Doing the near impossible by eclipsing the warp speed of 2009's Star Trek, J.J. Abrams' sequel is wall-to-wall action empowered by the strong characters set up in the original. Star Trek Into Darkness, from geek-friendly writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof, hones in on the destructive heroism of James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), the Captain's friendship with all-too-logical Spock (Zachary Quinto), and a worthy adversary for the crew: the superhuman terrorist John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). The approach leaves the ensemble, elegantly woven into the adventure of the first movie, on the sidelines. Instead of reminding us why we love the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, Into Darkness floods the screen with spectacle and relies on memories of the past to fill in the blanks. What's the Klingon word for "overload?"
From the first notes of Michael Giacchino's rousing score, we're thrust into the middle of the action. A chase scene on a lush planet jumps to an escape from volcanic eruption jumps to Kirk and Spock back on Earth defending themselves against Federation punishment (a dialogue scene that taps snappy dialogue and big emotion to keep the momentum going). Kirk is under fire for going against the "Prime Directive," stating that the Starfleet won't interfere with the internal development of alien civilizations. Standing down isn't his style — and it costs him Spock as his right hand man, the Enterprise, and a career. He's pulled back in by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), who needs Kirk's renegade style to catch Harrison. A format Starfleet officer, Cumberbatch's Harrison is more than meets the eye, but violent attacks against the Federation are enough to light a fire under Kirk's ass. The rage-filled Captain recruits his former crew to boldly go after Harrison.
Into Darkness lacks the camaraderie that made Star Trek pop — and even Cumberbatch's scenery chewing instincts are stymied by surface-level drama — Abrams never blinks an eye when it comes to the direction. He finds tension with the grand CG set pieces (a spaceship chase through the canyons of an alien planet is basically a proof of concept for Star Wars 7) and finds all the right angles for a intensely close-up space jump scene through a field of debris. The movie acknowledges that this is repeat business, essentially the same scene from movie one, but it's expertly crafted and a thrill thanks to Abrams' knowhow.
With all the innovation on display, Star Trek Into Darkness can't escape the shadow of its dramatic cues. It's completely indebted to Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan — a foundation that must be bewildering to the non-fan. The movie also functions as a 9/11 allegory. Or, more specifically, the conspiracies surrounding 9/11. With a large portion of action taking place on Earth, trauma strikes among skyscrapers and screaming pedestrians in an on-the-nose fashion. It wrenches the gut, but it's easy. True drama between Kirk and Spock exists thanks to Pine and Quinto's vivid portrayals, but it's all for naught when the inciting incidents are nostalgic riffs rather than freshly born situations.
Star Trek had its fair share of plot holes, but they were swept up in the fun factor of watching a motley crew of young actors figure out teamwork. Into Darkness is missing the team, and missing the fun. Abrams takes a dark turn with his follow-up and promises an epically-scaled sparring match between Kirk and Cumberbatch. The movie winds up moving so quickly, glossing over so much to get to that final clash, that Star Trek Into Darkness fizzles out by its finish.
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The basic premise of most crime revenge dramas is how much of our humanity we're willing to trade to get back what the other people — the ostensible baddies — have taken from us. Oliver Stone returns to this familiar stomping ground with Savages a splashy adaptation of Don Winslow's novel about a unique love affair a major marijuana-dealing business and an increasingly violent pissing match between two SoCal growers and the Baja Cartel.
Stone's frenetic visual style is in full swing but even this Oscar-winning auteur can't quite raise the film from mediocrity. It's hard to care whether or not Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) rescue their gorgeous mutual girlfriend O (Blake Lively) from the cartel if O isn't engaging enough to persuade us she's worth the bloodshed. O (short for Ophelia — an allusion to her earthshaking climaxes) is not a well-written character to begin with but she's even less engaging as played by Lively. Johnson is unconvincing as the bleeding heart Ben and the details his character is given — extra earrings a shoddy-looking tattoo on his neck even white boy dreads at one point — undercut his believability even more. Kitsch is given a few prominent scars and a mean squint but he doesn't quite bring the weird slightly empty vibe of Chon to life.
On the villain side Benicio Del Toro chews every inch of scenery from Laguna Beach to Tijuana as Lado. He's rocking an intense moustache that he strokes when he's lying or being a creep (which is most of the time) a vaguely mullet-like wig and a fondness for torture. Salma Hayek takes no prisoners as the head of the cartel nicknamed Elena la Reina who is both a frustrated mom whose college-age daughter is blowing her off (aw!) and a brutally tough woman in a man's world. John Travolta definitely enjoys a bit of Pulp Fiction ridiculousness as Dennis a DEA official who's in Ben and Chon's pocket. It's hard to tell just how funny Savages is aiming to be. Lado Elena and Dennis are cartoonish but Ben Chon and O are earnest — which is to say a little bit boring.
The double- and triple-crossing is practically moot as is the wacky technology that Ben and Chon employ; it's like The Social Network meets surfers. The real meat of the movie is the flash and violence but it's not the kind of thing that stays with you like Stone's Natural Born Killers. Savages doesn't have the same lingering aftertaste. It's not that a movie needs to have some sort of message with its pointed commentary on the media's bloodlust but the gist of Savages — that we're all savages at heart or that we can easily become a savage given the right circumstances — is not that interesting or unique.
Oddly enough Savages pulls a few punches when it comes to its source material (hard to believe when the movie kicks off with a glimpse of an abattoir-like enclosure and close-ups of men begging for their lives just as a chainsaw revs in the background). Winslow's book is a quick enjoyable read with an interesting on-page style that's hard to replicate verbally. It has a sort of ADD-addled feel that the movie tries to but doesn't quite capture. While it's not always fair to compare an adaptation to the book it's based on Winslow is both the author and one of the screenplay writers so some of the choices made behind the scenes don't quite add up. Cut are significant and menacing back story for Lado and all of the zestiness out of O. Why add in certain plot points and take out others unless it was to give one of its big name stars more screen time? The most interesting part of the story the love story is treated like a wink wink homoerotic thing than an actual relationship between three people who adore each other which is how it's portrayed in the book. It's hard not to be a little disappointed especially given Stone's no-f**ks-given attitude. (Or as O would say baditude.)
That said it is a somewhat entertaining diversion and a nice tour of lifestyles of the rich and criminal. Lively is all tangled tan limbs and luxurious hippie clothes and the homes they frequent whether on Laguna Beach or a desert compound are meticulously decorated with exquisite expensive taste. Santa Muerte imagery also figures heavily in the background of many scenes. The scenery is gorgeous — even the marijuana looks amazing. It's good for adults to have another R-rated choice in what's usually a season dominated by blockbusters but in years to come you'll more likely to reach for your old True Romance DVD than Savages.
Since Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel A Princess of Mars was published nearly 100 years ago his otherworldly tale story has been subsequently been reworked and riffed on by nearly every sci-fi book or movie to follow. Star Wars Dune Avatar—sift through filmmaker interviews and it's easy to find threads tying their inspiration back to Burroughs. Which makes John Carter the big screen adaptation of Princess of Mars particularly surprising. The film's epic presentation of Martian races colliding in battle could feel stale but instead blossoms with color imagination and fun. Director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo Wall-E) has a strong sense of what makes "adventure" adventurous helping John Carter encapsulate everything about a great time at the movies.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) a Civil War veteran with the entire Confederate army on his tail finds himself mysteriously transported via a magic cave (or alien technology? If you get caught up in these details John Carter may not be for you) to smack dab in the middle of a Martian desert. As Carter overcomes the planet's gravity a physical difference that allows him to leap tall structures in a single bound (sound familiar?) he runs into one of Mars' many races: the eight-foot tall four-armed green Tharks. As their prisoner/friend/specimen John Carter takes a back seat to the unique world of the Thark world full of clockwork architecture and airships archaic customs and political strife. The Tharks are in the midst of a 1 000 year battle with the humanoids of Zodanga led by the villainous Sab Than (Dominic West) who is in turn manipulated by the occasionally-invisible shapeshifter Matai Shang (Mark Strong). The Tharks have teamed up with the residents of Helium including the stunning scientist warrior Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) but doom is impending and quickly the Spartacus-esque Thark fighter Tars Tarkas turns to Carter for help.
Unlike Avatar which introduced its fantastical world using the safety net of a simple archetypical story John Carter has no reservations bombarding its audience with plot and intrigue. At times the specifics of the world's complex societies and strifes are complicated and confusing but similarly to info-heavy scripts—think the recent Michael Clayton or Margin Call or heck Shakespeare—Stanton Mark Andrew and Michael Chabon's screenplay feels assured of its own drama confident that no matter your understanding the theatrics will sway you. The human element of John Carter exists behind even the most CG-ified alien creature and that's what keeps us on board.
If there's any misstep it's in the casting of Kitsch a fully capable action hero unconvincing as survivor of the Civil War. Kitsch feels pulled from present day but John Carter needs to be a Confederate soldier in more than name. Kitsch is up to the task of ripping up white apes with giant steel blades or jumping over armies of raging Tharks but in scenes of introspection or humorous back-and-forths he loses footing. The real star is Collins as Dejah Thoris who nails the epic qualities of reciting enjoyably ridiculous Martian-speak. She stands out even in the blinding desert sun and even when decked out in over-the-top boobage costuming manages to deliver a compelling and rousing performance. Doesn't hurt that she knows her way around a swordfight or two.
