Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Release: Friday, December 14, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Phil Lord; Rodney Rothman

Directed by: Bob Persichetti; Peter Ramsey; Rodney Rothman

A Review from the Perspective of a Spider-Newb

A cornucopia of visual delights that rivals the best of Pixar and Studio Ghibli, two of the giants in the world of animation, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has taken Sony Pictures Animation to a whole new level. The combination of painstakingly hand-drawn and slick computer-generated imagery is something you can’t help but marvel at. All of the little stylistic flares — splitting the screen into panels, the employment of thought bubbles and of lightning bolts indicating a Spidey sense tingling, the minutiae of lighting textures — work in concert to make the viewer feel like they have “walked right into a comic book.” And then of course there’s a sense of timeliness. The recent passing of Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee adds poignancy to what is already clearly an ode to a legacy. The rich detail and emotional resonance makes Into the Spider-Verse the cinematic equivalent of a mother’s handwoven quilt.

I’ll say it once and I’ll probably say it several more times before we’re done here: I can’t get over how good this movie looks. The visual language contributes so much to the film’s energetic personality and individuality. Yet what’s maybe most surprising about Into the Spider-Verse is how fresh and engaging this yet-again origins story feels. Its self-aware and occasionally self-deprecatory humor, courtesy of Phil Lord — the brilliantly quick-witted writer/producer of high-octane adventures such as The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street — helped me buy back in. This is only like the 167th time we have seen an ordinary kid get bitten by a special spider but only the first in which we have been able to laugh along with those involved at how many big-screen iterations of the web-slinger there have been in recent years. More to the point, this is the first time we have seen someone other than the iconically average Peter Parker become Spider-Man.

Yes, of all those versions that have preceded it Into the Spider-Verse is the most inclusive one yet. The film offers seven Spideys for the price of one and while comics readers will be getting the most value from their dollar as they pluck out all the myriad Easter eggs hidden inside, the story graciously makes room for Spider-Newbs, taking the idea of an ordinary individual gaining unusual abilities and extrapolating that to the general populace. That any one of us holds the potential to become Spider-Man is a conceit juicy with possibility. It also seems a logistical nightmare from a writing standpoint. How will all these characters coexist within one story? Is it even one story? How many and which villains do we go with? How many Mary Janes? (Sorry for the spoiler, but there can only ever be one of those.)

In bringing this ambitious project to life, three different filmmakers are charged with directing, with Peter Ramsey handling the action sequences, Rodney Rothman overseeing the comedic aspects, and Bob Persichetti supplying what Lord describes as the “poetry” of the story. Indeed this is a real team effort, with the writers (Lord, alongside Rothman and a whole host of credited character developers) fixating upon the emotional maturation of a new Spidey-in-the-making, one Miles Morales (Dope‘s very own Shameik Moore), a New York kid of Afro-Puerto Rican descent trying his best to please his cop dad, Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and mom, Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Velez), a nurse. He attends a private boarding school where his parents hope he will aim for great heights. Oh, the irony. He has a close friend in his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) who encourages Miles to keep pursuing his artistic passions, frequently taking him to a subway station where he graffitis beautiful expressions onto the otherwise lifeless walls.

When a ridiculously rotund baddie named Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), attempts to use a particle accelerator to access alternate dimensions for personal reasons that won’t be revealed here, beings from those other worlds are inadvertently thrust into ours. This opens up a quasi-anthological narrative that brings in different Spider-People to inform the central conflict — Miles’ inability to own his newfound . . . well, abilities. Multiple character arcs are provided along the way, each different Spider-Person explaining how they won the mutated-genetics lottery, all while Miles’ internal struggle — that oft-referenced grappling with power and responsibility — remains front-and-center. More impressive is the way all of it unfolds at a breakneck pace without ever becoming convoluted and difficult to keep up with.

