Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Hangover Part III

Written for F*** Magazine, Singapore


Director: Todd Phillips
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Ken Jeong, Justin Bartha, John Goodman
Genre: Comedy
Run Time: 100 mins
Opens: 30 May 2013
Rating: M18 (Coarse Language and Some Nudity)

Remember when The Hangover wasn’t a thing? When it was just a sleeper hit that came out of almost nowhere and reinvigorated the R-rated comedy genre? Then remember when the second film squandered almost all the goodwill the first had earned? Now, the Wolf Pack has re-awoken with the hope that it’s third time lucky in this self-proclaimed “epic conclusion to the Hangover trilogy”.

The first two films started with preparations for a wedding, so perhaps it’s apt that this time around, it’s a funeral that kicks things off. Man-child Alan (Galifianakis) is off his medication and making life as difficult for those around him as ever, an incident involving a giraffe and his father’s (Jeffrey Tambor) heart attack afterwards being the final straws. His friends Doug (Bartha), Stu (Helms) and Phil (Cooper) decide to stage an intervention, taking Alan to a treatment facility in Arizona where he can get better. However, the plan gets derailed: drug lord Marshall (Goodman) confronts the Wolf Pack and holds Doug hostage. “International criminal” Leslie Chow (Jeong) is to blame, having made away with Marshall’s gold bars, and the guys are sent in pursuit of Chow, leading them back to where it all began: Las Vegas.

It’s been noted that the Hangover movies should’ve stopped at just one, and perhaps that’s true: that first movie did, after all, have something of a lightning-in-a-bottle quality to it. Alas, the franchise potential was just too enticing, particularly after The Hangover became the highest-grossing R-rated comedy at the time. It did seem rather hubristic that the second film traced over the first one so blatantly, just setting in Thailand. Come now, a sequel that’s a retread of the original with a change in locale is something one would expect from a direct-to-DVD follow-up.

It’s with mixed results then that the formula has been ditched, in favour of a different formula: that of the caper/chase movie. An actual hangover doesn’t kickstart the events in The Hangover Part III, rendering it an artifact title. This one ventures into more dramatic territory and there seem to be actual stakes and important plot events instead of travelling from one crude sight gag to the next. Is it completely devoid of laughs? No, but audiences going into this expecting a third serving of wanton ribaldry will be at least a little disappointed. Leave the Vegas heisting to Danny Ocean and his 11+, guys.

There are some pretty fun set pieces: the mean streak running through Part II is evident with the ill-fated giraffe, Mr. Chow gets to do a spot of BASE jumping, the Wolf Pack has to break into a manor in Mexico and there’s even bedsheet abseiling. The thing is, director Todd Phillips and company are not always able to keep their footing in their attempt to change things up yet not stray too far from the selling points of the series.

Something that afflicted The Hangover Part II and that gets a reprise here is what we call “breakout character-itis”. A character in a minor role – Ken Jeong’s Mr. Chow, in this case – is well-received by audiences and becomes popular, so the producers ramp up his screen time and give him more wacky antics, not knowing that the character worked best in small doses. Jeong’s shrill, obnoxious shtick does very nearly wear out its welcome on several occasions. He’s also been oddly upgraded from incompetent goofball to something of a criminal mastermind.

Nothing much has changed with the Wolf Pack themselves. Galifianakis does get a nice assortment of forehead-slapping silliness, Helms is a serviceable lily-livered straight man, Brad-make that Academy Award-nominated Bradley Cooper doesn’t really look like he wants to be there, and Justin Bartha sits out the bulk of it just as he did before. John Goodman is a welcome addition but alas, just like Paul Giamatti in Part II, his talents are wasted in a small role.

