Friday, August 5, 2016

Suicide Squad

SUICIDE SQUAD

** SPOILERS **

Suicide Squad is like the Cold Stone Creamery of comic book movies. A dozen ingredients mushed together frozen on a slab. Maybe eating the entire thing isn't the best thing for you, but you like the fillings and it tastes really good for a while, so you keep eating until the end. Then what? I dunno. My tummy feels weird. Written and directed with balls-slapped-to-the-wall gusto by David Ayers, who is clearly indulging his youthful love of comic books, Suicide Squad is the dirty, scarred side of the DC Cinematic Universe coin. Shining a light on some of the most dangerous (and frankly, some of the most obscure) super villains in the DC Comics pantheon, Suicide Squad's primary mission is to elicit sympathy for the devils (with on the nose musical choices), which Ayers accomplishes for some of the Squad. Bawdier, rowdier, and more perverse than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad is pure, distilled comic book villain chaos on the screen. Alternately erratic, ambitious, scattershot, harebrained, baffling, and proudly in-your-face to a fault, Suicide Squad is also fitfully fun and occasionally even admirable.

"What if Superman ripped the roof off the White House and kidnapped the President? Who could have stopped him?" is the treatise behind the formation of Task Force X, the brainchild of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a devious, ruthless patriot. (Superman is, of course, currently deceased as a result of Batman v Superman, but Waller fears the next Superman may not be as noble, though they sure didn't like him much when he was alive.) Waller's idea: recruit the myriad metahuman super villains already incarcerated in a Louisiana black site prison called Belle Reve and force these very bad people to do some good. Or die trying, via explosive nanites injected into their necks. Waller's plan has little logical merit (though some of the Belle Reve inmates are super powered metahumans, how would they realistically fare against someone as powerful as the Man of Steel?) but through blackmail, fear-mongering and intimidation, Waller gets the green light from the Joint Chiefs of Staff for her Suicide Squad.

The unwilling recruits to the Suicide Squad are the worst of the worst and the craziest of the crazy: Deadshot (Will Smith), an assassin and the world's deadliest marksman who was personally apprehended by the Batman (Ben Affleck, making several welcome appearances in and out of the Batsuit); Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the Joker's sexpot girlfriend and a gleeful maniac who's also in Belle Reve courtesy of Batman; Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), literally a crocodile man who was captured by -- you guessed it -- Batman; Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), an Aussie nutjob who somehow is serving three consecutive life sentences for stealing some diamonds and getting caught by Batman the Flash (Ezra Miller); and Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a flame throwing gang banger who accidentally roasted his family and is trying to reform. There's also Slipknot (Adam Beach), "a guy who can climb anything." He gets dispatched almost immediately as a way for the movie to demonstrate how the nanite bombs would kill the Suicide Squaders if they rebel. Slipknot, we hardly knew ye (and didn't really want to). 

Keeping tabs on the Suicide Squad in the field is Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), "the best special forces soldier in America" who gives lousy rah rah motivational speeches. Keeping tabs on Rick Flag is Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a masked Japanese lady who wields and talks to a magical samurai sword that traps the souls of its victims and houses the soul of her late husband. Are we done? No. Because speaking of magic, there's also June Moone (Cara Delevingne), an archaeologist whose body is possessed by an ancient and powerful witch called the Enchantress. Scott Eastwood is there too, as one of Flag's soldiers, and for some reason his name is GQ. Meanwhile, occasionally inserting his madness into the movie's overall madness is the Joker (Jared Leto), an unwelcome distraction who's hellbent on rescuing Harley so she can be reunited with her 'puddin' Mistah J. Following the daunting, legendary cinematic footsteps of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, Leto preens as a pimped out, bling-wearing, tattooed, repulsive and grotesque Joker that it's probably safe to say will go down as no one's favorite incarnation of the Clown Prince of Crime. 

