Movie Reviews


Someone Is Wrong on the Internet: Guardians 2 Is As Good As GOTG 1 and Wonder Woman 3 comments

Certainly the oldest reason for communication was, well, to communicate. But the second oldest reason for communicating was undoubtedly to tell that first communicator they were wrong (possibly connected to the birth of the first critic).

And in that honored tradition of contradicting someone else, I’m introducing another form of debate hereabouts: Someone Is Wrong on the Internet. Why? Because I’m an egotistical human that has to be right? Because I love tilting against windmills? Because I’m a fan of the XKCD comic where I am, umm, borrowing this line from?

Sure, throw them all my way. But more than that, I’m going to argue for things that are actually pretty good, but people seem to be missing the boat on (critics, the internet-water-cooler zeitgeist, what have you). As a creator who is trying to get my foot in the door (and boy, does that door not like to open), this is another way for me to throw some encouragement to people out there who are creating. We need all the cheerleading we can get.

So here we go with “Someone Is Wrong on the Internet: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is as good as the first GotG and Wonder Woman.”

Somehow, via the Rotten Tomatoes aggregator, Guardians 2 is at 81% (71% for the so-called top critics), versus 91% for the other two. When you dig in more between the first and the second Guardians movies, reviewers are finding the second almost as fun but not as “fresh” as the first.

This is boggling to me. The second movie takes what worked in the first movie and does it even better, fixing some flaws along the way. The first movie is great fun, but it has the blandest of bland villains that hardly gets any setup or explanation: me angry alien terrorist! me no like peace treaties! smash! Whereas the villains of Guardians 2 are given such crazy things as depth, setup, and motivation, not to mention a real connection to the Guardians and their own issues.

The first movie also had problems with what I like to call “planet subtitle hopscotch” (not unlike the otherwise great Rogue One from this winter). Throw all the digs you want against George Lucas, but even with the prequels, the guy knew how to integrate a new location into the storyline seamlessly (and for it to stand out visually from the rest). There’s a bit of this problem earlier on in Guardians 2, but then it gets its act together.

And then there’s the soundtrack. I love the opening of the first movie, with Peter Quill dancing through a ruined city (and kicking space rats) to the head-bopping rhythm of “Come Get Your Love.” But the second movie easily tops that with its opening “Mr. Blue Sky” and baby Groot dancing sequence. From there, the rest of the songs work better as a unit, somehow even serving  as a fun commentary or contrast to the action at the time. That is not an easy thing to do, but the movie does it. Can you picture a better song than “My Sweet Lord” to introduce a god-planet and its potential issues? Or a song better than “Father and Son” for the movie’s final scenes?

The fairest criticism I can see of Guardians 2 is that it hits on its themes of family a little strenuously, which I can understand to a point, as there are some moments that are a little in your face with it. But even then, there are issues with this critique. Christopher Orr over at The Atlantic claimed the movie “pedantically” explains how the song “Brandy” ties in with the movie’s themes, but wow, is that ever a misread. One, not everyone may be aware of the lyrics to “Brandy” (I wasn’t really before hearing it in this movie), and two, Ego is using the lyrics to explain and justify his actions. He co-opts the song (anyone notice the song’s title is “Brandy,” not “The Sailor?”) for his own purposes! Rather than being detrimental, it’s an excellent scene, and reveals quite a bit about Ego’s character—much less pedantically than his name does!

Guardians 2 is every bit as good as its predecessor, if not better (hold me to the first part, of you don’t agree with the latter). Both have reasons they’re just shy of perfect, but they’re still quite good and a needed breath of fresh air in the crowded comic book movie/action movie sphere.

As for Wonder Woman, it’s high praise to say Guardians 2 is its equal. I’ve never really had a big connection to the character, with her sometimes feeling like a female Superman: really strong but kind of blandly good, etc. That’s partially my lack of interaction with her comics, but also a shortcoming of the classic TV show and her presentation on the DC cartoons I’ve seen. We’ve at least had some good Superman movies to give depth to Clark Kent.

