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MUSIC REVIEW | Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt (2013)

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When I heard Mind Your Manners, the first single from Lightning Bolt, I was more excited about a new Pearl Jam album than I had been for years.   It had a kind of raw, punk energy to it that I just don’t expect from Eddie Vedder and the boys these days.  Then the snore inducing blandness that is Sirens was released as the second single and a little of the shine was taken off.

So it was promising when I pressed play on their latest album to hear that Getaway, the first track, is also a bit of a rocker. The title track offers up a kind of musical and melodic optimism, complete with a poppy synth, that reminds me of the best songs off their last album Backspacer.  Then there’s Infallible, a peppy jaunt that I would never have picked as a Pearl Jam song if it wasn’t for Vedder’s voice.  Yellow Moon sounds like a Vedder solo tune that could have been on his Into the Wild soundtrack a few years ago, with a couple of extra layers of instrumentation and production added on to make the rest of the band feel necessary.

While I know a lot of it comes down to nostalgia, I think Pearl Jam’s first three albums are close to perfect.  Sure, they have the odd clunker, but Ten, Vs, and Vitalogy are albums I still listen to beginning to end fairly regularly, 20 years after they came out.  I also know I can’t expect the middle aged rich dudes of 2013 to ever make the same sort of music as the hungry Seattle rock pigs of 1992, and I know I shouldn’t want them to.  But it doesn’t stop me wishing for an amazing Stone Gossard riff like Evenflow or Animal.  Or balls out Vedder screamer like Blood or Spin the Black Circle.  Or some of the shredding solos Mike McCready was delivering on the regular in the 90s.

Like the first two singles, I found Lightning Bolt a little hit and miss.  When it hits, it hits hard. When it misses, they’re the kind of songs I can’t imagine I’ll ever listen to again.  But Lightning Bolt is more than enough to make me glad that more than 20 years after blowing my 13 year old mind, Pearl Jam are still doing their thing, even if that thing has evolved more than my tastes.   But that’s on me.

Pearl Jam
Listen to Lightning Bolt on Spotify

MOVIE REVIEW | Funny Games (2007)

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I was trying to figure out how to write about this movie without giving a single thing away.  It’s all about impact, it’s all about shock, it’s all about pushing buttons and provocation.  But then I realised I knew the story pretty well and thought I was more than prepared for it going in, and it still hit me like a freight train.  So while I’ll do my best not to giveaway any specifics or spoilers, I actually think having some idea of what to expect with Funny Games might be a necessity, because if you went in totally blind, it could be a bit too much.

A shot for shot remake of his own Austrian film from a decade earlier, Michael Heneke has something to say about film audiences, and he’s not trying to be subtle about it.  The perfect family of Naomi Watts (Ann), Tim Roth (George) and their son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) are on their way to their gorgeous, lakeside summer house.  Straight from the opening titles, Heneke shows you’re in for something different with Funny Games.

Soon after arriving, there’s a knock at the door from Brad Corbet’s Peter, an awkward, shy teenager in tennis whites and gloves who seems just a little off.  At first polite, Watts becomes more and more on edge until they are joined by Paul, played by Michael Pitt.  The ultra politeness of the two is immediately disturbing and only becomes more so when Pitt breaks Roth’s leg with a golf club.

Now the story of Funny Games really kicks into gear.  The two boys in white make a bet with the family that they will not be alive by the next morning and begin a game of some physical, mostly emotional, torture.  That’s when you need to strap yourself in and get ready for a pretty confronting hour or so, because Heneke has a point that he really wants to make.

I have a feeling Heneke hates film violence.  Or, at least, he hates voyeuristic film violence.  With Funny Games, it’s like he’s fulfilling some sort of sick fantasy of us, the audience, then when it becomes too much and we try to look away, he rubs our nose in it and makes the violence that much more confronting.  He’s not trying to be subtle with this message either.  Pitt breaks the fourth wall and addresses the camera more than once, almost asking the audience to justify how they could possibly be entertained by this.  Even the one truly heroic moment is immediately thrown back in the audience’s face.

Funny Games is not an easy movie to watch, but that’s the whole point.  It’s not torture porn like the Saw movies, because it actually has something to say.  Speaking of torture porn, it also made me think of Wolf Creek.  My reaction after seeing that film was, I really liked it, but I never wanted it see it again.  I almost feel the same way about Funny Games, the difference is, Wolf Creek was all surface and tried to be nothing more than violent horror.  Funny Games has a strong point of view and whether or not you agree with that point of view, you’ll be thinking about it for a long time after it’s over.

