STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT (1996) – T.’s Take

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When I started being able to appreciate Star Trek during my tween-to-teen years after I’d been growing up seeing the franchise as my older brother’s thing, I would have called First Contact my favorite movie of the series. These days, I question how good a Star Trek movie it actually is.

While First Contact has several similarities to Wrath of Khan, with it being the second and most highly praised film in its respective series with both a plot that ties back to its TV series and blatant Moby Dick parallels, it’s far more inconsequential than Khan. Khan launched a story arc that ran throughout the Original Series movies, yet outside of the inaugural Generations and the concluding Nemesis, the middle Next Generation movies have little-to-no impact carried over from movie to movie. Not only that, but they’re introduced in Generations as if the audience already knows them, which is a consequence of both their movies starting fresh off their TV run and their TV run having too many characters to properly flesh out in a movie, and First Contact continues this trend by throwing the audience straight into restrained but still icky body horror via a flashback to Captain Picard’s assimilation into the Borg Collective from the famous “Best of Both Worlds” two-parter.

Although First Contact was made to be a wide appeal popcorn movie starring the Next Generation crew, this opening doesn’t give newcomers an ideal first impression of Star Trek, nor does the PTSD-driven quest for revenge against the Borg that defines Picard throughout the movie give newcomers a well-rounded impression of Captain Picard. Perhaps had there been a prologue that introduces not only the audience to the crew but also the crew to the new Enterprise model they’re helming (again, Wrath of Khan gives everything a proper introduction before its own story gets started), I feel it would be a more rounded movie.

While there’s more I can criticize First Contact for, from the ethics of murdering someone who’s beginning to turn into a Borg drone to James Cromwell’s at times over-the-top performance in a reluctant savior role that needed more nuance, there’s still stuff I can enjoy it for. Jonathan Frake’s direction effectively brings both eerie thrills—especially in a tense set piece on the Enterprise’s outer hull—and a sense of Trek-like wonder—especially in moments that turn said wonder to the site of Earth—, and the performances from the iconic crew are at their best. Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score here is one of my all-time favorites, and the script features plenty of lines I can quote along with. Wrath of Khan may have taken its place as my favorite Star Trek movie, but First Contact is still the Star Trek movie I have the fondest memories of.

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JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017) – T.’s Take

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When Man of Steel was released in 2013, I saw it four times in theaters because it was such a dang cool spectacle with christological symbolism and pro-life themes. Later the following year, I realized that none of that stuff is enough if the characters aren’t interesting, with my last rewatch of Man of Steel revealing itself to be the bland destruction fest it is. I didn’t have expectations for Batman v. Superman or Suicide Squad, so I can’t say I was let down by those; however, as I’ve covered earlier on this blog, I was let down by the DC Extended Universe again when Wonder Woman fell apart on repeated viewings. So, all my expectations were set to expect nothing but disposable entertainment from Justice League.

Actually, my expectations for superhero movies period have been set at have-fun-watching-with-your-friends disposability since Age of Ultron turned out to be just alright after all the hype. Heck, Justice League is less of a DC movie than it is an Avengers movie with DC characters, though one closer to Age of Ultron than The Avengers in its occasionally forced humor. Gone is the admirable if failed ambition of the overly gloomy, too-much-too-soon Batman v. Superman; Justice League is generic, fluffy prevent-the-apocalypse stuff we’ve all seen before, complete with a CG cardboard cutout villain who looks like he stepped out of a PS3 game.

Nonetheless, I’ve known about the team members who haven’t gotten their cinematic due until now since I was a kid, so seeing The Flash—especially with the comic relief he brings here—, Cyborg, and Aquaman team up with Batman—who’s cooler here than he was in Batman v. Superman—and Wonder Woman team up is often a joy to watch; heck, I was having the most fun when their dynamics had me forgetting that this series’s mopey and cynical Superman was a thing. Unlike The Avengers, there’s no SHIELD-type organization bringing the League together; they’re on their own, and there’s only one instance of in-fighting, which has my favorite moment in the movie in the form of The Flash’s reaction to unexpectedly meeting his match.

So yeah, Justice League was beaten by The Avengers to what it’s trying to do, and it’s also trying to apologize for its predecessors’ mistakes while having to remind us of the wrong foot this DC universe started on. While I’m not entirely persuaded by the ending narration which means to promise this universe’s more hopeful future (a narration that ironically starts with the word “Darkness…” to which my friend and I both whispered “NO PARENTS“), I can call Justice League satisfyingly fun, if as forgettable as most superhero movies these days.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017) – T.’s Take

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I can enjoy a good murder mystery, so I was cautiously hopeful that I wouldn’t end up agreeing with the so-so critical consensus of this latest Murder on the Orient Express. I was prepared to be disappointed, but, considering this was my first experience with the story, I wasn’t expecting to be left angry on top of that.

What Kenneth Branagh’s direction here delivers best is his own onscreen performance as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The way he introduces Poirot’s intelligence, perfectionism, love of pastries, and epic mustache won me over, especially with how Poirot stops the escaping perpetrator of an opening sequence theft; even an animal dung gag on the way over ends up being clever. Alas, whence Poirot gets on the titular Orient Express, he ends up being the only character of substance in a cast that includes practically half of Hollywood; a couple of these performances are engaging, but most don’t rise above what little they have.

Even with the weak characterizations and rocky pacing, I can’t say that the plot wasn’t interesting enough to keep me guessing, especially regarding whether or not a Youtube comment I read that spoiled the mystery of the titular murder was going to turn out to be telling the truth. What ultimately left me cold was (vague spoilers) how the mystery’s confounding answer is dealt with, with an injustice being excused as compensation for an injustice. This was not an agreeable first ride on the Orient Express.

STAR WARS (1977) – T.’s Take

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My appreciation for the Star Wars franchise as a whole may be diminishing as I’m growing older and realizing the franchise’s flaws, but there is one entry whose followups’ mistakes haven’t ruined its magic for its forty-year place in pop culture: the one that was once straight up called Star Wars.

Sure, Star Wars is a special effects revolution whose psychological audience reaction was visualized by the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark (probably), but if that’s all it were, it would have gone the way of James Cameron’s Avatar. What Star Wars really is is a thematically universal fairy tale with a relatable protagonist and a clear distinction between good and evil. Sure, Han Solo’s “heroism” isn’t as clear-cut as Luke’s, Leia’s, and Obi-Wan’s, but he’s given a redemptive arc. Why Star Wars still works so well is the sense of wonder it conveys by introducing us to the far, far away galaxy through Luke Skywalker’s eyes, and C-3P0’s and R2-D2’s before his.

It’s not dramatically perfect (it is George Lucas writing and directing, after all). I mean, come on, Luke’s still sulking about somebody close’s death while Princess Leia seems to have completely shaken off her entire home world getting blown up in front of her eyes? Obi-Wan seems more troubled by the destruction, and he doesn’t even watch it happen!

Nonetheless, while The Empire Strikes Back may be widely regarded as the best of the trilogy, and it is great (if there’s one thing I’m still a sucker for, it’s lightsaber fights, and Empire has the best one ever, especially compared to the one we get here), it needs a Return of the Jedi that’s better than what we got. Star Wars is, and always will be, the definitive Star Wars movie, the one that ignited our imaginations and introduced both a new potential for filmmaking and John Williams’s most legendary musical score.

WALL·E (2008) – T.’s Take

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There may be Pixar movies more iconic than WALL·E, such as Toy Story, and there may be Pixar movies more emotional and thought-provoking than WALL·E, such as Inside Out, but WALL·E is as bold as the boldest of Hollywood’s most ambitious animation studio.

The entire first act in of itself is a bold decision, not only for its deliberate pacing but also for its almost purely visual storytelling. Watching the character of WALL·E is like watching a modern parallel to Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp. The way the filmmakers are able to get us into the head of, and instantly fall in love with, a garbage crusher with binocular eyes and tank treads blows me away. The robot aspect of the story explores the universal desire for love; the human aspect of the story also touches upon this, but it’s more interested in satirizing our over-reliance on technology and what that could turn us into.

WALL·E isn’t only an animated masterpiece; it’s a science-fiction masterpiece, one I appreciate far more than the 2001: A Space Odyssey it blatantly homages at times, and my affinity for both good sci-fi and silent filmmaking—silent filmmaking that, if accomplished correctly, can evoke emotion without making a sound, which WALL·E essentially can—are probably why I favor it above any other Pixar movie.