To Infinity and Beyond

Everyone is all doom and gloom these days. Every time you turn on the TV or open a newspaper, it’s all, “WE’RE DOOMED” and “THEY’RE COMING FOR YOU AND YOUR CHILDREN”. In the midst of all this fearmongering, it’s a genuine pleasure to find something that conveys a sense of hope for the future.

Thank God for Star Trek.

One of the reasons for the franchise’s enduring popularity has always been its sense of hopefulness, its embracing of all the good things mankind is capable of. Star Trek Beyond, the latest film in the storied series, is no exception.

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Early in the new movie, the crew of the starship Enterprise visits Yorktown, one of the Federation’s newest space stations. Yorktown is a beautiful creation, a snowglobe-like installation with its own atmosphere. As the camera explores the structure and the music swells, there’s a real sense of hopefulness, a positivity that says, hey, look what we can accomplish together.

That may sound cheesy, but I appreciated the movie’s upbeat tone. It’s especially significant considering the recent loss of two of the cast members. The legendary Leonard Nimoy passed away last year, and of course Anton Yelchin died in a tragic accident a few short weeks ago. The film is dedicated to both of them, and the passing of Nimoy is worked into the plot in an organic way.

The filmmakers announced that they will be retiring the role of Chekov for future sequels, which is a classy gesture. It ensures that the role of Chekov in the rebooted movie series will be remembered as Yelchin’s. It would be very difficult to recast the role, and any actor who did play it would have had big shoes to fill. I will miss Chekov in future Trek adventures, as I’m sure many other fans will, but Beyond gives the character a good sendoff and reminds us once again of the talent we lost with Yelchin’s passing. The way he pronounces “Captain” as “Keptin” is something I will always treasure.

As the movie begins, the Enterprise is about three years into its five-year mission, and lethargy is starting to set in. “Things are starting to feel…episodic,” Captain Kirk says in one of his captain’s logs, in a funny nod to the television roots of the series. I find it kind of hilarious that a space mission could become boring, but it works in the context of the story. Think about it: when space travel has become commonplace, a really long space voyage could feel akin to an endless road trip or plane flight. Being in space on a high-tech starship wouldn’t necessarily alleviate the boredom after a while.

But this is James T. Freakin’ Kirk we’re talking about here, and it doesn’t take long before the intrepid crew of the Enterprise find themselves in a heap of trouble, shot down and marooned on an alien planet. They’re scattered and disorganized, and have to regroup and figure out what the hell is going on.

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The movie was co-written by Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty. The dialogue crackles and the chemistry between the cast members is very strong. All of the actors wear their characters like gloves, and their familiarity and camaraderie with each other is palpable.

The villain is an ugly son of a gun named Krall, who is played by the great Idris Elba. Decked out in makeup and facial prosthetics, and speaking with a growly Bane-like voice, Elba is unrecognizable for most of the film. His character isn’t quite as memorable as Benedict Cumberbatch was in the previous entry, Star Trek Into Darkness, but Elba is a strong presence nonetheless.

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Also new is Jaylah, an alien scavenger the crew encounters on the planet on which they become stranded. Jaylah has her own reasons for helping them fight Krall, and she kicks plenty of ass along the way. She’s played by Sofia Boutella, best known for playing Samuel L. Jackson’s razor-legged henchwoman Gazelle in Kingsman: The Secret Service. She’s a great addition and I would like to see more of her in future installments.

As you would expect from a sci-fi epic with a nine-figure budget, the movie looks great. Krall has a drone army which swarms like a massive cloud of pissed-off bees, and they make mincemeat of the poor old Enterprise pretty easily. It’s sad to watch the old girl get ripped to shreds, but the effects make it look great.

Chris Pine delivers another solid performance as Captain Kirk, effortlessly projecting the magnetic charisma the character is known for. The rest of the cast is also terrific. When they get marooned, the crew is broken up in pairs, with Kirk meeting up with Chekov, Sulu and Uhura getting captured by Krall, Scotty meeting Jaylah (whom he adorably calls “Lassie”), and Bones being paired with Spock. Bones and Spock are particularly great, since their personalities are so wildly different, and Karl Urban and Zachary Quinto have fun bouncing off each other in a combative but still friendly way.

