Star Trek Beyond once again favours spectacle over speculation

Star Trek means many things to many people, and what the brand means to you heavily influences how you react to the direction it takes going forward. I can understand why so many were disappointed with JJ Abrams’ 2009 reboot, but as someone with no real connection to the brand (to the probable minor chagrin of my father, who was well versed in both but raised me a Star Wars kid), I found it to be a perfectly enjoyable popcorn movie. On the other hand, I found the second “new” Trek, Into Darkness, to be a ludicrously dumb, bland, and creatively bankrupt endeavour, clearly trying to mine the success of its predecessors but without any spark of its own. Trek, as my more well-versed friends say often, is better known for big ideas rather than action movie spectacle. Star Trek Beyond isn’t quite as bland as Into Darkness, and toys with the odd idea or two, but still clearly presents itself as action movie spectacle; spectacle which is quickly getting old.

The ideas that lie barely under the surface of Beyond are timely, with the Federation being set up as a stand-in for globalization and Idris Elba’s villain Krall representing all the mistrust that prevents such movements from going over smoothly. Notably, the Federation representative rides in a united vessel (the Enterprise), while Krall’s fleet is a swarm of individual ships, working together but clearly sovereign. Krall, naturally, views the Federation as an enemy that must be crushed, and to do so requires a weapon (read: MacGuffin) currently in the posession of the USS Enterprise.  In a bold move, the Enterprise is destroyed in the first act of Beyond as opposed to being more-or-less obliterated in the final battle, marooning the crew on an uncharted planet. The planet is briefly noted to be the home of many shipwrecked crews, which is an incredibly interesting scenario that is immediately forgotten about. One could imagine a movie about these foreign crews working together against the oppressor who brought them there, but outside of a resourceful lone wolf named Jaylah, the idea that others exist is quietly pushed aside.

Jaylah, played by Kingsman: The Secret Service standout Sofia Boutella, isn’t a particularly well drawn character, but nonetheless is the best part of the movie thanks to Boutella’s screen presence. She is mostly paired with Simon Pegg’s Scotty, and while Pegg is normally a refreshing presence in anything he’s in, he goes a bit over-the-top here, and calls Jaylah the dimunitive “lassy” a rather infuriating number of times. Most of the actors chew scenery in showy ways, especially Pegg, Zachary Quinto as Spock, and the normally reliable Karl Urban as Bones. Idris Elba is buried under a mountain of mo-cap, rendering his villain unrelatable and unmemorable. Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, John Cho’s Sulu, and Anton Yelchin’s Chekov are once again given very little to do. Chris Pine is at least a decent leading man, with a lot of soul in those baby blues, but not enough to effectively work as the centre of the movie.

The sci-fi ideas of Beyond are mostly half-baked as well. While I’m generally willing to accept nonsense if enough effort or technobabble is inserted such that it feels legitimate, very little is halfway justified in Beyond. A starship jumpstart is among the dumber moments, clearly designed as an insert-thrill-here type of scene, but without the requisite “a-ha!” moment to make it coherent. Ancient alien technology plays a big role, but is never explained or even pondered (for example, why does Krall look they way he looks, and where does his energy-sapping ability come from?). In one great moment, technobabble flies left and right as the crew comes up with a plan, but its deflating by it being an incredibly cheesy, groan-inducing plan (hint: it involves the power of music saving the day). The Federation city of Yorktown is marvellously designed, evoking the geography of Halo or the Citadel of Mass Effect turned up to eleven, but it definitely feels of a piece with the design of other modern sci-fi movies such as Inception and the upcoming Dr. Strange.

These are mostly all problems that were present in the 2009 Star Trek, but here, even the action doesn’t really work. Instead of tactics winning the day (aside from the power of music), pretty much every turning point of Beyond seems to come down to a fistfight, which quickly grows tiring. The climactic action sequence revolves around what is becoming an increasingly familiar blockbuster trope, where our hero must race above a big city to prevent a villain from getting a MacGuffin into a pipe or something like that, and despite the neat city design, Beyond doesn’t do anything new with the format. Director Justin Lin, known primarily for the Fast and the Furious franchise, films the action scenes jerkily, with nary a static shot in sight, trying for a mile-a-minute thrill ride but reducing the narrative thrust to an indecipherable blur.

Star Trek Beyond has more going on creatively than Into Darkness did, but is unable to capitalize on any of its ideas, instead favouring most unsatisfying action sequences. The cast, full of actors who have previously proven themselves time and time again, are either overly hammy or completely ignored, and the sci-fi world building is treated as completely secondary.  There still might be some juice in this crew, but as long as Trek keeps trying to be a top summer blockbuster, I don’t see it producing anything of value.

