Friday, July 29, 2016

Star Trek: Beyond (2016) ***

Star Trek: Beyond, third film in the reboot series, does a great job of honoring the tradition of the long running series with engaging characters, idealistic themes, and exciting action.  The members of the new cast have grown comfortably into their roles, keeping the franchise vibrant and relevant.

The film opens with the U.S.S. Enterprise in the third year of its mission, with Kirk and his crew getting restless, even bored, in their travels through space.  Spock is considering leaving Starfleet to devote his life to rebuilding Vulcan culture.  Meanwhile, Kirk considers taking a desk job.  Desperate for a challenging mission, the crew answers a distress call coming from a distant part of the galaxy where they discover a dangerous threat to the Federation.

Idris Elba, in heavy makeup as the villain Krall, may not be the most memorable Star Trek antagonist of all time, but his compelling backstory warranted more screen time.

Gene Roddenberry's original concept imagined the United Federation of Planets as an alliance dedicated to exploration and promoting peace, envisioning a future where humanity had overcome its violent tendencies, although those tendencies never completely disappeared, a conflict that always defined Star Trek

The search for purpose and meaning adds a timely philosophical component to Star Trek: Beyond.  At the current moment, the United States is searching for purpose in an acrimonious election year, agonizing over two differing ideas of how the country should proceed into the future. 

In the film Kirk and crew, by sticking to their basic principles and staying dedicated to each other's well being, all learn something about themselves and what to do with their futures. 

Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the script, gave all the cast members substantial roles. Chris Pine's a natural as Kirk and Quinto's tragic version of Spock builds upon the work by Leonard Nimoy.  

Director Justin Lin, a newcomer to the series, did a great job of balancing character and story development.  Unlike the J.J. Abrams directed films Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013), there was less of a need to directly homage previous Star Trek.

With Star Trek celebrating its 50th Anniversary and a new TV show set to debut in January, Star Trek: Beyond is a worthy edition to one of the pillars of modern Science Fiction.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Ghostbusters *1/2 (2016)

The new Ghostbusters movie epitomizes the problem with so many Hollywood movies in 2016:  the entire enterprise gets lost between trying to stay loyal to the original film , while attempting to deliver a new twist to a moldy franchise. A fail on both counts. Shoddy CGI effects + a milquetoast script = forgettable.

The all female recasting of the Ghostbusters seemed a fresh starting point for a remake, a great way to re-imagine the 1984 classic. The new cast of Krtisten Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones are all talented, but have no chemistry whatsoever. Everyone's doing their own shtick. How many times must Kristen Wiig get slimed?  How many food jokes at the expense of McCarthy?  

As for the plot, there isn't much of one.  Each scene plays more like a prolonged SNL sketch rather than a cinematic film.  Wiig is a Physics professor close to getting tenure until her supervisors discover she once wrote a book on paranormal studies with former colleague McCarthy, who works at a lesser college in New York City along with Holtzman (McKinnon) as her research assistant.

I'm not sure what to make of McKinnon's character: Is she simply eccentric?  Or does she have a personality disorder? Are we supposed to laugh at her because she is socially awkward? It's never clear.  

In fact the tone of the whole movie feels like audiences are supposed to laugh at the female Ghostbusters because they see the world differently and are therefore "weird," instead of laughing with them as hip outsiders with unique world views. 

They are joined by Patty (Jones), a New York subway worker, a character reduced to delivering sitcom ready one liners. She's rarely a part of the action, just comments on it.

Cameos from the original cast fall flat as well.  Why did Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Ernie Hudson not reprise their old characters?  Why no changing of the guard scene? Their token appearances feel forced, like pleasantries you would exchange with remote relatives.  And that's never a good time.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

30 for 30: Believeland 2016 **** (for Cleveland Fans)

The victory of the 2015-2016 Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA finals marked the end of a long drought for Cleveland fans everywhere. The ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Believeland recently aired with a new epilogue following the Cavalier victory. The long history of glorious defeats in Cleveland history, defeats that paralleled the economic decline of the city by the lake, are all covered in their painful detail.

For the first half of the 20th Century, Cleveland personified American industrialism and prosperity. In 1964 the Browns won the NFL championship 27-0 over the Baltimore Colts with legendary Jim Brown leading the way, a dynasty appeared in the making. However, Brown retired to pursue a film career and the Browns stepped aside to watch their arch-rival Pittsburgh Steelers rule the 70s.

