Movie review: ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ a beautifully animated, charming film for all ages

kubo-and-monkeyMid to late August is sometimes seen as a dumping ground for movies Hollywood doesn’t have a lot of confidence in. Either the quality is mediocre or the studio fears it will become a flop. These movies just can’t compete with the big-ticket summer blockbusters. However, every once in a while you’ll find a hidden, late-summer gem, and one of those movies is “Kubo and the Two Strings,” out in theaters this past weekend. Although “Kubo” debuted at the box office in fourth place with just $12.6 million, this imaginative, beautifully-animated film is worth seeking out.

Currently sitting at 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, “Kubo and the Two Strings” is a product of animation studio Laika Entertainment, which also created “Coraline” and “ParaNorman.” The studio is known for its stop motion computer animated visuals. Kubo follows a young boy with a magical Japanese instrument called a “shamisen” who lives with his mother in a cave on the outskirts of a small village. Every day Kubo travels to the village to earn money by telling stories, using his magical instrument to bring origami creations to life. His mother has warned Kubo not to venture outside after dark, because his evil aunts and grandfather, the Moon King, will come for him.

Although Kubo doesn’t mean to be intentionally disobedient, one night he stays out in the village just a little too late, and something terrible happens. He is then sent on a quest to find his father’s armor, which will protect him from evil. He meets some new friends along the way — a talking monkey and a warrior who has been transformed into a half-beetle, half-Samurai — and learns he has the strength to be a hero just like his parents, even though they are no longer with him.

I’ll admit the premise sounds a bit strange, as does the film’s title, “Kubo and the Two Strings.” But the story is actually very intriguing and heartfelt, and after watching the film, the title seems perfect (I don’t want to explain any more, though, because I don’t want to spoil the film’s ending, or reveal what the “two strings” are and why they’re important). The film blends elements of mysticism and Japanese culture with the timeless themes of family and love.

And of course, the animation is absolutely gorgeous. Kubo’s quest takes him to a snowy wasteland, the strange, underwater “Garden of Eyes,” a magical cave, and more, and all are beautifully animated with lots of attention to detail. Some of my favorite parts are when Kubo is using music and storytelling to bring his origami to life in bright bursts of color.

While the film is family-friendly, it isn’t just for kids, and adults will find plenty to keep them engaged. It’s a refreshingly simple and self-contained story (no pop culture in-jokes or frenetic animation with too many things going on at once). Also, be warned—the film’s ending is rather bittersweet, and you might see a few misty eyes in the theater.

In short, “Kubo” probably won’t make a big splash at the box office this summer, but if you have a chance to see it, it’s well worth a watch. It’s an enchanting little film about the power of love, family, and yes, origami.

Blockbusters, bad buzz, and box office bombs: Summer 2016 in review

captain_america__civil_war___international_banner_by_ratohnhaketon645-d9yyuugWell, that was…interesting. I was trying to come up with a sentence to summarize my thoughts on the 2016 summer blockbuster season, and that’s what I ended up with. As a whole, this summer seemed to have a larger number of misfires than normal, and quite a few major releases that either failed to perform at the box office or live up to audience expectations.

Of course, “Captain America: Civil War” did get things off to a strong start, with an impressive $179 million opening weekend and a 90 percent Rotten Tomatoes score. It’s currently tied for my favorite movie of the summer. However, from there things got rockier, and quite a few sequels, reboots, and remakes under-performed. “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “The Legend of Tarzan,” “Independence Day: Resurgence,” “Now You See Me 2,” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” seemed to come and go without a lot of fanfare. The video game adaptation “Warcraft” also failed to do much at the U.S. box office, though it picked up some steam overseas.

So, what happened? Although it could have something do with audiences simply getting tired of “more of the same,” that isn’t all of it, since two sequels, “Captain America: Civil War” and “Finding Dory,” performed very well. Perhaps the other films simply didn’t bring enough new material to their franchises or fully play up the nostalgia factor, like “Jurassic World” did last summer. Maybe the window of opportunity for films like the “Independence Day” sequel had already passed.

We also saw that bad buzz — or even simply minimal buzz — can hurt a film. I’ve always wondered what kind of power Rotten Tomatoes scores have on the average movie viewer (all the under-performers listed above did have negative Rotten Tomatoes scores). Maybe audience members don’t necessarily pay attention to those scores, but if a film isn’t getting a lot of good buzz, people might just elect to stay home. Online streaming services like Netflix are giving consumers access to more and more content, including older movies and TV shows and fresh, original content. If there’s nothing amazing in the theater, they can just stay home and easily find something to watch online. Besides, the cost of a month’s subscription to Netflix and a bowl of popcorn at home is far less expensive than the cost of taking a family to the theater every weekend, with tickets + concessions.