C-

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Star Trek Beyond (2016)
Dir. Justin Lin
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, and Sofia Boutella
Rotten Tomatoes (84%)

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Star Trek Beyond once again favours spectacle over speculation

The internet is a dark and scary place in Tickled

The trailer for Tickled is the stuff of parody gold, something so ridiculous that it can’t possibly be real. A deep dark conspiracy in an underground tickling empire? There are only so many layers of ridiculousness that can be layered on before credulity is stretched. It’s to Tickled’s great credit that not only does that trailer, bonkers as it is, only scratch the surface (indeed, the biggest moments in the trailer occur what seems like ten minutes into the movie), but that it legitimately feels believable even amongst its lunatic subject matter. It’s a compelling look under the surface of a particular corner of the internet, a thriller that preys on the fear of online strangers so engrained in early-2000s Western society in a very effective way.

Tickled is a fairly light investment, and a rabbit hole that is best explored unspoiled, so I don’t recommend reading further if you’re sold already (mild spoilers follow). It seems like a funny movie, and indeed the first few clips of athletic young men tickling each other are highly amusing, but it quickly introduces moral ambiguity to its humour. The concept of tickling as an act of power is sold well, and the humour of the situation is contrasted with the very real and very scary consequences the participants face. This is not to say that Tickled is anti-fetish per se, and in introducing a secondary tickle-video producer who genuinely loves his job and does right by his performers, it deflects the blame from those who simply enjoy the act. But its scenes dealing with the more serious side still contain plenty of ludicrous moments, daring you to laugh until guilt takes over.

The core emotion by the end is a righteous sort of anger, a desire to see punishment inflicted that is never fully satisfied. It drags out some of its twists, seeming to occasionally hide relevant information from the viewers to attempt to construct a more satisfying conclusion, but it doesn’t lack for surprising and tense moments. The movie pokes and prods at viewer’s emotions regarding class privilege and power, and engages in some serious armchair psychology, but is thoroughly involving and deeply sympathetic to those who have been wronged, making a small mockery of the situation but never of the people (except perhaps one willing participant’s steely tickling face). Tickled may be a paranoid stranger-danger flick, but damned if it isn’t effective.

B+

Tickled (2016), a documentary the starts with whatever is happening here

Tickled (2016)
Dir. David Farrier and Dylan Reeve
Rotten Tomatoes (93%)

The internet is a dark and scary place in Tickled

Game of Thrones Season Six stops building its world and starts tearing it down

WARNING: This review of Season Six of Game of Thrones is full of SPOILERS! Lots of them! Note that I have not read the books, but after the end of season five, have spent a fair amount of time on A Wiki of Ice and Fire because I’m impatient.

By its own high standards, the last season of Game of Thrones (Season Five) was an utter disaster. It was also the first season where the show went decidedly off-book, combining elements of two apparently scattershot sources into one while making up its own shortcuts along the way. It gave us the infuriatingly bland Dorne storyline, an increased focus on Ramsay Bolton’s uninteresting brand of sadism, the faceless Sons of the Harpy, and a dragon ride that looked like something out of The Neverending Story. It wasn’t all a waste; Stannis’ arc was dark but fantastic, and the battle of Hardhome is likely the single best sequence the show has ever done. However, every attempt to expand the word (except perhaps Arya’s) fell completely flat. Given that Season Six was now completely off-book, it would be reasonable to assume it would only get worse from here. However, it course-corrects by collapsing the world instead of continually expanding it, both setting up Season Seven wonderfully and standing as the most satisfying season the show has ever had. It’s a comfortable season in a way, only once really throwing caution to the wind, but even if the narrative is no longer as daring as it once was, Thrones earns its position as must-see TV.

Game of Thrones can be a difficult show to discuss broadly, simply because there are so many characters spread out over such a large distance, both narratively and physically. Season Six corrects much of this almost immediately, bringing together Brienne, Davos, Melisandre, Jon, and Sansa by the fourth episode. Two of the Starks reuniting at last is particularly satisfying, and while the Jon/Sansa story ends with a beautiful if nonsensical battle sequence, having the two characters together again is magnificent (and inspired; Jon/Arya, Sansa/Arya, or even Jon/Theon are the more obvious reunions to stage, but Jon/Sansa allows us a character pairing that was never really explored before but still harkens back to the beginning of the show). In perhaps the weakest point of the season, a carryover from the last, Dany remains separated from Mereen, where Tyrion, Varys, Missandei, and Grey Worm sit in big rooms and talk about nothing. Varys gets one fantastic scene where he attempts to rebuild his network, but otherwise there is no air left in the Mereen scenes. Dany’s reunion with the Dothraki, on the other hand, works by bringing in familiar things, and when the whole gang gets together at the end (along with some others), it leads to an incredibly satisfying ending, even if its a season-and-a-half overdue.