Wonder Woman certainly takes care of that issue—Gal Godot is sublime as Diana. I loved her enthusiasm, I loved her “I’m going to do what I’m told not to” approach to just about everything, and I loved how genuinely, warmly kind she was. At one point in the film she smiles and asks a character what they would do without his singing (if he left), and I have to say that was one of the most beautiful, caring, and honest smiles I have ever seen. It is good for the soul to see someone smile like that and mean it that much. People talk about how hard it supposedly is to write and act good people (which I quibble with), but I would say Godot’s Diana is up there with Chris Evans’s Steve Rogers, if not beyond, and that’s saying something.

I’d also say the first 80-90% of the movie works extremely well (though I could do without the preface and epilogue—we know it relates to the rest of the DC universe without these). Sure, some things randomly happen, with Diana and Steve Trevor somehow sailing from what seems to be the eastern Mediterranean to London overnight, etc., but they’re small problems.

The real issue is with the generic, climactic confrontation at the end, which somehow just doesn’t work. It should, with how interesting the rest of the action in the movie is (particularly the WWI trench sequence), but the movie doesn’t know if it wants another big fight or to explore the themes and ideas it’s set up so well. I think they had the right casting choice for the big bad if they had focused on the latter and wrote the big bad’s actions and dialogue accordingly, but they didn’t.

What Wonder Woman needed was something similar to the ending of The Dark Knight. There’s good action in that movie’s ending, but what’s really at stake is Batman’s view of mankind versus the Joker’s, with both sides memorably and clearly delineated. Something similar could have been done with Wonder Woman, as the first 3/4 of the movie puts the right ideas on board to accomplish this, but then the movie rather haphazardly follows through on them, squashing them in around a forgettable CG fest with ponderous dialogue.

So where does that leave us? On the one hand, we’re seeing yet again how Guardians 2 is at least on par with a movie that’s been reviewed well ahead of it. I could also argue that Guardians 2 doesn’t have any major issues like Wonder Woman’s finale, which makes it objectively better as a movie, But on the other hand, I am willing to concede that Wonder Woman may be a more important movie, given how reluctant Marvel and other studios have been to focus solely on a female character/superhero. It’s asinine that this is still an issue somehow, but let’s face it, it is. We had men up in arms at a women’s only screening of Wonder Woman, like they couldn’t just go to some other showtime or there haven’t been men’s only clubs and governments for centuries.

It’s not for the first time, certainly, but Wonder Woman reminds us that female characters and female superheroes can and should carry their own weight, and for that, I’m willing for it to defeat the contention of my first Someone Is Wrong on the Internet. Somehow, it only seems right.


The BFS Recommends: Moonlight 5 comments

Moonlight Theatrical PosterFriday night, Jessica and I had a decision to make: were we going to see Lego Batman or Moonlight? We ended up choosing the latter, partially under the logic that plenty of people were going to see Lego Batman, and we might as well reward the theater for picking the less popular but more serious movie, which had just won an Oscar for Best Picture.

The logic behind the choice has come back to hit me harder than I thought it would: Moonlight is an important movie, one that we need now, more than ever.

This isn’t going to be so much a review of Moonlight (you can find an excellent review on Roger Ebert’s site), though I will say Moonlight may be one of the most perfect, character-driven dramas I have ever seen. Instead, it’s going to be a plea of sorts, an argument, for why you need to see it, sooner rather than later. Why the argument? I’ll get to that in just a moment.

As often happens with a movie as powerfully immersive as Moonlight, it lingered with me, and I found myself needing to bounce my thinking about it off of others. After talking it over with Jessica, I found the above-mentioned review. Even though I knew what I probably would find there, I scrolled down to the comment section and found this sad little post:

“Can anyone explain to me why this film is “important?” Because there are crack-hos and gay black people and drug dealers with hearts of gold? How am I not a complete human being if I don’t absolutely adore this mediocre trash and weep inconsolably whenever I think of poor little Little or Chevron or Black or whatever his real name is? My life was not “affirmed” by somehow surviving this torturous, dull, self-indulgent and amateurish melodrama. The emperor has no clothes!”

