“Star Trek Into Darkness” Review

Just over 4 years ago, JJ Abrams rebooted the Star Trek series with Star Trek, a movie made for the modern moviegoer with a young, hip cast. Star Trek Into Darkness is the sequel and is again directed by JJ Abrams, who again takes the audience on another thrilling adventure with the crew of the Enterprise.

The film is centered around Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) and his pursuit of John Harrison, a rogue Starfleet agent played by Benedict Cumberbatch (best known as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series Sherlock). After committing a terrorist act on Earth, Harrison flees, and the Enterprise is responsible for dealing with the threat. Pitching in are first officer Spock (Zachary Quinto), communications officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana), medical officer Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban), and more. Continue reading ““Star Trek Into Darkness” Review”

“Skyfall” Review

On the car ride home, a few friends and I were discussing a few random memories and some Bond trivia, most of which I was able to place or answer. It turns out that spending most of a winter vacation in South Carolina watching the 007 Days of Christmas and another summer watching a Bond film every day turns one into quite a Bond aficionado. Over 20 movies and almost 50 years, the series has changed quite a bit, and the latest installment matches the grittier tone of the last 2 Bond movies.

In “Skyfall”, Daniel Craig’s James Bond comes back to duty in poor mental and physical shape when MI6, the British intelligence agency, is itself under attack. Instead of dealing with international crises, Bond pursues a mysterious villain (Javier Bardem, known for No Country for Old Men) along with the help of fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris), Q (Ben Whishaw), and M (Judi Dench), leading him to trains, cars, subways, and more around the world.

The movie plays around with several different aspects of a traditional Bond movie, mostly for the best. Today, technology far outreaches our imagination 50 years ago, and the newer movies have done away with Bond gadgets in favor of technology itself. Q is portrayed as a geeky hacker who is more interested in decryption than new toys. This modernizing process fits well into the scheme of an intelligence agency, strange as it may be to see the pensive Bond breaking codes.

The story also engages Bond’s character more directly as his role as an agent is challenged. Just like our heroes, Bond ages, and his story brings up the usual questions about his ability to continue and his purpose in life. Despite knowing much about Bond’s personality and preferences in guns, vehicles, drinks, and other pleasures, we have rarely seen character development in him in the past. In line with the grittier feel, the past Craig-age Bond movies have emphasized his ruthless, tenacious, unquestioning personality, all of which we continue to see.

The violence continues as Bond mixes up with the usual henchmen with guns, fists, and more. The fights are brutal but an immense joy to watch, and the stunts show off much improved pursuit skills since Casino Royale. Expect the usual accents as well, with a few grim jokes and a bit more class from Bond.

Overall, Skyfall completes this trilogy of movies. Its action fits the currently popular grittiness best exemplified by the Bourne Identity, a similar set of movies. For the fans of the classic movies, you may continue to be disappointed with the new style, though you may appreciate the references sprinkled throughout. So choose to see it as you intended: whatever your expectations of it were, it delivers.

“The Dark Knight Rises” Review

Other than Pixar, I can ‘t think of anyone with as much pressure to deliver quality movies as Christopher Nolan. Since The Dark Knight was released 3 years ago, moviegoers everywhere have been anxious to hear how Batman would follow up the disaster he was left in.

Set 8 years after The Dark KnightThe Dark Knight Rises (DKR) finds Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as a shut-in, aged past his prime and unable to move beyond the events of his past. However, Bane (Tom Hardy), a physical and psychological monster, arrives in Gotham and forces Batman to come out of retirement. Along the way, Batman encounters Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) in several circumstances and receives some help from John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a police detective.

The cast should remind you much of Inception as Nolan relies on the same core of actors from film to film. Bale, Gary Oldman, and Michael Caine maintain the same traits from the previous movies, and Gordon-Levitt and Hardy fit in well, though Hardy has little to show with a mask over most of his face. Hathaway  shows some versatility in her performance as the clever and self-serving Catwoman. Most of the character development is Batman’s, who continues to struggle with his 2 identities and how they have affected his life. Although other characters make important revelations, these are relatively predictable.

Despite the solid acting, the movie feels long at 164 minutes. Although The Dark Knight was also long, it had a significant action sequence in the middle that broke the movie into multiple parts. DKR, however, moves fairly slowly through the middle as the plot unfolds without much of the punch you would expect from a superhero action movie. It isn’t always exhilarating, but it should keep you interested.

