Friday, July 29, 2016

Star Trek Beyond: Deep in Space, a Crew Bands Together

Simon Pegg, Sofia Boutella, and Chris Pine in "Star Trek Beyond"
"Things have started to feel a little episodic," Jim Kirk confesses at the beginning of Star Trek Beyond, the fleet and fun third installment of the rebooted Star Trek franchise. He's musing about his role overseeing the increasingly routine voyages of the Starship Enterprise, but it doesn't require a doctorate in meta to connect his observations to the other vehicle he's piloting, namely the Star Trek franchise itself. Kirk's opening voiceover articulates the central challenge that every studio-sanctioned cinematic series faces: How do you continue serving your fans but prevent the proceedings from growing stale? Can you deliver something more without just providing more of the same?

Star Trek Beyond—directed by Fast & Furious veteran Justin Lin, taking the reins from J.J. Abrams (who has since migrated to a different galaxy)—doesn't entirely solve this paradox, but it does thread the needle about as well as a big-budget three-quel can. Light and lively, with a refreshing focus on character and a blessed scarcity of mind-numbing spectacle, it's a satisfying continuation, one that cannily plays up the franchise's strengths (interpersonal dynamics, cheeky comedy) while minimizing its weaknesses (lack of stakes, weightless space battles). It may be just another episode in the adventures of the Enterprise crew, but it's a damn good episode.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Ghostbusters: Slime, Ghouls, Women, and Other Scary Stuff

Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, and Kate McKinnon in "Ghostbusters"
Can women be funny? Is Chris Hemsworth just a pretty face with an accent? Should fans of a beloved classic feel rightfully outraged when it's remade featuring members of a different sex? The answers to these questions are so obvious—for the record, they are "yes," "no," and "are-you-serious-just-shut-the-fuck-up"—that we hardly needed a reboot of Ghostbusters to answer them. But perhaps this loose, breezy new film, which arrives in the polarized age of the hot take and the down-vote, can still teach us something, something beyond the seemingly hard-to-grasp axiom of "don't judge a movie before you actually watch it". If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's that action-comedies are advised to focus on the comedy rather than the action. When the heroes of this revamped Ghostbusters (directed by Paul Feig from a script he co-wrote with Katie Dippold) are stuck in the lab, trapped in the subway, or confined in any other location where they can joke, whine, titter, and bicker, this movie is a blast. When they're actually busting ghosts, it's a snooze.

Thankfully, the proton guns and laser rays stay hidden for most of the film's first half, allowing Feig to unhurriedly assemble his team of all-star comediennes. Naturally, this begins with Melissa McCarthy, Feig's regular lead who shot to fame (and an Oscar nomination) five years ago in Bridesmaids and last year delivered a career-best performance in the underrated Spy. (When the Golden Globes honor McCarthy 30 years from now, her clip reel had better feature this.) McCarthy plays Abby, an eccentric scientist who has devoted her life to researching the paranormal. She even long ago wrote a book on the topic, the recent publication of which consternates Erin (Kristen Wiig, in her comfort zone), the manuscript's co-author who is currently up for tenure at an exalted university. (How exalted? When Erin tenders a recommendation letter from a Princeton professor to her dean, he advises her that she obtain a reference from a school that's a bit more prestigious.) Once a true believer, Erin has spent years trying to distance herself from her collaborations with Abby, so she's none too pleased that they've resurfaced.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Swiss Army Man: A Story of Adventure, Friendship, and Farts

Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe in "Swiss Army Man"
"The big bucks are in dick and fart jokes," Ben Affleck's character memorably quipped in Chasing Amy. Something tells me that he wasn't thinking of Swiss Army Man, an aggressively absurd, surprisingly saccharine comedy from the writer-director team of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (aka Daniels). This bizarre movie, with its gigantic premise and diminutive budget, does not possess a commercial bone in its proudly misshapen body. But for all its surface weirdness and gross-out humor, Swiss Army Man proves to be a fairly conventional story of isolation and redemption, with broad themes that would fit snugly inside a Disney film. It's standard self-help shtick, only with more farts and boners.

The source of both is Manny (Daniel Radcliffe, continuing to do his utmost to distance himself from his signature screen persona), a waterlogged corpse whom we first see washing up on a remote beach. His arrival interrupts the attempted suicide of Hank (Paul Dano), a bearded loner who, believing himself to be marooned on this tiny spit of land, has given in to despair. Manny is hardly a good candidate to improve his circumstances, given that he is dead. But in death, he has acquired a peculiar superpower: He can pass gas on command, and his flatulence is so powerful that he can serve as a sort of catatonic motorboat. And so, Hank straddles Manny's lifeless body, pulls down his pants, and rides him off toward the mainland "like a jet ski". (If only Manny had appeared off the coast of Mexico instead of California, he would have made poor Blake Lively's life a whole lot easier.)

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The BFG: Off to Giant Country, and Packing Light

Ruby Barnhill and Mark Rylance, in Steven Spielberg's "The BFG"
For a director who is renowned for purveying inspirational entertainment, Steven Spielberg's resume is surprisingly light on kid-friendly pictures. Sure, E.T. imprinted his inimitable brand of humanistic fantasy upon an entire generation, but beyond that, The Beard has largely eschewed family-oriented fare, preferring to smuggle his predilection for warmth and decency inside colder, darker films. (The only real exceptions are the ill-received Peter Pan sequel Hook and the underloved animated romp The Adventures of Tintin). Hell, he turned down Harry Potter. Still, Spielberg at his core is a crowd-pleaser, and in adapting Roald Dahl's beloved children's classic The BFG, he's clearly invested in delivering excitement and wonder to a new era of wide-eyed kids.

Judged against these lofty goals, The BFG is a failure, even if it is also, on different terms, a worthy accomplishment. This weird, amorphous movie is by no means going to become a staple on cable television, destined to be re-watched over and over; it will not be endlessly quoted in the schoolyard or relentlessly imitated at the multiplex. (In fact, it is already fizzling at the domestic box office.) But in failing to craft a cultural touchstone, Spielberg has done something arguably more impressive: He's made a children's movie that's interesting.

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Shallows: The Bold Babe and the Sea

Blake Lively takes on a shark in "The Shallows"
Water, water is everywhere in The Shallows, and there isn't a drop to drink, though that's due less to its salt than its color. Not long into this lean, mean thriller from Jaume Collet-Serra, the tranquil blue of the sea's waves gets stained with blood, and a peaceful getaway transforms into a harrowing struggle of survival. It never becomes anything more than that, but that's part of its charm. The Shallows may lack the towering ambition of Gravity or the scrupulous minimalism of All Is Lost, but its gritty flair and appealing star nevertheless make it a worthy entrant in the "man vs. nature" canon. At the very least, it will have you thinking twice the next time you consider wading into the water.

Not that The Shallows' opening act is particularly frightening; in fact, if you ignore the scary tone-setting prologue, it's positively idyllic. Our protagonist is Nancy (a revelatory Blake Lively), a medical student journeying to a secluded Mexican beach that her mother once told her about. It's as advertised, with golden sand leading into a majestic gulf whose giant waves render this isolated inlet a surfer's paradise.