Funny Games
Directed By – Michael Haneke
Written By – Michael Haneke

MOVIE REVIEW | Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

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When someone watches Elysium in fifty years, will they think it’s a gritty, realistic, scary look at mankind’s possible future?  Or will it look like a cheap, corny, naive, laughable indication of how uncool the world was in 2013?  Because whenever I watch a movie from the 60s or 70s depicting the future, they seem less like a possible look at our future, and more like a collection of all the worst stylistic aspects of the time they were made.  Which is exactly what you get with the production design of Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451.

Based in no particular time in the future, Fahrenheit 451 is the story of Guy Montag, a fireman played by Oskar Werner.  Only in this version of the future, firemen don’t put out fires, because houses are now built using fire proof materials.  Instead, fireman go around burning books.  Not threatening or antiestablishment books either, they go around burning absolutely every book they find.  All printed texts are outlawed, although plenty of people still hide and cherish the odd volume, until they’re inevitably found and they’re books are subjected to Montag’s flame thrower.

The signs of Montag’s own disillusion with this world show early.  After receiving a promotion, he’s disappointed by his wife’s (Julie Christie) general obliviousness to his good news.  She’s too concerned with TV and popularity.  On the monorail ride home from work one day, he meets his neighbour, Clarisse, also played by Christie.  He immediately notices something different about her, and eventually is hoarding and reading his own collection of books under her influence.  Of course, his subversion of the status quo can’t go unnoticed forever and he’s eventually opposing the organisation he’s worked for seemingly his entire adult life.

This is a very serious movie.  Based on a novel written during the McCarthy era witch hunts, you could see it as a warning of the perils of censorship.  You could see it as an indictment of people’s obsession with TV, celebrity and popularity.  No matter what serious issue you think Fahrenheit 451 is tackling, the impact and edge are well and truly taken away by the goofy 1964 version of the future.  I know it’s easy to make fun of the production values and designs half a century later, but it’s impossible to look past them seeing this movie with 2013 eyes.

I’m no Truffaut expert, as far as I can remember, the only other movies of his I’ve seen are The 400 Blows and Day For Night, but when I think about those in comparison to Fahrenheit 451, and how great they are, I think it’s obvious that he was much more suited to character and reality based story telling than he was to high concept sci fi.

For a movie that’s tackling such heavy issues, time has not been kind.  I can’t imagine many people watching it for the first time today and taking it seriously as a piece of social commentary.  Instead, I think it would probably come off to most people as a campy, funny oddity, highlighting the goofiest parts of the 60s.  The same can be said for Woody Allen’s Sleeper.  The difference being, Allen was actually trying to make a campy, funny oddity, highlighting the goofiest parts of the 60s and 70s.  Any enduring comments he managed to make about the time are just an added bonus.

Fahrenheit 451
Directed By – Francois Truffaut
Written By – Francois Truffautf

MOVIE REVIEW | The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Hunter
Thanks to the great podcast and website Battleship Pretension.  If it wasn’t for their regular praise, I never would have known this amazing movie existed.

When I wrote about the original version of Cape Fear, I was pretty blown away by the bygone version of manliness and masculinity (good and bad) personified by Gregory Peck, and even more so, by Robert Mitchum.  Back then, I thought Mitchum’s Max Cady was one of the coldest, most terrifying movie madmen I had ever seen.  Now, Max Cady looks like a girl scout next to Mitchum’s much scarier, much more ruthless, much creepier Harry ‘Preacher’ Powell in The Night of the Hunter.

It’s the 30s, and Powell drives into town preaching only to himself, but straight away, you know he’s got nefarious motives.  And if you don’t pick that up straight away, his almost immediate arrest for car theft should get you up to speed.  Cut to young farm boy John Harper (Billy Chapin) and his sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce).  Their father Ben (Peter Graves) speeds up in his car and jumps out with a pistol in one hand, 10 grand cash in the other and the cops hot on his tail.  He quickly stashes the cash in Pearl’s doll before being arrested.  In jail, he meets Preacher Powell and tells him about his stash before being hanged.

Once out, Powell tracks down Ben’s family and quickly ingratiates himself with his widow and the rest of the town.  Everyone that is, except young John.  Soon a member of the family, Powell’s hunt for the money and his altercations with John quickly escalate until the full extent of Powell’s evilness is shown and the two children go on the run.

