“STAR TREK BEYOND” (2016) Review

“STAR TREK BEYOND” (2016) Review

I might as well place all my cards on the table. I am not a fan of J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the “STAR TREK” franchise. I heartily dislike the 2009 movie of the original title. And I also dislike – to a lesser degree, 2013’s “STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS”. So when I learned there was to be a third movie in this new franchise . . . needless to say I was not enthusiastic over the news. 

The second thing I learned about this third TREK film, “STAR TREK BEYOND”, was that it was not directed by J.J. Abrams. Justin Lin, who had helmed the fourth, fifth and sixth “FAST AND FURIOUS” movies; served as director. And for once, Simon Pegg, who also co-starred as Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, and Doug Jung served as the movie’s screenwriters; instead of Abrams’ usual scribes – Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman. No disrespect to Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman, but I did not miss their presence in this production. If anything, I managed to enjoy the TREK reboot for the first time since it began in 2009.

“STAR TREK BEYOND” begins with the arrival of the U.S.S. Enterprise at the Federation Starbase Yorktown for new supplies and shore leave for the crew. Not long after its arrival at Yorktown, an escape pod drifts out of a nearby uncharted nebula. The survivor, Kalara, claims her ship is stranded on Altamid, a planet within the nebula. The rescue turns into an ambush when the Enterprise is quickly torn apart by a massive swarm of small ships. Krall and his crew board the ship, and unsuccessfully search for a relic called an Abronath that Kirk had obtained for a failed diplomatic mission. Krall captures and removes many crew members from the ship. Kirk then orders for the crew to abandon ship as the Enterprise’s saucer section hurtles towards the planet. After more crew members are captured, including Lieutenant Nyota Uhura and Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu, Kirk is forced to find those who have not been captured and find a way to stop Krall from carrying out his plans against the Federation.

If I must be honest, “STAR TREK BEYOND” is not perfect. I believe that it has a major flaw and it centered around the main antagonist, Krall. How can I put this? I found both his true identity and the reason behind his main goal – the destruction of the Federation with the use of a bio weapon – a bit on the lame side. Apparently, Krall was a former Human captain from the pre-Federation era named Captain Balthazar Edison, whose ship had crashed on Altamid. Believing the newly formed Federation had abandoned him, Edison and his surviving crew had used the technology of the Altamid’s natives to prolong their lives and mutate their physiology. I am sorry, but that seemed to reaching a bit. And the reason for Krall/Edison’s desire to destroy the Federation – the belief that the latter had deliberately abandoned him and his crew – definitely seemed a bit lame to me.

If the background of the film’s main villain and his reason to destroy the Federation seemed a bit lame, then why did I like this film? Whatever weaknesses that “STAR TREK BEYOND” had, I can honestly say that it lacked the multiple plot holes that marred 2009’s “STAR TREK” and that ridiculous final half hour from 2013’s “STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS”. The flaws for this film seemed minor in compare to the first two films. I also liked the fact that the characters seemed more mature and established in this movie. Even Krall seemed like an improvement over the first two villains. He did not engage in a convoluted plot that involved time travel. Nor was his character whitewashed and engaged in another ridiculously convoluted plot. Although Krall’s reason to destroy the Federation seemed a bit thin, at least his actual plot – involving the creation of a bio weapon – seemed to be on solid. And for that, I have to thank screenwriters Simon Pegg and Donny Jung.

I have to admit that when it comes to action sequences, the new STAR TREK movies never fail to deliver. There were a handful of sequences in “STAR TREK BEYOND” that definitely impressed me. First and foremost was the attack on the U.S.S. Enterprise by Krall’s fleet and the crash landing on Altamid that followed. Honestly, I feel that director Justin Lin really outdid himself in that particular sequence. I found the minor scenes featuring the Enterprise crew’s efforts to survive on Altamid very engrossing and once again, well handled by Lin. Now that I think about it, just about all of the movie’s actions scenes impressed me – including Kirk and the other non-captured crew members’ efforts to free those who had been captured, the Enterprise crew’s efforts to prevent Krall/Edison from using his new weapon to destroy the Federation’s massive space station, Starbase Yorktown; and Kirk’s final confrontation with the main villain. I also liked the fact that the movie’s two major female characters – Lieutenant Uhura and a castaway named Jaylah – also took part in many of the film’s action sequences. And both seemed more than capable of taking care of themselves.

“STAR TREK BEYOND’ marked a major improvement in the franchise’s characterizations. For the first time, the main characters seemed to be truly comfortable with each other. And all of them seemed to be more mature and believable as Starfleet officers. This especially seemed to be the case for Chris Pine’s performance as James T. Kirk. For the first time, I found it easy to see his Kirk as a worthy captain for the U.S.S. Enterprise. The prat boy from the 2009 and 2013 movies was gone. Zachary Quinto also seemed very comfortable in his role as the Enterprise’s First Officer, Commander Spock. I also enjoyed how both he and Karl Urban, who portrayed Medical Officer Dr. Leonard McCoy, managed to establish a strong and rather funny screen chemistry – something that I do not recall from the two previous films. Quinto’s Spock seemed even more comfortable than ever with Zoë Saldana’s Nyota Uhura. First of all, both had the chance to enact a private drama between Spock and Uhura that did not come off as forced. I find it hard to believe that I had once found the idea of a romance between the two as unbelievable.

The movie also featured solid performances from Idris Elba as the movie’s main antagonist, Krall aka Balthazar Edison, who managed to thankfully convey his character’s emotional nature without engaging in any histrionics. I also enjoyed one particular scene between Elba and Uhura that struck me as both tense and effective, thanks to the actors’ performances. I also enjoyed the performances of John Cho, who always managed to give a cool, yet wry portrayal of Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu; Anton Yelchin, whose Pavel Chekov seemed more controlled and mature than he did in the previous films; Simon Pegg, whose portrayal of Lieutenant-Commander Montgomery “Scotty” Scott seemed a great deal more controlled and still funny; and Sofia Boutella gave an intense and skillful performance as an alien castaway/scavenger named Jaylah with a grudge against Krull.

