Saturday, December 3, 2016


“Fast and Furious” director Justin Lin never lets the momentum slacken in “Star Trek Beyond” (***1/2 OUT OF ****) despite the formulaic Simon Pegg & Doug Jung screenplay that delivers a lot of the right stuff during its warp-drive running time of two hours and two minutes.  A multitude of melodramatic moments with surprises and suspense galore ensue as Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise triumph over tragedy.  Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Simon Pegg, and the late Anton Yelchin must have had fun making the 13th “Star Trek” saga because they work so well together that it doesn’t matter what they’re doing.  Basically, the “Beyond” in the title refers to the uncharted territory that our indestructible heroes and heroine must negotiate before they can vanquish a megalomaniacal villain and preserve the status quo.  Mind you, I didn’t fear that Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhura, Sulu, Scotty, and Chekov would die and that their wicked adversaries would perish.  What I liked about “Star Trek Beyond” was the way everybody in the crew contributed to the ultimate success of their mission.  None of the main cast were neglected or given the short shrift.  One character has been altered.  Aside from generating controversy on the Internet about Mr. Sulu’s sexual proclivities, the rest of the Enterprise crew remains essentially the same, and you care as much about them as what occurs around them.  Similarly, the giddy action unfolding in “Star Trek Beyond” was sufficient to race your pulse, whiten your knuckles, and get caught up in this spectacular epic.  Cinematographer Stephen F. Windon, production designer Tom Sanders and make-up designer Joel Harlow all deserve kudos for their outstanding work.  Two settings—the Nebula and the Yorktown space colony—looked sensational by any science fiction movie’s standards.  As villains rate, the reptile-faced Krall provides more than enough obstacles with which Kirk and his crew must contend, and Krall’s unhinged plan to wreak havoc is sufficiently audacious.  Nevertheless, Krall isn’t half as memorable as Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan in director J.J. Abrams’ superior sequel “Star Trek Into Darkness.” 

Three years into the Enterprise’s five year mission, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine of “Unstoppable”) complains that “things have started to feel a little episodic.”  When an action-oriented character utters these words, they should cross themselves immediately and hold their tongues.  No sooner has the Enterprise docked at the remarkable new star base christened Yorktown to gather provisions than Kirk winds up eating those fateful words.  Three important events occur before chaos assails the Enterprise.  First, Spock and Uhura break up. Second, Mr. Sulu comes out as gay.  Third, Kirk submits an application for promotion to Vice Admiral, and he recommends Mr. Spock replace him as the Enterprise’s captain.  Complications take place when an escape pod lands at Yorktown.  Its alien passenger, Kalara (Lydia Wilson of “About Time”), reports that her ship has crashed on the distant planet Altamid in the Nebula.  The Nebula resembles a vast, impenetrable field of asteroids that constitutes a titanic barrier between Yorktown and Altamid.  Commodore Paris (Oscar-nominated actress Shohreh Aghdashloo of “House of Sand and Fog”) accommodates Kalara and mounts a distress mission to rescue Kalara’s stranded crew.  Kirk takes the helm and the Enterprise plunges into the Nebula, with Kalara--looking like she has a starfish wrapped around her head for a wig--aboard to show them the way.   Predictably, Kalara turns into one treacherous dame as our heroes discover as soon after they find themselves assaulted by a swarm of aliens reminiscent of those Earth faced in “Independence Day: Resurgence.”  Surprisingly enough, Krall and his legions cripple the Enterprise in record time.  The doomed starship topples from space, and the crew find themselves separated after the crash.  Scotty encounters a resourceful Amazon named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella of “Kingsman: The Secret Service”) who knows a thing or two about survival.  Boutella’s face is made up to resemble a Kabuki mask and her appearance evoked memories of Darth Maul in the “Star Wars” prequels.  Jaylah has been hiding out on Altamid, and her chief adversary is Krall.  She teams up with Scotty, Kirk, and Bones, while the rest of the crew wind up in Krall’s hands.  Krall wants an artifact stashed aboard the Enterprise so he can perpetuate an apocalypse.  He has no qualms about who he has to liquidate if he isn’t given that artifact.  Uhura watches in horror as Krall murders a helpless Enterprise crew member who poses no threat to him.