Even when characters are sent off, its not usually to meet new ones, but to bring together old combinations. Jamie repopulates Cersei’s circle for a while, but is sent off to Riverrun to break a Tully siege. This brings the long-abandoned characters of Walder Frey, Edmure Tully, and the Blackfish back into the fold at last, and also gives us Jamie/Brienne and Bronn/Podrick reunion. We return to Bran north of the wall, where his warging ability is used to fill in gaps in our knowledge about the realm (only slightly more elegantly than outright flashbacks), and another long-lost character re-emerges. Most dramatically, the Hound re-appears with a group of new characters, who are lent credence by the presence of Ian McShane and the fact that they link into Cersei’s current struggle by showing another side of the Seven. And, once again, they quickly dovetail into abandoned parts of the narrative by bringing back the Brotherhood Without Banners, led by Beric Dondarrion. Relatively few new arcs are created, but old arcs are allowed to pay off and loose ends tied off. Some of these are unsatisfying; the ends of the Blackfish and Osha the wildling are rather unfortunately tossed off, despite the two being interesting characters anchored by charismatic performances. But by-and-large the contraction of the world is propels the narrative forward, which is very preferable to the meandering of the last couple seasons. Even Dorne benefits from this; the storyline only appears twice, once to necessarily close a few dangling threads, and a second time to ally them with more interesting characters and bring them into a storyline that actually might be interesting.

It’s hard to overstate how great it is to have The Hound back. In his second episode, when he calls a generic bad guy out for being “shit at dying”, Thrones operates on a darkly humorous level it occasionally reaches elsewhere in the season with Zombie Mountain and WunWun the Giant. The Hound and The Mountain and violent and, in the latter case especially, reprehensible characters, but The Hound’s pragmatic violence stands in stark contrast to the brutal sadism of characters like Ramsay Bolton. Violence on Thrones is, for lack of a better word, fun again.

Ramsay gets to be the worst again for the first half of the season, but thankfully disappears until the Battle of Winterfell, aka the Battle of the Bastards, which is perhaps the worst of the major battle episodes Thrones has done (ranking: Hardhome, Blackwater, Watchers on the Wall, Bastards). Even the Knights of Vale’s last minute arrival feels exactly like Blackwater four seasons ago. The Starks face great losses, but triumph over Ramsay, and while its great to see “good” get a win, its a Pyrrhic one made to look clean in post. A lot could be made of Jon’s strategical blunders, which get a lot of men killed, but its swept under the table swiftly. When the Northerners proclaim him King in the North, the rah-rah moment is deflated not only because of Sansa’s potential claim, but because he had just proven himself a great warrior but not a particularly even-headed leader. That being said, Ramsay’s sadism pays off a bit with his treatment of Rickon, even if its a bit unbelievable that Jon would fall for this trick there, and it has some beautiful images from director Miguel Sapochnik.

Arya’s Braavos and Dany’s Mereen storyline also come to a close in satisfying ways. It’s arguable whether Arya gained much as a character after the past two seasons, but I’d argue she has grown incredibly, and the moments in Braavos are so well filmed and so engaging that I wouldn’t want to see them shortened. A lot has been made of the disappointing dispatching of The Waif, but the final moment of imply-don’t-show worked perfectly for me, and Arya’s time spent watching a dramatic re-interpretation of Season One was hilarious and one of the only world-building steps of the season. Meanwhile, its fantastic to have Dany finally converging on the mainland, and it even manages to bring the Iron Islanders back in as well. The Kingsmoot storyline was relatively engaging as well, as Yara is a great presence and Theon works as a character outside of Ramsay’s control, even though Euron’s weird Donald Trump-esque performance was a bit odd.

