Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) – J.J. Abrams

star_trek_into_darkness_poster_enterpriseThis is a summer blockbuster first and foremost.

Since Trek made the leap to the bug screen, they’ve had to eschew some of the material that inherently made Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek what is was when it was a weekly television show. After The Motion Picture, which I still love, the series began to shift to more adventure and action oriented films, leaving a lot of the social commentary that the series had done behind.

I’m not saying it was gone completely, but it was taken down considerably.

Which from a business angle, makes sense. Movies screening in a theater are about bums in seats, and you have to make the film appealing on the broadest levels. Consequently, there is a loss of some of the higher concepts to push more of an adventure story. Yes, we had Trek IV which was about our treatment of fellow species, V dealt ever so peripherally with the concepts of god and religion, VI dealt with the collapse of the Russian state and the end of the Cold War, but more often than not they were supposed to be an entertaining ride.

kirk_large_verge_medium_landscapeThat’s the tradition Abrams continues in the new series. With a script by Robert Orci (who is serving as exec producer on the IDW comic series, which for now are being treated as canon), Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof, Abrams sends our crew racing headlong into danger; there are hints of bigger ideas, but most of them take a sidecar next to the hurtling trajectory of the adventure.

I do hope that Trek finds its way back to the small screen for adventures, social issues and science again, but for now, I was happy to see the Enterprise on the big screen again.

But, it’s still not the high-minded ideals and concepts of Star Trek. It’s a ride. And a fun one.

There are nods to all manner of things, the continued use of the TMP uniforms for the admiralty, you can see models of Zefram Cochrane’s warp ship, and Archer’s NX-01 Enterprise on Admiral Marcus’ (Peter Weller) desk. There’s a brief reference to Harry Mudd, tribbles, Gorns, and of course Kirk’s (Chris Pine) legendary way with the ladies.

star-trek-into-darkness-chris-pine-bruce-greenwood-1After a fumbled, but successful mission that opens the film, resulting in Kirk violating countless Federation laws, particularly the Prime Directive, the Enterprise returns to Earth where Jim is raked over the coals by Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood).

At the same time, in London, Mickey The Idiot (Doctor Who ref) actually, Thomas Harewood (Noel Clarke) is presented with the opportunity to return his daughter to complete health, instead of the vegetative state she currently exists in, by the villain of the piece John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch).

After two devastating attacks, Kirk is given permission to hunt Harrison down… But is he just a pawn being used to further a darker agenda?

Karl Urban Leonard McCoy Star Trek Into DarknessThe film is fun, loud, tries to give moments to all of its characters, who have some wonderful interplay.

Karl Urban’s McCoy is still dead-on and he remains my favorite character in this new version of events.

Abrams makes good use of the 3D, especially when the Enterprise is being attacked by the Vengeance, and there is debris floating everywhere, there’s a really excellent use of depth of field.

The pacing is good, the script, as mentioned, is more interested in given a big space action film than commenting on anything, so knowing that going in may save some people grief…

I had fun with it, am looking forward to adding it to my collection when it comes out on blu-ray, but of course, we can’t really talk about the film without mentioning the entire second half…

So…

*****SPOILERS – STOP HERE IF YOU WISH TO REMAIN FREE OF REVELATIONS****

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Waiting….

Waiting…

Oh and I loved the score, I’ve been whistling Michael Giacchino’s themes for weeks, it’s amazing how quickly this one has fallen into my go-to tunes.

I love the fact that not only is Kirk raked over the coals, he’s demoted and loses the Enterprise,

star-trek-into-darkness-villain-benedict-cumberbatch-433x330The rumors had been spreading for a while about who Cumberbatch was playing, if you’ve heard them you know what I mean.

So when it was first mentioned that he seemed to be superhuman, and was working for the nefarious Section 31 (which first reared its head in Deep Space Nine). It kind of seemed obvious who he was, especially after he starts telling the tale of his crewmates in hibernation and how Admiral Marcus found him.

Everything begins to feel a little similar as we race towards the climax of the film, as familiar scenes, dialogue and moments begin to play out but in a completely new way. So for Trek fans they’ll get all the nods and variations (and some people won’t like it, and others will embrace it), where as there will be others who are coming into the theater for the first time, and seeing that these characters are willing to sacrifice themselves for one another, particularly Kirk and Spock (Zachary Quinto).