In a movie chock full of bad people, the Big Bad turns out to be the Enchantress, who decides she wants to destroy the world. She and her demonic, CGI brother take control of Midway City, turning ordinary citizens into minions who look like human blackberries, and creates a machine that shoots electricity into the sky for three days. (This went on for three days yet Batman, Wonder Woman or the Flash didn't make a move to intervene? Wonder Woman would have been the best bet to go up against the Enchantress.) Finally, the Suicide Squad is dispatched to Midway City. To take out the Enchantress? No. To rescue a MacGuffin, which turns out to be Amanda Waller herself. Meanwhile, Waller is in possession of her own MacGuffin, the heart of the Enchantress, which she needs to assert her full power. The Suicide Squad do a lot of standing around, walking around, and fighting blackberry minions, in that order, but when Waller is shot down and captured by the Enchantress, the Suicide Squad decides to get drunk in a bar together, commiserating about the unfairness of their lives and bonding in the movie's best scene. Ultimately, the Suicide Squad decide to save the world and defeat the Enchantress. How do they take down an all-powerful sorceress? With guns and bombs, natch. 

The main issue plaguing Suicide Squad is tone, best exemplified by Delevingne's performance as the Enchantress. When first introduced, under the thrall of Waller, poor tortured June Moone is a sympathetic victim of demonic possession. When we first see Moone transformed into the Enchantress, she's dangerously compelling, rather unlike any character we've seen in a comic book movie before. But by the time the Suicide Squad faces the Enchantress, Delevingne loses sight of the top as she careens headlong over it, becoming a posturing and gyrating cartoon. It's as if director Ayers was demonically possessed by Joel Schumacher. Throughout Suicide Squad, the multitude of characters aching for screen time compete in a muddy tug of war with the demands of the plot. The movie must stop every so often to re-calibrate, with the characters constantly reminding each other or the movie reminding the audience what's happening, what's already happened, and why. 

However, for all of the Suicide Squad's meanderings that occasionally leads to arbitrary, awkwardly-staged violence, Ayers does pull off a neat trick: Suicide Squad is actually about a series of love stories. The Joker's deplorable romance with Harley Quinn is front and center, delving into the origin of how they met at Arkham Asylum -- she was his psychiatrist who fell in love with him -- and how he abused her until she went insane. Rick Flag is also a man in love with June Moone. Rescuing her from the Enchantress turns out to be his primary mission. Best of all is Deadshot's back story; the most infamous assassin in the world has an 11 year old daughter who is the apple of his eye. All Deadshot wants is his daughter's safety and approval. The unbridled inanity and absurdity of Suicide Squad is ultimately redeemed by terrific performances from Smith, anchoring the picture with his movie star charisma, Robbie, magnetically suggesting layers of pathos beneath Harley Quinn's brazen sexuality, Davis, able to seem more dangerous and frightening than the monsters and killers she coerces, and Hernandez, a cauldron of guilt seeking redemption. There's a beating heart within Suicide Squad, and it's not all black.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Jason Bourne

JASON BOURNE

** SPOILERS **

Jason Bourne is back. He doesn't want to be, but after 9 years off the grid, Jason Bourne is dragged kicking and screaming scowling and killing into this decade, with the secrets of his past dangling in front of him like a carrot on a stick. Jason Bourne reunites Matt Damon, harder and more grizzled than ever before, with his maestro director Paul Greengrass, who helmed the terrific The Bourne Supremacy and the even more terrific The Bourne Ultimatum, the best action films of the aughts. Jason Bourne is not quite as terrific. Jason Bourne, Damon, and Greengrass all feel like they've lost a step. This newest installment feels inevitably redundant. While packed with slam-bang action, it all falls just short of the propulsive, giddy inventiveness of the previous films. Tony Gilroy, who penned the previous Bourne trilogy, then wrote and directed the odious Damon-less spinoff The Bourne Legacy, is off the grid here. The screenplay by Greengrass and Chris Rouse feels like Bourne fan fiction, answering questions about Bourne's past no one was asking, not even Bourne, while placing Jason Bourne awkwardly in our current political and cultural conundrums of WikiLeaks/Edward Snowden-like whistle blowers, Internet privacy, and data mining via a Facebook-like app called Deep Dream. 

