Monday, July 25, 2016

Star Trek Fast & Furious

 photo IM_zpscy0npdpc.jpg
From watching the chic young ‘90210’ cast of J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek movie franchise, it’s hard to fathom that Gene Roddenberry’s venerable sci-fi space opera just turned 50 this year.  Then again, it’s equally hard to imagine that ‘Star Trek: The Original Series’ (TOS) was axed by NBC back in 1969 after just three seasons as a result of dismal ratings, only to become a big hit in syndication and remain one of the most enduring cultural phenomena of our time with legions of fans called Trekkies (I mean “Trekkers”) five decades later.
‘Star Trek Beyond’ is the third entry in the new ST cinematic universe (to borrow Marvel’s terminology) and is the first not directed by J.J. Abrams who, in an act of betrayal worthy of Kylo Ren himself, took on a certain other space opera project and stayed on only as producer this time around.  Holy Benedict Arnold, Batman!  Filling in is Taiwanese director Justin Lin, who’s everything Ang Lee isn’t and whom I regard as the Chinese answer to Michael Bay.  For those unfamiliar, Lin is the guy responsible for pulling 'Fast & Furious' out of straight-to-DVD obscurity and making it into one of the most inexplicably lucrative film franchises in recent memory.  Lin brought his fast-and-furious style to this latest installment, making ‘Star Trek Beyond’ the most fast-paced and jam-packed-with-nonstop-action ST movie we’ve seen yet.  Case in point, while it took Abrams most of ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ just to damage the Enterprise, it only took Lin the first half hour or so to totally obliterate the iconic starship at the hands of the movie’s baddie, a villain by the name of General Krall (Idris Elba).
In spite of its cinematic excess, ‘Star Trek Beyond’ managed to be another solid addition to the ST franchise, providing viewers with a fun and action-packed deep space adventure yarn in the grand tradition of popcorn movies.  Filled with individual exploits of derring-do, dastardly villainy and a colorful cast of characters (including the feisty alien heroine played by Sofia Boutella shown below), it is an immensely satisfying thrill ride worth taking not just for the diehard Trekkers but for anyone who simply enjoys a good sci-fi/action flick. 

Well well well....     Look who's the Captain now!
 photo star-trek-beyond-jaylah_zpsayqdayjg.jpg

Grade: A
 photo startrekbeyondposter_zpslt3we7f5.jpg

Fear of the Dark

Good horror movies are hard to come by nowadays largely due to their susceptibility to sequel-itis and tendency to follow the same tired formulas, but in light of their popularity with young moviegoers looking for a good fright and favorable return-on-investment they are often a lucrative and safe bet.  While Hollywood will never stop swinging for the all-or-nothing home runs by making blockbuster tent-poles costing hundreds of millions in the vain hopes of recouping three times the films’ budgets at the box office, producers of horror films have discovered their own little secret: that settling for hitting singles often isn't such a bad deal.  First-time director David Sandberg’s new supernatural horror movie, ‘Lights Out,’ is the latest example of this limited approach. With a mere budget of $5 million, it has already grossed nearly $30 million worldwide.  Even if it drops substantially over its second weekend and disappears from theaters by week 3, the movie will be considered an unqualified success.
‘Lights Out’ (co-produced by James Wan) is a PG-13 rated supernatural thriller about a family terrorized by a malevolent entity that takes form in the darkness.  It is quite an intriguing – if unoriginal – hook.  But good horror movies can’t simply rely on gimmicks and must immerse us in the story and make us care about the characters.  ‘Lights Out’ delivers in this regard.  As with most James Wan movies (either as director or producer), the film centers around a small group of people whom the audience gains sympathy with in their worsening predicament, in this case a young woman named Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) and her little brother Martin (Gabriel Martin), who lives with his deranged mother Sophie (Maria Bello) and an entity of pure and unadulterated evil named Diana.
‘Lights Out’ is an effective little chiller due to its simplicity and sparseness.  From its nightmarishly creepy opening scene inside a mannequin factory to its final act, the movie’s scary moments are well parsed out for maximum impact without overdoing it and thereby rendering us immune, like many horror movies couldn’t resist doing.  Likewise, the performances by its cast of relative unknowns are subtle and understated yet no less powerful, driving the story briskly along and making us true “believers” in its outlandish supernatural premise.
Grade: A-

