie Larson and a digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg and provided depth by the likes of Ben Mendelsohn, British actress Lashana Lynch . . . and one Hala of a cat.

Directing duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, known heretofore for indie fare like It’s Kind of a Funny Story and Sugar, keep their story pretty earthbound with only a few signature scenes sending us beyond our atmosphere. In terms of scale, it’s surely a bigger deal than Ant-Man, but if Guardians of the Galaxy gave us a tour of the cosmic town, Captain Marvel barely introduces us to our next-door neighbors. The relative intimacy certainly feels appropriate since the human side of the story manifests as a journey inward, into the heart and mind of a character unsure of herself. The superhero plot meanwhile draws elements from the Kree-Skrull War comic book storyline, setting up an intergalactic war between two alien races wherein we innocent earthlings get caught in the middle and need Captain Marvel to come to our defense.

Captain Marvel opens on an alien world known as Hala, the galactic capital of the Kree Empire. A young woman named Vers is awakening from a nightmare involving some older woman who looks a lot like Annette Bening, but that’s impossible since this kind of material is several fathoms beneath an actress of her caliber. But upon closer inspection I confirmed it is indeed Bening, playing a mystical figure referred to as the Supreme Intelligence, to whom Vers is sent at the behest of her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), who is concerned about Vers’ inability to control her emotions. The Supreme Intelligence doubles down on that cautionary advice before sending the pair on a dangerous mission to rescue an undercover operative on a distant planet overrun by the enemy Skrulls. Naturally the mission goes awry when the team gets ambushed and Vers becomes separated from Yon-Rogg and her other Starforce colleagues, the former crash-landing on some scrap pile known as C-53 (a.k.a. Earth). Even worse, she’s a fish out of water in mid-90s L.A. and if fashion is anything to go by, it isn’t exactly our species’ finest hour (luckily she didn’t crash land a decade earlier).

Vers is soon intercepted by a couple of serious-looking, suit-wearing gentlemen who work for an agency whose name should never have been provided in this film for continuity’s sake. A two-eyed Nick Fury and a Just For Men advocate in young Phil Coulson witness something extraordinary when a Skrull invader crashes the scene. Because the Skrulls have this ability to change their appearance, identifying friend from foe becomes problematic, with a notable alien named Talos taking the form of Fury’s higher-up and S.H.I.E.L.D. director Keller (Mendelsohn) and another impersonating Agent Coulson. After shaking this shape-shifting shit off Fury, at the direction of Talos the predictable script, leads Vers to a U.S. Air Force Base place of thematic relevance where she finds clues to her past life — photographic evidence of her as a pilot and news clippings presuming her dead after a disastrous testing of an experimental new engine designed by a Dr. Wendy Lawson (played by Spoiler Spoilerson).

She also learns she had a close friend in Maria Rambeau (Lynch), an important link in the ole’ jogging-the-memory chain (not to mention in the realm of the MCU at large — her daughter Monica, played by an instantly lovable Akira Akbar, ostensibly set to play yet another version of Captain Marvel in the sequel — Ms. Marvel, perhaps?). The scene at the house in Louisiana is among the film’s best, the emotion that comes pouring out here no doubt a result of the indie flavor the directing tandem have brought to this much bigger project. Whether it is Lynch describing what it feels like to see her bestie return from the dead — hence the longevity of the MCU,  the human cost of being in the superhero biz has always been handled in an interesting way — or Mendelsohn getting a really juicy character whose intentions are not what they first seem, Captain Marvel soars in these more grounded moments.

Even as the action takes a turn for the surprisingly cooperative, the character work is ultimately what saves Captain Marvel from its own Negative Zone of mediocrity. While the action sequences are worthy of the big screen treatment they aren’t as integral to the personality of the film as Larson is in the title role. At one time considered too young to play the part of an Air Force pilot (this was before the filmmakers double-checked with members of the American Air Force who confirmed it is possible for a 26-year-old to be so accomplished), Larson acquits herself with the utmost confidence, maturing from reckless and unpredictable to every bit the noble warrior hero she so advertises her people as to her de facto partner in Agent Fury.

Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers is by far Larson’s most high-profile role to date and while the plight of the superhero is unfamiliar territory for someone who has developed herself through such intimate human dramas as Room and Short Term 12, you wouldn’t know it based on her confidence and how much fun she’s having here. And sorry to break it to the basement dwelling trolls who review-bombed her new movie, a perma-smile does not for a natural performance make. I personally don’t need to see someone smiling through every damn frame of the movie to know they’re enjoying themselves, or to know what this material and this role means to them.

What is this thing called The Oregon Trail?

Recommendation: While I didn’t think Captain Marvel is a game-changer — save for the first earthly encounter with the Skrulls the action scenes are pretty forgettable — it certainly has its strengths, namely the lead character and the friends she ends up making along the way. It might go without saying for most of these Important Marvel Movies but considering the way this one was seemingly preordained to fail by insecure men before it even opened, it really seems that ignoring the internet has never been more crucial in allowing you to experience the film on your own terms. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “You know anything about a lady blowing up a Blockbuster? Witnesses say she was dressed for laser tag.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Annihilation

Release: Friday, February 23, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Alex Garland

Directed by: Alex Garland

Annihilation is the reason for many things. It is the reason why science fiction is my cinematic genre of choice — there is something thrilling about breaking the rules and getting away with it, and here is a world in which the laws of nature really don’t apply. It is the reason why in British director Alex Garland I trust, blindly, from here on out.* But Annihilation is as much a disturbing spectacle as it is a confounding one, and so it is also the reason why I’ve been having such strange dreams lately.

Nightmares. They’re called nightmares.

Annihilation‘s poor box office performance is the reason why it won’t hang out in theaters for long, and why it will be making its international debut on Netflix after America is through with it. It wasn’t as though 2016 was anything to shout about for Paramount, but apparently this past year found the American distributor for Garland’s latest cerebral test piece, an adaptation of the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, enduring one of its worst financial years on record. In attempting to avoid yet another financial face-palmer, Paramount decided to restrict Annihilation‘s theatrical run, electing for the old ‘(in)direct-to-streaming’ method to help soften the blow in international markets.

The financial realities facing movies often have no place in my reviews — I find it boring if not depressing to bring up numbers and statistics, and I’m sure I’ve already lost people here — but I feel an obligation to come to the defense of producer Scott Rudin, who said damn the torpedoes and pushed through Garland’s original vision for the film, despite fears from Paramount over Annihilation posing too much of an intellectual challenge for the general moviegoing public. Rudin did this in the face of Paramount’s competitors making money hand-over-fist with Star Wars and Star Wars spinoffs.

Predictably, the studio’s gamble has been rewarded with a net loss worth tens of millions. As much as we I like to be bombastic in my chastising of those same people for trotting out nine hundred Michael Bay movies a summer, they are inevitably not going to receive anywhere near the credit they deserve for taking a financial risk on something a little out of the ordinary. And Annihilation is way, way, way out in left field. You won’t see anything else like it this year.

The story, as it were, focuses on an all-female expedition into the depths of the unknown — it’s The Descent, but instead of spelunking into hell we’re just going to walk there, armed only with assault rifles and PhDs in various applicable fields of study. Natalie Portman‘s Lena, a professor of cellular biology at Johns Hopkins University who has also served seven years in the Army, is recruited into a team led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist, and comprised of paramedics (Gina Rodriguez), physicists (Tessa Thompson) and geologists (Tuva Novotny). Their mission, like all the ones before that have failed, is to find the source of ‘The Shimmer,’ an iridescent bubble that has been slowly encroaching over the marshlands near the American coast after a strange atmospheric phenomenon. They must breach the bubble and prevent it from spreading further, ideally before Wonderland subsumes Manhattan.

Unlike with Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole, however, almost everything inside The Shimmer has the potential to mutilate and eviscerate and — he’s going to say it, isn’t he? — annihilate. The Shimmer is a place where all living things have taken on the DNA of other living things. Genetic mutation has rendered the flora as beautiful as the fauna is terrifying. But the bizarreness doesn’t stop there. Humans trespassing into the unknown themselves begin suffering horrifying transformations, and we know that the last expedition that came here — which involved someone near and dear to Lena’s heart — certifiably went insane. (Anyone else unable to get that footage from the camcorder out of their head?)