I understand that “STAR TREK BEYOND” had not performed well at the U.S. box office. Some critics claimed that the movie was not as good as the 2009 movie. When I heard that, I nearly coughed up a lung. Frankly, I think it is a lot better than the two previous films. I thought Justin Lin did a great job as the movie’s director. And he was ably supported by Simon Pegg and Donny Jung’s screenplay, along with a first-rate cast led by Chris Pine. As for why many moviegoers stayed away, I do not have the foggiest idea. What matters is my own personal opinion.

R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy (1931-2015)

R.I.P. Anton Yelchin (1989-2016)

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” (2015) Review

“STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” (2015) Review

During the fall of 2012, the media and many film fans were stunned by news of filmmaker George Lucas’ sale of his production company, Lucasfilm, to the Walt Disney Company. I was flabbergasted. However, this sale led to Disney’s plans to continue Lucas’ “STAR WARS” movie saga with future releases, television shows, novels and comic stories.

One result of this sale proved to be Disney’s new film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”. The first of three movies for the franchise’ “Sequel Trilogy”, “THE FORCE AWAKENS” is set some thirty years after the 1983 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Some time after the Galactic Empire’s major defeat at the Battle of Endor, remnants of this political force formed a new galactic power known as the First Order under the mysterious leadership of Snoke, a Force user. Within less than thirty years, the First Order has managed to take possession of new worlds and become a powerful force within the galaxy. Although appalled by the First Order’s development, the New Republic government decided to do nothing.

Former Rebel Alliance leader, Leia Organa, managed to form a military organization from the rank and file of the New Republic’s armed forces called the Resistance. Believing that the Resistance need more help, Leia recruited a pilot named Commander Poe Dameron to acquire find a segment of a star map that was in the possession of the legendary explorer Lor San Tekka on Jakku. This map would lead to the whereabouts of her brother, Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, who had disappeared into exile following the destruction of a new generation of Jedi under his tutelage. Unfortunately, the village where Tekka lived was captured by a force of First Order stormtroopers under the command of one of Supreme Leader Snoke’s enforcers, a Force user named Kylo Ren. Ren ordered his troops to kill Tekka and the other villagers, while he took Dameron captive. Fortunately, the Resistance pilot had hidden the map inside his astromech droid, BB-8, which managed to escape. Even more fortunately, Dameron was rescued by a stormtrooper designated FN-2187, who wanted to use Dameron to help him defect from the First Order.

Finn and Dameron stole a TIE fighter plane and returned to Jakku to find BB-8. However, the plane crashed. FN-2187 – renamed “Finn” – by the pilot, encountered a desert scavenger named Rey, who had already found BB-8. Realizing that the First Order was after the droid, the pair made their escape from Jakku aboard the old freighter, the Millenium Falcon, and set out to find the Resistance forces. Along the way, Finn and Rey attempted to evade the pursuing Kylo Ren and met the Falcon’s former owner, Han Solo and the latter’s companion Chewbacca; who ended up helping them with their goal.

Many critics and moviegoers hailed “THE FORCE AWAKENS” as a return to what the franchise used to be back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And not surprisingly, it became the top earning movie released in 2015. Lucasfilm, now headed by producer Kathleen Kennedy (who had worked with Lucas and Steven Spielberg for years), turned to producer-director J.J. Abrams to helm this first film. Screenwriter Michael Arndt was originally hired to write the movie’s script, following Lucas’ treatment. But Lucasfilm and Abrams decided to scrap both him and the treatment. Then Abrams and filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan created their own screenplay . . . one that obviously pleased a lot of people. How do I feel about the movie? Well, like many films, “THE FORCE AWAKENS” has both good and bad qualities. I am going to start what I liked about it.

For me, the stars of “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” are actors John Boyega, who portrayed Finn; and Harrison Ford, who reprised his role as Han Solo. Their performances gave this movie an energy that could not be matched by the rest of cast. In the case of Ford, this movie featured his best performance in the four “STAR WARS” he has appeared in. And of the new cast members for the Sequel Trilogy, I feel that Boyega has quickly emerged as the best of the bunch, thanks to his energetic and humorous portrayal of a very complex character. Actually, Finn reminded me of a younger Han Solo. Perhaps that is why he clicked so well with the veteran actor. Come to think of it, he also managed to click well with the other two new leads – Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac. I find it unsurprising that John Boyega managed to win the BAFTA Rising Star Award. My only problem with Finn is that his character sometimes came off as some doofus who seemed to stumble his way through life. Two other performances in “THE FORCE AWAKENS” that really impressed me came from Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, who served as the voice and movements behind a new character called Maz Kanata. She should have received an award for her work. And Peter Mayhew, like Ford, was marvelous as always as the aging Wookie, Chewbacca. In a way, I found this miraculous for both Ford and Mayhew, considering that both suffered health issues during the movie’s production. What else did I like about “THE FORCE AWAKENS”? Well to my utter surprise, I enjoyed the new astromech droid, BB-8. When I had first saw it in some of the movie’s trailers, I had dismissed it as a second-rate version of R2-D2 and C3-P0. I was very surprised at how quickly I grew fond of the character.

There were other aspects of “THE FORCE AWAKENS” that I enjoyed, as well. If I have to brutally frank, I did not find most of Dan Mindel’s photography that impressive. But there were a few scenes that did impress me. I found Britain’s Lake District, which served as Takodana, very beautiful, thanks to Mindel’s photography. I was also impressed by his photography of United Arab Emirates and New Mexico, which served as the planet of Jakku. Mandel even managed to include an iconic shot, as shown below:

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One last aspect of the movie that impressed me was Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey’s editing. I thought they did a pretty damn good job in the sequence that featured Finn and Rey’s escape from Jakku aboard the stolen Millennium Falcon. But I found their work in the sequence in which the pair, Han Solo and Chewbacca get into conflict with pirates gangs who want to settle a score with Han, while three Rathtar creatures run rampant throughout the Falcon and Han’s other ship . . . to be very impressive. And it lacked the taint of confusion which has hampered many action scenes in the past.