The Hangover Part III is an improvement over its immediate predecessor, and isn’t so much bad as it is very middle of the road. It doesn’t blindly try to shock at every turn and there is more of a plot, but it’s hard to say if this was a step in the right direction. What is nice is that there are continuity nods aplenty and an effort is made to link this film back to the previous two. For example, Heather Graham returns for a cameo and baby Tyler/Carlos from the first movie shows up as a five year-old, played by Grant Holmquist – who, along with his twin sister Avery, played the baby in the first film. He even gets a sweet/awkward moment with Alan, who fondly recalls the adventures the Wolf Pack shared with this “wolf cub”.

As a conclusion to the series however, The Hangover Part III doesn’t seem to wrap things up, and a mid-credits stinger rather blatantly leaves the door wide open for a potential Part IV. There’s no finality to this one really, and there’s the hard-to-shake feeling that studio executives want to cling on to the Hangover brand and continue to wring whatever’s left out of it. Still, this is a fairly entertaining diversion and definitely better than Part II. We do wish they visited Amsterdam for this one though.

SUMMARY: A middling effort that has several entertaining moments, but doesn’t quite pass muster as a triumphant send-off for the Wolf Pack.

RATING: 3 out of 5 STARS

Jedd Jong

Jurassic Park (3D)

Written for F*** Magazine, Singapore


Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Samuel L. Jackson, Wayne Knight, Ariana Richards, Joseph Mazzello
Genre: Adventure, Thriller
Run Time: 126 mins
Opens: PG
Rating: 30 May 2013

It’s an adventure 65 million (+20) years in the making: two decades after Spielberg’s groundbreaking creature feature first stomped into theatres, it’s time to dust off those amber-encased memories to make a return trip to Jurassic Park. While the powers that be are struggling to keep Jurassic Park IV from fossilizing in development hell, a 3D re-release of the original has been trucked out. While we hope those glasses make us look as cool as Dr Ian Malcolm (Goldblum), that’s not likely.

Wealthy magnate John Hammond (Attenborough) creates a theme park on an island off Costa Rica, populating it with dinosaurs created through cloning technology. An accident necessitates a safety inspection of the park before it opens, and three experts are called upon to sign off on it: Palaeontologist Dr Alan Grant (Neill), Palaeobotanist and Grant’s girlfriend Dr Ellie Sattler (Dern) and chaos theorist/mathematician Dr Ian Malcolm. They are joined by lawyer Donald Genarro (Martin Ferrero) and Hammond’s grandchildren Lex (Richards) and Tim (Mazzello). However, trouble is brewing behind the scenes as the park’s computer systems architect Dennis Nedry (Knight) plots an act of industrial espionage, leaving chief engineer Ray Arnold (Jackson) helpless as a hurricane hits the island and its savage star attractions are unleashed.

There are many for whom this movie holds sentimental significance. Just as Spielberg’s Jaws was a landmark film for those who came of age in the 70s and E.T.: The Extraterrestrial defined the childhoods of many an 80s kid, Jurassic Park had a similar effect on the children of the 90s. There is no doubt that Spielberg has become a master of the art of the blockbuster, crafting films equally heavy on the spectacle and the heartstrings-tugging. While some may decry his style as schmaltzy, it’s indisputable that the “inner child” aspect of the director is an asset he puts to good use at the helm of films such as this one.

Jurassic Park was an industry game-changer, transforming the way big blockbusters were made. Twenty years ago, computer-generated imagery was newfangled and yet to be thoroughly proven as a filmmaking tool. In fact, Spielberg had originally planned to use go-motion puppets and models built by Phil Tippett but was won over by early CGI tests. Jurassic Park’s mix of digital dinosaurs and stunning animatronics work by Stan Winston Studios resulted in a film populated with what felt like living, breathing animals. While the lack of texture compared to those created using modern digital effects is evident especially on the big screen, the film’s visuals still hold up relatively well.

3D re-releases have been generally regarded as a money-grubbing studio move, and not without reason. However, the conversion job on this film has been competently handled; the effect of the added depth fairly noticeable. Majestic wide shots, such as the one in which the helicopter nears Isla Nublar, benefit the most. Does it add a great deal to the movie? No, not really. But perhaps it enhances the novelty of the experience and helps with the feeling of being a kid again, this feeling being one of the main reasons to revisit the flick.

