Saturday, July 20, 2013

'Star Trek Into Darkness' Provides Familiar But Satisfying Entertainment

In the first film Kirk and Spock met and became chums. Here, they
become absolute besties.
It’s been over two months since I’ve seen J.J. Abram’s Star Trek Into Darkness, but I’ve been dragging my feet on writing a review. To be clear, that’s not a reflection of the film itself, which I actually found to be great escapist entertainment.

For fans of Star Trek, the 2009 relaunch of the series, much of Star Trek Into Darkness will feel extremely similar. Once again, the crew of the Enterprise is tasked with dealing with a self righteous, revenge-seeking villain who, early in the film, kills a Kirk (Chris Pine) father figure. And, once again, the major focus is on the developing bromance between Kirk and Spock (Zachary Quinto).

Some could argue that makes this outing derivative, especially when you throw in lifted story beats from an earlier Star Trek film (more on that in a bit), but considering how well they’ve pulled everything off here, I see little reason to complain.

(Ummm…. spoiler warning).

The villain here is first introduced as Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a rogue Starfleet Commander who apparently has curative blood and a major vendetta against his employers. Kirk and his team are tasked with hunting him down, and when they do, they discover he also possess superhuman strength and unparalleled intellect. Oh, and they come to learn that he is actually Khan, an extremely iconic Trek character who, as even non-fans like myself know, killed Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

He may not have the ridiculously large chest, but Benedict
Cumberbatch offers up an imposingly memorable take on Khan.

Despite universal praise for Cumberbatch’s magnetically forceful performance, a great deal of criticism has been launched at using Khan for this story, particularly related to the thematic bastardization of the Spock death, which has been twisted here to result in the death of Kirk. A good example of this backlash can be found here.

I actually quite liked this aspect of the film. Although the concept of keeping Khan’s identify a secret from the audience was silly, I think making him the bad guy worked well, especially in the way it played off of the previous history with the character. When Spock seeks the counsel of Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy), it’s a nice little nod to the original series, but also a story beat that makes sense.

Furthermore, while I understand there was great thematic heft to having Spock be the one that died in Wrath of Khan, I really like that they flipped the script. Instead of building on Kirk’s inability to accept death, this new interpretation (which you can watch here) represents a thematic highpoint in the developing friendship between Kirk and Spock, both of whom are learning from one another and changing as a result.

Some might argue Kirk’s quick revival ruins the impact of his death. I disagree with that, because regardless of his status at the end of the film, the death is still a real and tangible moment for the characters. It still meant something to them and still elevated the relationship to another level. In the first film, Spock Prime told Spock his relationship with Kirk would be “a friendship that will define you both in ways you cannot yet realize.” Here, the filmmakers continue to develop that idea.

Alice Eve doubles the sexy woman total on the Enterprise, taking some
of the weight off of Zoe Saldana's back.

That being said, there are some incredibly silly things in this film. Obviously, the Khan blood stuff is hokey, and that isn’t helped by the way McCoy discovers it. And, while I mostly like the way Khan is used, the climatic showdown between him and Spock just doesn’t make sense. I mean, seriously, why would a super human run from one mere Vulcan?

There’s not much more to say. As with its predecessor, all the technical aspects are top notch, and the hurling momentum of the thing is huge plus, but the greatest strength of the film is in the character dynamics. While the film predictably focuses on Kirk and Spock, nearly every character is nicely sketched, well portrayed and feels like a vital part of the team. They may not all interact with each other and some recede to the background, but they all seem to have a very specific relationship with Kirk, a subtle touch that I think plays very well, especially considering so much of Kirk’s development has to do with his standing as a leader. Meanwhile, Kahn isn’t the only famous character to be reintroduced – Dr. Carol Connors (Alice Eve), who in the previous Trek timeline bore Kirk a son, also plays an integral role.
Overall, Star Trek Into Darkness is not quite up to the level of its predecessor, but it’s pretty damn close. It’s one of the better sequels you’re likely to see, because it commendably deepens and expands the themes of the first film, making the combo seem far more apiece than the typical series. B+

Friday, July 5, 2013

‘Monsters University’ Proves a Worthwhile Return to a Beloved Pixar Property

Mike and Sully end up in a fraternity with a slew of other cast-offs,
who, surprise surprise, show there's more to them than there seems.
In reflecting on Monsters University, the recently released sequel to Monsters Inc., I can’t help being a bit amused by how meta a film Pixar has crafted.