Yes, it’s a comment on the internet (Beware: here there be trolls). But it’s not an out and out troll comment (there’s at least some struggle to know what they’re missing), and more, I know that a movie that focuses on the coming of age of a gay black man in Miami is going to be tough content for some people. Let’s face it, we don’t see many movies like this, particularly one that has won major awards.

I’m actually a big believer in saying that not every movie and not every book is for everyone, no matter how good it might be. And you sometimes have to be in the right mood to handle an excellent movie or play (if you’re wanting comedy, you probably shouldn’t watch King Lear). But for someone to have apparently sat through the whole of Moonlight as this commenter did and have it pass clear above their heads is absolutely depressing.

Moonlight is about identity and trying to find it. About being crushed by others as you try to find it. And no matter how 100% awesome and sure of yourself you might be at this moment, every human struggles with identity. Everyone. So for someone to watch a movie that shows that struggle in a fellow human as perfectly and understandably as the film medium can allow, but still only focus on the externals of its characters? There is something wrong with that viewer.

Our society is increasingly focused on walls now—literal, political, or emotional—maybe more so than it has been at any other time in my thirty-eight years. Maybe the 80s and that part of the Cold War is on par or even worse, but it’s impossible to argue something hasn’t been going down the drain more and more the past couple years. And this problem isn’t due to one group or another, either. Take your pick of the current news: no matter where you look, it’s easy to see humans refusing to listen to each other, whether it’s conservatives ignoring/attacking those who don’t agree with them or this protest/attack on a conservative speaker at Middlebury College. We’d rather shout each other down, or win an argument or election than listen.

What beauty we are missing. I’ve never been to Miami; I’ve never had a parent struggle with addiction. I’m just a straight white guy that has lived his whole life in the Midwest, but I could feel and understand Chiron’s life, the protagonist of Moonlight. The movie is told in three parts, with Chiron in childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. Each section pivots on a key scene, with Chiron reacting to the ocean. The joy Chiron feels as he learns to swim as a child, with ocean waves washing over him and the camera, is palpable. The hope or love or longing he feels when an ocean breeze passes over him in adolescence is impossible not to register: it’s the most happy we’ve seen him since he learned to swim. And the look on his face when he returns to the ocean as a young adult (he has been living in Atlanta for some years)? It’s the look any human makes when they see something they have missed more than they could describe.

I’d want Chiron to understand me. I know he’d understand the look on my face when I saw my wife for the first time in weeks. It shouldn’t matter that he’s never been to Minnesota or lived as I have lived.

And it really doesn’t.


On the Redeemability of Fellow Humans

I saw the documentary The Overnighters on my local PBS station this weekend. It’s an intriguing film about a particularly fraught situation: the oil boom town of Williston, ND and the men it draws to work there, some of whom only have a car (if that) to their name. The local pastor of a church starts a program to help the most desperate, providing food and places to sleep for many in the church itself, and sometimes just the parking lot so some can sleep in their car overnight. He even puts some of them up in his home with his family.

The movie’s description probably puts it best, “Broken, desperate men chase their dreams and run from their demons in the North Dakota oil fields. A local Pastor risks everything to help them.” Needless to say, there are a lot of issues at work here, none of them particularly easy to deal with. Some of these men have felonies on their record, and besides that, the town of Williston is going through all the difficulties any community would when its population doubles or triples in just a few years. The backlash of the church and local community against these newcomers is at once understandable and saddening.

The scene that sticks with me, the thing that keeps bugging me, is one where the pastor, Jay Reinke, goes around to neighboring houses, trying to get residents to come to the church and meet the overnighters, on the belief that if they start to get to know them, the fear of the newcomers will go away. After the pastor introduces himself at the door of one house, the neighbor comments on the “trash” he’s keeping at the church.

To call another human trash is to profess a depressing belief in the irredeemability of you and your fellow humans. I’m not so naive as to say there aren’t quite a few members of humanity that can commit despicable and heinous acts—history and the present moment and even this documentary provide far too many examples of this—but to call another human trash is to say they’re on the level of a greasy food wrapper, not worth anything but wadding up and tossing in a landfill. It’s to also ignore the many examples to the contrary of what humanity is capable of, some of which the film also captures.

