Star Wars: The Last Jedi


In any Star Wars film sparks will fly and stuff will burn.

(2017) Science Fiction (Disney) Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Laura Dern, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong’o, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Frank Oz, Benicio Del Toro, Justin Theroux, Billie Lourd, Joonas Suotomo, Amanda Lawrence, Jimmy Vee, Veronica Ngo. Directed by Rian Johnson

In the annals of all things cinematic, no film franchise has ever elicited as much anticipation as the Star Wars franchise has with every film that’s come out since the first one. Say what you want about their fandom, they are among the most loyal of any fanbase for just about anything anywhere; many of its fans go back to the first 1977 film forty years before the latest one came out.

And there are no signs of the franchise slowing down anytime soon. Not only is there a standalone Han Solo film coming out this summer, but earlier this year it was announced that another trilogy has been approved by Disney (to nobody’s surprise) after the current trilogy concludes next year. Rian Johnson, director of this episode, will be overseeing it although whether that means he will be directing all three of the films, writing them or acting more like a kind of Yoda for the filmmakers who will be involved with the fourth trilogy remains to be seen.

While this is the longest of the films to date, for the most part it doesn’t seem that way thanks to incredible special effects which have become and remained the norm for the series. Like The Force Awakens there seems like a lot of story lines that were cobbled from other films in the series (a last stand on an ice planet? C’mon, guys) and elsewhere. On top of that there are all sorts of threads going on here and while they seem to reach a conclusion, it still feels like we’re slogging through story more than we should be.

But there is a whole lot to like about the movie as well. One of the main things is Mark Hamill. He has delivered one of his best performances ever and certainly his best Luke Skywalker ever. I worried early on that he would be curmudgeonly “get off my lawn” Luke for the whole movie but thankfully he shows some growth, particularly in the final act. The film ends on a grace note that is as magical a moment as you’ll find in the entire series.

There are other fine performances and storylines here but Ridley as Rey was not as compelling as she was previously. Boyega also seems to be written as kind of a one-note character. Laura Dern is a welcome addition to the Star Wars Universe, giving a performance that matches some of the veteran cast members note for note. Oscar Isaac seems to be developing into a very interesting character and the storyline with Rose (Tran) was one of the best in the film. However, I think the movie will be long-remembered for being Carrie Fisher’s last appearance as Princess Lea (Episode IX director J.J. Abrams has stated that Fisher won’t be appearing in any form in that movie).

On the other hand, there’s Snoke, the Supreme Leader of the First Order who is played via motion capture by the great Andy Serkis. When you have maybe the best motion capture performer of all time to utilize it seems a bloody shame to use so little of him. He is almost casually dispatched early in the movie which may end up being a tactical error or not. The Emperor surrogate role now falls to Adam Driver as Kylo Ren who may not be wholly evil after all as Anakin Skywalker was. But can anyone be both Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine at once? That remains to be seen.

This is superior entertainment and helped 2017 end on a record-breaking note. While many fans sniped over some of the story points (even Hamill reportedly wasn’t happy about the direction his charcter was taking) there’s no doubt that the franchise is as healthy as it ever was. Most people reading this have likely already seen the film multiple times in the theaters and await with varying degrees of eagerness for it to become available for their home collections. Well, so is this critic.

REASONS TO GO: As always, the special effects are as breathtaking as any in the movies. The action sequences are also top of the line. Hamill delivers his best performance of the series.
REASONS TO STAY: The buildup for Snoke led to somewhat of a letdown. The story is unnecessarily convoluted and once again feels like it was borrowed from other episodes..
FAMILY VALUES: As you would expect from a film of this franchise there is all sorts of action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to playing Luke Skywalker, Hamill also played a CGI character who can be seen putting money into BB-8 during the casino scene.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Scorched Earth

Thor: Ragnarok


Chris Hemsworth and the Thor franchise turn to a not-so-serious sci-fi emphasis.