At first, I assumed his preacher façade was just that, I disguise to help put people off their guard and ingratiate himself into their community.  But as The Night of the Hunter went on, I started to see it as legit.  Harry Powell really believes every word he preaches, he seriously thinks he’s a servant of God and that his terrible, terrible actions are Saviour sanctioned.

The guise of preacher also gives him a lot more room to move with hyperbole than your average character.  If you had a regular townsperson deliver his dialogue, every single line would seem totally cornball.  But somehow, when coming from a preacher, you can understand the locals who fall under his spell, thinking his grand statements, over the top delivery and extreme views are simply a passionate man of the cloth, who believes the Lord speak through him.  More than just the costume, it’s also Micthum’s delivery and undeniable charisma that make it work.  You believe Powell is totally insane, but you also believe it when he builds a congregation who are willing to follow that insanity to their salvation.

Amazing acting and story aside, The Night of the Hunter might also be the best looking black and white movie I’ve ever seen.  The use of the monochrome contrast, the huge amounts of pitch black used in so many amazing shot compositions, the precision lighting where only the absolute necessary aspects of any shot are visible, and never a single inch more.  I don’t think I’ve ever noticed the black and whiteness of a movie so much before or been aware of how important a part it’s playing in telling the story.

I’m struggling to think of any realistic movie characters more terrifying than Harry Powell.  I’m also struggling to think of any movies that reveal the true potential of a terrifying character any better than The Night of the Hunter.  He scared the bejesus out of me about five minutes in, yet the movie kept finding ways to ramp up the intensity, the tension and the true extent of his capabilities right up until the final showdown.

The Night of the Hunter
Directed By – Charles Laughton
Written By – Davis Grubb

MOVIE REVIEW | 42 (2013)

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The story of 42 happened more than seventy years ago.  It happened on the other side of the world and centred around a sport that I, like most people in Australia, give very little of a crap about.  But even with all that, I knew who Jackie Robinson was before I watched the movie.  I knew why he was famous, and why his story is so important.  That’s what makes the story of 42 so interesting, but also what makes the execution of 42 kind of a let down as a movie.

In post war America, the game of baseball is segregated, with completely separate leagues for white and black players.  Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) decides to recruit a player from the Negro Leagues.  You see, until this time, there hadn’t been any laws or league regulations to stop interracial teams, just good old fashioned racism.  While Rickey claims his intentions to recruit a black player, any black player, are all about attracting a large, untapped ticket buying black crowd, and to help win a World Series, as the movie moves forward, he’s painted as a genuine progressive with more ultraistic motives.

Rickey recruits Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) and the colour barrier is broken.  The end.  Only, this is mid twentieth century America, so it’s not the end, it’s the beginning of a whole lot of bigotry and intolerance.  Even though Robinson is recruited by the Dodgers in the opening scenes, 42 depicts several years of Robinson playing in the majors before any sort of acceptance is even hinted at.

Everything not so great about 42 comes down to biopic clichés.  From the second the movies starts, you won’t have any trouble predicting the story arcs, the beats of when things will go well, when they’ll come crashing down and when you can expect the soaring, schmaltzy music.  In the opening titles, it says, “based on a true story”.  I’d say the reason it’s only “based on” a true story, and not simply an actual true story, is because a few too many liberties have been taken in making it fit neatly into a nice, three act, biopic structure that can be easily digested.

But amongst all of these familiar clichés is also what I found to be the most effective part of 42.  While the racist bad guys have every red neck tick and affectation turned up to 11 to make sure we hate them, some of the more toned down depictions of the time were a lot more effective.  A shot of the black crowd walking into a ballpark, through a gate with a giant sign reading “Coloreds Only”, made the attitudes of the day seem much more real and horrifying than every slur shouting cartoonish character in the movie put together.

Another thing 42 highlighted for me, and I’m sure the film makers would hate hearing that someone come away with something so trivial, is how boring baseball is.  I know this could sound a bit rich coming from a cricket fan, but when you see a score board that’s all zeroes, but for a single, lonely “1” in the middle, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would subject themselves to watching a game where so little happens.

42
Directed By – Brian Helgeland
Written By – Brian Helgeland

MOVIE REVIEW | Silver Streak (1976)

Silver Streak
I grew up loving See No Evil, Hear No Evil.  I know it hasn’t aged well and that a lot of people see it as the worst of the team ups between its two main actors.  And I know it’s probably fuelled by pure nostalgia these days, but what can I say, I still find Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor really funny in that movie.  Funny enough that’s it’s totally bizarre that I never got around to seeing their other two major teams ups, Stir Crazy and Silver Streak… Until now.  Because now, I have seen Silver Streak and I’m not sure I want to take my chances with Stir Crazy.

