REVIEW: “Z for Zachariah”

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The post-apocalypse has become one of the favorite settings for modern day filmmakers. Think about it. We’ve witnessed the aftermath of an earth ravaged by everything from nuclear war to energy depletion to zombie outbreaks. And while some may argue it has been done ad nauseam, I have to say I love it. It’s a setting that offers filmmakers opportunities to put human beings through a plethora of powerful emotional and relational situations.

So right off the bat “Z for Zachariah” places itself in this familiar setting. But the film, directed by Craig Zobel and based on a novel originally published in 1974, shows us several new things and quickly differentiates itself from the post-apocalyptic norm. Flickers of science fiction can occasionally be seen but for the most part it lingers in the background. Instead the film focuses on the most compelling and absorbing dynamic – human drama.

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The movie begins after what appears to be a nuclear holocaust. There is no widespread destruction or vast wastelands. Only emptiness and radiation – vacant mountain cities filled with remnants of a once vibrant past. It is here that we meet Ann (Margot Robbie) rummaging through a radiation-soaked town before heading back to her home – a farmhouse in a miraculously radiation-free pocket of territory high in the mountains. Ann is alone, surviving by working the same farmland as her father during her childhood. She also shares her father’s deep faith believing God has sheltered their land for His own purposes.

One day while out hunting Ann is stunned by what she sees – another human being. Roaming a winding mountain road in a radiation suit and pulling a cart full of his belongings is John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor). After a complicated first meeting, Ann brings John to the farm where he begins sharing in the work. John was a scientist and an engineer and is respectful of Ann’s beliefs and gracious for her hospitality. We watch as a unique human relationship is formed, each approaching it from very different walks of life. But things get complicated when a mysterious stranger named Caleb (Chris Pine) arrives; a veritable ‘third wheel’ who brings an entirely new set of emotional complexities to the relationships.

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This is the story Zobel seeks to tell. There are no mutated monsters, hordes of zombies, or packs of marauders. Simply three people dealing with their internal and external situations. They could just as well be the last people on Earth which adds a unique perspective to the story. Even in their incredible instances of survival, the basest and most primal human instincts still must be dealt with. And despite their miraculous situations, people will always birth conflict.

But Zobel and writer Nissar Modi look at these things through different lenses. For example there is a deep spiritual element that we see in Robbie’s character and through the rich symbolism sprinkled in the story. It allows for the pondering of several compelling points. But Loomis and Caleb bring interesting twists of perspective that ask a number of thoughtful questions. This was one of the many things that impressed me. Even in its simplicity, the story is an intelligent and nuanced exercise in human examination and internal exploration.

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And what a telling performance from Margot Robbie, an actress I had given little attention. She is sublime, turning in a beautifully delicate and stripped-down performance. She is the heart of the film and in many ways its frail moral compass. But right behind her is Ejiofor. In a sagacious performance he gives us the most layered and complex character of the film. Even Chris Pine, and actor who hasn’t always impressed me, is very good in giving us an interesting and cryptic third character. These three make up the entire cast and each deliver on a high level.

“Z for Zachariah” is a breath of fresh air, a post-apocalyptic morality yarn that may play out too slowly for some. It unwinds at a deliberate pace, patiently touching on its subjects while never spelling itself out. Yet there is such a satisfying effectiveness to the slowness. Zobel engages his audience not through the normal and expected genre machinations, but by peeling back revealing layers of humanity. Layers that, when examined by an honest eye, can sometimes be quite ugly. Personally, I found it fascinating.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recuit”

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It’s rare to find a fun and entertaining film on the front end of the movie year. January is notorious for being the month where studios empty their cupboards of held-over films with low expectations. That’s why “Jack Ryan: Shadow Agent” is a breath of fresh air. It may not have the best title, but it is an able action thriller. It’s a good ‘kick back and have a good time’ movie that is a nice change of pace from the heavier, deeper films we get during awards season.

This is the fifth movie from the Jack Ryan film series but the first since 2002’s “The Sum of All Fears”. It’s a reboot that also serves as an origin story for Jack. Chris Pine takes the lead once played by Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Alec Baldwin. We first see him on the campus of the London School of Economics. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 inspire him to leave college and join the Marines. A series of uncontrollable events soon has him working as a financial intelligence analyst for the CIA. Kevin Costner plays his boss Thomas Harper who in many respects serves as Jack’s mentor.