Beyond the chased-by-dinosaurs thrill ride aspect of the film, some attention has been given to the themes explored in the novel on which the film is based, written by the late Michael Crichton. This is a cautionary tale of man playing God as told by an idealist; Spielberg delivering a masterful mix of wide-eyed awe and pulse-pounding tension. Perhaps this is why Hammond is rendered as a more benevolent figure, whereas he was an amoral opportunist in the book. While Jeff Goldblum may have stolen the show, it is Sir Richard Attenborough’s performance as a creator who witnesses his paradise slipping through his fingers that is quietly compelling and affecting. It’s comparable to François Truffaut’s appearance in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. An actor/director of Attenborough’s stature could have easily phoned in the performance, viewing this as nothing more than a bills-paying blockbuster – but he doesn’t, lending the character warmth and amiable naïveté.

While the stars of the film are undeniably the dinosaurs (the raptors in the kitchen and the T-rex bursting out of the paddock both as thrilling as this reviewer recalls) the human supporting cast isn’t half-bad either. None of the characters are really drawn with a lot of depth, but that’s just fine. Sam Neill plays an old-school palaeontologist who dislikes kids – naturally, he eventually becomes a father figure to Tim and Lex as he chaperons them through the park. Laura Dern plays off both him and Goldblum well, and the dynamic between the three doesn’t feel forced or unnatural. Bob Peck’s hammy gamekeeper Muldoon (the lines “SHOOT HER!” and “clever girl” come to mind) has become something of a pop culture icon and it’s fun to see Samuel L. Jackson before his evolution into the total cinematic badass we know him as today was complete. And while Wayne Knight has become better known as Newman from Seinfeld, to a large chunk of moviegoers, he’ll always be the greedy, duplicitous Nedry who falls victim to venomous spit.

Jurassic Park is a film that has aged considerably well, which is more than can be said for a number of 90s sci-fi action films. It’s one of those films that aims straight for the inner 12 year-old in most everyone, and it’s one of those movies you share with your kids; this re-release being a good way to do so. Monster movies have mostly been relegated to low quality straight-to-DVD shlock along the lines of Jersey Shore Shark Attack and Mega Python vs. Gatoroid, so a movie like Jurassic Park really makes one long for more straight-faced takes on such material, with real characters and emotion in addition to mayhem and destruction. It’s also the kind of movie that makes one wish Spielberg would make more popcorn entertainment in addition to the loftier films he has turned his focus to as of late.

SUMMARY: Jurassic Park is far from the worst contender for a 3D conversion, yielding satisfactory results and giving movie-goers a chance to relive a genuinely entertaining and well-made blockbuster on the big screen.

RATING: 4 out of 5 STARS

Jedd Jong

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Fast & Furious 6

Written for F*** Magazine, Singapore


Director: Justin Lin
Cast: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Luke Evans
Genre: Action, Thriller
Run Time: 130 mins
Opens: 23 May 2013
Rating: PG13 (Violence And Some Coarse Language)

Back in 2001, was there anybody who thought that a movie that was essentially “Point Break with underground street racing” would spawn a franchise consisting of six films and counting? Probably not. The series veered dangerously close to direct-to-DVD territory with Tokyo Drift, but its director Justin Lin set things back on the highway with the fourth and fifth films, proving the Fast and Furious name had legs – or wheels, rather – yet. And if this sixth flick is any indication, there’s no putting on the brakes.