I think poor buzz contributed to the under-performance of “Ghostbusters” and “X-Men: Apocalypse,” which is a shame because I quite liked both of these films. Granted, “Apocalypse” might have been a little too hard to follow for viewers who weren’t super-fans of the film series (the film has lots of references to what’s happened before). But the film has some fun scenes and great performances, once again, from James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as prequel-era Professor X and Magneto. “Ghostbusters” actually drew a lot of anger from some fans, and I believe it’s unlikely we’ll get a sequel. While of course it’s okay to be concerned about a reboot or to ultimately dislike it, the online chatter about this film turned rather nasty and sadly veered in a racist and sexist direction.😦

Speaking of negative online chatter, Warner Bros.’ hotly-anticipated super villain round-up “Suicide Squad” created quite a stir when it drew really, really bad reviews. Some fans even called for Rotten Tomatoes to be shut down and complained that Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were too good and should never have been made because they set an unrealistic standard for DC Comics movies (yes, I really saw someone arguing that). “Suicide Squad” isn’t a terrible film, but it is fair to say it wasn’t as good as it could have been. Although it boasted a $133 million opening weekend, I think its drop-off will be steep. At this point, Warner Bros. really needs the Wonder Woman movie to be a critical AND commercial hit, or their films post “Justice League” may be dead in the water.

Finally, a film that was close to my heart was “Star Trek: Beyond.” This movie really felt like a love letter to the Original Series and showed off the great chemistry among this reboot cast. Unfortunately, it under-performed at the box office too, and now I’m afraid Paramount won’t go ahead with that fourth movie they announced. This was a great movie, and I really hope we get to see more from this cast.

In conclusion, overall I was a little disappointed in this summer blockbuster season, and right now “Star Trek: Beyond” and “Captain America: Civil War” are the only movies with guaranteed slots on my “best of the year” list (in fact, they’re the only movies to make that list so far this year). However, the fall and winter season should chase some of these summer blahs away. “Doctor Strange,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” and “Rogue One” all look fantastic.

So, what did you think of the movies this summer? What films did you like or dislike?

Movie review: ‘Suicide Squad’ has entertaining moments, but doesn’t live up to its full potential

squadAlthough “Captain America: Civil War” and “Star Trek: Beyond” were always the films I was most looking forward to this summer, “Suicide Squad” was my dark horse pick for biggest surprise hit. It had a “Guardians of the Galaxy” vibe: it looked risky, funny, and creative — and in this case, also really, really dark. It may be in the superhero genre, but these characters definitely aren’t “heroes.” “Suicide Squad” promised a round-up of notorious DC Comics villains who are recruited, against their will, to team up and try to save the world without killing each other first (and you thought the Avengers had problems).

The trailers for this film were fantastic, so it came as a great surprise when the reviews started rolling in and they were…terrible. With a painful Rotten Tomatoes score of only 26 percent, critics called the film disappointing, muddled, and choppy. Certainly not the result fans were hoping for. However, I had been really looking forward to this movie, so I went to see it over the weekend anyway. Bottom line? “Suicide Squad” is probably taking more flak than it deserves, and it is by no means a terrible movie. I liked the characters, and I found the film to be entertaining. However, it’s also fair to say that “Suicide Squad” falls far short of its potential. Ultimately, I walked out of the theater feeling a little disappointed, because the film actually had all the ingredients it needed to be great. These ingredients just didn’t gel like they could have — and should have.

A quick summary of the plot: U.S. intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) fears for the future of humanity after the rise of powerful beings like Superman who can’t be contained by ordinary force. So, she puts together a team of violent, barely controlled metahumans and bad guys to combat these new threats as they arrive. Because the members of this “suicide squad” can’t be counted on to participate based on a mere sense of altruism, Waller implants them with tiny bombs that will explode if they refuse to cooperate. Although they don’t exactly convert to the light side by the end of the film, they do find a dysfunctional sense of family and acceptance they probably never experienced before.