Star Trek Beyond is the first film in the new series to not be directed by JJ Abrams, since he was busy with another sci-fi franchise with the word “Star” in the title. Instead, Beyond was directed by Justin Lin, best known for bringing us four of the seven films in the Fast and Furious series. Lin is a talented action director who also shows a deft hand with character development.  The crew of the Enterprise is similar in structure to the ensemble cast of Lin’s Fast and Furious films, and he juggles the various characters and storylines with ease.

Star Trek Beyond is probably my least favorite of the new Trek flicks, but I don’t mean that as an insult. If anything, it’s a testament to how good Abrams’ two Treks were. Beyond is still a rollicking good time, a fun, action-packed sci-fi blockbuster which delivers on the action and the characterization in equal measure, and lovingly pays homage to departed cast members and to the legacy of the films before it.

Blades and Fangs

Anton Yelchin’s last film to be released before his death was a movie called Green Room, a vicious little low-budget indie thriller whose central conflict can be boiled down to three words: Punks vs. Nazis. If this sounds intriguing to you and you have the stomach for graphic violence, Green Room is a movie you need to see.

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Yelchin plays Pat, a member of a punk band called The Ain’t Rights. Pat and his bandmates Sam, Reece and Tiger, hard-up for cash, take a gig at an out-of-the-way club somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Things go reasonably well until it’s time for them to leave, when Pat goes back into the green room (which is like the waiting room for the band) to retrieve Sam’s phone. What he finds is a few of the club regulars standing over the body of a girl with a knife in her head.

Turns out the club is run by Neo-Nazi skinheads who have no intention of letting The Ain’t Rights just walk away. An unbelievably tense game of cat-and-mouse ensues.

Green Room was written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, who previously directed a critically-acclaimed thriller called Blue Ruin in 2013. Saulnier is a talented director who knows how to ratchet up the tension to nearly unbearable levels. The violence in Green Room is vicious and the squeamish need not apply.

But Saulnier’s direction is top-notch. Every scene is expertly calculated to deliver maximum suspense. The casting is also terrific, with Yelchin’s understated performance showing just how talented of a young actor he was. The movie’s biggest casting coup, however, is the role of Darcy Banker, the ruthless owner of the club and leader of the skinheads, who is played by none other than Patrick Stewart. That’s right, Professor X himself is the merciless villain.

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Needless to say, Stewart is fantastic. He plays a man who has no remorse whatsoever about his actions, and it’s clear to the viewer that he has no intention of letting The Ain’t Rights escape his club alive. “It’ll all be over soon, gentlemen,” he tells them chillingly.

The bulk of the film’s action is a standoff between the band members, trapped in the green room, and the skinheads outside. Some parts of the film are a bit hard to follow. I wasn’t always entirely sure what Darcy’s plan was. I mean, clearly he has some nefarious intentions for Pat and his friends, but some of his actions are a bit confusing.

This is probably intentional though, since it keeps the viewer at a distance. The person watching the film has something of an idea about what Darcy and his henchmen are up to, and therefore we know more than the film’s hapless protagonists do. But the fact that it’s not always clear what Darcy’s designs for Pat and his friends are ensures that we don’t know too much more than the characters, which keeps the tension high.

Take a scene in which Pat attempts to negotiate with Darcy. Pat and his friends are stuck in the green room and a locked door separates them from Darcy, who is standing in the hall outside. The entire scene is filmed from Pat’s perspective inside the room as he talks to Darcy, with Darcy’s voice muffled by the door. Saulnier could have cut back and forth between inside and outside the room to show us both halves of the conversation, but he doesn’t. Again, he keeps the viewer at a distance and ensures that we don’t know what Darcy has lying in wait for the luckless protagonists on the other side of the door.