When the action does happen, it is impressive. Batman has new vehicles for chase scenes including motorcycles and tanks, with the complementary explosions. Batman’s main hallmark is his non-lethal, hand-to-hand combat, and there are some brutal fights in combat. In combat, Bane provides a type of mirror match for Batman. Unlike the Joker, whose insanity provides a perfect foil to Batman, Bane is quite similar to Batman in most respects and represents what Batman might have been if he hadn’t turned away from the extremism of the League of Shadows in Batman Begins.

The comparisons to The Dark Knight are unavoidable and simply, DKR is not as good as its predecessor. This point, however, is no criticism as The Dark Knight set a high bar for movies and the series. DKR remains a great movie in its own right and caps off a consistently high-quality trilogy.

“Tron: Legacy” Review

Although I first played the Tron game in high school, I didn’t watch the 1982 movie until arriving at college. At that point, the technology, both in the movie and the special effects, were dated, and my friend Jordan and I laughed at the 80s culture. Even so, the imaginative take on the inner world of a computer was well-classified as neat. The updated “Tron: Legacy” pulls in today’s special effects to build out an even more incredible world with special effects and artistic design that should impress everyone.

In the original movie, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) attempts to hack the mainframe at ENCOM (perhaps best thought of today as Microsoft) and ends up being transported to the Grid, the inner world of the computer, with its primary residents as programs and has battles with light cycles and gladiator games using thrown discs. In this movie, his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) goes into the Grid almost 30 years later to find his dad who disappeared mysteriously when he was young. There, he finds an equally oppressive world as the one that his dad has faced and tries to find a way back out with his dad. That said, the plot isn’t compelling. A son searching for his father is a classic, which isn’t inherently bad, but it doesn’t have any depth. The parallels between the Flynns are emphasized, and the steps are somewhat predictable.

The acting was solid. Hedlund as Sam had the right temperament to be placed in the Grid and avoids the confused awe of a Keanu Reeves Neo and the overdramatic enthusiasm of Shia LaBeouf in “Transformers.” Jeff Bridges reprises his role as Kevin Flynn well, mixing the expected wisdom of a fatherly figure with just a little cool you would expect from Bridges. Michael Sheen’s role as a program adds a little whimsy to change the pace, and Olivia Wilde fits into the movie as well.

As to be expected, it looks great. The visuals largely reflect the same style as the original movie, yet work far better with the updates to computer-generated graphics. Whether it’s the gruesome “derezzing” of a program shattering or a look across the landscape, the Grid and its inhabitants should thoroughly impress. Even though the digital world lacks the organic detail and richness of a Pandora, you should feel just as immersed into its foreignness. I saw it in 3-D (though not IMAX), which was subtle, like many other recent 3-D movies. Spring at it if you get a chance, though don’t worry about missing too much if you have to watch a regular showing of it.

The most notable fact about the movie is how seriously it takes itself. My moviegoing buddy, Trey, asked me before the movie if we might see references to any internet memes, and I knew that there wouldn’t be any. Just like the original, this movie throws out computer jargon and plot points without acknowledging what a stretch some of it is. At times, the dialogue comes out heavy-handed in trying to emphasize the significance of certain ideas, and even these are somewhat predictable. Overall, it’s worth watching if you think you’ll enjoy seeing the instantiation of the world of Tron. Otherwise, there’s not much to go for.

“The Last Airbender” Review

(Author’s Note: shameless plug! A few friends and I are writing for a cooking blog at http://kitchenburn.blogspot.com/ . Check it out for some hilarity)

Before heading out to the midnight premiere, my friend Leland emailed out a warning about the movie: 10% fresh on rottentomatoes.com . Admittedly, the fresh rating is often somewhat harsh, though having watched the movie, I’m still surprised: that means there was even 1 in 10 critics who liked the movie.

“The Last Airbender” is based off of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” a Nickelodeon cartoon show that ran for 3 seasons. Set in a world based on a blend of traditional East Asian mythology, “benders” manipulate the four elements (earth, air, wind, and fire) to battle using martial arts and magic. In the movie, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) of the Water Nation find Aang (Noah Ringer) frozen under the ocean. Soon, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), exiled from the Fire Nation, finds them on his quest to find and capture the Avatar, the one being who can use all 4 elements and threatens the tyranny of the Fire Nation, to restore his honor. Soon, Aang, Katara, and Sokka are on a quest to go north so that Aang can learn water bending.

