Movie Review: Gravity (2013)


Here’s my first review this week for a mini-series of Space Exploration Movies of the 2010s.

Title: Gravity
Release Date: October 4, 2013
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Production Company: Heyday Films | Esperanto Filmoj
Summary/Review:

The explosion of a satellite in earth orbit leads to a chain reaction of destruction from a cloud of high speed space debris. The debris destroys the Space Shuttle Explorer leaving only two survivors who were performing extravehicular activity at the time of the strike.  Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a mission specialist on her first mission to space while Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is a garrulous NASA veteran on his final mission.  Together they need to make their way to the International Space Station and then to China’s Tiangon space station to find a spacecraft that can return them safely to Earth. The film attempts to be scientifically grounded (although I’m sure that nitpickers can find many errors) and prevent a plausible if extremely unlikely series of events in their attempt to reach safety.

I did find it weird that Kowalski and Stone talk to one another like they’re just getting to know one another when they would’ve been training together for months.  I also was a bit annoyed that Kowalski got to be confident and competent all the time while Stone panics and makes mistakes, although this does pay off later in the film.  In the 21st century, movies have been getting longer and longer, which isn’t always a bad thing, but I appreciate that Gravity is taut 91 minutes long.  It’s really all action from beginning to end, and Bullock puts in a great performance for someone who is basically carrying the movie on her own for the better part of it’s runtime.

I’m growing to appreciate the work of Alfonso Cuarón, who directed the best Harry Potter movie and one of the most depressing movies I’ve ever seen, and seems to excel at making wildly different styles of film.  I’ll have to watch some more of his films.

Rating: ***1/2

TV Review: Star Trek: Discovery (2020)


Title: Star Trek: Discovery
Release Date: 2020
Creator: Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman
Season: 3
Episodes:13
Production Company: Secret Hideout | Roddenberry Entertainment | Living Dead Guy Productions | CBS Studios
Summary/Review:

Picking up from the cliffhanger end of Season 2, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and the crew of the USS Discovery successfully travel 930 years into the future.  Their mission to save the universe is a success, but they find new troubles in the future.  Specifically, sources of dilithium for warp travel through space have dried up and an event called The Burn additionally destroyed many starships.  Unable to travel long distances, the Federation has dwindled in size while pirates and mercenaries operate freely in many systems.

I’ve had mixed feelings about Star Trek:Discovery and continue to do so.  Season 3 is definitely the best of the three seasons thus far, and I continue to like the cast and the characters they play.  Sending Discovery to the future helps in that the show can finally shake off being overshadowed by the original series and can feature more futuristic technology without it looking anachronistic.

Some other highlights of Season 3:

  • introduction of Book (David Ajala), a courier or smuggler from the 32nd century who becomes a love interest for Michael Burnham
  • introduction of Adira Tal (Blu del Barrio), a teenage human who is bonded with a Trill symbiont. They have a Wesley Crusher teen genius flair to them (NOTE: I know in some quarters of Star Trek fandom, Wesley is hated, but I’ve always liked the character so this is a compliment)
  • there feels to be a lot more exploring of “strange new worlds” in this series although it is tied to the season-long arc.  Seeing this far into the future of the Star Trek universe is fascinating in of itself
  • a completely bonkers call back to the Guardian of Forever
  • fleshing out of the bridge crew characters that we learned little about in the first two seasons, especially Keyla Detmer (Emily Coutts) and Joan Owesekun (Oyin Oladejo)
  • Grudge the cat
  • the final three episodes are a highwater mark for story, action, and direction.  These episodes are the first the really feel like they are made in the same spirit as the original series and Star Trek: The Next Generation. We even get to see Doug Jones in a rare performance as Saru without prosthetics

There are also a few downsides:

  • the continued presence of the evil Mirror Universe Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) is a drag.  Yeoh is a great actor but she’s saddled with two much air time that could be dedicated to more interesting things. Georgiou does finally depart the show (for a planned spinoff series), but not before we have to sit through a two-parter that brings us back to the Mirror Universe for gratuitous nastiness. The other characters fawning over her at her memorial service seems more like a tribute to Yeoh than to Georgiou who everyone rightly would’ve hated
  • while the show has gradually shed being grimdark for grimdark’s sake over the course of three season, it’s still baked into the show with crazy plot twists often substituted for good storytelling.  And there’s too much gratuitous violence, even in the good episodes where Burnham chokes a person to death with her legs.
  • while I generally like Sonequa Martin-Green’s performance as Michael Burnham, I feel that the writers are overdoing it by having her be central to every story in every episode.  Even Kirk and Picard were left out of smattering of episodes in the old shows. As the series ends, Saru is apparently leaving the show and Burnham takes over as captain. The loss of one of the best characters and the further centering of Burnham makes me a bit uneasy about the future of the show.

But as I said earlier, this is the best season of Discovery so far and with it finishing so strongly, I do have high hopes that the show will continue to improve and earn a place in Star Trek lore.  My subscription to Paramount+ runs out before season 4 premieres and I don’t know if and when I will re-subscribe, but I expect somewhere down the road I will watch future seasons of the show.  In the meantime, I’m inspired to go back and rewatch Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation and finally work my way through Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise.  This will take some time, for sure.

 

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Book Review: Chaos Rising by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2020)
Summary/Review:
Favorite Passages:
Recommended books:

Timothy Zahn introduced Grand Admiral Thrawn as the Imperial antagonist to the New Republic in his 1990s trilogy of Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command.  A more recent trilogy gives us a Thrawn origin story of sorts as he is found by the Empire, presumably in exile, and then rising up the ranks of the Imperial navy in Thrawn, Alliances, and Treason. Chaos Rising begins a new trilogy of books that go even further back in Thrawn’s life to his rise in the military of his own people, the Chiss Ascendancy.

The novel tells two intertwined stories.  The main narrative set in the “present day” deals with a new threat to the Chiss Ascendancy. Thrawn is tasked with rooting out the new enemy.  His tactical genius is impeccable but Thrawn is not skilled in dealing with the internal politics of the isolationist Ascendancy and the infighting among and within its Nine Ruling Families.

Thrawn’s ventures into the mysterious region of space called the Chaos bring him in touch with the old Republic during the Clone Wars.  In fact, a scene from Thrawn: Alliances is retold from a different perspective. Chiss ships navigate space with the help of force-sensitive girls who are known in the Chiss language as “sky-walkers” (a funny coincidence). This novel introduces former sky-walker, Thalias, now an adult, becomes the caregiver for the sky-walker on Thrawn’s ship.  Thrawn sees Thalias’ talent and their collaboration on the mission is a central part of the story.

Chapters entitled “memories” tell the story of the early days in the military of Thrawn and his mentor Ar’alani.  Both stories tie together in a captivating adventure and thriller, and Thrawn remains one of the most interesting characters in the Star Wars universe.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Last Command by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: The Last Command
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2012) [Originally published April 1, 1993]
Summary/Review:

The finale of “The Thrawn Trilogy” is an exciting culmination of the shaky New Republic’s stand against the cunning plans of Grand Admiral Thrawn to reestablish the Empire.  It’s great to have Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, Lando, Artoo, and Threepio all working together.  Then there are wild cards like Mara Jade, a tentative ally who is sworn to kill Luke for her former master Palpatine, and the mad Jedi clone C’baoth who believes that he rules the Empire instead of Thrawn.  The book could be trimmed of some of the excessively talk parts, and I could do without all the subplots involving Talon Karrde and other smugglers, but it is a satisfying conclusion.

I still think this books could be the inspiration for movies set after the destruction of the Second Death Star.  They would have to be animated movies, because of the age and deaths of the cast members.  But I think you could make a good story with elements such as Thrawn, Mara Jade,  and the Noghri.  Things would have to be adjusted to fit into the Sequel Trilogy, such as Leia giving birth to one child instead of twins.  I’d also dispense with C’baoth and anything to do with cloning since clones were already central to the Prequels and Rise of Skywalker.  But there’s a good kernel here for a fun film trilogy or maybe a Disney+ series.