My favorite part of the film was learning about the characters that make up the Suicide Squad, and I appreciated the film’s effort to humanize these characters while also acknowledging their very serious flaws. Margot Robbie and Will Smith do a lot of the heavy lifting as the Joker’s girlfriend Harley Quinn and eagle-eye hitman Deadshot, respectively. Deadshot is actually the least “bad” member of this team of villains; his love for his young daughter pulls him towards the light. As Harley Quinn, Margot Robbie is gleefully unhinged; her character is fascinating, heartbreaking, and completely crazy. Her relationship with the Joker is about as unhealthy and damaging as a relationship can be, but he’s twisted her mind too much for her to see that anymore. I think my favorite character, though, was actually El Diablo, played by Jay Hernandez. He’s a former gang member who can conjure fire but refuses to use his power because of the damage it can cause. He’s plagued by guilt and grief for his mistakes in the past, and it’s a surprisingly heartfelt performance.

I’ve heard mixed reactions to Jared Leto’s much-hyped take on the Joker, but I actually really liked it. Heath Ledger from the Dark Knight trilogy is definitely a tough act to follow, but I thought Leto brought something new to the role. His take on the character is the Joker we needed for this film (I can’t really see Ledger’s version romancing Harley Quinn).

The cast and characters are great, and the concept for the film is great — so, what caused this film to stumble? I’ve heard rumors the script was rushed so the project could start on time, and that theory makes a lot of sense as you actually watch the film. It suffers from some of the same problems as “Batman v. Superman” earlier this year; the whole film does seem a bit choppy and muddled, as if it needed more time to truly coalesce (and some better editing). I liked the film’s method of introducing the characters — Amanda Waller whips out a binder and gives you a quick rundown on each team member. However, several characters just seemed awkwardly tacked on (I’m looking at you Katana and Slipknot). I understand that they needed at least one “expendable crewman” to demonstrate that yes, Waller really is sadistic enough to kill a team member who gets out of line. But I feel that ultimately, some of those introductions could have been handled more smoothly. I would have liked to see just a couple more scenes of the Suicide Squad members interacting together before Waller sends them out to face the “big bad”; maybe a training montage or even a mini trial mission would have helped. The film’s villain also feels underdeveloped, and her “evil plan” is oddly reminiscent of “Ghostbusters.”

In short, “Suicide Squad” is an entertaining film that falls short of greatness, which really is a shame because it could have been so much more. In the end, it almost feels a little too safe, which is strange for a film about a team of ragtag villains whose members include Harley Quinn, a man who can set himself on fire, and a mutant who looks like a crocodile. It’s possible the film was held back a little by its PG-13 rating, but I think they still could have done more within these constraints to make this darker, edgier, and funnier. Hopefully the next outing will deploy these fascinating characters a little more successfully.

Movie review: Jason Bourne returns for spy movie sequel

shareSuper spies Jason Bourne and James Bond may share the same initials, but that’s pretty much where the similarities stop. James Bond is the type of spy we all secretly daydream about being: he drives a fancy car, travels to exotic locations, has a bunch of cool gadgets, and always manages to arrive in style. He gets in just enough danger to keep things exciting, but we never doubt he’ll save the day.

Although the Jason Bourne movies are entertaining to watch, I definitely wouldn’t want to be him. The Bourne movies are grittier and far less stylized — and, in theory, a little closer to what life is probably like for spies in the real world. There are no fancy hotels or martinis “shaken, not stirred” for Bourne. His domains are grimy alleyways, dingy apartments off the grid, and whatever vehicle he can find. He operates in the moral gray area, and learns the government agency he is working for may be almost as corrupt as the “bad guys” he’s supposed to be fighting.

It’s been almost a decade since we last saw Jason Bourne in theaters (if you don’t count the 2012 spin-off “The Bourne Legacy,” starring Jeremy Renner). Director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon brought the character back this summer, in a sequel titled simply “Jason Bourne.” Was the sequel worth the wait?

Since it’s been a few years since the last Bourne movie, here’s a quick refresher course. In 2002’s “The Bourne Identity,” Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is found drifting in the Mediterranean Sea with gunshot wounds in his back, the number for a Swiss safety deposit box, and a severe case of amnesia. As he struggles to put the pieces of his past back together, he learns he’s a CIA assassin who was part of a top secret program known as “Operation Treadstone.” He exposes CIA corruption but then is forced to go underground at the end of “The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007).

At the start of the new film, Bourne is still operating off the grid, using his skills to earn what money he can in illegal fighting rings. After an old contact reaches out to him, claiming she has some new information about his past, Bourne becomes a CIA target once again. The CIA director is determined to do whatever is necessary to silence him, but Bourne may find some unexpected allies within the organization.

When the first Bourne movie came out in 2002, it tapped into our very real post 9-11 fears about national security and the ethical debate about how far our government should go to keep people safe. Jason Bourne struggles with his role as an assassin; is he a hero for stopping international threats, or he is simply a cold-blooded killer who may one day take things a step too far? Those themes made the original Bourne movies a taut, thrilling trilogy that was well received by critics (all three are 80+ percent on Rotten Tomatoes).