Did I have any problems with “THE FORCE AWAKENS”? Unfortunately, yes. A lot of problems. I read somewhere that Lucasfilm/Disney had originally hired Michael Arndt to write the movie’s screenplay, but in the end, Kathleen Kennedy and J.J. Abrams rejected it. Abrams recruited Lawrence Kasdan, an old Lucasfilm veteran to rewrite the script and the result is what ended on the movie screens. And honestly . . . I was not impressed. Not by a long shot. The main problem I had with “THE FORCE AWAKENS” is that it shared too many plot points and characterizations with the first film in the franchise, 1977’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Hell, Abrams and Kasdan managed to borrow a bit from 1980’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” and the Prequel movies. It is one thing to lift certain aspects of from other works of art and even history – especially in the science-fiction/fantasy genre. It is another to literally borrow from another movie . . . within the same movie franchise. Just to verify my complaint, I had come across an Entertainment Weekly article that listed eighteen similarties between “THE FORCE AWAKENS” and “A NEW HOPE”that included:

*A droid carrying valuable information who finds himself on a desolate desert planet
*A Force-sensitive, masked, and darkly clothed antagonist who arrives on the scene shortly after the information is handed off, looking for the droid
*A lonely, Force-strong desert dweller who dreams of more
*A cruel military officer who holds a comparable level of authority to his Force-sensitive, masked, and darkly clothed colleague
*A massive spherical weapon that’s used to destroy a planet
*A coordinated aerial attack on the massive spherical weapon that’s monitored from a control room by Leia

Six similarities between the two movies strike me as disturbing. Eighteen similarities seem utterly ridiculous to me. Even worse, I managed to come up with four similarities between this movie and “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. The masked enforcer is revealed to be a member of the Skywalker family, the heroes end up on an ice planet, the roguish protagonist is left in dire straits by the end of the movie and the potential Force user meets an aging Jedi master for new lessons. J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy and the Disney Studios might as well stop protesting and admit that their new blockbuster reeks of unoriginality and plagiarism.

Another problem I had with “THE FORCE AWAKENS” proved to be characterization. I had no problem with the idea of characters from the saga’s previous trilogies making an appearance. I had a problem with the new characters being a rehash of other characters – like our desert future acolyte Rey being a remake of the young Luke Skywalker; the First One enforcer Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo being another Anakin Skywalker; Resistance pilot Poe Dameron being another Leia Organa (but without the caustic wit); former stormtrooper Finn being another Han Solo; Supreme Leader Snoke is another Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine; and General Hux is another Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin (without the presence). Actually, this video clip from You Tube/Dorkly.com pretty much said it all. The similarities between the saga’s characters strikes me as another example of the lack of originality in this movie.

But some of the characters proved to be very problematic for the movie’s plot. One of the biggest problems proved to be the character of Rey. As a woman, I found it satisfying that a leading STAR WARS character is not only a Force user, but a young woman. Unfortunately, Abrams and Kasdan took this too far by nearly portraying Rey as a borderline Mary Sue. Well, Lucas nearly transformed Luke Skywalker into a Gary Stu (same thing, male version) – especially in the last half hour of “A NEW HOPE” and the first hour of “RETURN OF THE JEDI”. But with Rey, Abrams and Kasdan took it too far. Using her strong connection to the Force as an excuse, they allowed Rey to become a talented pilot who could rival Han Solo and Anakin Skywalker, easily learn how to utilize the Jedi Mind Trick and defeat an experienced Force user with a lightsaber without any training. Without real any experience or training whatsoever. By the way, that last achievement really rubbed me the wrong way. I mean . . . what the hell? What is she going to do in the franchise’s next movie? Walk on water? Now . . . Daisy Ridley gave a nice performance as Rey. But she failed to knock my socks off. Her performance was not enough for me to overlook the ridiculous level of skills that her character had accomplished.

Equally problematic for me proved to be the Kylo Ren character, who turned out to be Han and Leia’s only son, Ben Solo. According to the movie, he was one of Luke’s padawan learners, before he made the decision to embrace evil, kill of Luke’s other padawans and become an enforcer for the First Order. Why? I have not the foggiest idea. “THE FORCE AWAKENS” made it clear that he seemed to worship his grandfather’s role as a Sith Lord. I can only assume that either the next movie or “EPISODE IX” will reveal the reason behind young Ben’s embrace of evil. I hope so. Because the reasoning presented in this film really sucks. It sucks just as much as Ren’s man child behavior. You know, I could have stomach this behavior if he had been around the same age as his grandfather in the Prequel Trilogy’s second and third movies. But Kylo Ren is pushing thirty in this film. He strikes me as too old to be engaging in childish temper tantrums. I can only assume that contrary to Han’s “He has a bit of Vader in him” comment, Kylo Ren is more a chip off the old block – namely his dad, who had behaved like a man child in the 1977-83 films. And why did Han and Leia name their son after Obi-Wan Kenobi, who used the name “Ben” during his years of exile on Tatooine? Leia never knew him . . . not personally. And Han never really clicked with Obi-Wan on an emotional level. So, why did they name him after the long deceased Jedi Master? As for Adam Driver, he gave a decent performance, but honestly . . . it was not enough for me to be fascinated by his character. It was just . . . decent.

