Monsters University (not a review)

I was lucky enough to see an advanced screening of Disney-Pixar’s Monsters University on Friday May the 24th, a full month before the film comes out. Before the film started, however, a representative from the studio said that they are politely asking us not to write blog reviews until the day the movie comes out. So I will not be reviewing the movie until the movie comes out. We were told, however, that we could say things like “it’s great”, but just not review it because they don’t want spoilers and stuff posted all over the internet. I will comply with their request.

 

It’s great. 🙂

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Star Trek: Into Darkness

*** SPOILER WARNING ***

Though I won’t be spoiling the whole movie or even a significant chunk of the plot, I will be revealing the true identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character that for some reason J.J. Abrams has decided should be kept secret even though the entire internet knew about it at least two years ago. But still, if you are one of the people who have luckily been spoiler-free up to this point, please wait until you have seen the movie before reading my review. I honestly do not want to spoil anything for anybody.

*** END SPOILER WARNING ***

I will state up front that I hated Star Trek (2009). I have been a Star Trek fan for a long time. Though I’ve always liked Star Wars better, Star Trek filled a different part of my fandom that Star Wars could not. That niche was science fiction. Contrary to seemingly popular opinion, Star Wars isn’t science fiction; it’s fantasy, or science fantasy if you prefer. Just because a story takes place in space or the future, doesn’t automatically make it science fiction. Star Wars has wizards and magic and princesses placing it very squarely in the fantasy category. Just because the backdrop of this tale involves space ships and droids and laser guns doesn’t automatically make it science fiction. That is because science fiction is a way of telling human interest stories against a futuristic backdrop or setting, in order to put those ideas in a different perspective. Star Trek (2009) was not science fiction, it was an action movie in space. There was no allegory, no message, nothing of substance whatsoever. It was simply a film with a lot of exciting action scenes tied together by a completely nonsensical story that didn’t even make sense within the context of the film itself. However, going into Star Trek: Into Darkness, I did try to keep an open mind. Because who knows? Perhaps the main problem with the script of the first one was all the time it took to set up a new parallel time line so that they can reboot the franchise didn’t give them time to tell an interesting and provocative narrative. Perhaps now that that was behind them, they could focus on telling a good story in their new (but still tied to the original via one character from the other timeline existing in the new timeline) sandbox. However, that is not the case. Instead of trying to tell a new and interesting story of their own, they just retread an old one and did an awful job of it at that.

The film opens up on the “M Class Planet Nibiru” where the crew of the Enterprise are trying to save a primitive species from extinction because a volcano is about to erupt. As a Star Trek fan I was immediately annoyed by this because doing this violates the Prime Directive. The Prime Directive states that Starfleet personnel are prohibited from interfering with the natural development of primitive species and cultures. Saving a species from extinction due to a naturally occurring volcanic eruption is a pretty clear violation of this edict. The script writers themselves even point this fact out to the audience by having Spock recite the Prime Directive to Captain Kirk, so I am clearly questioning the sanity of the script writers at this point. But then something amazing happens. Kirk gets in trouble for it. Christopher Pike chews him out and he gets stripped of his Captain rank. I was honestly surprised and delighted. I started to get my hopes up. I thought that maybe, just maybe, this would be a good Star Trek movie and for a while it was a reasonable facsimile. That is, until about roughly 40 minutes into the film when the narrative regressed into what I can only describe as a Bizarro World version of The Wrath of Khan.

Which brings me to the “mystery character”, played with a combination of herculean restraint and maniacal glee by the brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock). There has been much to-do about the character he plays on the internet and elsewhere. Guesses ranged everywhere from Trelane (“The Squire of Gothos”) to Gary Mitchell (“Where No Man Has Gone Before”) and many even speculated he was a new character entirely. But no, he plays none of those. One of the more popular theories was that he was playing Khan and that’s exactly who he is. I really have no idea why they’ve chosen to keep it a secret. I would think that it would be a lot easier to advertise the movie and what it’s about if people were just told outright. However, the way the line was delivered where his identity is revealed, it certainly seems like they meant to keep it a secret even as far back as the script development process. But there was no surprise whatsoever. Nobody in the theater gasped at the reveal. Nobody clapped or got excited. Just silence. If this non-reaction was in fact due to everybody in the theater knowing who the character was, then it is Paramount’s fault for having the film open in Australia and other parts of the world first because clearly word spread. If they wanted this to be such a big secret so that nobody knew who he was until the day the film opened, then they should have had a global simultaneous launch of the film, similar to how Warner Bros. released The Matrix Revolutions.