The new movie has the same tone and style, with the gritty action that drew fans to this series. However, the Rotten Tomatoes summary perhaps says it best: “‘Jason Bourne’ delivers fans of the franchise more of what they’ve come to expect — which is this sequel’s biggest selling point as well as its greatest flaw.” The new movie is exciting and action-packed, but, in the end, doesn’t really bring anything new to the franchise.

The best parts of the movie are the intense action sequences, and the performance from Matt Damon as conflicted spy Jason Bourne. While I love the Bond movies (my all-time favorite spy franchise), I like the different perspective the Bourne movies bring to the genre. The series really delves into the moral gray areas of espionage. Bourne feels guilty for his past actions and is unable to justify all that has been done in the name of national security. In this outing, I liked the contrast between his character and CIA director Robert Dewey, played with cold pragmatism by Tommy Lee Jones.

Overall, though, the film felt a bit too familiar; it fits in comfortably with the franchise but doesn’t really cover new ground. I appreciated how they worked in some of our current fears about privacy and social media, but I wished that theme had been fleshed out more. Although the film is entertaining and well executed, it came with just a little too much déjà vu.

Movie review: ‘Star Trek: Beyond’ goes back to the basics

beyond1-socialIt’s now three years into the USS Enterprise’s five-year mission, and the crew is beginning to feel a little…strained. They have encountered numerous wonders in their journey through the stars, experienced thrilling adventures, and witnessed the awe-inspiring beauty of deep space. However, they’ve also learned that space can be as cold and lonely as it is fascinating, and when you are venturing this far from home into the uncharted vastness of the universe, it is all too easy to get lost — both literally and figuratively.

The beginning of “Star Trek: Beyond” finds Captain James T. Kirk feeling both lost and lonely. He is now a year older than his father lived to be, and he is questioning his own purpose in Starfleet. His father joined Starfleet because he believed in the mission; Kirk just joined on a dare. He wonders what he is really accomplishing, and if his work really means anything. It takes a dangerous mission that strands the Enterprise crew on a hostile world — and the resurrection of some ghosts from Starfleet’s past — to remind Captain Kirk why it’s important to keep boldly going where no one has gone before.

After the somewhat controversial “Into Darkness,” “Star Trek: Beyond” will be, for many fans, a welcome return to form. It doesn’t really venture into new territory for the franchise, but that’s actually okay. It feels like a jumbo episode from the Original Series, with a great mix of humor and action, plus a chance for the characters we know and love to shine. It’s a worthy addition to the franchise. (Note: This review is mostly spoiler free, and the brief spoiler I did include has been clearly marked, in case those who’ve seen the movie want to discuss that plot point in the comments.) 

I’m actually a fan of both J.J. Abrams Trek reboot films, even though I know some fans did not like “Into Darkness,” which re-imagines the famous Khan storyline. However, I am glad that with “Beyond,” the film makers chose to pursue an original story and introduce some new characters, rather than trying to recreate another storyline from the Original Series. Justin Lin takes over the helm this go-around, and while I admit I was initially a little skeptical about the director from “The Fast and the Furious” franchise taking on Star Trek, he proves to be more than capable of handling the job. It did take me a bit to adjust to his tone, which is a little different from Abrams’ style, but I was impressed by the way he handled the characters and the story. He takes the viewers on a fun ride.

It’s always great to see the Enterprise on the big screen, and although there’s now almost a running joke about how many times the Enterprise gets destroyed in these films, Justin Lin does destroy the ship in spectacular fashion. The film’s primary villain, a mysterious alien named Krall (Idris Elba), commands a fleet of ships the Enterprise crew members nickname “the bees” since they fly in a terrifying, overwhelming swarm. These “bees” dismantle the Enterprise in space and send it crashing towards a planet where more dangers await.

The story is fairly simple and straight-forward, which allows plenty of time for nice character moments. I think sometimes Chris Pine is underappreciated as an actor, and I’ve really enjoyed how he has grown his character throughout this series. Captain Kirk starts out the Trek reboot films as a reckless, womanizing delinquent who’s running from his destiny; in “Into Darkness,” he’s come a long way, but we still get the sense he doesn’t fully appreciate the solemn responsibility of command. Now, in “Beyond,” he’s still brash and tends to leap before he looks, but we can see he has matured as a captain. He has lived up to the sense of promise Christopher Pike saw in him years ago.

