Star Trek Beyond **½|****

Zachary Quinto, Sofia Boutella and Karl Urban in Star Trek Beyond
Zachary Quinto, Sofia Boutella and Karl Urban in Star Trek Beyond

In one of the early scenes in the newest Star Trek installment, a world-weary Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) remarks in voiceover how life on the Enterprise has lost some of its luster and how “things feel a bit more episodic” than usual. Whether the comparison was intended or not, this seems to sum up the main issues that stem from Star Trek Beyond as a film and as a part of the rebooted franchise. By the standards of a summer blockbuster, it’s a serviceable sci-fi action outing but it can’t escape feeling like a by-the-numbers effort from a team that’s capable of delivering something much more memorable.

We pick things back up with the starship fleet as they undergo a rescue mission on behalf of an alien survivor whom they discover drifting aimlessly in an escape pod. When they arrive at what is supposed to be the remains of the survivor’s ship, it becomes evident that an ambush is afoot and the ensuing damage leaves the Enterprise decimated and its crew separated from one another in different areas of a nearby planet. With limited use of technology and without the resources of their ship, the crew members must reconvene to stop an emerging threat who means to take down the entire Federation.

This is the first Star Trek film directed by Fast & Furious alum Justin Lin and the absence of the now Star Wars-focused JJ Abrams is sorely felt here. Lin clearly knows how to put together a competent action scene and even does well with scenes of smaller character interactions but there’s just not the same sense of cohesion and momentum that Abrams developed with the previous two entries. This is most evident in the middle third of the movie, in which Lin attempts to juggle the varying locations and situations but doesn’t manage to pull these transitions off with the kind of kinetic energy that is seemingly secondhand to Abrams.

These stranded scenes offer some enticing pairings (Spock and Bones made up my favorite by far) and some that go absolutely nowhere (Sulu and Uhura don’t have nearly enough to do) but in either scenario, we don’t learn much more about the characters that we haven’t learned in previous Star Trek stories. Fortunately, the film finds some fresh blood in the form of a fierce alien scavenger named Jaylah, played by Algerian actress Sofia Boutella. Her tenacity, along with some exceptional costume design and makeup work, contribute to what seems to be the most compelling addition this time around.

The same can’t be said for the wonderfully talented Idris Elba, who’s stuck as another generic villain with a bit more of a backstory but not nearly enough in the way of plausible motivation. The biggest reason Into Darkness remains my favorite of this trilogy is because of the intelligence and menace that Benedict Cumberbatch brought to his antagonist and it’s a shame that Elba wasn’t able to do more with his character here as well. Star Trek Beyond is an ironic title for a film that doesn’t seem terribly interested in moving things forward but those looking for familiar comforts may come out with enough to be satisfied.

Ghostbusters **|****

Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon in Ghostbusters
Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon in Ghostbusters

There’s been so much said and written about this Sony-backed remake prior to its release that’s it’s hard to know exactly where to begin. I should start by saying that Ghostbusters is not nearly as lame and unfunny as its first trailer (statistically the most “disliked” in YouTube’s history) would suggest. There are some worthwhile laughs here and there and the chemistry between the four female leads is often very strong but in a world congested with a seemingly endless barrage of soulless reboots and sequels, this movie ultimately doesn’t do enough on an action or comedy level to justify its own existence.

The film covers many of the same beats as the original but does divert a bit in its origin story, which finds physics professor Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) in search of tenure at Columbia University when an embarrassing book she co-write years ago about paranormal studies begins to resurface on Amazon. It turns out that her co-author and estranged friend Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) is the one responsible for its presence online and she, along with lab geek Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), have continued to study paranormal activity all these years. When malicious apparitions begin to pop up around the city, the three women team up with pseudo-historian Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) to put the ghosts back in their place.

Director Paul Feig has a specialty for female-led comedies, most recently with last year’s Spy and most successfully with 2011’s Bridesmaids, but he too frequently gets into a bad habit of letting the improvisational talents of actresses like Wiig and McCarthy run too far without being able to reel things in. Many of the exchanges here feel off-the-cuff and while there’s no doubt you can make a funny movie with plenty of improv in it, it’s nevertheless a very hit-or-miss proposition. This time around, the absence of prepared lines of dialogue is often replaced with tepid riffs that feel re-hashed from past characters in each actresses’ career.

