Star Trek Into Darkness

star-trekinto-darkness-posterSo much hoopla has been made over king-of-nerds J.J. Abrams directing the next chapter of the Star Wars saga that his latest sequel Star Trek Into Darkness has played second fiddle to the wave of news circling that other sci-fi universe.  For casual Trek fans, such as myself, Abrams will likely do for Star Wars what he has done for Captain Kirk and crew.

Abrams brought Trek out of the depths of cult obscurity and hammered down the door of nerdom to allow mainstream audiences access to an otherwise closed-off franchise.  With the use of punk wit, a young cast of immense talent, rousing action sequences, and the gravitational pull of dead-on comedy, the Star Trek reboot was one of very few films to not bring further slander to the term ‘reboot.’  The more times I’ve viewed the 2009 entry, the more I enjoy it as all-around grade-A entertainment.

Thus Mr. Abrams’ sequel Into Darkness gets a little more serious and has slightly less fun toying around with the strict mechanics of series expectations.  Slightly less.  The Abrams magic is still intact and he manages to deliver a satisfying action-sequel that simply hasn’t the fresh air of the previous film especially when the story relies on previously-mined material.

For round two Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), having just been suspended from active duty, is  driven to revenge after a terrorist named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) stages multiple attacks on the Federation that results in the untimely death of one of Kirk’s most endearing mentors.  The appointed captain reenlists Spock (Zachary Quinto) as his first officer and sets out with his crew aboard the Enterprise on a Starfleet mission to target the fugitive Harrison in hiding on a Klingon planet.  Relations are tense between the Federation and the Klingons, and Kirk has been ordered to target Harrison with highly powerful torpedoes whilst trying avoid the start of a planetary war.

star-trek-into-darkness-stillKirk must also grapple with his own thirst for blood and his rocky rapport with his crew members.  The story further digs into Trek lore, Spock’s and Uhura’s (Zoe Saldana) unlikely romantic relationship, and springs about as many laughs as the previous entry.  I honestly wasn’t quite as engulfed in this Trek, but only by a slim margin.  The film is still visually brilliant and action-packed, but the more sinister tones have set in as is to be expected for a second installment.

Most noteworthy in this chapter is the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as the villain Harrison.  He’s a brilliant, deep-voiced menace full of mystery and intrigue.  The performance is the stuff of terrific acting and he’s certainly a much more memorable foe than Eric Bana as the bald Romulan from ’09 Trek.  The rest of the cast is exceptionally good just as they were last time, but Cumberbatch is a standout and helps elevate this sequel above its few shortcomings in originality and suspense.

The themes at play revolve around the true meaning of leadership, friendship and heroism.  It is here that the writers and Director Abrams pave the way for a strong emotional journey for the leading characters.  Set against the backdrop of grand set pieces—Spock caught on a small bed of rock in the middle of an erupting volcano; Kirk suited up and soaring through space between two Federation spaceships; Harrison’s attack on the Federation tower—the emotional undercurrent allows the action to actually have some stake.  But then occasionally, and all too abruptly, Abrams hooks back into familiar territory that the franchise has previously explored rather than leap over new hurdles.

As much as I think J.J. Abrams has delivered Star Trek out of darkness, I assume he will be moving on from the franchise to become engulfed in Star Wars.  Even though I would still welcome him back to Trek, perhaps that will be for the best?  Abrams has relied upon alternate takes of previous adventures for Trek thus far and I think it’s time for a new director to expropriate Abrams’ discovered fountain of youth for this franchise and hasten the current Enterprise crew to a new infinite frontier from a storytelling perspective.   Please don’t misunderstand, however.  Into Darkness is a rock-solid film and likely light years ahead of what’s to come this season.  But with such a previously accomplished entry, Abrams has not managed to top himself, and I can’t exactly fault him for that since he already brought Star Trek into greatness.

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Rating: 5.0/5 (2 votes cast)

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to skip all of the potential Oscar-caliber fare out there and go for some straight-up sheer entertainment.  With Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the bar for exciting megawatt blockbuster couldn’t be set any higher—literally.

Tom Cruise returns to his globetrotting ways as IMF super-spy Ethan Hunt, on the run with three other fugitive agents after a bombing at the Kremlin building has the team framed as terrorists, and causes intense friction between the U.S. and Russia.  The President initiates Ghost Protocol to shut down the entire IMF Agency.  Only Hunt and his team can stop the real terrorist, Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), an extremist bent on worldwide nuclear destruction.

