Film

Star Trek Beyond, Lights Out, Café Society, Equals

STAR TREK BEYOND

3CR-Steve at the Movies-newBefore I dive into talking about Star Trek Beyond, can I just say how much it warms my heart to see Greg Grunberg have such a great few months. The “Heroes” star and J.J. Abrams good-luck charm (he’s been in lead roles and cameos in such works as “Alias,” “Lost,” Super 8, Mission: Impossible III, and as Snap Wexley in Star Wars: The Force Awakens) shows up in Beyond in a couple of scenes as Commodore Finnegan, who attempts to stop the destruction of a Federation space station. It’s not a big part, but seeing this genre staple is indicative of why this film works. It’s inclusive and embraces ideas that Star Trek fans have loved about the series and movie, without feeling like it’s kowtowing to or over-serving them. The best showrunners or filmmakers give the audience what they need, even if said audience doesn’t know they need it.

In the case of Star Trek Beyond, what producer Abrams and new director Justin Lin (maker of four Fast and the Furious films) give us is a great episode of the original series in movie form. Abrams and his team were so busy reconfiguring the entire new Star Trek cinematic world and timelines that they may have forgotten to give us some good, old-fashioned, sci-fi action, with a tinge of philosophy sprinkled throughout. But thanks in large part to a down and dirty screenplay from Simon Pegg (who also returns as Scotty) and Doug Jung, Beyond finds a way to tackle a universe-threatening enemy while never forgetting to enhance the friendships among the crew members in new and surprisingly moving ways.

After a great, action-packed cold opening, the film begins on what feels like the brink of change. Capt. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine, showing more confidence in the role, if that’s even possible) has grown weary of his journey, questioning whether he’s making a difference and wondering if he should cut his five-year adventure short after only three years, for a desk job as a commodore for Starfleet. The great Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo shows up as Commodore Paris at key moments in the film when Kirk has to make some tough choices in his life that will likely also impact his strong ties with best friend Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto).

Spock has also just been given the news that Ambassador Spock (or Spock Prime, played by the late Leonard Nimoy in the previous two films) has died, leaving the few remaining Vulcans in the universe desperate for leadership as they build a new world for themselves. When Spock is approached to be that new leader, he considers it but wants to talk to Kirk first. On the brink of the two discussing their future plans, they are sent on a mission to an uncharted part of space where apparently a ship is in distress, but it turns out they have been lured there, and are immediately attacked and boarded by particularly nasty forces led by Krall (a heavily masked Idris Elba), whose followers and ships swarm like oversized bees, living in hives and “stinging” the U.S.S. Enterprise full of so many holes, that its saucer goes crashing down onto the surface of a nearby planet.

While many of the crew are captured by Krall, many of the most familiar faces use escape pods to head to the surface, and they must find each other, reunite with the captured crew members, and stop a full-scale invasion by Krall that threatens to use an ancient alien virus to wipe out pretty much anything it contacts. And that’s Star Trek at its core: an end-of-the-universe scenario, a guy in a rubber mask, plenty of time for banter and adventure, and even an attractive, kickass warrior woman in the form of Jaylah (Sofia Boutella, the razor-legged assassin in Kingsman: The Secret Service), whom Scotty finds living on the planet surface in an old Federation starship that shockingly still functions to some degree.

One of the move enjoyable aspects of Star Trek Beyond is the middle of the film when the primary crew members are separated, mostly in pairs, attempting to find each other and Krall’s lair. Kirk and Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin, who has a couple of great moments in this film) have to deal with the traitorous person who brought them to this interstellar hell to begin with; Sulu (John Cho) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) are part of the captured group but manage to escape. But the best pairing easily belongs to Spock and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), who bicker like an old married couple, but when Spock confesses to Bones his plan to leave the Enterprise, the doctor is stunned and makes a point to say how much Kirk will miss his teammate, when it’s clear McCoy is going to miss the Vulcan just as much, words to the contrary.

I complain a lot about action movies (and other genres, for that matter) not devoting enough (or any) time to character development, in an effort to make us care whether any of these people live or die. As with most of the Trek properties, Star Trek Beyond never forgets to do this. We don’t need a lot, but we need something to hold onto. The added emotions many audience members will carry into the film with the passing of Nimoy and Yelchin since Star Trek Into Darkness is only going to make that more necessary. Screenwriters Pegg and Jung have made me remember what I truly love about these characters, and that warm feeling extends to new character Jaylah, who is drawn as technically proficient as well as a helluva fighter.

The pacing of the film is quite exceptional as well. The two-hour running time flew by in a way few movies have for me this summer. Part of the reason is that Elba’s Krall is a villain of Shakespearean proportion; his movements are larger than life and his voice suggests that it almost hurts him to speak. He seems especially well-versed in the ways of the Federation in general and Kirk in particular, a source of mystery that I won’t spoil here. I doubt Krall will get placed in some pantheon of great Trek adversaries, but at least he’s not an embarrassment or some lame callback to a classic series episode.

