30 July 2016

Review: Star Trek Beyond

(Dir: Justin Lin, 2016)

Now this is the Star Trek sequel we've been waiting for!! J.J. Abrams' 2009 restart of the franchise was far better than anyone ever hoped it might be. Whilst it may have lacked slightly in the villain department it completely made up for it through a joyful sense of discovery as this new crew took to space with a sublime chemistry. That chemistry proved to be the only saving grace of the the 2013 sequel Star Trek Into Darkness, a film felled by the complete and utter miscalculation that what happened in the original film series must be repeated. Not only was Benedict Cumberbatch so distractingly awful as the chief antagonist, the first ten minutes were resolutely the best part of the film as they almost solely provided the entire film's interactions with otherworldly civilisations - one of the most appealing parts of the Star Trek universe. Alas I wasn't sad to see Abrams move to the Star Wars universe (Trek has always been the more interesting of the two), and considering how Justin Lin reinvigorated the Fast and Furious franchise, the omens were good.

Star Trek Beyond could almost pick-up where the first film left off and offers almost everything you'd want in a sequel. The characters are now all established, and their dynamic and chemistry is left to purr away. Everyone remains so well cast and they give it their all, and we the audience are now fully invested in them. And the humour continues too - in large part due to Karl Urban's Bones, whose dry, deadpanned pessimism wins every time he is on screen, much as it has since he was unwillingly escorted onto that shuttle in the first film. But we also have to thank Simon Pegg and Doug Jung's script which is sharp and creates an exciting story (the only complaint being how many times Pegg makes his Scotty character say "lassie"!).

And this is an exciting story. After a fun little intro and a touch of scene setting, we're off on a mission that quickly gets interesting. The first proper action sequence is jaw droppingly good, setting up for a second half that plays to everyone's strengths with perhaps the exception of Spock who feels just a little sidelined. But importantly we get a proper villain this time in the shape of Krall. Idris Elba carries the character under a ton of prosthetics and make-up with a fiercely imposing determination, almost spitting his words out. Whilst his squalls of deleterious drones offer a superbly rendered threat for the crew to sabotage. The introduction of new character Jaylah works, mostly thanks to the humorous innocence Sofia Boutella brings to the role and her dialogue, plus her make-up is awesome! And so it remains engaging throughout, perhaps only stumbling slightly at the finale as it tries to stretch things a touch too far, but forgivably so.

This is the film we should've had in 2013, meaning this year we'd have (hopefully) been watching another sequel as good as this! Star Trek Beyond makes sure it hits some of the key requirements for the universe - superb chemistry with the core cast, decent villain and threat to the Federation, alien worlds, impressive space scenes. But it's also a hell of a lot fun, frequently funny and visually impressive - including one of the best ever ideas for how to stop your enemy! Although it may lack that wonder of coming together and discovery that the first film had, it hits the ground running heading straight into its own story, clearly having learned from the mistakes of the very flawed and unnecessarily dour Into Darkness. If they can keep making Star Trek films as good and fun as this with this same cast (Anton Yelchin will be missed), I want to see this modern iteration keep running and running.

29 July 2016

Review: Jason Bourne

(Dir: Paul Greengrass, 2016)

**This review is a little spoilerish, so avoid reading it until you've seen the film, if that matters to you**

Here's the question – at what point in a successful and very good series of films do you begin to see diminishing returns, both creatively and entertainment wise? In other words, when should you start changing things up a bit? If Jason Bourne is anything to go by, the answer is the fourth film... or at least the film that follows nine years after a trilogy was wrapped up in a nice bow, seemingly over.

Yes, Matt Damon is back, reprising the role that's most defined his career (as evidenced elsewhere, something that's clearly hard to walk away from), along with director Paul Greengrass, much revered for how he helped revitalise the stale action film, not to mention crystallising the governmental conspiracy plotlines that Event of the State defined for our generation. Ordinarily this would be cause for celebration, it was certainly cause for anticipation, but when the ideas seem to have dried up over these intervening years, it's hard not to feel a little disappointed. The underlying starting premise is solid – Bourne is long off the grid and gets called on by Nicky (Julia Stiles) to help her out of some trouble. But it's how this instantly morphs into a rehash of the previous two films (discounting The Bourne Legacy for the moment) that is unedifying... there just so happens to be more secrets about his past that he needs to uncover, whilst the CIA do exactly what they've tried previously to stop him, and a more sympathetic agent (Alicia Vikander) has conflicting emotions about trying to neutralise the perceived threat he represents. This really does feel like Supremacy and Ultimatum repeated, even returning to some of the same cities, just with newer government tech and agents. This leaves it feeling a tired, uninspiring film.

One glimmer of storyline hope comes from allusions to the Edward Snowden leaks - a timely and potential-filled story angle that gets thrown away in favour of a more clich̩d online privacy angle that adds nothing to the film, not least because it just feels tacked on so there's something seemingly relevant in here. Of course a lot of people will say so what, we're just here for the action anyway, but even that feels a pale imitation of the past. These scenes suffer greatly thanks to the editing. Previously Greengrass crafted thrilling and visceral action, with punches you felt and stunts that blew you away (just watch that Tangier's set chase/fight scene in Ultimatum!). Faster editing and handheld-style camerawork created the necessary immediacy and realism, but in Jason Bourne it has tipped too far over the edge into frenetic nearly unwatchable territory. It's like that opening scene in Quantum of Solace that's edited into a mush in a desire to ape the Bourne films Рalas the series seems to have turned in on itself in that sense! None of the action scenes are memorable. The vehicular chases go on too long, with the one roaring down the Vegas strip over-the-top in the manner of those films that the Bourne series was the antidote too. One can only presume the final fight sequence was edited so that you cannot discern much of what happens to make it eligible for a lower certificate.

Nonetheless, Jason Bourne is still an entertaining film. This series has become the gold standard for action films as well as those brewing governmental subterfuge, meaning that even on an off-day there's still plenty to enjoy. The reality is that Damon's embodying of a not especially complex character makes him absorbing, even when time seems to have made him a little calmer and a little greyer. But the problem with being the gold standard is that there's an expected quality. Thus the revenge motivation here feels a little hollow, whilst Tommy Lee Jones' CIA Director is now a cliché even he can't convincingly sell. I wanted to like Vikander but her motivations seem all over the place, whilst the insane technological skills she possesses makes solutions to moments of detective work feel overly convenient. Vincent Cassel was however born to play a CIA asset!

After Damon and Greengrass walked away from the franchise, pursuing it with a different character seemed credible and rife for potential considering the nature of the universe. I liked Jeremy Renner in The Bourne Legacy but they shot themselves in the foot by trying write a separate story into the events of the prior two films. What both films post Ultimatum prove is that "CIA chasing one of their own agents" is not the element that made the original trilogy so good, it was that it was a taut journey of a man trying to find himself whilst utilising a savagely innate ability. There were many interesting places to go with this character, so to return with the hackneyed plotting of "here's some more bad stuff about his past he must discover in order to exact facile revenge on those now hunting him who are also conveniently responsible", just results in more of the same but far less inspired, and nowhere near as good. Jason Bourne is entertaining, but the original trilogy deserves a far better sequel than this.