What really perpetuates the flow of the narrative is this revolving door of different characters. There is always something new to latch on to, like swinging through the corridors of Manhattan from building to building. Chris Pine is in as the one-and-only Peter Parker, and while the role is small he does something we haven’t seen Peter do in any of the live-action adaptations. Jake Johnson’s Peter B. Parker, by contrast, is an over-the-hill, jaded crime fighter whose sweatpants-and-protruding-gut look suggests he isn’t overly concerned with image these days. He is perfectly charming in all of his 9-5 day job blasé. Then we have Hailee Steinfeld taking up the mantle of Gwen Stacy and while her trust issues are a cliché the actress/singer makes her reservations not only believable but emotionally satisfying when it comes to the main protagonist’s development.

From there it gets a little more obscure, with SNL’s John Mulaney lending his voice to Spider-Ham/Peter Porker (and here is a perfect example of my ignorance; how dare I limit my imagination of what Spider-Man can be to just human beings) while Nicolas Cage, of all people, becomes Spider-Man Noir. Last and most definitely least interesting (again, to me) is Kimiko Glenn’s Peni Parker, a Japanese incarnation who apparently made her Marvel Comics début only a few years ago in Edge of Spider-Verse #5 (2014). She’s got some weird robot-machine thing named SP//dr with which she telepathically communicates and uses to properly engage with the enemy — a device that also apparently links her to the ominous OsCorp.

There are familiar faces and characters scattered throughout as well. The older, more cynical Spider-Man’s Aunt May (Lily Tomlin) has a pretty important part to play as the many Spideys set about trying to find a way back to their own worlds while Miles tries ever more desperately to prevent Kingpin from destroying New York and, on a more personal level, help his father overcome his anti-Spidey bias. Secondary villains appear in the form of Doc Ock/Olivia Octavius (Kathryn Hann adding a female twist on Alfred Molina’s interpretation from Spider-Man 2), and Prowler, whose unmasked identity is best left masked in writing.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is sure to have long legs at the box office, and it deserves them. Whether this is the epitome of what comic book movies should feel like and be about is something that can be debated until the cows come home. For this outsider, this is just one of the most consistently enjoyable and immersive experiences I have had in 2018 and in a year in which I have had to absorb the blows of Infinity War, endure the cold loneliness of being First Man and try to survive the completely unknown in (my personal favorite) Annihilation, that is some accomplishment.

“I think, therefore I am . . . Spider-Man?”

Recommendation: Into the Spider-Verse has it all: an incredible visual spectacle, a streamlined but hardly contrived narrative with a big heart and a great sense of humor, a villain with a compelling motive, a heartbreaking plot-twist and an emotive soundtrack. Best of all, the multiverse doesn’t require an intimate knowledge of what is canonical and what isn’t for you to really get inside it. I don’t know if this is literally “the best Spider-Man movie ever made,” but I am fairly confident it is one of the best movies I have seen this year. Your move, Marvel.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “That’s all it is Miles, a leap of faith.”

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

 

Wonder Woman

Release: Friday, June 2, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Allan Heinberg

Directed by: Patty Jenkins

Not even the comfort of Marvel Studios’ most luxurious pampering package can compare to the thrill of experiencing the struggling DC “extended universe” dropping an instant classic. Wonder Woman may be an event film but it’s also one of the most exciting new releases of the year and quite possibly the most compelling and emotionally resonant superhero film we’ve been delivered since The Dark Knight.

In the fifteen installments that the MCU has cranked out over the better part of a decade, not once has a standalone superheroine story made its way into the fold. Scarlett Johansson is one of the most recognizable names on the planet and yet the Black Widow project page on IMDb remains at the time of this writing a blank canvas. Perhaps it would be a stretch to give a full-length treatment to the likes of Scarlet Witch, but then no one expected Ant-Man to work. Besides, that time has come and gone anyway. And remaking Elektra is such an afterthought it seems not to exist.

Patty Jenkins, notable for directing a radically transformed Charlize Theron in 2003’s Monster — a film about a prostitute turned serial killer — becomes the first woman to be handed the reigns of a studio-produced superhero film, only the second ever to handle a budget of $100 million. In the process she’s become something of a savior for DC, delivering an immensely entertaining package that succeeds in its aspirations to become something more than spectacle. The real beauty of Wonder Woman is that Jenkins has as much of an interest in female empowerment as she does in providing an earnest exploration of our fallibilities as human beings, regardless of gender.