I wish I could focus more on those hopeful aspects caught in the film, one of which has Pastor Reinke stopping his car so he can wave at a passing Amtrak—the day is beautifully sunny, and it is something to see a grown man wave at a passing train like a ten year-old. But try as I might, I can’t stop seeing the other scene, the one with that perfectly normal house with the perfectly normal person answering the door, calling other humans trash because they’re less fortunate than they are.

I knew some people in high school that liked to look at the “gross stuff” in medical books, for some reason. Weird, cheap thrills, or something… the eww factor that leads to some of the stupid stuff you see on reality TV, I guess. I did it once and couldn’t do it again, because I couldn’t get rid of the image in my head. This is also why I have difficulty with shows or movies that are overly violent—it’s hard to forget what I’ve seen.

I wish I could stop seeing someone call their fellow humans trash, but I can’t.


BFS Reviews: Much Ado About Nothing (2013)

much_adoJoss Whedon has this weird way of going about making movies and TV shows. On the one hand, he’s known in the big networks and studios for success stories like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and last summer’s The Avengers (or “shows that shouldn’t have been canceled so soon” like Firefly that can make some fans perennially sigh over what might have been if the show had kept going). But on the other hand, he does stuff like… make some kind of movie broken into two parts during a writer’s strike (Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, a strange but endearing mixture of superheroes with musical, drama, romance, and tragedy). More, he can make this kind of thing work, as that odd, two-part movie grew into an internet sensation that’s followed as much as anything made by a major network.

And now he’s made a production of Much Ado About Nothing. Apparently Whedon has an amazing house and regularly invites actors and actresses to come out and perform a Shakespeare play. Why not? I probably would too, if I had a fabulous house and was a director. To add to the fun, this time around he’s made a film out of this practice. He chose a fine play to do this with, as Much Ado is one of Shakespeare’s best comedies (for the uninitiated, a Shakespeare comedy means there’s going to be lots of fun, humor, and romance, but… there’s going to be a fair amount of heartache as well: the travails of Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life have nothing on what Shakespeare will put his comedic characters through).

I’ll be up front and say that Joss Whedon had to win me over with this one. I like a lot of his work and it sounded like this adaptation was pretty good, but… I love Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 adaptation of this play: it’s what won me over to Shakespeare at a young age. Sure, it’s got some weird moments and Keanu Reeves… cannot do Shakespeare to save his life, but it is otherwise excellent. Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson are razor sharp witty in their roles as the two lovebirds that refuse to believe they are lovebirds, and they are excellently juxtaposed against the two lovebirds that very much know they are lovebirds, played by Robert Sean Leonard and Kate Beckinsale. To cap things off, Michael Keaton is hilarious as the hapless constable, Dogberry.

So I’ll admit I didn’t completely click with some elements of the movie. Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker were good fun as Beatrice and Benedick, but… they just couldn’t speak it and act it like Branagh and Thompson did, particularly early on (though let’s face it, those two are heavyweights in the acting world). Still, they began to spark more for me as the other characters in the story try to draw them together. The closely paired scenes where Benedick and Beatrice learn that the other loves them (or so they are led to believe as they eavesdrop on their friends…) are as entertaining as I’ve seen in any production. Benedick’s sudden attempts to look sexy for Beatrice are as amusing to watch as junior highers at a school dance (so much awkwardness rolled up in so much sincerity). The pair isn’t all humor, either: Whedon closes the movie with a shot focusing solely on them, an indescribably romantic moment.

That said, the standouts among the actors are undoubtedly Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk as the constable Dogberry and his assistant, Valence. In Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation, Michael Keaton plays Dogberry hilariously over the top with growls and mannerisms reminiscent of his role as Beetlejuice. Nathan Fillion, on the other hand, is openly and honestly sincere in his ineptitude (though he still manages to save the day, of course). Both performances are completely varied but completely hilarious. It highlights the strength of any good play–and book for that matter–the stories and characters can be great no matter how many times you revisit them.