 photo lightsout_zpsiqps3cor.jpg

Monday, July 18, 2016


Ivan Reitman’s 1984 supernatural comedy ‘Ghostbusters’ gets a shot of estrogen in actor/director Paul Feig’s 2016 reboot.  Paul Feig (‘Bridesmaids,’ ‘Heat’ and ‘Spy’) is best known for collaborating with A-list comedic actress Melissa McCarthy, who’s one of the four Ghostbusters in this update, but did you know that he also created the short-lived coming-of-age cult comedy series ‘Freaks and Geeks’ produced by Judd Apatow?  Didn't think so.  Bringing back ‘Ghostbusters’ is no mean feat for the director, because he has to walk a fine line between attracting a new generation of viewers while not straying too far from the original and alienating fans of the 1984 classic.
Like the ‘Ghostbusters’ of auld with Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, the  new ‘Ghostbusters’ leans heavily on SNL with ¾ of its team comprised of current or recent SNL cast members in Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, with the fourth being McCarthy who’s hosted SNL quite a few times.  Even more than the original, the all-female Ghostbusters are nerdy science types who would fit right in on ‘Big Bang Theory’; Wiig as a straight-laced and socially awkward physics professor, McCarthy as a PhD outcast weird science paranormal investigator, and McKinnon’s Dr. Jillian Holtzmann is a tomboyish and gay mad engineer whose madcap experiments would give Christopher Lloyd’s Dr. Emmet Brown a decent run for his money.  The lone holdout of the geek club is Leslie Jones’s Patty, who makes up for her lack of science smarts with her street smarts and like-the-back-of-her-hand knowledge of NYC.  Aussie actor Chris Hemsworth (‘Thor’) proves that he has comedic chops as the Ghostbuster’s hunky male receptionist/secretary Kevin, who’s kept on for his looks despite being dumb as a bag of hammers in a classic example of gender role reversal.
‘Ghostbusters 2016’ is a fun if somewhat familiar exercise in 1980’s nostalgia.  Paying homage and staying true to the spirit of the original, the film is a respectful reboot and featured cameos from the original cast including Bill Murray, Sigourney Weaver, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson (sadly, Harold Ramis passed away in 2014) and Slimer the ectoplasm-spewing ghost.  The four female leads were all game and did justice to the Ghostbusters franchise, demonstrating that they can walk the walk as well as talk the pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo. 

Grade: B+
 photo Ghostbusters-2016-poster_zpsvtyvfdxu.jpg

Alice and Tatiana Need a Vacay

Bad behavior and immature shenanigans make for good comedy, and the latest raunchy R-rated offering, ‘Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates,’ is no exception.  Fresh off reprising his role as a party animal frat-boy in ‘Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising,’ Zac Efron plays the younger (and surprisingly) more mature and level headed of two dorky brothers who, at the directive of their long suffering parents, had to find respectable dates to bring to their little sister’s wedding in Hawaii.  They did so by posting an ad on Craigslist plus a Youtube invitation for open auditions and appearing on Wendy Williams when it goes viral.  Whoo boy, what could possibly go wrong?
The two winners of a free “vacay” to Hawaii turned out to be saucy and irresponsible Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) and sweet and dopey Alice (Anna Kendrick).  Alice is still recovering from the emotional trauma of her own recent wedding disaster and Tatiana thought going to Hawaii would be just the thing for her BFF to “get her groove back.”  At first, the two dates seem pleasant enough and appear to be just what the doctor ordered to hold Mike (Adam DeVine) and Dave (Efron) in check, but first impressions can be deceiving and the girls soon proved to be even wilder and more of a handful than the hapless siblings.
M&DNWD has its share of funny moments amidst all the dysfunctional family drama, and the predictable redemption moment in the end is true to formula.  Nothing is really new or anything we haven’t seen before, but the movie also has “heart” and its four young stars bring just enough to the wedding in their roles to make the movie a worthwhile diversion.  Besides, a movie featuring the comely Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza can’t be all that bad, right?

Grade: B 

 photo Mike-and-Dave_zpswk6b4hbl.jpg

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Purge: Election Tear

‘The Purge: Election Year’ (aka “How I saved a presidential candidate from being purged”) is the second follow-up to the surprising 2013 box office hit ‘The Purge,’ which earned nearly $90 million on a budget of $3 million.  The second film, ‘Purge: Anarchy,’ didn’t do too shabbily either, raking in well over $100 million on an $11 million investment.  Which means the producers at Blumhouse and Platinum Dunes (Michael Bay's production company) risk being purged themselves if they didn’t keep spinning off this proven moneymaker.  Although we’re seeing some diminishing returns, ‘The Purge: Election Year’ (with a budget of just $10 million) has made over $60 million thus far over two weekends, which suggests that we may have the next ‘Saw’ franchise on our hands.  Thankfully, ‘The Purge’ may well end on this note while it’s still on top.
For those of you unfamiliar with the outrageous premise, ‘The Purge’ postulates a dystopian contemporary America in which one day a year, from dusk til dawn on March 21-22, people can commit murder and other crimes with impunity to their heart’s content.  A good purging “cleanses” society and relieves pressures that create economic hardship on our nation, so the belief goes.  But come on, nobody really cares about that.  People purge because they want to let their inner demons out in an orgy of wanton catharsis.  In ‘The Purge: Election Year,’ there are even foreigners who come to America in pursuit of this happiness.
‘Election Year’ takes full advantage of its timeliness and in some ways reflects the deep political, socio-economic and, yes, racial divisions, disillusionment, and rifts in America today.  It’s not particularly deep, nor does it pretend to be since it’s essentially an exploitation B-movie relying on not-so-subtle subtexts, but there is that certain undefined quality that speaks to us on a purely instinctual gut level.  Maybe it’s the visceral thrill of seeing poetic justice being done and the bad guys getting their just desserts, or the rebellious Anti-Establishment streak in these films, but somehow it works because on the surface these films really have no business making such a shitload of money.

