Category: star trek

Sequels, Blockbusters, and Brain Trauma

Star Trek Beyond (2016):  written by Simon Pegg, Doug Jung, Roberto Orci, Patrick McKay, and John D. Payne; directed by Justin Lin; starring Chris Pine (Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock), Karl Urban (McCoy), Zoe Saldana (Uhura), Simon Pegg (Scotty), John Cho (Sulu), Anton Yelchin (Chekov), Idris Elba (Krall), and Sofia Boutella (Jaylah): The jolliest, most Trek-like of the reboot movies — which probably explains why it’s lagging behind the first two in box office, given its relative lack of sturm-und-drang. The NuTrek cast is in fine form and the script gets in a lot of zingers and a certain amount of drama, along with the biggest Starbase we’ve ever seen. 

Director Justin Lin delivers a few too many Fast-and-Furious chasey moments, but otherwise does solid work. The movie misses its chance for a true Star Trek moment late in the game involving the villain, Krall, whom Idris Elba tries to invest with the menace the script mostly leaves out. Given Trek‘s normal box-office levels pre-reboot, Paramount really needs to find this series its own Harve Bennett before it prices itself out of existence: these need to be $100 million movies that look like $200 million movies, not the other way around. Recommended.

Concussion (2015): based on the Jeanne Marie Laskas article “Game Brain”; written and directed by Peter Landesman; starring Will Smith (Dr. Omalu), Alec Baldwin (Dr. Bates), Albert Brooks (Dr. Wecht), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Prema), and David Morse (Mike Webster): Excellent, factually solid docudrama about the unlikely doctor behind the discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in former NFL players. Will Smith returns to actually acting as African-born forensic pathologist Dr. Bennett Omalu, who encounters a whole lot of resistance from the NFL as he attempts to find an explanation for the horrifying dementia of several deceased NFL players. It’s a grim picture of football in America, perhaps never moreso than when it shows actual footage of six- and seven-year-old players engaged in full-contact games. Because you’re never too young for chronic brain trauma. Recommended.

Avatar (2009): written and directed by James Cameron; starring Sam Worthington (Jake Sully), Zoe Saldana (Neytiri), Sigourney Weaver (Dr. Augustine), and Stephen Lang (Colonel Quaritch): Dumb as a post and lovely as a 1970’s Roger Dean album cover. James Cameron understands pacing and editing to achieve dramatic effect, and he’s always utterly invested in the ideology of his own movies, no matter how much they lift from other sources (Avatar is essentially a New Age version of John Carter of Mars). When a villainous Colonel tells someone to “Shut your pie-hole!’, you know you’re in the hands of a great writer of dialogue. Still visually stunning a whole seven years after its release, and at least possessed of a pro-environmentalist message, no matter how simplistic. Recommended.

Sinister 2 (2015): written and created by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill; directed by Ciaran Foy; starring James Ransone (The Deputy), Shannyn Sossamon (Courtney Collins), Robert Sloan (Dylan Collins), and Dartanian Sloan (Zach Collins): Any and all name actors having been eradicated in the first movie (or in between the first and second movie in the case of Vincent D’Onofrio’s literally phoned-in performance in Sinister), Sinister 2 comes across as comfortably anonymous. 

That’s a good thing for some horror movies, this one included. Bughuul the demon still remains regrettably visualized from the neck down, the scary, half-glimpsed face of the early scenes of Sinister still burdened with a blazer-and-pants combo that suggest the Sumerian boogeyman just got off his yacht. But the performances by the kids are pretty good, Shannyn Sossamon has a sweet desperation to her character, and James Ransone brings a goofy charm to the hero of this one. Yet another stupid ‘stinger’ ending ruins some of my good feelings towards this movie. Stop it, horror movies. Stop it right now. In a demonstration of ‘less is more’ in horror, the scariest scene in the movie involves a ham radio. Recommended.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014): adapted by Simon Kinberg, Matthew Vaughn, and Jane Goldman from the comic-book story by Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Terry Austin; directed by Bryan Singer; starring Hugh Jackman (Wolverine), James McAvoy/Patrick Stewart (Charles Xavier), Michael Fassbender/Ian McKellan (Magneto), Jennifer Lawrence (Raven/Mystique), Ellen Page (Kitty Pryde), Peter Dinklage (Trask), Shawn Ashmore (Iceman), Halle Berry (Storm), Nicholas Hoult (Beast), Omar Sy (Bishop), Evan Peters (Quicksilver), Daniel Cudmore (Colossus), Bingbing Fan (Blink), Adan Canto (Sunspot), and Booboo Stewart (Warpath): Despite some flaws, this is the best X-Men movie, though its emotional beats will resonate a lot more if one has watched X-Men, X-Men 2, and the horrible Brett-Ratner-helmed X-Men: Last Stand. Bryan Singer keeps the acting low-key, which helps when delivering lines of sci-fi portentousness. Highly recommended.