With John Carter moving at lightning speed investing in the film's handful of characters becomes a difficult task but talented folk like Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton bring zest to characters on par with James Cameron's Avatar creations. And with such a strong background in animation it's no surprise that Woola John Carter's scrappy space dog sidekick is as realized and tangible as the rest of the gang. The scrappy six-legged critter adds humor to John Carter born completely out of the moment. Don't confuse this with the Star Wars prequels—nothing cutesy or ham-fisted here.
A streamlined John Carter would have really popped but as a first live-action effort for Stanton the fill is still something to behold. With breathtaking design sweeping action and a score by Lost Star Trek and Pixar vet Michael Giacchino that finds perfect balance between Lawrence of Arabia and Indiana Jones the film works as an immersive cinematic experience that will have you "ooo-ing" and "aaa-ing." If you step into John Carter you'll likely find yourself transported to another world—it beats trying to find a magic cave.
All Jackie Chan movies are basically the same right? Jackie is the good
guy who's on the run from or in pursuit of a truly evil bad guy. In
this one Jackie plays an Imperial Chinese guard sent to the American
west during the 1800s to rescue a kidnapped princess (Lucy Liu). He
buddies up with a bumbling outlaw (Owen Wilson) and as you might guess
action and laughs follow.
One reason for Chan's phenomenal success of recent years is that he
seems to realize his own strengths and weaknesses as an actor and plays
up to them. As he did with Chris Tucker in "Rush Hour " Chan plays the
straight guy while Wilson (doing a more slapstick type of comedy than in
"Bottle Rocket" and other films) acts the goof.
Well there's some nice scenery of the Sierra Nevadas and the old west
(where this stuff was actually filmed I have no idea but it looks
great) but other than that this film is a showcase for the actors. For
the most part director Tom Dey doesn't deviate from the tried-and-true
elements of a Hollywood western: Gunfights Indians brothels bounty
hunters barroom brawls hangings damsels in distress and so on. The
final fight between the good guys and bad guys is a lot of fun mixing
up swordplay gunplay martial arts and fighting sticks.
Caroline (Hudson) is a hospice nurse who goes from one terminally ill patient to another. The Devereauxs--stroke victim Ben (John Hurt) and his supposedly caring but overprotective wife Violet (Gena Rowlands)--are her next case. It all starts off innocently enough with Caroline seeing Ben's misfortune as a means to pay for her nursing school tuition. But once she arrives at the foreboding house a manse set on a bayou in the boondocks surrounding New Orleans (as if N'awlins isn't inherently spooky enough we have to contend with the city's desolate outskirts?) it's clear that this place comes with history. Seems the former owners' black servants used to practice "hoodoo"--a local folk magic--way back when in the attic and were strung up for it. Now their spirits could still be up there. So when Caroline hears noises emanating from above the (conveniently) curious houseguest investigates. Ben too seems spooked. Despite being deemed bedridden by Mrs. Devereaux he's escaping out of windows. Caroline believes someone--or something--may be tormenting him (you think?) and she searches for the answer which may or may not be lurking in the attic.
How The Skeleton Key does at the box office is pretty important for Hudson. Coming off her stellar Oscar-nominated turn as the groupie with a soul in Almost Famous the young actress hasn't been able to pull off the same magic since. Each of her last three films --Alex & Emma Le Divorce and Raising Helen--have been under-performers. So she needs Skeleton to work and thankfully as the doggedly inquisitive Caroline she holds up her end of the deal. Hudson refreshingly doesn't scream or over-emote like so many horror heroines have done before her--but her cutesy demeanor does rear its pretty head on occasion. Oh well can't win them all. Film veteran Rowlands puts on a fine show as the matriarch with something malevolent brewing behind the fading Southern belle routine. And poor John Hurt who is relegated to being tormented one way or the other as Ben. You can't help but feel badly for his character whose plight takes on a cartoonish form at times made even worse by the fact the esteemed actor has virtually no coherent dialogue throughout the film. And then there's the indie darling Peter Sarsgaard who plays the Devereauxs hands-on lawyer who's maybe a little too hands on. Although his screen time is limited he still adds a nice element to the proceedings.
Director Iain Softley's films up to and including this point are as disparate as can be: the underrated Beatles dramatization Backbeat; Hackers computer-lovers' cult favorite that gave Angelina Jolie her first big role; the critically acclaimed period drama The Wings of the Dove; and finally 2001's other-worldly K-PAX. Now with Skeleton Key it's ghost stories and Softley makes a critical decision not to reveal any sort of monster. The decision to only hint at something wicked without showing it in a summer full of the same tired gory special effects is a gutsy choice that pays off for the most part. It unequivocally leaves room for the audience to use their imagination--and Softley wants our collective imagination to run rampant. But even with this technique the scare factor still seems to be lacking. It's only at the very end do we feel any tangible danger--and that's a long time to wait.