Sunday, August 07, 2016

Star Trek Beyond/Suicide Squad/Jason Bourne (mild spoilers)

When you set up an alternate timeline, what should you do with it? That question confronts the creative team (producer J.J. Abrams, co-writer Simon Pegg, new director Justin Lin, etc.) behind the Star Trek franchise in the new Star Trek Beyond. The previous installment Into Darkness was a disappointing retread of the Khan storyline with a starry turn from an uncomfortable-looking Benedict Cumberbatch. That film seemed to be fan service for an audience that was happy with the Khan film it already had, thank you very much, and if you saw it and questioned the creative direction of the franchise then you weren't the only one. Bringing in Simon Pegg (who already plays Mr. Scott) in as co-writer on Beyond was an inspired idea. Pegg, co-writing with Doug Jung, has an irreverence of spirit that Star Trek could use right now, and Beyond is an exuberant if sometimes too busy attempt to work with a new formula.

Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), and the Enterprise crew spend most of Beyond on an previously unknown planet after their ship is destroyed in a surprise attack by Krall (Idris Elba), who wants an artifact that Kirk has hidden on board. Idris Elba is powerful actor, and he's good here, but Krall's motivations are too hastily crammed in during a late scene and I was confused as to why the character's appearance changes. Judging by the action scenes - and Beyond has more action than any Trek film I remember - Justin Lin is happy to be here, but while Lin is good at conveying a sense of the Enterprise as a physical object he sometimes loses track of characters during battle scenes. The charisma of the cast saves Lin though, with Quinto, Karl Urban (as McCoy), and Sofia Boutella (as an alien who allies with the Enterprise crew) especially good. There are a few ideas tossed around about how the Federation's vision of galactic harmony might not work for everyone, but at its heart Beyond is descended from Westerns or war films in which a small group of people must do a difficult thing. Star Trek got better by getting simpler, a lesson that other film franchises would do well to remember.

  • Suicide Squad
    spends so much time setting itself up and introducing everyone that it's no wonder the actual story feels so wildly inconsequential. I had some hope for this film because of writer/director David Ayer (Fury, Training Day), whose previous work suggests he understands that there is no such thing as meaningless violence. Ayer's world view is probably best reflected in the character of Deadshot (Will Smith), an assassin whose taste for his work has waned because of separation from his young daughter. Deadshot is part of a Dirty Dozen-type crew put together by a government official (Viola Davis) who isn't sure how to protect America in a world without Superman. (Oh yes, we're back in the "DC Universe") Also on board is Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), psychiatrist turned moll of the Joker (Jared Leto, in a role that Ayer treats as a subplot). Robbie is both the best and worst thing about Suicide Squad; she gives her scenes an welcome jolt of nervous energy but Ayer isn't really interested in how damaged the character is. (More details here.)

    The plot involves a witch who has inhabited the body of a Squad member (Cara Delevingne) and requires Deadshot and the others to kill an untold number of civilians whom the witch has turned into her army. The fact that Suicide Squad takes itself a hair less seriously than Batman v Superman makes Ayer's turn to Urban Disaster Porn all the more callow, and it reinforces the idea of the DC Universe as an airless and joyless place. I had my issues with the latest Captain America film but at least most of the Marvel pictures make a nod towards how their characters fit into the civilian world. I'm looking forward to seeing Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman fight in World War I, but otherwise the DC horizon - box office records be damned - is looking bleak.

  • If characters in a movie are going to look at video monitors as much as they do in Jason Bourne then it helps to hire a couple of Oscar winners to do the looking. Star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass didn't strictly need to to make a film about Jason Bourne popping up on the CIA radar after all these years, but Jason Bourne benefits greatly from the fact that Tommy Lee Jones and Alicia Vikander play the people chasing Bourne. While the new film is entertaining enough, it falls into the already too-familiar plot about the dangers of implementing an all-powerful surveillance system. Marvel, James Bond, and even Fast & the Furious have all been there. There's a nod to Eurozone financial troubles when Greengrass stages a chase during a protest in Athens, but the attempt to flesh out Bourne's motivations for joining the Agency feels like something that should have been done already. Indeed, the take away from Jason Bourne isn't the danger of overreach by intellgence agencies or Greengrass and his talent for shooting action. You'll walk out of Jason Bourne thinking: They want to make more.

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