Following their Rio heist from the previous movie, the members of Dominic Toretto’s (Diesel) crew have settled into retirement. Brian O’Conner (Walker) and Dom’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) now have an infant son. Re-enter Diplomatic Security Service Agent Luke Hobbs (Johnson), who pursued the team through Fast Five, calling upon Toretto and his gang to assist in the takedown of a new threat. His name? Owen Shaw (Evans), leader of a dangerous crew who has struck and made away with advanced weapons technology. Dom’s former flame Letty (Rodriguez), who appeared to die in the fourth movie, has resurfaced as a member of Shaw’s criminal posse, and Dom is determined to win her back to the side of good. This synopsis probably should mention that there are a bunch of car chases in there too.

The Fast and Furious series has been given a remodel, evolving from being primarily about car culture to a more accessible globe-hopping action/heist type of film. It’s done the series a world of good, and Justin Lin and company have offered up a rather satisfying summer actioner in this latest installment. Sequels always have to up the ante, and sometimes it’s noticeable when said ante fails to be upped. Fast & Furious 6 does feature bigger set pieces and even more action than its predecessor, so while it isn’t particularly fresh or innovative, it gives the people what they want.

Audiences will benefit from having seen the earlier films, since there are more than a few continuity nods so one might end up feeling a mite lost. The kinship between the various members of Dom’s crew has become an important theme and something of a glue to hold all the car crashes and gunfire together. Hobbs is no longer hot on Dom’s tail and seems to have overcome his grudge on our heroes. Instead, the dramatic tension is provided by Letty’s reappearance. She’s conveniently stricken by that trope of “laser-guided amnesia”, so she works for the villain with no clue who Dom, Brian or anyone else from her ‘former life’ is. There’s a street race scene included as a nod to the franchise’s roots which also functions as a bonding moment for Dom and Letty; a nice way to tie it all together somewhat. The characters are sketched out just enough so we can root for them not to become smears on the asphalt.

But who are we kidding, audiences don’t go to a Fast and Furious flick for “dramatic tension”. They go for the thrills and the spills and thankfully, those are in abundance here. There’s a good mix of heavy duty vehicular warfare-type ‘car’-nage and hand-to-hand martial arts scraps, sometimes happening simultaneously. MMA fighter Gina Carano and Joe Taslim of The Raid: Redemption fame both get to strut their stuff in well-choreographed combat sequences. This also one of those few times you’ll get to see two women (Carano and Rodriguez) violently go at it in the Waterloo tube station completely sober.

The car chases that rip through the streets of London, a tank chase on an elevated Spanish highway and the climactic cargo plane escape on a military airstrip are all exciting and entertaining. There’s a tactility to these scenes such that the scrapes, crunches and impacts don’t feel too artificial. This isn’t one of those films that’s two hours of pixels clanging against pixels. Sure, the computer-generated effects are noticeable, but it’s nowhere as egregious as in 2 Fast 2 Furious. This is, however, one of those films where the laws of physics are but theories. Human bodies take improbable amounts of punishment, soaring or falling through the air to have falls broken by the metal roofs of cars and airstrip runways stretch into infinity – but one should be willing to suspend disbelief enough to get swept along for the ride.

Luke Evans’ Owen Shaw is your typical hard-edged ex-military type villain, whose leadership approach of viewing his team members (essentially dark mirror images of our heroes) as game pieces merely fulfilling their functions stands in contrast to how Dom sees his crew as family. There really isn’t much depth to the character and Evans is a rather bland actor, but it is nice to see our heroes go up against a villain who actually gets behind the wheel of a car which flips other cars off its front, since the baddies of the series so far have mostly been corrupt businessmen or drug kingpins. A stinger during the end credits offers a tantalizing look at who the villain for the inevitable Fast 7 will be.

The film’s attempts at humour are a mixed bag. While Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) listing Hobbs as “Samoan Thor” on his phone is pretty funny, a bit involving a snooty, oh-so-British fancy car salesman is on the indulgent side. Still, it’s nice to see the well-oiled machine comprised of Dom, Brian, Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej, Gisele (Gal Gadot) and Hobbs at it again.