Wonder Woman is a surprisingly moving and heady origins story that tells of a beautiful and fiercely powerful Amazon warrior named Diana and of her loss of innocence. The Israeli beauty Gal Gadot fulfills the iconic role made famous in 1975 by Lynda Carter, sculpting not out of clay but rather an obvious and deep belief in the character’s sense of morality a performance that stands tall amongst the genre’s finest. Her saga is constructed in a flashback, triggered when Diana, working in the present day as a curator for the Louvre’s Department of Antiquities, receives a photographic plate from Wayne Enterprises which causes her to reflect upon her past.

The trip down memory lane takes us all the way back to the secluded isle of Themyscira, a paradise deliberately obscured from our world and home to the Amazons, a tribe of female warriors created by the gods of Mount Olympus and sworn to protect humanity against the wrath of Ares, god of war. The opening sequence pulls us into a heaven on earth resembling an ancient Greco-Roman utopia, one populated entirely by women. It is here where we first meet a young and wide-eyed Diana (Lilly Aspel) who is hungry to start her training to become among the elite fighters of her tribe. But her mother, the intensely protective Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), won’t allow her daughter to throw herself headlong into a world which she can’t possibly understand, much less control.

Naturally, Diana begins training in secret with her Aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) — widely regarded as the fiercest amongst all the Amazons. Refreshingly, the consequences of Diana’s disobedience don’t render her a prisoner in her own bedroom or with a silly slap on the wrist. They’re far more devastating. As a mother trying to do what’s best for her child Nielsen’s understated performance slowly slips into a pained resignation to what’s inevitable, eschewing the histrionics typically associated with parents reading their children the riot act. She’s well aware that experience is the best teacher; that perhaps the only way to learn that idealism is not a weapon is through trial by fire.

Diana’s journey of self-discovery takes us down the gauntlet of human cruelty and suffering as the environment flips from the ethereal to the brutally real. After American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash-lands on the beach of Themyscira, bringing with him a fleet of pursuing German soldiers, Diana learns of a Great War engulfing the planet and that man’s suffering has reached a crescendo. Her altruism won’t allow her to sit idly by while innocent lives are lost, and so she decides to accompany the first and only male she has ever met to the “hideous” shores of England.

Along the way, Diana’s fish-out-of-water presence on the streets of London inspires a litany of keen yet broadly comical observations about human relationships, social norms and gender dynamics. Whereas the umpteenth male-centric origins story might flounder in its down moments, Wonder Woman is buoyed by an unusual perspective that keeps even its more pedestrian scenes interesting. Try, for example, taking an Amazon princess clothes shopping on Oxford Street. Or taking her out for ice cream. Or explaining to her why human beings are compelled to partner up. Meanwhile Gadot plays off her character’s immunity to such trivialities with deft precision. She emotes intensely when the scene calls for it, but what defines her performance more is a haunting sense of detachment and a loneliness that suggests immortality might be overrated.

The larger dramatic rhythms of Wonder Woman remain beholden to the Marvel blueprint, particularly with the gradual build-up of each battle sequence, but that’s not to say there aren’t surprises in store along the way. As per tradition, the central hero becomes surrounded with others who become personally invested in the good fight. The film commits to giving these fringe players both purpose and personality. There are bad guys as pawns, cluttering the path to legitimate evil that must be stopped at all costs. While the legitimate evil is still not something we can fear entirely naturally — believe it or not it’s harder to identify with the ideology of a raging god than, say, that of a German chemist — those pawns offer up some of the film’s most barbaric acts. Danny Huston’s insane General Ludendorff and Elena Anaya’s Dr. Maru (a.k.a. Doctor Poison) slightly overcook their parts, but they’re more compelling than the average, disposable baddie DC has offered so far.