Leia Organa seemed to be a ghost of her former self, thanks to Carrie Fisher. God bless Fisher, she tried. She really did. Abrams and Kasdan even gave her a few witty lines. But . . . Fisher’s performance reminded me of the one she gave in “RETURN OF THE JEDI” . . . lacking in any real fire. And I was disturbed by one scene in which Leia rushed forward to hug Rey, following the latter’s return from the First One’s Starkiller Base. Why did Leia ignore Chewbacca, who must have been torn up over Han’s death? Why did Chewie ignore her? Poe Dameron proved to be a real problem. One, he was not an interesting character to me. Frankly, I found him rather bland. And considering that Oscar Isaac portrayed the character, I found myself feeling very disappointed. A talented actor like him deserved a better role than this. Also, why did Poe leave Jakku and returned to the Resistance’s base? His mission was to acquire information leading to Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts . . . information that he had stored in his BB-8 droid before the First Force appeared at that Jakku village. After Finn had rescued him from Kylo Ren and the First Force warship, Poe insisted that they return to Jakku, so he could find BB-8. What did he do after his and Finn’s TIE fighter crashed on the planet? Poe walked away from the crash, found transport off the planet and returned to his Resistance base. Not once did he bother to finish his mission by searching for BB-8. What the fuck? He went through all that bother to drag Finn back to Jakku and failed to hang around long enough to find BB-8? SLOPPY!! As for Mark Hamill . . . why was he even in this movie? He appeared in the movie’s last scene without speaking one word of dialogue. What a waste of time!

There were other scenes that rubbed me the wrong way. Critics made a big deal over the Nazi-like speech that General Hux gave the First Order troops on the Starkiller Base, swooning over the idea of Nazi metaphors in a “STAR WARS”movie. Big deal. There have been Nazi metaphors in the franchise’s movies since the first movie in 1977. Only Lucas did not resort to a ham fisted speech, similar to the one given by actor Domhnall Gleeson. I also found Leia’s little military conference rather laughable. She did not confer with a handful of military leaders. Instead, she seemed to be conferring with anyone – commanders, pilots, etc. – who seemed to have made their way to her table. It was like watching a STAR WARS version of a town meeting. What the hell? And what was the big deal over the First Order’s search for Luke Skywalker? So what if he was the last Jedi? According to the Lor San Tekka character portrayed by Max von Sydow, there can be no balance in the Force without the Jedi. Really? Since when is the balance of the Force depended on the presence of a religious order that had not been in its prime for over half a century? With Tekka’s comment, Abrams and Kasdan regressed the saga back to the Sunday School morality of “A NEW HOPE”. And could someone please tell me how the lightsaber that Anakin had first constructed following the loss of his first on Geonosis and which Luke had lost during his duel against the former on Bespin, end up in the possession of Maz Kanata on Takodona? How? And why on earth did Abrams and Kasdan thought it necessary to re-introduce it into the saga? Why? It was nothing more than a lightsaber . . . a weapon. There was no need to transform it into some kind of mythologized artifact.

Aside from the colorful photography and editing, I was not that impressed by the movie’s other technical aspects. One, Lucasfilm and Disney allowed both the Resistance and the First Order to use military technology that was last scene in the 1977-83 trilogy. Why? Why did the Resistance and First Order characters wear the uniforms that members of the Rebel Alliance and the Imperial Fleet wore? How cheap is that? And why have the Resistance and the First Order use technology from the same groups? The only new technology I had spotted was the two-seater TIE fighter for the First Order and the lumbering desert vehicle that Rey used on Jakka. Were Kathleen Kennedy and the Disney Studios too cheap to hire someone to create new designs for the military in this film? Or was this another over-the-top attempt to re-create the past of the first trilogy? As for John Williams’ score . . . uh . . . not really impressed. Mind you, I had nothing against it. The score served the movie’s plot rather well. But there was nothing memorable or iconic about it.

I can see why many critics and moviegoers praised “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” as a return to the “magic” of the Original Trilogy. The movie not only utilized many technical aspects of that first trilogy, but also characterization and plot. To be brutally honest, I believe that this new movie had more or less plagiarized the first trilogy – especially “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Many might regard this as something to celebrate. I do not. I regard this “celebration” of the first trilogy as an artistic travesty and a sign of the lack of originality that now seemed to plague Hollywood. From an artistic point of view, I do not believe the Force was with this movie.

“MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION” (2015) Review

“MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION” (2015) Review

When I first learned that a fifth movie for the “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE” movie franchise would be shot, I must admit that I was not particularly thrilled. As far as I was concerned, three or four movies were enough. The last film, “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL”, struck me as the high note of the franchise. I had doubts that the next film could be an improvement of the last film.

Paramount Pictures and the film’s producers (which included star Tom Cruise and J.J. Abrams) went ahead to produce and release the franchise’s fifth entry, “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION”. The movie begins with IMF (Impossible Mission Force) agents Ethan Hunt and Benji Dunn engaged in a mission to intercept nerve gas being sold to terrorists. But when Hunt is captured and escapes from the customer who wanted the nerve gas, he becomes aware of an international criminal consortium called the Syndicate. He also meets a disavowed MI6 agent and Syndicate operative named Ilsa Faust, who helped him escape. But C.I.A. Director Alan Hunley does not believe in the existence of the Syndicate. Hunley also goes before a Senate committee to disband the IMF, despite Agent William Brandt’s efforts to stop him. Declared a rogue agent by the C.I.A., Hunt enlists the aide of Ilsa Faust and his former IMF colleagues – Benji, Luther Stickell and Brandt – to provide evidence on the existence of the Syndicate and bring down the organization’s leader who had earlier captured him.

If anyone had been reading some of my past reviews of the Summer 2015 movies (which I doubt), that person would noticed a good number of complaints on my part regarding the pacing of these movies. I will say this about “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION”, it possesses a strong finish. And screenwriters Christopher MacQuarrie and Drew Pearce also managed to create a very interesting and complex tale that involved deception, double-crosses and misconceptions. And thanks to MacQuarrie, who also served as the movie’s director, “ROGUE NATION” featured both some first-rate dramatic scenes and outstanding action sequences.