I imagine living in Cleveland during the 1970s to be a sometimes frightening and often surreal trip, a post- industrial metropolis on the brink of some new kind of reality. Stranger Than Paradise, the 1984 Jim Jarmusch captured the bleak mood. The American Splendor comics of Harvey Pekar told the story of an everyman trying to survive in Cleveland.  In the midst financial breakdown, the city's music scene thrived, playing a leading role in the birth of punk. Such music could only come from places like Cleveland.

Meanwhile, the sports teams languished in mediocrity.

Believeland benefits from off the wall interviews, Clevelanders putting all their feelings on the table. Former players also share their memories. 

As the big freeze of the 70s gave way to the 80s, the Browns regained their footing only to lose the big game in dramatic fashion time and time again. Red Right 88. The Drive. The Fumble. Those phrases conjure tragic images for Cleveland fans.  Growing up I remember watching VHS tapes of these games over and over and hoping for a different outcome, revisiting the moment of trauma.

By the 90s the city underwent a renaissance with a new baseball stadium and the Indians became a winning team.  The 1995 squad won 100 games and the AL pennant behind a potent offense.  In 1997 they came within two outs of winning the World Series, only to blow it once again in grand Cleveland style. Many started to lose their faith.

Then the Browns left town in 1995, in perhaps the most cruel blow of all to Cleveland fans. When the Browns were revived in 1999, a comedy of errors ensued.

But there's a happy ending.

The Cavaliers won the 2003 NBA draft lottery and acquired Lebron James of Akron, already declared the chosen one by Sports Illustrated. And James did not disappoint, quickly rising to superstardom and taking the Cavs to the NBA finals in 2007.  Yet fans felt betrayed again in 2010 when Lebron left Cleveland for the Miami Heat, leading them to two world championships.

After sustaining a barrage of criticism from Clevelanders, James returned to his hometown in 2014 to make things right.  

Believeland does a great job of capturing the spirit of a city. Amazing archival footage adds an authenticity to the film.  Could the Cavalier championship mean a change of fortune? Who knows, but for many people, after June 19, 2016 the future suddenly looked much brighter.  

Monday, July 11, 2016

The BFG **1/2 (2016)

The BFG, the summer release of 2016 everyone is talking about and no one is going to see. 

Based on Roald Dahl's book and a script by E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison, The BFG will be remembered as a minor entry is Spielberg's canon. I'm sure Spielberg fanatics will watch The BFG and conclude he went back to the well, a redux of E.T. and Hook.  I would agree.

The story follows Sophie, an orphan girl abducted by a "Big Friendly Giant" into his magical land. Played by Mark Rylance, who won a best supporting Oscar for Spielberg's Bridge of Spies last year, manages to capture some humanity in a CGI performance. Sophie helps the BFG get the courage to stand up for himself.  Big bully giants give him a hard time. Their friendship is the crux of the film, but it never quite hits the right emotional note. They never become soul mates like Elliot and ET, it's more of an imaginary friend type dynamic.

And the story takes some odd turns. First we are introduced to the BFG's world and the ogre giants who inhabit it. The middle section just meanders into some false conclusions. Then the last act shifts to straight up slapstick comedy, even some unfortunate scatological humor. 

In saying that, I should keep in mind Spielberg made the movie for children. The kids in the theater seemed to have a good time with The BFG.  And after watching such drivel as Independence Day: Resurgence, I appreciate a movie made with the care and vision of a true artist. 

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Free State of Jones *** (2016)

Matthew McConaughey stars as Newton Knight, an ex-confederate soldier who led an anti-southern army of insurgents in Mississippi during and after the Civil War. Newton's army waged class warfare on the plantation landowners, who they blamed for the costly war and the ingrained racism plaguing the country. Way too many historical films go to great lengths to dumb down the past, but The Free State of Jones offers something rare- complexity.

The opening battle sequence illustrates the horror of Civil War battle. Serving as a nurse, Newton is a witness to the carnage and must part in barbaric amputation operations. After suffering a personal loss Newton deserts the army and returns to Jones County Mississippi where he must live in hiding (desertion entailed the death penalty).

In time a community coalesces around escaped slaves and former confederates. They wage war on the plantation owners and take over the county, Robin Hoods of the Civil War I suppose. They come to realize their shared humanity and overcome the barriers that separate them. Of course, the Southern land owners had a strong stake in keeping poor whites at odds with African-American slaves.