(2017) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins, Benedict Cumberbatch, Taika Waititi (voice), Rachel House, Clancy Brown (voice), Tadanobu Asano, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Georgia Blizzard, Amali Goldon, Sam Neill, Luke Hemsworth, Ashley Ricardo. Directed by Taika Waititi

 

Of all the Marvel superhero franchises, in many ways the Thor franchise has been the most disappointing. While it has done very well at the box office, it hasn’t done billion dollar well like the Avengers, Iron Man and Captain America franchises all have. The first two Thor movies were slow and ponderous and overly-serious, never or rarely utilizing star Chris Hemsworth’s natural comedic talents. Thusly, the new Thor movie wasn’t as highly anticipated as much as it might have been.

Furthermore, the franchise was being entrusted to New Zealand director Taika Waititi who had never worked a big budget movie before and was known for comedies like What We Do in the Shadows and Florida Film Festival favorite Hunt for the Wilderpeople. With audiences demanding bigger and bolder superhero films, could Waititi deliver?

You bet he has. Thor: Ragnarok is the biggest box office success of the three Thor films and while it certainly is paving the way for Thor’s next appearance in The Avengers: Infinity War, it also stands alone as great entertainment. Taking his cues from James Gunn and ;John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, Waititi has crafted a film that is light in tone, high energy in execution and thoroughly action-packed.

Asgard is being invaded by Hela (Blanchett), Thor’s big sister that he didn’t know he had. The Goddess of Death had ambitions for taking over Asgard and reigning death and chaos throughout the various dimensions from there but her father Odin (Hopkins) put a stop to it and imprisoned her. With Odin dying, Hela is able to make her escape and she resurrects the dead warriors of Asgard to fight the living warriors. During the ensuing battle, she destroys Thor’s mystical hammer Mjolnir and sends him to Sakaar, a garbage heap of a planet where he is captured and forced to fight in the Arena against a big green Hulk (Ruffalo) who was last seen piloting a jet at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron.

The planet is ruled by Jeff Goldblum…I mean, the Grandmaster who is essentially Jeff Goldblum playing Jeff Goldblum which is a wise and wonderful thing. Thor knows he must escape to rescue Asgard and in fact the entire universe from the ravages of Hela but in order to get out he must team up with Hulk and Valkyrie (Thompson) who has a connection to both Asgard and Hela herself. It won’t be easy and Thor, always the immature hot-head, will have to grow up along the way.

Waititi makes sure that the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, something that failed to occur in the first two Thor movies. The tone is lighthearted and funny throughout; there are plenty of jokes at the expense of superhero films in general and Thor in particular but the movie never devolves into parody and is respectful of the core audience rather than making fun of those who are comic book lovers. It’s a smart move and cements Waititi as a gifted and savvy director, paving the way for him to move out of the independent ranks and work on films of all sorts (with one of them reportedly being a sequel to What We Do in the Shadows), almost certainly including some high-profile studio films.

The movie finally utilizes Hemsworth’s charm more than any other Marvel movie has to date; this is the Chris Hemsworth we have seen glimpses of from time to time and always knew he could be. This is the muscular action star becoming a charismatic movie star before our very eyes. If nothing else, Thor: Ragnarok should serve as a means for Hemsworth to grow into the kinds of roles offered to guys like Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and Matt Damon in years past.

But despite the humor there is no skimping on the action with several major battle scenes, plenty of CGI and some good old-fashioned brawls. Several major characters in the Thor universe don’t survive to the end of the movie and we finally get to see Thor as the true heir to Odin. There is also plenty of Loki (Hiddleston) who in many ways has been the most interesting character to come out of the Thor movies as he allies himself with Thor to save Asgard, although the trickster does manage to set events in motion that directly lead into the coming conflict with Thanos, set for this May.

Some movies are roller coaster rides; Thor: Ragnarok is a whole effin’ theme park. It remains in some theaters (and if you haven’t seen it in one, by all means do so – this will play best on a big screen) but will shortly be available on home video. You can bet it will be joining the ranks of the Cinema365 home video library just as soon as it does.

