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.

StarTrekBeyondPlakat1

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.

Star-Trek-Beyond

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.

Star-Trek-Beyond-poster-Krall

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.

Green_Room_(film)_POSTER

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.

green-room-600x400

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.

green-room-poster-02

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.

Green-Room-Deutsches-Kinoposter-300x425

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. 1

Here are a couple movies I’ve seen recently that I had some thoughts about, as well as a couple of other random topics.

X-Men Apocalypse

When a movie starts in the year 3600 BC, you know it means business. The latest installment of the X-Men series sees the film debut of Apocalypse, an important character in the comics whose origin begins in ancient Egypt. In the film’s opening he gets buried under a pyramid and eventually reawakens after about 5000 years in modern-day Egypt. By “modern-day” I actually mean some time in the 80’s, which is when the movie takes place.

X-Men-Apocalypse-IMAX-poster

The X-Men series has the most convoluted timeline of the major Marvel franchises, and I’m still not sure exactly how the time travel shenanigans in the previous film, Days of Future Past, effected the overall X-Men universe. But I just decided to roll with it, and found Apocalypse to be an enjoyable ride. The plot is messy but not incomprehensible, and the cast and special effects are top-notch.

Movies with as many characters as the X-men movies tend to have can start to feel bloated, and Apocalypse is no exception. Still, it’s nice to see the return of characters like Storm and Nightcrawler, as well as expanded roles for Seminal X-men characters like Cyclops and Jean Grey. There’s even a cameo from everyone’s favorite clawed mutant, whose third solo flick is due out next year and is reported to be R-rated, which is exciting.

Apocalypse is the fourth X-flick to be directed by Bryan Singer, and he has a really good grasp of what makes these characters tick. The movie is both a sequel and a sort of reboot, and could easily have been a mess. The mixed reviews would certainly suggest that the film is a sort of catastrophe (48% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, as opposed to 91% for Days of Future Past), but as usual I feel like the critics have vastly overstated it. Apocalypse is far from perfect but is still plenty enjoyable and chances are good you’ll enjoy it if you liked the previous films.

And I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t give a special mention to the movie’s absolutely stunning slow-motion Quicksilver scene. I didn’t think Singer and co. could top the slow-mo sequence from Days of Future Past, but damn if they didn’t knock it out of the park with this one. The sequence where Quicksilver saves the occupants of the X-Mansion from a massive fireball, scored to “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”, is a showstopper.

It’s a trippy movie (part of the final battle is a sort of mental duel between Apocalypse and Professor X) and it gleefully embraces its comic-book roots. The costumes are more colorful and the whole movie has a slightly surreal feel to it, which may be turn some people off but I for one found quite enjoyable.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

This is the rare Michael Bay movie that actually stayed with me after I watched it. I don’t hate the Transformers movies as much as many people seem to, they’re decently entertaining but evaporate from your mind the second they’re over, including the fourth film which is nearly three hours long.

13 Hours has more staying power. The film tells the story of the September 11, 2012 terrorist attacks on the US State Department Compound in Benghazi, Libya, and the American security operators who fought back.

13-Hours-600x938

The movie is full of shootouts and explosions, filmed in hyperkinetic Michael Bay style, but the shootouts and explosions have more dramatic weight than any of the robotic carnage of the Transformers movies. It’s nice to see that Bay can still make an engaging action film that doesn’t overly rely on flashy computer effects.

One word I would use to describe this movie is mature. Bay tends to give in to his worst impulses as a filmmaker and indulge in some really stupid stuff. The Transformers movies (and many of Bay’s other films) are full of broad racial humor, cheesy romance stories, and frequently-ogled nubile young women, and it’s a relief that 13 Hours is devoid of that kind of crap.

The movie is a compelling portrayal of men at war, and it’s one of my favorite modern-combat movies, right up there with Lone Survivor and Black Hawk Down. It’s easily one of Bay’s best films and if you’re a fan of the genre you should absolutely check it out.