The specifics of how it all plays out is where a review must end and the movie must take over, but suffice it to say the embattled heroine at the center of it all is more than enough to make up for any narrative shortcomings or predictability. Gal Gadot puts her best foot forward, rendering a performance that should go down in the history books as bold, brave, righteous. Wonder Woman is an epic tale fueled by female strength on both sides of the camera, two tidal forces both complementing and inspiring one another. It is, in short, a marvel to experience.

Recommendation: Sensational action sequences (the rising from the trenches in No Man’s Land is, quite frankly, a scene that no movie this year is going to be able to match) combine with heartfelt and inspired performances from the leading cast, with Chris Pine giving great support to his on-screen, equally “average-looking” co-star. Wonder Woman is not simply a DC film done right, it’s a superhero film executed to near perfection. Easily one of the best and most surprising movies of 2017. Guardians of the Galaxy, eat your freaking heart out! 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “You have been my greatest love. Today you are my greatest sorrow. Be careful, Diana. They do not deserve you.”

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

Hell or High Water

'Hell or High Water' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 12, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Directed by: David Mackenzie

The day after you’ve watched something is probably not the time to proclaim that thing an instant classic. It would be wise to allow the infatuation phase to run its course before declaring your undying love for your partner. Unfortunately for me, I trade in hyperbole and sensationalist journalism so I have a very hard time calming down when I see something as enjoyable and well-crafted as David Mackenzie’s hybrid post-modern western/heist thriller.

Contrasted against a fairly weak summer slate of cinematic offerings, perhaps Hell or High Water is destined for a spot on the top shelf it might not have earned in another year but there’s no denying this is a film crafted with care and precision and featuring some of the year’s most enjoyable (read: believable) performances in a leading trio featuring Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges as surly West Texans caught in a fascinating, morally complex game of cat-and-mouse (okay, cops-and-robbers if you want to be more accurate).

Two brothers — the divorced Toby (Pine) and ex-con Tanner (Foster) — set into motion a master plan to save their family’s farm from foreclosure by relieving a string of Texas Midland Bank branches of large sums of cash. These are the very banks that have been slowly but surely milking the Howard clan dry for decades. Despite their efficiency and a knack for finding new getaway vehicles, they soon find themselves on Marcus Hamilton (Bridges)’s radar, a local ranger on the verge of a long-overdue retirement. He’s hungry for one last chase and strings along for the ride his half-Mexican, half-Native American partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).

All goes according to plan until the brothers Howard hit a bank in Post, where the locals aren’t so submissive, despite Tanner’s best efforts to terrorize. (An unsettling yet frequently amusing psychopathy renders his criminal history entirely unsurprising. In this world there aren’t good cops/bad cops, there are good robbers/bad robbers and Tanner is decidedly more the latter.) Unprepared for resistance, they find themselves scrambling to escape a bloody scene that turns a once-righteous deed into an unintended murdering spree. All the while the rangers remain only a half-step behind, distracted only by the fact Marcus is fated for a rocking chair and greener pastures come the end of the week. The two narratives, compelling in their own right, eventually coalesce into a spectacular, oft unpredictable showdown that eschews traditional heroics and villainous archetypes. Think No Country For Old Men meets Robin Hood.

In a film filled with stellar acting turns, Pine’s quasi-transformative, ski-mask-wearing thief might just outshine the rest as his bedraggled countenance bears the brunt of the film’s moral quandary. Toby’s obligations to family — a financially struggling ex-wife and two teen boys — trump any obligation to abide by the law of this crumbling wasteland, a place where old granny’s fixin’ to blow ya off the front porch with her 12-gauge just for trespassin’. (That particular scene doesn’t happen but you can imagine it happening.) A place where the hustle and bustle of cities like New York and L.A. may as well be happening on another planet. Captain Kirk Pine finds much room for personal growth in a script that believes in full-bodied characters and thoughtful story development. His devotion to his sons may justify a few smooth robberies, but does it justify the violence later on? How far should a person go to protect the ones they love?

Hell or High Water isn’t simply a case of an amateur robbery gone awry, although there is very much an element of bumbled professionalism at play. Think of these guys more as skilled amateurs, dabbling in the art of robbing from the corrupt and redistributing to those who are destitute. What inspires their actions is very much an indictment of corporate America and how that unstoppable locomotive frequently flattens any poor sod who happens to be standing on the tracks (i.e. anyone who has been unfortunate enough to put their trust in banks who consistently loan money, their money, to others who can’t possibly afford to repay the debt). Indeed, if you wish to dig deeper into these scenes juxtaposed against a rugged, wildly unpredictable American west, you’ll find hints of Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes as well. The pain. The outrage. Tension’s palpable, manifested especially in Toby’s final confrontation with a ranger who thinks he has him figured out.

Hell or High Water is impeccably performed, a reality reinforced by the brilliance of Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay, one that allows the entire cast to put their best cowboy boot forward. Even bit-parts such as a stubborn waitress who refuses to hand over her $200 tip as evidence because she has a roof to keep over her and her daughter’s heads and an elderly local who ain’t threatened by “thugs” become precious commodities. Bridges doesn’t really need the pampering but he’s par excellence. Amidst a rather bleak mise-en-scène, Sheridan finds ways to wring out a kind of naturalistic, borderline farcical sense of humor that assures levity while never distracting from the more shocking drama that awaits in a climactic stand-off. A bickering repartee between two sheriffs drives the entertainment value sky-high, while Foster runs away with his role and in all the best ways.

You might describe the portrait as stereotypical of the image non-locals have already painted in their mind of a place they perceive to be backwards and lawless. This place is hostile and the people tough, resilient and pretty stand-offish. But the film isn’t  so reductive as to parody life in these parts. It focuses upon real people living out real lives in the only way they know how, desperate to make something work in a nation described in the Pledge of Allegiance as undivided, with liberty and justice for all. The ever-captivating mystery invites us to form our own opinions of these people and communities. And suffice it to say, and while difficult at times, it’s best to reserve judgment until the very end.

My judgment is thus: Hell or High Water is one of the most enjoyable, entertaining and satisfying films 2016 has to offer. By turns nostalgic for a bygone period in cinema — that of the classic John Wayne shoot-em-up — and hungry to forge new frontiers with a riveting story that, while not categorically unpredictable, explores boundaries few films bother exploring anymore. It’s a grand adventure, something that will undoubtedly offer up something new to discover upon repeat viewings. This is how you make movies, folks.

Jeff Bridges in 'Hell or High Water'

Recommendation: Hell or High Water, an uncommonly (and unexpectedly) solid bit of modern western action, refuses to stoop to the lowest common denominator of reducing drama to bloody gunfights and cheesy quips. It’s a heist film executed almost to perfection. Fans of the cast are sure to love it, particularly Pine who continues to show he has more talent than just fulfilling an iconic leadership role on the U.S.S. Enterprise. This is undoubtedly his best work yet, slurry southern drawl and all. And I hate to keep making Star Trek comparisons, but on an entertainment scale, Pine’s misadventures here are far worthier of your time. This goes beyond where many modern westerns have gone before. Two Roger Ebert thumbs up.

Rated: R

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: ” . . . go f**k yourself.” 

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 

The Finest Hours

'The Finest Hours' movie poster

Release: Friday, January 29, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Scott Silver; Paul Tamasy; Eric Johnson

Directed by: Craig Gillespie

Chris Pine just wants to be the captain of everything. And I guess that’s a good thing because every time his number is called he responds with some kind of grand gesture that usually involves multiple lives being saved under his extraordinary captainship. The Finest Hours isn’t exactly Star Trek but if he continues to shine in these capacities, I say let him have a crack at Captain Planet. (Certain captains are, of course, off-limits. Captain Jack Sparrow and Captain Phillips and Captain Morgan — they don’t need overhauls. They’re doing just fine without Pine.)

The Finest Hours isn’t so much interested in captainship per se (if you want to get technical, Pine’s role hews closer to coxswain than captain this time), but it is still a movie that champions leadership and courageousness. The only catch is Craig Gillespie directs a very Disney-friendly version of the events that comprised one of the most dangerous rescue missions in US Coast Guard history.

