Friday, July 29, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

**1/2 out of ****

Star Trek has now been around for fifty years! When I was first becoming a fan of the franchise, it had a hit television show through The Next Generation and a profitable movie series featuring the original cast. Today, there hasn’t been a Star Trek show on the air in over a decade (though a new series is in development) and a reboot-style movie series featuring new actors playing the original crew living in an altered timeline has Trekkies on the fence regarding whether it’s smart enough to be worthy of the title.
There is a trade-off to the third entry known as Star Trek Beyond. Finally we have a movie with a plot that is not dependent on derivations of famous Star Trek lore. It is its own reframing of the ‘60s TV show. For me, the absence of director J.J. Abrams, who has a talent for making anything seem rich and engaging (regardless of how stupid), left a few desired qualities missing from this movie.

Don’t get me wrong. Justin Lin’s Fast and Furious-style approach captures some sights I hadn’t seen in a Trek film before. There is a wonderful collection of shots in Beyond that frame the Starship Enterprise from angles I had never seen before. There is also a Federation outpost in the form of a space city that is a gorgeous design to behold.

Still, I didn’t feel quite as transported by this Trek movie’s atmosphere (pun intended). The improvement in the screenwriting can be credited to Doug Jung and Simon Pegg whose contributions to this film help to sell its jargon through some clever explanations and hilarious quips but to describe the plot only reminds me of how many unwelcome movie clichés they indulge.

After the crew of the Enterprise finds itself split up and fending for itself on an alien world they find an ally in a rogue warrior woman (Sofia Boutella) who may be their only chance against a mysterious warlord (Idris Elba) who is trying to attack the Federation by obtaining a secret weapon in the possession of the crew.

Having yet another vengeful antagonist after a McGuffin is nothing new. Star Trek has had its share of bad guys but not all of them have been angry people with personal vendettas. Quite often, they’ve been something very alien with no concept of the threat they pose.

The movie moves a little to fast to clarify this villain's motives or find an emotional sense of pacing. With it also being the first Star Trek movie ever to be shot digitally, the overall gray look doesn't make a good case for the medium-change when compared to the bright colors in the last two movies, which also incorporated their special effects more seamlessly. I know that digital doesn't need to be low-color, but it seems to be a common trend that's infecting a lot of genres that should be utilizing elements like color to generate a fun feeling.

This has been a rocky series so far. I love the 2009 movie, even if it missed the point of the spirit of Star Trek, but it was when Into Darkness came out that I was troubled by such gorgeous production being applied to a dog-shit screenplay. It made me wonder why there was such a lack of inspiration taken from the previous film's resetting of the universe. Then I realized that everyone involved may have liked Star Trek, but not enough.

Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban and the usual players continue to have fun with their characters in the new movie, which rightfully pays its respects to the absent Leonard Nimoy - who passed before having the opportunity to show up as Spock Prime one more time - and Anton Yelchin, who finished his work playing Chekov for the third time, shortly before a tragic, fatal accident.

While I’m not particularly amazed by Star Trek Beyond, it is taking the right steps to bringing back that old Star Trek feeling. It just has so many more steps to take.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Swiss Army Man

**** out of ****

Readers, be warned: My support of this movie should be taken lightly. There is a reason why Swiss Army Man has become infamous for walkouts and pissed-off viewers. Call me a contrarian, but I was incapable of leaving the theater auditorium at any point.

Distributor A24 continues to battle against banality with the ambitiously unconventional movies they’ve acquired. While their recent release of Yorgos LanthimosThe Lobster turned me off for trying to find life in lifelessness, Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (credited as “Daniels”) have made an emotional testament to madness in their first feature-length film and I love it.

The story’s main character is a castaway named Hank (Paul Dano) who is marooned on a small island at the beginning. In a state of surrender to his hopeless situation, he attempts suicide before finding a body (Daniel Radcliffe) washing up on the shore. In the beginning stages of decomposition, the body is releasing flatulence and Hank gets the idea that it has enough buoyancy and propulsion emitting from its rear-end to function as a speedboat, which he successfully rides to the shore of a greater landmass.

Still with me?