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This technique also increases the horror of the moment when Pat reaches out the door and his arm is violently grabbed. We know from Pat’s reaction that something that something very bad is happening, but we don’t know the full extent of it until Pat wrenches his arm back inside and we see the horrific slashes all over his arm, with his wrist sliced so severely his hand is nearly severed and dangles obscenely from his forearm.

This is a gruesome movie. Darcy instructs his men not to shoot the band members, since the cops would be able to run ballistics. “Blades and fangs for the visitors,” he tells his skinhead gang. This provides an at least semi-plausible explanation as to why Darcy wouldn’t just send in his troops guns blazing.

It also means that the inevitable deaths of some of the band members will be much more up-close and personal. There are a couple of absolutely vicious Pitbull throat-maulings (the Pitbull being the one doing the mauling, not the one being mauled, just in case it wasn’t clear who was mauling who). A box cutter is put to grisly use for cutting things other than boxes, and when people do get shot the results are bloody.

Saulnier doesn’t shy away from gory details, and the makeup effects (which are most likely all practical, I feel like this is a movie without a shred of CGI) are realistic and grotesque. The movie’s violence was hard even for me to handle at times, and I have a high tolerance level for cinematic bloodshed. Still, as brutal and unforgiving as the movie is, the violence still feels appropriate for the story the movie tells. Well, maybe “appropriate” isn’t quite the right word, but you get the idea.

Pat and his friends are likable individuals. They don’t get much backstory but they don’t really need it, the film shows us enough of their lives (penniless musicians living from gig to gig) that we get a sense of them as people. They’re maybe not the brightest bunch and some of their decision-making is questionable at best. At one point, one of the characters even says the immortal, Scooby-Doo-esque words, “we should split up,” which is a face-palming moment. Still, the ineptitude of the protagonists doesn’t bother me too much, since it’s not hard to believe that anyone placed in such an extreme situation might not be thinking clearly.

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Saulnier is aware of the haplessness of his characters, however. During an interview he referred to Green Room as being part of his “inept protagonist trilogy” where the main characters have to survive being thrust into extreme situations using skills they don’t have.The film’s Oregon setting is particularly vivid for me, since I live in the Pacific Northwest and the forest the Neo-Nazi bar lies in could be in my backyard. Saulnier’s writing may not be perfect but it’s still solid, and his direction is spot-on throughout the film. Expect very good things from him in the future.

Movies like Green Room are proof that money isn’t everything. With the right director and the right cast, you can get a movie more tense and suspenseful than a $200 million blockbuster (looking at you, Independence Day: Resurgence). It’s not for everyone and it’s not perfect, but Green Room delivers what it sets out to do and serves as a potent reminder of the talent we lost in Anton Yelchin.

Capsule Reviews, Vol. 2

Fury

David Ayer’s 2014 film Sabotage was my least favorite film I saw that year. Grotesquely violent, with an absurd plot and horrendously unlikable characters, not only was it my least favorite film of 2014, it is to this day one of my least favorite films of all time.

Fortunately, Ayer rebounded in 2014 with Fury, a vivid World War II epic starring Brad Pitt. In the film, Pitt plays a tank commander known to his men as Wardaddy. His crew includes driver Gordo (Michael Pena), mechanic Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal), and gunner Bible (Shia LaBeouf). Yes, Shia LaBeouf is in this movie, but it’s easily one of his best performances, and his presence doesn’t hurt the movie at all.

Fury takes place near the end of the war. Wardaddy and his crew, and the rest of the Allied soldiers, desperately want the war to end so they can go home, and they don’t understand why they keep encountering such fanatical resistance the further they push into Germany. There’s an air of desperation that hangs over the film: the soldiers are tired of fighting and want more than anything to go home, but they can’t.

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Wardaddy and his crew have recently lost their backup gunner, and his replacement is green as grass. Logan Lerman plays a young soldier named Norman, who was trained as a typist and now finds himself thrust into a situation beyond his imagining. Wardaddy and his crew are hard on him to say the least, and a scene where Wardaddy forces Norman to kill a captured German soldier is one of many scenes in the film that are difficult to watch.