But what seals the deal is the cinematography and the music. Whedon went from directing a superhero summer Hollywood blockbuster–with all the big action shots that implies–to using steady, fixed shots and vivid black and white cinematography in this film. There’s some versatile directing for you. Of course, he’s filming a location he knows quite well–his own gorgeous house with a spectacular view–but he uses that knowledge to maximum effect. Joss also enlisted the aid of his brother, Jed, and his wife Maurissa Tauncharoen, to perform a couple of the songs from the play (this duo were responsible for the catchy tunes in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog). Both songs are a clean and engaging fit with the modern setting Whedon chose for the play, and I wish a movie from earlier this summer, The Great Gatsby, had done so well with matching its music to its story.

In the end, there are things not to like in Whedon’s production of Much Ado, but this is no different from any other Shakespeare production I’ve seen (or heard commented on). For theatrical afficianados, every new production of a play can offer new delights and interpretations–even small, classroom productions–and this is a good thing in the end. Even better, Whedon’s production offers many new things to delight in.


BFS Reviews: How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

dragonOkay, so… I got a little excited two weeks ago when the Celt found a preview for How to Find Your Dragon 2. A little. I might have been a little un-Swedish. But here’s why.

Trying to tell a story that draws in adults and younger folk isn’t as easy as some think (both critics and creators). You can’t get too stupid (or adults AND kids will hate it), and you can’t get too cerebral or the kids (and let’s face it, many adults) will hate it. But How to Train Your Dragon finds this balance point and soars away with it.

The crazy thing about it is that this movie kind of snuck its way into the movie landscape. Unlike Pixar films that are fanfared and publicized well in advance (a very small teaser trailer for Brave was out at least a year before it hit the screens), I didn’t hear of this one until I saw a trailer a mere couple of months before it was released. And rather than try to give us the whole plot of the movie, the trailer did what the trailer released for its sequel did last week: evoke a feeling.

It’s essentially the moment seen in the poster in the upper right, but better. Dragons (and this dragon in particular) in the movie have up until now been unknown and powerful and dangerous–tapping into centuries of storytelling that have made dragons touchstones of mystery and magic. But, this moment posits, what if you could reach out and actually touch that mystery… and while you were doing that, what if that mystery decided it wanted to reach out to you as well?

Wow.

And this undercurrent is felt throughout the movie. Sure, there are some moments that are more kiddie or more obvious than I’d like (I wasn’t quite sure at first what to make of the voiceover used in the opening), but these shortcomings are buoyed by the undercurrent of magic and mystery, and completely erased by the strong story. We understand why Hiccup–the boy in the poster–reaches out to the dragon, but we also know what this is going to cost him personally. Dragons and humans just don’t mix, it’s been made clear, and there will be repercussions.

Another fine element of the film is that the adults are allowed to be smart. What a concept, I know, but one thing Roger Ebert frequently noted in the last couple of years (I am really going to miss reading that man’s reviews…) is how often adults are made to be stupid when kids or teens are the protagonists of a movie. But in How to Train your Dragon, Hiccup’s father has feelings that are clearly understood and valued just as much as Hiccup’s. He’s not one dimensional, either, changing in reaction to the events of the story: just as Hiccup is allowed to change. True, the adults can be silly at times, but so can the kids (and this movie knows when it needs to be silly and when it needs to be serious).

The movie doesn’t stop imploding typical Hollywood fare there, either. Its characters often aren’t… pretty. Stoick the Vast (Hiccup’s father) is a big, beefy Viking warrior in the classic sense. He doesn’t have slabs of muscle Hollywoodily stacked on top of more slabs of muscle. His arms are thick but not defined, and also clearly strong–not unlike some arms you’ll actually see in the real world. And his skin… his skin is a bit pale and freckled and ruddy, not unlike some other people you’ll see in the real world. How strange to see a bit of real proportion in a cartoon, eh?

So, this movie knows how to be real, knows when it needs to get serious, and knows when it needs to fly (something its upcoming sequel seems to be remembering as well). Not every movie knows how to do that, so it’s a real treat when one does–if you haven’t seen this one already, you should.