SUMMARY: The family that outraces tanks and military cargo planes together stays together – while never truly inventive or astounding, it’s good smash-bang escapist fun. If you liked Fast Five, odds are Fast & Furious 6 will rev your engine too.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 STARS

Jedd Jong

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Roger Ebert: A Life at the Movies

As published in F*** Magazine Issue #40




F*** remembers the film criticism icon

By Jedd Jong 5/4/13

On April 4 2013, film critic Roger Ebert passed away at age 70 after 11 years of battling cancer. Ebert was not a movie star or film director, but he is a beloved figure among moviegoers all the same. Through television shows such as At the Movies and books like his essay collections The Great Movies I, II and III, Ebert became more than a critic; his famous “two thumbs up” endorsement entering the popular culture lexicon. We’re the first to admit that movie critics may not be the most endearing personalities ever, but over the course of his four-decade long career in the field, Ebert became America’s knowledgeable, witty uncle to turn to in picking out films for a movie night. In 1975, Roger Ebert became the first movie critic to take home the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and in 2005, was the first movie critic to be honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Behind the glittering acclaim was ultimately a man with a deep love for the movies. Roger Joseph Ebert was born on June 18, 1942 in Urbana Illinois, to Walter and Annabel Ebert. As a high school student, Ebert took up sports writing for the local newspaper, The News-Gazette in Champaign, Illinois. However, he probably owes his writing career to being something of a passionate fanboy from the very beginning - even though he has ruffled some fanboy feathers in his time, with his negative reviews of movies like, well, Fanboys. In the days long before internet forums and newsgroups, science-fiction fanzines were the foremost avenue for lovers of the genre to discuss, analyse and enthuse and over their favourite sci-fi stories; Ebert contributing articles to several of them. Also among Ebert’s early influences was the parody magazine Mad, which frequently featured comic strip spoofs of movies that sensitized Ebert to the clichés and formulae beneath the surface of many films.

Roger Ebert was an alumni of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he worked as a reporter for The Daily Illini. One of his very first reviews, written for the paper and on the 1960 Fellini classic La Dolce Vita (which is, coincidentally, about a journalist), opened with this sentence: “There is in La Dolce Vita a great deal to be puzzled about, and a great deal to be impressed by, and perhaps a great deal which we as Americans will never completely understand.” And thus began Ebert’s film criticism legacy.

In 1966, Ebert was hired as a general reporter and feature writer for the Chicago-Sun Times, taking on the post of film critic the next year after the departure of Eleanor Keane. 1967 also saw the publishing of Ebert’s first book Illini Century: One Hundred Years of Campus Life, a history of the first 100 years of his alma mater. Ebert dabbled in filmmaking, writing the screenplay for Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Ebert would further collaborate with schlockmeister Meyer on such raunchy exploitation flicks as Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens and Up! (absolutely not to be confused with the Pixar film).

What launched Roger Ebert into the public spotlight was his appearance on TV as a broadcast film critic. In 1975, Ebert and Gene Siskel, a film critic from the Chicago Tribune, teamed up for the film review show Opening Soon at a Theatre near You, created by Chicago-based PBS-affiliate station WTTW. The show was renamed Sneak Previews after two seasons. In 1982, the duo left the show to establish At the Movies, which was followed by Siskel and Ebert and the Movies, shortened to Siskel and Ebert in 1987. The pair were known for their spirited discussions and for making film appreciation accessible to the television-viewing and movie-going audience at large. It was always entertaining to watch them really get into it and argue over a film they disagreed upon, such as with Silence of the Lambs, Baby’s Day Out and Cop and A Half. The pair often traded brickbats on talk shows and made a memorable guest appearance voicing versions of themselves in the animated sitcom The Critic.

And of course, there were the thumbs. On this method of rating the films, Ebert said “stars are relative, not absolute. Thumbs are a little more pure, because they basically say ‘yes, I recommend that you go see this movie’ or ‘no, I recommend that you don’t go see this movie’ and when you talk to a friend and ask ‘should I go see this movie’, they say ‘yes’ and they say ‘no’.” The thinking was that a more binary approach that the usual “star” or “points” system would have more clarity. The duo trademarked the phrase “two thumbs up” (though not their actual thumbs, as has been rumoured) in 1989, and it became a sought-after endorsement proudly displayed on movie posters and DVD covers.