Once Krall has thrown down the gauntlet, Kirk and company must pull off the impossible to thwart their fanatic adversary.  In many ways, “Star Trek Beyond” reminded me of a traditional Cavalry versus Indians western.  Our heroes arrive at a frontier fort, embark on a rescue mission, find themselves isolated during a journey of hardship, and encounter a do-or-die opponent whose primary goal is to destroy the fort with everybody inside it.  “Star Trek Beyond” boots Kirk and company out of their comfort zone, forcing them to abandon ship, and then compels them to overhaul an older starship considerably inferior to the Enterprise, when they aren’t raiding Krall’s camp to liberate their fellow crew members.  Naturally, Kirk must confront Krall in a death-defying face-off while the welfare of civilization teeters on the brink.  Happily, director Justin Lin and his scenarists provide enough humor to sweeten all this mayhem and the eccentricities of the characters allow audiences a chance to chuckle at their foibles.  Of course, Spock and Bones grate on each other’s nerves. This installment of the venerable Paramount Pictures franchise marks the 50th anniversary of all things “Star Trek.”  Visionary producer Gene Roddenberry launched the “Star Trek” television series 50 years ago, and this captivating franchise has generated 13 films and six TV series, sold over 100 million books, comics, and magazines.  If you’re a hardcore “Star Trek” fan, you’ll probably relish this rollercoaster of a ride.


Although over twenty years have elapsed since he directed the Oscar-winning, Best Picture “Braveheart” in 1995, Mel Gibson hasn’t lost his touch as a topnotch director.  The pugnacious, bloodthirsty, fact-based, World War II spectacle “Hacksaw Ridge” (**** OUT OF ****) ranks as the first memorable battlefront epic of the 21st century.  Hollywood hasn’t marched out a significant WW 2 film for inspection since 1998 when Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” landed on the silver screen.   Mind you, after the Allied soldiers stormed the Normandy beaches in France, the Spielberg saga degenerated into a soggy sandbag of a movie.  I grew up in the 1960s when Hollywood produced patriotic movies and TV shows about World War II by the dozens.  As far as I am concerned, “The Longest Day” (1962) still tops “Saving Private Ryan.”  While it didn’t wallow in the savagery of “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Longest Day” constituted a far more meaningful movie because it covered all sides of the combat.  Comparatively, “Hacksaw Ridge” takes place in the Pacific rather than Europe and depicts the bloody battle of Okinawa, where U.S. troops encountered suicidal Japanese soldiers entrenched in caves that eventually became their tombs.  Feisty filmgoers may complain that Gibson didn’t detail the entire sordid story.  For example, those flame-thrower wielding G.I.s not only incinerated Japanese troops, but also roasted the natives who had been forced to fight alongside with the Japanese.  Some island women committed suicide out of fear of getting raped, while others resorted to spears to defend themselves against the invading troops.  The ferocious, R-rated blood, gore, and aggression--visceral in every respect as it should be—that Gibson has staged serves to remind moviegoers that this 82-day battle constituted the bloodiest military campaign in the Pacific.  While “Hacksaw Ridge” shows us that “war is hell,” this wholesale carnage celebrates the heroism of a unique WW 2 hero.  Former “Amazing Spiderman” actor Andrew Garfield does a slam-bang job of playing real-life American Army Medic Private First Class Desmond T. Doss who made history as the first conscientious objector to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.  The irony of “Hacksaw Ridge” is that it commemorates the exploits of a Seventh-Day Adventist who sought to save lives rather than destroy them.
Now, you’d think a movie about a conscientious objector would be very dull, but “Hacksaw Ridge” is far from dreary.  Robert Schenkkan, who wrote four episodes of the World War II mini-series “The Pacific,” and “Efficiency Expert” scribe Andrew Knight follow our protagonist, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield of “The Amazing Spider-man”) from boot camp to his baptism under fire at Okinawa.  They also deal with his reckless youth when he almost killed his younger brother and later disarmed his drunken father after the latter had abused his mother.  The bulk of the action concerns the trials and tribulations that occurred after he enlisted.  Desmond informed his Army superiors that he had no use for guns, and he refused to drill with, much less discharge a rifle on the firing range. Desmond suffered the wrath of not only his military superiors but also soldiers that he trained with, and both went to extraordinary lengths to oust him from the Army.  Indeed, the Army tried to court-marshal him and his barracks buddies battered and ridiculed him because they figured that he was a yellow-livered coward.  Smitty Ryker (Luke Bracey of “Point Break”) was one of the barracks ringleaders who did everything possible to make life unbearable for Desmond.  Captain Glover (Sam Worthington of “Avatar”) and Drill Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn of “The Wedding Crashers”) were just as despicable, too.  Nevertheless, neither Desmond’s fellow soldiers nor his superiors had any luck in running him off.  He sticks out the worse of everything and goes into action as a medic.  When the troops get to Okinawa, they experience combat at its most tragic.  The Japanese never know when to stop and they live for the opportunity to kill Americans, even trotting out to ostensibly surrender but then pulling out guns and grenades to kill, kill, kill.  Just about every appendage of the human body is either blasted off or blown off.  Desmond watches grimly as rats gnaw on the decomposing bodies of American and Japanese soldiers.  Nothing about combat in “Hacksaw Ridge” is glamorous.  Everybody is shocked and surprised when Desmond ascends a cliffhanger escarpment, draped with a heavy-duty cargo net, and rescues one-by-one, 75 wounded soldiers during the night who had made his life a miserable hell in boot camp.  Suddenly, they reassessed this gawky looking lad and worshiped him like a saint.
In an interview with “Deadline Hollywood,” Mel Gibson explained what impressed him about Desmond Doss. “The guy didn’t carry a weapon, never fired a bullet, was a conscientious objector who thought it was wrong to kill under any circumstances. But he had the guts to go into the worst place you can imagine and stick to his convictions, armed with nothing else but sheer faith. Walk in and just do the impossible, which is courage under fire unparalleled because he didn’t do it in a split second or decision or moment. He did it again and again and again.”  Indeed, Gibson and his scenarists faced a gargantuan task in adapting Desmond Doss’s life. Usually, Hollywood embroiders facts to heighten the melodrama. Had the filmmakers adhered to actual events, “Hacksaw Ridge” would have seemed just ‘too good to be true.’  Lack of space prohibits me from going into detail about Doss’s life and the values that shaped him.  Most of those details seem wholly incredible.  Squeamish spectators may have difficulty sitting through the last half of “Hacksaw Ridge” when body parts start flying.  Meanwhile, bloodthirsty moviegoers may find themselves champing at the bit as Gibson fills the first half of with Desmond’s sudsy romance with his future wife, Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer of “Lights Out”), particularly when he sneaks his first kiss and she slaps him. Altogether, “Hacksaw Ridge” qualifies as unforgettable from fade-in to fade-out.