These Trek reboot films really have been perfectly cast, and each character gets a special moment in this film. I loved how the film maroons Spock and McCoy (Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban) together on the alien planet, apart from the rest of the crew. We haven’t gotten a chance to see as much of their love-hate relationship in the newer Trek films, so it’s nice to see them get an opportunity to both bicker and deepen their friendship. We also get to see some good moments with Scotty (played by Simon Pegg, who also helped write the film). I enjoyed the introduction of a new female character, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who can more than hold her own in a fight.

The film’s main weakness is actually shared by many summer blockbusters: not *quite* enough development for the villain. Idris Elba is a fine actor, and I liked how he played the character Krall. I also appreciated the twist at the end involving his character. ***Spoiler alert!*** Krall is actually an officer from the beginning of Starfleet who has mutated and unnaturally prolonged his life. He wasn’t able to adapt to Starfleet’s new mandate to pursue peace with its former enemies, and he’s been waiting a long time to seek revenge. It’s an interesting concept for a villain and seems very relevant considering the violence our world has been experiencing of late. It’s not always easy to forgive what’s happened in the past and choose peace instead of revenge, but it’s always the better path. I think the film could have done just a little more to flesh out that theme, and the character. ***End spoiler!***

Overall, “Star Trek: Beyond” is a fun action film that leaves plenty of time for character development, and I believe most Star Trek fans will be very pleased. I’m excited to hear Paramount is already planning a fourth film, although it is a somewhat bittersweet announcement. “Beyond” does address the passing of Leonard Nimoy, and it also marks the final outing for Anton Yelchin, who plays the young Chekov and passed away earlier this summer due to a tragic accident. I understand his role will not be recast in the next movie, and I think that’s a nice gesture. It would be great if the film would reference Chekov being promoted to first officer on another starship; I like the thought of his character still out there, exploring the stars.

“Star Trek: Beyond” gets a big thumb’s up from me, and I hope the franchise continues to go boldly into the future.

 

Summer Star Trek Blog-a-Thon: ‘First Contact’

1457364666-Star_Trek_Generation_Star_Trek_First_Contact_tickets_3To wrap up my summer Star Trek blog-a-thon, before “Star Trek: Beyond” hits theaters this weekend, I decided to watch my first Next Generation movie, titled — appropriately enough — “First Contact.” I’ve watched a few Next Generation episodes before but hadn’t ever delved into the movies featuring that cast. Although the Original Series crew will always be my favorite, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (played by Patrick Stewart) is one of my favorite Enterprise captains.

“First Contact” appears to be generally regarded as the best Next Generation film, bringing back popular Next Gen baddies “the Borg” and mixing in elements of time travel. In the film, Captain Picard and his crew arrive to defend Earth from a Borg attack, only to find that the technology-loving Borg plan to travel back in time and “assimilate” all humans, turning them in Borg as well. They seek to prevent a key event in Earth history known as “first contact” — the day humans meet their first alien race, the Vulcans. Naturally, Picard and his crew aren’t about to let that happen. They fight to make sure first contact still occurs while also saving the Enterprise from a Borg infestation.

Although this film was released in 1996, now 20 years ago, I was impressed by how well its special effects have held up over time. The Enterprise looks great, and I liked the contrasting style of the Borg ship, which is basically just a giant cube floating through space. I also liked the make-up/costumes of the Borg characters; they are made up of both organic material and technology, with complicated electronic modifications on their bodies. Their quest to “assimilate” lifeforms involves them stripping individuality and personal choice from their subjects, turning them into drones that function as part of a hive mind.

Star Trek has always been about exploring interesting themes through the platform of science fiction, and “First Contact” is no exception. One of those themes is the concept of revenge and how we should never let the desire for it consume us. Captain Picard’s judgement in this movie is sometimes clouded by his desire to get revenge on the Borg, especially after they attempted to assimilate him in a previous storyline. He refuses to blow up the Enterprise in order to destroy the Borg, because he feels that blowing up the ship would compromise his victory. He wants to stay and fight until the bitter end. He doesn’t see the light until he hears a comparison of himself to Captain Ahab from “Moby-Dick,” and then he realizes stopping the threat of the Borg is more important than proving he is a superior strategist.

I also liked how the film touched on the fact that sometimes the people who do great things aren’t always great themselves. In the future, Zefram Cochrane, the man who creates the warp drive and flies the ship that makes first contact, is lauded as a heroic visionary. However, when some of the Enterprise crew members actually meet him, they find he is actually a cowardly drunk. It made me wonder if some of the visionaries we look up to from history were maybe not as great as we like to remember them. Without digging too deeply, you can probably find quite a bit of dirt on famous historical figures. Still, this also goes to show that we shouldn’t look past someone just because they don’t seem heroic. Sometimes all they need is a little push (or, in Cochrane’s case, a really BIG push) to do something great.