Rodney Dangerfield and the Galactic Overmind

Back to School: written by Rodney Dangerfield, Rich Eustis, Harold Ramis, PJ Torokvei, William Porter, Steven Kampmann, Dennis Snee, and Greg Fields; directed by Alan Metter; starring Rodney Dangerfield (Thornton Melon), Sally Kellerman (Dr. Turner), Burt Young (Lou), Keith Gordon (Jason Melon), Robert Downey Jr. (Derek Lutz), and Ned Beatty (Dean Martin) (1986): Rodney Dangerfield’s star turn here made this a box-office success. It’s a surprisingly sweet-hearted comedy, utterly improbable and probably somewhat perplexing from a woman’s standpoint (why is Dangerfield’s character so attractive to women?). 

Ignore the boilerplate Hollywood sexism, though, and one can derive a lot of enjoyment out of the one-liners, the improbable situations, the physical comedy, the bizarre comic stylings of supporting actors such as Robert Downey Jr. and Sam Kinison, Dangerfield’s pop-eyed charm, and Dangerfield’s surprisingly moving reading of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” As Dangerfield’s son, Keith Gordon does a nicer version of his damned nerd in Christine; a very young Terry Farrell, 8 years away from Star Trek: Deep Space 9, plays his love interest. Recommended.

Galaxy Quest (1999): written by David Howard and Robert Gordon; directed by Dean Parisot; starring Tim Allen (Jason Nesmith), Sigourney Weaver (Gwen DeMarco), Alan Rickman (Alexander Dane), Tony Shaloub (Fred Kwan), Sam Rockwell (Guy Fleegman), Daryl Mitchell (Tommy Webber), and Enrico Colantoni (Mathesar): The best Star Trek movie that isn’t a Star Trek movie ever made. Galaxy Quest runs with an idea that’s actually been a staple of fan fiction since fan fiction came into existence in the 1970’s because of Star Trek‘s devoted fans. What if the Star Trek actors found themselves on the real Enterprise on a real mission? 

In this case, the show is Galaxy Quest, an early 1980’s sf show that riffs on both the original Trek and the Next Generation. The plot’s enough of a romp that I won’t spoil any of it. The actors are all terrific. Tim Allen is great as the self-absorbed but ultimately good-hearted William Shatner stand-in, Alan Rickman kills as a classically trained British actor forever typecast as Allen’s logical second-in-command, and Sigourney Weaver gets a lot of laughs out of a character whose sole job on the original show was to repeat what the computer said (shades of ‘Hailing frequencies open, Captain’). The marvelous Enrico Colantoni (Person of Interest, Flashpoint) appears here in a rare comic role as the leader of the aliens who seek the help of the Galaxy Quest crew. 

The visual effects are both superb and often hilarious, and the movie itself has a genuine affection for all things nerdy and geeky and science fictiony. Sam Rockwell supplies a sort of semi-hysterical running commentary on the action throughout as a former Redshirt who gets pulled into the action, while Tony Shaloub plays this show’s version of Scotty as a blissed-out pothead. Highly recommended.

Childhood’s End (2015): adapted by Matthew Graham from the 1951 novel by Arthur C. Clarke; directed by Nick Hurran; starring Mike Vogel (Ricky Stormgren), Osy Ikhile (Milo), Daisy Betts (Ellie Stormgren), and Charles Dance (Karellen): This SyFy Network miniseries does a far better job than most theatrical releases at adapting a classic science-fiction novel. Its problems, though, are all self-inflicted. 