My favorite dramatic scenes included Brandt’s clash with Hunley over the future of IMF; Faust’s attempts to convince the Syndicate’s leader, former MI-6 agent Solomon Lane, that she is loyal to him; Faust’s encounter with her MI6 Director Atlee, the quarrel between Hunt and the always skeptical Brandt on how to handle Lane, a USB flash drive that everyone seems to want, and Dunn’s kidnapping; and the confrontation between Hunt, Brandt, Hunley, Atlee and the Britain’s Prime Minister. But my favorite episode proved to be one of the last. It featured Hunt’s efforts to convince Lane to let Dunn go in exchange for the information on the flash drive. Thanks to the performers in that scene, I thought it was a phenomenon scene filled with tension.

But “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION” is also an action film. And it featured some very outstanding scenes. Trailers and television spots made a big deal of the movie’s opening action shot featuring Tom Cruise and a cargo plane. I would have been impressed if I had not seen it so many times. But I was impressed by the high tension sequence at an opera performance in Vienna. I thought both MacQuarrie and film editor Eddie Hamilton handled it very well. Another favorite sequence proved to be Hunt, Faust and Dunn’s attempt to steal information about the Syndicate from inside an underwater turbine tank in Morocco. In fact, I think I was even more impressed with MacQuarrie and Hamilton’s work in this sequence than I was with the one in Austria. And I thought the film’s last action sequence in the streets of London was well handled and suspenseful . . . especially the fight scene between Faust and Lane’s right-hand man, Janik Vinter.

There is a good deal to like about “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION”. But I would never regard it as my favorite movie from the franchise. Heck, I would not even rank it as my second favorite. As much as I liked the movie . . . I had some problems. One, “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION” featured the fourth movie in the franchise in which either Ethan Hunt finds himself on the run as a rogue agent or when the IMF is in danger of being permanently disbanded. In the case of this movie, both happened. A senate committee disbanded IMF and Hunt ended up on the run, hunted by the C.I.A. Four movies out of five . . . this strikes me as a bit too much after five movies. And unoriginal. And why would the C.I.A. director go before a senate committed to disband the IMF? I could have sworn that the latter was a division or section of the C.I.A. It certainly seemed that way in the 1996 movie, “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE”. Following the death of Jim Phelps, Ethan’s Hunt immediate supervisor proved to be then Director Eugene Kittridge (portrayed by Henry Czerny). And the IMF was located at the C.I.A. Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Hunt also answered to Director Theodore Brassel (Laurence Fishburne), who also worked out of Langley. See what I am getting here? Why is this movie portraying the C.I.A. and the IMF as two separate agencies? I also could not help but shake my head that Hunley wanted to disband the IMF for what happened in “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL”. I understand that Hunley was upset that Hunt allowed those nuclear weapon codes to get into the hands of the main villain. But that happened four years ago. And why bring down an entire agency or division over the actions of one agent? Hunley should have simply went after Hunt. Speaking of the latter, while he was making goo-goo eyes at Elsa Faust, did he remember his estranged wife, Jules? Are they still legally married? Does he still love her?

What exactly was William Brandt’s current position at IMF? I never heard of a mere agent having enough authority to report before a Senate committee? I read somewhere that in this movie, IMF was currently without a director? Huh? This would never happen in the intelligence community. Even if there was no permanent director on hand, there would be an interim director before a permanent one could be found. Was MacQuarrie and Drew Pearce trying to hint that Brandt had risen up the IMF ladder? Why not Hunt? Why not allow Hunt to become the temporary director and allow Brandt to be the field agent? It would make more sense. What did not make any sense was that opening action sequence involving the retrieval of those nerve gas canisters. It would have been a lot easier for Hunt and Dunn to snatch the nerve gas before it could be loaded on that cargo plane. But the way the whole stunt was planned and carried out, I got the feeling it was nothing more than a glorified stunt planned to show audiences that Cruise still had what it took to be an action star. And it bored me. Also, I found myself slightly confused about the movie’s plot – namely the goals of Elsa Faust and Solomon Lane. At first, I thought Faust wanted the information that would expose the Syndicate. As it turned out, the information that she, Benji and Hunt had stolen was the same information that Syndicate leader wanted . . . MI6 funds that could finance his terrorist organization. So . . . was Faust playing Hunt and MI6 all along? Was Lane playing Hunt? Or did the screenwriters make a rather confusing switch in the plot in order to surprise the audiences? I have no idea.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s performances. Tom Cruise gave a top-notched performance as Ethan Hunt . . . as always. But I got the feeling that there was nothing particular new or mind blowing about his performance. Many critics seemed to be more than impressed by Rebecca Ferguson’s performance as the allegedly disavowed MI6 agent, Elsa Faust. Yes, she did an excellent job in giving a very complex performance. But the “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE” movie franchise has always been blessed with excellent and interesting women characters. She is not the first. Simon Pegg was very funny as IMF tech/agent Benji Dunn. More importantly, he did an excellent job in conveying Dunn’s growing confidence as a field agent. Although he did make a cameo appearance in the fourth “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE”, it was nice to see Ving Rhames appear as a supporting player again, reprising his role as the talented hack/IMF computer technician, Luther Stickell. And it was nice to see Jeremy Renner reprise his role as IMF Agent William Brandt again. He gave first-rate performance, as always. But I was very disappointed that he was not feature in any major action sequences, other than the Morocco car chase.

The role of C.I.A. Director Alan Hunley must be the first bureaucrat I have ever seen Alec Baldwin portray. Being the consummate actor he has always been, Baldwin gave an excellent portrayal of a limited-minded man whose resentment and anger toward another man led him to disband an entire agency (or division). I was very impressed by Simon McBurney’s performance as the MI6 Director, Attlee. He did an excellent in conveying the character’s manipulative and slightly malevolent personality. Sean Williams’s character, Solomon Lane, definitely struck me as malevolent, thanks to the actor’s performance. There were times when his character came off as a one-dimensional James Bond villain. But fortunately, his scenes with Cruise later in the film allowed audiences to fleetingly see the emotional toll that Lane had endured as an MI6 agent. “ROGUE NATION” also featured a very funny cameo appearance by Tom Hollander as the Prime Minister. I find this ironic, considering the tense nature of the scene he had appeared in.