Monday, November 28, 2016


If you thought “Bad Santa” (2003) was a hoot, you’ll holler at “Bad Santa 2.”  Like its vulgar, politically-incorrect predecessor, this rude, crude, lowest common denominator, gross-out sequel scrapes the bottom of the toilet for bowel humor that may make you gag.  Oscar-winning Billy Bob Thornton of “Sling Blade” reprises his role as lascivious, blasphemous, alcoholic, safecracker Willy Soke, who masquerades as Santa Claus and listens to children’s gift requests on his lap.  Nevertheless, despite its contrived, often predictable, by-the-numbers monkeyshines, “Bad Santa 2” (**** OUT OF ****) is an audaciously sidesplitting saga, with corrosive dialogue that may either incinerate your soul or prompt you to laugh with such vigor that you will cough at the same time.  After a thirteen-year hiatus, not only has Thornton shown up for the sequel, but also teensy Tony Cox and chubby Brent Kelly have also returned respectively as Marcus and Thurman.  Lest we forget, Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer of “The Help” appears briefly again as Opal the prostitute from the original. The latest character to wade into this cesspool of hilarity is Willy’s low-class, repugnant mother.  Kathy Bates never stops surprising us as Sunny Soke, a sleazy, silver-tongued, ex-con wreathed with biker tattoos who wants to steal thousands of dollars.  Sadly, Sunny has grown so decrepit she cannot control her Parkinson’s and requires somebody with steady fingers to crack a safe.  Bates could easily have stolen “Bad Santa 2” with her outlandish portrayal.  Instead, Brent Kelly steals the show as simple-minded moron Thurman Merman who keeps on obliviously weathering Willy’s vile torrents of profanity about his shortcomings.  Miraculously, Kelly maintains a look of deadpan stupefaction throughout these rants that would have reduced a less disciplined actor to ripples of belly laughter.  Indeed, “Mean Girls” director Mark Waters and freshman scenarist Johnny Rosenthal with “Whip It” writer Shauna Cross spurn good taste repeatedly.