Gene Siskel died from complications of a brain tumour surgery in 1999, and Ebert dedicated an entire episode of the show to his late co-host. “People always asked if we really hated each other,” Ebert said in the episode. “One thing I know for sure is that we didn’t.” *Sniff*. Ebert knew the show had to go on, and searched for someone to replace Siskel by his side, eventually settling on Chicago Sun-Times columnist and film critic Richard Roeper. While Roeper was younger and more energetic, fully recapturing the chemistry that Ebert and Siskel had together would prove elusive.  

Unfortunately, Ebert would face tragedy again in the form of his ill health. In 2002, he was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer and in 2006 had part of his jaw bone removed. He nearly died from a burst carotid artery and was eventually no longer able to speak, eat or drink. While he was unable to further co-host At the Movies (which cycled through many potential replacement critics), Ebert became active online and continued to write print reviews for the Chicago-Sun Times. He communicated via a computerised voice system and in 2011 proposed the “Ebert test”, which would gauge how closely a synthetic voice could mimic the real thing by seeing if the voice could tell a joke and make someone laugh.

Roger Ebert’s opinions were divisive at times, as should be expected of a film critic of his stature. He gave A Few Good Men a thumbs down rating, expressing disappointment in its predictability and its ending. Ebert was also one of the very few who praised Speed 2: Cruise Control, widely regarded as one of the worst films of all time. His controversial stance that video games are not, and probably will never be for a long time, “art” made many gamers consider him a snob. He also earned the ire of fans of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen by suggesting that by liking the film, they were not “sufficiently evolved”.

In the introduction to his book The Great Movies III, Ebert wrote “I was indeed a snob, if you agree with this definition: ‘A person who believes that their tastes in a particular area are superior to those of other people.’ I do. That is not ego. It is a faith that after writing and teaching about films for more than forty years, my tastes are more evolved than those of a fanboy.”

He also famously told Rob Schneider, star of Deuce Bigalow, European Gigolo, “your movie sucks.” Imagine Ebert’s surprise then, when he was ill and a bouquet of flowers accompanied by a handwritten note wishing him a speedy recovery arrived. It was a gift from the actor, signed “Your Least Favourite Movie Star, Rob Schneider”. Touched, Ebert wrote “although Rob Schneider might (in my opinion) have made a bad movie, he is not a bad man”.

From the outpouring of sympathy following Ebert’s death, it is clear that in spite of the saying “nobody likes a critic”, he was an influential figure who meant a lot to those who make movies, those who watch movies, and those who love movies.

Director Steven Spielberg said in a statement, "Roger loved movies. They were his life. His reviews went far deeper than simply thumbs up or thumbs down. He wrote with passion through a real knowledge of film and film history, and in doing so, helped many movies find their audiences.”

Director Christopher Nolan said “Roger really to me has been emblematic of a wonderful everyman approach to criticism. He never became jaded… even while bringing a very thoughtful critical eye.”
Director Martin Scorsese declared that “the death of Roger Ebert is an incalculable loss for movie culture and for film criticism. And it’s a loss for me personally…There was a professional distance between us, but then I could talk to him much more freely than I could to other critics. Really, Roger was my friend. It’s that simple.”

Even the President of the United States himself, Barack Obama, felt compelled to make a statement. "Roger was the movies. When he didn't like a film, he was honest; when he did, he was effusive — capturing the unique power of the movies to take us somewhere magical. Even amidst his own battles with cancer, Roger was as productive as he was resilient — continuing to share his passion and perspective with the world. The movies won't be the same without Roger, and our thoughts and prayers are with Chaz and the rest of the Ebert family."