In a nutshell, “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION” was an entertaining and exciting addition to the movie franchise. I thought Christopher MacQuarrie and Drew Pearce managed to create an interesting tale filled with intrigue, double-cross, first-rate action and excellent acting from a cast led by Tom Cruise. However . . . I thought the movie slightly suffered from some plot holes and a writing formula that is starting to seem a bit tired. I understand that Paramount has already green-lighted a sixth film for the franchise. I hope that it will prove to be a bit more original.

The Celebration of Mediocrity and Unoriginality in “STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS”

star-wars-episode-7-cast-photos-pic

 

“THE CELEBRATION OF MEDIOCRITY AND UNORIGINALITY IN “STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS”

Look … I liked the new “STAR WARS” movie, “THE FORCE AWAKENS”.  I honestly do.  Heck, I feel it is better than J.J. Abrams’ two “STAR TREK” films.  But I am astounded that this film has garnered so much acclaim.  It has won the AFI Award for Best Picture.  It has been nominated by the Critics Choice Award for Best Picture.

“THE FORCE AWAKENS”???  Really?  It did not take long for certain fans to point out that the movie’s plot bore a strong resemblance to the first “STAR WARS” movie, “A NEW HOPE”.  In fact, I am beginning to suspect that J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan had more or less plagiarized the 1977 film, along with aspects from other movies in the franchise.  Worse, it has some plot holes that Abrams has managed to ineffectively explain to the media.  In other words, his explanations seemed like shit in the wind and the plot holes remained obvious.

Then I found myself thinking about “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.”, Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the 1964-1968 television series.  I will not deny that the movie had some flaws.  Just about every movie I have seen throughout my life had some flaws.  But instead of attempting a carbon copy of the television series, Ritchie put his own, original spin of the show for his movie.  And personally, I had left the movie theater feeling impressed.  And entertained.  It is not that Ritchie had created a perfect movie.  But he did managed to create an original one, based upon an old source.  Now that was impressive.

But instead of having his movie appreciated, a good deal of the public stayed away in droves.  Warner Brothers barely publicized the film.  Worse, the studio released in August, the summer movie season’s graveyard.  And for those who did see the movie, the complained that it was not like the television show.  Ritchie had made changes for his film.  In other words, Ritchie was criticized for being original with a movie based upon an old television series.

This is incredibly pathetic.  One director is criticized giving an original spin to his movie adaptation.  Another director is hailed as the savior of a movie franchise for committing outright plagiarism.  This is what Western culture has devolved into, ladies and gentlemen.  We now live in a world in which the only movies that are box office hits are those that form part of a franchise.  We live in a society in which glossy and mediocre shows like “DOWNTON ABBEY” are celebrated.  We live in a world in which a crowd pleasing, yet standard movie biopic like “THE KING’S SPEECH”can receive more acclaim than an original film like “INCEPTION”.

In regard to culture or even pop culture, this society is rushing toward conformity, familiarity and mediocrity.  God help us.

Ranking of Movies Seen During Summer 2015

Usually I would list my ten favorite summer movies of any particular year. However, I only watched ten new releases during the summer of 2015. Due to the limited number, I decided to rank the films that I saw:

 

 

RANKING OF MOVIES SEEN DURING SUMMER 2015

1. “Jurassic World” – In the fourth movie for the JURASSIC PARK franchise, a new dinosaur created for the Jurassic World theme park goes amok and creates havoc. Directed by Colin Trevorrow, the movie starred Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard.

 

 

2. “Ant-Man” – Convicted thief Scott Lang is recruited to become Ant-Man for a heist in this new entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Directed by Peyton Reed, Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lily and Michael Douglas starred.

 

 

3. “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” – Guy Ritchie directed this adaptation of the 1964-1968 television series about agents for the C.I.A. and KGB working together to fight neo-Nazis in the early 1960s. Armie Hammer, Henry Cavill and Alicia Vikander starred.

 

 

4. “Tomorrowland” – Brad Bird directed this imaginative tale about a a former boy-genius inventor and a scientifically inclined adolescent girl’s search for a special realm where ingenuity is encouraged. George Clooney, Britt Robertson and Hugh Laurie starred.

 

 

5. “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” – Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are forced to prevent an artificial intelligence created by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner from destroying mankind. Joss Whedon wrote and directed this second AVENGERS film.

 

 

6. “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” – Tom Cruise starred in this fifth entry in the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE” film franchise about Ethan Hunt’s efforts to find and destroy a rogue intelligence organization engaged in terrorist activities.

 

 

7. “Mr. Holmes” – Ian McKellen starred in this adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel about the aging Sherlock Holmes’ efforts to recall his last case. Directed by Bill Condon, Laura Linney and Milo Parker co-starred.

 

 

8. “Fantastic Four” – Josh Trank directed this reboot of the Marvel comics series about four young people whose physical form is altered after they teleport to an alternate and dangerous universe. Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Bell starred.

 

 

9. “Entourage” – Doug Ellin wrote and directed this fluffy continuation of the 2004-2011 HBO series about a movie star and his group of friends dealing with a new project. Kevin Connolly, Adrian Grenier, Kevin Dillon, Jerry Ferrara and Jeremy Piven starred.

 

 

10. “Terminator: Genisys” – Alan Taylor directed this fifth movie in the TERMINATOR franchise, an unexpected turn of events creates a fractured timeline when Resistance fighter Kyle Reese goes back to 1984 in order to prevent the death of leader John Connor’s mother. Arnold Schwartzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney and Jason Clarke starred.

