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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Note: This film was the main topic of discussion on Episode 2 of my podcast, The Cinescope Podcast. Give it a listen for a more in-depth discussion!

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My experience with Star Trek is limited, especially in regards to Classic Trek. In fact, JJ Abrams’ 2009 reboot was my introduction to the franchise in any way, and it wasn’t until a few years later that I saw any Classic Trek at all. So when my friend TJ told me that he wanted to talk about Wrath of Khan when I asked him to be on my podcast, I did a tiny bit of research and preparation, but my goal was to view this as a non-Trekkie to see if it was not only a great Trek film but also, and more importantly, a great film as well, and whaddya know? It certainly is.

Following the events of the 1967 Star Trek: The Original Series episode “Space Seed”, in which Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) maroons Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalbán) and the remainder of his people on a planet as punishment for the attempted takeover of the USS EnterpriseWrath of Khan features an older, dissatisfied Kirk – now Admiral – joining his former crew on the Enterprise once again for a routine training mission. However, things become anything but routine when Khan is revealed to have returned, angrier than ever and prepared to do whatever it takes to seek vengeance against Admiral Kirk. Faced with a new adventure and tasked with protecting the lives of his crew, Kirk and company must find a way to defeat Khan before he unleashes a technology with the capability of destroying all life on any planet he chooses.

*mild spoilers ahead*

Even with my limited experience in the classic Trek universe, what I’ve found that I love about it most is that the sci-fi/adventure aspect is almost an afterthought; yes, there are cool spaceships and futuristic technologies, but the main focus in everything I’ve seen so far has been humans (or aliens) having human moments with each other while going through human experiences. The setting is merely a setting – the situations are universal. This movie deals with themes such as mortality, youth, sacrifice, and love vs. hate, and it deals with these themes better than many non-sci-fi movies.

That being said, the character with whom we identify the most is Admiral Kirk himself. He is profoundly human in that he is flawed. He features strong charisma and leadership capabilities, and his love and duty for his friends and crew are apparent, but he, like all of us, is often emotional and reactionary, which leads to mistakes. Thankfully, he learns from his mistakes throughout the course of the film through self-evaluation and through listening to the advice of his friends, and by the end he is a better man because of it. Spock, played by the iconic Leonard Nimoy, is merely the other side of the coin. To contrast with Kirk’s emotions, Spock makes decisions through logic and necessity, but he shows by the end of the film that logic is not always the antithesis of emotion – that sometimes the two go hand in hand because the logical thing to do is to make sacrifices for the ones you love.

Khan, on the other hand, features a personality similar to Kirk’s in that he is driven by emotion, but his emotions blind and deafen him to the warnings of his crew. Montalbán gives a great performance here – you can see the calculating look in his eyes as he decides what his next course of action will be, and his fits of passion are just as powerful as the moments when he menacingly whispers, showing his ability to control a situation when he has the advantage. He’s a fantastic villain in the sense that you know why he is doing what he’s doing, which is what you want when it comes to the antagonist – believable motivation.

Storytelling and characters aside, this is a sci-fi film, and those elements are done extremely well. For a film made in 1982, the graphics hold up surprisingly well, with a particular CGI sequence made by an early iteration of Pixar being a definite highlight. Another element of note is the space combat, with the idea by director Nicholas Meyer to approach it like a submarine battle proving to be an effective action sequence. And I can’t praise the score enough; composed by a young James Horner, the music switches from horror to sci-fi/adventure to drama with apparent ease, and the main theme is such an earworm (pun intended if you’ve seen the film) that I was whistling it for 20 minutes after watching for the first time because I couldn’t get it out of my head.

I could go on and on about this movie because it really is so much more than just a sci-fi flick, and the whole crew gives outstanding performances – including a young Kirstie Alley in her first feature film role. There are moments of pure joy as well as scenes that are sure to guarantee tears, and all the while it feels firmly like Star Trek. With strong themes and solid characters, The Wrath of Khan is a prime example of how prioritizing story and characters is the key to success in filmmaking, no matter the subject material at hand.

-Chad

RECOMMEND!

