Motion Pictures Reviewed: Star Trek Into Darkness

Setting all phasers to stun, J.J Abrams’ bombastic sequel to 2009’s Star Trek revamp ups the stakes, casting the now not so fresh-faced crew of the U.S.S Enterprise into a titular Darkness. Does this deep space boldly go where no one has gone before, or is it stuck in orbit over the same old content?

Keeping my fingers crossed this movie doesn’t crash and burn…

Star Trek is smart, but, man, it can be a real snoozer, too. For all its scientific credibility, expanded mythology, and hamtastic cast members, the series’ preoccupation with phaser-based space operatics have always left it playing second-string to Star Wars‘ lightsaber enhanced smorgasbords of destruction. Ever the intuitive auteur, J.J Abrams set out to reboot the franchise back in 2009 to great results: both a critical and commercial darling, Star Trek proved a cleverly reworked envisioning of the original series that pleased Trekkies and newcomers alike. Four years and a two hundred million dollar budget later, Abrams takes to the captain’s seat once more with the heavily-hyped and awesomely titled Star Trek Into Darkness.

Boldy going where they’ve all gone before.

Into Darkness finds the ever impregnable Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) doing what impregnable interstellar wunderkinds do best: saving the world(s) via increasingly daring and roguish means, a habit that puts him at the wrong end of the Starfleet’s good-side. Not helping things are Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) inability to tap into human subtlety, Dr. “Bones” McCoy’s (Karl Urban) negative Nancy-ing, and Zoe Saldana’s Uhura’s troubled love-life (dating an obsessively logical being can be a real drag…). As Kirk finds himself chewed-out of the fleet and his crew flies dangerously close to soap-opera melodrama, in comes a mysterious white guy with an English accent blowing up Starfleet assets with reckless abandon for human life. Pretty soon, Kirk and crew are back on boldly going where no one has supposedly ever gone before, zapping baddies and zipping around space in spectacular fashion.

PEW-PEW! (Chris Pine as Captain Kirk)

Hamming things up in the right way, BBC alum Benedict Cumberbatch puts on his very best annunciation face, taking every opportunity to come across like an outer-space Voldemort with giant guns and a nose. Despite admirably imbuing his character a not-so-subtlely terroristic tone, Cumberbatch’s villainous John Harrison ends up more of a half-hearted wink-wink at the one of the original series’ (admittedly) best antagonists than a truly terrifying embodiment of genetic supremacy. Peter Weller is a welcome newcomer, begging the line “Dead or alive, John Harrison’s coming with me”, while Alice Eve, as (FAUX-SPOILER ALERT!!!) his daughter, basically plays a platinum-blonde Kirstie Alley and vague love-interest for Kirk.

Totally a necessary addition to the Enterprise crew. Totally…

As with its predecessor, Star Trek is less about villains and romantic subplots than it is about high-stakes action sequences and brisk, hilarious chemistry between key players, and, boy, does Into Darkness deliver. The film (literally) ignites with an opening volcanic rescue scene, and only continues to up its game as the Enterprise races across the galaxy in pursuit of Harrison. Expect chase scenes galore: a particularly fantastic set-piece set amid a bustling 23rd century London in the movies final act will leave you breathless. Lightening the mood, Simon Pegg’s Scotty and Anton Yelchin’s navigator hastily-turned engineer Chekov make for some well-cast comic relief, while Pine and Quinto’s effervescently amicable bickering does a decent job developing the antagonism the two had in the first film into an endearing friendship.

It’s got spark… and Spock!

That said, much of the film lacks the distinct freshness Abrams brought to the table four years ago. Phoned in cameos by Leonard Nemoy, for example, seem more forced than necessary, while the updated Enterprise non-characters, featuring, amongst others, a bald android/Data stand-in and that equally bald lesbian mom from Under the Dome, come across as purely-aesthetic attempts to diversify the command-deck rather than flesh it out. These hitches, while minor, are glaringly apparent throughout Into Darkness, as are the overly overt and predictable shout-outs to the 1982 classic this sequel was basically birthed from.

Cumberbatch, big guns, and overt Wrath.