Rating: ***

TV Review: Star Trek: Picard (2020)


TitleStar Trek: Picard
Release Date: 2020
Creator: Akiva Goldsman, Michael Chabon, Kirsten Beyer and Alex Kurtzman
Season: 1
Episodes:10
Production Company: Secret Hideout | Weed Road Pictures | Escapist Fare
Roddenberry Entertainment | CBS Studios
Summary/Review:

Beloved character Jean-Luc Picard, played by the even more beloved actor Patrick Stewart, returns to the small screen nearly 20 years after his last appearance in Star Trek: Nemesis (the only one of the 10 films in the original Star Trek film series that I’ve never watched). The premise of the series is that 14 years before it begins, Admiral Picard was active in relocating the Romulan people before the star near their home planet went supernova. After synthetic life forms carry out a devastating act of sabotage on the Federation’s facilities on Mars, the Federation calls off the relocation project and ban all synthetic life.  Angry at these two betrayals, Picard resigns from Starfleet.

In the present day a young woman, Dahj (Isia Briones), seeks out Picard’s help after realizing that she is an android created from the remains of Picard’s friend Data (Brent Spiner) .  Romulan spies kill Dahj, but not before Picard learns that she has an identical twin, Soji, working at a Romulan outpost on an abandoned Borg cube called The Artifact.

Picard puts together a crew to help find and help Soji.  This includes a friend and colleague who helped with Romulan relocation, Raffi (Michelle Hurd), who struggles with substance abuse. Raffi finds a captain with a ship, La Sirena, Chris (Santiago Cabrera) who has a traumatic background in Starfleet.  They are joined by Agnes (Alison Pill), a synthetic life expert who is naive about space travel.  Along the way they pick up Elnor (Evan Evagora), a samurai-like Romulan who  was raised by a sect of warrior nuns to provide protection. To please the fans, familiar characters from the Star Trek franchise make appearances, including former Borg Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), and Picard’s crewmates from Enterprise, Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Deanna Troi ( Marina Sirtis).  Brent Spiner also returns to play Data in dream sequences and Altan Inigo Soong, the son of Data’s creator.  One of the weird aspects of the show is that Picard not only quit Starfleet, but hasn’t kept in touch with any of his friends which is both out of character and used to create artificial tension.

In the early episodes, the show moves slowly, setting up Picard’s current situation and introducing the new characters.  There are elements of mystery and spy thriller with Picard thrust into the role of detective.  It was a refreshing change from the fast-paced action for action’s sake of Star Trek: Discovery.  By the end of episode 3 when we finally see Picard on the bridge of a starship and hear him say “Engage!,” it is a cheezy moment for the fans but one that is well-earned.  Unfortunately, during the second half of the season the show goes off the rails.  All the worst instincts of Discovery for shocking twists are indulged and a lot of drama is forced from the characters making bold choices to raise the stakes that seem irrelevant a few scenes later.

For a show called Picard, the title character seems lost in the crowded cast.  And yet, we don’t really get to know the new characters all that well either.  Sometimes they seem to do things that are out of character, but then their characters never seem to be developed well enough to know in the first place.  I loved Star Trek: Generation as a kid, but the level of graphic violence and profanity in Picard that makes it “gritty and dark,” makes me not want to share it with my kids. There was some promise in Picard, and maybe it will be fulfilled in the upcoming two seasons that are in production, but right now I don’t feel compelled at all to want to watch them.

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TV Review: Star Trek:Discovery (2019)


Title: Star Trek: Discovery
Release Date: 2019
Creator: Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman
Season: 2
Episodes:14
Production Company: Secret Hideout | Roddenberry Entertainment | Living Dead Guy Productions | CBS Studios
Summary/Review

While the first season of Star Trek: Discovery showed some promise, it suffered from the 21st-century television malady of using “grimdark” as the baseline for storytelling.  The season starts with a brutal war story and then takes a left turn into an evil mirror universe. Thankfully, the second season has more of the hopeful future of possibility that is the heart of Star Trek.  There’s definitely a lighter tone, humor, and a sense of a group of people who are working together for, well, discovery.