It’s February 18, 1952 and a brutal winter storm is tightening its grip on New England. After receiving a distress call from an oil freighter just off the coast, its hull cracked in half from battling twenty-plus-foot waves, Chatham Station Commander Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana, with an awkward southern accent) assigns the young and amiable Bernie Webber to the rescue mission, one that has all but been dismissed as more of a suicide mission by other, more experienced seamen.

Ignoring the cautionary tales of his elders, Webber puts together a four-person team with Richard P. Livesey (Ben Foster), third class engineman Andrew Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner) and Ervin Maske (John Magaro), a mailboy, joining him in his CG 36500. The most significant and perhaps most deadly obstacle will require Webber to maneuver the 30-foot life boat through violent surf crashing over shallow sand bars just off shore; passing through to open water has never been successfully executed in storm conditions. From there it’ll be a battle against high winds and impending darkness.

Bernie, of course, is soon to be marrying his beloved Miriam (Holliday Grainger) in April. Gillespie reminds us several times that if there’s any reason for Bernie to return home safely, it’s for her. Miriam isn’t a typical 1950s girl, she’s headstrong and demands to be kept informed during every step of the procedure. Miriam has little patience for dealing with gender roles and bureaucracy, so much so that she at one point walks right into Cluff’s office and demands he abandon the mission. Grainger toes the line between confidence and impertinence and while she is refreshing to watch, the question can’t help but rear itself: was the real Miriam Webber this pushy? And where does the line between fact and dramatic license blur? Even still, her defiance of rules and Bernie’s adherence to them has a nice symmetry.

The picture’s not complete until we’ve addressed Casey Affleck‘s meek and mild Ray Sybert, a brilliant engineer stuck in the bowels of the stranded SS Pendleton. The scrawny New Englander finds himself up against one of the greatest technical and physical challenges of his life as he sets about preventing the engine room from taking on more water. There are concerns like the pump flooding, losing power, losing steering ability, and then finally, losing crew.

Rather than drowning in the waves of mounting stress — they have only hours before they sink — Sybert sets about trying to solve the problem rationally. In some ways, The Finest Hours is actually more interested in these embattled blue collared fellas working as a well-oiled machine under Sybert’s semi-reluctant guidance. Despite these being the most politely-spoken New England-based seafarers we’ve ever met (thanks Disney), we understand fairly well Sybert is far from a chosen leader. Other voices are louder, stronger, more adamant. Affleck imbues his character with such quiet strength, a composure that no one else manages to summon.

The film is considerably less compelling when things aren’t falling apart. The Finest Hours won’t be remembered for its romance nor the acting in general. The trio of Pine, Affleck and Grainger have clearly put in the hours but the others, including Bana, leave hardly an impression at all. Somehow that’s okay if you focus on what good the film does. Even though it never breaches those depths of remarkable filmmaking, this optimistic and entirely earnest effort to recount a most unlikely rescue mission is still well worth watching.

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Recommendation: The Finest Hours, hampered by a slow opening half but bolstered by heart-pounding action sequences in the middle and towards the end, is a mostly satisfying mixture of action and human drama. Based on the true story, the film feels most comfortable detailing the toils of the stranded freight crew rather than showing how the Coast Guard responded. A little strange then, that the film decides to credit the latter and ignore the former in a pre-credits photo montage. This film isn’t just about the Coast Guard’s decision to make a daring mission. It’s about enduring grave danger as well.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “I’m not afraid of the water, Bernie. It just scares me at night, that’s all. You can’t see what’s underneath.”

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 

Stretch

Release: Friday, March 21, 2014

[Netflix]

Written by: Joe Carnahan

Directed by: Joe Carnahan

Where this guy’s going, he’s definitely going to need roads . . . and a lot of luck.

Joe Carnahan’s Stretch is best enjoyed when your guard is down, when you’re in the mood for watching something that, taken scene by scene, makes little to no sense but is a perfectly harmless distraction when looked at as a whole. It’s messy and clunky and clichéd and occasionally poorly acted but the whole point of Stretch is embracing the ridiculous. If having fun in a movie is all that you require, jump in the backseat and buckle in for a wild ride.

