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)

Death at a Funeral (2010)

I sat through Neil LaBute’s attempt at reincarnating the British farce “Death at a Funeral” (which I hadn’t seen prior), and I can only imagine that fans of the original film are either outraged or easy to dismiss the Americanized version that has been tailored to fit the Tyler Perry crowd.  Overall, I have little to say about the movie.  It has a major ensemble cast, and not any one of the actors (including: Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Danny Glover, Luke Wilson, Zoe Saldana, Tracy Morgan, and James Mardsen) had a genuine moment in the entire film, and perhaps that is why about five minutes after it was over, it is hard to revisit any of the movie’s events.

The story centers on Chris Rock’s character, Aaron, preparing for the funeral of his father at his own home.  His entire family will be reunited for the ceremony, and Aaron is nervous about his prepared eulogy, as everyone expects his younger brother (Martin Lawrence) Ryan, the professional author, to do the honor.  The plot kicks into motion due to Zoe Saldana’s boyfriend character, Oscar (James Mardsen) , mistaking a cocaine/acid pill for Valium which causes him to hallucinate and make a scene throughout the afternoon, which includes him opening the father’s casket during the ceremony, and tipping it over—spilling his body onto the floor.  Eventually, Aaron finds more trouble in the form of Frank (Peter Dinklage, of the 2007 version as well), a dwarf on a mission to expose a shocking secret about Aaron’s father unless he receives a hefty payment.  Other chaotic events surround and multiply, putting Aaron at the center, including Ryan’s inability to pay his share of the funeral costs.  All the right elements for a great stage play farce are here, but the movie simply can’t deliver.

Perhaps I’m not exactly fond of any of the comedic talents here, but that shouldn’t matter.  Even if I’ve never found Rock, Lawrence, or Morgan to be all that hilarious, the movie should be about the farce, and the chaos of events that take place.  But I never found myself included in the mayhem.  I observed one-note characters and a handful of big-name actors going through the paces of tired situational comedy, and I didn’t buy any of it—especially once the final eulogy is delivered, the scene couldn’t be more forced and awkward.  Not one plot turn or gag had enough shock, surprise, or wit to fuel my interest, and so this remake left me feeling decidedly blah and unmoved to the core.

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Rating: 4.5/5 (2 votes cast)


‘King of the World’ James Cameron rises back from the depths of the sea after his “Titanic” success twelve years ago to deliver one of the most epic films of all time with “Avatar.”

Let’s get the main two questions out of the way: Is it a good movie?  Heck yes.  Is it a game-changing film that will transform movies forever? Well, possibly.  But can any film really do that?  On a technical level, movies can always advance special effects and what can be accomplished as far as the limits of imagination and reality go.  And to its credit, Cameron’s imagination graces every expensive frame of this movie to an unbelievably believable effect.

I’ve heard much complaining about the simplicity and cliche of his storyline.  I’m at a loss to understanding the reasoning of such complaints.  ‘Avatar’ presents a classic Pocahontas narrative.  In 2154, the American government dispatches a high-tech military unit to ransack the planet of Pandora in an effort to obtain a valuable mineral deposit.  The problem?  An indigenous race of humanoid Na’vi warriors (standing over twice the size of a human) refuse to relocate and give up the forests of their planet for human greed.  The plan?  American scientists are utilized to understand the Na’vi and negotiate a compromise.  After one of the scientists is killed in action, his twin marine brother, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, Terminator Salvation) arrives to replace him and operate a genetically-engineered and remote-controlled avatar of a Na’vi that will infiltrate their race.  The expected happens when Jake soon loses his militaristic ideals, becomes one with their race, and falls for his Na’vi counterpart, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek).

Call the plot cliche or predictable, but I found it to be the perfect setup for Cameron’s world.  Never once does the audience not know where the story is headed, but never once do they know what this incredible director will show us next.  The very world he creates rivals any other cinematic achievement in history to date.  Witnessing the incredible design of the creatures inhabiting Pandora generated serious awe for me, as they felt authentic and extremely realistic.  Even on the human side of things–all of the military equipment: the helicopters, weaponry, and human-operated tank-bots stand as incredible accomplishments in design.  Cameron has pronounced every detail of his endless visionary world.  And I haven’t even mention the 3D factor.

This is, above all things considered, the most profound and immersing use of 3D to date.  It really opens up Pandora and allows you to enter its universe.  I can’t stress enough the level of detail utilized in the film, and the 3D really eliminates all the barriers from receiving a truly monumental movie experience.  Whether or not the movie will play as well at home remains to be seen.  Even without the third-dimension factor, the visual effects still top anything Michael Bay threw at the screen this year.  The motion-capture used to create the Na’vi characters works tremendously well in capturing authentic expression and emotion.  You can actually see the faces of Sigourney Weaver, Sam Worthington, and Zoe Saldana under the layers of computer-animation.  How this was all accomplished is way beyond me, but Cameron fails to let us down after all the hype surrounding the technology he furthered to create his vision.

James Cameron may not be a storytelling genius, but the man knows what works, and he consistently tackles all of his projects with huge success and accomplishment.  ‘The Terminator,’ ‘Aliens’, ‘The Abyss,’ ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day,’ ‘True Lies’ and ‘Titanic’ (all among my favorite films) pushed the limits of filmmaking and what could be done with their budgets.  Luckily, Cameron doesn’t puke throwaway spectacle all over the screen.  He delivers something special and memorable with characters you care about and themes that are universal.  “Avatar” continues his streak as a filmmaking pioneer pushing the boundaries of technology to show audiences the limitless potential of the imagination.  This is certainly one of the best films of 2009, and one of the great movie-going experiences of all time.  Get up out of your chair, head to the multiplex, purchase a big tub of popcorn, and witness this incredible film in all its 3D glory.

-MJV & the Movies

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