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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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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Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs

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‘Ice Age’ has been good to Fox Studios and serviceable to audiences.  The first film was solid entertainment, the second installment a major bore, and the latest entry again decent. That’s the best compliment I can give it. As a distraction for kids, ‘Dawn of the Dinosaurs’ is better than ‘The Meltdown’ for a few reasons.

The storyline is stronger. Sid (John Leguizamo) stumbles upon three seemingly abandoned eggs beneath the ice surface and takes them to raise as his own. Out hatches three baby dinosaurs and they wreak havoc for Manny (Romano) and Ellie (Latifah) who are expecting their first youngin. When Mama T-Rex comes back for her three babies, Sid is whisked away to a jungle world beneath the ice and it’s up to Manny and team to bring him back with the help of newcomer ‘Buck,’ (the one character that doesn’t work) a swashbuckling, dinosaur-hunting weasel on a continual quest to bring down the greatest dino of them all.

The second pro: it seems as though more screen time was given to Scrat the squirrel and a new sub-plot involving a romance with Scratte, his female counterpart. Scrat’s scenes have always been the best in the series, and it’s proven even further with this sequel.i3

Final pro: Yes. This one’s in 3-D – and not a pointless 3-D. This is where 3-D sells an otherwise average movie. Pixar’s ‘Up’ didn’t need it. ‘Ice Age 3’ really puts it to use and blends the splendid animation with a surrounding landscape, and it all comes together very well. If you’re at all interested in seeing it with those goofy glasses on, more power to you — this is a strong selling point for the movie.  And, at the end of the day, I have to recommend this. It works far better than the last movie, and there’s worse animated fodder that has been released in the past. The movie is short, lively, superbly animated, in a strong 3-D format, sporadically humorous, and a solid choice for kids.  No, it’s not quite as good as ‘Up.’  It’s not Pixar. But what else is, really?

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