MPAA: PG – for violence and language


TRON: Legacy (2010)

Note: This film was the main topic of discussion on Episode 1 of my podcast, The Cinescope Podcast. Give it a listen for a more in-depth discussion!

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Back in 1982, Disney released a film that proved to leave a lasting impact in the world of film, making strides in advanced computer graphics technology and laser trail bikes. One of the more notable effects this film had in the industry was showing John Lasseter the possibilities of computer graphics and leading to the eventual success of Pixar. Nearly 30 years after the release of TRON, first-time director Joseph Kosinski was hired to direct the almost $200 million sequel to the dated film, challenged with continuing the story and dazzling with another technological marvel…and he succeeded.

TRON: Legacy opens with young ENCOM CEO Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) explaining to his son Sam the origin of The Grid – a “digital frontier” that resembles a city, a place where programs are anthropomorphized and live their own lives, and where Tron, a protector, and a clone of Flynn called C.L.U. – Codified Likeness Utility  – work together to create and to explore this digital landscape. However, later that night, Flynn disappears from the world without a trace. 20 years pass, and now Sam (Garrett Hedlund), who has distanced himself from his father’s company save for an annual prank, has received a tip from his father’s friend Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) that something may be going on in his father’s office at the now-abandoned arcade that he owned. Upon investigating, something extraordinary happens, thrusting him into the very world that his father described to him as a boy. It becomes a race against time to escape back to the real world, with new faces Quorra (Olivia Wilde) and Castor (Michael Sheen) showing up along the way during Sam’s journey home.

*mild spoilers ahead*

To get it out of the way, I’ll start with the obvious: this film is quite the spectacle to behold, from the glowing blue skyscrapers, to the intimidating flying Recognizers (appearing as a significant upgrade from their original appearance 30 years ago), to the fantastic score composed by Daft Punk and Joseph Trapanese (my review). These are the things that people agree on regarding this film: that it is a visual and auditory treat, showing that every cent of the $200 million budget was put to good use. Concepts introduced in the first film – disc wars, light cycle races, a world that pulses with a vivid energy – are magnified to the nth degree here and, paired with Daft Punk’s infectious music, provide some of the more extravagant action sequences made with digital effects in the last decade. In this movie and in his second feature, Oblivion (my review), director Joseph Kosinski proves he has an talent for creating visuals that are wonders to behold

What people agree on less when it comes to this movie is everything outside of what appeals to the senses: that is, to put it simply, the story and acting. But I would disagree with the majority in saying that there are some great, moving performances that feature here.

At its core, TRON: Legacy is a father/son movie. Garrett Hedlund’s Sam exudes a confidence that masks his vulnerability; after all, this is a character who lost his father when he was 7 years old, and as the film goes on, it is revealed how much he misses him. In a scene where Alan tells Sam of a mysterious message he received from Flynn’s former office, Hedlund’s face expresses so well the pain he feels in wishing that his father was around but knowing that he’s gone forever. Likewise, Jeff Bridges as Kevin Flynn portrays a father who is willing to sacrifice anything for the protection and well-being of his son. In their heartfelt reunion, it’s difficult to not feel a pang when Flynn turns around to instantly recognize his son who was only a child the last time he saw him, collapsing into his arms in a deep embrace. It’s a powerful moment. As the film progresses, so does their relationship, and though they face some tough moments, they prove that they’re there for each other and, more importantly, that they love each other.

Most of the emotional core of this movie comes from those two characters, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Jeff Bridges’ other character, C.L.U., who is our villain. As mentioned before, he is essentially a clone of Flynn, and as such he represents Flynn’s flaws at the time of his inception, namely an inability to recognize that perfection is not an attainable goal. It’s this flaw that helps us to empathize with the character – he’s only doing what he feels is right because it’s what he was created to do, even if it’s contrary to what Flynn himself came to realize as he aged and matured. Despite the motion capture work that doesn’t age quite as well as the rest of the effects in the film, Bridges communicates this conflict very well, culminating in the final bridge scene that shows C.L.U.’s desperation to fulfill his purpose.