There’s Too Many Non-Hobbitses in My Hobbit Movie(s)

hobbitJRR Tolkien is one of my favorite authors. The Lord of the Rings is full of the stuff of life: themes and values worth thinking about, running right along great characters and a fantastic story. The Hobbit is also great fun in a more lighthearted way, with a delightful focus on how Bilbo grows and changes over his journey.

I also enjoy the three Lord of the Rings movies. They’re a little off from the excellent approach of the books (more and more as the three movies progress, actually), with elves that are more arrogant jerks than intriguingly alien, and with lords of countries that are villainous, rather than shown in shades of grey. As is almost universally the case (though not always), the books are better. Still, the three movies are engaging, doing so by maintaining their focus on a small group of characters that we grow to understand and care about.

I wish I could say the same for The Hobbit movies. And that’s the problem right there, the plural. I was reminded of this when I saw the preview for the second of the three movies (you can check the trailer link here). The three Lord of the Rings movies somehow managed to cover the content in three large books, doing a fairly good job of paring things down while staying true to the source material. With The Hobbit, Hollywood has decided they’re going to take one book and make it three! Whee! Yet another trilogy!

To be honest, I could understand if they had two movies to cover the storyline of the book, because a lot of things do happen. But they’re doing these three movies by tacking on a lot of stuff found in Tolkien’s side writings and appendices, trying to make a united whole that goes over the course of three films. The problem with that is these side writings are good fun if you’re interested in Tolkien, but terrible if you’re trying to make a focused narrative: there is a reason they’re in appendices and side writings. Tolkien was notorious for following side plots and writing about random things (The Hobbit grew out of a random note he put on a student’s paper that he was grading!), but he knew pretty well that you couldn’t have all that stuff crammed into a good book. And when he didn’t, his editor wasn’t scared to say this isn’t going to work.

I wish someone had said this to Peter Jackson and the rest working on The Hobbit movies. You can tell there’s a good story in the first movie. It’s the one that’s like the book, just following Bilbo, the dwarves, and Gandalf on their way to The Lonely Mountain. But this great story loses focus on this small group of characters (that we could grow to understand and care about) to keep throwing in stuff about other things going on in Middle-Earth at the time.

I was doing my best to hold judgement on this trilogy process until all three movies came out, but there isn’t any real need. You can see from the trailer that the second is going to be like the first. We’re going to have some sideplot with Legolas, even though he has little to add to the narrative of The Hobbit, and then he’s going to have lots of moralistic discussions with some woman that has equally little to do with the real plot (if he just had a cameo like Frodo does in the first movie, that would be fine). And every time the storyline with the dwarves and Bilbo gets going, we’re going to sidestep over to Gandalf and Radagast doing some… other unconnected stuff.

Peter Jackson is clearly able to have focus–we can see it in his Lord of the Rings movies. But he’s just taking on too much to handle with this script. An over-bloated script will be an over-bloated script, no matter what you do with it. If this was in a writer’s workshop, everyone would be saying, “you have some interesting things in here, but there’s too much going on all at once. Try to trim out some of these side tangents, or at least figure out which story you want to focus on.”

Whether it’s the Hollywood movie machine, Peter Jackson, or some wicked combination of all, these three movies are going to try to do too much and satisfy no one.

Oh, and I’m not even going to get into the random action bits that don’t need to be action bits. The barrel ride scene could be full of fun, beautiful, and peaceful visuals (remember the majestic lighting of the signal fires in Return of the King?), but it’s going to be a chase scene. Yes, a chase scene. Does this even make sense? What were they thinking, and how do you even swing a sword in a barrel without it tipping you over completely? … oh, I started. *ahem* I had better stop.

But I’ll dream and wish for a DVD cut of The Hobbit that only follows Bilbo’s journey. Hey, Swedish-sized hobbits can dream.


BFS Reviews: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

darknessStar Trek Into Darkness is a sci-fi Hollywood blockbuster. The Hollywood blockbuster is basically a genre unto itself, loaded with its own pros and cons (“The action is awesome!” vs “Ugh, can they do anything but action?” “Shaky cams add realism!” vs “Enough with the shaky cams already…”). This becomes more of a problem for some because Into Darkness is a Star Trek film–and Star Trek is a thinking person’s sci fi, right? The debate has been encapsulated by fans with a quote from Captain Picard in the movie Insurrection: “Can anyone remember when we used to be explorers?”