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All of that leads to Jack’s first foray into the world of geopolitics. He uncovers a potential plot by a powerful Russian businessman named Cheverin (Kenneth Branagh). He travels to Moscow and soon finds himself more than just an analyst. The mission soon goes bad and Jack becomes a full-fledged field operative. Harper pops back up and Jack’s fiancé Cathy (Keira Knightley) soon finds herself in the middle of the chaos. It all plays out in a hail of bullets, car crashes, and big booms.

“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” follows a pretty familiar blueprint. It doesn’t strive to be original and it certainly doesn’t break any new ground. But it does know exactly what it wants to be and that focus helps make this a really fun ride. Kenneth Branagh also directed the film and he did a fine job of delivering a variety of great scenes. Perhaps my favorite is the first meeting between an undercover Jack and a suspicious Cheverin. It takes place in Cheverin’s ultra-modern Moscow office and you can cut the tension with a knife.

We also get quite a bit of action in this picture but I found it to be the right dosage. The shootouts and car chases are often set to beautiful Moscow and New York City backdrops and they are competently shot with a lot of energy. The fight scenes were filmed ala Paul Greengrass style with loads of quick cuts and herky-jerky hand-held cameras. As is often the case with this frantic style, it made it a little difficult to follow what was going on. Personally that drives me nuts. It’s obviously a popular stylistic choice these days but it doesn’t always work for me.

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Chris Pine seems to be getting better and better with each new role. I completely bought into him here because he brings so much more than the normal macho bravado. His Jack Ryan feels like a real person. He is nervous, uncomfortable, and the things happening around him deeply effect him. I appreciated that. But it’s Costner who really steals the show. Now I’ve always been a big Costner fan so I was excited to see his name attached. But he handles this material like the old pro that he is. It’s a great performance despite the few bits of cheesy dialogue. Keira Knightley is another story. She certainly has the American accent down but that’s about it. She has some good moments but there were several times when I had no idea what she was doing. She employs an assortment of weird facial expressions and quasi smiles that were often times distracting. Kate Beckinsale turned down this part when it was offered but I wish she had accepted it. I can see her bringing a lot more to it than Knightley.

Is this a formula that we’ve seen before? Absolutely. But when I’m enjoying myself, I just don’t care. Branagh keeps things rolling at a crisp pace and the time flew by. Some have had problems with the film’s lack of desire to do anything new. I can see that to a point. But when you handle your material well and the results are good, I’m okay with it. This is a straightforward and unapologetic thriller that never tries to be something it isn’t. Most importantly this is good old-fashioned fun and that counts for a lot in my book.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Star Trek Into Darkness”

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One of the most talked about films of the 2013 summer movie season is undoubtedly the J.J. Abrams blockbuster-to-be “Star Trek Into Darkness”. It’s the sequel to the wildly popular 2009 semi-reboot of the beloved sci-fi franchise which won over casual movie fans and Star Trek faithfuls alike. It’s definitely no surprise that we get a sequel. The first film of this new series insured that by raking in just under $400 million. Paramount pictures is certainly expecting to exceed that with this new installment.

I’ve had a pretty rocky relationship with the first film from Abrams (you can find that review HERE). After seeing it for the first time, I left the theater with a lukewarm reaction. A second viewing confirmed some key problems I had with the movie and my overall opinion of it dropped. But in preparation for “Into Darkness” I gave the first film a third and fourth viewing. The issues I had were still there, but my overall experience was more enjoyable and I found myself more and more excited for the sequel. But that excitement came with caution. Would Abrams tone down on the popcorn movie modernizations and give us something that feels like a Star Trek movie? Also, could “Into Darkness” avoid the common sequel traps that we’ve seen over the years? Those were my biggest questions.

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One of the best things about the first movie was the amazing opening. It was pretty basic tablesetting but it was done so incredibly well and it instantly pulled the audience in. I can’t say the “Into Darkness” opening offers that same pizazz. The movie begins on an the Class M planet of Nibiru. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones (Karl Urban) are being pursued by indigenous undeveloped natives while Spock (Zachary Quinto) is lowered into an active volcano whose eruption threatens to destroy the planet. It’s a loud and bombastic sequence which comes across as a little clunky. It wasn’t terrible but it didn’t feel like a Star Trek scene and the visuals went from jaw-dropping to glaringly obvious CGI. I instantly began to worry.