REASONS TO GO: Hemsworth is at his most likable. The action sequences are downright spectacular. Goldblum plays Goldblum which is a high recommendation.
REASONS TO STAY: Fans of the traditional Marvel Thor may be put off by the lighthearted tone.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of violence and superhero action, as well as some brief sensual material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Led Zeppelin classic rock track “Immigrant Song” is featured in both the trailer and the film (perfectly). The British hard rock band is notoriously picky about who they license their music out to; in fact, this is the first feature film they’ve licensed one of their songs to that didn’t feature former journalist Cameron Crowe in some way.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Guardians of the Galaxy
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
I, Tonya

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story


The empire strikes first.

The empire strikes first.

(2016) Science Fiction (Disney/Lucasfilm) Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Guy Henry, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Jimmy Smits, Alistair Petrie, Genevieve O’Reilly, Ben Daniels, Paul Kasey, Stephen Stanton (voice), Ian McElhinney, Fares Fares, James Earl Jones (voice), Warwick Davis, Peter Cushing, Anthony Daniels, Ingvild Della. Directed by Gareth Edwards

 

Most movies, particularly those that build entire worlds and mythologies, leave tantalizing questions. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is no different. Some of those questions were answered by the three prequel films. However, one tantalizing bit of information – how did the Rebel Alliance get the plans for the Death Star – remained unknown. Until now.

Jyn Erso (Jones) is the daughter of a brilliant scientist (Mikkelsen) who has been shanghaied by the Empire into building a new super-weapon – a planet killer called the Death Star. The elder Erso convinces a freighter pilot (Ahmed) to defect and carry a message to Saw Gerrera (Whitaker), a former Alliance member who found the Alliance not radical enough for his taste and had holed up on the occupied moon of Jedha. When Alliance intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Luna) discovers this, he helps spring Jyn out of a rebel prison and takes her to the Alliance to propose that she introduce him to Gerrera, who is almost like family to her.

Jyn sees the message sent to Gerrera and realizes that her dad has left a flaw in the system, a flaw that the Rebellion can exploit to destroy the planet killer but in order to do that they’ll either have to retrieve her father from an Imperial work camp or the plans from an archive on a closely guarded tropical planet. Accompanied by the blind monk Chirrut (Yen) who believes in the Force and fights like he’s dialed into it, and his friend the gruff sharp-shooter Baze (Jiang), they go to fetch Jyn’s dad. Unfortunately, hot on their trail is Director Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn) and Governor Moff Tarkin (Henry/Cushing) along with the Emperor’s new Lord of the Sith…one Darth Vader (Jones).

This is the darkest of the Star Wars films and by a lot. In order for the story to work, the odds have to be incredibly long and the Empire has to be justifiably evil. Both of those are true and it feels more realistic; the rebels don’t sail in and save the day at the last minute. It gets messy.

Jones makes for a nifty heroine in the franchise. She’s tough, she’s clever and she has good reason to do what she does. She’s no idealist but when push comes to shove she is in this for all the right reasons. Jones is an Oscar-nominated actress who is becoming one of the most reliable actresses in the business now. She’s the perfect choice to play Jyn.

The rest of the cast boasts some impressive names and more than a few familiar ones from previous episodes, mainly in cameo form (Anthony Daniels shows up for just a few lovely moments as C3PO. Tudyk provides most of the comic relief as a re-programmed imperial war droid K-2SO and Whitaker is impressive as the fanatical Gerrera who is almost all prosthetics now.

The special effects are just what you’d expect them to be; the best in the business. The climactic fight has as many moving parts to them as you’ve ever seen in a Hollywood movie and the environments created are realistic and yet alien all at once. You are immersed in the environments, be they an Imperial garrison, a desolate asteroid, or the re-constructed Death Star itself.