In other words, Star Trek is not supposed to be about action.

Balderdash. I’m not a huge fan of the original series, but it had its share of action sequences (and Gene Rodenberry had to rework the pilot to put in more action and make it more palatable to TV audiences–read into that what you will, but it’s been there since the start). One of the best Star Trek films is still Wrath of Khan, and the action and fighting is front and center there. This has only continued over the years with all subsequent movies and shows. Action is a part of Star Trek, and that shouldn’t be a surprise when you consider how varied the show is. It’s a delightful mix of politics, morality, relationships, emotions, and action–focusing on what it needs to focus on to tell its story. Star Trek is populist sci fi, not a niche sci fi film like 2001: A Space Odyssey (no matter how well known that film is, it is not populist).

Star Trek’s stories can be hit or miss, of course, but the stories that come alive are the ones that use any of those elements to explore its characters and ideas meaningfully. This can work in a revenge and action flick like Wrath of Khan or a more cerebral one exploring mortality like Generations. And it can work with a Hollywood blockbuster like Into Darkness.

Speaking of which (that preface did have a point), Into Darkness is stronger than its other JJ Abrams predecessor, which had a villain that liked to sit and brood in some dark throne room before randomly killing some things. The opponents in Into Darkness are allowed more time to develop and establish their motivations, which makes them more interesting foes for the new Kirk and Spock to tangle with. I worry that the opponents might rely a little bit too much on knowing earlier Star Trek stories to appreciate some of the nuances, but there is enough there for relative Star Trek newcomers to enjoy.

The actors playing the protagonists are also stronger in their second time around. Chris Pine as Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Spock are simply a delight to watch. They’re frustrated and intrigued by each other, their friendship growing even as they collide over how they respond to broken Starfleet regulations and the various crises a Hollywod blockbuster is going to throw at them. There wasn’t a scene where they weren’t clicking on all cylinders together. Even better, while they hit on the classic characteristics we know from Shatner and Nimoy in the same roles, they are carving their own way with the characters, not bound to where two actors have gone before… *ahem* it’s all enough to make a jaded movie-goer look forward to seeing them in the next movie.

The rest of the protagonists are a little more hit and miss. Zoe Saldana is allowed stronger dramatic moments than the original Uhura, thanks to her relationship with Spock (a change in this new Star Trek universe that is a welcome one). The script has less room for Chekhov, Scotty, and McCoy, who are reduced to their somewhat cliched parts. Simon Pegg works well within his limitations (he’s good fun as Scotty, even if he’s mostly used for humor), but I just can’t like Karl Urban as McCoy… he’s got the mannerisms of the original, and that’s it. He honestly feels like a caricature or someone spoofing the original McCoy, rather than finding the man in the character.

To JJ Abrams’s credit, he is juggling many things at once, and he’s paying good attention to the main characters and antagonists. That said, like his previous Star Trek outing (and many of the shows and movies he’s made), there are plot holes and strange technological workings that make you scratch your head if you stop to think about them. How is a character able to teleport across the galaxy when the Enterprise generally need to be orbiting a planet before they can beam something to it? The script doesn’t talk about this, even though the script later on won’t allow the crew to teleport someone that is less than a mile away.

Things are going too fast and too fun to make little things like this truly bothersome. The actors all believe in what’s going on and we’re just having fun watching them do it. This is populist sci fi doing what populist sci fi does best–and while it would be nice to have a Star Trek film in the future that explores the quieter side of the universe (or at least something more cerebral), this is still an enjoyable romp in the Star Trek Universe.


BFS Reviews: The Great Gatsby (2013)

IGreat Gatsby 2013s it necessary to do a spoiler-free review of a movie based on a book that’s almost a century old? Probably not, but there’s inevitably someone out there complaining when someone spoils the end of The Empire Strikes Back (okay, that was me–I couldn’t believe someone had “ruined it” for The Celt. She hadn’t seen the movie, so how could she know who Luke’s father was? Darn spoilery people types…).