It doesn’t help that Wiig and McCarthy get stuck with “straight man” roles that constrict their comedic prowess while Saturday Night Live players McKinnon and Jones steal the show with their more sharply written characters. McKinnon is my personal favorite among the four here, bringing a relentless goofiness and affability to the “mad professor” stereotype that usually made her presence the most magnetic in the frame. Even though Jones does have a couple moments that involve her screaming hysterically to obnoxious effect (one is covered in the aforementioned trailer), she’s oddly the most grounded and believable character in the ghost-hunting action scenes.

Chris Hemsworth also scores a few laughs as the team’s clueless assistant (a line of questioning about his dog names Michael Hat was hysterical) but his character is such a dimwit that he never becomes much more than the butt of jokes about his staggering lack of intelligence. For a movie that’s purported to be progressive in regards to gender politics, it has a disconcerting lack of development in its male characters that often places them on a broad spectrum of foolishness. It’s more likely that this disparity is the result of lazy writing rather than an “agenda” that was consciously conceived but either way, Ghostbusters remains a frivolous and largely lifeless enterprise.

De Palma **½|****

Tom Cruise and Brian De Palma in De Palma
Tom Cruise and Brian De Palma in De Palma

For almost 50 years, filmmaker Brian De Palma has carved out his own signature style of sensationalism that has led to commercial hits (The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible), critical duds (Mission to Mars, The Black Dahlia) and others that found success further down the road (Scarface, Carlito’s Way). No matter what kind of movie he’s making, there’s never a doubt that everything he wants you to react to is right there on the screen. This kind of visceral approach can be thrilling in the moment and in De Palma’s case, produce some classic cinematic sequences but it doesn’t always leave much for the audience to look for under the surface.

Directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow seem to have lifted this ethic from their subject when making their new documentary De Palma about the director’s life and career. During their two-hour interview in which each of his films are discussed at varying lengths, there are plenty of great on-set anecdotes and enlightening bits of commentary about the film industry but not enough glimpses of introspection that might give us insight to his way of thinking. The end result is something a bit more shallow and matter-of-fact than it could have been but still worthwhile for those interested in digging into De Palma’s filmography.

Anyone familiar with his work can tell you how inspired he is by Alfred Hitchcock and I admired how Baumbach and Paltrow framed De Palma’s guiding principle of cinema as voyeurism from his first viewing of Vertigo in 1958. The act of “spying” as it correlates to an audience watching a movie is covered most clearly in Rear Window but De Palma argues that the subtext of Vertigo is just as relevant to how people consume films. Much in the way that Scottie works to transform Judy into his idolized image of “Madeleine”, we seek meaning in the characters that are presented to us by projecting our own experiences and values onto them, whether they truly apply or not.

After this introductory analysis and some biographical notes about his early life, the film then goes through the movies that De Palma has made through the years and some summarizing thoughts from the director on each work. Rather than making this a traditional talking head documentary with opinions from others on his work, the form is kept more candid and personal by allowing De Palma to talk through his own experiences with each project. However, it does make me wonder if some outside perspective could have allowed the filmmakers to dive deeper into the thematic strands of his work, as there isn’t as much connecting tissue between his films as I would have liked to have seen.

I confess I haven’t seen of the majority of the 25+ films covered in this documentary (Blow Out piqued my interest more than any other) but after seeing all of these clips together in one sitting, I’m eager to visit and re-visit the director’s work. De Palma may not be a “consensus” filmmaker but his divisiveness is clearly an integral part of what’s kept him around all of these years. It’s fitting, then, that I may have a mixed opinion on De Palma the documentary as I do De Palma the movie maker.

The Secret Life of Pets ***|****

Kevin Hart and Louis C.K. in The Secret Life Of Pets
Kevin Hart and Louis C.K. in The Secret Life Of Pets

The Secret Life of Pets, the new comedy from Illumination Entertainment, is about as fluffy and light and inconsequential as animated filmmaking gets. The stakes are uniformly low, the conflict is kept to a minimum and with the runtime coming in right at the 90 minute mark, the pace is fittingly breezy too. For some, this movie may seem too shallow and well, childish, but in a year where Disney has chosen to explore more mature themes in features like Zootopia and Finding Dory, a bit of old-fashioned, mindless fun turns out to be a nice change of pace.