Even though Joan Allen and everyone at the CIA whom he knew a decade ago is either dead or gone, the new faces in the agency like CIA Director Tommy Lee Jones and his protege Alicia Vikander prove equally adept at manipulating events and murder to discredit or attempt to eliminate Bourne. Jones gradually reveals himself to be the most over the top super villain in the Bourne saga. Has there ever been a CIA Director who overtly planned to have the world famous head of a global tech company -- and his own subordinate Vikander -- murdered on stage in a televised tech conference in Las Vegas? Imagine if the head of the CIA planned to have Mark Zuckerberg murdered on televison at the Consumer Electronics Show. To her credit, Vikander clearly understands how evil and insane Jones is and works with Bourne to eliminate him. The idea of Bourne and Vikander teaming up in future Bourne movies is so appealing, our hearts sink when she reveals herself to be as duplicitous as anyone else at the CIA.

Thing is, Jason Bourne just wanted to be left alone. He was perfectly happy content existing in Greece, eking out a meager living knocking people out in underground fight clubs and having constant nightmares consisting of clips from the previous Bourne movies. Meanwhile, the lone friend person he knows from the previous trilogy, ex-CIA computer whiz Julia Stiles, hacks the CIA's database and pulls all the hidden files of the CIA's various secret black ops programs, including Treadstone, which created Jason Bourne. Turns out Bourne's father Richard Webb was more than merely an analyst and had a more direct role in Treadstone. Richard was then murdered to ensure his son David would "volunteer" so he could be transformed into Jason Bourne, the CIA's greatest, most uncontrollable killer. When Bourne learns all of this, his reaction is basically: "Well fuck. That sucks." There is nothing more to be done with this revelation and information except kill the Asset who murdered his father, Vincent Cassel, in an absurdly destructive car chase, demolishing casinos on the Las Vegas Strip.

All of this navel-gazing into Bourne's past ultimately lessens Bourne himself. The magic of Jason Bourne lays in him being a tabula rasa, with the audience able to project themselves into Bourne's base simplicity and underlying sense of goodness while vicariously thrilling to him being the greatest fighter, stunt driver, and killer alive. Heaping piles of tragic backstory onto Bourne's shoulders feels unnecessary and redundant. The poor guy's life is ruined enough. Bourne, alone in the wind, never moving on after losing his only friend and lover Franka Potente, is unfortunately better off this way. Jason Bourne also doesn't shy away from the effect that time has passed for Bourne. It's jarring how many photos and video, digitally manipulated or previous Bourne movie footage, Jason Bourne utilizes showing young, babyfaced Matt Damon from over a decade ago. By the end, we and Bourne realize he's caught in a perpetual hamster wheel, that the world isn't big enough for him to hide in before being dragged back into the agency's clandestine murder and madness. Bourne's only solace is  his magical ability to just walk away undetected from any crime scene. Until the next movie. Until whatever semblance of peace Jason Bourne finds for himself falls apart, like it always does.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Cafe Society

CAFE SOCIETY

** SPOILERS **

In the delightful and frothy Cafe Society, Jesse Eisenberg moves to golden age 1930's Hollywood from New York City figuring if he can make it there, he can make it anywhere, before realizing it's the opposite, according to the song lyrics. Narrated with bemused tones by writer-director Woody Allen, who cast Eisenberg as the latest in a long line of young actors to play a surrogate of himself, Cafe Society sees Eisenberg come under the tutelage of his uncle Steve Carell, the most powerful and revered agent in Hollywood. Avoiding him at first, Carell gradually shows Eisenberg the ropes, introducing him to glamorous movie stars and Tinseltown's movers and shakers. Eisenberg finds himself most impressed with Carell's secretary Kristen Stewart. In no time at all, Eisenberg falls for Stewart, and woos her with his peculiar neurotically manic ways, which she finds charming. Alas, she has a boyfriend and a secret. Before long, the twisty plot reveals, to no real shock, her secret boyfriend is Carell himself. The real surprise is how calmly both Eisenberg and Carell take this revelation, with no animosity between them. They simply ask Stewart to choose between them. Does she marry her wealthy, powerful, infatuated older beau or the young nebbish who clearly adores her? Stewart chooses with practicality.