After dragging the body to the safety of a cave during a rainstorm, Hank realizes that it also has the ability to dispense the fresh water it’s absorbed like a faucet. After Hank engages in enough one-sided conversations, the body begins to talk back with a slow drawl. Assuming the name of Manny, a man with no memories or understanding of the world, the body coaxes Hank, through incessant questions, on the details of life, humanity and existence.

Hank continues dragging his new useful friend Manny along on the search for civilization while feeling forced to reveal his deepest thoughts and feelings, from the motivating glory of John Williams’ Jurassic Park theme, to haunting stories of masturbation.

Now let me put all of this in context. The movie stages interactions between Hank and Manny in a way that is so ludicrous, that the whole experience could be interpreted as the life of a mind that is trying to cope with solitude and survival. Instead of a tiger named Richard Parker or volleyball named Wilson, our hero is projecting all his personal dwellings on life through the unflattering vessel of a corpse he’s named Manny.

The performances show real devotion and the filmmaking manages to capture more rich beauty out of these happenings than one might expect. The gorgeous Northern California locations (including Sequoia National Park) are captured with excellent cinematography and the bizarre acapella score seems to recreate the way one may choose to hear grandness in their own lonesome humming. 

At the beginning I was amused that the movie was willing to commit to its idea. When the movie ended in a state of early-eighties Spielbergian glory without ever having abandoned its premise, I was laughing very hard in a state of disbelief. Someone let this happen.

Swiss Army Man finds a line between earnest human expression and flat-out nihilism as it farts against the waves of normalcy but embraces the beauty of cinema all the same. The movie is a giant life-affirming prank of a film. Thinking of how much it may have angered people makes me like it even more.

You made the right decision in reading more than just the star-rating in this review, so think it over before going to see a movie featuring a rotting magical dead guy who may taint your memory of “the boy who lived.”

Thursday, June 30, 2016


*** out of ****

It’s been too long since the childhood experience of my sister and I on each side of my mom as she read The BFG to remember its story. Seeing the new film version directed by Steven Spielberg working from a screenplay adapted by the late Melissa Mathison brought back the captivating atmosphere and the characters I remembered, but the story felt as fresh and strange as anything to be expected from the great children’s novelist Roald Dahl, when revisiting his work as an adult.

It is the story of a child taken from her unhappy orphanage existence to a mystical hidden land where giants live, who are mean and stupid man-eaters - aside from her captor, the bullied runt giant who prefers treating everyone and everything with kindness when he isn’t tending to his work in concocting dreams in the form of vaporous potions that he spreads to humans at nighttime. The girl decides to call him "Big Friendly Giant."

As the movie went along, I felt surprised that it was one of Spielberg’s. This is the kind of children’s material full of such bizarre fantasy, that it seems more suited to the likes of Terry Gilliam, Guillermo Del Toro or even Wes Anderson (when considering his work on Fantastic Mr. Fox). Compared to other family films Spielberg has done in the past, this exists somewhere different than the relatable emotion of E.T. or the pandering melodrama of Hook (or worse: his segment in Twilight Zone: The Movie). This movie is about dreams and the whole experience feels like a big weird dream unburdened by reality.

I’ve often made the case that Spielberg isn’t as stylistically redundant as he seems and likes to try new approaches. This movie seems to be picking up where he left off when he and Peter Jackson collaborated on the underappreciated comic-book-come-to-life, Tintin, by utilizing the surreal potential of motion-capture animation again - only this time merging it with live-action filmmaking. Disney’s been doing this in a lot of their so-called live-action films lately, but Spielberg has a better grasp in keeping the simulated content and filmed content on the same page.

His amazing find in the young actress Ruby Barnhill works with imaginative chemistry against Mark Rylance’s digitized magnificence in the title role. The various esteemed actors who lend their talents to small roles also add richness to a story that isn’t very investing by itself. It’s the attention to Dahl’s details, which allows this movie to work.

I see a big risk in Disney and Walden Media releasing a slow-paced quirky family film in the middle of the heat of the summer. Don’t these two parties remember what happened in 2008 when they tanked the Narnia franchise by releasing its second entry in late spring? There’s something about warm magical fantasy films and cold weather that go together like black coffee and a sweet doughnut.

I do wish this film the best. It’s one very imaginative story that goes in crazy directions but may lose the attention of less patient viewers. If you’ve seen Time Bandits, Spirited Away or The Boxtrolls, then you should know what kind of movie to expect. 