The story centers around a loyal terrier named Max (Louis C.K.), whose pampered life is turned upside down when his owner adopts a boisterous and gigantic Newfoundland named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). After a day at the dog park goes wrong, the two are picked up by Animal Control but are aided in their escape by a deceptively cute rabbit named Snowball (Kevin Hart) and his team of rogue, abandoned pets. Meanwhile, a band of pets from Max’s building pool their efforts to scour the streets of New York City in an attempt to find the two lost dogs and bring them home safely.

Much like Illumination’s previous film Minions, Pets opens with a clever and engrossing montage that was covered a bit too thoroughly in the advertising previous to its release and feels a bit spoiled as a result. Still, it serves as a reliable framework and fitting introduction to the myriad of pet characters that exist in the giant apartment complex. Each pet really only has enough screen time to embody one or two personality traits (a Pomeranian named Gidget, for example, is a hopeless romantic who harbors feelings for Max) but much like the movie’s story and tone, the characterizations are appropriately nonchalant.

Though the characters aren’t as fleshed out as they could be, a stellar voice cast that also includes Dana Carvey and Albert Brooks bring a tremendous amount of heart and energy to their collective performances. Speaking of heart, this is already Kevin Hart’s third movie released this year (Chris Rock even had a joke in the Oscars back in February about how many movies he does) but he proves again why he’s such a sought-after comedic talent. He brings the same manic charisma to his voiceover work here as he does for his live-action roles and the film is all the better for it.

This also marks a significant bump up in animation quality for Illumination as well, whose previous work was certainly serviceable in that area but not usually considered a focal point of their brand. Here, the setting of New York City in autumn leads to an animation design that’s crisp and vibrant, filled with all sorts of rich detail that’s always pleasing to the eye. Much like the simple comfort of cuddling with a loving dog after a long day at work, The Secret Life of Pets is a welcome distraction from the increasingly troubled world in which we live.

Weiner ****|****

Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin in Weiner
Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin in Weiner

By now, the outrageous sexting scandal that turned former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner from promising mayoral contender to political pariah has been covered so ad nauseam from the mainstream media, it’s hard to believe that there’s much more left to discover. His name has served as a punching bag for comedians and pundits everywhere but it seemed only inevitable that the details of the story would get buried under torrents of pun-laden headlines. The fascinating fly-on-the-wall documentary Weiner by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg provides unprecedented access into just how tumultuous the ordeal was not only for Weiner’s personal and political life but for those closest to him as well.

After a lascivious Twitter photo forced Weiner to resign from Congress in 2011, his camp’s reaction was to lay low with the hopes of making a strong showing in the upcoming 2013 election for New York Mayor. The film charts his improbable rise to the top of the polls, bolstered by New York citizens eager to give the disgraced statesman a second chance despite underlying issues of trust and credibility. Just when it seems that a true comeback story is underway, the second wave of unsavory personal texts and photos emerge and send his campaign into a death spiral from which it would never recover.

Much like the coverage of the scandal that came to define its subject, this film has the sort of compulsively watchable, train-wreck quality to it that will no doubt have audiences wincing, gawking and nervously chuckling all at once. But because the scope is so focused on Weiner and his hopelessly outmatched campaign staff, it rarely comes across as sensationalized as the media scrutiny that is itself reflected in the story as well. All of the small moments of triumph and tragedy still feel personalized enough to retain the human scale of this unmitigated political disaster.

Much of this is encapsulated by the tense and often terse interactions between Weiner and his wife Huma Abedin, herself a longtime aide to Hillary Clinton with plenty at stake in her political career. The layers of pain and humiliation that she attempts to conceal not only from the news cameras but also from those filming her for the documentary is nothing short of heartbreaking. It’s fair to speculate why Abedin, having been put through such public indignation, would not only stay with Weiner but also take such an active role in trying to get him elected.

Late in the film, one of the documentarians literally asks its subject “why are you letting me film this?” It’s clear that Weiner doesn’t have a compelling answer. Is it because he’s a rampant narcissist, desperate for any means of attention, no matter how humiliating? Is it yet another political play, with the hopes that a “warts and all” approach will persuade future voters? Weiner doesn’t have overt answers to any of those questions, which may frustrate viewers who expect a condemnation or exoneration of its subject but should delight anyone seeking a compelling character study of a potentially unknowable public figure.