Patrick Wilson and Chris Pine make the most out of a rather bizarre script that has the former playing a down-on-his-luck L.A. limo driver and the latter a bearded whack job with more secrets than the American government. The driver (a.k.a. ‘Stretch’) has recently been dumped by his gorgeous girl Candace (Brooklyn Decker, ouch) and, reeling in the aftermath, has allowed himself to spiral out of control again, though careful not to reignite his cocaine and gambling addictions from years past.

One afternoon Stretch is pulled aside by his boss who tells him that their main competitor is putting them quickly out of business by stealing their clients. Making matters worse is a $6,000 gambling debt he owes to a thug who promises some very bad things if he doesn’t pay up by midnight that night. Desperate, Stretch begs an employee named Charlie (Jessica Alba) to help steal clients from the competition — a mysterious entity known only as The Jovi — to help him keep his job and to raise the money needed to . . . um, keep his life.

Over the course of the evening Stretch contends with a litany of oddballs and lunatics, starting with a very unhappy David Hasselhoff who, lo and behold, is swept off his feet by The Jovi at the last second. In retaliation, Charlie directs him to a client The Jovi usually picks up, the one and only Ray Liotta. Neither of these dramatized cameos compare to the eccentric billionaire playboy/lunatic that is Chris Pine’s Roger Karos, whose outrageous physical appearance conceals the Hollywood hunk inside (save for the piercing blue eyes). Karos promises he will make Stretch’s efforts worthwhile if he commits to not only being his chauffeur, but to retrieving a briefcase from a certain someone.

Stretch is packed to the brim with absurdities, but they mostly exist in the visual presentation and a few chance encounters. Narratively — as a story of redemption — the film couldn’t be more pedestrian. Wilson clearly relishes the opportunity to cut loose, to become the “fire starter” Karos believes he can be. Wilson brings the fire in his performance, becoming the glue that holds together a lot of delicate pieces and thankfully he is quite the amiable fellow despite his history. As he journeys through the night, an eye on the clock as his midnight deadline rapidly approaches, Stretch receives a crash course in confidence-boosting. He transforms from a drunken pushover (or a fatalist, as Charlie describes him) to a man pushing over a lot of drunks to get to what matters most to him: delivering on his promises.

Carnahan certainly makes some trade-offs in his enthusiastic, over-the-top approach. There are a few moments where the goofiness is overbearing — do we really need the foreign subtitles placed beside a villain as he shouts his threats in perfectly understandable English? — and where the acting isn’t really acting, it’s shouting lines excitedly. It’s nonchalance. A good time to be a paid actor or actress. It may stretch credulity to the breaking point but ultimately the film manages to get to the end with minimal bumps and bruises.

Recommendation: If you’re looking for a quick Friday night jolt of entertainment, I suggest firing up Netflix and taking in all that Stretch has to offer: pure, unadulterated ridiculousness with fun cameos and an absolutely zany supporting role from Chris Pine. Fans of him and Patrick Wilson are sure to find them highly enjoyable.

Rated: R

Running Time: 94 mins.

Quoted: “If you like stories about chance and coincidence and fate, then here’s one you’d never heard. Boy meets girl. Girl almost kills boy by running a red light at rush hour. Boy is T-boned at over 60 miles an hour.”

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com  

Star Trek: Into Darkness

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Release: Thursday, May 16, 2013

[Theater]

I still can’t decide whether or not that I wish I was a Trekkie now. On one hand, I feel like I was left out of the loop in terms of fully enjoying what has been largely deemed one of the more successful re-boot sequels ever made. On the other, I did indeed see Star Trek in 2009, and was simply blown away with what was being presented at the time (again, without having any previous experience with the old series), so it only seemed natural that this one would pick right up on where I had left off emotionally with the last. I had high hopes especially since most people I know are raving about Into Darkness.

