Friday, July 29, 2016

'Beyond' is a smart and funny sci-fi joyride

To boldly go where...ah hell, you know the rest

Movie: Star Trek Beyond
Directed by: Justin Lin
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Anton Yelchin

The boys and girls of the new Enterprise have done it again, this time cranking out a fun and fast-paced film that, while undeniably cheesy, overflows with old-school charm and enough action to keep you bolted in for the whole wild ride to the Final Frontier.

In depth:
I have a confession: I have yet to see either of the previous Star Trek revamps.  I'm not much of a fan of the franchise itself - barring The Wrath of Khan and Patrick Stewart’s delightful bald of awesome - and so avoided the fanwagon and the hatemobile when the first Star Trek AU hit the big screen a few years back.  Which means that I came in with no expectations or prejudices, armed only with an open-mind and some fond (if limited) memories of the older movies.  Fortunately, unlike so many times this year, my good faith wasn't bludgeoned like a baby seal.  Not only was Beyond intelligible to a novice like me, being a solid standalone film; but it was a damn good movie all around, keeping steady pace on the action while indulging in a good bit of the wit, fun, and daring that made the original series the cult icon that it is today.

The film drops us in the dark of space, where the USS Enterprise, at day 966 of its five-year tour, is starting to lull in the tedium of its peacekeeping routine.  The dashing Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) in particular is catching the grind, feeling world weary (or “space weary”) while getting all existential about his approaching birthday.  The crew eventually arrives at Yorktown - a spectacularly realized if gaudy space city wrapped in a bubble dome - and set about restocking and sorting out their individual issues, including Kirk’s malaise and the promise of a promotion, Spock’s (Quinto) amicable break-up with the stunning Lt. Uhura, as well as news of Ambassador Spock’s unfortunate passing.  These little nuggets of self-reflection are interrupted when a damaged escape pod literally drops out from a nearby nebula.  Its passenger claims that her ship was taken down by an unknown force, marooning on a similarly unknown planet in the heart of the dust cloud.   So the Enterprise sets out on what's supposed to be a routine recon mission; but of course, this being Star Trek, nothing ever goes as planned, and when the crew flops down on the alien world after an attack by the mysterious pirate-warlord Krall (played by Idris Alba) Kirk, Spock, and the rest race against time to stop the madman’s scheme, all while trying to find a way back home.

"Did anyone bring a compass?"

Right from the start, Beyond doesn’t waste any time setting up the plot and the major conflicts churning it.  Kirk’s concerns over his birthday and his father’s early death, Spock’s relationship troubles, and the myriad of interpersonal problems dotting the crew here and there, are all covered quickly but efficiently - doing justice to the underlying feelings, but not drawing them out for unnecessary melodrama.  Okay, sure - there ain’t exactly a whole lot going on here to begin with, so it shouldn’t be that hard.  But you’d be amazed how many action movies aspire to heights of “pathos,” only to land flat on their faces in the Zone of Pretension.  Beyond dodges that minefield by not pretending to be anything other than what it is: a smart, fun sci-fi adventure flick that pushes a few intriguing suggestions, but nonetheless recognizes that its main purpose is to entertain.

And entertain it most certainly does, in no small way thanks to the tight pacing of director Justin Lin.  Rarely does a movie fit its scenes together so well that you don’t even notice where one begins and the other ends.  Not much felt hurried or incomplete; nor was I constantly eyeing the theater door, languishing in movie drag and waiting to be put out of my misery.  Everything flowed effortlessly.  From the scenes in Yorktown, to the thrilling dogfight against Krall’s crew, and all throughout the film, Lin painted the action with care and an attentive eye, always aware of his movie’s tempo, and knowing when to push the pedal to the floor or ease up on the gas - a talent I wish more directors had.  The frenetic pace is never overwhelming, and as a result, the plot is as sleek as a newly-christened starship.
"First one to say 'Mary Sue' is gonna talk to the stick

