Friday, July 22, 2016

STAR TREK Doesn’t Really Go BEYOND, But It Stays On Course

Now playing at every multiplex in Federation space:

STAR TREK BEYOND (Dir. Justin Lin, 2016)

Does anybody really care about new STAR TREK movies now that J.J. Abrams has so successfully resurrected STAR WARS?

Well, of course they do because there have been Trekkies since way before George Lucas even thought of that galaxy far, far away, the characters are so ingrained into pop culture that they feel like a lot of people’s family members, and, most importantly it’s a highly profitable property for Paramount.

So here’s the third film in the rebooted franchise, the 13th in the STAR TREK film series overall, in which FAST AND THE FURIOUS filmmaker Justin Lin takes the helm, but, with Abrams in the producer’s chair, still stays true to the Bad Robot brand.

After a funny opening involving Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) trying to re-gift an artifact (that later turns out to be the movie’s McGuffin) to an intimidating yet tiny alien race right out of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, we learn that we’re now three years into the Enterprise’s five-year mission and that Kirk, via a classic Captain’s log voice-over, is feeling that things have become too “episodic.”

Pine’s Kirk, along with series regulars Spock (Zachary Quinto), McCoy (Karl Urban), Uhuru (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Scotty (Simon Pegg), all seem to be a recognizable yet entertaining rut as we get to hang with them a little before the inevitable action spectacle begins.

The Enterprise docks at a space station named Yorktown that when McCoy remarks that it looks like a “snowglobe just waiting to break” we know that we will most likely be seeing that happen later on. Before you know it, a spaceship hurls towards the Yorktown and, yep, we again get the premise of a looming alien attack that our trusty crew must try to prevent.

The Enterprise yet again gets destroyed – torn into individual pieces mind you - by a swarm of killer bee-like spaceships, and Kirk and co. get stranded on the treacherous terrain of a planet called Altamid (I think). This is where there’s some nice interactions between the paired up combinations of Kirk and Chekov, Spock and McCoy (who may have the best back and forth as well as the best lines), and Uhuru and Sulu, who's gay now if you haven't heard.

There’s also the intro of Sofia Boutella as Jaylah, a badass white-skinned alien who gets Scotty out of a skirmish and alerts him to the fact that a downed starship hidden via hologram, the U.S.S. Franklin, could help them defeat the baddies.

Edris Elba, as Krall (such an ‘80s sci-fi villain name) is too hidden behind prosthetics to really have the necessary impact, and his back story is a bit too Khan-ish – i.e. fueled with revenge by being wronged by the Federation – but the stakes still feel appropriately high in the second half.

I got a bit lost in the mist of the disorienting CGI-ed chaos of a few sequences but the experience is so much more satisfying than the previous effort, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS. With Pegg pulling double duty as Scotty and as screenwriter (with co-writer Doug Jung) you get the sense that this is the first of the recent wave of STAR TREK movies written by people who have more than STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN as their reference point.

The late, great Leonard Nimoy is paid proper tribute to with Quinto’s Spock learning that his older self from the alternate timeline established in the 2008 series restarter, Ambassador Spock, has died, and with a “In Loving Memory of…” credit. It’s also impossible to forget the recent tragic passing of Yelchin, who gets a “For Anton” dedication at the end, especially when Kirk raises a toast to “absent friends” with Chekov standing right behind him.

STAR TREK BEYOND still opts for the amped-up, sexy, and flashy trappings of Abrams’ version of Gene Roddenberry’s creation, though under Lin’s direction there is a lot less lens glare. Pine remarked in an interview earlier this summer that “You can’t make a cerebral ‘Star Trek’ in 2016- it just wouldn’t work in today’s marketplace,” and, sigh, maybe he’s right. Still, I'd like to see them try.

So the latest entry doesn’t go where any sci-fi movie series hasn’t gone before - even the spoof GALAXY QUEST went to some of the same places as this does – but it’s a fun, fit series entry that most fans will dig. Hmm, maybe this time around the odd numbered STAR TREK movies will be the good ones.

More later...

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Despite Some Clunkiness, The Gender-Swapped GHOSTBUSTERS Goes Over Like Gangbusters

Opening today at a multiplex near you:

GHOSTBUSTERS (Dir. Paul Feig, 2016)

The extreme nerd rage over the release of this reboot has amounted to one of the stupidest controversies in movie history. I loved the 1984 original too and consider it a comedy classic, but it really doesn’t strike me as blasphemy to make a new version with female leads.

Especially when the core cast is comprised of such comic greats as Saturday Night Live alums Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and 
Leslie Jones and Melissa McCarthy, who's hosted SNL multiple times, who are more than capable of filling the ghost-busting shoes of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson.

Factor in writer/director Paul Feig, whose films I’ve liked for the most part (really enjoyed BRIDEMAIDS and SPY; THE HEAT not so much), and the prospect of a new GHOSTBUSTERS is a big “why not?”

If it sucks it’ll just be a big “so what?” as it’ll just be another addition to the world of offshoots from the first film which included a lame sequel, a couple of animated series, and multiple video game adaptations.

Thankfully though, GHOSTBUSTERS 2016 doesn’t suck – it’s a spirited update with a lot of laughs and likability, but it does take a bit to get going.

That is, after its superb opening which posits the lanky Zach Woods (The Office, Silicon Valley) as a tour guide in a haunted, fictional mansion who gets scared half to death by what will be later labeled a “class-four apparition.”

From there Feig’s film settles into a laid back groove as it introduces Wiig as Erin Gilbert, a mousy, uptight professor at Columbia (same university from the original), who is trying to keep a book about ghosts being real that she wrote with her childhood friend Abby Yates (McCarthy) secret as it would threaten her tenure.