Independence Day: Resurgence

**1/2 out of ****

Talking about the sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence, opens up a whole other issue regarding the value of the original 1996 blockbuster. Was Independence Day a bad movie due to its two-dimensional characters, brainless story and generic alien concepts or was it a great movie for sharing a dream of world unity with potent cinematic emotion and some of the most exciting special effects sequences to ever to be projected on the big screen?

When the original film was released, it was a hit with audiences but not so much with critics. At age fifteen, I certainly thought it was one of the most amazing experiences I’d ever had at the movies. 1983’s Return of the Jedi” was the last time anyone had seen such an endless array of miniatures and explosions being simultaneously combined on the screen while accompanied by beautiful melodramatic music to match.

It came at a beautiful time when decades of refinement in the art of practical effects found a temporary ally in the newly proven abilities of computer-generated imagery. This was also a time when special effects were still special and this movie’s imagery caused jaws to drop, whether people were seeing a clip of it on TV or watching the movie on a giant screen in booming THX.

Twenty years later, I still find the film to be uniquely beautiful regardless of how brainless it is, but I would have never wanted a sequel for it. The original was an epic about mankind triumphing over annihilation and there is absolutely no call for another chapter to the story.
I guess this mega-budget monster of a hit didn't get its sequel back then because prevailing minds weren't greedy or shameless enough.

Now it's the year 2016 and while we're collectively recovering from the black-lung we got from Batman v Superman before holding our breath for the flood of digital slime in the reboot of Ghostbusters, the needless idea of a sequel to one of the dumbest fun movies ever, is in theaters -and boy is it dumb. Strangely though, I still enjoyed it a little. I certainly laughed quite a bit.  
To its credit as a sequel, they actually devised some great ideas. I love that the alien attacks of the last film resulted in the whole world being united and the two-decades that passed have resulted in a progressively futuristic alternate 2016. When you look at how real life disasters have only influenced separation in the real world, this is quite a desirable fantasy. Some further development on the motivation of the aliens is pretty good too.

Ultimately it is a losing sequel because once the aliens return with a cataclysmic boom, it never takes a minute to let feelings set in or have composers Harold Kloser and Thomas Wanker provide a score as powerful as David Arnold’s. Returning director Roland Emmerich (whose reputation for brainless disaster movies hasn’t improved in the past two decades) continues to invent situations that should challenge any audience member’s notions of what our planet cannot survive. Maybe Emmerich doesn't care and finds this whole thing funny. I did.

This movie isn’t helped by the inexplicable absence of Will Smith’s hero character, but it gains a lot of deliberate laughs through the inexplicable continuation of Brent Spiner’s Area 51 scientist –who was presumed dead in the last film. Bill Pullman’s hammed-up performance as the traumatized former President is unintentionally one of the funniest aspects to the film. Jeff Goldblum’s continued role as the neurotic genius with a knack for rationalizing nonsense also continues to inspire smiles. The weirdest aspect to the film is a bad subplot involving Judd Hirsch’s character who couldn’t be denied from coming back, considering that the man doesn’t look like he’s aged a day since the last movie.

The film also attempts a passing of the torch to a younger generation that so many of these sequels-of-late are attempting - some more effectively than others. Maika Monroe, Jessie T. Usher, and Liam Hemsworth all represent a young generation, which lost a lot of parents and have good introductions but the movie only vaguely develops their motivations as new heroes.

If you experienced the original as I did in '96, don't expect that impact here, but you knew that. Movies are crammed with special effects now and they only leave an impression when they don't look terrible (This movie varies in that regard) or contain enough shots with no effects at all - if only to add a little contrast.

Simply put, the legacy of Independence Day is not improved by a guilty-pleasure sequel, worthy of a view at the drive-in, but when I watched the first film on a newly re-mastered Blu-ray recently, its magnificence was in no way lessened.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

IN RETROSPECT: Matinee (1993)

"You think grown-ups have it all figured out? That's just a hustle, kid. Grown-ups are making it up as they go along, just like you. You remember that, and you'll do fine."
-Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) in Matinee

Those partial to famous director names may have already forgotten Joe Dante by now. While the director currently sits in the outskirts of filmmaking, far away from Hollywood's big investments, he spent the 1980s and the 1990s as a well-liked director-for-hire. Dante started as one of many Roger Corman protégés, learning the importance of budget efficiency, which sent him on a path to B-movie horror before he caught the attention of Steven Spielberg and major studios, who set him up with Gremlins and a career in dark family entertainment.