The Free State of Jones makes for a strong counterpoint to Gone With the Wind, a film invested in the "Lost Cause" narrative, the idea the Southern fight was honorable in the face of Northern aggression. Slaves were treated well and content with their station, Southern culture was superior to the North etc . . .

In saying that, The Free State of Jones is a bit overlong, especially during a plodding middle section. But it does maintain a compelling tone, a combination of tragedy and hope.

McConaughey delivers an outstanding performance as usual. Mahershala Ali and Gugu Mbatha-Raw give poignant supporting performances as African-Americans struggling for their freedom after the war. 

As NY Times critic A.O. Scott pointed out, there's a much welcome anti-authoritarian message the film. In contrast to superhero movies where Captain America or Batman takes it upon themselves to protect the helpless masses. Here the people come together in community to effect change. No one waits for a hero to show up - they take action on their own terms.

The Free State of Jones may not be the summer fare audiences expect, but it does offer depth and a perceptive look at American history.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Shallows (2016) **1/2

As a summertime diversion The Shallows gets the job done well enough. A breath of fresh air after the stultifying Independence Day: Resurgence. A minimal story of survival, nothing more and nothing less. Medical student Nancy goes on vacation in Mexico to pay tribute to her mom.  She arrives at an isolated beach where she surfs with a few guys, but keeps testing the waves after they leave.  Then a shark appears.  That's the setup.  Blake Lively does fine work in a physically grueling performance. Also, we get the best performance in film history from a seagull (outside of The Birds). Director Jaume Collet-Serra paced the film well and builds up a reasonable level of suspense. When the shark does appear it's hard not to think of Jaws. CGI sharks just don't carry the same weight as a clunky mechanical one. Anyway, don't go surfing by yourself at the beach.  And never separate yourself from your phone - they need to make those things waterproof.  Not necessarily breaking new ground, The Shallows does recall great summer movies from the past.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Knightriders *** (1981)

Few are familiar (including myself) with George Romero's work outside the zombie genre he invented with the 1968 horror film Night of the Living Dead (and way too many folks ripped off). Knightriders from 1981 takes an ingenious idea: a riff on Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court set in 1980s America. In a twist he reverses the roles in Knightriders: King Arthur himself is alienated with American culture. Ed Harris, in his first starring role, is perfectly believable as a modern day Arthurian hero. He leads a motorcycle gang who combine jousting with motorcycle racing.  Sounds like a crazy idea for a movie but it works. With a variety of colorful characters, Knightriders combines character study, mythological tropes, social satire, and amazing stunts. I have a soft spot for stories with characters who feel out of place in their time period and that's a big part of the charm of Knightriders.  It helps to overlook the flaws. The juxtaposition of the Knights regal culture with beer guzzling, sloppily dressed Americans says enough in itself (don't miss a cameo from Stephen King). A unique and entertaining film with plenty of surprises.

Joy (2015) ***

Joy may be David O. Russell's own unique take on The Godfather. The premise of the film asks whether a woman can survive in the dog eat dog world of business. Loosely based on the life of Home Shopping entrepreneur Joy Mangano, Jennifer Lawrence stars as "Joy." Upon further research I discovered the script also took inspiration from the lives of other notable women who succeeded in the business world.

Joy's overbearing father played by Robert De Niro continually undermines and condescends to her at every given opportunity.  A divorced mother, Joy works menial jobs and seems to be going nowhere in her life. One day she gets the idea of building a mop that can be sopped automatically.  Her ex-husband gets her an audition with a fledgling home shopping network called QVC. Bradley Cooper plays the founder of QVC and becomes a mentor to Joy. In his few scenes Cooper leaves a lasting impression, although they feel like a separate movie.

Russell's flamboyant direction never gets boring, just exhausting.  His use of overlapping dialogue channels a heightened realism, much in the style of Robert Altman and the screwball comedies of the 1930s. Obviously, Russell loves actors and puts character development above story. I can get behind that.

Lawrence carries the film well enough in her third collaboration with Russell. I hope she branches out and works with other directors - she seems a bit weary by the end of the film. 

Joy, an old fashioned rags to riches story, is well worth seeing. A movie about actual real people seems more and more a rarity these days.  Like American Hustle, a movie I did not like at first, Russell's films tend to improve with each viewing.  He's really drawn to characters who use cunning and intelligence to survive in a hostile world, a mirror of being a director in Hollywood? Or is there an undercurrent of cynicism present?