Perhaps the saddest statement to read of them all was the one issued by Ebert’s widow, Chaz. "I am devastated by the loss of my love, Roger — my husband, my friend, my confidante and oh-so-brilliant partner of over 20 years. He fought a courageous fight. I've lost the love of my life and the world has lost a visionary and a creative and generous spirit who touched so many people all over the world. We had a lovely, lovely life together, more beautiful and epic than a movie. It had its highs and the lows, but was always experienced with good humour, grace and a deep abiding love for each other." 

Roger Ebert wrote his final entry on the blog “Roger Ebert’s Journal”, entitled “A Leave of Presence” (April 2 2013), explaining that he would be writing less reviews himself owing to his ill health. “What in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away. My intent is to continue to write selected reviews but to leave the rest to a talented team of writers handpicked and greatly admired by me. What's more, I'll be able at last to do what I've always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.” He ended off the post with “So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies.”

The balcony may be closed and the aisle seat may be vacated, but Ebert is indeed not going away. Filmmakers Steve James, Steven Zaillian and Martin Scorsese are at work on a bio-documentary film about the movie critic’s life. For all the things that he was – reviewer, journalist, screenwriter, fiction author, cookbook writer (see The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and Romance of the Rice Cooker) – Ebert was a bona fide cinephile, someone whose love and knowledge of the movies was infectious and influential. He has left behind a legacy of an understanding and a passion for movies, and has imbued in so many that there’s so much more to the medium than just entertainment, and that discussing and thinking about movies is a fulfilling, enjoyable endeavour.

It’s been said that “nobody ever built a monument to a critic”. Well, perhaps an exception might be made for Roger Ebert.  

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

For F*** Magazine, Singapore


Director: J. J. Abrams
Cast: Chris Pine, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, John Cho, Simon Pegg, Alice Eve, Peter Weller, Bruce Greenwood
Genre: Sci-Fi, Fantasy
Run Time: 123 mins
Opens: 16 May 2013
Rating: PG-13

With 2009’s Star Trek, director J. J. Abrams had set a course for the future of the series with a film that thoroughly invigorated what was, up to that point, largely seen as a flagging franchise. References to Star Trek in popular culture had been relegated to jokes about basement-dwelling man-children squinting through coke-bottle glasses, and it was a widely-held stereotype that “Trekkies” (the preferred term is apparently “Trekkers”) just weren’t ‘cool’. Love it or hate it, Star Trek ’09 made the series accessible to the masses and perhaps the sexy young cast, the action sequences and the lens flares were just a way of helping the movie-going public at large let down their collective guards and learn to appreciate this cornerstone of science fiction through new eyes.

With Star Trek Into Darkness, Abrams and his cast and crew continue to blaze a trail through the cinematic cosmos. We begin right in the middle of the action, just as the preceding movie did – only this time, we follow the crew of the Enterprise as they embark on a misadventure on the planet Nibiru. Kirk (Pine) and Bones (Urban) get pursued by angry spear-wielding natives as Sulu (Cho) and Uhura (Saldana) lower Spock (Quinto) into an active volcano on the brink of eruption in order to neutralize it with a cold fusion device. Just another day in the office for them, then.

Kirk and company return to Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco, where the higher-ups are none too happy about the recklessness they displayed on Nibiru. This is interrupted by a new threat: an unstoppable one-man terror cell who goes by the name of “John Harrison” (Cumberbatch). Kirk leads the crew of the Enterprise in pursuit of Harrison, armed with 72 photon torpedoes and with newbie Dr Carol Marcus (Eve), daughter of Starfleet head Admiral Marcus (Weller), on board. Chief Engineer Scotty (Pegg) is suspicious of the contents of said weapons but his concern is initially unheeded. What follows is a dangerous quest that takes our heroes to the Klingon homeworld of Kronos (or Qo'noS), leading them to the discovery of the torpedoes’ secret payload and the truth behind John Harrison’s beef with Starfleet.