From the film’s opening, the excitement kicks off and rarely lets up, delivering relenting pulse-pounding action sequences.  This is Cruise’s most accomplished action film to date, and that’s saying something.  The man, regardless of his tarnished off-screen persona, is one heck of a performer.  If this fourth installment of the M:I franchise doesn’t reignite his star power, I don’t know what will.  At nearly 50-years-old, Cruise delivers a physical performance that is often stunning.  Bruised and tossed around the screen, the man flies around this film like a winged insect—running, kicking, punching, ascending, flipping, falling, flailing, you name it.  The film could have been titled Run Tommy Run.

And what about those impressive action sequences?  This is a wall-to-wall assault of a movie, but the action never becomes tedious or dull.  It totally and completely serves the story, keeping the plot in a constant motion, and invigorating this franchise with a heap of fresh and interesting possibilities.  Credit Brad Bird, a former Pixar director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille, for making a live-action cartoon that never once feels cartoonish.  The picture is simultaneously gritty and relaxed.  Bird finds just the right tone for his movie, returning the series to a team-oriented picture rather than just another Tom Cruise vehicle.

Actors Paula Patton, Jeremy Renner, and the comedic Simon Pegg round out the team quite nicely.  Everyone plays a crucial role to the events of the film.  I was not at all surprised to find this fresh change.  Cruise has consistently made every Mission: Impossible film entirely unique and different, utilizing a new director for each installment, for better or worse.  Brian De Palma delivered a twisty plot with the first mission.  John Woo excelled with balletic action sequences that took precedence over the storyline in M:I-2.  J.J. Abrams delved into a personal quest for Ethan Hunt against a cutthroat adversary in the third outing.  For Ghost Protocol, Brad Bird seeks to tip the scales for extreme blockbuster entertainment, gaining top-dollar out of every shot, and reinvigorating the team spirit of the franchise.  Even with a villain in Hendricks that seems more like an afterthought than a real threat, unlike Philip Seymour Hoffman’s menace from the 2006 film, M:I-4 still fires on all cylinders because Bird keeps the threat immediate rather than looming.

I was treated to this film in IMAX format.  30 minutes of the film was shot natively in IMAX.  The towering picture for certain sequences could described as none other than absolutely stunning.  The sequence featuring Cruise ascending the Burj Khalifa tower using questionable suction gloves is a scene that will be talked about for a long time.  Experiencing it in IMAX added to the intensity and vertigo.  Rather unbelievably, the scene was apparently filmed on the actual tower with Cruise actually dangling from it 130-some stories above ground.  How will another sequel top this?  I don’t know.  I’m calling mission impossible on that one.

As for this franchise, it’s reached an incredible high with Bird at the helm.  The series has never been better.  Action movies in general have rarely been better.  And that is no easy feat, as this somewhat underrated series has consistently delivered the goods over the last 15 years.  Lackluster villain complaint aside, this Mission is probably the most entertaining film all of 2011 has to offer, and you’d be crazier than Tom Cruise to miss it.

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Super 8

Call it an ode to the Spielberg days of past.  Label it an homage to 70s and 80s blockbusters.  Compare it to E.T., The Goonies, and Close Encounters of the the Third Kind.  Whatever you do, remember Super 8 as more than just a nod to great movies—Super 8 is a great movie.  Oh, and if you haven’t seen it—do see it—get up and go now!  Is that ‘critical’ enough?

Yes, I flat out loved this undeniably fresh tribute to the glory days of cinema.  Producer Steven Spielberg and Director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) have ditched mayhem-induced F/X filmmaking and have instead decided to tread sacred waters: “storytelling” that utilizes F/X-filled mayhem at no expense to character development.  This is a pure bred science-fiction spectacle, and it’s impossible not to at least sink your teeth into the wonderful nostalgia.