My biggest problem with Star Trek Beyond are in Lin’s handling of the action sequences, which no one is more surprised by than me. He’s a proven quantity as far as car chases and fight scenes go, but there’s something so muddy and frantic about the action here that it’s sometimes tough to tell exactly what’s going on or where people are in relation to each other, which is kind of key for credible action set pieces. Perhaps it’s telling that the action scenes that work are more brightly lit, especially a prolonged battle between Jaylah and an enemy from her past. But a great number of fight scenes are in darker surroundings, and especially in 3-D, this is often problematic.

Of the three recent Star Trek offerings, Beyond is easily the most purely entertaining. It doesn’t dig deep as far as the greater meanings of Starfleet and its presiding mission, but Krall’s backstory does take a critical look at how the organization has operated in the past, which coincides with Kirk’s doubts about his role in it. Still, as far as franchise work this summer, this is one of the better ones, and I’m still quite eager to see what both the creative team and the actors have in store moving forward. As we learn in this film from a crashed, old-school starship that has been sitting on a desolate planet for decades, there’s still life in this old jalopy, even at 50 years old.

LIGHTS OUT

I have the same overarching philosophy about horror films that I do about comedies: If it makes me scream (or laugh), that’s more than half the battle to getting me to like it. Using a fairly straightforward gimmick that doesn’t vary much from scene to scene, Lights Out certainly does deliver the scares as a fractured family deals with a ghost who seems to hide in the shadows. When there’s light, she is invisible and can’t hurt you; when the lights go out, she becomes quite tangible and visible and will likely murder you. The film happens to come courtesy of producer James Wan, whose recent The Conjuring 2 was so damn scary that his name on any other movie is going to count for something for many audiences.

From first-time feature director David F. Sandberg (the film is based on his short, which has been adapted by Eric Heisserer), Lights Out tells the story of two children—the grownup Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) and her still young brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman)—whose mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), is slowly losing her mind and willingness to protect her children from a terrible presence in their home— a creature known as Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey), whom Sophie believes is her friend but in truth is destroying everything close to Sophie, including her late husband (Billy Burke), who is attacked in a flashback that serves as the film’s opening.

Sophie’s long belief that Diana was her friend led to Rebecca leaving the house to begin with, and now she lives alone and has a boyfriend named Bret (Alexander DiPersia) who is helping her overcome her frustration with her mother while attempting to protect her brother from potential harm. During the course of the very short film, the mystery of Diana is revealed (it’s not all that shocking or interesting), relationships are torn apart and put back together, and an admittedly creepy-looking ghost gets to rip some shit up (as much shit as a PG-13 rating will allow, at least).

As an exercise in pacing and scary atmosphere and smash cuts with loud music cues that make audiences jump, Lights Out is a fully functional scare movie. But I could not have given any number of craps about these characters or this extremely self-made mess they find themselves in. Each one of them makes one bad decision after another that puts them in deeper danger, and it took me all of about 10 minutes to stop caring about their collective fates. Yes, I realize that without dumb decisions, 90 percent of horror movies wouldn’t exist, but I couldn’t get past it here, primarily because Bello is such a gifted actor that I found it hard to believe she could be so easily fooled by a creepy ghost.

I’m not saying I didn’t jump out of my seat more than a few times, and none of the performances are inherently bad, but the material is just plain weak and horribly uninspired. I appreciated the dynamic of the family as the compassionate framework for this story, but each character is so underwritten that my heart just wasn’t in this one. All of that being said, Lights Out has enough going for it that I’m genuinely looking forward to whatever director Sandberg has next. If he follows the lead of his producer, he’ll flesh out the characters on his next a bit more and hopefully he’ll have something truly inspired.

CAFE SOCIETY

On its glossy, nostalgia-skimming surface, Woody Allen’s latest, Cafe Society is about 1930s show business types—from top Hollywood agents to New York City nightclub owners—going through the high-end motions, while the rest of the world is still digging out of the Great Depression. But if you look a little deeper, there’s a something underneath, a darker, more intimate story about the one great love that got away and how people manage to live their lives while still carrying a torch for someone who isn’t their spouse.

The story is told through the eyes (although Allen provides the narration) of Bronx kid Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) who moves to Hollywood, hoping to get a job at his uncle Phil’s agency, where Hollywood deals are made and broken on a whim. Phil (Steve Carell) is married but is having an affair with his assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), whom he has been stringing along for months with promises of leaving his wife. Without realizing this connection, Bobby also begins seeing Vonnie, and the two seem to fall for each other. Vonnie is the only one who knows the whole truth, and while she talks about an affair she’s having with a married man to Bobby in vague terms, it isn’t until Phil starts actually preparing to leave his wife that Bobby figures out the truth.

But the love triangle aspect of Cafe Society is really only half the story, and Allen peppers anecdotes and observations about old Hollywood that are screamingly funny. Combined with the elegant costuming and overall glossy look of each scene, this film would make a fantastic companion piece to the Coen Brothers Hail, Caesar!, with its whimsy and biting commentary about the rich and brainless.