The season begins with a new captain, Christopher Pike (Anson Mount), transferring from the Enterprise to take temporary command of Discovery.  Pike is a character from the pilot of the original Star Trek series who returned for a two-part episode called “The Menagerie.”  Being a prequel to the original series, Discovery has been guilty of playing up to fan nostalgia (and one episode in particular this season goes very deeply into going where Star Trek has gone before) by bringing in familiar people and things.  With Pike, though, I think it works, similar to Sarek and Amanda, as they are all familiar people in Star Trek lore but have had limited screen time.

A bigger challenge is the significant role of another familiar character, Michael Burnham’s (Sonequa Martin-Green) foster brother Spock (Ethan Peck).  Not only is Spock one of the most important characters in Star Trek history but he is so entwined with Leonard Nimoy that it feels an act of arrogance to recast him.  Ultimately I can’t fault Peck, who does the best he can taking on an iconic role, and Spock’s presence in the series arc makes sense having established him as the family of our main character, Burnham.  I can’t help feeling though that this is a way of trying to gain Star Trek legitimacy for the series without really earning it.

While season 2 is a great improvement over season 1, I feel that Discovery is still missing something that I love about Star Trek.  What is missing is the whole exploring “strange new worlds” thing. All the plots and conflict of the original series involved “boldly going” somewhere new.  By the time of The Next Generation, the Enterprise seemed to be shuttling between places already discovered, but they still met “new life and civilizations” all the time  Discovery, by contrast, seemingly is just always in crisis and the conflict is within Starfleet (a big no-no under Gene Rodenberry, and obviously an artificial restraint to storytelling, but Discovery seems to be over-correcting). Even when they do visit places like Saru’s (Doug Jones) homeworld, we really don’t find out all too much about the planet beyond meeting Saru’s sister.

Past iterations of Star Trek have been accused of being boring, but the show did take time for world-building and character development. This season was good in fleshing out some of the secondary characters and giving a little more about the many familiar faces on the bridge.  On the downside, one episode finally fills in the background of one character only to have the episode end with their death. It’s an old trick in tv and not a good one. So much of this season is about plot twists and new threats that come so fast it’s hard to even make sense of them sometimes. It starts with a search for mysterious signals in the galaxy, then a search for Spock, and then a mysterious sphere with an archive of data.  The antagonists are the CIA-like Section 31 intelligence organization of the United Federation of Planets, and then suddenly a sentient artificial intelligence.  It all gets a bit exhausting.

Mind you, Discovery is a fun show and one I want to keep watching.  The characters and acting fill in a lot of gaps where the plotting and writing fail.  I just think it could be a great show and more true to its Star Trek lineage while also being more adventurous in storytelling. The season ends with a thrilling space battle and an all-hands-on-deck plot to save the universe where all the major characters contribute.  And it pretty much answers why we have never heard of Discovery or Michael Burnham or the spore drive in previous Star Trek series while also setting up a premise for Season 3 that could redefine the show in exciting ways.  I shall keep watching

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Classic Movie Review: Aliens (1986)


TitleAliens
Release Date: July 18, 1986
Director: James Cameron
Production Company: Brandywine Productions
Summary/Review:

In the past few years as I’ve become something of a cinephile and watched lots and lots of movies, I often have an uneasy feeling about revisiting favorites from my childhood.  Will this movie have held up badly? Will it reflect my younger self’s bad taste?  Often, I end up delighted that I still enjoy a film I remember fondly. But what’s even better about revisiting movies is getting an entirely different perspective on a favorite movie.

As the parent of a 9-year-old girl, I was not prepared to be overwhelmed by the centrality to Aliens of the character Newt (Carrie Henn), a child who is the sole survivor of a human colony that is decimated by the parasitic xenomorphs.  Kind of like rewatching E.T. as an adult, the depiction of a child in extraordinary circumstances resonated with me more than it did when I was a child. Henn’s performance is very Spielbergian, and she joins Judith Vitter in my Hall of Fame of Child Actors Whose Great Acting Performances Somehow Didn’t Lead to Lengthy Acting Careers.