Ignominious Endings

Okay confession/rant time. I’ve been a fan of the TV show Castle since it started, but by the end of the show’s eighth and final season, I just felt burned out. It was one of the worst endings to ANYTHING, EVER, I HATED it, and here’s why.

The main problem is that, once the show brought its two main characters (writer Richard Castle, played by Nathan Fillion, and NYPD homicide detective Kate Beckett, played by Stana Katic) together, the writers clearly had no idea how to create drama, and resorted to increasingly stupid lengths to try to wring some dramatic tension out of the show.

castle_poster12

Once Castle and Beckett actually got together and became a romantic pair, there was this contrived nonsense about the lengths they went to in order to try and prevent their families and colleagues from knowing about the relationship, for some reason. Eventually they gave up on that and decided to get married, which resulted in the appallingly stupid plot twist that Beckett married some guy in Vegas years ago and then forgot about it, which makes no sense and is completely out of character for her.

Once that insipid bullshit was dealt with, the show pulled the rug out from under the feet of its loyal viewers yet again by having Castle get abducted on the way to the wedding, only to reappear a few months later with, you guessed it, the hoariest of hoary plot contrivances, amnesia. That’s right, he had no memory of where he had been or what he had done for the previous couple months. Groan.

At some point later on, not content with the number of previous rug-pulls, the show made up some excuse to get Castle and Beckett mad at each other and separate them for a while, resulting in Castle’s determination to win his wife back, basically sending the show back to square one and the “will they/won’t they” stage of TV character relationships.

Once THAT even MORE insipid bullshit was dealt with and Castle and Beckett got back together, the show tried to make a big deal out of introducing some scary mysterious villain who was operating from the shadows, or something. This plotline made no sense to me and I did not give one holy hand grenade about it, hence my inability to describe it in detail, since whenever the show got back to this storyline I automatically started to tune out.

All of this led to what turned out to be the series finale. The shadow villain turned out to be some random chucklehead who had only been in one previous episode, and in the last scene, Castle and Beckett are celebrating their victory when they both get shot. As they’re lying there on the floor bleeding, the scene fades out, only to fade back in with the subtitle “Five years later” at the bottom of the screen (maybe it was more, I forget) and shows Castle and Beckett horsing around with a few little kids. Then it ends.

Wait, what?

The most obvious explanation for this abrupt conclusion was that the show got cancelled by ABC before the season was over, so the writers had to tack on an extra scene at the very end for what ended up being the series finale. The transition from “Castle and Beckett get shot” to “Castle and Beckett happy with their kids years later” is sudden and startling and not remotely satisfying, and it’s emblematic of the show’s storytelling problems as a whole.

The show always struggled with balancing the requirements of the case-of-the-week stories with the larger overall storylines, and in the end it just fell apart. It makes me really sad to say all this, because I still like the show’s earlier seasons, and it’s a shame the writers couldn’t think of more compelling storylines once the early ones were resolved. I’m glad the show is over though, since Stana Katic said before the show got cancelled that she wouldn’t be back for another season, and if the showrunners had tried to continue the show without her it wouldn’t have been the same.

Oh, well. I can still enjoy the early seasons while choosing to ignore the mistakes of the regrettable later seasons, and part of me will still miss the show now that it’s gone.

R.I.P. Anton Yelchin

Speaking of missing things that are gone, it saddened me deeply to learn yesterday of the death of 27-year-old Anton Yelchin, who died in a bizarre accident. He was a very talented young actor that left us far too soon, and I’m going to re-watch some of his movies. I haven’t seen his recent film Green Room yet, which was a brutal indie thriller where Yelchin played a member of a punk-rock band whose band comes under attack by vicious Neo-Nazis, the leader of which is played by Patrick Stewart. Green Room got great reviews and I’m looking forward to seeing it when it becomes available, and will be sure to post a review when I can.

I will always fondly remember him for his wonderful portrayal of Pavel Chekov in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek films (the third of which comes out next month) and especially his delightful pronunciation of “Vulcan” and “Victor Victor.”

anton-yelchin-982183-06052013165937

R.I.P. Anton.