Dejected, Eisenberg returns to New York and to the Jewish family he left behind. He goes to work for his older brother Corey Stoll, a notorious gangster, who owns a famous nightclub, and becomes a respected member of New York's elite cafe society. Eisenberg even marries Blake Lively, a model who, in a wild coincidence, is named "Veronica," just like Stewart's character. Everything is grand until of all the gin joints in all the city, Carell and Stewart, now happily married, walk into Eisenberg's. Eisenberg and Stewart have worked together as romantic leads before; their characters in Cafe Society could be the grand parents of the characters they play in Adventureland. Despite the zany twists in the plot, Cafe Society hums along with remarkably low stakes, even when Stoll is arrested and sent to death row for racketeering and murder one. Most amusingly is how Allen seemed to forego writing an ending; Cafe Society just abruptly stops on New Year's Eve, as if Allen simply decided to put down his pencil, counted his pages, decided he'd written enough and this was as good a time to call it quits as any. Absent his young muse Scarlett Johansson, Allen fumbles along with Stewart as the female lead and seems to have little interest in Lively's token character. Still, Cafe Society provides witty characters and a delightful diversion, as well as a winning lead performance by Eisenberg -- the best Woody Allen impression crossed with Lex Luthor you'll find in Hollywood.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Batman: The Killing Joke

BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE

** SPOILERS **

Batman: The Killing Joke unflinchingly and uncomfortably tells two sordid tales. At once DC Animation's controversial, R-rated adaptation of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's seminal graphic novel about The Joker crossing the line to "prove a point" that all it takes is "one bad day" for his madness to be inflicted upon anyone, The Killing Joke also surprisingly veers from the source material and delves into the tragic final days of Barbara Gordon as Batgirl. Batgirl emerges as the true hero of The Killing Joke, by virtue of being the character who suffers the most by far, but she manages to rise above the terrible circumstances heaped upon her (by comic book creators and animators). Poor Batgirl. She can at least take small solace that, by DC Comics' standards of how they abuse their female characters, she didn't find herself stuffed in a refrigerator by The Joker.

The first act of The Killing Joke is an original tale, narrated by Barbara, about her exciting nights swinging across Gotham's rooftops at the side of the Batman. They are, by Batman's definition, "partners but not equals," which makes her bristle. He is her mentor, her teacher (she describes him as her "yoga instructor" to her gay best friend in her civilian life), her crimefighting supervisor and... more. The Killing Joke pushes the envelope when Batgirl submits to her sexual attraction to Batman and they have sex on a rooftop under the watchful eyes of one of Gotham City's many gargoyles. This type of adult topic, and its myriad emotional complications, is an awkward fit for an animated superhero movie, and The Killing Joke ends up rather laughable for the attempt. As she deals with her hots for Batman, and his distancing himself from her because of it, she in turn is the unwilling object of the affections of an upstart crime boss named "Paris Franz." (Seriously.) Paris' own henchmen don't get what he sees in "Batman's bitch," but this is an obsession that nearly claims the lives of Batgirl and Batman. Batgirl finally beating Paris nearly to death but stopping herself just short of "crossing into the abyss" is a Phyrric victory. It only gets worse for Batgirl from there.

In both the graphic novel and the movie, The Joker pays a visit to Barbara Gordon's apartment ands shoots her without warning in the gut. She is paralyzed from the waist down. But The Joker isn't done; he disrobes Barbara and photographs her nude, bleeding, injured body. (The graphic novel implies The Joker also rapes her. The movie thankfully does not; rather it substitutes a scene of Batman interrogating prostitutes, who reveal The Joker's proclivities when he comes around as a paying customer. Yeesh.)  The Joker does all of this to torture Barbara's father, Commissioner James Gordon, into madness. He kidnaps the older Gordon, strips him nude, clamps BDSM gear onto him, and forces him to endure both a parade of his violated daughter's nude photographs and a grotesque song and dance number by The Joker in an abandoned carnival. As Barbara is hospitalized but survives, Batman spends the bulk of The Killing Joke playing catch up; his status as the World's Greatest Detective is suspect. The Joker literally sends an invitation to Batman to the abandoned carnival for their fateful encounter.