Gene Wilder plays George Caldwell, a mild mannered book editor, boarding the Silver Streak, a long haul train to Chicago.  On board, he meets Bob Sweet, a vitamin salesman played by Ned Beatty.  This meeting leads to one of the very few funny parts of Silver Streak when Beatty describes his methods for using train rides to score a bit of transient tail.  It turns out his theories aren’t so out there, because soon enough, Wilder has hooked up with train trollop Hilly Burns (Jill Clayburgh).

They hook up, or at least, they begin to hook up, but are rudely interrupted when Wilder sees a dead body hanging outside the train’s window.  This sets off a story of Wilder becoming more and more mixed up in a world of intrigue, suspense and mystery. I assume.  I got bored a lot and found myself zoning out for long periods of time struggling to give the smallest of shits about what was going on.  Silver Streak gets a much needed shot in the arm about halfway through when Richard Pryor pops up as pretty crook Grover T Muldoon.  Black face sequence aside, the chemistry of Wilder and Pryor is almost enough to make it worth sitting through the first half.  Almost.

Until the appearance of Pryor, I genuinely wasn’t sure if Silver Streak was supposed to be a comedy or an action thriller.  It’s not that I thought the jokes weren’t funny, the problem was I struggled to even recognise attempts at jokes.  Maybe it was just working on a subtle, dry level I just don’t get, but I wasn’t 100% sure it was even trying to be a comedy until I googled it and saw a poster that described Silver Streak as, “The most hilarious suspense ride of your life”.  Whoever wrote that had one sad life.  I say “had” because I assume that line’s author is dead now, having died of shame after lying to the movie going public like that.

In case I haven’t been clear, I did not like Silver Streak.  Wilder and Pryor both get a few funny bits here and there, but not nearly enough to fill a feature length film that’s supposedly “The most hilarious suspense ride of your life”.  I’m struggling, do I risk it and give Stir Crazy a go, or just play it safe and watch See No Evil, Hear No Evil again?

Silver Streak
Directed By – Arthur Hiller
Written By – Colin Higgins

MUSIC REVIEW | Sleigh Bells – Bitter Rivals (2013)

Sleigh Bells
With a combination of bratty rap, sweet melodies and balls out, grrrrl aggression, the vocals of Alexis Krauss are disarmingly cute, with an almost siren quality.  You know you’re being lured in for the kill, but you also know it’s totally worth it.  Derek Edward Miller’s guitars still offer plenty of fuzzed out, speaker killing crunch, with a new edge of polished pop that really works.

READ FULL REVIEW

MOVIE REVIEW | Gravity (2013)

Gravity-movie-spoilers-1 As soon as mass audiences got a look at the  trailer for Gravity and word started getting out about how amazing it looked, I decided I was going to try my best to avoid all teasers, trailers and promo clips if at all possible.  I’m not usually impressed by special effects, I don’t generally dig serious sci fi and I normally don’t think a big cinema screen ads that much to any movie.  But for some reason, with Gravity, I knew I shouldn’t have any of the impact ruined by seeing even a second of it on a computer (or worse, phone) screen.  And just a minute or two into experiencing it on the big screen, I knew I’d made the right choice.

George Clooney’s name might be just as prominent in the marketing for Gravity, but this is all Sandra Bullock’s movie.  The two are in space, working on the Hubble telescope.  Bullock plays Dr Ryan Stone, a rookie astronaut in her first week of living and working in space.  Clooney is Matt Kowalksi, a veteran of more than one tour of duty in orbit who’s getting ready to go home.

While on a space walk, debris from a Russian satellite (those pesky Ruskies, still the go to bad guys decades after the end of the Cold War) bombards their ship and all hell breaks lose.  Clooney and Bullock are separated from the ship and Clooney has to save Bullock from floating away into oblivion.  This first brush with death is nothing compared to what Bullock will go through in the next 90 or so minutes.  And she somehow manages to find new ways to amplify the terror, desperation and exhaustion convincingly the entire time.  Gravity is seriously relentless with what it puts Bullock’s character through.  Literally, right up until the last 60 seconds, the universe throws everything’s it got at Dr Ryan Stone to break her physically and emotionally.

I’ve read a few articles about Bullock deserving an Oscar nomination for Gravity and they’re not wrong.  She’s on screen for pretty much the entire movie, completely alone for the majority, and amazingly engaging every second of it.  I can’t see the Academy ever giving an acting Oscar to anything sci fi related, but in a year when Bullock delivers this performance, and kills it in a broad comedy like The Heat, she’s much more deserving of an Oscar than for some by the numbers, middle of the road, beige yawn like like The Blind Side.