Over the last few years, the Pixar brand has lost a bit of its luster. Three of the studio’s last four films have been sequels, while the one original work – last year’s Brave – was largely viewed as a slight effort, despite walking away with last year’s Oscar for Best Animated Film.

In reviewing Brave earlier this year, I agreed it was lower-tier Pixar, but suggested there was nothing wrong with being merely good. The folks at Pixar might agree, because the major lesson of Monsters University seems to be it’s okay to be okay.

The film shows how Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) meet as students at Monsters University, and the duo are immediately set up as adversaries, with Mike being a well-studied but unscary student, and Sully being an arrogant kid who believes he can coast on his innate ability and famous last name. After an argument between the two gets them kicked out of the “scarer program,” the two are forced to join Oozma Kappa (OK – get it?), the lamest fraternity on campus, for a chance to compete in the “Scare Games,” a Greek competition that, if won, will get them back into the scarer program.

Pixar made little Mike Wazowski ridiculously cute.
However, boiled down to its essence, this is a film about a boy with a dream, who, despite trying harder than everyone else and working nonstop to achieve said dream, ultimately fails because he just doesn’t have what it takes. Early in the film, the intimidating Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) says scariness is the measure of a monster, and so, if you’re not scary, what worth can you have?

Even though the film indicates there’s value in failure, that’s still a pretty ballsy core to structure an animated kids’ movie around, especially since it is so at odds with the typical “you can do anything you set your mind to” spiel.

The timing of this film is worth noting since the children who first fell in love with these characters when Monsters Inc. was released in 2001 are now college-aged themselves. Some will achieve their dreams, but many more will not, and I expect this film will speak to many of them, not to mention the rest of us who will relate to Mike’s existential crisis. 

Unfortunately, as potent as the emotional throughline of the story is, the rest of the film is incredibly formulaic. This is Pixar’s take on the college underdog comedy typified by the likes of Revenge of the Nerds, and it moves along exactly as you’d expect, up to and including the triumphant moment when our seemingly hopeless ragtag team of misfits prevails over the douchey popular kids.

Making matters worse, almost no character beyond Mike and Sully is given more than a modicum of development, including their four fellow fraternity brothers. We’re meant to be emotionally invested in these guys, but they aren’t even afforded the development of the extra girls in piffle like The House Bunny. The crazy one voiced by Charlie Day brings some welcome zaniness to the table, but middle-aged monster and monster with mom are both underserved, while two-headed monster is almost pointless. Their names don’t matter; these descriptors are how most will remember them.
This picture was too funny not to include here.
To be fair, right when a normal college comedy would be ending, Monsters University takes a hard left turn into fertile thematic territory. Up until then, the film is mostly an amiable diversion, but the final 15 minutes really deepen the story and elevate the whole thing quite a bit.

Furthermore, while I generally feel prequels are pointless endeavors, I’ve got to give Pixar credit for crafting a story that stands on its own while simultaneously enhancing the original. The film has plenty of clever nods to Monsters Inc., including a well-handled subplot involving future nemesis Randall (Steve Buscemi), but, more than that, it deepens the connection between Mike and Sully, a partnership that did feel a bit one-sided in favor of scare-master Sully in the first outing. Here, they balance that out quite a bit.

Overall, this is middle-of-the-pack Pixar, more impressive than the likes of Cars, Brave, and A Bug’s Life, but not quite up to the level of the rest of the studio’s oeuvre. But at this point, it’s silly and unfair to keep measuring Pixar’s output against the likes of Toy Story, Wall-E and Ratatouille.

By the end of Monsters University, big dreamer Mike realizes it’s okay to be okay, but even that undersells what Pixar has accomplished here. As far as this film goes, it’s better to say it’s good to be good. B+