Visually terrific and a breeze to watch, Star Trek into Darkness proves an excellent popcorn affair, brimming with enough references to the old-school to keep fanboys happy and enough lens-flare enhanced action scenes to keep the rest engrossed. It decidedly lacks the same wit and narrative gusto the first entry in the reboot thrived upon; however, Abrams and Co. still offer up a remarkably fun and well-rounded blockbuster bound to leave you dazzled in the darkness.

3/5

Special Review: Max Payne 3

Eight years after his “Fall” and twelve after his bullet-riddled introduction, tragic video game hero Max Payne returns for a third outing in Rockstar Games’ Max Payne 3. Trading the noir-tinged New York winters for the overstimulated intensity of São Paulo’s urban sprawl, does this vacation from hell carry the same heat its lauded precursors did or does it land itself in a body-bag?

Few games hold the sort of narrative and stylistic gravitas the iconic Max Payne franchise built its reputation on. Back in 2001, developer Remedy Games’ first series outing broke industry standards with clever implementation of the now somewhat overused “bullet-time” effect in its innovative gameplay, offering a uniquely cinematic experience gamers had drooled over in the wake of basement-dweller opuses like The Matrix. Paired with a staple film-noir atmosphere and an engaging, character-driven revenge-yarn, Max Payne rightfully found its way into the pantheon of highly celebrated video games. Likewise, its sequel, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, found equal (if not even more abundant) praise two years later, deepening the narrative experience, bolstering player’s attachment to the tragic title character, and doubling out the amount of digital destruction and bloodshed to boot. Then, with Remedy’s sights locked on Alan Wake and publisher Rockstar Games focused on their numerous open-world titles, it seemed the days of Payne were numbered. However, eight years after the release of his “Fall”, Max is stepping back out of the snowy New York twilight and into the hazy, electronic simmer of sunny São Paulo circa 2012 in Max Payne 3.

Everybody’s favorite self-loathing, pill-popping anti-hero’s back!

With publisher Rockstar now in the developer’s seat, Max Payne 3 promises the same slow-mo bullet-ballet gameplay of its predecessors with the signature style and auteurism Rockstar is famous for thanks to big name franchises like the Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead series. It is important to note, however, that while Rockstar’s track record with the open-world market is celebrated and practically spotless, its forays into the more linear action-genre have been notably less successful. Games like Red Dead Revolver and the more recent LA Noire boasted high quality production values and exceptional narrative construction, but sacrificed a honed focus on innovative gameplay for the sake of a cinematic experience. Where LA Noire gave players the option to explore the entirety of a meticulously detailed 1940’s Los Angeles, for example, it also barred its audience from interacting with it in meaningful ways outside the context of heavily linear investigations and the occasional 911 response encounter. As cherished a developer as they are with certain games that boast gameplay freedom, Rockstar has also earned a reputation for shackling experiences when it comes to more linear franchises, a rep that furrowed a number of eyebrows back when it was announced Max Payne 3 was getting developed in-house at the game studio.

Looks familiar enough.

For those of you who held your breath, however, its time to come back up for air: Max Payne 3 is easily the most rewarding action-game experience Rockstar has offered up outside its open-world titles and it’s every bit a worthy successor to the franchise that birthed it. Picking up nearly a decade after Mona Sax died in his arms, Max exists at the bottom of a bottle, drinking himself half to death in New Jersey as a washed up cop and a self-made mess. Lucky for us, the pity party takes a backseat to explosive gunplay quickly enough as Max is approached with a proposition to bodyguard a wealthy Brazilian businessman and his trophy wife. After a little more moping and absentmindedly shooting the son of a mob-boss, Max accepts the deal with entire New Jersey mob at his heel. Of course, trading the snow-tipped streets of Hoboken for the over-saturated glare of São Paulo proves less of a picnic when Max’s new hire becomes the target of drug-running kidnappers, ruthless paramilitaries, and favela-clearing death squad cops. Needless to say, conspiracies, plot-twists, and cleverly written narration quips mount with the body count as Max kills his way up the underworld food chain once again, offering a uniquely cinematic and wholly entertaining single-player experience that proves as engaging as it does brutal.

New look, same Payne.

Aside from the satisfyingly explosive story, Max Payne 3 does a fantastic job capturing the mechanics of the original game’s “bullet-ballets” while integrating new gameplay innovations (such as the now seemingly inescapable cover-system pre-requesite) to fit current-gen standards. For the most part, Rockstar deserves ample cred for introducing some truly unforgettable action centerpieces here, particularly in close quarters situations that ask the player to utilize space strategically with well-timed slow-mo jumps and aiming precision (free-aim is the way to go). Rockstar has proven no slouch on the presentation side of things, either: the visuals pack quite the punch, with stunning character animation, destructible environments, and visceral particle effects bolstering the experience. The appropriately vibrant and detailed environments are pure eye-candy. The percussive, atmosphere-soaked score from LA-noise rockers HEALTH adds a lot to the game’s unsettling, dark vibes, offering an abrasively endearing marriage between the look and sound Rockstar aims for. “Tears”, the closest thing the band gets to pop-structure, particularly highlights the outfit’s musical strengths, but is sadly underplayed as a whole. It was kind of a bummer.

He may be slumming, but Max’s adventure is far from poor.

For everything Max Payne 3 has going for it, though, certain issues do shine through the immaculate presentation and relentlessly intense firefights. As polished and well written as the story-line is, Rockstar’s decision to trade loading-screens for fully-rendered in-game cutscenes ends up feeling like a cheap diversionary tactic in subsequent play-throughs. This becomes all the more apparent once players realize how much the first half of the game’s cutscenes are spent observing Max drinking alone in his cruddy apartment (the first three are great for setting up how far Max has fallen, but after a while it becomes pointless filler). The initially novel neon flash-effects used to highlight the super-stimulated feel of São Paulo’s electric-tinged metropolis quickly become a tired motif, and, paired with the screwy design choice to have random bits of internal monologue litter the screen during cutscenes, the look and feel of what could’ve otherwise been a totally tasteful traditional approach is diminished by Rockstar’s attempts to take narrative-design integration to annoying new heights (jeez, what a mouthful…). Rockstar’s decision to occasionally offer players wide open shooting-ranges in certain outdoor levels also downplays the game’s strengths when it comes to contained and elaborate combat maneuvering. Often times these moments are still very playable, but lack the same strength and memorable character of intense corridor-to-corridor shoot-outs.

Looks pretty cool… till it invades your screen every 3 minutes…

On the plus-side, though, Max Payne 3 offers a surprisingly robust and rewarding multiplayer experience for players looking to stray from the sometimes constricting single-player experience. Taking hints from Red Dead Redemption and GTA IV‘s multiplayer, game-types run the gamut (sans the unnecessary open-world aspects of those titles) and an XP-system that earns players new tools for destructive goodness. Perhaps the most impressive gameplay innovation Rockstar brings to the table, however, is the newly implemented bullet-time system that allows certain players to go head-to-head with one another at crucial moments, dueling mid-air in a deadly dance of digital death. It’s a crowning moment for Rockstar, who’ve managed to offer something once thought impossible to do on the multiplayer side of things.

Don’t tell me you don’t want to play this dude…

So, while it’s not a perfect experience, Max Payne 3 rises to meet its predecessors as a worthy followup to a franchise built on pixelated blood, sweat, and countless tears. A harrowing tragedy and raucous revenge-ride, Max’s third outing offers ample playability, unabashedly cinematic presentation, and all the carnage you’d expect out of a Rockstar package while retaining the signature feel of the franchise it came from. Who says an old dog can’t learn new tricks?

Start

As arbitrary as they may seem, introductions are important, which is why I feel the need to begin with the beginning here. Sound/Off is designed as something along the lines of a venting station for me: a place to collect and vocalize the virtual maelstrom that makes up the more articulate facets of my poor brain. A journal, a manifesto, a portfolio, or just an exploration of things lost on the visible world, I hope this little endeavor into online-musings may prove a more *cough* versatile and encompassing outlet than the facilities of Twitter or (yes, I can see your eyes rolling…) Tumblr can offer me. So, to quote my badass bud Sam Jackson, “hold onto your butts”… it’s gonna be an interesting ride.