Perhaps the most impressive special effect is bringing back the late Peter Cushing, who’s been dead for 24 years, as the odious Tarkin whose foul stench Princess Leia recognized in the very first Star Wars movie. Using a motion actor (Henry) to approximate the late actor’s build, the face of Cushing is digitally projected on Henry’s body and his voice synthesized. It is actually pretty unsettling in many ways. It doesn’t exactly bring Cushing back to life but it comes closer than anything I’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie won a special effects Oscar just for that.

This is a marvelous film that hits every right note. If you’re a fan of the franchise, you’re likely to be quite satisfied with what you get here (and if you’re a fan of the franchise, you’ve likely seen it more than once already as I have). If you’re not a fan of the franchise, chances are this won’t make you one – while it does make a fine stand-alone movie, knowledge of what happened in the first Star Wars film is extremely helpful in understanding what is going on here. The only drawback is that some fans of the series might find the tone too dark – it certainly isn’t your father’s Star Wars. Nor should it be.

REASONS TO GO: This is a real change in tone from the other Star Wars films. The special effects are absolutely amazing.
REASONS TO STAY: It might be a little bit too dark for the hardcore fans.
FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of action, some of it strongly violent and of a sci-fi nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first Star Wars movie not to feature the iconic scrolling text at the beginning of the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bridge on the River Kwai
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Underfire: The Untold Story of PFC Tony Vaccaro

Moonraker


In space, nobody can hear your witticisms.

In space, nobody can hear your witticisms.

(1979) Sci-Fi Spy Action (United Artists) Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, Michael Lonsdale, Richard Kiel, Corinne Cléry, Bernard Lee, Geoffrey Keen, Desmond Llewellyn, Lois Maxwell, Toshiro Suga, Emily Bolton, Blanche Ravalec, Walter Gotell, Arthur Howard, Michael Marshall, Brian Keith, Chichinou Kaeppler, Claude Carliez, Catherine Serre, Beatrice Libert.  Directed by Lewis Gilbert

Sci-Fi Spectacle 2015

Among James Bond fans, Moonraker remains even today a divisive subject. Some hail it as being among the best of the entire franchise (New York Times critic Vincent Canby thought it was even better than Goldfinger) while others look upon it as campy schlock with little redeeming value.

The plot is pure balderdash. A space shuttle, on loan to Britain from the U.S., is hijacked from a 747 on the way back to America. James Bond (Moore), MI-6 agent 007 is assigned the case by M (Lee, his last appearance in the franchise) and is sent to interview Hugo Drax (Lonsdale), the billionaire owner of Drax Industries who manufactured the shuttle. While on the French estate which the industrialist had moved stone by stone to the California desert, Bond meets Dr. Holly Goodhead (Chiles), an astronaut assigned to Drax and is nearly murdered by Chang (Suga), Drax’ bodyguard. With the assistance of Corinne Dufour (Cléry), Drax’ personal pilot, Bond discovers some blueprints to an unusual glass container.

Bond goes to Venice to find out the secret of the container and discovers that it is a vessel for a highly toxic nerve gas, accidentally killing several lab technicians in the process. Chang, however, he kills on purpose. He calls in the cavalry only to find the entire operation has disappeared. However, Bond kept a vial of the gas as proof and M keeps Bond on the case despite calls to take him off it. Under the guise of sending Bond on holiday, M sends him to Rio de Janeiro where Bond has discovered that Drax has moved his operations. There, with helpful contact Manuela (Bolton) he eventually learns that Drax has a secret base near Iguazu Falls on the Amazon.

Drax also has a new bodyguard, by the name of Jaws (Kiel) and a plan – to render Earth uninhabitable by humankind (the gas is harmless to animals and plants) and take the most beautiful specimens of humans onto a space station orbiting the Earth, kept hidden by a massive radar jamming device. Bond and Goodhead, who  turns out to be an ally, must stop Drax from wiping out all of humanity and beginning a new master race, one which he and his descendants will rule.