Yet while I found the opening a little sluggish, as the movie progressed I noticed the important little nuggets nestled in those opening scenes which ended up playing big parts in the plot. It’s also here where we see that Kirk is still cocky and careless as evident by his numerous rule violations during the Nibiru mission. After breaking the Prime Directive and attempting to lie about it, Kirk loses his captain’s chair on the Enterprise. We also witness a series of violent terroristic events centered around a mysterious member of Starfleet known as John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Kirk finds himself desperate to get in the fight as Starfleet Admiral Marcus ( Peter Weller) begins the hunt to bring Harrison to justice.

“Into Darkness” still has some of the same problems as the first film. The Spock and Uhuru (Zoe Saldana) romance still feels bland and tacked on. Some of the big fight sequences feel like anything but Star Trek. And Abrams again tries to modernize things with some gags that land with a thud and a smattering of pointless profanity. But here’s the big part I’ve been anxious to get to. While these issues are there, the movie really gets its legs after the first act and the story takes off in what I found to be a brilliant direction. Fears relieved, worries extinguished!

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Abrams gets back to what makes Star Trek such a beloved property. It’s the characters, their relationships, and their interactions. It’s the Enterprise, not just as a ship but as a vital character to the story. It’s the strategizing and trial-and-error planning. Abrams gives us doses of enthralling drama without the need of big action sequences, something Star Trek is famous for. But don’t worry, there’s still plenty of action and it’s truly spectacular especially during the last 20 minutes. There was a head-scratching question or two during the finale and it was a bit jarring to see one character act a certain way, but I was able to backburner that due to the tension-soaked high stakes and the stunning special effects. I was on the edge of my seat and the whole time I was thinking “This is the kind of Star Trek I can latch onto”.

It also helps when you have Cumberbatch playing such an interesting villain. Or is he a villain? He’s such an enigma and we’re trying to figure him out right along with Kirk and his crew. Cumberbatch is fantastic with his surprising physicality and deep, menacing voice. I have to admit, I wasn’t that familiar with his body of work but he certainly grabbed my attention here. I also think Chris Pine gives a better performance this time around. He seems to have a stronger grasp of his character and he’s spared some of the nonsense he had to do in the first film. Quinto is still the embodiment of Spock. Abrams knows the relationship between Kirk and Spock is principal and he gives them plenty of screen time together. It’s smart because the two provide us with some of the movie’s best scenes.

I also enjoyed seeing Karl Urban’s role expanded. He’s still there for comic relief but his character is actually treated with more respect this time. I also thought John Cho was given better material here and he nailed it. And I enjoyed seeing Bruce Greenwood return as Christopher Pike. Simon Pegg’s Scotty was also given a bigger role but for me it was a ‘take it or leave it’ performance. Alice Eve is another newcomer whose character is mainly there to serve a key plot point and to allow Abrams to show a woman in her underwear. Other than that she was pretty disposable.

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“Into Darkness” is an improvement over the first film and it sets a very interesting landscape for the films to come. There are clever and pleasing little tips of the hat to the old series scattered all through the movie. Whether it’s a specific sound only Trek fans would recognize or a particular fluffy little creature that we briefly see, I caught myself smiling at all the cool stuff I recognized. But there’s a lot more here than just nostalgia. Unlike so many sequels, this movie goes in a sharply original direction while at the same time tinkering with certain classic story arcs. This not only makes for a convincing alternate reality within the film, but it provides some top-notch science fiction entertainment.

“Into Darkness” is ‘Star Trek for the masses’ and it still hasn’t completely cured all its ailments, but it was a huge step forward in my book. I’ve talked about the solid performances, the amazing special effects, and the classic Star Trek flavor. But I could go further. I could talk about the strong score, the brilliant cinematography, the tighter script, and the near perfect editing. This film gets it right on so many levels. 15 minutes into this movie I was thinking I was in for a long, grinding ride. 15 minutes after the movie I was dying to see it again. I just love it when a movie catches me by surprise and then blows me away. Such was the case here.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Star Trek” (2009)

Star Trek PosterThe summer movie season is off and running and one of the year’s most talked about releases is due out in a few days. I’m talking about “Star Trek Into Darkness”, the J.J. Abrams sequel to his 2009 reboot of the franchise. With so much hype and anticipation swirling around the new movie I thought it would be a good time to go back and revisit the first installment, a much loved film that I had pretty mixed feelings about. Would a second viewing give me a better appreciation for what Abrams and company were able to accomplish or would it simply reaffirm my initial frustrations with the movie?