Director and co-writer Alfonso Cuaron deserves just as much of the credit though, for how compelling Gravity is.  The tension, suspense and lump in your throat anticipation he manages to build over the course of this movie are amazing.  After the initial incident that sees Bullock saved by Clooney, her first serious obstacle is a rapidly depleting oxygen supply.  Even when she’s down to 1%, there’s still an hour left in the movie, so you know she won’t die.  But that didn’t stop me holding my breath and anxiously squirming in my seat, wondering how she’d survive.

In a movie that is visually like nothing else I’ve ever seen before, one shot in particular stands out.  And I don’t know if that’s because I found particularly beautiful, deeply poignant or just noxiously on the nose, but at one stage, in zero gravity, Bullock slowly flats into the fetal position.  Is it a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey?  Is it saying something about the feeling of safety in the claustrophobic airlock she’s floating in?  Or is it akin to the rat at the end of The Departed, that made Homer Simpson declare, “The rat symbolizes obviousness”?  I really have no idea.

The only real downside to Gravity was that I had to see it in 3D.  Admittedly, I’ve only seen a handful of movies in 3D, but none of them have made me see the point if it yet.  The only thing 3D adds to a movie is a couple of bucks to the ticket price.  But if it’s the only way you can see this movie, it’s more than worth the inflated price, the dark, muddy screen images and the one or two hacky moments when some object gently floats, or violently careens, toward the camera.

Gravity
Directed by – Alfionso Cuaron
Written By – Alfonso Cuaron, Jonas Cuaron

MOVIE REVIEW | Giant (1956)

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Giant is the ‘other’ James Dean movie.  It’s not Rebel Without a Cause, it’s not East of Eden.  It’s the one that sometimes seems to be looked down on a little and seen as only a curiosity based on the James Dean factor.  But having watched Giant, all 3 hours and 20 minutes of it, I think it’s a great example of a kind of grand, extravagant film making that just doesn’t exist anymore.

Rock Hudson is Texas rancher Jordan “Bick” Benedict.  On an excursion to Maine to buy a prized stallion, he meets, falls in love with and marries Elizabeth Taylor’s   Leslie.  This all happens in the first 10 minutes, so if you’re doing the maths, you’ve already worked out there’s another 3 hours and 10 minutes to fill.  Married before they even leave Maine, Leslie is already fully committed to Bick when they arrive in his desolate Texan wasteland home, complete with tumbleweeds. She is introduced to, and immediately despised by, Bick’s sister, the tough as nails Luz Benedict.  Luckily, Luz bites it soon after.  Unluckily, she leaves a parcel of land to James Dean’s Jett Rink, a not so great farm hand, not particularly liked by Brick.  Despite offers of twice what the land is thought to be worth, Jett keeps it in honour of Luz and out for spite for Rick.  Eventually, this spite pays off when Jett strikes oil and becomes the richest man in Texas.

A few fights and flirts with Jett and Bick later, Leslie grows into her role as a rancher’s wife and Giant takes a couple of jumps in the timeline, using their growing children and events like WWII as indicators as to where we are in the saga.  Once old enough, the Benedict’s eldest daughter threatens to head into Wuthering Heights territory with Jett, adding another reason for Bick to hate him even more as the years pass.

Even at its mammoth running time, Giant never slows down or becomes boring.  It covers roughly a quarter of a century and follows its characters through enough interesting story arcs to keep moving at a pretty cracking pace.  But even if it didn’t, the likes of Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean would make it possible to watch any old crap for hours on end.  Even in the later scenes when their old people make up is less than convincing, these three still manage to make their characters compelling, never goofy.

In the trio of major James Dean appearances, I’d definitely rate this over East of Eden and maybe even put it above Rebel Without a Cause.  I was seriously concerned about the running time as the opening credits began to roll, and I’ll admit to taking a break half way through, but not out of boredom.  Just out of my own inability to sit still for that long.  Honestly, I wouldn’t have minded if Giant was twice as long.

Giant
Directed By – George Stevens
Written By – Fred Guiol, Ivan Moffat

MOVIE REVIEW | The Way Way Back (2013)

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A couple of years ago, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash were two improv and comedy actors who’d had bit parts in a few movies and TV shows.  Then they co-wrote The Descendants with Alexander Payne and won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.  It’s amazing what an Academy Award can do, because less than two years later, their screenplay that had been in various stages of development hell for almost a decade not only got green lit, it not only got made, but Faxon and Rash even got to direct The Way Way Back.