Usually I take the 2nd paragraph to give a plot synopsis for context: explanations make more sense when the central idea is in place. This particular synopsis, however, I feel gives a much different context. The movie suffers from what I call the “Wolfram MathWorld” effect: the content only makes sense if you already understand it in advance, making it very close to useless. Fans will see parts of familiar episodes along the way, yet without the actual story of the episode, the events end up being meaningless. Newcomers will be blown through a series of apparently trivial events, often briefly explained in advance by a voiceover that makes you wonder why the scene would ever need to be shown.

Don’t worry, though, as none of the scenes last very long anyways, which also helps to quickly move on from gaping plot holes. Although the TV show was best-known for its goofy and clever dialogue, a large portion of the script is just exposition, often in scenes less than 5 lines long. The quick cuts never truly develop the characters, and instead of enjoying the subtleties of Katara’s overbearing nature and Sokka’s jester-like insight, you instead get the sense that they’re both far braver than intelligent and only along for the ride.

It’s hard to know how good the acting is working with such poor dialogue, but the actors seemed to generally miss the spirit of their characters. Patel as Zuko ends up being angry instead of conflicted, and Ringer ends up swinging wildly between being childish and outraged instead of refreshingly naive. The use of close-ups, however, never truly show any emotion from the characters and instead have that campy sort of suspense from Captain Kirk. A ton of over-the-shoulder camerawork with the speaking character also makes me believe that none of the dialogue was delivered believably.

Even beyond plot and characters, one might hopefully find entertainment in the visuals and action: in a world of elements flying wild and martial arts experts sparring, there are many opportunities to distract from the more purely cinematic qualities of the movie, yet even these disappoint. 3D effects were used minimally, and the style of bending never gave rise to a furious melee. Instead of tentacles of water flailing about to ward off flamethrowers, you’re instead treated to a few dance moves as the elements are invoked, leading to a slow and somewhat predictable attack and parry.

Often, the most successful movies today have something for everyone, whether that’s mixing adult humor in dialogue with cute animals or mixing a romantic sub-plot into a war scene. A step below that is the movie that narrowly targets a single demographic, whether a romantic comedy or a stoner film. And below that is “The Last Airbender,” which manages to do wrong by any potential moviegoer. For newcomers, I’m so sorry you sat through it. For the fans of the show, I implore you: remain in blissful ignorance of how M. Night Shyamalan could have completely misunderstood what made the show good.

“Sherlock Holmes” Review

Classic culture constantly updates itself to remain relevant to popular culture. From Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to “PLAY!“, a symphony that plays video game music, all types of entertainment are bridging that gap between classy and cool. One might wonder how to take the analytical, perceptive, cerebral detective Sherlock Holmes and make him successful again in today’s culture. Well, quite simply, take the parts of people that haven’t changed much and play them up. Holmes can use his acuity to setup an attack on a foe as vicious as that in Batman Begins or The Bourne Identity. And I think our love of Superbad and Napoleon Dynamite shows that we love awkwardness and bromances more than ever.

The general plot follows a classic detective setup: Holmes and Dr. John Watson apprehend Lord Blackwood at the beginning of the movie in the midst of a occult ceremony and have him hanged 3 months later. Soon after, however, Blackwood apparently rises from the grave, and Holmes must investigate Blackwood’s resurrection and stop a plan in action. Along the way, he meets Irene Adler, an American thief working for a third-party and odd love interest.

Though the movie is just over 2 hours long, you won’t get bored watching Holmes jump from scene to scene. Like many crime dramas today, the movie runs through a series of scenes played out in live-action, only to have Holmes come by later and put together more parts of the scene from details around the room. The action involves all the fisticuffs and explosions you could want and keep the movie moving through potentially slow points. Although somewhat formulaic, the setup stays fresh through moody scenery and Holmes’s insights.