But the actors are the real stars here, and the cast, charging down the silver screen in their third run together, were definitely up to the task.  Though Pine, Quinto and the rest are more or less strangers to me regarding their roles, in the end it didn’t matter; each actor embodied his or her character to the absolute tee.  Pine managed to blend Kirk’s strengths - his charming bravado, as well as his tricky balancing act of vulnerable masculinity - without the irritants of his at times macho and womanizing behavior.  Quinto and Karl Urban, the later portraying “Bones” McCoy as the third leg in the iconic Freudian Trio, really got to play off of each other in this film, spending a great deal of time in close company, perfectly melding the rivalry, subtle respect, and ribbing comradery that colors their relationship so well.  Ironically, the real stand out in the cast was the one I expected the least from - newcomer Sofia Boutella, playing Jaylah, an alien scavenger and survivor on the world they crashed on.  This nubile, white-skinned maiden is a queer mix of funny foreigner and walking deus ex machina - providing amusing off-kilter commentary (referring to the grounded ship she’s commandeered as “her house”) as well as a convenient way of resolving most of the crew’s problems.  By all accounts this should've made her an unpleasant addition to the tight-knit crew, but her combination of vulnerable innocence and hard-boiled tenacity really works out in the end - so much so that she left me hoping for another appearance in the future.

But really, behind all the pieces that fit together like a windup clock is the simple fact that Beyond is just a straight-up fun movie.  I know - “fun” is hardly an exact descriptive, but it’s a fairly accurate one.  Beyond flows like an old-school sci-fi pulp flick, but without the annoying trappings of that bygone era.  There are no rubber forehead aliens or green-skinned babes in metal bikinis, but there’s plenty of humor, daring and machismo to go around - with even several members of the fairer sex getting a hand on the action.  When Kirk leads a siege on Krall’s base mounted on a motorcycle, or attacks his swarm ships with the blaring “classical” rifts of the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” you don’t have time to whine over the scenes' lack of realism or anachronistic qualities.  They’re so well-made and crank up the adrenaline rush to such a degree that if you have any kind of a pulse, you’ll likely be giving a round of applause at the stellar execution.
Yeah, don't think insurance is going to cover this

So is there some fatal flaw to Beyond - something to temper all the laudation and knock the Enterprise back a few parsecs?  Well, a couple of things were amiss, but nothing that breaks the overall thrilling experience.  The scenes described above are unashamedly cheesy, of course, but it’s a good kind of cheese, falling well in line with this revamp’s apparent forte of balancing the novelty of the past with the realities of the present.  There were a few plot holes sinking in beneath Krall’s true identity, though; the revelation came completely out of the blue, and the “deductive” means by which they arrived there stretches the bonds of credulity more than anything else in the movie.  I also wasn’t impressed by the film’s pyrotechnics and often bald CGI.   Although the initial panoramic of Yorktown was a sight to behold, even then it felt more like a prop to be marveled at than a natural part of the world.  The filmmakers were probably aware of this, giving Bones a voice to humorously point out how the space city looks like a “giant snow globe,” and should have been placed on solid ground instead.

But that little dip into self-effacement only highlights the wit and whimsy pervading every aspect of the production.  At no point does the movie ever take itself too seriously, dispensing even the most navel-gazing questions with a muted one-liner and keeping the focus where it belongs.  There’s nothing groundbreaking or even exceptionally memorable here, but if you’re looking for a solid action movie with more brains than the norm and a nice helping of phaser beams, I can’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon than booking a voyage with this veteran crew for one hell of a trip.

Grade: B+  

Sunday, July 17, 2016

'Mob Pycho 100' is definitely worth your time


Show name: Mob Psycho 100
Genre: Action/Horror Comedy
Premiered: July 12, 2016

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, the name ONE should be familiar to you by now if you’ve been anywhere near the anime world.  Known for creating spectacularly well-written web comics with spectacularly awful art, his most famous work by far is the recent hit series One-Punch Man.  A narrative tour de force affectionately parodying shonen and Western superhero tropes alike, both the manga and the anime have gathered rave reviews and an overwhelmingly positive fan response, and is in my humble opinion the best anime released in the last decade.

So imagine the hype that swelled every corner of the Otaku Nation when it was announced that ONE’s second work, Mob Psycho 100, was getting its own anime release in the summer of ‘16, thanks to the celebrated Studio Bones.  Though less well-known than its big brother, Mob has a strong fandom praising its dour and taciturn protagonist to stars, and I can personally attest to its coming-of-age charm and humor.  But how will the anime stand in comparison?  Does the first episode give us any reason to remain glued to our seats?