First off, attempting to relaunch or reboot the Star Trek franchise is a pretty hefty and gutsy task. Perhaps only Star Wars’ fan base eclipses the passion and devotion of the group affectionately known as “Trekkies”. Tinkering with and altering the beloved universe first created by the late great Gene Roddenberry would be the equivalent to playing with fire and one would assume this was high on the list of the filmmakers’ considerations. Well I’m no Trekkie and I’m not as well versed in Star Trek lore as many, but I have say I’m surprised that more diehard fans didn’t have issues with the liberties and modernizations we see here. More on that later.

“Star Trek” is constructed as a completely new franchise launcher. It creates its own world beginning with the origin stories of the popular Star Trek characters Captain Kirk and Spock and telling how they and the crew came together through Starfleet. The film actually begins with a bang. A flashback shows the federation starship USS Kelvin investigating a lightning storm anomaly when it encounters a huge Romulan mining vessel converted to a warship. A battle breaks out forcing the Kelvin’s first officer (Chris Hemsworth) to evacuate everyone from the ship including his pregnant wife. He then manually flies the Kelvin into the mammoth enemy vessel causing a distraction so the escape pods can get away. This hero’s name was George Samuel Kirk.

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The USS Enterprise

The movie then fast-forwards and puts the spotlight on his son James T. Kirk (Chris Pine). He’s grown up to be a rebellious and rambunctious sort who is challenged to enter Starfleet by Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), the Captain of the USS Enterprise who served with his father. While at the academy he befriends Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban), flirts with Uhuru (Zoe Saldana), and gets off on the wrong foot with Spock (Zachary Quinto). But in a familiar story turn that we’ve seen in everything from “Top Gun” to “Starship Troopers”, the cadets are forced into action when a distress call is made from Spock’s home planet of Vulcan. Through this we’re introduced to other familiar characters including Sulu (John Cho), Scotty (Simon Pegg), and Chekov (Anton Yelchin).

Eric Bana plays the rogue Romulan Nero who we see in the opening and who pops up later to serve as the main antagonist. He has a serious bone to pick with Spock and his revenge-fueled presence poses a major threat. Aside from the normal franchise origin stuff, this tiff between Nero and Spock is a big part of the story. There’s also the story of Jim’s evolution from an immature, self-centered hothead into a responsible, heroic member of Starfleet. All of these strands are woven together pretty nicely and the film moves through them with better pacing than I originally remembered. There are also some fantastic special effects and a cool new Enterprise with an impressive modernized bridge that I thought looked great.

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The USS Enterprise crew

But there were some issues I originally had with “Star Trek” that unfortunately didn’t go away with a fresh viewing. First, I know this is a relaunching of the Star Trek franchise and some of it is aimed at the action-starved audiences of today. But to me there were times where this didn’t feel anything like a Star Trek movie. There were certain scenes that felt so jarringly out of place yet perfectly in tune with the film industries affection for ‘Hollywoodizing’ their big movies. Again, I understand that Abrams and company are showing their new vision but I wish they would have trusted or cared more for the Star Trek formula. But honestly, while it’s still an issue, it didn’t seem to bother me as much during this viewing.

Another issue I still have is with the handling and redefining of some of the characters. I don’t know if it’s just an attempt to force in a fairly underwhelming romance or if it’s simply political correctness, but I wasn’t crazy about Uhuru as a bigger character while McCoy, an important character in the original series, is reserved for comic relief. Maybe it’s because the romance between Uhuru and a certain crew member feels shallow and tacked on. There’s nothing wrong with Saldana’s performance but her role is pretty flimsy. Karl Urban does some great work channelling his best DeForrest Kelley. Even though ‘Bones’ is written almost exclusively for humor, Urban is fantastic and it’s a shame he was given something meatier to work with.