But Cafe Society is also very much a film about family. Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott play Bobby’s overly protective parents, while Corey Stoll is largely wasted as his gangster brother Ben, and Sari Lennick plays domesticated sister Evelyn. Allen always comes back to this core group because they give Bobby motivation in both good and bad ways. He wants to get away from them, but he also gets some of his work ethic and values from these folks. In Hollywood, Bobby is drawn to another older couple, played by Parker Posey and Paul Schneider, who take him under their wing and teach him the ins and out of the L.A. party scene, of which Bobby is fast becoming a member.

Bobby’s heartbreak over Vonnie choosing Phil over him sends him back to New York to work, and eventually, run one of his brother’s night club properties, and before long, the place become the happening joint in Manhattan. Bobby meets and soon marries the stunning Veronica (Blake Lively), and before long, they have a baby. But some part of Bobby is unsatisfied, as if Vonnie was the last person he was going to trust his entire heart to. And while it’s clear he loves Veronica, she and the baby are simply part of a bigger picture and direction toward independent wealth. When Vonnie and Phil return to New York for a quick trip, she and Bobby are able to talk about the past, but it’s clear the damage has been done and the past is likely not to repeat itself. Depending on how invested in these characters you are, the moment is actually quite heartbreaking.

Like many of Allen’s works, there’s a great deal on the periphery, but the emotional heart of Cafe Society is this wonderful couple (an Adventureland reunion of for Eisenberg and Stewart) who never quite connect they way they clearly should have. Call it a case of wish unfulfillment, something most American movies wouldn’t dream of giving us. But Allen knows that we’re all familiar with “happily ever after”; he wants us to see another side of that. Not so much “unhappily ever after”—this is more about being content, with that pesky, overwhelming love getting in the way. It’s a bold statement and a fun and daring film that still comes across as lightweight if you’re not paying attention. The movie opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

EQUALS

I have a soft spot for films that blend science fiction and a serious love story, but the new film from Drake Doremus (Like Crazy) takes these ideas a step further by setting his tale in a world where love and most other strong emotions don’t exist as part of day-to-day living. Equals posits, what would happen if love sprung up between two people who had no idea what such feelings are or what do with them?

Make no mistake, this version of an emotionless future is actually a rather nice one. Everyone gets along, works efficiently, and leads boring but satisfying lives. Far from a Big Brother-like police state, this place has no security camera or noticeable police force. Silas (Nicholas Hoult) works creating virtual history books (this society puts a great emphasis on what came before, even though we’re not told exactly what catastrophic event led to this lifestyle). He works alongside a team of writers, editors, and artists, including Nia (Kristen Stewart), who is clearly looking at him a bit too long sometimes, and soon her behavior begins to impact him.

Another element to this world is that you can contract a “bug” that gives you emotions, and it consumes you after a time, progressing from stage 1 to stage 5 gradually. It becomes clear, however, that this self-diagnosed illness is really just the result of a human becoming more human and allowing him/her to feel something. When you get close to stage 5, you are taken to a containment facility with others who are infected, where you are encouraged to kill yourself. If you can’t do that, those in charge help you figure out another type of death option. It sounds sinister, but strangely, it both is and isn’t.

Hell, there are even support groups for people with the bug, and when Silas starts to feel, he meets a rather pleasant fellow named Jonas (Guy Pearce), who opens his eyes to an underground society of people living secretly undetected with the bug, of which Nia is clearly one. The “love scenes” (if that’s what you call them) initially consist of Silas and Nia simply taking stock in each other’s forms. The human form of the opposite sex is utterly unknown to them, and their sensual response to another person under their fingertips is quite well represented. Working from a screenplay by Nathan Parker (Moon), Doremus has built a world that is both futuristic and weirdly lo-fi. No one has a hand-held device of any kind to communicate; all conversations must take place in person. There are no cameras anywhere that we’re aware of; society is strangely self-policed. There’s an honor system that is adhered to, to the point where to lie is to cause feelings of guilt that often drive citizens to kill themselves.

There is a supporting cast of actors like Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), Kate Lyn Sheil (“House of Cards”) and Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom), all of whom are proven to be powerhouse emotional performers and are required to suppress their tools as an actor to blend into this way of life. A big part of keeping this world in check is the promise of a “cure” for the bug, which we’re told is right around the corner. We’re asked to consider at one point, what would happen to these hidden carriers if a permanent cure were developed? The consequences would be devastating.

Stewart is especially strong here, as we see the quiet torment in her eyes as she struggles not to react when faced with circumstances that would overwhelm any of us. Hoult (best known for the current crop of X-Men movies, Mad Max: Fury Road and Warm Bodies) has just the right amount of emptiness in his eyes to project ourselves into his situation and wonder what it would be like to have new emotions flooding into our bodies all at once and how tough it would be to hide them. Equals may leave some a little cold in its execution and in its production design (a great deal of the outdoor architecture was shot in Japan), but I liked the chances being taken by Doremus and his team of actors. Good science fiction makes you think more about the here and now than the future world being presented, and that certain happened for me watching this. The film opens today exclusively at the Brew & View.

Categories: Film, Screens

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