In a world full of malevolent spirits and “espers” endowed with phenomenal psychic powers, Shigeo Kageyama - A.K.A. “Mob” - seems like just your average, nondescript 14-year-old middle schooler.  He’s not particularly good at sports or academics, and with his expressionless face, muted emotions, and lame helmut-style haircut, he only stands out by how utterly uninteresting he appears to be.  But looks can be deceiving, and behind the bland exterior, Mob hides a big secret: he’s actually one of the world’s most powerful espers, casually dispatching even the strongest spirits with little effort on a daily basis.  But even that is just a fraction of his full power; when his stress level reaches the breaking point (displayed symbolically as an “explosion meter” ranging from 0 to 100%) his normally suppressed emotions overflow, transforming him into a living force of nature that few, if any, have the power to resist.  With the help of his boss Reigen Arataka, a phony-baloney “psychic consultant” who is, for better or worse, Mob’s mentor and confidant, our teenage protagonist navigates the rocky minefield of adolescence, seeking popularity, friends, and an identity beyond what his powers hold.

The Good
Right from the start, Mob Psycho 100 accomplishes what it absolutely must in order to keep afloat: capture and hold the audience’s attention.  The mysterious, action-packed in medias res opening, where a lone shadowy figure does battle against a host of otherworldly creatures, is the one scene with no analogue to the web comic (at least, not for many issues down the road) and really grabs you - kind of like turning the ignition key in your car and getting a roundhouse kick to the jaw out of nowhere.  Studio Bones fostered this new series well, no doubt acknowledging the big shoes it had to fill, but determined not to make this One-Punch Man Junior.  The music was pulse-pounding, but also ethereal, while the psychic action often exploded in psychedelic colors strew about - befitting a show focused on the supernatural as a mysterious intrusion, as opposed to the common, almost banal occurrences in One-Punch.  Reigen and Mob make for an amusing Abbott and Costello duo - the former, dramatic and bumbling in the course of his wayward fraud, with the latter as his calm and reliable straight man.  The voice actors for both sound pitch perfect, and I look forward to seeing how Setsuo Ito handles Mob’s rare but memorable descents into emotional wreckage when the arc villains push him one step too far.  Also, while it’s ultimately Mob’s spotlight here, the creators are smart to push on with the initial focus on Reigen and his “business,” giving us only a brief yet well-paced overview of Mob’s home and school life, since he’s the more interesting and amusing of the two at the start.

The Bad
So far, I can’t really finger any glaring problems.  A pilot episode serves one of two purposes: it either kicks off the plot or paints the setting, and Mob successfully went with option two.  We’re only allowed a taste of the daily life of our protagonist and his closest ally so far - and oh what a delicious morsel it is, and certainly wets our appetite for more.  If forced to really dig deep and consult my inner pedant, I’d say that the colorful light show accompanying whenever Mob makes some poor soul give up the ghost can look a little cheap at times, especially compared to the relatively muted palette dominating the rest of the episode.  But that’s very much a minor nitpick, and had no impact whatsoever on my enjoyment.

The Ugly
One of the big question marks hanging over this series since it was announced was how Studio Bones would handle ONE’s...unique art style.  Although One-Punch Man is his creation as well,  Madhouse wisely chose to follow the manga remake drawn by the incredible Yusuke Murata.  Mob, however, is all ONE, and everything that entails.  So far it’s working, the animation style shifting from ONE-ish (mainly for the characters) to bright and flashy for the psychic powers, to a duller wash when the mood takes a more sinister turn.  There is a real risk that the contrasts in style and art might look disjointed as time goes by, but we’ll just have to keep watching to find out.  Of course, the art style itself can be a deal breaker for anyone looking for a more mainstream look, or those unfamiliar with ONE’s artwork, but that, as always, is a matter of personal taste.

Tune In or Tune Out?
Definitely Tune In.  This was a slow but smooth start to what’s likely a wild ride.  I couldn’t find any real cause for complaint in this premiere, and the art, voice acting, and music are all top-notch.  Will this be another smash success like One-Punch?  Who knows, but I’ll definitely be tuning in to see.

Monday, July 4, 2016

July Releases

July Releases

It's that time again!  June was a pretty quiet month for me, but I'm back, and we've got a lot ahead of us.  Although Tarzan and The Purge have come and gone this Independence Day weekend, we still have The Secret Life of Pets, Ghostbusters, and Lights Out around the corner, plus a couple of other hot items on the box office menu.

Television is an endless drought like always in the summer time, but the new comedy series Vice Principals, starring Danny McBride, should provide a few fresh laughs when it premieres on the 17th. 





See you at the movies!