As Bond movies go this one is pretty ambitious. It had for its time an eyebrow-raising budget. In fact, For Your Eyes Only was supposed to follow The Spy Who Loved Me but as Star Wars had rendered the moviegoing public sci-fi crazy, producer Albert Broccoli decided to capitalize on the craze and send Bond into space. Utilizing series regular Derek Meddings on special effects (for which he was nominated for an Oscar) and Ken Adam for set design, this became one of the more visually spectacular of the Bond films, right up there with the volcano lair of You Only Live Twice.

Moore as Bond relied on witticisms more than Sean Connery ever did; here he approaches self-parody. By this time he was beginning to show his age (he was older than Connery was when he made Never Say Never Again) and becoming less believable in the role, although he would go on to make three more Bond films. This wasn’t his finest moment as Bond but he continued to make it through on charm and comic timing.

His main Bond mate, Chiles, was decidedly less successful. Many consider her the coldest Bond girl ever; she is decidedly unconvincing as a scientist and less so as a spy. She has almost no chemistry with Moore; Carole Bouquet would turn out to be a much better fit for Moore in For Your Eyes Only which wisely brought Bond back to basics when it came out in 1981.

Kiel, as Jaws, was already one of the most popular Bond villains of all time. Rather than being menacing, he became almost comic relief; his indestructibility becomes a running joke which might have been a tactical mistake by the writers. The movie desperately needed a sense of peril to Bond and you never get a sense he’s in any real danger other than a single sequence when Chang attempts to murder him in a G-force testing machine. Nonetheless Kiel is game and is one of the better elements in the film.

By this point in the series Bond films essentially wrote themselves and had become a little bit formulaic. Despite the popularity of this film, Broccoli knew that he had to break the franchise out of its rut and he would do so with the following film which would become one of the best of the Moore era; this one, while some loved it and audiences flocked to it, remains less highly thought of today. It is still impressive for its space battle sequence, it’s amazing sets and zero gravity sequences, even despite being somewhat dated. It, like nearly every Bond film, is solid entertainment by any scale.

WHY RENT THIS: Special effects were nifty for their time. Moore remains the most witty of the Bonds. Jaws.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Chilly Chiles. Lacks any sense of peril. Occasionally dull.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and some sexual innuendo
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Would be the highest-grossing film of the series until Goldeneye broke the record in 1995.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Special Edition DVD includes a still gallery and a featurette on the Oscar-nominated special effects. The Blu-Ray edition includes these as well as some storyboards and test footage.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $210.3M on a $34M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Blu-Ray/DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu (download only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle continues!

Guardians of the Galaxy


Just don't call him Rocky...it pisses him off.

Just don’t call him Rocky…it pisses him off.

(2014) Science Fiction (Disney/Marvel) Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper (voice), Vin Diesel (voice), Dave Bautista, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro, Laura Haddock, Peter Serafinowicz, Christopher Fairbank, Gregg Henry, Josh Brolin, Alexis Denisof, Tomas Arana, Lindsay Morton. Directed by James Gunn

So what makes for a great summer movie? Is it spectacle? Over-the-top action? Bigger than life characters? A mix of comedy, pathos, drama and action? A movie that puts you in a place where you can relax and forget all your cares?

Marvel Studios, the cinematic arm of Marvel comics, has been dominating the summer market ever since they broke out with Iron Man back in 2008. Since then, it has been one blockbuster after another as they have successfully created a shared cinematic universe in a similar fashion to the one they developed for their four color division, keeping audiences invested in the goings on and eagerly anticipating the next film in the franchise. This year has been particularly successful for the Marvel brand, not merely in box office (although that is the bottom line for most studio sorts) but also by delivering what are arguably the two best films in the brand both in 2014.

After Captain America: The Winter Soldier utilized a ’70s-style political thriller as a kind of framework for a superhero movie that had repercussions across the Marvel cinematic universe (and greatly affecting the TV series Marvel Agents of SHIELD) the House of Ideas has taken a bold move; to center on a little-known group of heroes in a space opera setting that is the final stand-alone installment in Marvel’s Phase 2 before next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.