The Briton, first a novelist, then a screenwriter and now a director, is one of those storytellers that recognizes that the brain is a muscle and that, like all muscles, it needs to be flexed. This has already been proven true in his directorial debut, a secret-lab-experiment-gone-awry in Ex Machina — a film that took a very scientific approach to proving differences between man and machine. Though far from being the first to broach the subject, Garland fleshed out his drama through nuanced explorations of the human psyche, relying upon established scientific techniques like the Turing Test — a method for measuring a computer’s intelligence and awareness. In the process he created a journey that was both profoundly relatable and distressing.

The best of Annihilation, the spectacular ascension (or descent, if you prefer) into the abstract in the third movement — aptly titled “The Lighthouse” — similarly plays upon the deepest recesses of the mind, opening the floodgates for extrapolation and interpretation. What has created The Shimmer also seems to have exposed the fragility and vulnerability of man — refreshingly represented here by a group of steely-nerved women — in the face of something much bigger, more intelligent, and, unlike in Ex Machina, something entirely unfamiliar. Those climactic moments — wherein Jennifer Jason Leigh vomits a bunch of light in a cave and Natalie Portman dances with a weird duplicate of herself as produced by that same Vomit Light — collectively represent the epitome of why science fiction cinema has such a hold on me.

Annihilation is the reason why I love not only going to the movies, but writing about my experiences with them as well. I felt transformed by this.

* Maybe . . .

Recommendation: A cerebral puzzle left to be deciphered by lovers of smart science fiction/fantasy, Annihilation is what happens when The Thing is cross-bred with the DNA of Predator and The Descent. If you were hooked by Alex Garland’s first directorial outing, get a ticket to this one. In my opinion he has avoided the sophomore slump by producing one of the most exciting and surprising movies of the year. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Can you describe its form?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Arrival

arrival-movie-poster

Release: Friday, November 11, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Eric Heisserer

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

I’m just going to say it: Arrival is magnificent. It’s also: 1) another grand gesture from the visionary Québécois Denis Villeneuve that’s both sophisticated and stylish; 2) a film that really “makes you think;” 3) the antidote to the last several days in which the world has been watching and weighing in as the “United” States of America may or may not have been tearing itself apart when Donald Trump went from real estate mogul to president-elect.

Of course, the film has no interest in making a political statement but it is interested in bringing us closer together as a global society. The one thing it is really good at is reminding us of our ability to empathize and cooperate with one another in times of hardship, even when there are competing interests, values and perspectives at play; that the way we communicate is as important as what we are communicating. Arrival, based upon the novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, promotes language as the ultimate tool and weapon mankind has and will ever have. It’s both our currency for clarifying all that is foreign and unfamiliar but just as easily it can create barriers if in no other way than when we use it to obscure what we really feel.

In some sense Arrival feels allegorical for a modern society wherein the furor of social media tends to bring out the worst in people. It uses an alien encounter to elucidate both the simplicity of the act of communicating and the infinitely more complex process of understanding and interpreting. The chronicle centers around an expert linguist, a Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), recruited by the U.S. military to decipher alien code they’ve received from a massive egg-shaped monolith in Montana, one of an apparent dozen that have suddenly appeared at seemingly random locations across the globe. The end game of course is to find out just what they are doing here, on this planet, but along the way we become privy to an altogether unexpected series of revelations.

Villeneuve’s latest is not merely a message film fitted into a pretty frame (although it very much is that). It offers a thrilling and profoundly personal adventure, one that more or less hits the ground running and remains comfortably paced throughout. An ambitious narrative is met with an appropriate sense of scale: Bradford Young’s panning cameras hint at the crippling notion that we may be alone in the universe, brilliantly reinforced by how deserted the college campus looks when it’s evacuated. Then there are the ships themselves — empyreal in their gently curving architecture. We call them ‘shells’ because labels are easier and they somehow feel comforting. Finally, news reports of mass riots and looting in poorer nations set the narrative against a backdrop of fear and panic. These bits serve as the most indicting evidence of what happens when we misconstrue things that are said, done or merely suggested.