Liam James plays Duncan, a 14 year old on his way to spend the summer at the beach with his mother (Toni Collette), her new boyfriend (Steve Carell) and Carell’s daughter.  When they arrive, they meet a perpetually drunk neighbour (Allison Janney) and her kids, as well as Carrell’s old friends, a couple played by Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet.   Duncan hates his new step-family and Carell plays such an asshole, you can understand Duncan’s constant funk.

Until he meets Owen, a fun loving slacker who refuses to grow up, played by Sam Rockwell.  Owen also happens to run the local water park and soon enough employs Duncan.   His life is then split into two, the acceptance, happiness and growing confidence of the water park, and the nightmare of being stuck with the adults who use their holiday as a chance to drink and toke their way back to their younger heydays.

As two dudes approaching forty, Faxon and Rash manage to create world obviously based on their own 80s childhoods, while still setting it in the present day.  Little things like Carell driving a Griswald style family wagon he refers to as a ‘classic’ and Duncan singing along to an REO Speedwagon classic he claims his mum must have put on his iPod give a real 80s feel to their 2013 world.  Rockwell’s character, being around the same age as Faxon and Rash, simply lives like his life and interests haven’t changed since he was 14 himself.  Rockwell is also probably the only actor good enough and likeable enough to make this cliched of a character work.

There are times when you can see the screenplay grasping for the heartstrings and pulling has hard as it can, but the few overly corny moments are far outweighed by the smaller, more natural ones, uplifting and depressing.  The opening scene when Carell rates his possible step son as a 3 out of 10 lets you know not that only is Carell breaking type and going for a real level of extreme ass holery, but also that Duncan isn’t just a typical mopey kid.  He has real reasons to be such a downer, which makes even the hokiest scenes with Rockwell seem OK.

In a lot of ways, The Way Way Back is a collection of clichés and tropes you’ve seen plenty of times before, but it’s also a new twist on most of them.  For every over the top, cornball character or plot point, you get something small, real and not often seen in movies, like the relationship between Duncan and his neighbour (‘romance’ is too strong a word for what happens).  It’s small movie telling a small story, but at least it does it pretty well.

The Way Way Back
Directed By – Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Written By – Nat Faxon, Jim Rash

MOVIE REVIEW | ***TREK WEEK*** Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

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I know old school Trek fans may think this is blasphemy, but JJ Abram’s 2009 reboot of the series was the only one that made me genuinely psyched to see what comes next.  Sure, Wrath of Kahn got me a little curious about what would happen after Spock’s death, but ‘a little curious’ was about the extent of it.  But when I pressed play on Star Trek: Into Darkness, I was actually excited to see where these incarnations of the Starship Enterprise crew would take the story.

In a great opening that does the job of any opening in a sequel, we get a fun set piece that reminds us who’s who and what they’re all about.  Chris Pine’s Capt. Kirk is the impulsive loose cannon who never thinks things through.  Zachary Quinto’s Spock is the epitome of Vulcan logic who can’t understand the wacky humans and their even wackier emotions.  Simon Pegg’s Scotty is the comic relief, Zoe Saldana is as hot and as no bullshit as ever as Uhura, and Karl Urban is Bones.  With John Cho and Anton Yelchin as Sulu and Chekoc respectively falling victim to character overlard and not getting very much to do.  The additions this time around include Alice Eve, the too-hot-to-be-a-scientist scientist and potential Kirk love interest.  The ludicrously Britishly named Benedict Cumberbatch as bad guy (but is he bad?), Kahn.  And Peter Weller as Starfleet Commander Marcus, an ally (but is he an ally?).

Early on in Star Trek: Into Darkness, there’s a terrorist attack on Starfleet perpetrated by Kahn.  Kirk and his crew are sent after him with the orders to kill on site.  When they catch up with him, Kirk decides to take Kahn alive so he can be tried for his crimes.  This is where we get Kahn’s back story and learn his motivations are fuelled by being abandoned by Starfleet  This is one area where the remake doesn’t quite have the impact if the original.  In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, Kirk and his crew had history with Kahn and were personally responsible for what he became.  This time around, the links are a little more manufactured and a little less effective.

Kahn’s capture unveils a greater threat from within Starfleet, leading to Kirk reluctantly teaming up with Kahn to defeat a greater evil.  It all gets a little convoluted and overblown at this stage, but none of that matters, because Abrams knows when to push the story aside for a cool action set piece.  The final sequence being especially great.  Even if the ‘super blood’ and its plot device purpose were telegraphed a mile away.