Dante's filmography has so much in common with Tim Burton's, that their work, which takes so much inspiration from classic horror films, could easily be confused. Innerspace was just as funny as its special effects were mesmerizing, his segments in the sketch comedy film Amazon Women on the Moon were among the best parts, Gremlins 2 was an underrated prank of a sequel, The 'Burbs put a brilliant slapstick twist on the paranoid thriller genre, but it was 1993's Matinee that most likely allowed this director to express his love for movies. In my opinion, it's his masterpiece.

Written by Charlie Haas, this comedy revolves around the release of an atomic-mutation-themed B-horror movie due for an early screening in Key West during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Told mostly from the perspective of an adolescent movie fan (Simon Fenton) in a Navy family that has recently settled in the Florida town before it goes into panic, the film's nostalgia for bad monster movie escapism and its relationship with real-life anxieties adds so much meaning to the hilarious nonsense of the period.

The opportunistic Hollywood filmmaker (John Goodman) revels in the possibility of a shook-up community being the ideal audience to prove his film's value to a distributor (played by the late Jesse White). 

The film within the film, is called Mant! - about a man transforming into a giant ant after an dental X-ray mishap. Like the showmanship of William Castle films during that time, the movie is filled with corny audience participation gimmicks.

While Matinee's marketing focused on Goodman's star-power, the story focuses on the coming-of-age experiences of the young characters. The main kid has been moving around for most of his life and taking his easily scared younger brother (Jesse Lee Soffer) along to see monster movies has been the only constant in his personal activities.

Strangely, it is the nuclear scare that brings about a social life for this kid when most of the boys at school learn that his father is on one of the blockade ships and regard him as a military insider (even though he's just as in the dark). He also develops a crush on a rebellious liberal schoolmate (Lisa Jakub) who sees in him a boy who just wants his father to return home safely.

The movie also features an array of fun characters, such as the filmmaker's hilariously jaded starlet/girlfriend (Cathy Moriarty). There's also a girl-crazy student (Omri Katz) with a crush on a naive dream-girl (Kellie Martin) but must overcome the threats of her delinquent greaser ex-boyfriend (James Villemaire) who ineptly spouts off his own bad brand of beat poetry with delusions of profundity.

There are also Joe Dante regulars sprinkled throughout the cast, such as Dick Miller, who, along with Dante's former collaborator - director John Sayles, play a couple of demonstrators, seemingly protesting against the amorality of Mant! Belinda Balaski is a melodramatic mother with confidence in the duck-and-cover motto, and Robert Picardo steals as the theater's anxious owner.

Dante's knack for making movies within movies is exercised better in Matinee than any of his other films. The briefly shown, The Shook-Up Shopping Cart stars Dante regular Archie Hahn and a young Naomi Watts in what resembles a 1960s live-action technicolor Disney film. Mant! dominates the final act of Matinee, where events at the movie premier are intercut with the silly black-and-white B-movie being projected on the screen, which features uncredited veteran stars Robert Cornthwaite, William Schallert and Kevin McCarthy.

I originally saw Matinee as a kid when it first hit video after an unsuccessful theatrical run. At age 12, I didn't think much of it, but in my early adult years which included a lot of time seeing movies and working a movie theater, I revisited the movie and found that, along with Cinema Paradiso, it is one of the very best movies about people who see movies.

In appreciation for standards that still existed in movies of the '90s Dante's style contains lengthy -but not showy takes with deep focus wide angle cinematography to compliment ensemble acting where every actor hits their beats beautifully. This is even true of the less-experienced kid actors. Jerry Goldsmith's score also reminds me of an era when seasoned composers were turning out great orchestral music for just about anything.

The film's comic nostalgia may take a few easy jabs at ridiculous attitudes of another time, but it serves to remind us that we always have some ill-informed fear of disaster or how to save ourselves from it. We also strangely make movies about these things for our own perverse entertainment. 

Goodman's character is a glorified fear profiteer who believes that a movie can scare an audience with world-ending terror, but when it's over they go through those exit doors back to a world that may be troubled, but it's still standing. I wish I had his job.