Once again, the action scenes are plentiful and in some cases, similar to Star Trek (2009), the plot is only there to provide a reason for the flashy and sometimes silly action sequence. The opening scene is clearly inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of the early action scenes on Earth is vaguely reminiscent of the opening of Mass Effect 3, (this is probably just a coincidence as even though ME3 was released last year, this film has been in production much longer than that), there’s a chase scene on Qo’noS (spelled incorrectly in the film as Kronos, which is the English transliteration) that takes some cues from the asteroid chase in Empire Strikes Back, and there are a couple of space battles that are extremely brief and quite anti-climactic given the overwhelming difference in firepower between the two ships. Regardless, there is plenty of action to go around and anyone seeing the film purely for the action sequences probably won’t leave disappointed.

The problem with this film, just like the last film, is the utterly stupid and insipid plot. To be fair, the script for this film is better than the first film, but that’s like saying that getting hit in the stomach is better than getting punched in the face. Either way, you’re in for a great deal of pain. As I said earlier, the first 40 minutes of the film is not that bad and it is quite enjoyable. The action is pretty good, there are some great character moments, and it all feels very much like Star Trek. But then something goes wrong; the plot gets overly-convoluted, the motivations of the villains make no sense, and Khan becomes a deus ex machina personified in the hopes of fixing a terrible tragedy that occurs to one of the crew. It’s hard to describe this as anything but lazy writing.

One of the most common aspects of lazy writing, to me, is when a character or characters do something out of character or a seemingly random event happens in order to create conflict. For example, take The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. At one point Aragorn and crew head out to Helm’s Deep to defend against the imminent attack by orcs. On the way there they are attacked by Wargs. This didn’t happen in the book. The only reason they put this scene in the film was to create an action scene to make the trip between Rohan and Helm’s Deep more interesting. It didn’t advance the plot in any meaningful way other than to have another appearance by Arwen and to have an extremely melodramatic scene where everybody thinks Aragorn is dead and then he shows up and everybody is happy.

Things like this occur quite a bit in Into Darkness, as well as Star Trek(2009), especially in the last half of the film with the big reveal of who is pulling everybody’s strings. I don’t want to spoil that so instead I’ll use the opening scene where they need to “freeze” a volcano as an example. They can’t be seen by the indigenous species so they hide the Enterprise in the ocean. Why do they do that? Because the volcano is giving off so much magnetic interference, their transporters don’t work. That one line is the reason why they are doing things the hard way. Kirk is running away from natives that he pissed off and can’t be rescued by transporter so they have to run away and jump off a cliff. They can’t transport Spock’s device into the volcano so he has to be lowered via a cable from a shuttle. If the transporters had worked, this would have been a pretty cut-and-dried mission. But because the writers needed that conflict, needed that exciting opening scene, they came up with a reason why they wouldn’t work. They did the same thing in Star Trek(2009) where they couldn’t transport on the mining platform that was drilling into Vulcan because it was also, if I recall correctly, putting off a lot of magnetic interference. The solution? Let’s parachute from outer space. It’s so stupid it just might work. *sigh*

As a movie, it fails miserably. As a Star Trek movie, it’s even worse. Supposedly one of the screenwriters is a Star Trek fan. And apparently he’s the one throwing in all the easter eggs in order to entertain or appease Star Trek fans. Well, it’s doing nothing but backfiring. As mentioned earlier, they spelled Qo’Nos incorrectly and instead used the English transliteration. Perhaps they could’ve just used the real spelling because the name of the planet was already pronounced a couple times, so it’s not like people would be mystified by the strange word that pops up in the upper right corner of the frame. The other possibility, I suppose, is that the Star Trek fan among the scriptwriters isn’t much of a Star Trek fan and thought it was actually spelled “Kronos”. I hope this is not the case and it is just an oversight on his part.

Math also seems to be a problem for the screenwriters. The film takes place in the year 2259. One character remarks that the cryotubes of Khan’s crew are “ancient” and date back 300 years. What is 2259 minus 300? That would be 1959. So the cryotubes containing genetically engineered super soldiers were shot into space ten years before the Apollo moon landing. Really? In the Trek timeline, Khan and his people were created during the Eugenics wars and he ruled until 1996 when he was overthrown and he and his people escaped into space on board the Botany Bay. That means that in 2259, they would’ve been in space 263 years, not 300. I’m sure they wanted to use a nice even number rather than to have an actor say “two-hundred and sixty-three” but they could’ve just said “over two hundred years” instead and then there would be no issue.

If I wanted to I could really nitpick the film to death in how many ways it butchers continuity and the rules of physics in the Trek universe, but I won’t. Suffice it to say, the people making these movies are simply not Star Trek fans. To make the kind of movie they want to make they don’t have to be. They made a movie for non-Trek fans and it shows. I never thought I’d say this, but can we get Rick Berman back? At least he tried to be true to the spirit of Gene Roddenberry’s original vision even if he didn’t always succeed.

I did not like this movie. I can only recommend it to those of you who enjoyed the first one and even then you might not like it depending on how you react to the last half of the film.