I enjoyed my first Next Generation film, and it made me want to watch more episodes of the TV series. I didn’t enjoy this movie *quite* as much as my favorite Original Series films, “The Wrath of Khan” and J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot, but like I said before, I have a definite bias towards the Original Series crew.😉

Well, I guess that wraps up my summer Star Trek blog-a-thon — thanks to everyone who followed along! I’m very excited to see “Star Trek: Beyond” this weekend, especially since the reviews seem very positive so far.

Movie review: Does the new ‘Ghostbusters’ live up to the original?

ghostbusters-full-new-imgThe original 1984 “Ghostbusters” has become a comedy classic, thanks to its quirky plot — featuring four somewhat bumbling paranormal investigators who try to stop a ghostly apocalypse in New York City — and the ad-libbing talents of stars like Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd. It wasn’t a film that was really screaming for a remake, so fans were naturally a little skeptical when a reboot was announced. Unfortunately, the backlash from some quarters turned rather nasty, with some of the anger directed at the new all-female cast. The trailer even became the most disliked film trailer on YouTube.

However, now that the movie is out, what’s the actual verdict? While it’s still fair to say “Ghostbusters” didn’t really need a remake and the new film won’t replace the original, the reboot is very fun and entertaining. I loved the chemistry between the members of the new team, and there are some great cameos of characters from the original film (including a certain Stay Puft Marshmallow Man).

I’d definitely classify the new “Ghostbusters” as more of a re-imagining than a remake; it pays homage to the original film but isn’t a direct copy of the plot. Kristen Wiig plays a straight-laced Columbia University professor named Erin Gilbert who has tried to distance herself from her paranormal investigating past and her former friend and ghost hunting partner Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy). When Erin is caught on video after actually witnessing a ghost at a haunted mansion, she gets fired from her university job. Erin decides to embrace her past and teams up with Abby, wacky engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), and experienced New Yorker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) to start a paranormal investigation business called the Ghostbusters. After the Ghostbusters uncover a plot to unleash an apocalyptic supernatural horde on New York City, they risk their lives to save their city, proving once and for all that these girls “ain’t afraid of no ghosts.”

The film does have a few weaknesses, one of which is a villain who isn’t fully utilized and isn’t as memorable a plot device as the demons that possess Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis in the original film. It also feels like overall, director Paul Feig tries to play things just a little too safe, and I believe he could have ventured a little further from the plot of the original film and still pulled it off.

However, the movie is still very much worth watching for fans of the original and for those who are encountering the franchise for the first time. The film is at its best when it allows its stars — most of whom are SNL alums — to just cut loose and do what they do best: being funny. The leads all bring something unique to the team, and Chris Hemsworth is also hilarious as their dimwitted receptionist Kevin. This is a different sort of role for Hemsworth, and he proves to be a good sport as he parodies his own beefcake persona.

I also enjoyed the special effects; even though the ghosts looked a little cartoony, I thought this fit well with the spirit of the film and also hearkens back to the original. This isn’t meant to be a scary film — it’s meant to be fun.

In short, don’t let the bad buzz scare you off — the new “Ghostbusters” is very entertaining and manages to tell its own story while also paying tribute to the original.

Summer Star Trek Blog-a-Thon: ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Into Darkness’

StarTrek_2768178bAlthough Star Trek has been a part of pop culture since the 1960s, in the mid-2000s the franchise hit a rough patch. The most recent TV series, “Enterprise,” had been cancelled, and the last Star Trek movie in theaters had performed poorly at the box office. The franchise needed a shot of adrenaline, and it received one courtesy of J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot, simply titled “Star Trek.” The film brought back the Original Series characters but featured a plot with a time-traveling element, setting up an alternate timeline that allowed film makers to change the characters’ destinies.

Over the weekend, I re-watched both “Star Trek” and its 2013 follow-up, “Into Darkness.” Here’s some of my brief thoughts on both:

“Star Trek” (2009)

To me, this film is pretty much flawless. Although it’s action-packed with dazzling special effects (that first full-on shot of the U.S.S. Enterprise in the space dock is still breathtaking!), I feel like most of the focus is placed on the characters. The new actors do a great job honoring their Original Series counterparts and while also bringing their own touches to the characters, allowing them both to pay homage to what’s come before but also re-imagining these well-loved characters in an interesting way. Another thing I appreciated is the use of humor in the film; the Original Series is a fun TV show, and J.J. Abrams captured that same spirit. And of course, one of the most important highlights is the extended cameo from Leonard Nimoy, the original Spock; his presence helps pass the torch to this new generation of actors.

