Thursday, August 4, 2016

Sequels, Blockbusters, and Brain Trauma

Star Trek Beyond (2016):  written by Simon Pegg, Doug Jung, Roberto Orci, Patrick McKay, and John D. Payne; directed by Justin Lin; starring Chris Pine (Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock), Karl Urban (McCoy), Zoe Saldana (Uhura), Simon Pegg (Scotty), John Cho (Sulu), Anton Yelchin (Chekov), Idris Elba (Krall), and Sofia Boutella (Jaylah): The jolliest, most Trek-like of the reboot movies -- which probably explains why it's lagging behind the first two in box office, given its relative lack of sturm-und-drang. The NuTrek cast is in fine form and the script gets in a lot of zingers and a certain amount of drama, along with the biggest Starbase we've ever seen. 

Director Justin Lin delivers a few too many Fast-and-Furious chasey moments, but otherwise does solid work. The movie misses its chance for a true Star Trek moment late in the game involving the villain, Krall, whom Idris Elba tries to invest with the menace the script mostly leaves out. Given Trek's normal box-office levels pre-reboot, Paramount really needs to find this series its own Harve Bennett before it prices itself out of existence: these need to be $100 million movies that look like $200 million movies, not the other way around. Recommended.

Concussion (2015): based on the Jeanne Marie Laskas article "Game Brain"; written and directed by Peter Landesman; starring Will Smith (Dr. Omalu), Alec Baldwin (Dr. Bates), Albert Brooks (Dr. Wecht), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Prema), and David Morse (Mike Webster): Excellent, factually solid docudrama about the unlikely doctor behind the discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in former NFL players. Will Smith returns to actually acting as African-born forensic pathologist Dr. Bennett Omalu, who encounters a whole lot of resistance from the NFL as he attempts to find an explanation for the horrifying dementia of several deceased NFL players. It's a grim picture of football in America, perhaps never moreso than when it shows actual footage of six- and seven-year-old players engaged in full-contact games. Because you're never too young for chronic brain trauma. Recommended.

Avatar (2009): written and directed by James Cameron; starring Sam Worthington (Jake Sully), Zoe Saldana (Neytiri), Sigourney Weaver (Dr. Augustine), and Stephen Lang (Colonel Quaritch): Dumb as a post and lovely as a 1970's Roger Dean album cover. James Cameron understands pacing and editing to achieve dramatic effect, and he's always utterly invested in the ideology of his own movies, no matter how much they lift from other sources (Avatar is essentially a New Age version of John Carter of Mars). When a villainous Colonel tells someone to "Shut your pie-hole!', you know you're in the hands of a great writer of dialogue. Still visually stunning a whole seven years after its release, and at least possessed of a pro-environmentalist message, no matter how simplistic. Recommended.

Sinister 2 (2015): written and created by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill; directed by Ciaran Foy; starring James Ransone (The Deputy), Shannyn Sossamon (Courtney Collins), Robert Sloan (Dylan Collins), and Dartanian Sloan (Zach Collins): Any and all name actors having been eradicated in the first movie (or in between the first and second movie in the case of Vincent D'Onofrio's literally phoned-in performance in Sinister), Sinister 2 comes across as comfortably anonymous. 

That's a good thing for some horror movies, this one included. Bughuul the demon still remains regrettably visualized from the neck down, the scary, half-glimpsed face of the early scenes of Sinister still burdened with a blazer-and-pants combo that suggest the Sumerian boogeyman just got off his yacht. But the performances by the kids are pretty good, Shannyn Sossamon has a sweet desperation to her character, and James Ransone brings a goofy charm to the hero of this one. Yet another stupid 'stinger' ending ruins some of my good feelings towards this movie. Stop it, horror movies. Stop it right now. In a demonstration of 'less is more' in horror, the scariest scene in the movie involves a ham radio. Recommended.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014): adapted by Simon Kinberg, Matthew Vaughn, and Jane Goldman from the comic-book story by Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Terry Austin; directed by Bryan Singer; starring Hugh Jackman (Wolverine), James McAvoy/Patrick Stewart (Charles Xavier), Michael Fassbender/Ian McKellan (Magneto), Jennifer Lawrence (Raven/Mystique), Ellen Page (Kitty Pryde), Peter Dinklage (Trask), Shawn Ashmore (Iceman), Halle Berry (Storm), Nicholas Hoult (Beast), Omar Sy (Bishop), Evan Peters (Quicksilver), Daniel Cudmore (Colossus), Bingbing Fan (Blink), Adan Canto (Sunspot), and Booboo Stewart (Warpath): Despite some flaws, this is the best X-Men movie, though its emotional beats will resonate a lot more if one has watched X-Men, X-Men 2, and the horrible Brett-Ratner-helmed X-Men: Last Stand. Bryan Singer keeps the acting low-key, which helps when delivering lines of sci-fi portentousness. Highly recommended.

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