“MOB CITY” (2013): Episode Ranking

Mob City

Below is my ranking of the TNT Network’s 2013 six-episode limited series called “MOB CITY”. Inspired by John Buntin’s book, “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City”, the miniseries was created by Frank Darabont and stars Jon Bernthal, Milo Ventimiglia, Neal McDonough and Alexa Davalos:

 

“MOB CITY” (2013): Episode Ranking

1 - 1.06 Stay Down

1. (1.06) “Stay Down” – With ex-wife Jasmine Fontaine safely out of Los Angeles, Los Angeles Police detective Joe Teague sets about making a deal with mobster Bugsy Siegel to guarantee her complete safety in this finale episode. Instead, events move toward an ending that proves to be as shocking as the beginning.

 

2 - 1.03 Red Light

2. (1.03) “Red Light” – During a visit to Jasmine’s apartment, Joe informs her that the L.A.P.D. knows about the pictures she took of Siegel’s murder of Abe Greenberg on behalf of her current boyfriend, second-rate comedian Hecky Nash. This visit enables him to learn of mobster Sid Rothman’s (a colleague of Siegel and Mickey Cohen) intent to bump off a potential witness to his murder of two Siegel soldiers.

 

3 - 1.01 A Guy Walks Into a Bar

3. (1.01) “A Guy Walks Into a Bar” – In this premiere episode, Joe accepts a commission to act as private bodyguard for Nash, who is blackmailing the mob with photos Siegel murdering Greenberg.

 

4 - 1.05 Oxpecker

4. (1.05) “Oxpecker” – While Cohen and Rothman discovers that she is the photographer who had snapped the incriminating images of Siegel, Jasmine is forced to deal with Hecky’s deadly partner in the blackmail scheme, Leslie Shermer. Meanwhile, the police’s attempt to protect a witness against Rothman ends in violence and disaster, thanks to a mole within Captain William Parker’s task force.

 

5 - 1.02 Reason to Kill a Man

5. (1.02) “Reason to Kill a Man” – Following Hecky’s death, Teague and the L.A.P.D. question Jasmine about his blackmail scheme against Siegel. Meanwhile, Rothman finds the two trigger men who had not only witnessed Greenberg’s death, but also served as informants for the police. Also, Joe’s fellow ex-Marine, attorney Ned Stax, warns him to get rid of incriminating evidence linking him to Jasmine.

 

6 - 1.04 His Banana Majesty

6. (1.04) “His Banana Majesty” – Mobster Jack Dragna tries to shoehorn into Siegel’s Los Angeles operations, while the latter is behind bars on suspicions of murder. And Joe is surprised by a visit to his apartment from Rothman.

“STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS” (2013) Review

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“STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS” (2013) Review

Following the success of the 2009 movie, “STAR TREK”, producer/director J.J. Abrams continued the saga of this alternate STAR TREK with a sequel called “STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS”. This latest film not only continued the adventures of Starfleet Captain James T. Kirk and his crew, but also re-introduced a well-known villain from the franchise’s past. 

Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof, “STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS” begins a year following the events of the 2009 movie. The crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise has been ordered to observe the volcanic activities of Nibiru, a class “M” planet that serves as home for its primitive inhabitants. Unfortunately, Kirk and his crew violate the Federation’s Prime Directive by using a cold fusion device to deactivate the volcano. Worse, in order to fetch Spoke from the volcano’s depth, the Enterprise rises out of the planet’s ocean and is seen by the Nibirians. Upon the starship’s return to Earth, both Kirk and his first officer, Spock, are chewed out by Admiral Christopher Pike for violating the Prime Directive on Nibiru. Spock is reassigned to another starship and Kirk has lost command of the Enterprise and ordered to finish Starfleet Academy.

Meanwhile, a mysterious man offers a vial of blood to a Starfleet officer named Thomas Harewood in order to save the life of the latter’s dying daughter. In exchange, Harewood used the mysterious ring to blow up the Kelvin Memorial Archives (a secret Section 31 facility) on the mysterious man’s behalf. This new emergency leads Starfleet to assign Admiral Pike as commander of the Enterprise. Pike manages to convince Marcus to assign Kirk as his new First Officer. The bombing of the Kelvin Archives leads to a meeting of starship commanders ordered to hunt down the mysterious perpetrator, revealed as rogue Starfleet agent John Harrison. However, an attack upon the meeting by a jumpship piloted by Harrison leaves several Starfleet officers dead – including Pike. Admiral Marcus reinstates Kirk as commander of the Enterprise and orders the latter to hunt down Harrison to the Klingon homeworld, Kronos, and destroy the rogue agent’s base with 72 prototype photon torpedoes placed aboard the Enterprise. However, the manhunt for Harrison ends up providing a good deal of surprises for Kirk and his crew – including the revelation of Harrison’s true identity.

When I first saw “STAR TREK” four years ago, my initial response to J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the franchise had been . . . somewhat positive, yet slightly uneasy. A second viewing of the movie made me realize that it was a piece of crap, thanks to a script riddled with plot holes. I still maintained hope that this new sequel would prove to be a improvement. And it did . . . to a certain extent. The plot for “STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS” did not strike me as particularly original. Rogue Starfleet officers have been used in the franchise before – especially in “STAR TREK DEEP SPACE NINE” and the 1991 film, “STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY”. The John Harrison character proved to be none other than Khan Noonien Singh, originally portrayed by Ricardo Montalban in an episode of “STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES”and the 1982 movie, “STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN”. In fact, the screenwriters not only used the Khan character, but also Dr. Carol Marcus and put a different spin on a famous scene from the 1982 movie. Khan/Harrison’s attack on Admiral Marcus’ meeting bore a strong resemblance to a scene from a “STAR TREK VOYAGER” episode called(2.14) “Alliances”.

