(Video on Demand, December 2016) I’ve been more upbeat than most Trekkers about the modern Star Trek reboot series, but even I have to admit that Star Trek: Beyond truly feels like the truest follow-up to the classic series so far. Structured as a standalone adventure in deep space, this third outing wisely focuses on smaller stakes, characters as developed in the first two movies, a bit of fan-service and an upbeat attitude that makes for a refreshing evolution from the first two films. In other words, it is pure classic Trek, done with today’s attitudes and special effects technology. The result may feel a bit restrained after the galaxy-spanning intrigue of In Darkness, but it’s also satisfying with fewer afterthoughts than in previous films. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban and Simon Pegg (who also co-wrote the film) continue to be exceptionally good at incarnating the newest versions of their Trek characters, and their enthusiasm is infectious. Motorcycle usage aside, there’s one borderline-excessive “Sabotage” scene that harkens back to the first film, but it actually works well and is decently funny in itself. Still, the best aspect of the film has to be the look inside the Yorktown space station, a vertiginous showcase of SF dreams brought to life, visual effects and variable-gravity scene-blocking. It’s as memorable as anything is the series so far, and exactly the kind of showcase sequence to expect from a big-budget Trek film. I’m certainly ready for a fourth instalment.
(On Cable TV, June 2016) It’s frustrating to see how Hollywood still hasn’t figured out movies based on videogames. Series with rich and fascinating lore end up steamrolled into generic action vehicles. So it is that the entire Hitman series gets a second kick at the can with reboot Hitman: Agent 47, coming less than seven years after the first attempt. The good news, I suppose, is that this second attempt is an average action film, certainly more interesting than the instantly forgettable first movie. Hitman: Agent 47 does keep things rolling with mysterious allegiances, acceptable action scenes, at least one good set-piece (“You’ve brought me my gun”) and a heroine that can hold her own. Rupert Friend is fine as the titular Agent 47, while it’s interesting to see Zachary Quinto play an action character. Still, Hitman: Agent 47 is hampered by meaningless subplots, inconsistent direction and a weak ending that too obviously leads to a sequel that will never exist. Very little of it reflects well on the videogame series. But, small joy, it’s actually better than the first movie, which suggests that at this pace, they may end up having a good Hitman movie by the 2030s.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) One of the benefits of being an omnivorous cinephile is that you never know when an oddball piece of cinematic knowledge is going to come in handy. In this case, Girl Walks Into a Bar‘s quirks makes far more sense when considered against writer/director Sebastián Gutiérrez previous films such as Elektra Luxx: the lead role of Carla Gugino (Gutiérrez’s girlfriend), fragmented script, interlocking subplots, varying tonal shifts, generally clever dialogue and presence of several good actors. It’s all meant to be a series of related stories set in various Los Angeles bars during one busy night, but it’s just as well-considered as a vignette film, with segments that don’t necessarily need to co-exist harmoniously in a coherent whole. There are highlights: Emmanuelle Chriqui’s world-weary monologue about the life of a stripper, Zachary Quinto’s clueless dentist trying to get his wife assassinated; Rosario Dawson as an employee of a nudist ping-pong club and a captivating presence for Robert Forster. While the film was conceived to be freely distributed on Youtube (although just for Americans…), it’s now making its way to specialty cable channels and can be caught there as a pleasant diversion. While Girl Walks Into a Bar is not particularly memorable, it does have a good cast, better-than-average dialogue and its inherent quirkiness makes it more interesting that most of the average fare out there.
(Video on Demand, September 2013) As a confirmed but not dogmatic Star Trek fan, I find this new movie-reboot-series interesting: It’s not quite the same Star Trek that established the reputation of the series, but it holds its own as an ongoing series of action-based SF adventures. This second entry builds on the first one in that it doesn’t really have to re-establish all of the characters, giving more time and freedom to tell a new story. That it’s pieced together from bits and pieces of other Trek miscellanea (I recognized at least three minor references to the original series, and I wasn’t paying that much attention) is a bit unfortunate, as it constantly invites comparisons that may not work to its favour. There certainly are a few problems with Into Darkness: As in the first film, the screenwriters clearly don’t understand anything about science or basic plausibility (A spaceship plunging into the sea? A major engagement in lunar orbit and no automated defense mechanism says boo?) and can’t be bothered to think twice about their universe-changing plot contrivances (Trans-warp? Resurrection serums?). This laziness keeps Into Darkness from being taken seriously as some of the finest recent examples of filmed SF: this isn’t 1983, and there’s a lot of good original SF on-screens to pick from. In order to compete, even a Star Trek reboot has to bring something to the table, and what Into Darkness has in spade is action: Director J.J. Abrams’ film is filled with high-end sequences mixing top-notch visuals with fast-paced tension and quite a bit fewer lens flares than the first film. The characters don’t hurt either, as it’s almost ridiculously entertaining to watch Chris Pine as the impulsive Kirk play off Zachary Quinto’s cool Spock. The rest of the crew also does well, proving the virtue of that particular cast selection back in 2009. This time, though, the addition of Benedict Cumberbatch as the villainous super-man Khan makes for far better drama than the first film: Cumberbatch is delicious as an antagonist, and there’s enough tension for an entire film in seeing him work alongside the Enterprise crew for vastly different reasons. Despite the departure from Trek’s all-optimism canon, I’m not unhappy to see tensions within Starfleet used as primary plot devices: This reboot is setting a nice bar in terms of dramatic interest, and fractious inner politics are a good measure of this pseudo-realism. So it is that while it’s possible (and maybe even necessary) to nit-pick this film to shred, I’m not dissatisfied at all with the result. My biggest wish for the inevitable third entry, though, would be to move farther away from Trek canon: a contemporary action-driven film series isn’t the same as a low-budget sixties serial, and any attempts to keep the two tightly linked can only frustrate everyone.
(In theaters, December 2011) Obviously inspired by the financial crisis of September 2008, Margin Call is a rare thriller in which conversations, analysis and boardroom meetings take the lead over car chases, explosions and gunfights. It starts with a mass layoff at an unnamed Wall Street trading firm and a dire warning from one fired analyst to his still-employed protégé: “Be careful.” Before long, our intrepid boy wonder has discovered that the firm is about to go bankrupt, and the news spread upward in a series of meeting with ever-more-important people. Strategies are discussed, blame is tentatively assigned, speeches are made, decisions are taken and, eventually, a terrible no-return strategy is adopted. The film isn’t as good as it could be: Margin Call’s low-budget and first-time director shows in the static cinematography, tepid pacing, overlong shots and lack of a fully satisfying conclusion. But the achievement here is considerable, starting from the terrific cast assembled here: Kevin Spacey gives a far more humane take on his usual screen personae; Paul Bettany is terrific as a high-flying trader who realizes the danger of his current situation; Jeremy Irons makes an impression as a point-one-percenter with gravitas; Stanley Tucci is wonderful as usual as an engineer turned financial analyst; and so is Zachary Quinto (looking a lot like a prettier Ewan McGregor in Rogue Trader) as the pivotal character who flags the crisis. The dialogue is sharp, the dramatic dilemmas are unusual, the characters are well-developed and the themes are current at a time where an increasing number of Americans are openly questioning the social usefulness of the business described here. While the dialogue-heavy piece won’t appeal to everyone, Margin Call is a clever and efficient film that fully exploits the limits of its budget to deliver a striking result.