Friday, August 29, 2014

Star Trekking: The Voyage Home

I had actually seen the fourth Star Trek film way back in the day before I'd seen a single episode of the TV show, and even without context, I thought it was a pretty good movie.  There's a lightheartedness about the story, characters, and dialogue that really gives Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home a distinctiveness that separates it from the other films in the series.  If Wrath of Khan was the best Star Trek drama, then The Voyage Home is the best Star Trek comedy.

The Enterprise Crew, now exiled on Vulcan without an Enterprise, are getting ready to make the trip back to Earth using the Klingon Bird of Prey ship, where they will have to face the consequences of their actions in the previous film (if you want a recap, click here).  When they get back to Earth, there is an enormous probe emitting a strange, whale-like sound.  Its presence threatens to destroy the planet if it doesn't get a response.  Kirk (William Shatner), Spock (Leonard Nimoy), McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Sulu (George Takei), Scotty (James Doohan), Chekov (Walter Koenig), and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) conclude that they must travel back in time to find and bring back a humpback whale in order to communicate with the probe before it destroys the Earth.

 Once there, in our present day (you know, 1986), their ship has a major engine problem.  Because of course it does. While the rest of the crew fix the issue and get the ship prepared for the whales, Kirk and Spock set out to find them.  They encounter a woman named Dr. Gillian Taylor at the Cetacean Institute in San Francisco, who is in charge of taking care of two humpback whales that were rescued at sea and are now being temporarily sheltered there.  Gillian wants the best for the whales since the institute is going to be releasing them into the wild soon, and she worries that they will be hunted by poachers.  Kirk and Spock have the difficult task of convincing Gillian that they should be the ones to take the whales;  meanwhile the rest of the crew get into trouble of their own.

What I found I liked most about The Voyage Home was the sense of fun the script and cast bring to the forefront. Everyone is so comfortable in their characters that I truly believe the actors could have improvised the entire movie if they had a basic story outline and the result would be just fine.  Bits such as Kirk trying to explain to Gillian that Spock did "a little too much LDS" back in the 60s to explain his weird behavior, or Chekov asking a cop where the naval base is so that can find the "nuclear wessels" are hilarious.  Cold war humor and environmentalism aside, it's a lot great moments featuring the characters just being people, which has been more and more consistent as this series has progressed.  It all makes sense, too: these people were in exile for a few years together and have known each other for over 20 years; it's likely that they've become more comfortable with each other and regard each other more so as friends rather than co-workers.

I liked Gillian, but her character brings about some of my biggest problems with the film.  Much of her dialogue is about the whales and how she feels about them, not so much about her life and what she does besides take care of them.  (SPOILER AHEAD FOR ANYONE WHO DOESN'T WANT A THIRTY-YEAR-OLD MOVIE SPOILED) I suppose it makes her decision to come back to the future with the crew at the end seem more plausable, seeing as how there's NOBODY in her life that she loves or cares about (however unlikely that may seem), but it still would have been nice to see her be sad that she was leaving something behind.  We don't see her really react to being in the future either, which is kind of a letdown since a major theme of the film (and it's greatest source of comedy) is culture clash; we experience the fun of seeing futuristic people in the past, why not let us see some of Gillian's reaction to the future world?  In addition, some of her "save the whales" monologues are just a little too heavy-handed, which took me out of the film once or twice. For Christ's sake, she has an "I Heart Whales" sign on the back of her car. Don't you ever do anything else?

While I loved the character interactions, something else that caught my attention was the stunning visual effects.  I'm not talking flashy space battles or breakthroughs in CGI; I'm talking about those gorgeously-realized, animatronic humpback whales.  Whether it's 1986 or 2086, those whales look fantastic, and hats off to the effects team for pulling it off.  ILM's effects of ocean water evaporating? Less impressive, but it's not distractingly bad.  Meanwhile, Leonard Rosenman gives the film a whimsical orchestral score, but doesn't come close to providing a really great theme the way that Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner did with the earlier films.

Leonard Nimoy returns to direct, and he seems much more comfortable in the position than he did when he directed The Search for Spock.  While that film had a silly premise that tended to take itself seriously with bits of humor injected,  The Voyage Home knows what it wants to be (a comedy), and sticks to that idea throughout.  There's no big bad villain and no forced dramatic moments that might drag the film down; it's light and well paced, making its two-hour runtime feel like half that length.  What Nimoy (and the screenwriters) are great at doing is incorporating the whole cast into the films as opposed to limiting the cast members besides Shatner, McCoy, and Nimoy to background roles, like they had the tendency to be in the first two films.  In addition, while the script may be a bit self-referential, it never goes into full-on parody (which would have most likely ruined the film).