We, of course, crave deep characters on top of an engaging plot, and the cast delivers. Having once been a House watcher, I’m familiar with the portrayal of Holmes-inspired characters, but Robert Downey Jr. plays the original with perfect strangeness. He fights scrappy, exhibits hilarious antipathy and scorn for others, and ribs and toys with his assistant Watson at every turn. Jude Law, playing Watson, plays the foil against Holmes. For his own development, Watson is engaged and planning to move out, beginning a tug-of-war between his desire to move on with his life and his knowledge that Holmes very much needs him. Mark Strong as Lord Blackwood is suitably sinister, though his character isn’t particularly interesting. Similarly, Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler isn’t prominent enough to make her relationship with Holmes anything more than an amusing side note.

Just like many of the series reboots we’ve seen recently, Sherlock Holmes isn’t quite your classic Sherlock Holmes, but what you remember probably isn’t the best part of it. Maybe the action is rawer, and maybe subtlety gives way to cinematic epicness, but the essential cleverness and methods are all there. It won’t make you think very hard, but I give it the slow head nod for having been a lot of fun.

Avatar Review

My draw group talks about movies and TV a lot, and whenever we mentioned upcoming movies, Avatar came up. As such, Alex has told me at least 5 times, “This is the movie that James Cameron has wanted to make for 15 years but has been waiting for the technology to get good enough to do it.” Well, I think the technology is pretty good now.

Avatar is set on Pandora, a wild, alien moon where humans have come to mine for unobtainium. They, however, have to deal with the wildlife and the Na’vi, a blue humanoid race who live on top of a large deposit of unobtainium. Jake Sully, an ex-marine, is connected neurologically to a Na’vi body and is sent to join the Na’vi clan and convince them to move.

Visually, the movie is stunning. Going for the full experience, I went for a 3D IMAX showing, and although the 3D effects aren’t perfect, I was still amazed 2 hours in the movie whenever an object appeared to race to 5 feet in front of my face. Almost of all Pandora is computer-generated, yet the plants and animals never seem cartoony. They ensured that certain aspects, from bio-luminesence to breathing vents, maintain the same, extra-terrestrial feel. Add in a soundtrack that is so strange yet almost familiar (and a musical score from James Horner), and you will be immersed in the world.

The detail doesn’t stop with Pandoran life, however, as it also extends into Na’vi culture. It’s time that you all forget your Klingon and Elvish, for Na’vi is the new invented language to listen to. The Na’vi are technologically primitive, so they naturally have involved rituals and mystical beliefs. I’ll let you see what they do for yourselves, but pay attention to the details of the Na’vi because their culture is fully developed.

What I felt wasn’t as well developed are the characters. Although I can sympathize and understand many of them, I was never surprised. My friend Trey described the military as very “G.I. Joe,” which sounds about right. Early on, you see the conflict between the Colonel and lead scientist (Sigourney Weaver, who even proudly a shirt from her alma mater!), and it’s easy to slot each of the characters into their roles. Many of them are one-dimensional, and those who change do so in predictable ways. Even so, individual performances were strong, even through computer-augmentation into Na’vi.

One last thing I would like to mention is that I think that the sci-fi and fantasy elements were dealt with very well in this movie. Oftentimes, sci-fi movies will get in a trap of trying to explain too much about how the technology works or how this phenomena makes sense. Avatar certainly relies on far-out technology to explain how these humans can control Na’vi bodies and how Pandora as a whole works, yet never make that a big deal. Instead, we’re only given the principle for how it all works, and that’s good enough to understand the idea of the movie.

Overall, I would peg Avatar as a “worth it, but not the whole package.” If you’re in it for experiencing Pandora and seeing what 3D can do now, you’ll love it, but know that you’ve probably heard this story before.

I have a bit more to say after you’ve seen it, so there are some minor spoilers here that I just want to throw out there.

I’m happy that James Cameron got to make this movie, but I think he had too much time to make it. By that, I mean that the pieces fit together too well.

In my English class, we talked about how in nonfiction, not everything makes sense. You can’t understand the whole world in one go, and parts of it are just inexplicable, from why the grass is cut to why Joey tripped Jimmy back then. This happens to be something that you might even need to go out of your way to fix in fiction, for in a fictional world, everything can be coherent. I know it goes against Chekhov’s Gun, but fiction sometimes feels fake for not having any loose ends.

And I think that’s one thing that bothered me a lot about Avatar. When Jake goes back to capture and bond with the big bird, I knew that James Cameron was one of those sort of writers, and I was searching my memory to figure out what other detail he had left in there that he was going to bring back. I’m a little embarrassed to say that I didn’t catch it in time, but it absolutely happened with the turning point of the battle, and that made me tremendously sad that he did it.