I could probably keep gushing on about this film, but I’ll stop myself.😉 It’s one of my all-time favorite movies and it’s probably the single movie I’ve watched the most times (I lost count after about 15). However, I do know that some Trek fans have mixed feelings about the reboot films, and I’ve even read comments from some who feel that “new Trek” fans aren’t even real fans.

I’ll always have a special place in my heart for J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot film, though, because for me it was the gateway to the rest of Star Trek. Even though I had watched Star Trek reruns as a kid, it never really clicked for me, and I’d always been more of a Star Wars fan. I actually went to see the 2009 film because some friends of mine who were really into Star Trek wanted to see it and I thought the trailer looked “interesting.” However, walking out of that theater I felt exhilarated. I started going back and re-watching the TV series and movies featuring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and the other Original Series actors, and I fell in love with them too. I started really understanding the magic of Star Trek.

I think it’s great that these films are introducing a new generation of fans to Star Trek, and it’s possible the success of these films helped make the upcoming 2017 TV series happen.

“Into Darkness” (2013)

Although J.J. Abrams’ follow-up “Into Darkness” was also well-received by critics, it was a bit more polarizing amongst fans due to Abrams’ gutsy decision to play around with a favorite Trek story arc: the rise and fall of vengeful super-human Khan.

A quick refresher on the plot: Benedict Cumberbatch plays a terrorist named John Harrison who is on Starfleet’s most-wanted list after bombing a building. Kirk and his crew are dispatched to find Harrison, only to discover he’s actually a super human named Khan. They also learn Khan isn’t the only villain at large; the revelation about his identity also uncovers corruption at the highest level of Starfleet. With the Enterprise left crippled and stranded in space, Kirk must to do the right thing — and make the ultimate sacrifice — to save his crew.

I actually really liked this film, even though it sometimes gets a bad rap. I don’t mind the retelling of the Khan story, especially since Abrams takes the character and the story in a new direction. I think it’s more of a re-imagining than a rehash. However, I think this film would have worked just as well if they’d simply let Cumberbatch play an original character named John Harrison with a grudge against Starfleet. There’s enough going on in this film that you don’t actually need the Khan element to make it work. I liked the film’s message that we have to be careful not to create our own demons.

Chris Pine gets to show off more of his acting range in this film, as Kirk begins to face some of the consequences of his actions. After bucking the rules too many times, Starfleet takes the Enterprise away from him — and Pine makes you feel the gut punch of that loss. I also liked how they switched up the famous scene at the end of “The Wrath of Khan,” where Spock died saving the Enterprise crew, and this time it’s Kirk that dies. I felt that both scenes show the power of Kirk and Spock’s friendship, and they demonstrate that both are equally willing to die for each other and their crew.

So, what do you think of the Star Trek reboots? Love them? Hate them? Somewhere in between?

Summer Star Trek Blog-a-Thon: ‘The Undiscovered Country’

Star-Trek-6-crewSometimes the hardest part of embracing the future is letting go of the past, especially when that “letting go” requires a difficult act of forgiveness. For Captain James T. Kirk, that means advocating for peace and relinquishing his long-held grudge against the Klingons — and coming to terms with his son’s death.

In “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,” the Klingon moon Praxis explodes and threatens to collapse the Klingon Empire. In a surprising move, the war-like Klingons turn from their long history of hostility and reach out to the Federation with an offer of peace. Although Kirk is skeptical this offer is genuine, he’s dispatched with the crew of the Enterprise to meet the Klingon chancellor and escort his ship to negotiations on Earth. Kirk hasn’t forgiven the Klingons for the death of his son, David, but he accepts the assignment anyway.

Unfortunately, not everyone is willing to take the high road like Kirk and his crew. After the ships rendezvous, the Klingon ship is hit by torpedoes, which appear to come from the Enterprise. Two mysterious assassins wearing spacesuits beam abroad the Klingon vessel and kill the chancellor. Although innocent, Kirk and his crew are blamed for the incident, and they have to scramble to find the real assassins and clear their names before all hope for peace is lost.