Even though the original series had several episodes where the Enterprise travelled back in time, I was never really thrilled with the results.  The Voyage Home fulfills that desire that I think most fans of anything have deep down; to see their fantasy or sci-fi heros in the "real" world.  The idea was great and the execution was even better; a comedic Star Trek that's legitimately funny, despite a few heavy-handed messages.  Not only a good Star Trek movie, The Voyage Home is accessible to any casual filmgoer who's in the mood for a light-hearted comedy, and that's not something a lot of sci-fi film franchises (let alone their fourth installments) can claim.


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction

If the Transformers franchise has proved anything, it's that nostalgia sells.  It sells big time.  With a new Ninja Turtles movie recently released, and a Jem and the Holograms AND new Power Rangers movie in the works, it's safe to say that children of the 80s and 90s are going to be milked for all their warm and fuzzy feelings for their cheesy saturday morning shows for at least the next decade.  We all know a live-action Pokemon movie is inevitable.

It's interesting that the bafflingly successful Transformers franchise started this trend, despite the fact that the films themselves often don't reflect the tone of the original series or anything resembling an 80s cartoon.  I guarantee that some of the biggest fans of the movies are people who didn't even grow up with the show, i.e. kids and teens of today.  There's fun to be had with the explosions, action scenes, and special effects, but I've found the Transformers franchise to be increasingly shallow and empty.  I did like the first film when it came out, and while I don't think that the sequel was, as Roger Ebert described, "a horrible experience of unbearable length," but it definitely wasn't as good.  I didn't even bother with the third film, as it seemed just as bloated and empty as the first sequel.

Now we come to this; the third sequel and a mini-reboot of the franchise featuring different human characters.  Instead of Shia LeBeouf and his Hot Girl of the Day, we get Mark Wahlberg as Cade Yeagar, an overly-optimistic inventor living on a farm in Texas, and his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz).  Cade and his best friend Lucas (T.J. Miller) discover an old pick-up truck with the intention of selling it for parts, but everything changes when Cade realizes that this truck is no truck; it's Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots.  Meanwhile, Joshua Joyce (the hilariously over-qualified Stanley Tucci), the C.E.O. of a corrupt corporation, has made a breakthrough in weapons technology thanks to a metal called (groan) Transformium.  He plans on using it to create his own transformers, which proves deadly enough for Optimus and a group of other Transformers (who surprisingly have distinct personalities) to try and stop him with the help of Cade, Tessa, and her boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor).

That basic outline would barely fill a 90-minute movie, let alone the film's true runtime of nearly three hours.  The opening bits with Cade, Tessa, and Lucas are so hollow and laughably cliche that I don't even see why they bothered with it.  Lucas is a horrible character, with his creepy fixation on how "hot" Tessa is (despite the fact that she's 17 and he's pushing 40), his clunky and aggressively unfunny jokes, and an air of annoyance that rivals two Jar Jar Binkses. (MINOR SPOILER) Let's just say that I literally cheered in the theater when I found out he would only be a main character in the first act.

Joshua Joyce is easily the best of the bunch, with Tucci giving a good performance and his character experiencing a (gasp!) CHARACTER ARC.  Every other character goes through hollow changes like Cade trusting Tessa to date Lucas or Optimus learning that "all humans are not so bad," but wow does none of it matter.  But you know what kind of movie this is when Cade being able to "throw a football real good" becomes a plot point.  The action is laughably over-the-top, the CGI is hit-or-miss, the comedy is awful, and the plot is so tension-free that it actually becomes boring.  If there's one thing you want your movie about giant, fighting, transforming robots to be, it's anything but boring.  Oh, and did I mention Kelsey Grammer was in this? He's in this.  He's the bad guy who does bad things.

I will say this though, the thing is shot beautifully.  From an opening in a prehistoric world that glides over gorgeous mountains to arial shots of cities (both in China and in the U.S.), Michael Bay and director of photography Amir Mokri, who also shot last year's Man of Steel, do a terrific job of capturing great angles and delivering on dynamic action set pieces.  Unlike Steel though, Age of Extinction is bright, colorful, vibrant, and most importantly, doesn't resort to shaky-cam for its action scenes.  I saw this in IMAX 3D, and that is truly the only way to go (if you must).  The open spaces, the swirling camera movements, and the grand-scale action are a lot of fun to experience on the big screen.  It's sort of like going to a Universal 3D theme park ride; there's no real story, it's just sort of fun to watch.

If only the fourth Transformers movie had been a theme park ride, I'm sure I would have liked it a hell of a lot more.  But at almost three fucking hours, and that's unforgivable.  In addition, I was pretty turned off by all the misogyny on display; women in this film are objects, and not one of them is even the slightest bit unattractive.  Two women walking by on the street apparently think it's cute when the despicable Lucas whistles at them and checks them out.  Was that supposed to be funny?  Was any of this movie supposed to be funny?  I was pretty much done with it by the two hour mark, and not all the giant robot dinosaurs in the world could have gotten me back into it. And I love giant robot dinosaurs.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

When Batman Begins--and more importantly, The Dark Knight--came around, superhero films had license to be dark and brooding, gritty and realistic. Thankfully, the Marvel Studios have managed to find a fairly consistent tone that mixes darkness and humor in a satisfying way; in other words, they're a hell of a lot of fun. While I stand by my opinion that the first Iron Man is the best of these films, one of the funniest superhero films of all time might just be Guardians of the Galaxy. Unlike most films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this one plays by its own rules.