 

Peter Quill (Pratt) is an adventurer and thief who used to live on Earth before being abducted by a group of outlaws named The Ravagers on the night his mother (Haddock) passed away from cancer. Did I mention that the Ravagers are a group of aliens led by Yondu Udonta (Rooker)? Quill has more or less broken away from the gang and is on the deserted, lifeless and ruined planet Morag. As he jauntily dances his way through the ruins he eventually finds a nondescript orb, using high tech to capture the artifact in a nod to the Indiana Jones movies.

Turns out he’s not the only one who wants the Orb. A renegade Kree named Ronan the Accuser (Pace) needs the Orb which hides a devastating secret. He’ll stop at nothing to get it and sends Gamora (Saldana), an adopted daughter of Thanos (Brolin), a malevolent figure who has designs on ruling the galaxy. Ronan is merely insane, akin to a religious terrorist who means to impose his version of morality on the Galaxy which begins with exterminating the planet Xandar, home of the Nova Corps who have signed a treaty with the Kree’s ancient enemies the Skrull as well as with the Kree themselves. Ronan will not tolerate this and needs the Orb to exact his version of justice.

Yondu also wants the Orb to get the massive pay day that’s being offered for it but Peter is making his own deals these days, so Yondu sets a bounty on Peter’s head. A pair of disreputable bounty hunters, a genetically modified raccoon named Rocket (Cooper) and a humanoid tree named Groot (Diesel) who only speaks three words and in the same order every time – “I Am Groot,” want Peter and the Orb so that they can get paid.

 

Then there’s Drax the Destroyer (Bautista) who doesn’t want the Orb or Peter – he wants vengeance on Ronan who murdered his entire family. When he espies Gamora battling Peter for the Orb, he figures he can start moving his way up the ladder by sending Gamora to the sweet Hereafter. However, since all of this is transpiring on Xandar, the Nova Corps arrest the whole lot of them and send them off to prison.

Gamora reveals that she intends to betray Ronan and keep the Orb from him permanent-like as the Orb conceals one of the Infinity Gems, an artifact of immeasurable power that can level planets and wipe out civilizations. Quill, normally the most mercenary of men, grows a conscience but figures that the five of them can escape from this inescapable prison, avoid Ronan and is henchmen Nebula (Gillan) who is also one of Thanos’ adopted “daughters,” and Korath (Hounsou) a fearsome fighter. If they can keep from killing each other while they’re doing it, so much the better.

James Gunn is an inspired choice to helm this film; as previous movies on his resume like Slither and Super showed, he has a quirky sense of humor and a stylish visual sense. One of the things he utilizes to full effect is a group of songs from the 60s and 70s that Peter has collected on the Awesome Mixtape Vol. 1 which his mother gave him prior to her death and is his sole link with his life on Earth. The tape (which is available for download or on CD) has some amazing songs that have a certain cheese factor but are actually all pretty damn catchy, ranging from “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede and  “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum (the latter two both classics for different reasons). It’s one of the most engaging soundtracks in recent years.

This is a galaxy that may be far, far away but there’s an awful lot that’s familiar about it too. Part of the reason for that is that Gunn takes the time to develop all of his characters. It isn’t just Quill and Gamora, the two leads, who are given personalities, but all five of the Guardians and to a certain extent, some of the villains as well – Yondu, Ronan and The Collector (del Toro) all become defined, fleshed-out characters that everyone in the audience will root for – or against as the case may be.

 

Pratt, who has mostly been known for supporting roles but made some career headway in Parks and Recreation, establishes himself as a lead movie star here. He’s funny, but also handles his action sequences with aplomb and when the time comes for him to be heroic, handles that aspect nicely. He has a great deal of screen presence and seems comfortable being the film’s center. While Saldana’s chemistry with Pratt isn’t as incendiary as I would have liked, the rest of the crew all come off pretty well.