The Killing Joke also serves as a de facto origin for The Joker, though The Joker himself admits sometimes he "remembers things differently." But according to The Killing Joke, the man who would become The Joker was once a failed stand up comedian who resorted to a one-time night of crime as "The Red Hood" to earn enough money to move his pregnant wife and unborn child out of their grungy Gotham flophouse. When an accident claims their lives, he's forced to be the Red Hood anyway. As he led his criminal cohorts through a chemical factory (for some reason, the gangsters wanted to rob a playing card factory next door), the Batman's interference caused him to fall into a vat of chemicals, transforming him into The Joker. This origin from the graphic novel would form the basis of how Jack Nicholson's Jack Napier became The Joker in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman film.

The riveting words of Alan Moore paired with the evocative artwork by Brian Bolland made this story scintillating on the page. Moore and Bolland managed to generate a degree of sympathy for The Joker but as an animated movie, the stark emotions and tragedy play rote and feel limp. The celebrated talents of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, returning to voice Batman and The Joker, give a gung ho effort. Tara Strong as Batgirl heroically manages to provoke the necessary pathos and emotional heft. The Killing Joke takes pains to note in a denouement that Barbara Gordon does overcome her handicap, becoming both a hero and a symbol as the superhero information network Oracle. While The Killing Joke is no laughing matter, it does end with a joke, and the way Hamill delivers the punchline, his zinger surprisingly generates a genuine laugh from the audience. But sympathy for The Joker? Or for this movie? That's a laugh.

Lights Out

LIGHTS OUT

** SPOILERS **

Teresa Palmer and her younger half-brother Gabriel Bateman have their lives ruined by their mother Maria Bello's evil imaginary friend in Lights Out. Having left home under muddled circumstances, Palmer must confront her family's past when her little brother begins having the same experiences she had growing up: seeing shadowy apparitions, hearing scratching noises in the dark, and finding the name "Diana" scrawled on the wooden floors. Oh, and also being attacked and having a crazy shadow lady try to kill him. "Diana" is the name of the wraith in question, kind of a cross between the evil girl in The Ring and Wolverine in silhouette, plus a number of other derivative monsters of the modern scary movie genre. In an effective opening sequence, Diana murders Billy Burke, young Bateman's father and current husband to Bello, who has a lifelong history of mental illness. Ultimately, all this means Palmer, Bateman, and her loyal mensch of a not-quite-boyfriend Alexander DiPersia, must spend a night in Bello's haunted house to get to the bottom of how to kill Diana. 

Lights Out plays fast and loose with Diana's vulnerability to light. We learn via info dump -- which is literally Palmer walking into a room of her mom's house and finding boxes of files conveniently detailing everything she needs to know -- that Diana and Bello were childhood friends in a mental institution. (Bello was hospitalized for "depression" and befriended Diana, who has a bizarre skin condition making her vulnerable to light. Oh, also she's an evil murderer who killed her father.) Diana died in an operation to cure her of her skin condition, but was reborn as a ghost who haunts Bello, keeps her crazy by making her not take her meds, and occasionally declares war on her family. Under these bizarre circumstances, Bello's loyalty to Diana is laughable. Diana's hauntings aren't confined to Bello's creepy home with its unusually enormous basement, however. She can go on field trips at will, attacking Burke in his factory workplace, and showing up at Palmer's apartment. And yet, any amount of light like candle light, a flashlight, black light, or even the LED of an iPhone can keep Diana at bay momentarily. What about Pop Rocks? If you crunch Pop Rocks in your mouth and they make sparks, will that keep Diana at bay?

Though Lights Out is creaky with its own rules and reveals, and the movie displays about as much understanding of mental illness as a Daredevil movie understands about trial law, it does better with being clear about how child protective services works, and what Palmer would have to do if she wanted to contest her crazy mom and claim legal guardianship of her little brother. Palmer anchors the tidy horror of Lights Out with determination and conviction. Palmer's desire to protect her younger brother is admirable and makes for one of the better sibling relationships in the modern horror genre. DiPersia, as Palmer's love interest Bret, is surprisingly loyal and upstanding. All he wanted was to be able to keep some stuff in her apartment (he negotiates down to one sock) and ease her off from being such a commitment-phobe, DiPersia is a solid dude for hanging in there and facing all this crazy and murder when other guys would have turned tail and ran. In the end, it was cool to see Palmer bet her bottom drawer on DiPersia and win. Though Palmer and her brother would probably have been safe if they sought shelter in a Motel 6; their famous slogan is "We'll Leave The Light On For You."