That's not to say that Guardians doesn't have some serious moments, but at heart, it's a comedy. An amazingly big-budgeted comedy with lots and lots of death, violence, and action… but a comedy nonetheless. We are first introduced to Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) as a young boy going through a rather traumatic experience involving his sick mother. During the worst possible moment, he is abducted by aliens, and we fast-forward a few decades. Now calling himself Star Lord (what better name for an '80s kid's space outlaw fantasy hero?), but failing to acquire the infamy he would like to aspire to, Peter finds himself being assaulted by numerous aliens after stealing a very powerful MacGuffin orb. Among the aliens who get mixed up in Peter’s quest to keep the orb out of deadly hands is a bounty hunting raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his muscle, a tree alien named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), as well as an assassin named Gamora (Zoey Saldona) and a revenge-seeking juggernaut named Drax (Dave Bautista). 

While the story may be simplistic, the characters sure as hell aren’t. Each of the so-called Guardians is given a distinct personality, and each actor fits their role perfectly. Chris Pratt may have emerged as a true star with this movie, carrying the film with confidence, spot-on comedic timing, and genuine emotion. “Starlord” is such a fun character, and while he’s selfish and cocky, he’s never unlikable. There’s not a moment he’s onscreen where he doesn’t look like he’s having fun.

While CGI characters can sometimes be a distraction, Rocket and Groot never stick out for a second among their live-action costars. In fact, they might have been my favorite characters in the whole film. Rocket is a pyromaniac genius, the results of laboratory experiments on an Earth raccoon. His foul-mouthed dialogue had me rolling, and his animation blends fantastically with the reality of the other characters. Groot’s constant switching from a naive picture of innocence to badass bodyguard is hilarious, and his design is just brilliant. You might think that because his only dialogue only consists of “I am Groot” that he would get tiring, but it’s somehow funny every time. Both Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel give great performances and inject their characters with tons of charm.

Drax is an unexpectedly great character as well. The writing must be given special credit for not turning him into a cliché, revenge-seeking character. In fact, the way it plays out seems to be more of a parody of that cliché, always injecting humor into scenes that you thought were being played straight at first. His schtick is that people from his planet don't understand sarcasm, which is a small problem when you hang out with people that do few other things than dish out sarcastic one-liners. Bautista not only looks the part, but he plays it without flaw. I honestly don’t know how this wrestler/actor got through some of his lines without laughing (and same goes for the rest of the cast). 

Gamora has a great, green-skinned look, but her character isn’t quite as well-drawn as the rest of them. A daughter of the Big Bad of the movie, she decides to betray him and keep him from getting the MacGuffin orb. Her personality is not consistent; sometimes she jokes around with the other characters and other times she’s just as laughably serious as Drax. Don’t get me wrong; Saldona is great in the role, adding another great sci-fi performance to her resume alongside Avatar’s Netiri and Star Trek’s Uhura. However, given that she’s the only female on the team, it would have been nice to have her character be a bit more distinct.

Facing the same problem to a much larger degree is the villain set, who are honestly a bunch of generic bad guys with hardly any depth or backstory. It only stands out so prominently because of the excellent characters that surround them, mostly reciting dialogue that exposits about the plot (which doesn’t take itself seriously enough for the audience to really care about). There are rare moments when they actually feel threatening, and that’s down to the actors and the fantastic make-up jobs on all of them. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a minor issue.

The pacing, the visuals, the music, and the action all help sell the film as well, keeping things moving and never dragging its feet for a forced sentimental moment. The sound design is immersive, the writing is sharp and hilarious, and the cinematography doesn’t push for the shaky-cam crap that clutters up so many modern action movies (including the recent Captain America movie). Although CGI is used heavily, there are a good number of effects that utilize make-up, animatronics, and real sets that help the film’s world look lived-in rather than sterile. The soundtrack is also littered with great pop songs of the 70s and 80s courtesy of Starlord’s walkman, which provides some of the film's best montages and laughs, though the orchestral score fails to deliver a memorable theme. 

Director James Gunn clearly has a knack for this kind of thing, and I’d love to see him direct the sequel (which I was just craving by the end of this).  I’ve seen the film twice now, but I didn’t really see it until I experienced the IMAX 3D (actually the Grauman's Chinese theater, the most beautiful theater I've ever seen (and I refuse to call it the newly-named TCL Chinese Theater, just in case you thought I didn't know)). It’s the funniest superhero (or really, super anti-hero) movie I’ve ever seen, and comparing it to the other Marvel movies in the canon (I guess you could call it The Avengers saga), this is one ranks highly. Unlike those films, however, the film has a charm and sense of humor all its own, making it stand tall among the crowded field that is the superhero genre.