Changes made to the original add melodrama and angst at the cost of the intellectual aspects of the production. Indeed, at no point does the miniseries explicitly state several things that are crucial to understanding Arthur C. Clarke’s unblinking look at one of the possible paths human evolution might take. If you’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, then be aware you’re in the same territory of thought as that work from Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. 

Mike Vogel does his best as a central character who has been Americanized, ruralized, and inserted into all three parts of the miniseries: the novel, also divided into three parts, takes place over several hundred years while the main action of the miniseries occupies about 20 years, with one 85-year time jump near the end that is also in the novel. Only one individual character, the alien Karellen from the race humanity knows as the Overlords, appears in all three of the parts of the novel.

For the most part, this is better science fiction than, say, The Martian (which I really liked). Childhood’s End deals with gigantic concepts and Sublime abysses of time and space, and it doesn’t change the novel’s stunner of an ending. The melodrama, though, doesn’t add anything to the narrative. More importantly, having several characters other than the alien Overlord Karellen (beautifully voiced by Charles Dance) appear throughout the narrative cuts against the novel’s emphasis on humanity as a collective protagonist over the course of the novel’s events, and not a collection of individuals. Recommended.

Staying Home

Still Mine: written and directed by Michael McGowan; starring James Cromwell (Craig Morrison), Genevieve Bujold (Irene Morrison), Campbell Scott (Gary Fulton), and George R. Robertson (Chester) (2012): Based on a true story of frustrating governmental bureaucracy in New Brunswick (Canada), Still Mine follows octogenarian James Cromwell’s attempts to build a new, one-story home on his own property so as to make caring for his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife (Genevieve Bujold) workable. If some of the bureaucratic stuff seems fictional, take note that the real-life struggle was actually more arduous.

Cromwell, a veteran character actor probably best known as the farmer in Babe and Zefrem Cochrane in Star Trek: First Contact, does marvelous work here. In an American movie with a big enough name director, it’s the sort of acting that gets an Oscar nomination. Bujold is also excellent, underplaying her descent into greater and greater silence and confusion. In her case, she’s not showy enough for an Oscar nomination.

The movie could have devoted a few more minutes to the specifics of the bureaucratic hoops Cromwell keeps getting forced to jump through — this is a relatively rare case in which exposition would help the dramatic elements. Nonetheless, the film is beautifully shot in both its long looks at landscapes and beaches and the passing of the seasons, and in recurring extreme close-ups of things one doesn’t generally see in Hollywood movies — which is to say, old faces and old bodies.

The supporting cast, mostly unknown with the exception of Campbell Scott, is excellent, low-key, and real-looking. One doesn’t realize how unreal the casts of even the most serious of American dramas look until one sees people who look real, whether in independent movies or even in Hollywood movies made prior to the 1990’s, when our genetically engineered overlords seized control of most mass-market movies and TV shows. Highly recommended.

Bash and Pop

The Purge: written and directed by James DeMonaco; starring Ethan Hawke (James Sandin), Lena Headey (Mary Sandin), Max Burkholder (Charlie Sandin), Adelaide Kane (Zoey Sandin), Edwin Hodge (Bloody Stranger), and Rhys Wakefield (Polite Leader) (2013): Efficient little dystopic pot-boiler that would probably have benefitted from having a no-name cast. Still, the actors are fine in this story of an America that purges its violent tendencies every year with 12 hours of state-sanctioned violence. Yes, it’s the Red Hour from the original Star Trek episode “The Return of the Archons.” Rich people either hide behind fancy security systems or go out hunting the poor; the poor run around and hide. The allegory is so transparent that I’m not sure it qualifies as allegory. Less than 90 minutes long, though, including credits! Huzzah! Lightly recommended.

Pacific Rim: written by Travis Beacham and Guillermo del Toro; directed by Guillermo del Toro; starring Charlie Hunnam (Raleigh Becket), Idris Elba (Pentecost), Rinko Kikuchi (Mako Mori), Burn Gorman (Gottlieb), Charlie Day (Geiszler), and Ron Perlman (Hannibal Chau) (2013): Still fun the second time around, even on the home screen. About the only problem is that on a smaller scale, a couple of the giant robot-armour fighters are virtually indistinguishable from one another in the final battle scene. Or maybe I’m just getting old. Still, pretty much the modern gold standard for giant robots punching giant monsters. Highly recommended.