There are only two things that kind of bugged me about Star Trek: Into Darkness.  The original series built a really strong dynamic between Kirk, Spock and Bones, but I don’t think the reboot has really figured out how to use Bones yet.  It’s almost like once the writers figure out how to shoehorn in a use of, “Damn it, I’m a doctor, not a (insert punch line here)”, they think they’ve done all they need to with the character.  The other problem I had was Alice Eve as a scientist.  I’m not saying good looking people are never smart, but Alice Eve is a kind of pretty that’s too perfect.  She almost looks more like a doll than a real person.

To me, as a casual viewer at best, I’d have to say the Trek franchise seems stronger than ever.  And for the first time, I’m excited enough about what comes next that I’ll probably even pay a few bucks opt see it in a cinema.

Star Trek: Into Darkness
Directed By – JJ Abrams
Written By – Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof

MOVIE REVIEW | ***TREK WEEK*** Star Trek (2009)

227 - Star Trek
I’ll say this much for the JJ Abrams’ reboot of the Trek series, it does not mess around.  Opening in the middle of a space battle and child birth happening simultaneously, Star Trek gets stuck right in from the get go and never really lets up until the end credits roll.

The space battle involves the father of Capt. James T. Kirk, sacrificing himself and his ship in a battle against Nero, an evil Romulan played by Eric Banner.  The childbirth is that of Capt. James T. Krik, who’ll grow up to be Chris Pine, a loose cannon who plays by his own rules.  When he joins Starfleet at the urging of his father’s friend Pike (Bruce Greenwood) he meets and immediately befriends Dr ‘Bones’ McCoy.  He also meets and immediately clashes with Zachary Quinto’s Spock, so of course they’ll never become best friends.

Soon, they’re all aboard the brand spanking new Starship Enterprise with Pike in the captain’s chair and Kirk a stowaway.  They answer a distress call form Spock’s home planet of Vulkan and get there to discover it’s Nero, the same Romulan who dispatched Kirk’s old man in the opening scene.  A lot of exposition goes down to explain who Nero is, there’s a little bit if time travel and Leonard Nimoy pops up as old Spock.  It’s the perfect level of convolutedness to make time travel and its effects seem somehow plausible, while never being hard to keep track of what’s going on.

The actors playing the core crew give their performance just enough homage to the originals without ever resorting to hammy impressions.  Pine has the cockiness of Shatner covered, and even throws in one or two stilted line readings.   Quinto handles the measured contemplation of Spock in true Nimoy style and Pegg as Scotty unashamedly jumps head first into the job of comic relief.  Zoe Saldana gets a lot more to do as Uhura than Nichelle Nichols ever did and John Cho’s Sulu is more of an ass kicker than the old movies ever allowed George Takai to be.  The odd man out is Karl Urban as Bones McCoy.  I’m not sure if I loved his scenery chewing take on Deforest Kelly the most, or if he would be more at home on a Saturday Night Live sketch parodying this movie.  Either way, his performance is interesting and stayed with me.

Of course, all the flash of modern technology and CGI means Star Trek loses a little of the charm of the original films, but there are signs of Abrams doing his best to keep a little of that hokey simplicity in tact.  In an era when he could easily fill this world with amazing CGI aliens, Abrams chooses to stick mainly with human actors in makeup and masks. And almost every recognisable sound effect from the old school series is still evident in the reboot.

This movie should be used as example of how to reboot a franchise, how to bring fresh eyes to old characters and how to make people rethink preconceptions about an old property.  I’m no Trek fanatic, so maybe there were plenty of things for hard core fans to hate, but I think Abrams’ nod to the old incarnations were great, and everything new he added was necessary for a 21st century audience.  Chris Pine also shows that if anything terrible ever happens to Channing Tatum, it’s not that bad, because we a have a spare.

Star Trek
Directed By – JJ Abrams
Written By – Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman

MOVIE REVIEW | ***TREK WEEK*** Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

Star_Trek_Nemesis_poster
So it all comes down to this.  After 6 movies with the cast of the original series, 4 with the Next Generation cast and the big JJ Abram’s reboot 7 years away, this version of the series limps to a pretty lame ending.  While there’s a nice send off for Picard, the death of a major character and some real attempts at closure, Star Trek: Nemesis is just too much of what’s come before, trotted out one last time, delivering diminishing returns.