Iron Man 3

Shane Black is the most underrated writer/director working in the film industry today. A brief synopsis of his resumé follows:

  • Lethal Weapon – Screenplay
  • Monster Squad – Screenplay
  • Lethal Weapon 2 – Story and Characters
  • The Last Boy Scout – Screenplay
  • The Last Action Hero – Screenplay
  • The Long Kiss Goodnight – Screenplay
  • Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – Writer and Director

Not a bad film in the bunch. And now he is the co-writer and director of Iron Man 3, by far the best of the three Iron Man films. (and in some ways makes the second film worse) Though not as good as The Avengers, this is a terrific follow-up to the events of that film. Iron Man 3 takes place one year after the alien invasion in New York and Tony Stark is having difficulty coping with everything he went through during the course of that story.

Once again Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role of Tony Stark, a role he seems to be born to play. Gwyneth Paltrow joins him again as Pepper Potts, who is once again the CEO of Stark Industries and is still in a romantic relationship with Tony Stark. Don Cheadle, who took over the role of James “Rhodey” Rhodes in Iron Man 2 from Terrence Howard, returns as War Machine, though he has been re-branded by the President of the United States (William Sadler) as Iron Patriot. Jon Favreau, who helmed Iron Man 1 and 2, rejoins the cast as Happy Hogan, Tony Stark’s “bodyguard” and friend, and is now the head of security at Stark Industries.

Iron Man 3 introduces a bevy of new characters, not the least of which is “The Mandarin” portrayed in superlative fashion by the amazing Sir Ben Kingsley (Gandhi). Guy Pearce (Memento) plays Aldrich Killian, a character who comic book fans will recognize as the creator of the Extremis virus. Rounding out the new characters is Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) who is a genetic engineer and a former lover of Tony Stark’s from before he became Iron Man.

The film begins with an amazingly well-choreographed and funny scene where Tony is testing out his new Mark XLII armor, a new suit whose components all have their own individual sources of propulsion which are remote controlled via subdermal microchips that Tony implanted into himself. This new suit is reminiscent of the Extremis armor in the comics, though, to be clear, the Mark XLII in the film is not his Extremis armor. The test doesn’t go exactly according to plan and it is here revealed that Tony hasn’t been sleeping well due to the trauma he incurred during the Chitauri invasion of New York in The Avengers.

The story of the film centers mostly around Tony and his fight against The Mandarin but at the same time exploring how he copes with his post-traumatic stress disorder (as one character describes it) and the problems it raises in his life, mostly with his relationship with Pepper. However, don’t think the film is just about Tony and his “drama”. Oh no, there is plenty of action to go around and this is where Shane Black and his action expertise comes into full focus.

Shane has a strong background in action as you can see from the repertoire of films I mentioned previously. He even portrayed Hawkins in the film Predator, one of the greatest action films of all time. His first film, Lethal Weapon, is cited by many as one of the best “buddy cop” films of all time. The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight are two of the most underrated action movies ever and have some of the best dialogue in action movie history. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Shane Black’s directorial debut, is one of his most critical successes, though it was over-looked by many movie-goers and made a paltry $4M at the U.S. box office though it found many new fans once the film hit home video. It also just so happened to star Robert Downey Jr., coincidentally or not-so-coincidentally enough. So, after Jon Favreau decided to move on to other films, including his upcoming Magic Kingdom with Disney, Shane Black just seems like a perfect fit and the results speak for themselves.

The action scenes in Iron Man 3 range from the comedic (Mark XLII armor opening sequence) to the balletic (the mid-air rescue) to the brutal (a rough-and-tumble brawl with two super-powered enemies while the Mark XLII armor is temporarily out of commission). Director Shane Black shows his penchant for action as well as his ability to write great dialogue all while telling a personal story where Tony has to fight some of his own personal demons. It’s a fantastic film all around. The only blemish on my movie-going experience was seeing it in 3D. It’s not that the 3D was particularly bad, but it certainly didn’t add anything to the experience. If you have a choice, I would definitely recommend seeing it in 2D as the extra expense for a 3D ticket is absolutely not worth it.

I must also advise those of you who see the movie to stay through the credits. Not only is the closing credit sequence one of the best I’ve ever seen, but the post-credit scene has a hilarious cameo performance involving a character from another Marvel film.

It has been rumored that this could be Robert Downey Jr.’s last appearance as Tony Stark as his contract with Disney expires after Iron Man 3. If Disney isn’t able to bring him back, I would be very disappointed as RDJ has truly embraced the character and made him his own over the four films in which he appears as Tony Stark. Iron Man just wouldn’t be the same without him. In fact, when he was initially cast as Iron Man, I personally thought it was an inspired choice and really the only one that made sense. As it stands now, I’m not sure who else could play Tony with as much aplomb and energy as Robert Downey Jr. has. However, if Iron Man 3 is his swan song as Tony Stark, he sure picked a great movie to go out on. Iron Man 3 gets my highest possible recommendation.