“The Undiscovered Country” is the last film to feature the cast of the Original Series in its entirety, and it’s a bittersweet send-off for these well-loved science fiction icons. In many ways, it’s actually two films in one: there’s a suspenseful “whodunit,” which requires the crew of the Enterprise to play detective and find out who really killed the Klingons, and then there’s the political parable that examines the difficulty of letting go of past prejudices for the sake of progress.

It’s tough to blame Kirk for his mistrust of the Klingons, and I’m sure that to him, offering peace to the Klingons feels like giving them a free pass and glossing over their past crimes. However, he comes to realize that by offering forgiveness, he is giving future generations a chance to live in a better world with less conflict. This is a new way of “boldly going where no man has gone before,” and Kirk’s final mission with the Enterprise becomes one of his most important.

Although there are some serious themes in “The Undiscovered Country,” one of the things I appreciate most about the TV episodes and films featuring the Original Series characters is the use of humor and the spirit of fun. “The Undiscovered Country” has some nice lighter moments, including a culture clash at a dinner party with the Klingons (that leaves many of the Enterprise crew members with a killer post-Romulan ale hangover); some Klingons who unexpectedly spout Shakespeare; and a jab at Kirk’s reputation for romancing his way across the galaxy.

The special effects in “The Undiscovered Country” and many of the Original Series films haven’t aged as well as “Star Wars,” but the stories and characters are still just as good. Although I’ll always wish we got more than three seasons of the TV series, it’s pretty remarkable that the show built up enough of a following in its short run to generate six movies and then many spin-offs. I’m also glad J.J. Abrams was able to bring the characters back in his 2009 reboot, and the new actors do a good job carrying on the spirit of the original show.

And speaking of J.J. Abrams, up next on the blog-a-thon schedule is the first of his reboot films, “Star Trek”!

Summer Star Trek Blog-a-Thon: ‘The Voyage Home’

star-trek-iv-the-voyage-homeAfter a week’s vacation (my very first trip to Disney World — I had a blast!), I’m ready to dive back into my summer Star Trek blog-a-thon. This week I’d like to take a look at another film featuring the Original Series cast, “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.” However, before I do, I want to acknowledge a very sad bit of news I learned during my trip: the death of actor Anton Yelchin, who plays the younger version of Chekov in the Star Trek reboot films.

J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot film, simply called “Star Trek,” is near and dear to my heart, since it’s the film that sparked my love for the Trek franchise, particularly the characters from the Original Series. Yelchin was funny, warm, and lovable as Chekov in these movies; like all the cast members in the reboot films, he honored the original show while also bringing something new to the franchise. His promising career was cut short, and watching “Star Trek: Beyond” in July will be bittersweet for fans. It is Yelchin’s last appearance in a role he should have played many times more. He will be missed.

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“Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” is one of my favorite Star Trek films, and it’s also one of the most unusual (it’s commonly known as “the one where Spock swims with whales”). Directed by Leonard Nimoy, the film kicks off with a mysterious alien probe broadcasting a signal that inadvertently creates deadly changes to Earth’s climate. The signals the probe is broadcasting are actually humpback whale songs, but there are no humpback whales on Earth to answer because they’ve gone extinct. Captain Kirk and the Enterprise crew cook up a plan to travel back in time to the 1980s to rescue some whales and bring them to the future so they can communicate with the probe and save the Earth. Unsurprisingly, the crew has a somewhat challenging time fitting into 1980s culture, particularly Spock, who is still adjusting from being brought back to life in “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.”

As I type up the plot synopsis, I have to admit that yes, this film does sound somewhat strange. But somehow, when you actually sit down to watch the movie, it all works. The film is smaller and less epic in scope than many of the other Trek films, but that’s okay. It’s a more lighthearted adventure and shows off the genuine chemistry between the Enterprise crew members.

Some of the funniest moments of the film are made possible by the time travel element, such as Dr. McCoy’s frustration with 1980s medical practices, Scotty’s attempt to speak to a computer, and of course, Spock’s efforts to use profanity so he sounds more like a local. Spock also earns a round of applause from his fellow bus passengers when he uses a Vulcan nerve pinch to silence an annoying man who is playing music too loudly.

The film doesn’t really have a villain or any big, special effects-driven action set pieces, but as I said before, sometimes it’s nice to have a change of pace. “The Voyage Home” feels like an expanded episode of the Original Series, and even comes with a message at the end: respect — not squander — the Earth’s precious resources.

Up next, I’m planning to review “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (interestingly, the even-numbered original Trek films seem to be the best). Then I’m planning to re-watch J.J. Abrams’ two reboot films and a film featuring the Next Generation cast. I’ve actually not watched a Next Generation film before, so I’d love to hear your recommendations about which one you like the best!