Arrival feels grandiose even if the story sticks close to Dr. Banks as she is awoken from another troubled sleep by the surly Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) telling her the world needs her help. On the way to Montana, the sole American sighting, she meets theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who will prove a calming presence in an otherwise chaotic and prejudiced environment. It is these characters, plus a few faceless soldiers, with whom Dr. Banks will enter the ship in an attempt to open a line of communication. Arrival might be at its most compelling when that first contact is established, when we are formally introduced to the Heptapods — serious out-of-towners with seven tentacle-like appendages from which they shoot a black inky substance. After a failed first trip, nerves eventually calm and Dr. Banks’ intuition proves extremely valuable as work begins in earnest.

Several weeks of sleepless nights and haunting visions of her deceased daughter begin weighing heavily on our ambassador. Making matters worse, China is demanding an ultimatum from our squid-like visitors after one particular translation (‘Use weapon’) incites worldwide panic. In a race against time, Dr. Banks must determine what connection, if any, her visions of Hannah has to what she is doing here in the present. The results prove to be both heartbreaking and galvanizing, the drama culminating in an Interstellar-esque reveal that’s altogether satisfying insofar as it is surprisingly coherent. And almost 100% convincing. Arrival risks devolving into abstraction but the genius lies within the screenplay, courtesy of Eric Heisserer [Lights Out; The Thing (2011)]. It engages intellectually while structurally providing enough of the tangibles — flashbacks become a motif — to support its lofty ambitions. And all-around terrific performances, most notably Adams and Renner, send us out of the theater on a major high.

In a way this film isn’t about an alien encounter at all — it’s certainly not an invasion, per se; rather, this is a forward-thinking, socially responsible drama that celebrates the best of humanity.

Recommendation: A movie for the thinking-man, undoubtedly, Arrival continues the ascension of one Denis Villenueve as it captures him working comfortably within the realm of psychobiological science fiction. It features stellar performances and a great alien presence. Regular collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson is on hand to bolster the atmospheric feel of the film with a cerebral and moody score, so if you’re needing any other reason to go see this you might see it for that, too. This is one of my favorites of 2016, absolutely. A very exciting film. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “Now that’s a proper introduction.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Star Trek: Beyond

'Star Trek - Beyond' movie poster

Release: Friday, July 22, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Simon Pegg; Doug Jung

Directed by: Justin Lin

If this is the movie in which we go where no man has gone before, why does it feel like we’ve been here already?

Star Trek: Beyond, a beautifully crafted feel-good blockbuster, the third such film in a post-modern interpretation of the world’s second most popular star-themed science fiction property, is undeniably an impressive visual spectacle and a lot of fun to boot, but if it had any interest in remaining a topic of discussion amidst all the excited chatter about the year’s two other significant event pictures — Suicide Squad this August and Rogue One (ya know, that Star Wars spinoff thing) in December — it needed to do more than just rely on old-fashioned cast-and-crew camaraderie. Despite a solid 120 minutes of action and intergalactic intrepidity, each aspect strong enough to elevate a lesser narrative on their own, the new adventures we’re sent along in Beyond just aren’t enough to send the film into another dimension of greatness.

The best thing that can be said about Fast-and-Furious director Justin Lin wrestling control of the captain’s chair from previous helmer J.J. Abrams is that he was at least willing to conform somewhat to the rules and pre-established formula. More crucially, he manages to avoid inflecting the wrong intonations, such as those found in a universe in which car enthusiasts with criminal records end up doing favors for government officials unwilling to get their own hands dirty. This franchise’s sense of identity is also not lost in the hands of writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, an impressive feat considering how often the former is writing out of his comfort zone — though let’s not kid ourselves, these new Star Trek films aren’t exactly the stuff of bonafide sci-fi drama — and how little experience the latter has in writing for the screen, particularly at the blockbuster level.

In Beyond events accumulate in a way that proves to be, so far anyway, the ultimate test of the moral, emotional and psychological fibers of the crew and leadership of the mighty USS Enterprise. It also poses yet another challenge to the structural integrity of that very ship, subjecting the iconic vessel to one hell of a spectacular crash sequence that is sure to remain on everyone’s minds come the end of the year. Halfway into a five-year exploratory mission, James Kirk (Chris Pine) has grown restless and jaded with his captainship. He’s thinking there could be other ways in which he can distinguish himself from his father, the great George S. Kirk.