Despite the lack of originality that seemed to permeate the film, I must admit that I enjoyed a good deal of it. I found the conspiracy that surrounded Khan’s connections to Admiral Marcus rather interesting. This was especially the case in the jumpship attack scene, the phaser fight on Kronos, Carol Marcus’ rescue of Doctor McCoy from one of the photon torpedoes and finally Kirk and Khan’s transportation to Admiral Marcus’ ship U.S.S. Vengeance via a “space jump”. These scene proved to be very exciting, thanks to Abrams’ excellent direction. The chemistry between Zachary Quinto and Zoë Saldaña as lovers Spock and Nyota Uhura seemed to have vastly improved from the 2009 film. Perhaps the emotions between the two characters seemed more two-way and genuine the second time around. The chemistry between Quinto and Chris Pine’s James Kirk seemed stronger than ever. Bruce Greenwood gave an intense and superb performance as Admirable Christopher Pike, even if I found the character’s faith in Kirk rather questionable. On the other hand, I found Peter Weller’s portrayal as the warmongering Admiral Marcus a bit hammy. And Simon Pegg’s Scots accent became slightly more bearable in this film. But I do feel that Karl Urban, John Cho and Anton Yelchin had less to do in this film, than they did in “STAR TREK”. Benedict Cumberbatch struck me as effectively ambiguous and sinister at the same time. However, if J.J. Abrams needed someone to portray the Indian-born Khan, why did he not consider another actor he had worked with in the past? Namely “LOST” alumni Naveen Andrews. He would have been perfect.

Do I consider “STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS” a vast improvement over “STAR TREK”? There are a good number of fans who view the first film as superior. I simply do not share this opinion. However, I would not exactly label “STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS” as one of the better movies for the summer of 2013. In fact, I view it slightly better than the first film . . . and nothing more.

However, this movie did have its share of problems. And one of them proved to be the film’s opening sequence on Nibiru, which found Kirk and Dr. McCoy being chased through some kind of forest by some of the planet’s inhabitants. Apparently, Kirk had stolen some sacred scroll to led the Nibirians away from the volcano. This tactic proved to be unnecessary, considering there were only two means to save the Nibirians – Spock’s cold fusion device into the volcano’s core, or the physical removal of the planet’s inhabitants. In other words, this chase scene proved to be completely irrelevant. Another aspect of this sequence that proved to be irrelevant was Spock’s protests against Kirk raising the Enterprise from the planet’s ocean floor and exposing it to the Nibirians. One, what was the Enterprise doing below the ocean? Why not simply allow it to orbit the planet? And the Enterprise does not have the ability to land on the ocean floor, let alone on solid ground. It was never the 23rd century version of the U.S.S. Voyager. And why was Spock complaining about Kirk violating the Prime Directive in regard to the Enterprise’s exposure, when he was violating it by saving the planet with the cold fusion device? I suspect his decision to save Nibiru may have been related to the loss of Vulcan in the first movie. But why did he even bother to protest against Kirk’s actions, when he was just as guilty? And by the way, what happened to Earth’s defense system? This movie is set in the mid 23rd century. There is a defense system for early 21st century Washington D.C. Why was there not one for mid 23rd century San Francisco, the main location for the Federation and Starfleet? Khan’s ship could have been easily destroyed before it had a chance to enter Earth’s atmosphere. I would go on about the photon torpedoes that harbored members of Khan’s crew. But I found this scenario too confusing to discuss.

There were other problems. Why did Khan risk his hide to fire at the room of Starfleet captains and Admiral Marcus, when he could have easily achieved his goal with a bomb? What happened to the situation on Kronos? Marcus had sent the Enterprise to Kronos in order to hunt down Khan and start a war against the Klingons. Kirk, Spock, Uhura and Khan’s encounter with the Klingons proved to be violent and especially deadly for the latter. But no war manifested after the incident on Kronos. In fact, the screenwriters and Abrams completely forgot about the Klingons once Admiral Marcus appeared aboard the Vengeance. Many critics complained about Alice Eve (who portrayed Carol Marcus) being shown in her underwear, accusing Abrams of exploiting the actress. Where were these same critics, four years ago, when both Zoë Saldaña (as Uhura) and an actress who portrayed Uhura’s roommate stripped down to undies in “STAR TREK”? I found both Khan and Admiral Marcus’ plans somewhat convoluted. But I was willing to . . . tolerate them. What I could not tolerate was the movie’s last twenty to thirty minutes. Apparently, the screenwriters and Abrams decided it would be cool to pay some kind of “homage” to the famous Spock death scene in “STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN”. I wish to God they had not. I really do. I found it embarrassing to watch Kirk and Spock switch roles with the former sacrificing his life to prevent the Enterprise from crashing upon Earth. Listening to some of the titters from other members of the audience did not help. And when Zachary Quinto channeled William Shatner’s cry of “Khaaaannn!”, my inner mind screamed “Whhhhyyyy?” I have never been so embarrassed for any actor as I was for Quinto at that moment. To make matters worse – if that was possible – McCoy brought Kirk back to life by using Khan’s superpower blood. And all I can say is . . . “Whhhhyyyy?”

We come to the main problem of “STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS”. James T. Kirk. I had no problem with Chris Pine’s performance. But I am still wondering why his Kirk is in command of a top-of-the-grade starship. Why? He never finished Starfleet Academy. He never even finished his third year. Yet, Christopher Pike not only saw fit to give him command of the Enterprise at the end of “STAR TREK”, but also prevent Kirk from being sent back to the Academy to finish it. Even after watching “STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS”, it was plain to see that Kirk was not ready to be a starship commander. Yes, he sacrificed his life to save the Enterprise. Hell, anyone – crewman or officer – could have done this. It was Spock who discovered a way to damage the Vengeance . . . . and prevent it from destroying the Enterprise. He should be the one in command of the Enterprise, not Kirk. I wish I could say that Pike paid his decision to make Kirk a starship commander with his life. Unfortunately, Kirk’s command skills had nothing to do with his death. Only bad writing.

What else can I say about “STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS”? I found it somewhat more bearable than 2009’s “STAR TREK”. I found the movie’s photography and special effects rather impressive – except for the lens flares, which I despise. And the movie did feature some solid direction by J.J. Abrams and very solid performances from a cast led by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto. But in the end, I was not that impressed by the movie. If I must be honest, the screenplay by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof nearly sunk it in the end. Better luck next time, fellas.