Despite the glossy finish on this filmstrip, the intense action sequences, and solid performances all around, there was an extra special something this film lacked that truly engaged me in the story. With one exception, characters are not as developed throughout the film this time. That’s because Abrams did a really good job of doing so in the first film, bringing us all up to speed on the revamped cast and crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise in his 2009 phenom of a film. Here, he advances his agenda as he places these characters under further duress, where their entire world is now being threatened by a shadowy, terrifying unknown. It is Abrams’ hope that by now we are running with these fantastic personalities that have been accurately recreated in this new series. Why does it feel like I only went on a short walk with them this time though?

Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) has recently been demoted from helming his own ship after disobeying the Starfleet’s Prime Directive when the crew are forced to come out of hiding on an alien planet. Spock has taken it upon himself to go down inside the planet’s imminently erupting volcano and implements a technology which freezes the lava instantaneously. The method would surely mean the death of Spock, but Kirk views it as his responsibility to leave no one behind. Unfortunately, this decision comes with a high price to pay. After being relieved of his captainship, Kirk re-enlists with another crew as a First Commander.

But when attacks hit close to home, and Starfleet’s central hub is bombed by a lone man — the one and only John Harrison, a former Starfleet member gone rogue — Kirk makes a strong case as to why he should be put back in charge. It’s a good thing ol’ Scotty (the reliably comical Simon Pegg) has the intuition as to where this man has fled to following the attack. Thus, our trusted crew are on their way into darkness, to breach a neutral zone between our race and the Klingon territory which harbors their home planet, Qo’noS/Kronos.

Now, granted, the opening moments of this film really could not have been handled any better. Forget about a gentle exposition. It’s a jarring jolt, and a violent one at that. From here on out the pulse-pounding action rarely seems to let up, save for a few lectures Captain Kirk inevitably receives for being the type of captain that he’s chosen to be — fearless, or reckless, that description I’ll leave you to decide upon. Most of the movie barely finds the time to explain itself — stuff is just happening. Abrams takes the Michael Bay approach and uses action in virtually every moment where there seems to be the risk run of having a lull in it. God forbid he bores a few ADHD members of the audience who need something loud and booming occurring constantly.

Half of the action — heck, maybe even three quarters of it was a necessity, sure. But like those Michael Bay CGI orgies, Abrams makes a bit of a mistake by cramming big explosions and crashes and fight sequences together to the point of saturation. I eventually became numb to what was ostensibly meant to be the climactic element when the Enterprise crash-lands on Earth. (That’s not a spoiler, this scene is in the trailer.)

And certainly Benedict Cumberbatch was a highlight as the dreaded villain. His voice could literally move mountains, or maybe at the very least, straighten out a Vulcan earlobe effectively.

So I still don’t know. To be a Trekkie, or to not be one. As many have validated, this re-boot is not meant to be 100% committed to every detail that made the old series dear to the fans of yesteryear. But. Would this film be better as a long-time follower? Would I have had more gripes with it if I were a 50-something-year-old viewer? Would I have laughed more at the expense of Spock in one of the many ideological scuffles he has with Captain Kirk’s methods? What have I missed in my viewing when I am not a fan for many, many years — aside from what is made obvious with the many self-referential jokes and quips?

Regardless, the answers to any of these come second to my question as to why this film is so intensely hyped. I have to say, maybe now I know what it feels like to not get swept up on the bandwagon. It kind of hurts, but I have to express myself honestly here. I was rather disappointed with the final result.

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3-5Recommendation: Star Trek: Into Darkness is undoubtedly a good film. Great, even. But it lacks the “oomph” necessary to boost itself to warp speed in order to go beyond anything else that any one has ever done, which is precisely the impression I carried with me into the theater. Hoping for some revelatory experience is a wasted expectation, it seems.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “You misunderstand. It is true I chose not to feel anything upon realizing my own life was ending. As Admiral Pike was dying, I joined with his consciousness and experienced what he felt at the moment of his passing. Anger. Confusion. Loneliness. Fear. I had experiences those feelings before, multiplied exponentially on the day my planet was destroyed. Such a feeling is something I choose never to experience again. Nyota, you mistake my choice not to feel as a reflection of my not caring. Well, I assure you, the truth is precisely the opposite.”

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