Erin goes to confront her former friend at the Higgins Institute of Science (whose Dean is played by SNL writer/ Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show announcer Steve Higgins in a amusingly crude cameo) about her selling the book online, and finds that Abby and her new assistant, nuclear engineer Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon) have been perfecting new ghost catching equipment (which looks a lot like the gear from the original).

The trio investigate the mansion from the prologue which results in Erin getting slimed, and denied tenure as well as losing her job. Erin, Abby, and Jillian go into business together and set up headquarters in a shabby office above a Chinese restaurant (they wanted the firehouse from the original but it wasn’t in their budget).

They are soon joined by Jones as a sassy subway worker who has encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s history, and Chris Hemsworth as their airheaded, and just plain odd receptionist that Wiig’s Erin crushes on.

A creepy Neil Casey, a writer/comic actor who should be familiar to viewers of Inside Amy Schumer as well as various other Comedy Central shows, is the movie’s villain – the still bitter over being bullied Rowan North who has plans to harness the power of evil spirits to take over New York.

At nearly 2 hours, GHOSTBUSTER’s running time has a lot of fat that could be trimmed, and there are a number of clunky bits of what I assume is improv, but the energy is high enough to provide a more than reasonable amount of fun. Even in the case of the big inevitable overblown CGI-saturated climax.

Cameos by Murray, who sadly wasn’t given a funny line; Aykroyd, who does have one even if it’s a call back; Hudson, Annie Potts, and Sigourney Weaver, all as new characters, also add to the good-will vibe, but you just know their involvement will do little to silence detractors. I bet the appearance of Slimer won't even do that.

The leading ladies are great together, though Wiig seems a bit restrained, and McCarthy, while still funny, doesn’t really bring much in the way of new schtick (expect the standard scene of her being violently thrown against a wall). That leaves McKinnon to be sharply weird, which she’s got down to a T; and Jones to be loud, abrasive, and possibly the most fearlessly funny of the foursome.

Fairing well too are appearances by Andy Garcia as the mayor, and Ciecely Strong (another familiar face from SNLas one of his top aides. It's a well choosen comic cast for sure, even if some of Hemsworth's attempts to steal the movie are groaners.

It may be only a good, not great update as it doesn’t have the quotability that made the original a classic, but, despite its flaws, the new gender-swapped GHOSTBUSTERS goes over like gangbusters.

More later...

Friday, July 01, 2016

THE BFG: A Fair Fantasy Film With Fart Jokes

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

THE BFG (Dir. Steven Spielberg, 2016)

As it’s been half a decade since Steven Spielberg’s collaboration with Peter Jackson on THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN, it’s been a bit since one of the world’s most famous filmmakers has put out a movie, you know, for kids!

So here comes THE BFG, which stands for “Big Friendly Giant,” Spielberg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s book about a young orphan girl who befriends a behometh, the 24-foot title character, who appears here as a lanky CGI-ed creature who dresses like a peasant and talks funny.

That is, the BFG, voiced and motion-captured by Mark Rylance, who won the Best Supporting Oscar for his performance in Spielberg’s BRIDGE OF SPIES last year, speaks in half-nonsensical jargon using such made up words as “phizzwizzard,” “delumptious,” “splitswiggled,” and “humplehammers.”

There’s even a running gag about “whizzpopping,” which means farting – something that happens when a green, bubbly drink called frobscottle is consumed.

This language is called “Gobblefunk,” and from what I gather it’s pretty faithful to the book (even the fart jokes), but its use in the film doesn’t quite invoke the transcendent charm or the laughter it’s reaching for.

12-year old Ruby Barnhill makes her screen debut as Sophie, the little girl who’s scooped up by the BFG out of her bed at the orphanage in a small unnamed English town and taken to “Giant Country” where he assures her that’s he’s gentle and doesn’t eat children.

However, the other much taller giants in the village, led by the thick-headed Fleshlumpeater (voiced and mo captured by Jemaine Clement), aren’t as friendly and would eat Sophie if they found out she was hiding at the BFG’s humble, but ginormous living quarters (actually a cave).

At night, Sophie assists the BFG in his hobby of dream-catching in Dream Country, which involves the capturing of dreams in the form of bright glowing orbs with a big butterfly net and storing them in jars.

Because of the looming threat of the evil giants, with such names as The Bloodbottler (voiced by Bill Hader), The Bonecruncher, The Gizzardgulper, The Childchewer, and The Meatdripper (their monikers are listed several times throughout the film), Sophie convinces the BFG to go with her to get help from the Queen of England (Penelope Wilson), whose command of the British Army will surely be able to take care of that crew of overlarge, disgusting doofuses.

Rylance and Barnhill play well off of each other’s sensibilities, and the animation at times beautifully builds upon the warm aesthetics of storybook imagery, but the experience as a whole feels a bit slight. There’s not much that’s very interesting about these characters, and a little bit of the silly wordplay goes a long way (so do the fart jokes).

THE BFG is a fair piece of throwaway entertainment that gives the impression that Spielberg is coasting. For instance, a scene in which the evil giants are searching the BFG’s cave for Sophie overly recalls the raptors in the kitchen from JURASSIC PARK or the alien probes in the farmhouse basement in THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. The man can do, and has done, this sort of stuff in his sleep.

Sadly, the E.T. trifecta of Spielberg, composer John Williams, and the late screenwriter Melissa Matheson (this is her final screen credit), can’t muster the ole movie magic needed to make this film anything more than mildly amusing.

More later...