The movie opens with a wedding between Riker (Jonthan Frakes) and one of the female characters who all look, act and sound the same.  Of course, with such a happy beginning, you know things will quickly go south.  When they do, it’s due to a conflict with the Romulans.  Over the course of these movies, ‘Romulans’ is a word I’ve heard a bit, but I think this might the first time they’re kind of central to the story.  Long standing enemies, they want to make a truce with the Federation, but when the Enterprise gets there, there’s a double cross and we meet Shonzon, a clone of Patrick Stewart’s Capt. Picard, played by a very young Tom Hardy in one of his first major roles.  Even young and fresh faced, Hardy makes a menacing and effective bad guy.

He’s hooked up with another group of baddies called the Remans.  Picard and his mates find a robot, identical to their own resident android, Data (Brent Spiner).  Again, his robotness and desire to become more human results in more of the same crap we’ve seen from Data before, and it doesn’t get any more entertaining the more times we see it.

For me, a sign of a boring movie is how quick I resort to reading its Trivia section on IMDB.  For Star Trek: Nemesis, I reckon that took all of about 10 minutes.  It also proved more interesting than the movie itself.  This entry in particular explains a lot about the finished product…

“The film’s cast… have levelled fierce criticism at director Stuart Baird over his direction of the film, claiming the director hated the Star Trek universe and knew nothing about it.  Baird…  Expresses his frustration in the DVD commentary at having to tell a story in an established universe with pre-existing design and character relationships, hated having to utilize recycled sets and props and has trouble remembering the names of the main cast.”

When you’re dealing with a beloved, cult franchise who’s fans are possibly the most dedicated and obsessive of any fan sub culture out there, maybe get a director who knows the characters and at least a little about the world he’s working with

The second piece of Star Trek: Nemesis trivia that I found way more interesting than the movie ?…

“Jonathan Frakes refused to shave his back for the love scene, turned rape with Troi. The hair on his back was digitally removed by an effects house.”

Yep, that’s the kind of movie you’re dealing with if you decide to watch Star Trek: Nemesis.

Star Trek: Nemesis
Directed By – Stuart Baird
Written By – John Logan

MOVIE REVIEW | ***TREK WEEK*** Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)

Insurrection
So, it turns out Starfleet has a goal.  As someone one who’s only seen the movies, and not a single second of the original series, it came as some surprise to know that the various crews of the various Starships Enterprise are explorers, and that they are supposed to observe less advanced civilizations, but not interfere with their development and evolution.  So it only took me nine movies to learn something pretty integral to the entire series.  For that I say, thank you, Star Trek: Insurrection.  For everything else this movie does, I say, why bother?

Star Trek: Insurrection isn’t a terrible movie, it just has nothing new to say that we haven’t already seen or heard several times over in the series by this point.  I don’t mind the new crew, but I also don’t know them.  Three films into their tenure and I can only name Capt. Picard, First Officer Riker, the blind dude LaForge, Klingon Worf and the robot, Data.   There are a lot of other characters, mainly women, who keep popping up, but never leave any sort of lasting impression.  After promising results in First Contact, it seems this series can’t quite figure out how to use its entire ensemble.  Which is a shame, because if they did, they might not fall back on the same old chestnut of the inciting incident being Data malfunctioning.  Seriously, at this stage, I wonder why he still exists.  That robot goes on the fritz and causes chaos way too often to not be a write off by this stage.

So, there’s a Starfleet outpost, covertly observing an idealic, old fashioned human colony.  Covertly, that is, until Data runs amuck and blows their cover.  But it’s OK, because it turns out these people aren’t so primitive after all, they have discovered and developed awesome technology years ago, they’ve also just decided not to use it.  It’s also OK, because now that they’re there, the crew of the Enterprise discover a plot to kidnap this race and move them elsewhere.  This plot is being perpetrated by a race of saggy faced weirdos who want youth. Or some old bollocks.   Really, at this stage, I have less and less interest in who the bad guys are and what they want.  It’s all the same.

Watching Star Trek: Insurrection did make me realise one thing about this series.  As I watched machinery within the Enterprise explode and nameless crew members fly through the air, I thought it would be awesome if the closing credits of each Trek movie started with a body count of how many crew members bit the dust in each movie.  For every blown gasket, exploding pipe and piece of space shrapnel that flies through the air in every altercation the ships have, there must be a dozen dead dudes who’s bodies get crammed into overhead compartments until the Enterprise gets back to space port.  Something to think about.

Star Trek: Insurrection
Directed By – Jonathan Frakes
Written By – Michael Piller