Newt plays of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley developing the star character’s maternal role in what shapes up to be a battle of mother versus mother, human versus alien queen.  It’s not subtle, but it’s fascinating that in 1986 this idea of motherhood had never really been explored in an action film.  It’s one of the many things that makes Aliens one of the great 80s blockbusters and one of the greatest sequels of all time.

It helps that Aliens is an entirely different genre than its predecessor, moving from thriller to action adventure.  Ripley is joined by the rambunctious Colonial Marines as they investigate what happened to the human colonists on the terraformed planetoid where the Nostromo’s crew found the derelict alien ship in the previous film.  Bad things happen.  And as the title promises, there is more than one Alien. The great cast includes Paul Reiser (then primarily known as a stand-up comedians) as the sleazy company rep Carter Burke and Bill Paxton steals scenes as Private Hudson who sensibly panics when they’re overrun with xenomorphs.  Game over, man!

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: Alien (1979)


TitleAlien
Release Date: May 25, 1979
Director: Ridley Scott
Production Company: Brandywine Productions
Summary/Review:

At its heart, Alien is a very simple story.  The crew of the spaceship Nostromo are diverted to a mysterious planet.  They pick up a parasitic life form (in the most disturbing and disgusting way).  The creature runs amok and picks off crew members one by one.  Only a single crew member (and her cat) survive to the tell the tale.

The movie is built on atmosphere. The Nostromo is a gritty, live-in spaceship with way too many places for a hungry xenomorph to hide. The movie builds up the tension slowly making it all the more effective when things spiral out of control.  In that sense it’s not unlike another 70s film I watched recently, The French Connection. It’s also a character story.   The first hour of the movie is establishing the crew of ordinary working grunts before anything happens.

The cast is made up mostly of older characters actors.  In fact at least four of the crew members are played by That Guy.  Tom Skerrit, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, and Yaphet Kotto are all “That Guy!” when you recognize them in the many movies and tv shows they appeared in. Veronica Cartwright is not a That Guy but her career ranges from a child actor appearing in The Birds to playing an astronaut’s wife in The Right Stuff.   Ian Holm is far from being a lovable hobbit in his creepy performance as Ash. Sigourney Weaver was unknown in film at the time and there’s little indication that her character Ellen Ripley will be the sole survivor early on in the film.  And yet, Ripley is also smart and confident, and if the rest of the crew had listened to her, none of the bad things would’ve happened.  Weaver also has to carry the film for basically the final half hour on her own and does a terrific job of showing pure terror and yet the necessity of doing what needs to be done.

When I was a kid I saw Aliens first and watched it repeatedly before ever seeing Alien.  I remember liking it less because of its spareness and the lack of humor and camaraderie that is found in Aliens.  I may have only watched it twice before.  I’m glad I’ve revisited it as an adult because I realize it is actually a masterpiece.  It’s a lot like Jaws in that it is a lot deeper than the horror/thriller blockbuster it appears on the surface in the way that it works with realistic depictions of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.  I’ll will have to revisit this film again soon.

Rating: ****1/2

TV Review: Star Trek: Discovery (2017-2018)


Title: Star Trek: Discovery
Release Date: 2021
Creator: Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman
Season: 1
Episodes: 15
Production Company: Secret Hideout | Roddenberry Entertainment | Living Dead Guy Productions | CBS Studios
Summary/Review: As a long time fan of the Star Trek original series and Star Trek: The Next Generation, and all their spinoff films,  I’ve been eager to watch this newest Star Trek universe series. My feelings after viewing the first season are mixed.  The show veers away from the Gene Roddenberry rules into darker territory than previous series, but it also has a tendency toward ludicrous plot twists over effective storytelling. Keeping in line with 21st-century television, Discovery is a serialized program as opposed to the mostly stand-alone episodic approach of its predecessors.

Unlike other Star Trek shows which centered on the captain, the main character of this show is  Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green, who was great in The Walking Dead), a science specialist on the U.S.S. Enterprise.  She is a human who was orphaned in a Klingon attack as a child and raised as the ward of the Vulcan Sarek (James Frain), essentially making her Spock’s adopted sister. As the series begins, she is a first officer being groomed to be a captain, but convinced that the Federation must make a preemptive attack on the Klingon Empire, she attempts a mutiny and is busted down to the lowest levels.