The film is chockfull of dialogue recognizable to fans, which some would say are ripped off, but I like to think of it as more of a mirror effect, there are things that will still have to be constant between the universes, incidents, character reactions, mentalities. So of course sometimes they say the same things, or variations there of.

Star-Trek-Into-Darkness-Carol-MarcusKirk’s sacrifice, after being finally made to realize how overconfident and arrogant he can be actually means something, nor is it lessened by the film’s resolution, as the seed is planted for it fairly early own, and of course Kirk doesn’t have the benefit of being able to transfer his katra.

I was a little angered by Pike’s death, though it does galvanize Kirk, I kept thinking about the Talosians and Vina. Which then led me to thinking about the imminent conflict that warhawk Marcus says is coming with the Klingons, apparently we this universe hasn’t come across the Organians.

The introduction of Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) as the new science officer, which rather bothers Spock is a nice touch, and it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out , especially as we know what happened between Carol and Kirk in the Prime Universe.

Section 31′s development of the massive Vengeance makes sense in the realm that this Trek universe exists in, they’ve been pushed into interstellar conflict by the arrival of Nero, so of course they’re going to be developing ways to safeguard the Federation. It’s not a happy thought, but it is also a valid point.

scottyScotty (Simon Pegg) gets some wonderful moments and I love that he brings up that they are supposed to be a ship of exploration, not war. Sulu (John Cho) gets a shot at the big chair, Chekov (Anton Yelchin) makes the perfect face when asked to put on a red shirt and go to engineering, and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) gets to kick some ass!

The themes running through all of the film is the concept of family, Pike and Kirk, Harrison and his crew, Kirk and Spock, Kirk and his crew. It’s watching what these people would be willing to do for those they love, for their family. Which is nice, but in the end, this still isn’t the Trek of any of the television series, but it very much is kindred to the theatrical films before it. It is a huge popcorn-filled romp of a film that will hopefully bring more fans to the series, who will then continue to explore the strange new worlds that the Enterprise sought out by going back and seeing how all of this began.

I’m even going back to see it again tonight in IMAX 3D!

The second viewing I enjoyed a little more, as I wasn’t going in with expectations this time, and some nice use is made of the IMAX format.

 

Have you seen it? What are your thoughts? Is this and the 2009 Trek your first introduction to the universe, if so, have you gone back and watched any of the classic shows?

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Good Morning, Mr. Hunt

Good morning, Mr. Hunt… You’re mission should you choose to accept it…

I settled down to watch my copies of the Mission: Impossible films this weekend, and I will say this, this is a film series that undeniably gets better as they go along. Though if I was chosen to rank them, I think I would go Ghost Protocol, III, I and II.

It’s through these films though that one can separate the art from the artist, and can admit that Tom Cruise is a consummate performer in these films. He does as many of the physical stunts as he can, and those moments inevitably end up on screen. The mountain climbing sequence in II, the exploding aquarium restaurant in I, the building climb in Protocol. The man does like to push his own limits.

Then there’s the directors, Brian DePalma who directed Carrie, and The Untouchables, John Woo, who helmed Hard Boiled and Face/Off, first time director J.J. Abrams who went on to give us the Star Trek reboot and Super 8, and Brad Bird’s first live action film after showing he could make an actioner with The Incredibles.

The first film, under DePalma established the universe, reintroduced us to updated versions of the tech which Bruce Geller’s original show, and the remake introduced us to. Of the four films, this one could be most able to define as a spy thriller. Ethan must unearth a mole within the IMF and clear the names of himself and his dead team members, working outside of the IMF as he has been disavowed. Yes, there are is an action sequence, the train/chopper fight at the end of the film, but the rest of it plays as a thriller, using misdirection and deception to keep the story rolling. Of course it does have the tightly paced breaking into the CIA to steal the NOC list sequence.

I know that when I originally saw it I was a little upset that it wasn’t more of an action film, but it really has grown on me, and has a great cast featuring Jean Reno, Emmanuelle Beart, Jon Voight, Vanessa Redgrave, Ving Rhames, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Henry Czerny.

It featured a script and story by David Koepp, Steven Zaillian and Robert Towne.

When I head John Woo was taking over the director’s chair for II, I knew exactly what I was getting, choreographed gun battles, sweet stunts, and the loosest of all the Mission: Impossible stories. Ethan must work to recover a super-virus and its cure before an ex-agent can sell it to the highest bidder.

But that’s ok, it’s set against the backdrop of Australia, and has some fun action sequences, and I love the opening climbing sequence. There’s the infiltration off Biocyte and the ensuing gun battle, the fight on Bare Island followed by the moving battle on motorcycles, culminating in the duel on the beach.

It has a pounding score by Hans Zimmer, and a screenplay by Brannon Braga Ronald D. Moore, and Robert Towne.

This time out the film featured Dougray Scott as the baddie, the sexy Thandie Newton as the love interest, Brendan Gleeson and Anthony Hopkins.

Then the films took a rest, but came back bigger and better, actually molding the film series into a stronger reflection of the tv series, and one of the concepts of the first movie… that Ethan Hunt may be the leader, but he’s a member of a team.

This time first time director J.J. Abrams was taking over the center seat, but before that he’d already brought us Lost, and the spy series Alias.

With J.J. and Cruise, the cast seemed to get bigger and better.

This time out, Ethan, who is now an instructor is brought back into the field to rescue one of his trainees and unearths a huge weapons deal, including a device referred to by one of the techs, Benji as an anti-god.

Following along with J.J.. Abrams is his seemingly personal composer, Michael Giacchino as well as his writing partners Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman.

The story is much more epic in scope, this time spilling over into Ethan’s personal life and his impending nuptials.

Joining Cruise onscreen are Maggie Q, Keri Russell, Billy Crudup, Laurence Fishburne, Michelle Monaghan, Simon Pegg, and menacing the IMF this time around, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

This film sees the film breaking into the Vatican, a helicopter chase, battling drones and soldiers on a bridge in the Keys, an infiltration and parachute escape in Shanghai as well as tense face-offs between Cruise’s Hunt and Hoffman’s Davian.

This one climbed right into position of my favorite and best of the series as soon as I saw it. Abrams first film knocked it out of the park as far as I was concerned. And it saw Ethan working in a team format, something that the original show was always all about – each member has their specialty, and they can’t pull it off unless they solve it together.

With the success of three, there was no doubt that a fourth wouldn’t be too far off…

And Ghost Protocol came along with Abrams took a back seat to directing, settling into the role of producer, Brad Bird, who brought us Iron Giant in addition to The Incredibles settled in to make his first live action film… and it kicks ass!

Giacchino returns in the music department as Ethan and his team seek to stop a madman from starting a nuclear war with stolen Russian launch codes in a story penned by Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec.

Bird handles the film deftly, and I can’t wait to see what he does next. He oversees Hunt’s ascent on the outside of the world’s tallest building, the sandstorm chase, a prison escape, a break-in of the Kremlin – with some great tech, and a climactic fight in an automated car park.

This time, the Impossible casting continues it’s awesome run as Pegg returns, and is joined by Paula Patton, Jeremy Renner, Josh Holloway, Lea Seydoux, Michael Nyqvist and Tom Wilkinson.

There’s definitely a sense of handing over the reins to Renner and his fellows by the end of the film, so one wonders if Cruise will make another one.

Of course Renner is quickly becoming a very busy man, he’s got a recurring role in the Marvel Universe movies as Hawkeye, and is taking over the Bourne films from Matt Damon, so one wonders if the M:I films will continue now or not.

I certainly hope so, they are a lot of fun so far, and I’d be very curious what director, writers and stars will be involved in the next film.

Do you need to see all the films to appreciate the most recent effort? No, but there are little pay-offs, you get to enjoy the world that’s been created by the series, and you get to see four amazing directors giving their take on this techno-spy action series. It’s easy to write them off as summer blockbusters, but the series really is a solid collection of entertaining films.

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Film Scores – A Whistler’s Tale

I’m a whistler, and a dreamer… and “Binary Sunset” is one of my favorite thoughtful, hopeful and slightly sad things to whistle, especially when I’m thinking about my future, and watching the horizon.

