ReelReviews #114: Star Trek: Discovery, Ep. 1: “The Vulcan Hello”


SEPTEMBER 24, 2017: Discovering Discovery


Star Trek Discovery just might be the longest-delayed pilot episode in TV history, so it was with great relief that the show FINALLY aired its premiere on CBS Sunday evening – but not before one final delay that pushed the episode’s start time to 7:48 p.m. CST. There’s been a great deal of behind-the-scenes problems with Discovery, and oodles of merciless Discovery bashing on the internet. Anyone who has followed my posts in recent months knows that I have been firmly in the “very pessimistic about Discovery” camp. So, now that we can actually watch the show instead of just speculate on what it will be like, I tried my darnedest to keep an open mind and hope for the best. Perhaps the end result would prove me wrong and turn out to an hour of fantastic television.  One day later, the results are in.  The good news? I didn’t hate Discovery. The bad news? I didn’t like it, either.


The biggest problem here is that CBS pretty much set themselves up for failure. If you study the history of Star Trek, most Star Trek TV series have had rocky starts (even the original series with its now legendary first season), but CBS insisted that only the first episode of Discovery would be aired on actual television. All future episodes– including the second episode that immediately picks up where the first one left off— would be locked behind a pay wall and available exclusively online through their paid streaming service, CBS All Access. To convince both seasoned Star Trek fans and newcomers to Star Trek to sign up for All Access, CBS really needed to have their first episode knock it out of the park and leave the audience thrilled, at the edge of their seat, begging to know what will happen next. Did Discovery accomplish this? In one word: No.


To be fair, having a mind-blowing pilot episode is an extremely difficult task, so I can’t blast them for failing to pull that off.  Likewise, no matter how doubtful I was of Discovery, and did not care for the setting, characters, and direction the show planned to go in (and I especially hated the “Ghostbusters reboot style” marketing where Discovery and its defenders accused naysayers of the show of being motivated by bigotry), there is little doubt there were many positives about the show.  The opening theme music is much more dignified and appropriate for a Star Trek series than Star Trek: Enterprise’s “Faith of the Heart” theme was in 2001, and the credit sequence itself (showing interactive sketches of things from Star Trek like Tricorders, phasers, etc.) was a clever idea, even if it seemed more appropriate for a documentary about Star Trek props.  The visuals: and especially, the cinematography, special effects, and art direction lived up the hype and were the best I’ve ever seen for Star Trek on the small screen, and were indeed very “cinematic” in scope.  Obviously, a lot of time and attention was paid to getting the “look” of this show right.


The biggest issues I had with the first episode was that the episode utterly failed to accomplish some major things it needed to do from the start.  The marketing and trailers for Discovery made the show look ultra-dreary and serious, which is totally against the upbeat spirit of optimism found in the most beloved Star Trek shows: the original series and the Next Generation. I was hoping the pilot would prove me wrong and demonstrate that Discovery could be fun and adventurous, too. It did not.  Likewise, Discovery has been under fire nonstop for looking nothing like a “prequel” set “10 years before Kirk” in the original Star Trek timeline. Discovery needed to alleviate those concerns in the pilot and demonstrate that it legitimately fits into the existing Star Trek timeline and believable takes place “10 years before Kirk”. Not only did it fail to do that, its look and feel was so inconsistent with past Star Trek series, it felt like a total reboot.  Star Trek: The Next Generation began the tradition of having an existing Star Trek actor reprise their role in the new show (namely, DeForest Kelly showed up as an elderly McCoy in the 1987 TNG pilot) and every Star Trek series and movie that involved “passing the torch” to a totally new vision/setting for Star Trek has followed suit. This is such a major hallmark of Star Trek that even JJ Abrams’ 2009 “reboot” brought back Leonard Nimoy as the classic Spock, in order to have the movie tie-in with existing Star Trek.  Discovery’s failure to do so is very disappointing, and makes the new show awkwardly stick out like a sore thumb in the Star Trek universe.



Stylistically, Discovery was much more similar to the JJ Abrams movies than the “prime timeline” it claims to be set in.  Like the JJ verse, Discovery relied on lots of lens flares, sleek tech, frantic non-stop action, shouting, and shoot ‘em up action sequences.  The one major difference is that the Kelvin universe movies at least kept the fun, humorous, and lighthearted style of the prime timeline Star Trek (even “Star Trek Into Darkness” was actually very “dark”), whereas Discovery is extremely dour and somber, making the experience more like watching Blade Runner or Alien.


Tonally, the only existing Star Trek that Discovery resembled was Star Trek: The Motion Picture. This was an odd choice, since the movie was roundly criticized in 1979 for not “getting” the point of Star Trek, and Discovery is (quite fairly) getting the same criticisms.  Like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Discovery relies on wowing the viewer with breathtaking visual effect sequences (there’s even a “spacewalk” scene for the Michael Burnham character that is reminiscent of TMP), and some “big” scary crisis in space to drive the events forward– but it lacks any kind of warmth, personality, playfulness, or sense of wonder and joy.  Looking at it objectively, this tone is likely the reason “The Vulcan Hello” is probably my least favorite Star Trek pilot (falling behind my previous “least favorite”, Emissary), as all the previous pilots seemed to have some compelling ideas and fun characters that Discovery simply lacked.


One thing that surprised me going into “The Vulcan Hello” is that it’s really the first Star Trek pilot since the original series that’s not really a legitimate “pilot” episode.   In other words, all the other pilots from Next Generation to Enterprise made a point of introducing the characters and setting up the story that the rest of the series would be about. They were also all two-hour premiere “mini movies” on the small screen.  “The Vulcan Hello” harkens back to the original 1960s Star Trek where the “pilot” may have been the first episode produced, but it’s just a random story that plucks the viewer right into the middle of an established setting and doesn’t really let you get to know the characters. I’m actually OK with Star Trek trying this format again (after all, Roddenberry originally wanted the Enterprise to be a ship with “some history” and to introduce a seasoned crew as opposed the later shows all taking place on the crew’s maiden voyage), so I’m fine with Discovery starting us off with Michael Burnham having already served on that ship for seven years, and pushing the viewer right into a critical mission they’ve having.  That being said, what I question about this episode was the execution of that idea.  Once the decision was made that the pilot would be the lone “free” episode on regular TV and would have to “sell” the viewer on signing up for the rest of the show, there should have been enough time devoted to the first episode of giving us a compelling story and ending with a “tease” of the USS Discovery and its regular crew (perhaps the final scene showing them shaking hands with Jason Isaac’s Captain Lorca or something).  It seems bizarre to me that a show called “Star Trek Discovery” gave us a pilot episode that didn’t feature one second of footage showing the USS Discovery.


Rather, Star Trek Discovery can be summed up as about 40 minutes of frantic action revolving around a crisis with “Predator-style” Klingons that act like ISIS members.  The Klingons in “The Vulcan Hello” seemed to be depicted as purely evil nasty monsters barking angry orders about some crazy ideology, which didn’t fit with even the most negative portrayals of Klingons in past Star Trek series (at worst, past Klingon villains were more along the lines of arrogant, tough bullies who delighted in putting down the federation). To me, the pilot episode was very much at odds with Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future where vastly different cultures try to find common ground, no matter how difficult.  It also seemed to have a very ugly and cynical look at the future that was never present in any incarnation of Star Trek, even “dark” series like DS9.  If there’s one thing it did manage to “sell” me on, it’s that Sonequa Martin-Green did an excellent job as Michael Burnham (I had my doubts about the show revolving around her character before I saw the episode), and she is compelling character in her own right – though she deserves better than a shoehorned in back-story about being raised by Vulcans and having a season-long arc that apparently involves fighting ISIS-like “Klingons”.


Although I did not care for the episode, I freely admit that an entire television show cannot be judged by a single episode, so I intend to tune into the next few episodes, and I hope the show improves. In the meantime, however, Star Trek Discovery’s biggest obstacle to succeeding at this time seems to be itself.  Discovery simply hasn’t earned its place as a “legitimate” Star Trek show and it can’t afford two seasons to “find its footing” like past Star Trek shows have done.  In the meantime, the Orville has sprung up to capture the attention and respect of Star Trek fans, and it’s doing something that would have seemed impossible two years ago – it seems to be working as a valid substitute for having Star Trek on television.



** out of ****


ReelReviews #113: The Orville, Ep. 1: “Old Wounds”


SEPTEMBER 10, 2017: The Orville (pilot episode)


“The wait is over”.   Those words, spoken by Eric Bana’s Nero character in the 2009 Star Trek reboot, seem to resonate far more eight years later.  At long last, Star Trek is returning to television after a twelve year hiatus.  But the kicker now is that another television show has already beaten them to the punch to win over Star Trek fans before the “official” Star Trek has released a single episode.  That unofficial rival is Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, which made its debut on Fox after Sunday night football.


I actually hesitated before blogging a full review, trying to avoid spoilers for those who haven’t seen the episode yet, and feeling that a review that appears on 9/11 might be a pretty bad time to talk about a comedy show. Still, a slew of negative reviews about Orville from ‘professional critics’ (e.g. people paid to write stuff like this) have convinced me that “the wait is over” and the time to discuss the show is now.


I thoroughly enjoyed the pilot episode of Orville.  Is it a bit crass at times? Yes. Do some of the jokes fall completely flat? Yes. Do I wish Seth MacFarlane had cast someone besides himself to play the lead? Yes.  Still, the bottom line is the show has tremendous potential and it successfully accomplished its goal of engaging me as a viewer and making me eager to tune in next week to see what they are planning for the future.


There weren’t any “laugh at loud” moments in the pilot, but I hardly expect a single television episode to create the definitive humorous event of our era during its first attempt.  There were plenty of scenes that make me chuckle and put a smile on my face, and – perhaps more important – the show piqued my interest and presented a fun and engaging sci-fi adventure, even though it was saddled with the problem bogging down most pilots – having to spend half of its one hour running time introducing us to the characters and the world they inhabit before the story can get rolling.


Overall, you could say that “Old Wounds”, the show’s first episode, was fun but uneven, and gives us a nice glimpse of what is to come even though the series hasn’t found its footing yet.  The same can be said of the two pilots of the best known Star Trek series:  “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (1966) from the original Star Trek, and “Encounter at Farpoint” from Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987). If “fun but uneven and yet to show full potential” is damning for Orville, then the show is in good company, seeing how it seeks to emulate Star Trek.


Talking to other Star Trek fans online, the vast majority of those who viewed the episode were glad they did so, and reported that they also thoroughly enjoyed it. I spotted only two “meh” responses from fellow Star Trek fans, and the reason both of them gave for not liking the episode was – and here is an exact quote: “it seemed they were making fun of Star Trek, so I stopped watching it”.  Gee, you think? To me, this is along the lines of tuning into Young Frankenstein and saying “Hmmm. It appeared to me they were poking fun at old 30s Universal horror movies. That irritated me. Turned it off.”


There was little doubt before I tuned into this show that Orville would attempt to emulate TNG era Star Trek in attempt to be a homage/parody of it. Indeed, they not only got the “look” of TNG down, but also many of the characters (Bortus, for example is a very “Worf” like character), but also the music and action beats and so on. Even some typical “Star Trek” style scenes played out, like the famous “beauty pass” where a shuttlecraft drives around the starship giving the audience an idea of its size and scope – a scene first made famous in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)


Still, critics of Orville have repeatedly argued that people rooting for Orville on the internet are only doing so because they are blinded by nostalgia and looking for a duplicate of the old Star Trek they are “used to”. While Orville does capture a lot of that spirit (again, much of it as intentional parody, for example, there was a fun send-up of the “holodeck training programs” in TNG), it is more than just a trip down memory lane. “Old Wounds” had a nice original sci-fi story in its own right, and it certainly doesn’t try to capture late 80s/early 90s television effects or anything really cheesy like that.  It is a 2017 television show taking bits and pieces of what audiences liked best about 90s era Star Trek, and putting a clever new spin on them.


Orville will also be episodic TV with each episode being its own “stand alone” story.  That’s certainly good news for me, as it’s the format that TOS and TNG used, and it would work best for this show, as an episode that “picked up” right where this one left off and continued the storyline about the age acceleration device in the pilot would probably get old quickly.  It is clear the writers intend to carry on several character threads into future episodes – the main being the unique circumstance of a divorced husband and wife being forced to work together as the Captain and First Officer of the vessel.  Whether that will give the show additional gravitas and make it evolve over several years, or whether it will quickly become an irritating unfunny “comedy routine” in future episodes will depend entirely on the skill of the writers and actors as the show continues.  As it stands, this setup did have a really good payoff in the final scene of the pilot, and one that I will not reveal to readers since the episode is brand new.


Orville is off to a decent start. Had Orville disappointed me and turned out to be another “A Million Ways to Die in the West” (Seth MacFarlane’s obnoxious, vulgar, and painfully unfunny “western” spoof that had only one good scene — and perhaps a catchy and mildly amusing theme song), I would be the first to express my disappointment, and pray the show gives me something better the next time around. I will simply say at this point that the critics mercilessly bashing Orville from day one are simply wrong.  Orville is worth a watch and hopefully the show will grow and last a while. The real test will come when we find out what the “official” Star Trek has to show us.  I have been saying for months that Orville looks like it will be much exciting and fun for Trek fans than Star Trek Discovery will be. Nothing I saw in Orville’s first episode has swayed me from that stance.



*** out of ****



JULY 12, 2014 SCREENING: Planet of the Apes franchise (1968-2011)

I’m back!

Although it was not intentional at the time, I ended up taking a roughly two month “hiatus” from my blog and haven’t posted any movie reviews since then. I liked to do “themed” movie reviews (for example, pirate movie marathon) and its just been an awkward time where I was never able to write up the reviews I’d like, for example a retrospect on the X-Men in anticipation of X-Men: Days of Future Past).

This week marks the return of Planet of the Apes to the big screen, and I’ve finally come prepared for a new review. I saw the last film in theaters when it debuted in 2011, and I have all seven of the POTA movies on DVD and Blu-Ray (gee, this guy might be a fan!) so I’ll add my 2 cents on the franchise. I encourage people to check out all of the films, although 2 or 3 are them are painful. Here, at last, it my latest review. A look back at the first seven POTA movies:


Planet of the Apes (1968) – The original classic, this is a brilliant, landmark sci-fi movie. Rod Serling co-wrote it so it has the fun feeling of a 2 hour long, color, big budget Twilight Zone episode. Like the best sci-fi, it has political undertones and I can see why young earth creationists would hate it because it does a great job poking fun as their talking points. The makeup looks silly now but was stunningly realistic for 1968. Apparently the twist ending also shocked audiences in 1968, and they had no idea it was coming and left the theater stunned (though again, today’s audiences might wonder why all the Apes speak English on a different “planet”, but apparently this was a common device in 1960s sci-fi and audiences just accepted it). Began the tradition of all POTA movies having shocking, depressing, twist ending (except Battle, which sucks because of the “happy” ending)
**** out of ****

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) – Strangely enough, the second film is one of the worst in the series and feels like it cheapens the first one. The first 40 minutes are actually fairly decent and watchable (though nowhere on par with the first film), but once they live up to the title and get “Beneath” the planet, it falls apart. You can see plenty of reviews online that discuss this in far more depth, but suffice it to say, I am not a fan of whatever “social commentary” they were trying to make with bomb-worshiping mutant people. Heston’s brief appearance is pointless aside from putting his name on the poster, and the ending is even more twisted and bleaker, ironically meant to end the series, but we got…
* out of ****

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) – Possibly the best of the cheesy 70s sequels. This film works very well because it inverts the premise of the first film (which itself was an invert of our own world), so it presents how “modern society” (at least, the 1970s version) would react if we discovered two intelligent talking Apes. There’s lots of comedy but aside from the ludicrous premise of them being able to “repair” Heston’s spacecraft and go back in time, the rest of the movie stays grounded and becomes increasingly realistic and dark. And it features yet another brilliant, dark, depressing twist ending (though not on par with the legendary ending of the original)
*** out of ****

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) – Directly picks up where the last one left off, and its also one of the better 70s sequels. Surprisingly, Roddy McDowell carries the movie as Caesar. The “futuristic 1990s” city looks dated now, but its still well paced, entertaining, and took the franchise in a new direction. It also finally answers the nagging question of how Apes came to overthrow mankind, even if the scenario contradicts the explanation of the last movie a bit (which leads people to debate whether this film was an altered time or starting the cycle that lead to the original movie’s events) The premise that everyone now owns Apes because “all the cats and dogs in the world died off in some plague” didn’t work for me, though. Perhaps the most violent and creepy of the seven movies, even moreso than the 2011 version (which told a similar story)
*** out of ****

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) – End of the original Apes universe, and it died off with a whimper. This one sucks and is possibly worse than Beneath. Of course, it may be because of the low budget being used in movie that requires a much bigger scope with a future society of Apes. Still, a lot the script and actors suck too. The premise didn’t work at all for me – it’s only 20 years after Conquest but somehow all the Apes now have the same clothing and technology their descendants will have in the first movie, set thousands of years in the future! The ending is cringe-worthy It does have ONE excellent thing going for it though – John Huston plays the Ape “lawgiver” that we saw a statue of in the first two movies.
*½ out of ****

Planet of the Apes (2001) – Tim Burton’s “re-imagining” of the 1968 movie (which is Hollywood speak for “this is a remake except we got rid of all the stuff that made the original good“). Having Marky Mark play the Charlton Heston type astronaut character was an epic fail for me, and so was making all the female apes look like Michael Jackson in an attempt to give them human feminine beauty standards. Still, the REST of the cast was pretty solid and this movie is not as bad as people make it out to be. The first 2/3rds of the movie are actually watchable and fairly entertaining as a popcorn film (with none of the memorial lines or biting political satire in the original). The climax of the movie falls apart, and they tried to top the original’s twist ending by doing something “closer to the book”, but it makes zero sense and the only people who enjoyed it were neo-confederates (“Ape Lincoln memorial! Take that, tyrant!”) Sorry if I gave away the “surprise” but trust me, it sucks.
** out of ****



Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) – Wonderful film. It blows away any of the 70s movies, and the only reason I won’t rank it #1 is because its impossible to top the iconic 1968 movie. It is NOT a sequel, prequel, or remake of any of the previous films. It basically takes the same premise as the fourth film, Conquest (intelligent Ape named Caesar overthrows humanity), and does it in a completely new light with a new spin. Like the 1968 movie, it has landmark special effects – in this case, the first film to have computer generated, stunningly realistic non-human characters interact with human actors. (sorry Avatar, you can’t hold a candle to this, although the blue people were decent looking) Has some subtle commentary about modern society but lacks the biting edge and blatant parody of the original. Still, the science aspect is probably the best of the 7 movies (aside from the obvious fact that even an “intelligent” mutated Ape couldn’t speak due to the way their vocal cords are designed), AND it has a jaw-dropping reveal in the middle of the film, and yes, an awesome “bleak twist ending” (this time as a mid credits sequence) that isn’t as good as the 1968 movie but suited this film perfectly and neatly tied up the one plot hole at the end (“so, now that the Apes wreaked havoc in san Francisco, how would they take over an entire planet of 6 billion humans? They’re far outnumbered…”) A must see movie.
***½ out of ****



Definitely looking forward to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), which will be direct sequel to Rise. It has high expectations to deliver on, so I pray they don’t screw it up. Amazingly, a lot of the reviews are claiming its even better than the 2011 film, which I find hard to believe since the only reason I didn’t rank the 2011 movie as #1 is because it was impossible for it to top an iconic 1968 sci-fi movie, despite the fact it did everything right. I guess I’ll find out in a week when I watch the latest film! For those who are curious, here’s the trailer:





ReelReviews #15: Grindhouse (2007)


APRIL 7-11, 2013 SCREENING: “GRINDHOUSE” MOVIES (2007-Present)
I watched a series of five films over two weeks ago, and then spent another week mulling over how the heck I would review five different films that are meant to be seen as a package deal. I’ve put it off until I reached a solution: write one review that its own five segment mini-reviews, just the movies its analyzing. You see, the basic concept from directors Robert Rodriquez and Quintin Tarantino was that they would each do a cheesy, low-budget, trashy movie that resembled the type of schlock you’d get in the ’60s and ’70s, and package the movies together as a “double feature” to watch back-to-back in a theater, complete with fake trailers and commercials between movies, and intentionally grainy, scratchy film to replicate stuff that was thrown together. After the double feature came out, it inspired three movie silly “grindhouse” type movie spinoffs. Did they succeed in this strange little parody/homage? Well, yes and no.


Planet Terror is basically a “zombie movie”. I use the term in quotes because its made to look like a movie from an era where they probably wouldn’t call it a zombie movie (as the George H. Romero variety hadn’t become the definitive image of a zombie yet) and what’s more, the movie is actually about some kind of extremely grotesque mutated humans, rather than undead corpses eating human flesh. They do eat people, though, and it’s a heck a lot of more fun than people find in a lot of “modern” zombie movies like World War Z. The poster image of the girl with a machine gun for a leg is certainly exploited for all its worth in this movie, and even though they use modern CGI, the concept and execution definitely mimics the feel of a old low-budget garbage movie. There’s lot of extreme over-the-top violence as well, and this film certainly brought a smile to my face because it made me think back to the stupidest set of 70s horror movies I watched, like Laserblast (1978), along with some terrible blaxplotation movies of the same era. Where I think the film fell short were two elements where it simply ignored its own premise: 1) The movie was too long for a “Grindhouse” movie, and certainly as one half of a double feature that you’re supposed to watch back-to-back in one sitting. It should have been between 75-85 mins., tops. Second, although intentionally made it to look like it was shot in the 70s, the movie takes place in “modern times” and uses modern technology and so forth. I found that distracting. They went through so much trouble to give us scratchy looking 16mm film, why the cell phones that reminded us that this movie was not made in the era it pretends to be?
**1/2 out of ****


Death Proof is the second half of the original “Grindhouse” experience, and considered the much weaker film of the two. Some people have even gone as far as to say its Tarantino’s weakest movie. But in many ways, I actually enjoyed it more than the first film. Like Planet Terror, the grainy film and ridiculous opening credits immediately make it look like you’re watching some piece of crap made around 1972 or so, but instead of just being an over-the-top splatter film, this one has something completely lacking in the first: atmosphere Apparently the “in-joke” is that it’s supposed to look like two different movies spliced together (which they actually did for really bad MST3k fodder like “They Saved Hitler’s Brain”), but the fact its obviously Kurt Russell in both halves of the movie – playing the same role – ruins this effect. As for me, I loved the first half the movie (where had a very good, creepy “70s stalker movie” vibe like I was watching The Last House on the Left or something), and I was indifferent/bored by the second half, which had a “70s stunt race car movie” feel. To convey that its “Two different movies” the second half was almost grain-free, and that didn’t work for me at all because you could tell it was shot on modern film equipment. Again, the same flaws from the first film were present, and even more apparent: the running time was too long, and it was obvious taking place in 2007. Nevertheless, I consider this film to be its own little modern cult classic, and the lap-dance scene in the movie’s first half is unforgettable
*** out of ****

Machete is by far the better known and more popular of the Grindhouse spinoffs, but for me there was only one true heir to the original project, and that’s Hobo with a Shotgun. It was based off one of the “fake trailers” from the original 2007 double-feature, and expanded into its own feature length movie. Ironically, its got a completely different director (the little known Jason Eisener) and a different actor from the 2007 fake trailer (in this case, the far better known Rutgar Hauer), but I felt it was the most faithful to the whole grindhouse experience: It looks incredibly low-budget, trashy, over-the-top, gory, and tongue-in-cheek hilarious In many ways, this was actually more faithful to the concept, and really nailed the feel of a movie from another era. For example, the music soundtrack sounds exactly like some MIDI synthesizer score from the early 80s, making it seem like you’re watching a lost John Carpenter movie. I’d say the only jarring part of the this is because the earlier Grindhouse movies looked like they were attempting to copy films from the late 60s/early 70s, whereas Hobo definitely looks and feels like a mid 80s movie. Despite having no sci-fi elements and having a storyline more along the lines of Death Wish, Hobo With a Shotgun is pretty much the spiritual successor of 1987’s Robocop. If you liked Robocop, you’ll love with (complete with the excessive violence and biting satire). In fact, forget about watching the remake of Robocop and watch this instead, as its far more true to what the original Robocop was aiming for. This may be the best of the “Grindhouse” movies. Be prepared to be grossed out, offended, annoyed, and mesmerized by it all.
*** out of ****

MACHETE (2010)
I think Machete is probably the most financially successful of the five Grindhouse movies, but it was one of the least creative, in my opinion. I still liked it, but I had a blast with the first three movies and I felt that was missing here. Despite this being directed by Robert Rodriquez, it is not a Grindhouse movie. It based on one of the fake trailers from one of his Grindhouse movies, and the opening credits even continue the same style, but it quickly becomes a very modern Hollywood movie. The only difference between this and a typical action comedy is that the script here is still obviously a satire of the whole genre. The actors play it straight, but Lindsay Lohan is here for one reason and its not to display her acting talent (ironically, she finally gets naked in the movie but you can’t see anything). Robert de Niro even shows up here, playing a buffoonish right-wing politician. There has been much talk about the movie having a liberal agenda, and I would agree that political conservatives will probably not like the film’s storyline or message, but the film is just too silly and frivolous for me to take offense as any kind of preachy liberal sneer It has some genuinely funny laughs, and its quick paced and quick witted, but nowhere near on the level of the three real Grindhouse movies. The “fake” trailer for Machete is better than the real one, because the real one is just another typical Robert Rodriquez movie like Once Upon a Time in Mexico, or Spy Kids. The best scene may be Lindsay Lohan’s slutty character disguising herself as a nun. Oddly enough, it disgusted me, intrigued me, and had me cracking up at the same time.
** out of ****


The latest, last, and least of the films spawned by the whole Grindhouse concept. Naturally, it’s a sequel to Machete, but the best part of this movie was yet another “Fake trailer” for what eventually could become the real third movie: “Machete Kills Again… In Space” It cracked me up and every scene in the “trailer” was better than the real scenes in this movie, and made me wish that the still unconfirmed third film was the sequel instead of this movie. The actual film has plenty of action and a brisk pace, but goes nowhere and just isn’t very funny or interesting. Instead of de Niro like the first movie, this time we have Mel Gibson showing up in a “major role”, and it actually made me feel kind of sorry for him because his career has been reduced to doing this pathetic movie. Machete Kills is the opposite of the original intent of Grindhouse: rather than be made to intentionally parody the look of low-budget, crappy films, It’s a big budget, slick film that unintentionally looks very crappy. The best part of the movie may be former child actress Alexa Vega now appearing as a smoking hot, bikini-clad voluptuous adult character, but I got so bored with the movie I think I missed that part. I give it points for trying, but its just throwing a lot of crap at me, and thankfully, nothing is sticking.
* 1/2 out of ****

ReelReviews #12: Push (2009)


APRIL 3, 2013 SCREENING: PUSH (2009)


I’m not really sure what to make of Push (2009). The film marked Dakota Fanning’s first transitional role from child to adult actor, and did so with a bang. Everything about Push seems to make the film compelling. As Fanning explains in the opening narration, the film is basically an X-Men like setup about a future society where a group of people born with superhuman abilities are being persecuted by the government. They are classified by what type of ability they have: “Movers” have telekinetic abilities to move objects, “Pushers” have psychic abilities to manipulate people’s minds and push thoughts into head, “Watchers” – which is what Fanning’s character is – have the ability to foresee the future, and so on. She goes on to cite other types of mutants, for example, “Bleeders”, etc. I was instantly hooked on the movie, and looking forward to finding out what the heck those “bleeders” did, at least.

Fanning is a bit older than her character, a rebellious 13 year old runaway who sets up the story when she approaches an adult “mover” (played by Chris Evans) to try and get his help in uncovering answers about her past. There’s some great character interaction between the two, and he abruptly leaves, having no interest in helping her. She is determined to go after him, and then… I don’t know what happens, because as much as I wanted to watch, I kept getting distracted.

The really weird part is that this movie has an interesting setup, some great character acting, cool special effects, and a very cool tone and theme that set it apart from the typical superhero movie that it seems inspired by. The film is really its own genre, and tells its story through a combination of mystery and thriller, rather than the typical superhero adventure. The question is thus why I can’t connect with this film? I’m been trying to put my finger on it and I really can’t explain it. I really was interested in Push and tried 3 or 4 times to connect with this movie, but I kept losing interest and my mind went elsewhere. It’s as if the movie itself has the superhero abilities of its characters, and is able to manipulate the audience into paying attention to something else.

The good news here is I’m apparently not alone in feeling this way. A quick scan on for the film’s message boards, and I found others had experienced the same phenomena while watching the movie. Dakota Fanning might be a “Watcher”, but Push is a “Snoozer”. Other comments on noted: “I am crazy about Dakota and I liked the film. However, for some strange reason I almost fell asleep as well. Perhaps there was some hidden hypnotic spell in the film that caused us to be sleepy?” and “It actually took me 3 attempts to finally see the whole movie… The first two i felt asleep… I never fell asleep while watching a movie, even if its a boring one.” and finally “Glad I’m not the only one, seemed like it’d be really good but I dozed off quite a bit during the second half. I believe there was a lot of potential for this film to be great, a cult classic even.”

Individual scenes is this movie are really wonderful, and Dakota Fanning’s lunch conversation with Chris Evans, as well as the first scene where she comes home drunk, are classic stuff. But overall, Push just pushed me away. I refuse to give it less than two stars because this movie was truly a great concept and it looked and sounded great. Too bad it has some magical spell that makes it a Snoozer.


** out of ****

ReelReviews #11: Ender’s Game (2013)






Hollywood, sometimes you surprise me. The very fact this film exists is proof enough of that. In an era where movie studios hate to take risks and give us endless sequels and remakes packaged as big budget brainless action movies, here comes an original film that is based an intelligent classic sci-fi novel from the 1980s, and one written by a very polarizing author.

Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game”, while I’ve never read the book version (but definitely hope to read soon), turned out to be a damn good movie. It’s also a good movie in spite of the fact its very hard to tell the story in a two hour live action format, especially because much of the book has to deal with the internal conflicts and emotions in his own head that Ender narrates to the audience. If Hollywood could make a decent version of Ender’s Game, there’s hope that someday we’ll see The Catcher in the Rye on the big screen and it will do justice to the source material.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Ender’s Game takes place in a future society where earth has been devastated by two major wars waged by an aggressive insectoid race. Earth is on its last legs, so they are desperately training children to be the “new generation of soldiers”, preparing them to be military leaders and eventually to wage a preemptive strike on the insect’s home world.

It sounds cheesy (and perhaps the worst part of the movie was the really fake looking CGI queen insect at the end of the movie) , but Ender’s Game plays it all very tensely and thrilling. There’s little traditional humor to be found in this movie, the situation is bleak and the scenes with the recruits being trained are often brutal and engaging. One of the best parts of the movie is the teen and pre-teen recruits learning how to think tactically in a zero gravity laser tag game, and Ender being tested psychologically with a no-win strategy game that he plays in his bunker during off-hours. Ender’s Game is compelling from start to finish, and you won’t believe two hours have gone by when it ends.

There’s been some controversy because Ender is only 8 years old in the book, but a 16 year old plays the title role in the movie. It worked fine for me because the actor in the role looks about 12ish anyway, and convincingly shows the audience how he has what it takes to make a great military commander, even if he physically appears scrawny and weak. Much of the supposed “controversy” has nothing to do with the film itself, but with “gay rights” activists opting to boycott the movie because they don’t like the authors beliefs on gay marriage. I choose to boycott Gravity for a similar reason (I can’t stand George Clooney as a powerful smug Obama-loving celebrity), so while I can’t condemn their personal reasons for refusing to see the movie, I will say that the only thing it accomplishes is encourages Hollywood to take less risks and give us more empty popcorn thrillers. Ender’s Game is a smart film with depth, and it deserved much more attention and acclaim that it received.
If you watch Ender’s Game at face value, without any preconceived notions, I think you find this is one terrific little film that has a much bigger idea than its initial premise, and has a really great twist ending that took anyone by surprise that hadn’t read the book (including me). Since it wasn’t given its due in 2013, my hope is that Ender’s Game will eventually become a beloved cult film in future years, with the same kind of quirky buzz that films like A Christmas Story and Donnie Darko get today. It really deserves nothing less. If you’re looking for something that breaks out of the usual Hollywood cookie-cutter mold, consider Ender’s Game.

*** out of ****

RetroReviews #52: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)




While in the middle of a week dedicated to screening Terry Gilliam movies, I decided to take a look at The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, a film directed by W. D. Richter. Why choose a film with a different director? Because it’s really not. Not only does The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai have a similar title to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (the most recent Terry Gilliam movie I reviewed), but sometimes it’s more Terry Gilliam-like than real Terry Gilliam movies! The Adventure of Buckaroo Banzai wasn’t made as a deliberate attempt to mimic Terry Gilliam films, but it gets my vote for best unofficial Terry Gilliam movie ever.

The main difference between this and the real Terry Gilliam movies I’ve looked at is genre. Most of Gilliam’s films are fantasy stories, often with medieval looking settings. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai is a sci-fi adventure, and much of the action takes place in outer space and looks futuristic. Aside from that jarring change, the rest of the film stays firmly in the same type of tone and direction as the films I’ve been watching all week. The story is very surreal, the characters are wacky and outlandishly over-the-top, there’s a largely comedic bent to the adventures, and the film satirizes many elements of real-life.

One of the most interesting thing about this film its lead character. I always thought Robocop was the movie that established Peter Weller as a lead, but I was wrong: it’s this movie. Buckaroo Banzai predates Robocop by three years, and stars Weller as the title character: “a physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot, and rock musician [who is out] to save the world by defeating a band of inter-dimensional aliens called Red Lectroids.” Weller plays is straight no matter how crazy the film gets, and is surrounded a number of other talented actors playing zany characters, including John Lithgow as the villainous Dr. Emilio Lizardo, Jeff Goldblum as a character named “New Jersey”, and Christopher Lloyd as “John Bigboote”

Perhaps one way where this movie manages to outdo Terry Gilliam is that the “storyline” is so surreal and cryptic that its almost impossible to follow the first time you watch the movie. I honestly had no idea what was going on the entire time. Normally I would consider that a sign of bad screenwriting, but in this case its an example of the film being too clever for its own good. Dialogue flies by a lighting fast pace, and some lines that are seemingly uselessly filler are actually instrumental in understanding what happens latter. It literally is an example of “blink and you’ll miss it”. Terry Gilliam’s movies usually are “mainstream” enough to let the audience get the “big picture”, even if individual scenes really seem incoherent. There’s no such luck here. Once the movie takes off, you’re left wondering what the heck the story is about.

Finally, there’s one element of the film that is minor but my review would be incomplete without mentioning: the end credits of the film feature a simple yet extremely memorable and catchy way to close the movie. Weller and his co-stars march down a strange stadium in a straight line, set to a funky rock music soundtrack. It’s very 80s, but at the same time it’s a timeless iconic moment of cinema, and it really has to seen to do it justice. Many other movies show the main characters walking together in a straight line towards the end of the movie to demonstrate how “bad ass” they are standing together as one, and many use a musical accompaniment, but I don’t think any have ever taken the approach that Buckaroo did, where it’s done post-climax just as a “sign off” to give the character a little encore farewell to the audience. I can see why a sequel never got made, but it still cements Buckaroo Banzai as a cult classic and thoroughly fun little insane movie. No wonder this guy ended up as Robocop. He’s not just a tall and skinny guy who can kick butt, he’s damn cool to watch on screen.

*** out of ****