The first half of the season deals with Burnhams attempted mutiny, the start of the Federation-Klingon War, and Burnham’s recruitment to the Discovery by the eccentric military captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs of Lucius Malfoy fame but with an American accent). The early episodes are hit and miss but I think do a good job of establishing Burnham and her regrets and hopes for redemption while also introducing the rest of the characters. It also shows some developments of an experimental technology on the Discovery,  the spore drive.  Basically it uses a galaxy-wide mycelial network (yes, space fungi!) to jump to different places in space.  It sounds weird, but then again, so were dilithium crystals.

The second half of the season is set primarily in the Mirror Universe, a plot device going back to the original series of an alternate universe where everyone has evil duplicates.  Unfortunately this half of the season is pretty much mediocre as the creators indulge their desire to make the show “gritty and dark.” There’s a definite influence of the 2000s Battlestar Galactica without that show’s gravitas. The second half of the season also has multiple characters being revealed as not who they were, but not in very effective ways.  It feels like the twists were thought up first and then the stories were filled in later.  Thankfully, the final episode builds on the hope on optimism that is the corner of Star Trek storytelling and gives me hope for future seasons.

The show is set ten years before the beginning of the original series making Discovery essentially a prequel. There’s wisdom in this as it appears the creators wanted to tell a war story and why not have the Klingons as antagonists rather than creating a new villain, albeit I don’t think they ultimately used the Klingons to their best storytelling potential. Despite the earlier time period, the crew of Discovery have access to more advanced technology than in earlier shows.  I’m mostly fine with this, because the 1960s Star Trek did their best to show future technology with the special effects available at the time, so there’s no reason the 2010s show shouldn’t do the same.  Ultimately, though, they are going to have to explain why the spore drive doesn’t replace the warp drive by the time of The Next Generation.

The best part of the show so far is its characters.  In addition Martin-Green, the show’s main cast includes:

  • Doug Jones (creature specialist of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water fame) as Saru, who is of a rare species known as Kelpien, serves as the first officer, and is the conscience of the ship. He’s my favorite character thus far.
  • Mary Wiseman plays Sylvia Tilly, Burnham’s roommate who is nerdy and socially awkward, but nonetheless highly-skilled and ambitious.  She’s my second favorite character.
  • Shazad Latif plays Ash Tyler, who is rescued from a Klingon jail by Captain Lorca, appointed security chief, and becomes a romantic interest of sorts for Burnham.
  • Anthony Rapp plays the sometimes crotchety/sometimes goofy chief engineer Paul Stamets who develops and maintains the spore drive.
  • Wilson Cruz plays Hugh Culber, the ship’s medical officer, and Stamets’ husband, and is the more sensible of the couple.
  • Michelle Yeoh has a recurring role as starship Captain Philippa Geourgiu who is Burnham’s mentor.

Due to the aforementioned twists, it appears that several of the characters will not be appearing in future seasons, although none of their endings are written in stone.  I’ll find out soon.

Movie Review: Isle of Dogs (2018)


Title: Isle of Dogs
Release Date: March 23, 2018
Director: Wes Anderson
Production Company: Studio Babelsberg | Indian Paintbrush | American Empirical Pictures
Summary/Review:

Wes Anderson’s second animated feature has a lot of the sames going for it as Fantastic Mr. Fox. It has stop-motion animation that is visually stunning.  It has clever storytelling.  It has a good mix of humor and adventure. It has a massive cast of celebrity voices.  It has dogs!

But for some reason I don’t enjoy it as much as its predecessor.  Perhaps because it is to long and has way to many subplots (they could’ve left out the Tracy Walker stuff and just focused on the dogs, for starters).  There has been some criticism of the film for cultural appropriation and stereotypes of Japanese people.  It felt more like a respectful homage to Japanese films to me but still, something felt off.

I’m not here to trash the film though.  I did enjoy it, just somewhat less than I had hoped.

Rating: ***