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Eric Bana is Nero

My revisit also verified one thing and clarified another. Zachary Quinto as Spock is by far the best bit of casting in the movie while Chris Pine left a better impression this time around than before. Quinto nicely sells Spock through his tone, mannerisms, and pitch-perfect deliveries. Pine ends much better than he begins. In the first half of the film he’s pretty hard to digest but as his material gets better so does his performance. In fact, overall I found him to be better than I remembered. I can’t really say the same for Pegg’s Scotty or Yelchin’s Chekov, but both of their issues dealt more closely with how their characters were written.

So now the big question. Did my time away from “Star Trek” change my perception of the film? Did this fresh look at the movie provide a better experience? I would have to say yes but only slightly. “Star Trek” is still a film with a handful of flaws. At times it tries to be too hip, too cute, and too modern at the expense of those proven elements that make “Star Trek” great. On the flip side, I did find myself enjoying and embracing more of what Abrams and company were doing. This was a better experience and my anticipation for the next movie has grown. I just hope for a more focused script with less corn and a little better handling of its characters. If that happens “Star Trek Into Darkness” could be a real treat.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “This Means War”

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“This Means War” is a shining example of how you can put together a good, talented cast and still end up with totally crappy movie. Hollywood is filled with wonderful actresses and actors who blow us away with their acting chops. But I’m a firm believer that you’re only as good as your material. Of course we’ve seen good actors that actually rise above the material but great films are never made on performances alone. Well, I don’t care how good the cast is, there is no actor or actress, living or dead, who could save this monstrosity of a movie.

I love Tom Hardy. He’s one of my favorite actors and he has really made a name for himself over the past few years. I’m also a fan of Reese Witherspoon, an actress who is better than some of her role choices. Why these two, especially Hardy, would sign on for this project is beyond me. McG directs this action/romantic comedy that may not be as awful as his “Charlie’s Angels” films but it’s not far off. It’s said that the script had been shopped around for over ten years and had been turned down by a number of actors during that time. That should have been a bad sign but 20th Century Fox went ahead and okayed this $65 million mess. So we have wasted talent and wasted money. Wonderful.

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The story itself is pretty corny. FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are two CIA field agents who are also best of friends. By sheer circumstance the two find out they’re dating the same woman, a beautiful product tester named Lauren (Witherspoon). They make a gentleman’s agreement to let the best man win while never telling Lauren that they know each other. Predictably their feelings for her grow and their friendly competition evolves into a full blown war. They use everything at their disposal including their CIA technology to win the girl’s heart while sabotaging the other’s dates. So the question becomes who will come out on top and will their friendship remained intact. Yawn!

I think somewhere in here lies a decent idea for a movie. Unfortunately things get so preposterous to the point of being hard to watch. Sitting through Hardy, Witherspoon, and Pine struggling to make vapid, dopey, and unfunny material enjoyable is as entertaining as getting a root canal. There isn’t a single funny scene nor is there a single funny line. And in its struggle to get a laugh it’s forced to resort to cheap antics such as crotch shots and animal slapstick. And it doesn’t help that the movie strays so far from reality that it’s impossible to buy into any of the characters or romances.

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There are also several other things that for me resulted in one facepalm after another. First, this may be the most idiotic depiction of the Central Intelligence Agency I have ever seen. Tuck and FDR abuse the system for their benefit with seemingly no obstacles or safeguards to stop them. Angela Bassett (in a complete throwaway role) plays their boss but she certainly doesn’t do enough to even notice their open insubordination. We also get a totally uninteresting action plot about an underdeveloped and frankly pointless crime boss (Til Schweiger) who wants revenge on our bosom buddies for killing his thuggish brother. It’s unnecessary and does more to show how poorly conceived the story is.

I could go on. I could mention Lauren’s annoying best fiend Trish (Chelsea Handler) – a stupid and contrived character devoid of any moral value. I could go into more detail about the film’s utter lack of identity. But frankly, I’m just tired of talking about it. “This Means War” pretty much ends up being a disaster. The cast should be given credit for trying to make this work but they should also be questioned as to why they even jumped onboard with this thing. The movie never comes close to hitting the action, romance, and comedy targets it aims for so the audience is left twiddling our thumbs, checking our watches, and waiting for the end. That’s not exactly my idea of enjoying a movie!

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS