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

Motion Pictures Reviewed: Prometheus

The wait is over: three decades after Blade Runner, Ridley Scott returns to the genre he redefined in Alien‘s spiritual precursor/successor, Prometheus. Does Scott’s bombastic space case make for universal appeal, or does it find him going boldly where every man has gone before?

A few months back I posted a relatively breathless preview of Ridley Scott’s new film Prometheus, the insanely-hyped science fiction creationist epic set before the iconic space-horror visual orgasm that was 1979’s Alien. Ever since 1982’s Blade Runner, Scott’s spent the past 30 years distancing himself from the genre that put him in the critics’ corner, inspiring film students, sci-fi junkies, and popcorn-lovers alike to openly embrace the ideas of subtly dystopic, corporately-controlled intergalactic shitshows. Alien, in particular, broke new ground in removing most of the sheen from futuristic space operas, opting for ethereal, industrial settings full of claustrophobic hallways, junktastic computer interfaces, and VHS-quality video feeds: it was situations and characters were realistic and the horrors that followed them were as strikingly inventive as they were visceral. Flash forward another three decades to 2012, and Scott’s budget (not to mention his ambitions) have become substantially… well, larger, a scale he uses to crank everything in Prometheus to an eleven on the “holy cow”-scale.

How is babby formed?

Scott’s desire to “think big” and “go big” with his artistic homecoming carries over into the main gist and (initially) driving idea of Prometheus: who are we, as human beings, and where did we come from? Scott’s “answer”, at least for the second half of that question, is a giant, bald, blue-pale muscleman who drinks some nasty black stuff in the first minute or so of the movie that causes him to rapidly decay, fall over a waterfall and spread his DNA around a prehistoric landscape, all after watching a gigantic spacecraft silently float away through thick grey clouds, back into the infinite sea of space. It’s an almost poetic hook that begs more questions than it does answers; fitting, given the nature of the ideas Scott aims to tackle here.

What’s with the sci-fi tendency to name spaceships after ill-fated mythological characters???

From there, we’re whisked off to 2093 aboard the Prometheus, a corporately funded deep-space research vessel tacked with uncovering the origins of mankind from the furthest regions of our galaxy. Their destination (with nods to devoted fans of the Alien franchise) is LV-223, a distant moon archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Repace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) find numerous references to in ancient pictograms they found around the world. The uber-old depictions of humans worshiping giant humanoid figures that point toward a star system lead the two young scientists to conclude that these “gods” were actually prehistoric astronauts, inviting latter-day humans to “meet their makers” (a phrase ironically and a bit too overtly thrown around throughout the flick courtesy of Damon Lindelof’s crack/cracked-up script).

Brushing up on their history, no doubt…

What follows would be a bit too telling for people looking forward to literally unearthing the mysteries Scott hints at here, but I guarentee you there’s plenty of blood, sweat, and tentacles lurking in man’s cradle once the Prometheus has landed. Alien-franchise fans will have a blast with the impressive mythology-integration Lindelof brought to the table, particularly the shady background dealings of Weyland Industries, the company funding the expedition. Aside from the aforementioned alien nasties, the movie’s primary antagonists are these slippery corporate-types pulling the operation’s strings. Charlize Theron’s appropriately icy expedition supervisor Meredith Vickers makes interesting character-development turns, going from skeptical authority figure to surprisingly desperate woman-wronged; it’s fascinating and impressive that Lindelof could make such a seemingly two-dimensional character as deep as she is, but disappointing how short-lived and under-utilized her potential ends up given her strengths.

She’s as cold as ice…

Most other characters fall under this catagory as well: Repace’s Shaw goes full 360 on her concepts of faith throughout the film and demonstrates jaw-dropping resilience, yet lacks the rebellious punch of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley in Alien. Idris Elba’s role as a blue-collared ship captain is appreciated but underplayed by the action at hand, especially given that he barely leaves the cockpit the entire movie. Marshall-Green’s Holloway character is wasted as a mere foil and romantic connection for Repace’s, leaving his potential impact in the film relatively unrealized.

Elizabeth Shaw’s not quite Ripley, but she still has to put up with some horrific situations in her underwear.

The rest of the crew are unfortunately underwritten, often carrying glimpses into what could have been (Sean Harris’ Fifield, the stoner geologist very much opposed to going down that dark, scary looking hallway over there) rather than what ends up being, which most of the time is a bloodied corpse. Most the blame falls on Lindelof here: he spends far too much time seeking ways to satiate franchise fan-bases without paying enough attention to drawing out his characters and making them act in believable ways. Believable character action, in particular, becomes an increasingly rare commodity as the body-count rises, crew-members often showing a lack of scientific restraint unbecoming of supposed world-class scientists.

Rising above the pack, however, is the ever lauded Michael Fassbender, sporting a fascist-esque blonde hairdo and impressive Peter O’Toole inflection. Playing the ship’s synthetic science officer (again, wetting the mouths of every Alien-franchise fan ever), David, Fassbender wryly takes his familiar role and inventively turns it upside-down, dropping hints at David’s underlying intentions and curiosities lost on the rest of the crew which merely shrugs his being off as pure mechanization. Watching Fassbender’s near-invisible wince when his creator, Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce under a crapload of makeup), says via hologram that David is “the closest thing to a son he has” despite the fact he “will never have a soul” is as heart-wrenching a display of humanity as any Scott has ever filmed in his near 40 year career. Early parts of the film dedicate themselves to observing David’s routines prior to the rest of the crew waking from their two-year hypersleep: he shoots hoops one-handed riding a bicycle… he studies countless languages and recites them perfectly… he watches Lawrence of Arabia, quoting O’Toole obsessively… he even watches crew-members dreams, a robotic voyeur seeking to understand what makes us tick. It’s creepy and intriguing all at the same time, ultimately trumping the initial creationist tones the rest of the script begs the audience to pay heed to.

Something to behold.

When Fassbender’s not busy stealing the scene, however, the scenes themselves are: despite character flubs, Lindelof and Scott have established a very impressive universe in Prometheus, one that ties into the Alien-franchise without necessarily feeling constricted by its design choices. Indeed, here Scott aims for grandiosity on a level unseen in Alien, dreaming up cavernous structures, gigantic alien creatures, massive action set-pieces, and gorgeous landscapes. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski is no slouch on the visuals, his framing artful and technique engrossing. The 3D visual effects courtesy of the Moving Picture Company are some of the best realized since (as much as I hate the movie) Avatar, coming across as tastefully immersive rather than gaudily exploitative. Disappointing, to a certain extent, are some of the creature designs, branching a bit too far away from H.R. Giger’s source designs and opting for familiarly fleshy beings rather than distinctly (and bracingly) alien ones. That said, the visuals, as a whole will definitely not disappoint.

Nothing ominous about this at all…

Aside from somewhat sloppy writing and lackluster character development, the only other glaring problems with Prometheus are the numerous plot-holes and unexplained circumstances that sometimes pop up in the film’s second-act. I feel like the ball’s in Ridley’s court here: he overtly (and, even cheekily) sets up the film’s finale less as a culmination and more as a launching pad for a potential franchise, leaving his big questions mostly unanswered and his remaining characters’ blindly heading again into the unknown. For some, this turn may cheapen the experience, but for others (franchise fans in particular), it will only whet appetites for another outing. Visually stunning but a bit too rough for its own ambitions, this hype-machine grinds metal on literary levels, but proves ample popcorn-potential for most movie-goers. Prepare to meet your makers!

Moving Pictures Reviewed: Kill List

Genre-bending UK thriller Kill List has been turning heads on the festival circuit for a while now. Does this independent darling bring the goods to match the hype or does it buckle under the weight of its own twisted ambitions?

Hearts in darkness: hitmen of Kill List caught in a deadly, nightmarish game.

Ever since catching websphere rumblings about Ben Wheatley’s hitman-horror hybrid back in March, I’ve kept my ear close to the ground when it came to Kill List and its eventual theatrical release in the states. Well, despite a lengthy delay, the film has finally made it to limited release here in the US, and, rest assured, the wait has been worth it.

Every bit a disenchanted love letter to two of film’s most iconic (and maligned) genres, the seedy underworld/hit-man narrative and 1970s psychological-horror, Kill List immediately sets itself apart from the contemporary cinematic crime exploration in tone and (pun intended, I guess…) execution. Twists, turns, and torment abound, Wheatley daringly takes narrative niche on a slow-burn to the maniacal, the likes of which have rarely seen comparison.

That "Oh sh*t..." moment you get when you realize this isn't the movie you thought it was going to be.

If the ominously etched rune introducing the film doesn’t cue you into the devious intents lurking just beneath the surface of the first half hour or so, than you’re in for way more than you probably bargained for.┬áNestled in an unassuming British suburbia, Jay, an Iraq War veteran who’s turned to contract killing to make ends-meat for his family, finds himself deep in paralyzing emotional turmoil after an enigmatically botched job in Kiev. With the fam in dire financial circumstances and Jay unable (or unwilling) to find work since the incident, tensions run high between him and his wife, Shel. Explosive spats during listless days and dinner parties leave Jay seeking refuge in best friend/partner-in-homicide, Gal. At said dinner party, Gal propositions Jay about a potential job, eventually convincing Jay to get out of his psychological rut. All the while, Gal’s new girlfriend is stealthily carving runes on the back of Jay’s bathroom mirror, and the “WTF”-fest begins!

Deals with the devil? Explorations on the cunning nature of evil in "Kill List".

What follows includes blood-pacts, necrotic wounds, clergy assassinations, overzealous fake-swordfights, mercilously beating the sh*t of a pedophile with a hammer, droning chants, enough cult-based weirdness to make Kubrick cringe in his coffin. Wheatley goes heavy on violence, light on the dialogue, mysterious on the backgrounds, and deep on the connotations: who are the guys Jay and Gal are working for? What happened in Kiev? Do the desired ends justify the deplorable means? The film’s at its best when exploring the complexities of human relationships (whether familial or fraternal) under terrible ethical circumstances, and engrosses with a convincing portrayal of man split between his morals and his job. The horror aspects, which play significantly into the narrative in the latter half of the film, are quite effective and intense, though less impressive than the preceding melodrama. The finale in particular, while shocking, desperately lacks satisfactory conclusion, leaving the audience with far more questions than answers. That said, its obvious Wheatley’s aims for such an abrupt and brutal ending were meant to leave the film feeling shrouded and hauntingly mysterious.

Oh that crazy last half...

While it does some things better than others, Kill List is nonetheless an unnerving jaunt into unique film-making territory. Grounded by a strong cast, jarring style, and unsettling atmosphere, it definitely managed to surpass my expectations and slay the stale image of the cinematic hitman saga with brutal effectiveness. Consider yourselves warned!

Hidden Gems of 2011 (or 2010, if you wanna get technical…): Hesher

Hesher (2010)

Scalding to the touch (Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the eponymous miscreant)

The past couple years have been particularly kind to Joseph Gordon-Levitt. For an actor who had his career jump-started on syndicated TV face-palmers like Roseanne or 3rd Rock from the Sun, Gordon-Levitt has risen above the two-dimensional caricatures of the 1990s teenager and into the more diversified and weighty shoes of the post-2k twentysomething. Despite the stereotypical pratfalls many actors of these niche roles often take to (inexplicable wealth and undeserved senses of self-importance, I’m looking at you), Gordon-Levitt has a seemingly magical ability to convince an audience that he, as a person, is just as fiercely intelligent, charming, and empathetic as his characters are written to be. So it’s easy to see where his decision to take up the titular role of a nihilistic, violence-prone, anti-authoritarian metal-head in Hesher might inspire a few heads to start scratching.

Definitely not 500 Days of Summer.

The film itself (which made its festival circuit in 2010 but didn’t see theatrical release till this past year) plays out less like a story about Gordon-Levitt’s character than it does a vehicle for him to drive head-long through your HD-TV, leaving a sparks and jagged pieces of shrapnel flying in his wake. The bulk of the narrative is focused, rather, on T.J. (Devin Brochu), an angsty pre-teen with a gnarly bowl-cut and a royally f*cked-up family situation. After his mother dies in a car-accident, T.J. has devoted himself entirely to recovering the newly impounded station-wagon she lost her (and, as he believes, his own) life in. T.J.’s dad (Rainn Wilson) has retreated into a state of reclusive, strangling depression, wandering around the family home in tighty-whities and a bathrobe for a majority of the film, and T.J.’s live-in grandma battles dementia and arthritis with medical marijuana (to space-tastic results). As T.J. finds himself increasingly isolated both at home by a family caught up in their own problems and at school where bullies seem to prey off his recent tragedy, he gets increasingly frustrated and eventually lashes out at a nearby housing construction site, throwing a rock through a window… unfortunately for T.J., Hesher’s been squatting in the house.

TJ! Watch out! There's a totally crazy, badass metalhead behind you!!!

From there Hesher descends into a blur of dynamite, lighter fluid, Metallica-worship, and all-around nihilistic mayhem. Gordon-Levitt’s deadpan, dead-serious, and dead-on character study is wholly engrossing: to think an actor usually caught in cardigans on-screen could pull off a long-haired, shirt-ripping, perpetually anarchistic metal-head is utterly fascinating, not only because it defies logic but because Gordon-Levitt does it so well. Beyond the chaotic fun to be had with the eponymous character’s antics, the film also manages to put its heart on display despite the insanity at the centerpiece. As Hesher becomes a forced fixture in T.J.’s life (literally invading his home and going on a personal crusade to terrorize T.J.’s bullies), his pattern of destruction becomes something more along the lines of therapy, allowing T.J. a chance at moving past his mom’s death through learning how to live on his own again.

Nothing quite like rolling your grandma's corpse down a public street to get your spirits up. Thanks Dr. Hesher!

Overall, the film is fantastically realized and darkly hilarious. The cast, which also includes Natalie Portman as the object of T.J.’s ill-directed affections, are all well suited for their roles but rarely push their characters past the narrative moment. Gordon-Levitt, on the other hand, is nothing short of phenomenal: his uninhibited performance leaves a mark you won’t soon forget. A must watch for anyone who’s looking for a little therapeutic chaos in their lives.

Leaving his mark.

Back to the Future: “Prometheus” and the reclaimation of a genre

After a 30 year absence from the science fiction film scene, Ridley Scott circles back to the genre that made him a household name…

2012 is quickly shaping up to be a promising year for the Hollywood blockbuster: Christopher Nolan is already teasing American audiences with six minutes of The Dark Knight Rises, Peter Jackson has every geek wetting himself over The Hobbit, and Joss Whedon is pushing The Avengers harder than your local housing-development scumbag pushes crack cocaine. Yet as exciting as all this may seem, none of it really holds much of a kick: we already know Knight is going to be a knockout and a critical darling, while I’m sure The Hobbit‘s overindulgence with CGI will have every nerd practically bawling over how “amazing” it all looks… and The Avengers? Well, it’ll make a sh*t-load of money, so who honestly cares what it brings to the table? The truth of the matter is that despite the promise, I’m not all that psyched merely because the promises made are not ambitious enough to not be kept. Hollywood’s abandoned risks and it’s a shame.

Yes, Chris... we already know this is going to be awesome...

And yet, from the darkest corner of late-career mediocrity, a challenger appears in the least likely of places: a future courtesy of an iconic past. After abandoning the science fiction genre after 1982’s seminal sci-fi/noir Blade Runner, Ridley Scott took up a number of forgettable thrillers and epics that earned him respect as a capable director, but a reputation for playing it relatively safe considering his ambitious beginnings with genre-defining pieces like Alien. Regardless of how skilled Scott was at conveying action and entertainment on mass levels, his art was never quite as exciting without the wonderment of an fully imagined setting providing an engaging backdrop for his blockbusters. That’s why, in my opinion, the news of his return to the genre that made him with the forthcoming Prometheus warrants the most excitement out of any large-scale industry project next year.

Already drooling over this trailer after 5 seconds...

Part of the genius behind Prometheus is the hype its managed to generate. Is it a prequel to Alien? Can we expect the creepy, atmospheric flourishes that made Scott’s other sci-fi ventures as effective as they were? Will it have enough explosions to keep an audience reared on the Transformers movies interested in its apparently heavy-handed plot? Judging by the incredible trailer I posted above, the answer, thankfully, seems to be a resounding “yes”.

Looks familiar.

The “DNA” of Alien Scott has been hinting at for the past couple months is immediately apparent in both the tone the film appears to take AND the presence of very familiar narrative facets present in the 1979 precursor (the derelict ship, space jockey “gun chair”, and Giger-esque “spine halls”). A schooled fan-boy might even find himself keen enough to catch a glimpse of a distinctive “Weyland-Yutani” logo on the crew members’ space caps in the trailer (particularly on Noomi Repace’s before she’s flung spectacularly by some sort of gale-force space wind). The trailer itself is commendably edited: the title-introduction a noticeable salute to the classic Alien trailer, and the expert pacing capturing contemporary trends in Inception-ized attention-grabbing without sacrificing tasteful shots of vistas and breathtaking color for hyper-stylization.

"Dark of the Moon" my f*cking a$$...

Beyond what I could see, Prometheus is also shaping up to be a very well written movie as well, a quality irritatingly absent in the genre as of late. Damon Lindelof’s presence always seems to do the trick when it comes to effective myth-making, so I had little doubt the magnitude of a story that spans from mankind’s creation through well into our future would be handled with aptitude and grace. The well-balanced cast also seems an effective draw, offering two conflicting female protagonists, a wide array of talented ensemble crew-members, and Michael Fassbender playing an android in existential crisis (sign me the f*ck up).

The great Derelict hope.

With merely a handful of screen-caps and a minute-long trailer to back its cause, Prometheus has already left me convinced it will be the knock-out stunner of 2012. Ridley: welcome back, man. It’s been way too long.