Luckily Super 8 is more than just a plate of nostalgic reflection on old school sci-fi.  Abrams has unleashed a pet project of his centering on a group of elementary youngsters in 1979 Lillian, Ohio.  Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is trying to make a movie with his pals—a zombie outbreak short film they would like to enter into a local competition.  The boys find their sole actress and illegal chauffeur in Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning).  Joel is instantly taken with her.  Shooting the picture at a train station in the evening, the kids become engulfed in something far more terrifying than a phony zombie apocalypse.  They are caught in the middle of a disastrous train crash instigated by a mad truck driver who turns out to be the students’ science teacher.

The kids are shocked, scared, and chased off the scene by military troops.  Joel has seen more than he fully realizes.  Something escaped the rubble… something that perhaps should not have escaped.  Joel and his cohorts know a great mystery and conspiracy is taking over their small town, but how will they find out what it is, and more importantly, who will believe them?

A handful of people begin to disappear.  Pets are fleeing to the next county.  The military start to dig about the town.  Several pieces of machinery seem to get snatched away.  Electricity fades in and out.  Joel’s father Deputy Jackson Lamb takes on the burden of watching over Lillian as the sheriff has gone missing.  Little time passes before Jackson becomes as cautious and curious as his son about the sinister activity and conspiracy overtaking his home.

Abrams fills each frame with such a fond love and affection for the wonder of movies.  Super 8 overflows with memorable scenes and lovable characters that make the mystery and suspense of the plot all the more interesting.  Never once did I feel the film’s urgency to cut to action and special effects in case things became too plodding.  The reality is that Super 8 is edited to near-perfection.  The scenes have been constructed tightly and crisply.  The tension abounds and the scares thrill.  The dialogue never seeks to simply advance the plot, but instead works to penetrate and reveal the characters.  A ready supply of humor and authenticity shines through every frame as each of the young actors carry the movie.

And what about these young actors?  They would give most A-list stars a run for their money, particularly Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney.  These two happen to be dynamite actors—convincing, convicting, believable, and consistently on their game.  The film offered me a sweet little reminder that children can be just as brilliant of actors when they are the right actors under the proper direction rather than just cute faces.

As a science-fiction mystery, the film couldn’t be more entertaining.  If one is quick to dismiss this as a high-profile director’s attempt to simply replicate an idol’s bread-and-butter style of filmmaking, then so what?  Everyone sits around and complains: “They just don’t make them like they used to.”  Abrams has stepped up where other directors have shied away and delivered a movie that audiences can get wrapped up in and fall in love with.  Sure, Super 8 has obvious similarities to E.T. and several other films, but I can’t fault Abrams for wanting to rekindle a dying flame.  With this feature he has brought a heavy dose of spirit and magic back to cinema without beating audiences over the head with repetitive bass-booming action and special effects.  He kindly reminds us that is never what it’s been about.  Cinema has always been about telling good stories and utilizing the best possible resources at hand to do so.  Abrams effectively demonstrates that the soul is not lost from a megawatt blockbuster, at least not while he’s making movies.  Rather than a monster showcase giving up all details (a monster that is slowly but surely revealed), Spielberg and Abrams have us consider looking up at the sky in wonder as they do the same.  If you are going to see one movie this season, make it Super 8.




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Lost: Season 3

Lost Season 3Warning: this review most likely contains spoilers, depending on how much of the show you have seen. Read at your own risk…

The second season of everyone’s favorite Gilligan’s Island-meets-The Matrix drama left off with several unexplained questions and one doozy of a cliffhanger.  And though Season 3 addresses a precious few of the lingering issues, by the end we are left with even more unexplained riddles and lingering problems.  So much so that the show begins to walk a fine line between engaging drama and self-parody, as the near-ridiculous heights to which the drama gets ratcheted are sometimes too outlandish to be taken seriously.  But through it all is a solid yarn of character-based dramatic storytelling that keeps things from spinning entirely out of control, and keeps the interest level high enough to hold the interest of even the most impatient of viewers.

Whereas the first season was mostly exposition, introducing us to the characters, their backstories, and the island, the second season went a great deal farther into what was actually happening on the island.  We were introduced to the Dharma Initiative, the Hatch, the Others, and the mystery behind characters like the french woman was swept away.  But Season 3 takes things in a different direction, as the group of survivors is now fragmented physically as well as interpersonally.  Sawyer, Jack, and Kate are imprisoned by the Others, and the rest of the Oceanic 815 survivors get by as best they can without their leader while also trying to rescue their friends.  Much of the first several episodes deal with the Others, who become much more humanized and less like faceless evildoers.  In fact, if there is a theme to Season 3 it would be the pulling back of the curtain, as some of the mysteries about the Others are found to have perfectly normal and rational explanations.  Even the mysterious smoke monster becomes more understandable, and we learn of its limitations as well.