It would be a shame if I didn’t give a shoutout to Olivia Wilde’s wonderfully naïve Quorra, who represents the childlike wonder in all of us. One scene has her asking for the description of the sun because she’s never had the chance to experience it, and this pays off in the end of the film when we see her basking in the glow of a warm sunrise. Worth mentioning is Michael Sheen’s quirky Castor, who does little more than strut around talking strangely, but he’s a fun character who appears during one of the film’s dry spells to further along the plot.

TRON: Legacy isn’t a masterpiece of a film that delves into the human condition or anything “deep” like that, but it does have characters whose interactions with each other give us something to connect with. The concept of The Grid and the activities that lie therein are fascinating to me – the very concept of the world is *concept* itself – and the execution of these are what pushes this film into the realm of “enjoyable” for me. While the main attractions certainly are these spectacles and the outstanding soundtrack, if you look for it, there are some great human moments that might make you feel something along the way.

-Chad

RECOMMEND!

MPAA: PG – for sequences of sci-fi action violence and brief mild language


A Few Good Men (1992)

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I had never seen A Few Good Men until recently, and, even though I knew the film’s famous quote (“You can’t handle the truth!”), I did not know that it belonged to this film. When my good friend TJ, Editor-in-Chief of MovieByte.com and head host of the site’s podcast, The MovieByte Podcast, on which I am his co-host, suggested that we review this film together, I said, “why not?,” and set out to watch it – and I had a great time talking about it with TJ on Episode 69 of The MovieByte Podcast!

A Few Good Men, directed by Rob Reiner (The Princess BrideThis is Spinal Tap) and with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin (The West WingThe Social NetworkMoneyball), is based on Sorkin’s 1989 play of the same name. When two US Marines are court-martialed for killing a fellow Marine, the young, inexperienced Navy lawyer Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) is assigned to the case. After striking a deal with the prosecution, Captain Jack Ross (Kevin Bacon), Kaffee learns from the defendants that their actions were the result of an order given by Lt. Jonathan James Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland), Kaffee drops the deal and takes the case to court. With help from Lt. Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak) and Lt. Commander JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore), Kaffee sets out to prove that the two Marines were merely acting on orders, bringing him against Kendrick and his superior, hardball Col. Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson).

Courtroom dramas are just fun, with the prime example being the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, based on Harper Lee’s book of the same name and starring Gregory Peck. Tom Cruise is no Atticus Finch, but his inherent on-screen likability works well for him here as he works to convince the jury of his clients’ innocence. For me, it was interesting seeing Cruise outside of an action role, and I certainly wish he did more of them because he’s excellent here. Demi Moore does a decent job of showing uncertainty from a character who is usually so sure of herself, and most of the other characters do a fine job as well, though they’re nothing to speak of. Jack Nicholson, however, is obviously the shining star of the film, despite his limited screen time, which can be compared to Anthony Hopkins’ performance as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, in which he was onscreen for only 12 minutes but still won the Academy Award. Though Jack Nicholson didn’t win the Academy Award for his performance here, he still does a fantastic job of portraying such a stubborn character, and his delivery of the classic line doesn’t at all feel forced or cliched. In fact, I think that that is Nicholson’s greatest strength as an actor: he is able to play crazy/angry/etc. so believably without it seeming forced.

The star behind the scenes here is Aaron Sorkin, who wrote both the screenplay and the original play that it is based on. His dialogue is sharp, and his storytelling is strong, and the relationships between characters develop nicely and provide several nice moments throughout the film. Most of the humor he writes into the script is good as well, though I must admit that there were a few jokes that seemed forced, being there simply for the purpose of being jokes rather than being a byproduct of something that actually advances the story.

On the whole, my complaints are minimal, and I was entertained throughout. A Few Good Men is a well-deserved classic that has withstood the test of time; I think that I was destined to like this film. With the combination of so many amazing talents – Rob Reiner, who directed one of my favorite films (The Princess Bride; (my review)), Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the screenplay for another of my favorite films (The Social Network), Tom Cruise, who I have only recently discovered and enjoyed in films such as Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (my review) and Oblivion (my review), and Jack Nicholson, one of my favorite actors (The ShiningOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) – what’s not to love?

-Chad

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

MPAA: R – for language