(As my psych prof would say), “All of this is to say that” I didn’t think the movie was great (though still good) because it was canned. The characters were canned, the plot is a classic, and not even the twists made me think. Oh, and the end of the movie was absolutely predictable (though I’m trying to think if I would’ve been more satisfied with any other ending). So yeah, looks good, not a so great as a story.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Review

(in the spirit of reviews, I’ll try to dodge spoilers, even if the ending to this Harry Potter book was an internet frenzy)

It’s been awhile since I saw Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but a quick refresher from my last review reminds me that I didn’t like it. The movie felt very angsty, and the somewhat serious tone it took made it largely unbearable. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the plot still revolves teenage wizards growing up and dealing with their issues, but a shift towards a funny awkward tone makes it bearable enough to be fun for 2 1/2 hours.

While thinking about what I would put in my review, I realized I couldn’t think of a one sentence plot summary. Actually, I don’t think the movie is about much at all, but that’s okay because the movie is really only meaningful within the context of Harry Potter movies that you should’ve seen. To make any sense of the movie, you likely need to have either read all of the previous books or watched all of the movies as this movie does pretty true to the book. That means the plot starts in the middle of this epic without any exposition and relies heavily on known character traits.

Granted, I read the book once when it came out, so the details are fuzzy, and maybe it isn’t so true to the book. Several of the Tom Riddle memories have been cut out, and the circumstances of the love story change. One quality I think the movie captured well is the lack of content until the final scenes. Part of the lack of plot is that there isn’t a lot of direction to many of the scenes. Potter is vaguely helping Dumbledore on his quest to defeat Voldemort, and it’s not clear how his interest in Ginny is related. Like the book, the movie meanders between characters and events, only trying to tie meanings together at the end.

The good news, though, is that even if nothing happens, it’s still a lot of fun. Just like the book, I always wanted to get to the next scene, and the two hours passed very quickly. When Ron sits down with a pie between Harry and Ginny just before they have a “moment”, there’s something familiar and funny about being somewhere you shouldn’t be. Perhaps it’s more fun for me because it genuinely sounds like a story my friend might tell me about last weekend, so I should warn that the movie might feel longer than the lines at the DMV if you don’t enjoy or appreciate the awkward moments, because that’s all it is.

The tone is particularly well-targeted, though. Looking around in the theater, I think almost everyone in the audience was somewhere between 15 and 25. Had I watched this movie when I was in 8th grade, I definitely wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much, but the humor feels like something that would happen in high school. Kids around my age are the ones who grew up reading these books, so it seems natural that each movie about a wizard boy growing up should change its tone as its audience grows up as well.

I was actually unsure whether I wanted to go to a midnight showing, but I think it was worth it just for the audience participation. Since the theater was probably half dormmates and half similarly aged students, we all had similar reactions, including roaring laughter at a particularly poorly worded sequence suggesting inappropriate relations between Snape and Draco. I probably could’ve done without the shrieking when the movie began, but a sarcastic and cruel “haw haw” (think Nelson from The Simpsons) legitimately made the movie better. Even if I missed some dialogue when everyone was laughing, I’m certain that the movie is better seen in a group.

Except for the lack of a plot and suspense (since it wasn’t clear what there was to be worried about), the movie was well-produced. The special effects were exactly what you would expect from a Harry Potter movie, so not revolutionary, but still pleasing. There wasn’t much quidditch, but the scenes looked great. The acting was solid, including some excellent background characters. For those who love the lore and world of Harry Potter, you’ll be disappointed to find out that the movie trivializes the presence of many characters, such as Hagrid and Neville. Those were the actors that did the best job, in my opinion. The young Tom Riddle was perfectly creepy, and Luna was just as much fun as in the last  movie.

So the bottom line is that you should continue to do what you’ve been doing. If you haven’t followed Harry Potter up until now, this movie isn’t amazing enough that you have to catch up. It may be the best Harry Potter movie, but it’s still just an okay movie on its own merits. Fortunately, it’s not only on its own merits, so if you’ve seen all the other movies, definitely make your way out to this one. And take a couple angst-ridden teenagers with you for laughs.