Lost: John Locke

John Locke, not taking "no" for an answer.

One reason the series has always worked well is that the dramatic tension is a natural extension of the characters and their situations.  In Season 1, we wanted to know who these people were and how they were going to survive.  Season 2 furthers this idea by introducing new conflicts and revealing more about larger issues like the Dharma Initiative.  But Season 3, partly due to the compressed time frame (the events of the entire season only span a few weeks’ time on the island), tends to fall back on some relatively cheap 24-like tactics to hold viewer interest.  Watching Jack engage in yet another shouting match with Ben, or having an endless stream of people being held at gunpoint unless so-and-so does such-and-such, or ending episodes with cheap cliffhangers tends to deviate from the spirit of the show.  It’s not bad, just unnecessary, and possibly a response to somewhat downward trends in ratings too. (The first episode of Season 3 had almost 19 million viewers.  By the end it was down to just under 14 million.)  What is a travesty, though, is the killing off of some characters, both long- and short-term, that started near the end of Season 2 and continues here as well.  Killing off a beloved individual just to up the ratings or stymie a case of writer’s block is cheap, and it’s sad to see Lost treading down this path.

One of the biggest issues I have with the show is how characters just never give a straight answer to anything.  It seems as though many of the conflicts, problems, and deaths could be easily avoided if Ben and his friends sat down with Jack and the survivors and calmly explained what in the world was going on.  Even the most simplest of questions are met with enigmatic answers followed by a quick fade to the title card or a commercial break.  I still trust that the writers know what they are doing, but there are a couple times when it seems like the reason Jack or Sawyer can’t get a straight answer out of Ben or Juliet is because the show creators don’t even know what’s going on.

Lost: Hurley

Remember Hurley's all-important "numbers" from Season 2? Neither do the writers of the show...

However, when the show gets it right, it really gets it right.  Ben emerges as one of the more complex and characters in recent television, and the exploration of what is really going on with the island becomes thoroughly compelling. Character flashbacks continue to add new levels of depth to Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Hurley, and the rest of the core gang, and Desmond’s penchant for predictions is pretty potent as well.  There is even one character who kicks the bucket right at the bitter end, but in a meaningful and perhaps even inspirational fashion.  The budget is clearly bigger than ever before too, which means we are treated to grandiose sets, large explosions, and a lot more sheer grandeur than before.  The downside to all this?  Some characters are left behind, and by the end of the season if we didn’t have the occasional group shot to remind us of the 40-odd people on the island, one would think the survivors were limited solely to a mere handful of misplaced good-looking mid-20’s SoHo dwellers.

Lost is still one of the best shows on TV, and its rich blend of science fiction, drama, and mystery remain almost as compelling as ever.  But a few cracks are beginning to show around the seams by the end of Season 3, and I just hope things improve a little for the next go-round.


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Star Trek

This review isn’t exactly timely, as Star Trek was released in theatres over six months ago, but having just watched it for the fifth time (four times in the theatre, once at a friend’s house a few nights ago), I think it’s high time we had a writeup of one of the best science fiction movies in years here on Walking Taco.

My history with Star Trek dates back nearly twenty years: the first episode I remember seeing was Final Mission, with my cousins Jason and Nathan at their home in Saint Louis when I was only about ten years ago.  Since that young age I have been hooked on Star Trek, not just for its portrayal of science fiction, but for the characters.  The genius of Gene Roddenberry’s creation lies not in fantastic tales of starships exploring the galaxy, but in using that backdrop as a canvas to paint a tapestry of human interactions and as a way of exploring the human condition in 45-minute chunks every week.  Several spinoffs and ten movies later, it’s this core strength of Star Trek that keeps it relevant in a world where many of the futuristic gadgets and fiction elements of the series are now most decidedly fact.

