Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

startrekintodarkness_1Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Alice Eve, Noel Clarke, Nazneen Contractor

Directed by J.J. Abrams

Expectations: Moderate. I liked the first a lot, but I’ve heard mixed things about this one.

threehalfstar


There’s a short section in the middle of J.J. Abrams’s first Star Trek film that I refer to as “the part where it becomes a Star Wars prequel.” A couple of oversized, stupid CG monsters came out of nowhere and threatened to derail the film’s fun, modern take on Star Trek. Thankfully, it was just a small interlude before that film hit its stride and delivered a lot more fun. So when Star Trek Into Darkness featured an oversized, crazy CG monster just minutes into the movie, I remarked, “Oh, this is off to a bad start.” But then Kirk blasted the beast with a phaser. It’s almost as if Abrams is apologizing for the beasts in the first film, saying, “I know, guys. They were dumb. So dumb that I’m opening the sequel with one that eats a phaser blast. Happy?” Yes, yes I am, Mr. Abrams, especially so because it’s the only dumb CG beast in the entire film. Well… that and the fact that this is a barnburner of a film.

The marketing campaign for Star Trek Into Darkness purposely obscured the identity of the main villain, so if you haven’t seen the film and you’re still on media blackout, read no further. I will say that I knew who it was before watching the film and it helped prepare me for what was coming instead of actually spoiling anything. But in any case, you’ve been warned!

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The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

returnoftheking_1Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, John Noble, Bernard Hill, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, John Rhys-Davies, Miranda Otto, Karl Urban, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, David Wenham, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, Paul Norell, Lawrence Makoare, Sarah McLeod

Directed by Peter Jackson

Expectations: High. I love this.

fourstar


Can I give this one five stars? It took 10 years and more than a few re-watches, but I have finally come around on this one. Don’t get me wrong, I always loved the film, but I also always thought it was the weakest of the trilogy. This time I was struck by how powerful a film Return of the King is, and how well it brings everything set forth in the previous films together. But what this recent change of heart proves to me is that there is no truly standout film from the others. They are all interdependent and equal in their greatness, and I will most likely shift allegiances between the three throughout my lifetime.

Opening with Gollum’s backstory provides us with a glimpse of how he became the creature we’re familiar with, and it also allows the film to open in the quiet green of the Hobbit lands. The Two Towers ends with a lengthy battle sequence at night, finishing a film that contains trial after trial for our fellowship. So to begin the next film in a peaceful, happy place (if only for a few moments) is surprising and brilliant. It reminds us a bit of what the hobbits are fighting for, and shows us the depths of despair, all within that first scene. It also skillfully leads us right back into the thick of things where we can finally reckon with the one ring and finish the journey once and for all.

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The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

2002-lord_of_the_rings_the_two_towers-3Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Bernard Hill, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, John Rhys-Davies, Miranda Otto, Karl Urban, Brad Dourif, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, David Wenham, Christopher Lee, Sean Bean, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, Craig Parker

Directed by Peter Jackson

Expectations: High. I love this.

fourstar


While Fellowship of the Ring is an excellent opening to the trilogy, The Two Towers has my vote for the best of the bunch. It’s fun to see the Fellowship come together and venture through snowy mountains and deep, dark mines, but once they split and begin their own adventures, the real journey begins. The hopefulness of newfound friends was only a respite from the coming storm of war and villainy, and here in The Two Towers Peter Jackson fully unleashes that force upon viewers. As clichéd as it sounds, this makes The Two Towers the “dark middle” of the trilogy, but eh, what’s a good trilogy if it doesn’t have a dark middle chapter? We have to despair before we can triumph.

I lamented a bit in my review of Fellowship of the Ring that no one had continued the charge with the fantasy film genre, but honestly, after re-watching The Two Towers, I think it’s because no one is confident enough to try to top what Jackson accomplished here. Similar to how I think Jackson is reluctant to return to the splatter genre after Dead Alive — it’s better to drop the mic and walk away than to continue pureeing the dead horse with the lawnmower (so to speak). Imagine you’re a director trying to mount a fantasy epic. Jackson was going up against years of fairly lackluster high fantasy filmmaking, but anyone trying now is going up directly against Jackson. Hell, even uber fanboy Guillermo del Toro couldn’t get The Hobbit going, the studios only resolved their legal issues with the rights when Jackson relented and agreed to make the films.

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Dredd (2012)

Dredd_1Starring Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Wood Harris, Lena Headey, Domhnall Gleeson, Warrick Grier, Deobia Oparei, Langley Kirkwood, Edwin Perry, Karl Thaning, Michele Levin, Francis Chouler, Daniel Hadebe, Rakie Ayola

Directed by Pete Travis

Expectations: Moderate. Heard good things.

threehalfstar


Judge Dredd and Dredd open rather similarly — with overviews of the current state of the world coming to us via narration — but the two films are almost incomparable. One is a loud, bombastic, over-the-top Hollywood B-Movie, and the other is a low-budget, gritty attempt to plausibly bring the character to life. They are both successful at being what they strive to be, but Dredd is clearly the better film overall. It definitely has its issues, but this is an overwhelmingly good movie for action movie fans.

Comparisons between Dredd and The Raid have been discussed since the former was released, but I actually think that likening this film to The Raid does it a disservice. Sure, the plots are almost identical and even some small moments are eerily similar, but there’s one fundamental difference between the two films that should be known going in (besides the fact that Dredd kicks off in classic buddy cop fashion). The Raid is a non-stop action movie, with almost zero down time. Dredd is more of a tense, bloody thriller. It has a lot of action, but they’re closer to bursts of action than full-on action sequences.

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