Monthly Archives: May 2009

Review: Star Trek

It has happened again – the rebirth of an established series that has gone sour and is born anew in the hands of a master craftsman. First it was the new age of Batman with Christopher Nolan’s dual magnum opuses and now, for both a generation of old Trekkies/Trekkers and a whole new era of fans, director J.J. Abrams has brought his reboot of “Star Trek”, simply titled as such, to the screen. “Star Trek” is a major science fiction achievement – a real surprise treat with an exceptional cast led by an electric performance by Chris Pine as Kirk. So far, it’s one of the best films of the year.

For those who aren’t caught up in the series – it doesn’t technically matter. This film starts at the very beginning. Prefacing with the birth of Kirk and then transitioning into the two parallel stories of Kirk and Spock’s childhood, Abrams engages us immediately into the story.

Young Kirk (Jimmy Bennett) is introduced as a rebel, the kind who takes his stepfather’s sports car out for a joy ride and crash test, whereas young Spock (Jacob Kogan of “Joshua”) is presented as the incredibly intelligent Vulcan who is constantly in a struggle with his half-human self. The two grow up and into fully fleshed out characters. Spock (“Heroes” Zachary Quinto) has become somewhat bitter of his reputation as an incomplete Vulcan, and Kirk (now played by Pine) has grown up to become a charismatic cad with a knack for bar fights. After one particular bar fight, Kirk meets Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), who opens the door to Starfleet, and to his future.

The plot centers around the formation of the first crew of the NCC 1701, and their fight against their first foe – the time-traveling villain Nero (a magnetic Eric Bana), hell bent on revenge against future Spock (a scene-stealing Leonard Nimoy), whom he blames for the destruction of his home planet of Romulus.

Along for the ride are classic characters such as linguistics officer Nyota Uhura (Zoë Saldana), helmsman Hikaru Sulu (John Cho), ensign Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and the oft-complaining (“I’m a doctor, not a physicist!”) Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban). The cast is excellent. Each member of the crew is in perfect form, each a glorious rendition of beloved characters that in some ways make them more interesting than the originals. Most impressive of this particular group is Urban, who injects a much-needed dose of humor and steals every scene he’s in.

A pleasant surprise is the inclusion of Simon Pegg (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Spaced”) as the brilliant engineer Montgomery Scott a.k.a. Scotty. In the original series, Scotty wasn’t a cause of comic relief, he just became an effect. Over time, as Scotty’s dire situations became oddly familiar each time, his role became written with a comedic tone. This tone is utilized with terrific comic timing by Pegg who never takes it over-the-top.

The star of the film is undoubtedly its captain. Pine doesn’t re-imagine Kirk, nor does an impression of William Shatner. Instead, Pine’s Kirk is a more charming leader and something of an accidental hero. Pine’s depiction is raw – a force of nature. He’s a leader you can follow, who has flaws anyone can identify with, most importantly the control of ones ego. Pine fleshes out the character of Kirk in a way no one could expect anyone other than Shatner could. This film will make Pine a star, and deservedly so.

As for the portrayal of Spock, who is unquestionably the most popular science fiction character of all time, Quinto’s performance is admirable. One can nitpick at the fact that Spock is portrayed with too much emotion – but through most of the film, Quinto tones it down enough for us. The biggest problem with the film is personal. One subplot added by Abrams is a love interest between Spock and Uhura – a notion never suggested in “Trek” canon. This may not perturb non-fans, but as a lifelong devotee of the series – it was a little odd to see the two characters become intimate.

But these are just little petty complaints from a quibbling fan. In fact, this critic doesn’t really care about the changes. In fact, after this film – I welcome change. The main plot runs along the idea that this is a completely new timeline as affected by the plotting of Nero. So, in actual fact, everything event-wise is altered – the only remaining aspect of the original canon is that of characterization, which everyone basically nails.

A new timeline is exactly what “Star Trek” needed to do. Hardcore fans may be in an uproar about it, but they should be excited rather than upset. This opens the door to a whole new series. Abrams “Star Trek” is an excellent film. The special effects are eye-popping, the technology is intriguing, the music is superb (and memorable), the script is both comic and fun and again, the cast is perfect. If Abrams had bombed, “Star Trek” would be a dead series. Instead, fellow Trekkies and Trekkers can now celebrate that their love has been reborn again as a pop culture icon that can permeate into a whole new legion of people who would have never given the likes of Kirk and Spock a chance. Hopefully, those who aren’t familiar with the series before seeing this new film will be influenced to watch the rest that “Trek” history has to offer.

One fun thing about Abrams movie is its non-exploitative usage of famous lines and aspects of the show in his new film as “easter eggs” for traditional fans – a red shirt dies on an outing, young Spock sports green blood after a fight, Sulu wields a sword and supposedly, even a tribble makes an appearance. One bittersweet feature is the usage of the late Majel Barrett Roddenberry’s voice as the computer.

This is a very exciting time in “Trek” history. The only question is not if another film will be made – but when? Abrams has a responsibility to uphold the reputation of this film to return for a second – it would be like throwing everything away (i.e. Bryan Singer not returning for the third “X-men”). Will Abrams boldly go where no one has gone before and turn “Trek” into the film series it deserves to be, or will he just boldly blow?

Grade: A

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Review: Adventureland

It’s always the worst experiences in life that make us who we are. In “Adventureland,” a group of college students find that the worst job they could have ever imagined – a deplorable carnival, where the corn dogs are smarter than the guests – might actually be the best time of their entire lives.

Jesse Eisenberg (“The Squid and the Whale”) stars as James Brennan, a recent college graduate, excited to move to a New York apartment and his postgraduate work at Columbia. Unfortunately, after his alcoholic father gets demoted, James must find a summer job. Having never been employed in a real job, and being a fresh-faced college graduate, James is quite naïve when it comes to job hunting – often showing up with SAT scores and high expectations for the most menial of interviews.

Eventually, James gets a job at Adventureland as a game operator. His new co-workers include his bizarre married couple bosses Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig), the introverted yet bitingly sarcastic Joel (Martin Starr), the crotch-punching obsessed Frigo (Matt Bush) the local celebrity/maintenance worker Connell (Ryan Reynolds) and most importantly, the strangely alluring, but psychologically imbalanced Em (Kristen Stewart). He quickly becomes friends with all his fellow carnies, as they all have two very similar interests – they all hate Adventureland, and they all smoke a lot of weed.

The film is director Greg Mottola’s third major feature, after 1996’s “The Daytrippers” starring Liev Schreiber and Parker Posey, and 2007’s hit “Superbad,” which starred Jonah Hill and Michael Cera. While the latter film had its unquestionably side-splitting moments and birthed the iconic “Mclovin,” in comparison – “Adventureland” proves a much more mature film. Mottola based a lot of the storyline on his own personal experiences at the real Adventureland in Farmingdale, N.Y.

For Mottola, “Adventureland” is an intriguing step for the up-and-coming writer/director. The film is far from perfect, and isn’t particularly memorable – but it is a refreshing indie feature.

The film proves quite personal, which, unlike the often sophomoric and often awkward “Superbad,” makes the film more enjoyable. “Adventureland” has a very clichéd story – James falls head over heels in love with Em, they get together, and then break up, and then get back together again. All the pieces are very familiar, but it’s Mottola’s flair for building his characters as realistic, flawed characters that make them endearing.

The character of James is a very well-written – the post-college graduate who’s finally learning about the so-called “real world.” He’s the sensitive type – always listening to The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” on repeat, and even throughout college, he kept his virginity in check. His inexperience in life dismisses characteristic idealism and when he finally achieves coming-of-age, his realizations are genuinely heartwarming. He wishes he had all of life’s answers, but doesn’t – and his experiences at something as socially degrading as Adventureland help him find that he’s not as great as he had always thought. His suburban daydream is thrown away, like one of the many half-eaten Adventureland corn dogs.

In the role of James, Eisenberg is excellent. While his performance in “The Squid and the Whale” was a terrific lead debut, like James, he is finally maturing as an actor. His naïveté displayed in “Adventureland” is sensational, and Eisenberg is quietly joining the ranks of a new underground of twentysomething indie actors, and has a lot more potential for future films.

The supporting cast is also superb. Stewart, who has already achieved Hollywood status with last year’s hit “Twilight,” does an excellent job in portraying Em’s personal struggles. Also impressive is Reynolds, who, after being typecast in the past few years (he’s often played the same character since “Van Wilder”), shows a vulnerable side.

Although the film is unlike “Superbad,” it still packs, albeit more subtly, a comic punch due to its skilled comic relief. Hader and Wiig, two current cast members of “Saturday Night Live,” are hilarious in their roles as the eccentric carnival owners. However, the most memorable performance in the film comes from Starr, who portrays the dorky Joel as a layered, tragic character. In addition to the depth of the character, Starr utilizes terrific comic timing, often stealing many scenes with his amusing one-liners. In one particular scene, Joel is operating a game in which guests can attempt to throw a baseball to knock off hats worn by rotating mannequins. The game is fixed, of course, and when the guest fails – even after a direct shot – he protests that Joel is cheating to which the sardonic operator retorts, “Yet his chapeau remains!”

While the film does have its comic moments, it really works best in the coming-of-age genre. Unfortunately, “Adventureland” has been heavily advertised as a teen sex romp in the vein of its more conventionally comedic predecessor. As for Mottola, his next project is the much anticipated reteaming of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” fame) in the comedy tentatively titled “Paul.” Whether you’re looking for a few laughs, or just a nice little nostalgic trip – a trip to “Adventureland” is certainly worth the price of admission. Just don’t eat the corn dogs.

Grade: A-

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Originally published in Framingham State College’s The Gatepost

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R.I.P. Dom Deluise

I would not be happy if Mel Brooks was next…

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