Part of Star Trek movie lore is that the even-numbered movies are generally the best:  Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, Undiscovered Country, and First Contact are the better of the celluloid-based incarnations of the series.  The cycle was broken…no, entirely blown away, with Star Trek Nemesis, though, a film that debuted at #2 on its opening weekend, next to Maid in Manhattan.  Yes, any time a movie series opens below a Jennifer Lopez movie, you know there’s trouble.  And so the series stagnated, and after seven years it was time for a reboot–not only of the franchise, but of the entire Star Trek timeline as a whole.  Star Trek (no subtitle this time, folks) is a reinvention of the franchise that turns everything we know about Trek on its head, while staying true to the core concepts so deeply rooted in Roddenberry’s original series in such a way that most of the newer TV spinoffs and movies have never even done.  It makes Star Trek relevant again, and updates the series for a new generation of youngsters raised on the science fiction movies and TV shows that have cropped up in the wake of Star Trek, but unaware of how amazing the source material, when peeled back to its basic fundamentals, can truly be.

Spock and Kirk, reimagined for a new generation of moviegoers.

Spock and Kirk, reimagined for a new generation of moviegoers.

The movie, directed by J.J. Abrams, begins aboard the U.S.S. Kelvin, a starship out exploring during the early days of Starfleet.  Upon investigating what is described as a lightning storm in outer space, the crew realized it’s actually a black hole-type of anomaly with a giant ship emerging from it.  The commander of the ship orders the captain of the Kelvin to come over for a chat, which leaves George Kirk in charge of the Kelvin.  Shortly thereafter, the captain of the Kelvin is killed, a battle ensues, everyone abandons ship including Kirk’s pregnant wife who has just gone into labor.  But wouldn’t you know it, Kirk is the only one who can fend off the incoming torpedoes long enough to provide an escape for the exiting shuttlecraft.  Sure enough, Kirk ends up sacrificing his life for his crew, but gets just enough time to go over baby names with his wife before he kicks the bucket.  And yes, their son, born amidst the chaos of a space battle, grows up to become the famous James T. Kirk we all know and love.

Right away the movie deviates from established canon of the series, as any Star Trek fan knows Captain Kirk was born in Iowa and knew his father rather well–a fact that is actually acknowledged by the movie at one point.  But the appearance of the mysterious spaceship (which, we find out, came back from the future to prevent a planetwide catastrophe) serves to alter the history of Star Trek lore altogether.  This genius move by Abrams and co. allows them to have near-total creative freedom within the Star Trek universe–no longer constrained by what *should* happen, according to the hundreds of hours of existing Star Trek TV shows and movies, they are free to have the characters we know and love do anything they want to.  And yet Abrams

Simon Pegg does an excellent job as Scotty, the ever-frazzled chief engineer.

Simon Pegg does an excellent job as Scotty, the ever-frazzled chief engineer.

plays this mechanic with a very even hand, not having the familiar characters deviate from their expected norms, but at the same time crafting a Kirk, Spock, Uhura, and the rest of the bridge crew, who are familiar and brand new at the same time.  In fact, the actors do an amazing job of inhabiting their characters throughout the movie, especially Zachary Quinto in the role of Spock.  His every nuance is so dead-on that it’s almost as if Leonard Nimoy himself were playing the role, and when Quinto’s Spock meets up with Nimoy’s Spock at the end of the movie, it is as if we really are watching the exact same character, to the point that it hardly even seems like two different actors.

The plot is outlandish and far-fetched, but fits the tone of the movie perfectly.  Planets are destroyed, armadas are locked in combat, ships explode, people are chased by giant monsters, and in the middle of it all are two time-traveling spaceships whose existence changes the entire fabric of the universe.  And even after watching the movie five times, I am still amazed at how much action there is.  Hardly a minute goes by when there’s not a fistfight, firefight, spaceship battle, or black hole sucking in everything in its path.  But at its core, the movie is not about action, explosions, or spaceships:  it’s about a young man coming face to face with his own destiny.  It’s a retelling of the Hero Myth we have heard time and time again from infancy–a myth that is forever immortalized by Luke Skywalker staring at the twin suns of Tattoine as he contemplates what the future holds.  Indeed, Star Trek even acknowledges this with young Kirk gazing at the Enterprise while it is still under construction, pondering what lies ahead for him.  My only thought now is what lies ahead for the series, and this movie leaves me with more hope and excitement for Star Trek than I have had in quite some time.


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Rating: 5.0/5 (6 votes cast)