The characters of Rocket and Groot are just as real as the flesh and blood actors is; there is a moment near the very end of the film when Rocket lets down his guard and we see his pain in a very real way. It is one of the most moving moments of the film alongside of young Peter mourning his mother. I think it isn’t unfair to say that the two CGI characters very nearly steal the film. One of the moments I loved most in the movie is Groot getting absolutely medieval on a bunch of Ronan’s thugs, beating the holy crap out of them to the point of overkill, then turning to Peter – a.k.a. Star-Lord by the way – and giving him a sheepish grin that had the whole theater in stitches.

I don’t often give perfect scores to summer movies but this is one that is getting one. This is as entertaining a movie as I’ve seen in years. I’m not big on going to see a movie more than once in theaters – there are only a very few that I’ve done that with – but as I write this, I’m getting ready to head down to the IMAX 3D theater at Pointe Orlando to see it a second time, this time in 3D IMAX. So you still want to know what makes a great summer movie? Just watch this.

REASONS TO GO: Great balance between humor and action. Spectacular visuals. Career-making performance by Pratt. Rocket and Groot work so much better than I expected.

REASONS TO STAY: You don’t like sci-fi, you don’t like superheroes, you don’t like Marvel or you don’t like movies in general.

FAMILY VALUES:  Sci-fi action and violence and a little bit of harsh language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Diesel recorded all of his dialogue in a number of languages including Spanish, Mandarin and French so that the same voice can be heard in every version.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Serenity

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Sex Tape

Star Trek Into Darkness


Alice Eve and Chris Pine try to out-blonde each other.

Alice Eve and Chris Pine try to out-blonde each other.

(2013) Science Fiction (Paramount) Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Benedict Cumberbatch, Karl Urban, John Cho, Bruce Greenwood, Alice Eve, Peter Weller, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, Noel Clarke, Nazneen Contractor, Amanda Foreman, Jay Scully, Jonathan H. Dixon, Aisha Hinds, Joseph Gatt, Deep Roy, Anjini Taneja Azhar. Directed by J.J. Abrams

The trouble with taking on an icon is that the bar is impossibly high. You’re not going to please everybody, particularly the diehard old guard fans of the franchise. The fever pitch of shrieking outrage usually begins with the second film in the reboot. J.J. Abrams knows that better than most; he has had his fingers in the hands of three beloved franchises – Mission: Impossible, Star Wars and Star Trek.

This is his second film in the reboot of the Trek franchise. The first got some grudging respect from the notoriously difficult-to-please Trek fandom who might very well turn their noses up if Gene Roddenberry were resurrected and turned up to direct a new Trek movie.

The new film starts out with a terrorist attack in London, ramps up with a conspiracy to militarize Starfleet’s science and exploration mission (think of NASA with missiles and bombs) and finishes up with the appearance of a familiar foe.

Normally I’m one to describe the plot in great detail, but I think I’m going to abstain this time – for one thing, I found that knowing little about what was to occur in the movie made it far more delightful. Knowledgeable Trekkers and those fairly familiar with the canon of the original series will find lots of references here, from Harry Mudd to Transwarp drive to tribbles. There is also a great deal of referencing one of the original series most popular episodes and most beloved films but not exactly as you might remember it.

Abrams has re-energized the franchise without a doubt. Part of the success of the reboot has to do with the casting – each of the choices are spot on. Pine in particular takes the essence of Captain Kirk created by William Shatner and loses some of the mannerisms that made the character a bit of a parody in later years. Pine understands the basics of the legendary Captain – the recklessness, the ego, the brilliant strategic mind and the penchant for womanizing, but takes out the quirks – the stunted speech patterns, the over-reaction reactions and the writers have kindly aided his cause by giving Kirk fewer pronouncements and more self-analysis.

Quinto also makes a terrific Spock, although I noticed in this movie that his jaw seemed a bit more set and he looked a little less like the original Spock in a lot of ways, but he does capture the constant war between the emotional human side and the cold, logical Vulcan in him. The trauma of Vulcan’s fate in the last film weighs heavily on him, although he doesn’t show it.