Now, this is how you make a summer blockbuster. A tentpole sci-fi action flick doesn’t have to be two hours of mind-numbing, cacophonous dross. Abrams, along with writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof and the countless others involved have brought us a film that is fresh, relentlessly exciting and overflowing with white-knuckle action, and none of this at the expense of a compelling story or well-drawn characters. From the very first minute, this reviewer was yanked right into this fantastical world. Abrams all but announces “buckle up, because it’s going to be one hell of a ride” – and what a ride Star Trek Into Darkness is.

The Star Trek series has a magnificent legacy and has had an immeasurable impact on the genre, and to chuck all that away for all flash and no substance would be something of a crime. That’s not the case here. Sure, there seems to be barely a minute to stop and catch one’s breath, but that’s probably preferable to a film that drags on and on any day of the week. The film has no shortage of pizazz in the form of stunning visual effects work, witty banter and edge-of-your seat near misses galore. Despite having “darkness” in its title, this flick is far from dour or depressing. References, homages and shout-outs are skilfully weaved into the fabric of the story and some may disagree, but this reviewer feels this iteration of Trek actually is very respectful of what went before – just not slavishly so.

One of the many things the first film got right was its casting, with the Enterprise staffed not by a troupe of impressionists, but by actors who got the spirit of the characters they were portraying but weren’t afraid to put a bit of a spin on things. The opening sequence is a brilliant way to reacquaint audiences with the characters without an exposition-heavy recap. We get the sense that these guys are family now, and like any family they have their idiosyncrasies, but they certainly feel more at home on the bridge, in the engineering bay or wherever than they did as fresh faces in the first film.

In this movie, Captain Kirk truly comes into his own as leader of a starship crew and father to his men, Pine further proving there’s more to him than just his handsome mug. Sure, Kirk’s still the brash, womanising guy we all love (we catch him in bed with two be-tailed alien sisters) but there is character growth to be had. The ever-uneasy friendship between Kirk and Spock also gets a fair amount of play, and there are some great moments between the two, ranging from casual brickbats to a pretty dramatic bit near the end of the film. Quinto conveys Spock’s struggle to get in touch with his human side, his resistance to emotion driving a wedge between him and Uhura, but never hits us over the head with this.

Just as in the earlier film, everyone gets a chance to strut his or her stuff – for example, Sulu even gets to be acting captain. Simon Pegg as Scotty and Karl Urban as Bones in particular stand out in this one, both bringing different brands of comic relief to the proceedings while functioning as far more than merely “the funny guys”. Bones mentions that he once performed a Caesarean on a Gorn and delivered octuplets. It’s a funny bit that’s also a nice nod to the original series.  Speaking of alien species, there’s a tribble which turns out to be integral to the plot. This is also brilliant.

Of course, the attention is square on Benedict Cumberbatch as the villain of the piece. Suffice it to say that fangirls of his (who call themselves “Cumberbitches”) will not be disappointed. The guy is a riveting actor, one who knows when to chew just the right amount of scenery in order to not come off as silly. There has been a spate of more “intellectual” villains in blockbuster movies as of late, but Cumberbatch does enough to differentiate himself from the bunch and Harrison isn’t just all brains and no brawn – he single-handedly takes on a Klingon patrol in one action sequence.

Star Trek Into Darkness is such a thrill that this reviewer left the theatre kind of breathless, but also really pumped. It’s a big, big movie, but not the kind that’s an extravagant insult to the intellects of audiences everywhere. Abrams has crafted a sequel that ups the game and elicits cheers, laughter, goosebumps, excited fist-pumping and even a tear or two at all the right moments. And isn’t that warp effect just so sparklingly beautiful?

SUMMARY: J. J. Abrams has assembled everything needed for an involving, supremely entertaining big-ticket picture and somehow made it even more than the sum of its parts. It’s such an impressive ship that even Scotty would be jealous.

RATING: 5 out of 5 STARS

Jedd Jong