When they dock for supplies and some much needed rest at a nearby hub called Yorktown — a floating city protected from the vacuum of space by a transparent spherical shield — Kirk seeks the counsel of Commodore Paris (Shohreh Aghdashloo) as well as a promotion to Vice Admiral. It is here that Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) receives some life-changing (and potentially mission-altering) news of his own. Their uncertain futures become inextricably linked, leaving us to question whether one could survive, much less function, without the other. It’s entirely too easy to answer that.

Fortunately the considerably more intense, more tangible crux of Beyond does a lot of the heavy lifting. Beyond has a great big baddie in Idris Elba‘s menacing warlord Krall, on the hunt for some macguffin he needs to fire a weapon large enough to pose a serious threat to the continued existence of the Federation. After the Enterprise encounters and rescues a lone alien named Kalara (Lydia Wilson) who claims her ship has been stranded and needs help getting back, the crew are ambushed by a swarm of vessels that all but dismantles the Enterprise in one of the year’s most compelling attack sequences. There’s little you can do to prepare for these 15 minutes of pure drama. Even more impressive than the sheer scale and graceful movements of Krall’s battalion is the fact that the moment never disintegrates into a pixel party. State-of-the-art graphics rendering, the polished gem of a massive collaborative effort, makes you feel as though you’re swimming through stars and nebulae. (I didn’t see the film in 3D and now regret that decision.)

In the aftermath the crew find themselves disoriented and spread throughout the thick jungle of a nearby planet that they jettisoned to in their cute little individual escape pods. Not all of Kirk’s crew have remained out of Krall’s clutches, however, and the majority of what turns out to be a protracted second act finds the splinter groups trying desperately to reunite. Admittedly, the set-up allows us to become privy to a few conversations between characters we otherwise might never get, particularly between Spock, whose sense of humor is improving, and Karl Urban’s sardonic Bones.

Elsewhere, an isolated Scotty (Simon Pegg) encounters the mysterious Jaylah (Sofia Boutella). Boutella, covered in a striking combination of starkly colored make-up, instantly bolsters an already strong cast. As a warrior with a lot of pain and loss in her recent past following her own encounter with Krall, Scotty thinks she will be integral in helping the crew not only reunite but escape the planet. Despite her vows to never go near the prison camp Krall has established on this planet, Jaylah finds herself with no choice but to be brave, soon carving out her own role in the fight back against Krall’s plans to wipe out the Federation.

One thing that’s certainly surprising is how difficult it is to watch the film without thinking of the untimely passing of young Anton Yelchin, who has for three films enthusiastically embraced the spirited, brilliant Russian ensign Pavel Chekov, a character that in the long run is fairly minor. He has a significant role to fill here though and there’s no denying the tragic circumstances of his demise change the way we interact with him whenever he is on screen. We don’t so much watch him continue to build upon an innately likable persona as we do savor the opportunity.

Of course there’s more to cherish than the stereotype-shattering Russian who enjoys Scotch as opposed to vodka. In spite of itself Lin’s epic space saga often finds the time to thrill on ambitious new levels while paying tribute to the legacy that precedes it. If it can find ways to eliminate some of its more annoying habits like recycling boring clichés and hackneyed storytelling devices, then I see no reason why this franchise can’t live long and prosper.

Anton Yelchin and Chris Pine in 'Star Trek - Beyond'

Recommendation: Not the most inspired event film ever but it gets the job done and in style. Star Trek: Beyond works hard to deliver the fan service and in so doing tends to become something that will be harder to fall completely in love with for anyone who completely misses the significance of the unearthing of the USS Franklin. It is the beneficiary of some exemplary computer graphics technology and the action setpieces are universally thrilling, especially the final battle. If we’re to judge each of these entries based on that alone, this may be the best yet. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “This is where it begins, Captain. This is where the frontier pushes back!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Midnight Special

'Midnight Special' movie poster

Release: Friday, March 18, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Jeff Nichols

Directed by: Jeff Nichols

Add Midnight Special to the short but increasingly compelling list of reasons to keep an eye on Jeff Nichols, the director of Mud, an understated drama set on the bayou and one of a select few credited with reinvigorating Matthew McConaughey’s career circa 2013.

Yeah, no big deal. Nichols only ignited a revolution. (Not that the actor hadn’t shown promise before; McConaughey’s dramatic chops in The Lincoln Lawyer and Killer Joe are surely impressive but for the sake of argument let’s just ignore those right now.) It’s been three years since that much-talked about film and the spotlight moves away from the McConaissance and back towards the man in charge: what would he be bringing to the table this year?

Michael Shannon leads the charge in this brilliant genre-defying adventure involving a boy with a special gift that makes him the target of both a government manhunt and a religious cult convinced that the end of days is nigh. Shannon, in a comparably restrained capacity, plays a quietly conflicted man named Roy and is first seen held up in a motel room with his old friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). (I know, that pairing is almost too good to be true . . .)

They have a child with them, by all accounts a normal-looking pre-teen and apparent fan of comics we first meet wearing blue goggles and a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. This is Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher in an incredibly nuanced performance) and we’re not entirely sure whether he’s a victim of a kidnapping. We don’t even know what the men plan to do with him or where (or what) their final destination is.

What we do know is that the boy is precious cargo to both Roy and Lucas, evidenced in how they’re constantly shuffling in and out of the shadows between each location, and that his sudden disappearance from “the farm,” a closed community of religious zealots led by Sam Shepard’s Calvin Meyer and whose female population adheres to a strict dress code (braided hair, long dresses and muted colors), is significant enough to warrant the investigation of Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), a brilliant young NSA investigator working alongside the FBI. In fact the government intervenes during what was presumably going to be another of Meyer’s fire-and-brimstone sermons and begins conducting interviews with many of the members, looking for any leads to the boy’s whereabouts.

Nichols controls the pace of his boldly original screenplay such that we spend much of the earlygoing not even sure where our sympathies ought to lie: the way the government agents threaten the cult with the repercussions of committing high-level treason makes it easier to believe there’s a serious situation unfolding here. (You see, Alton is thought to have prophesied a doomsday event based on a set of numbers, coordinates perhaps, that correspond to the dates and numbers of certain sermons delivered by Father Meyer — numbers he couldn’t possibly know.) On the other hand, Roy and Lucas fail to exhibit any signs of behavior that make us worry for Alton. But just what is their end game? And why can’t Alton be exposed to sunlight?

At its core Midnight Special is a chase movie that pits the trio — soon to be a foursome when Kirsten Dunst’s Sarah, exiled from the farm years ago, enters the picture as a pivotal rest stop for Roy and Lucas late in the story — against a series of strange occurrences that threaten to derail their plans with Alton. There’s more than a whiff of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and his brand of romanticizing the unknown even as Nichols continues to ground the ongoing hostage situation in reality. But science fiction isn’t the only flavor you’ll find in this little cinematic confection.

As Nichols continues peeling back the layers, the thick veil of clandestinity falling aside to expose a vision that threatens to become unwieldy — but that which stays on just the right side of ridiculous — we’re treated to a moving family drama as well as a cliffhanger of a government conspiracy thriller, one that bravely explores the borders of where discovery and science mesh up against religion and faith. In fact Midnight Special has so much going on within its relatively efficient hour-and-fifty-minute runtime the temptation to reveal more nifty details poses a greater challenge than does the task of assigning this thing a genre. So many cool things happen that I want to spoil right now.

But I won’t. I’m not that guy. (Or am I?) No, I’m not. But I really, really, really, really want to. Suffice it to say that Nichols’ latest is just one of those rarities that get you excited to tell everyone, including the person you’re sitting next to at the dentist’s office about. It’s an experience I’ve been longing to have for some time. I love Midnight Special, for everything it is and everything it is not. For all of the success it finds in challenging the brain while appealing strongly to the heart. I cannot wait to see what the guy does next.

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Recommendation: Midnight Special marks the fourth film Jeff Nichols has directed (and written, to boot). He’s a promising young talent that likes dealing in real, flesh-and-blood characters and intriguing premises that keep viewers involved from start to finish. It’s also a movie that offers terrific performances, the most pleasantly surprising coming from the increasingly hard to find Kirsten Dunst. If any of that appeals, you need to check this one out. Pronto, Tonto. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 112 mins.

Quoted: “I’m always going to worry about you Alton. That’s the deal.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

10 Cloverfield Lane

'10 Cloverfield Lane' movie poster

Release: Friday, March 11, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Josh Campbell; Matthew Stuecken; Damien Chazelle

Directed by: Dan Trachtenberg

Dan Trachtenberg’s suffocating and impossibly intense monster movie arrests viewers with a power few thrillers in recent memory have had. 10 Cloverfield Lane is an early contender for biggest surprise hit of 2016, delivering a story that’s conceptually simple, emotionally complex and psychologically perturbing.

Produced by J.J. Abrams, 10 Cloverfield Lane pits Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle against John Goodman’s doomsday prepper Howard, an ex-military man who claims he saved her life having rescued her from the wreckage of an accident and brought her to his underground bunker. The film is told primarily through her point of view as the cameras hover within an inch of her face, gauging her reaction as she awakens in a cold, bare room chained to a pipe. We’ll remain close to her throughout as the film brilliantly plays with that concept of perspective. Michelle believes she’s been kidnapped. Howard, despite himself, insists he is showing her hospitality. Further complicating things is the presence of a third party, someone whom Howard apparently has known for some time, a younger man named Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.).

The cast is undeniably one of the film’s strengths. John Goodman hasn’t been this good in years and Winstead shoulders the task of carrying the movie with such grace, while Gallagher Jr. remains a fairly warm presence, attempting to lighten the mood whenever possible. With all due respect to their work, arguably the film’s greatest asset is its cramped setting. Small rooms filled with all the resources you’d expect to see in a fall-out shelter (note the shelves filled with Fruit-by-the-Foots)? Check. Maguffin-esque technology that justifies how they are able to breathe clean air? Check. Drab colors and dim lighting? Check. A sense of sterility overriding Howard’s best efforts to make the place feel cozy? Big, big check.

The claustrophobic set essentially means the interactions between the characters will be intense and susceptible to volatility, and their actions and reactions will be scrutinized appropriately. Even without knowing specifically what it will be, we know something is going to happen that will forever alter the dynamic and shift proceedings into an entirely new and even more uncomfortable paradigm. Call it fate. I’m going to call it the product of an excellent script collaborated on by Damien Chazelle, writer/director of the sensational jazz drumming drama Whiplash.

And while all of this is taking place underground, we’re left wondering . . . where are the monsters? 10 Cloverfield Lane is an exercise in restraint in that regard, depending on how you define what a monster is and is not. The concept of perception and how it can be so easily skewed extends well beyond what we think of the characters we’re stuck in a room with. It goes beyond the reaches of the bunker and out past the cornfields that surround forebodingly; it ventures deep into the unknown. Perception is everything here until it is nothing at all; in other words we have to absolutely trust in everything that’s being presented and thanks to the craftsmanship, that’s not much of a challenge.

It might be too early to call it a genre mainstay, but suffice it to say films like this, films in which suspense is established early and at a high level and only increases exponentially as time pushes on, are somewhat of a rarity. The stress here is real and it is relentless. Perhaps part of the shock of the experience stems from the nature of its release date. We only have to wait two more weeks until Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice drops, and here in the annual post-Oscars malaise we actually have something to chew over in a period where films typically are released without any fanfare because, well, they don’t deserve it. But the spiritual successor to Cloverfield does. Oh boy, how it does.

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Recommendation: In the vein of a sci fi thriller classic (still too early to say for sure but I already feel pretty comfortable saying it), 10 Cloverfield Lane is a film for adrenaline junkies. When all is said and done the buzz that it leaves you with is kind of cathartic. Excellent acting, gut-wrenching reveals and a brilliant narrative structure all work toward creating a film that is doggedly determined to do what it’s label suggests: thrill. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 103 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Oblivion

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Release: Friday, April 19, 2013

[Theater]

Honestly, this is the perfect movie for an actor who has (or according to some, had…) feet firmly planted in the Scientology belief system. For someone who believes in aliens, Tom Cruise managed to pick rather appropriate territory by signing up for Oblivion, the new sci-fi adventure from Joseph Kosinski.

Aside from his intellectual curiosity about all things extraterrestrial, Cruise’s role in Oblivion seems to be a throwback to his performance in another futuristic thriller, Minority Report — some decade ago now. . . . . .and this would be right before he began to lose serious credibility with me.

Both of those films deal heavily in gadgetry, in human relations that have evolved (or devolved, take your pick) to the point of being robotic, and both are set well into the future. For both, the suspension of disbelief is a requisite. One major difference between Kosinski’s sci-try and Spielberg’s effort, is that Minority Report was rather successful in its mind-warping storytelling. And another: while many science fiction films do pay tribute to other films of the genre, Oblivion does this to a fault. Comparisons to other films run the gamut from Wall-E to Independence DayI, Robot to Inception. A lot of scenes throughout this post-apocalyptic-Earth story make up a collage of borrowed ideas that attempt to forge an original storyline that, ultimately, reverts to ripping off one of the aforementioned films (Independence Day) in a very obvious way.

But it’s hardly an original idea to argue how this film is not original. Again, the homages paid in many sci-fi “classics” can be obvious. Maybe the multitudes that are made do not surface all in one film as they do here, but hey whatever. What is more annoying and a bigger letdown is that it’s now 2013, and still we are being fed sci-fi soup with not a whole lot of flavor; and in particular, this one is very deflated in tone, and well-worn in its invention. Basically only the setting and its cast help distinguish the project.

Jack, along with Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), comprise a mop-up team that ensures that the technology humans have employed to retrieve valuable resources from Earth are functioning correctly. Now, most people are either living on Titan (apparently one of Saturn’s moons has been deemed a reasonable place for us to live these days) or they’re preparing to go there, and soon Jack and Victoria will join. They live in luxurious quarters established high above the clouds. Jack’s mode of transportation looks like a concept helicopter for the year 2077. It is with this rather sleek vehicle Jack makes his drone repair missions frequently and the vantage point we have for a good portion of the first half, in experiencing the aftermath of a war which ravaged the planet.

Harper fills us in a little on the situation during a brief narration in the very opening scene, informing us that while humans won this war, Scavs destroyed the moon along with half the planet. The resultant landscape is something akin to the Halo maps, fully-realized on an IMAX screen. When we are out wandering around with Jack, it’s all very stunning and strangely beautiful seeing a planet devoid of human life.

In fact, I’d argue most of Oblivion‘s issues arise from the production design being a seriously tough act to follow, if you’re the script. I don’t see this film suffering from a simple case of a weak script. There’s always a pecking order amongst direction, production, and editing departments, and it’s clear where it all broke down for this one. (Academy Award-winner Claudio Miranda has his way with this set. Thanks, buddy.)

We get to feast our imaginations on the unfamiliarity the new landscape brings, one that cements the Empire State Building in several thousand feet of ash; a floodplain the size of the Mississippi on top of — yes, on top of — Washington D.C.

What must this war have been like? — we might ask ourselves as the camera sweeps dramatically out again across the land.

We almost couldn’t care less about what Cruise represents here, that he’s actually a part of the actual story actually taking place in this proposed world. We’re so overwhelmed by what Oblivion has done better than The Day After Tomorrow that we forget about the fact we are going to face plot turns, consequences and all that stuff specific to this movie. . . . if only we could just stop comparing . . .

The fact that the plot and especially some of the dialogue feels like it took a backseat to production values is not damnable, by the way. It’s just impossible to ignore. Riseborough, in particular, is terrible in this film. Morgan Freeman, as Beech, was handed some pretty dull assignment as well. And that’s exactly how his role feels, too: an assignment. He’s not operating in full Morgan Freeman capacity here, particularly given what you know and what you will know by the time his character is fully revealed. Tom Cruise seems to handle his job fine enough, but this is not his greatest performance of all time either. Olga Kurylenko plays a very soporific Julia, a character development that is also not too thought-provoking. As uninspired as she comes across, her character is rather crucial to understanding the film’s final destination.

It’s a passable story, though, and its dressed up in beautiful style. Altogether, Oblivion sells as quite a handsome marketing pitch, and it’s a cool-feeling movie when everything is said and done. Need there be no more involvement than your gut reaction, Oblivion works as a perfectly serviceable new-age actioner featuring a revamped alien version of Tom Cruise.

His role in Scientology makes perfect sense.

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3-0Recommendation: It lacks the sophisticated premise that underlay some of the visually inferior works of Cruise’s early career, but style over substance might just do it for most people when standing on the edge of Oblivion.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 126 mins.

Quoted: “I can’t shake the feeling that Earth, in spite of all that’s happened, Earth is still my home.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com