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

STAR TREK BEYOND

** SPOILERS **

Find Hope in the Impossible

It's been a long road, getting from there to here. After being thrown together in a breakneck, timeline-altering adventure in JJ Abrams' rebooted Star Trek, and then weathering a grim downer in the maligned Star Trek Into Darkness, the young crew of the Starship Enterprise hit their stride in the pleasing and triumphant Star Trek Beyond. Helmed by Justin Lin and co-written by Simon Pegg, who pulls double duty as miracle-working engineer Montgomery Scott, Star Trek Beyond boldly goes where Star Trek has gone many, many times before: an edge-of-your-seat, by the book space adventure, but this time with an exemplary emphasis on the characters and their relationships, gleaning abundant warmth and humor while Captain Kirk and his crew once again save the universe. 

Winking at the "episodic" nature of life aboard the Starship Enterprise, Star Trek Beyond opens three years into their five year mission. Exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life and new civilizations can get banal, apparently, and a spacedock in the magnificent new Starbase, the Yorktown, finds Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) looking to move on up to a Vice Admiralship. Meanwhile, Spock (Zachary Quinto) receives tragic news: his older doppelganger from the original timeline Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has died. Spock, also facing the end of his relationship with Uhura (Zoe Saldana), decides to leave Starfleet to continue the older Spock's work. The specter of death looms over Star Trek Beyond, both intentionally, as the movie outright and perhaps heavy handedly addresses the loss of Leonard Nimoy, and unexpectedly, with the heartbreaking recent death of Anton Yelchin, who vibrantly plays Pavel Chekov. Before the Captain and First Officer of the Enterprise can part ways, they are recruited into one more rescue mission in an uncharted nebula. Of course, it's a disaster.

Attacked by an unknown alien vessel, using thousands of mechanical bees to disable the Enterprise, the crew is forced to abandon ship. Just as in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, the Enterprise is destroyed in this Star Trek 3, with the saucer section crash landing on a rocky alien planet just like the Enterprise-D did in Star Trek Generations. With most of the crew captured and the bridge crew separated, Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), Scotty, Chekov, Uhura, and Mr. Sulu (John Cho) must find a way to reunite, get off the planet, and solve the mystery of their new enemy Krall (Idris Elba), a fearsome warrior with a murderous beef against the United Federation of Planets. They're alternately betrayed and aided by two very cool female additions to the cast, the duplicitous Kalara (Lydia Wilson) and the resourceful Jaylah (Sofia Boutella). Both women are caked in alien makeup, yet create fetching, appealing performances, especially Boutella, a scene-stealer as Jaylah. What transpires are classic Trek moments: phaser shoot outs, betrayals, last second rescues, manic space battles, a motorcycle chase, and that time-honored Star Trek standby, Starfleet Officers sleeping in caves. Just like in Star Trek First Contact, our heroes use "classical music" to amusing, Kirk-smirking, eye-rolling effect, as the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" returns in a callback to the 2009 film.  Both the Enterprise crew and Krall's alien forces are after a MacGuffan, a disc that allows the holder to control the mechanical swarm of bees, but it seemed like Krall was doing just fine making the bees do his bidding without it. 

Rife with Trek references, Easter eggs, and in-jokes, it's a bit shocking how much of Star Trek Beyond's plot points are derived from and driven by the prequel series Star Trek Enterprise. The starship crashed on the alien planet that Kirk, Scotty, and crew salvage and use to escape is an NX-class ship, the same ship class as the Enterprise that Scott Bakula captained. It turns out Krall is actually a long-lived and mutated former M.A.C.O., the pre-Federation space marines that used to serve as ground troops on Bakula's Enterprise. There are references to the Xindi (season two of Star Trek Enterprise) and the Romulan War. Even the blue Away Team jackets and uniforms Kirk and Chekov wear (the costumes in Beyond are the best ever in any Star Trek movie) look like a fashionable evolution from the blue Star Trek Enterprise jumpsuits. In-depth knowledge of Star Trek Enterprise isn't necessary to enjoy Star Trek Beyond, but there are enough Easter eggs here to fill a carton.