Whistling.

I do it all the time, and I carry a huge repertoire in my mind, and on my ipod.

In the case of my whistling, film scores tend to be my default setting.

Since I was a child, they have been playing in my head. In point of fact, before I even owned my first LP or cassette tape I can remember playing in my school’s playground on a weekend. I had brought some of my Star Wars figures, and I can remember being on the edge of the merry-go-round playing with them, whistling a never-ending medley of themes and cues from a film I had only seen once at that point, whistling over and over music by a composer whose name I didn’t even now yet, believe Mr. Willilams (can I call you John?) I have more than made up for that slip.

When the 1980s rolled around and I got my first walkman as a birthday present (I think it was my birthday, it may have been for Easter). One of the very first cassettes I bought to go with it was the score from Return of the Jedi.

I wore that tape out.

I would listen to it over and over, I knew every moment of that score.

I also played my soundtrack LPs repeatedly as well, I introduced myself to John Barry through his fantastic score for The Black Hole, and James Horner through his stirring compositions for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (and I would wear out my Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger and Braveheart soundtracks.

But cassette tapes were my passion, before I had my own CD player, I had tons of them. Anytime my meager allowance came along, or babysitting money, or my small income from working as a stock boy at the CanEx I would find yet another soundtrack or score to add to it (or a pop tape, but more often a soundtrack).

It was during this accumulation of tapes that I discovered the wonderful compositions of Jerry Goldsmith. My favorite scores of his continue to be the soundtrack for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Alien. Both of these soundtracks just keep circling in my head.

I’m well aware that he has composed so many more other scores, and I even have some of them, but his work for sci-fi films seem to resonate the most with me.

John Williams of course, seems to have scored my entire life, and I think I actually have most of his collaborations with Steven Spielberg, and none of them disappoint.

For me, one of the highlights of knowing that there were new Star Wars movies coming out, when the rumors of prequels started, was that no matter what the films were like, there would be three new soundtracks filled with music from the Star Wars universe by the man who wrote the original music (specific tracks are Duel of the Fates, Battle of the Heroes, and the Main Titles & Revenge of the Sith – Williams is the man!).

That is saying nothing about the impact he had on me with the Raiders March, the piano end titles of E.T., the music cues mentioned in my Raiders of the Lost Ark post, the theme from Jurassic Park, any cue from Jaws, the ebullient tones from Close Encounters, Hedwig’s theme, the violin work in Schindler’s List…

It goes on and on…

I was also lucky to discover Alan Silvestri, who turned in fantastic work for the films of Robert Zemeckis including  Romancing the Stone, all three Back to the Futures and of course, the amazing score for Contact.

I especially love the cue/track, “Good to go.”

I have always loved films scores, and composers who use a full orchestra. It can give you huge sweeping moments, stirring strings, and then quiet tiny cues that can break your heart.

Howard Shore’s work on the Lord of the Rings films are great examples of that. He composes music that serves the film, and never over powers it, it simply enhances the viewing experience, and I do like when my brain just randomly cues one of those tracks in my head to whistle.

I can’t wait to see what he does with the Hobbit!

There are some composers who use a combination of synthetic and orchestral sounds, Hans Zimmer (whose score on Gladiator is his best in my opinion), Daft Punk’s score for Tron Legacy, the Chemical Brothers use of tones and electronica for Hanna.

But for me a score stands on whether I whistle it or not, and Silvestri, Williams, Barry and Goldsmith are for me, the titans in composing circles.

I have one more name to add to that list, and this compose seems to be the hardest working composer in film today. Or at least he seems to be, his name seems to pop up everywhere.

His name…

Michael Giacchino.

He’s everywhere, and he doesn’t keep his work merely on the big screen, he’s scored videogames, as well as TV series, most notably Fringe, Alcatraz, and Lost. He has a healthy working relationship with J.J. Abrams, and scores his films, amazingly I might add.

His standout scores for me currently, are his turns on The Incredibles, filled with homages to superhero films as well as a bit of an old school James Bond feel, and my favorite, his highly whistle-able score for Star Trek.