Fury is a brutal film, and some of the images it presents are hard to shake off: a soldier burning to death shooting himself in the head, a corpse pummeled so deeply into the mud by tank treads that it’s hardly recognizable as human.

Wardaddy and his crew seem at times like cruel men, but are they really? Or are they willing to do whatever it takes to survive? They’ve been together a long time, and Wardaddy has promised his men that they’ll get through this, and he’ll do whatever it takes to keep them alive. If that includes forcing Norman to kill a captured soldier in order to demonstrate the importance of survival, then so be it.

The battle scenes in the film are vivid and intense. The tank battles are unlike other battle scenes I’ve seen in war films. The tanks use tracer rounds so they can more easily see where they’re shooting, and the tracers almost look like laser beams. I can’t think of another war movie that uses tracer rounds during the battle scenes like this one does, and the effect it produces is very unique.

One issue people seem to have had with this movie is that the characters aren’t very interesting. There is little background given to Wardaddy and his crew, and the characters seem like archetypes. I suppose this is true, but it doesn’t bother me. The film is about who these men are now, not who they used to be.

For me, the biggest problem with the movie isn’t the characterization, it’s what I am going to refer to as the Fraulein scene. About halfway through the movie, Wardaddy and his crew come across a couple of young German women in a house. What results is a long, puzzling scene with no apparent purpose. Don’t worry, the tank crew doesn’t abuse the women, but aside from Norman and Wardaddy, they’re not very nice to them either.

I just can’t figure out why this scene is in the movie. The last time I watched it, I skipped the scene entirely and didn’t feel like I had missed anything. The whole scene lasts nearly twenty solid minutes, it just goes on and on and on, it kills the film’s pacing and adds nothing to the story. It ends up feeling self-indulgent on the director’s part, like Ayer thought he was making some grand point about human nature or something, but the whole scene is so overlong and frankly boring that the viewer can’t wait for it to be over.

I still like this movie a lot, despite its flaws. The final battle is heart-pounding. Wardaddy and the crew end up hitting a land mine which disables their tank, and they decide to stay and fight when they realize a German SS battalion is approaching. Ayer is a good action director, and the final battle is well-directed, as are the rest of the movie’s battle scenes. Ayer has a good sense of spatial awareness, leaving the viewer able to follow what is going on during noisy and complex action sequences.

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Fury is a movie full of misery and suffering, but unlike Ayer’s Sabotage, the misery and suffering feel like they serve a purpose. Fury is not a perfect film and may not be remembered as a classic on the same level as, say, Saving Private Ryan, but it is very good and well worth seeing for fans of war films.

London Has Fallen

London Has Fallen is the sequel to Olympus Has Fallen, and the title pretty much says it all. Terrorists attack London while world leaders are gathered there for the British Prime Minister’s funeral, and much mayhem ensues.

It’s been a rough year for the Brits, and I’m not just talking about the whole Brexit thing, or the English soccer team’s recent defeat by Podunk Iceland. It’s been a rough year cinematically for the Brits as well, since London has been thoroughly trashed in two Hollywood movies, this one and Independence Day: Resurgence. Many London landmarks are blown to smithereens, and the overall body count is high.

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As with many sequels, this one didn’t need to be made, but it’s reasonably entertaining and contains some well-executed action. Gerard Butler is never going to win any Academy Awards for his acting, but he’s believable as an unstoppable terrorist-killing badass. Although he does deserve some kind of award for managing to say the line “Go back to F*ckheadistan or wherever you came from” with a straight face.

I am still of the opinion that Aaron Eckhart is a perfect choice for a movie president, and he would probably make a better real president than the current frontrunners. Hell, maybe I’ll vote for him as a write-in candidate. London Has Fallen is a fun but forgettable action flick, and it’s hard to see any more movies for these characters in the future. That doesn’t mean Hollywood won’t try, but still.