In case you’re an oddball (curmudgeon?) like me, here’s your short, spoiler-free review. Baz Luhrmann’s usual penchant for spectacle on an enormous scale is at times a boost and at other times a hindrance to this classic American novel set in the Roaring Twenties. But it’s able to find its heart when it stops trying to party and instead focuses on its characters.

There you go, end of no spoilers.

Seriously, why are you still here if you don’t want them? Spoilers, dead ahead!

*clears throat* While Luhrmann’s past efforts (most notably Moulin Rouge) show that he can use spectacle to enhance his story, he’s more hit and miss with this element in Gatsby. First of all, his modern/historical parties can feel tonally out of place with the 1920s setting. Where Moulin Rouge is frequently tongue in cheek and a musical, both of which allow for more leeway with anachronism, Gatsby is a more serious movie–so the DJs and occasional rap songs feel more out of place than they should. Where the songs work best is when they are integrated more naturally with the scene, with modern songs being sung like they were a current hit of the 1920s (if I’m not mistaken, Florence Welsh of current band, Florence + the Machine, is a singing partygoer lounging on a piano at mid point in the film).

The parties are also overly chaotic. This makes sense for some of them, but a later scene where Nick eats lunch with Gatsby and Meyer Wolfsheim has much of these chaotic party elements for no reason. Yes, it’s a speakeasy, but speakeasies were not continuously neverending parties and that’s not what the scene is about: rather than adding anything, the huge party atmosphere is more distracting than anything else.

Where the parties do work is in their contrasts. While the party Nick attends with Tom Buchanan early on in the movie has many chaotic elements that can detract from it, they do serve as an amazing counterpoint to Gatsby’s afternoon visit with Daisy later in the movie. You can’t help but compare the afternoon with all the party scenes, and this smaller focus on Daisy and Gatsby meeting for the first time in years makes it all the more delightful.

This is indicative of the entire film. Luhrmann’s interpretation first found its feet for me when Gatsby finally arrived. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby is merely talked about for the first twenty or so minutes of the film, and once he enters, he is sympathetically human, understandable, and varied. He’s somehow the suave host of his massive parties, and also the overly dramatic and moody man that knocks on Nick Carraway’s door before meeting Daisy, soaked by a downpour and halfway certain that this moment–the one he has been working to for years–just won’t work. When the movie and its sometimes disparate elements allow him to, we can feel Gatsby’s “immense capacity for hope.” Both its beauty, and its misguidedness.

Its other characters are not always as strong, but a good ensemble. Tobey Maguire is much as we would expect here, but his good-natured moderateness fits Nick Carraway well. Carey Mulligan fits the bill as Daisy, and is much more easily seen as an object of Gatsby’s desire than performances in past films (I’m looking at you, Mia Farrow, you of the obnoxious “I can’t stand ’em” voice). Joel Edgerton is serviceable as Tom, but other than for the film’s final 30 minutes or so, he’s too much of a bad guy. We can see no reason why Daisy has married him or loved him in the past.

Enough. More could be said about the movie and its strengths and weaknesses. Why did Luhrmann decide to make Nick Carraway so traumatized by the events of the story that he is now in a sanitarium? Why did Luhrmann give Gatsby a moment of near murderous rage toward the end of the movie? Why does he over-narrate his movie (when the camera serves part of the function narration does in a book)? Heck, why is Myrtle yet another slender Hollywood actress, when she is described in the book as “faintly stout,” yet able to carry her “surplus flesh sensuously?” Trust me, I could go into these: I did a Master’s thesis on Gatsby, I love the book that much.

Such questions and thoughts would have a point, but miss the better point of the movie. Its soul (as is the book’s) is in Gatsby and his green light at the end of the dock. It comes back to this time and again and finds it once more at the movie’s end… and nothing, not all the unneeded narration or party scenes, nor any of the movie’s other small missteps, can take that away. This, if nothing else, make this version of Gatsby worth a look.