Grade: B-

 photo purge-election-year-poster_zpsx4rkhaj5.jpg

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Rumble in the Jungle

Since pulp fiction author Edgar Rice Burroughs’s iconic white man in the jungle first appeared in 1914, Tarzan has appeared on film no less than 48 times.  ‘The Legend of Tarzan,’ with Alexander Skarsgård in the role of British Viscount of Greystoke John Clayton of the House of Lords, would make that 49.  I can’t say I’ve seen more than a small handful of Tarzan movies, although watching the syndicated 1966-1968 TV series starring Ron Ely during the 1980’s was one of my fonder childhood memories.  Tarzan is truly a larger-than-life role model: heroic, noble, selfless and determined; the quintessential example of man’s ability to adapt and evolve in a hostile environment. Plus, he was coolly swinging around before Spiderman ever did.
The task of updating Tarzan for the jaded modern audience fell on British director David Yates, perhaps best known for helming the last four Harry Potter films.   To his credit, Yates avoided a long and exhaustive retelling of Tarzan's origin story, relying instead on brief flashbacks that were more than adequate to the task.  In TLOT Lord Greystoke is an adult who has adjusted into British society in the late 1800’s and happily married to his beloved Jane Porter (Margot Robbie), 10 years removed from the African Congo where he was raised by apes.  Events conspired to draw him (reluctantly of course) back into the untamed wilderness when he was recruited by American envoy and Civil War veteran George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) to investigate suspected Belgian misdeeds in the Congo.
While TLOT offers nothing new with its simple good-versus-evil storyline and clichéd characters, it still manages to be a rollicking old fashioned action adventure that should please both the young and old alike.  The CG visual f/x is raised to a whole new level of course, and Skarsgård’s perfectly sculpted abs will surely please the ladies and be the envy of men who drank a few more beers than they should have.  As the movie's diabolical villain, Christoph Waltz once again showed that he fits the archetype, outshining his previous effort in ‘Spectre’ as the Belgian envoy Leon Rom.
Grade: B+
 photo the-legend-of-tarzan-movie-poster_zpsglff1pfe.jpg

The Odd Couple

While mainstream Hollywood tends to bank on familiarity and prefers to play it safe while shoving big-budget remakes, reboots and sequels down our collective throats, independent filmmakers have the luxury of taking risks, daring to be different and to embrace their inner freakiness.  When I first saw the teaser for the Daniels’ (Scheinert and Kwan) weirdly funny dramedy ‘Swiss Army Man,’ I knew this is one such movie.  Its trailer features an outlandish scene of a young man stranded on an island who’s about to give up and hang himself until he noticed a corpse washed ashore, then things become more and more crazy from there.
The corpse “befriending” the young man Hank (Paul Dano) in question is played by none other than Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe, who gave what may be his best performance yet (as a cadaver no less) in a hilarious turn as the flatulent gas-bag Manny.  Manny provided the companionship Hank desperately needed during his enforced solitude to keep his sanity and will to live, and the two unlikeliest of buddies often struck up conversations on personal topics that no self-respecting straight man should feel comfortable discussing.  But this is no mere ambiguously gay tale, oh no, as both Hank and Manny just so happen to yearn for the same woman, Sarah, which is entirely understandable because she’s played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
A comedy featuring a corpse hasn’t been this weirdly funny since ‘Weekend at Bernie’s.’  Quirky and refreshingly original, 'Swiss Army Man' proves that indies may yet be Hollywood’s salvation and represents a promising start for Scheinert and Kwan as indie filmmakers with a unique and singular vision. While their eccentricities may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I’ll be eagerly awaiting for their next project as long as it doesn’t become one continuous fart joke.

Grade: A-
 photo Swiss-Army-Man-poster-620x922_zpsjphyhwus.png