The relationship between Spock and Uhura is an interesting one, given that this is a recent invention. Zoe Saldana gives the character a little more action-orientation than Nichelle Nichols did in her day; I like also that the writers give her a lot more to do than being a glorified answering machine. She is much more a member of the team than she was in the original series, where much of the planning, decision making and risk taking was done by the male members of the crew. You’ve come a long way, baby.

Cho is a worthy successor to George Takei as Sulu. One of the great regrets I have when it comes to Star Trek is that we never really got to see too much of Sulu as Captain – in the couple of instances when we did see it Takei was amazing. Cho gets an opportunity to take command as Sulu and makes the most of it; I’m kind of hoping we see Cho in a spin-off someday.

Pegg is one of the world’s outstanding comic actors and while Scotty becomes more of a comic figure than he was in the original series (although depicted as a heavy drinker he had his share of drunk moments that James Doohan played beautifully) the main thrust of his character is his brilliance as an engineer and we get that from Pegg as well, although he is a bit more willful than the original Scotty and in one of the new film’s most underrated scenes stands right up to Kirk, something I don’t recall seeing the character ever do before but was a welcome moment here.

There are also “guest” characters; Greenwood as Pike is a bit of a mentor and a lot more of a father figure to Kirk. Alice Eve is gorgeous and plays her pivotal character as a lot more than you might guess from the surface – and the writers leave room for future glimpses of her character. Peter Weller, who had a couple of appearances on the Enterprise TV series, plays an admiral here whose character might remind long-time fans of an admiral who had a small but pivotal role in one of the last movies featuring the original crew.

That leads us to Benedict Cumberbatch whose character is…well, not who he appears to be. Fans of the original series will doubtlessly guess early on who he actually is but for now let us say that he is a brilliant adversary worthy of Kirk and Spock and whose appearance is done in what I believe is the proper way – coming into the series sideways, making the surprise all the more pleasant (although again savvy Trekkers will either know from Internet chatter who he is or guess based on the clues the filmmakers give us early on). Cumberbatch is an up-and-coming actor who looks to have a brilliant career ahead of him, and based on this film is already getting some scrutiny for some plum roles in franchise films. Before you know it this man is going to be one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Bet on it.

The stakes are higher here and the effects are as crazy good as they were in the last Star Trek film. I chose not to see it in 3D – who wants to see those annoying lens flares in 3D? – and I think that’s a wise choice. Some of the scenes are set in pretty dark places and the 3D glasses will only make it murkier. Besides, I didn’t get the sense that 3D would have added anything to the experience.

I liked the movie just a smidge less than the first one; what pleased me most is that the filmmakers are developing the characters in just the right way to set up more thoughtful episodes in the future. While there was some underlying commentary about the militarization of space, the usefulness of drones and of terrorism in general, this is still a little more action-oriented than fans of the original series may like but that does make the movie more palatable to non-fans. Oh, and you get to see Klingons too.

In my review of the first film I wondered if Abrams could repeat his successful reboot in the second film. The answer is a resounding yes. This is great entertainment not only for Trekkers but for general audiences as well, managing to thread the line nicely. Certainly this bodes well for the future of the franchise and with the 50th anniversary of Trek’s debut in 1966 only a few short years away, one can only be hopeful that there are a lot more places for the crew of the Enterprise to boldly go.

REASONS TO GO: Pine turning out to be an excellent Kirk and the rest of the supporting cast works well also. Nice effects, battle sequences and stunts.

REASONS TO STAY: The story is a little bit all over the place.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some pretty intense battle sequences in space as well as some pretty nifty fisticuffs.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Christopher Doohan, the son of the original Scotty (the late James Doohan), makes a cameo appearance as a transporter technician working alongside the current Scotty in the transporter room.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100; pretty impressive reviews for a Star Trek film.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avatar

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Russian Ark