Though many of the plot points feel like Star Trek Redundant, the cosmic joy of Star Trek Beyond is spending time with these characters we love and who clearly love each other. Pegg and his co-writer Doug Jung exhibit a thorough grasp of the characters and what makes them tick. For his third outing as Kirk, Pine is more mature and disciplined, much less the irritable hothead of movies past. (It's Kirk's birthday, just like it was in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, where Kirk (is he even 40 yet?) laments getting old.) McCoy spends a great deal of screen time caring for an injured Spock, the two friendly rivals commiserating on the abundant respect for each other they are at pains to admit. Scotty and Jaylah form a sweet bond, as she slowly grows to trust these strange men who are sincerely trying to stop the villains who murdered her father and her people. Uhura and Sulu, captured by Krall, nonetheless exhibit bravery and resourcefulness in trying to learn his motivations and keep their fellow captured crew mates safe. And it's gratifying to see Yelchin's Chekov be part of so much of the action alongside Kirk. The end credits fittingly dedicate the film to the late Leonard Nimoy and #ForAnton.

In the end, Star Trek Beyond can best be appreciated as a metaphor for life. Life can be good, things can be going well, safe, happy, routine -- and then disaster! What do you do? Don't be afraid. Be brave. You trust your crew. You trust your Captain. You trust your skills. You trust yourself. You stand together. There's strength in Unity. You find Hope in the Impossible. These are the important lessons that Star Trek can teach us, when Star Trek is done well. Star Trek Beyond is Star Trek done very well. Even with the vaccuum the late Yelchin leaves going forward, we hope the crew of the Starship Enterprise continues to boldly go where no one has gone before. To echo Kirk to his best friend Spock, "What would we do without you?"

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Ghostbusters

GHOSTBUSTERS

** SPOILERS **

Paul Feig's Ghostbusters is something strange in the neighborhood. Casting four of today's funniest comediennes, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones, as the new all-female Ghostbusters, Feig and his co-writer Katie Dippold, hang them out to dry by crafting a goofball comedy as unwieldy and erratic as the proton streams that generate from their proton packs. The story, of course, is mainly identical to the 1984 original: strange supernatural occurrences infect Manhattan. Odd ball scientists and childhood friends-turned-rivals Wiig and McCarthy investigate, with McKinnon, a physicist and handy inventor, in tow. Soon, after copious amounts of sliming, they discover ghosts are real. Shunned by academia, they are joined by Jones, an MTA employee chased by a ghost in the sewer, and the four women go into business for themselves as the Ghostbusters.

Despite a spiritedly funny opening scene where Zach Woods gives a tour of a haunted Manhattan mansion, Ghostbusters quickly goes as limp as the lone wonton in the Chinese soup McCarthy complains about in her main running gag. The Ghostbusters gradually stumble upon a meandering plot by an utterly forgettable and uninteresting villain to open up the ley lines beneath Manhattan and bring forth supernatural evil, or something. Though the entire city of New York is threatened, Ghostbusters lacks any urgency or palpable stakes. Scenes and entire sequences feel hacked and slashed, the movie assembled in editing like a jigsaw puzzle smashed together by a child having a temper tantrum. Wiig and McCarthy are basically interchangeable characters whose initial disconnect after a falling out is quickly forgotten. Jones rises to the occasion, bringing some sense of fear and disbelief when confronted with terrifying apparitions. Meanwhile, there's McKinnon, delivering an oddball performance completely disconnected from every scene in the movie she occupies. 

Feig pays laborious homage to the original Ghostbusters, with dutiful but infernal cameos by every surviving cast member from 1984 save Rick Moranis. Ghastly appearances by an unsightly CGI Slimer and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man garner the effect of checking them off a list. The inimitable talents of Michael Kenneth Williams of The Wire and Charles Dance of Game of Thrones are utterly wasted in little more than walk ons. Until he starts dancing for no reason into and throughout the end credits, Chris Hemsworth scores the biggest laughs, outshining all of the Saturday Night Live professional comediennes, as the Ghostbusters' dim bulb secretary. For all the abuse they unfairly attracted and continue to from the dregs of society (some of it cannily referenced in the movie), the all-female Ghostbusters deserved a better written, better directed, better edited, better structured, better movie in which to bust ghosts.

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