His brassy, up-tempo score for Trek simply sunk into my subconscious, even more than I realized. I had seen the film once, and purchased the soundtrack, loading it onto my ipod, and by the second time I saw the film in the theater, I was stunned to find myself whistling themes and cues from the soundtrack already.

I am constantly delighted now when I read a film’s credits, or am watching the opening or closing titles and see Michael’s name pop up. I always know I’m in good hands.

I know I don’t know as much about writing or composing music to talk tech about it, but I know what I like, and I am quite happy to welcome Mr. Giacchino into the ranks of Williams, Goldsmith, Barry, Silvestri, Horner and Shore. I can’t think of a higher compliment to pay than my continued whistling, so that’s what I’ll do…

Mission: Impossible 4 – Ghost Protocol (The IMAX Experience)

Brad Bird’s first live action film is a success. The Pixar director who was behind The Incredibles, and Ratatouille, and Warner’s The Iron Giant, brought his storytelling and action style to the big screen with the latest in the Mission: Impossible franchise.

Tom Cruise returns as IMF agent Ethan Hunt in what may be the best entry in the series to date. Joining him again is Simon Pegg as his techi Benji, also recruited this time around to join him on his mission is Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner.

I was happily surprised to see Michael Nyqvist in the credits as well, I loved his performance in the original Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and it’s sequels, and this time he’s the baddie. A Nuclear Endgame Theorist who is pushing the world to nuclear armageddon, unless Hunt and his team can stop him.

Bird keeps the action and the story moving, eschewing anything that doesn’t move the story forward, and the film still clocks in at just over two hours which flies along.

He is also the first director, in my opinion, that has made the best use of the IMAX cameras in a commercial film, yes The Dark Knight had some really good bits, and the giant shots of Gotham were cool, but Bird made sure that when he used theses cameras they were used to augment the story……

The best example of this is the stunning and dizzying Dubai sequence featuring the Burj Khalifa tower (Armani Hotel Dubai), and Ethan’s free climb up it’s exterior. Wow.

While we’re talking about the free climb sequence we should touch on the fact that no matter what you think of Cruise’s personal beliefs, and enough has been said about it, the man likes to do as much of his own stunt work and action scenes as he can, and rumor has it, he did the climb himself sans stunt double.

The IMAX cameras are used to show the heights and grandeur not only of Dubai, but of Russia and India, and each time it’s not done as a gimmick, but to simply enhance the experience of the film.

The script, by Alias veterans Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec makes sure that each of the characters gets there moments, and beats. They truly are a team. This is not the Ethan Hunt/Tom Cruise show, much like in M:I3 this is an actual team working towards a goal, a story point that actually gets touched on.

I liked the callbacks to the previous films, especially the same blonde guy from the first film showing up with another mask to put over Ethan’s head. I won’t mention others because they also fall into the realm of spoilers, but they made me smile.

And then… there was Josh Holloway Lost’s Sawyer in the opening sequence as well as the charming Léa Seydoux (Inglorious Basterds) who’s English speaking career is taking off, having worked with Tarantino and Woody Allen already.

There are little nods to Pixar as you would expect from someone long associated with them, the infamous A113 gets a mention.

J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk both return to act as producers on the film, and it seems that while J.J. is at Paramount, he can’t really do any wrong. – M:I3, Super 8, Star Trek. I do like his batting average.

Of course where Abrams goes, Michael Giacchino follows, and the composer turns out another fantastic score, reprising Lalo Schifrin’s memorable theme at key moments of the film.

There’s a suggestion towards the end of the film that Cruise is passing on the reins to someone else. I’m ok with a Mission:Impossible movie without Ethan Hunt, but I certainly hope that Abrams and co. remain involved.

While a movie like this may have gotten lost in the summer months, this type of film doesn’t have a lot of competition at this time of year, so it should do fairly well.

So…

You’re mission should you choose to accept it…

As a side note, the 6 minute preview from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises preceded the film, and… I’m a little divided. I hope the soundtrack is tweaked before release because a good portion of the time I couldn’t understand what Tom Hardy’s Bane was saying. The aerial cinematography (all shot in IMAX) on the other hand was fantastic!!

I guess we’ll know more when summer rolls around.

But for now, accept the mission, and light the fuse!