“Bad Santa 2” opens with Willy (Billy Bob Thornton of “Fargo”) admitting that his life has been a travesty.  He never succeeds for one reason or another with his suicide attempts.  He is dangling from a ceiling lighting fixture when Thurman, the grown-up kid from the original movie (Brett Kelly of “Unaccompanied Minors”), strolls into his apartment and cannot fathom what Willy is doing.  Eventually, Willy abandons all efforts to hang himself, chiefly after Thurman empties a bag of money onto his table.  As it turns out Willy’s treacherous, accomplice from the first film, the vertically-challenged Marcus Skidmore (Tony Cox of “Beetlejuice”), has invited Willy to join him at a local restaurant so they can discuss business.  Of course, Willy doesn’t trust Markus because the latter tried to murder him in the original.  Marcus hasn’t been out of prison long, and he needs the money.  He explains that Willy’s mom has a plan to rob a high-profile, Chicago-headquartered charity that will bulge their pockets with loot.  Eventually, Willy meets his estranged mother, Sunny (Kathy Bates of “Misery”), again.  She briefs him about the heist.  You’d think any reunion between mother and son would be a joyous, sentimental occasion, but it is far from it.  Willy has no fond memories of his mom.  We learn during one of their conversations that Willy took a fall for her at age eleven and did time for Sunny’s crime.  She confirms in her own words what an unfit mom she was.  Sunny cherishes the memory of Willy’s birth: “Hell, I didn’t even know I’d given birth until I’d tripped over him.”  Willy sidesteps old animosities and pitches in with them to rip off the children’s charity.  As it turns out, a well-to-do married couple who are for all practical purposes estranged conduct the charity.  The charity resembles the Salvation Army.  Diane Hastings (Christina Hendricks of “Drive”) and her husband Regent (Ryan Hansen of “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”) make it easy to contribute to the cause.  You can text your donation to it!  What Diane doesn’t realize is Regent is cheating on her with another employee.  Initially, Willy is not pleased that he must don a Santa Claus suit and solicit donations on the street.  At one point, he clashes with another Santa who claims that Willy has stolen his spot.  The two tangle on the curb, and Willy lands in jail.  Diane has the police release him and she allows Willy to keep his Santa gig if he will accompany her to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.  Reluctantly, for the sake of Sunny and Marcus, Willy follows her, and the two become sexually involved with each other.  Meantime, Willy doesn’t entirely trust his murderous, old nemesis Marcus.  Remember, Marcus tried to kill Willy in the original “Bad Santa.”  Sunny convinces Willy to let bygones be bygones.  If things weren’t tense enough for Willy, he discovers that Thurman has embarked on a journey to search for and surprise him.  Now, Willy must contend with this clueless klutz who wants nothing more than to make him sandwiches. He arranges for Thurman to lose his virginity to Olivia. Before she can accommodate him, Thurman flees in abject terror.

Basically, “Bad Santa 2” regurgitates the same essential plot of the original, but it delivers greater volumes of profanity and sexuality than the former.  The F-word is used 180 times here rather than 130 in the original.  Meaning, the raunchy “Bad Santa 2” lives up to its R-rating “for crude sexual content and language throughout, and some graphic nudity.”  Waters and his two writers have exercised such an extreme lack of good taste that “Bad Santa 2” qualifies as a guilty pleasure. Incidentally, the filmmakers do refrain from depicting murder this time around. You may cringe in retrospect that you sank to such shallow depths of the sake of rib tickling glee.  Some of Sunny’s lines will keep you to cackling. If you indulge in this nonsense, your demented soul will crave the prank in the end credits. Unlike any other movies showing now, “Bad Santa 2” may provide you with some desperate relief from all the Yuletide cheer.