If we’re talking satisfying resolutions though, Cersei’s storyline in King’s Landing is the end-all-be-all, and the season finale, The Winds of Winter, is one of the best episodes the show has ever done. It’s opening thirty minutes are thrilling, beautiful, and explosive, and the most shocking the show has been since the Red Wedding. It clears the table in a dramatic way, and while some great characters bite the bullet, in retrospect its the only way forward for this storyline, given that winter is coming. A lot of the conversation around Game of Thrones revolves around deaths, which is always a bad sign about a show. There should always be things to get invested in with characters other than death, and while Thrones isn’t the worst offender of DeathWatch culture, it traffics in it a fair amount. But the two major deaths this season, one in the Sept and one at the door, are both given the necessary dramatic weight and long-term ramifications to rise above pure shock value.

Before closing, its worth noting the emphasis on women in this season. Thrones has justifiably come under fire before for its treatment of women as objects, whether through sexposition or killing them left-right-and-centre (or, in Roz’s case, both!). It really came to a head last season with Sansa’s Ramsay storyline, which I think was a reasonable storyline decision told horribly due to important parts being given through Theon’s point of view. In this season, women take control, and outside of potentially Jon Snow, every character who gains power this season is a woman. Theon rejects his title and acts as a supporter to his sister Yara, Dany brings fire-and-blood spectacle back, Cersei takes over King’s Landing, the Dornish women and the Queen of Thorns find a feminine monarch to stand behind, and Sansa gets her revenge and retakes her childhood home (and sets up conflict with Jon when the people overlook her as Queen in the North). Even Margaery, who ends up in a not-so-great place, goes down swinging, a victim of playing the long game against Cersei’s willingness to flip the board over violently. Additionally, while the show doesn’t shy away from nudity, its much less reliant on the gratuitous nudity it so frequently employed before. A lot of what came before can be somewhat understood as reflective of the real conditions for women in medieval settings, but having the climax depend so strongly on the actions of the female characters is a refreshing change of pace.

In short, stuff happens, and the show is finally using the world it has built rather than trying to stack its deck further and further. However, the show is less-and-less able to enjoy anything not directly related to the plot. Travel becomes a bit funky (some characters seem to be able to teleport as needed), and the show stops taking its time in the journey. In a way, we’ve already seen a lot of what Westeros has to offer, and it is nice that things are a bit brisker. That being said, a bit of emphasis on the journey would be nice, and the side-scenes that used to take place on the road (remember Arya and the Hound?) now seem to be confined to palaces, with such awful scenes as Tyrion, Missandei, and Grey Worm figuring out the essence of humour. Putting plot ahead of character and world has made for a very satisfying season, but not the very best the show has ever done. It’s drawbacks are a necessary evil, and set up an exciting final two seasons, but the journey was more involving than the destination.

B+

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Individual Storyline Ratings:

  • Jon and Sansa retake Winterfell: B
  • Tyrion waits around for Dany: D+
  • Dany brings the Dothraki on the wooden horses: B
  • The Iron Islanders face a Kingsmoot: B-
  • Cersei faces the Faith: A-
  • A siege at Riverrun: B-
  • Bran sees all: B
  • A girl is Arya Stark: B+
  • Samwell Tarly takes a trip: C
  • The Hound looks for peace, briefly: B+

MVPs: Cersei, Sansa, Tormund, Davos, Yara, Lyanna Mormont, The Hound, Olenna Tyrell
Least Valuable Players: Tyrion, Ramsay, Sam, Littlefinger, Euron

Season ranking thus far: 2, 1, 3, 6, 4, 5

Game of Thrones Season Six stops building its world and starts tearing it down

A Bigger Splash is a movie only a tourism agency could love

Cliffs leading into isolated grottos, the odd European ruin, patio restaurants overlooking twisting roads, slightly cramped kitchens filled with the scent of fresh ricotta. A Bigger Splash certainly makes the Italian island of Pantelleria look like a marvelous place, and as the movie centres around what a rock star and her circle get up to on vacation, it better look like paradise. But aside from beautiful scenery, A Bigger Splash has nothing going for it, a trite tale of uninteresting characters doing uninteresting things but trying really hard to make them seem interesting. If the talented cast assembled took the gig solely to bum around the island, I can’t blame them, but the product just doesn’t work.

The plot concerns a couple on vacation. Marianne (Tilda Swinton) is a Bowie-esque rockstar of international fame and supposed importance; however, the one time we hear some of her music, its standard folk with the least cutting or original lyrics ever written. She has recently undergone throat surgery and is unable to speak above a whisper throughout the movie, because irony. Paul (Matthias Schoenarts) is a recovering alcoholic who survived a suicide attempt fairly recently. Their vacation is interrupted by the arrival of their old friend (and Marianne’s ex) Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and his college-aged daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Harry is physically unable to stop talking, and enthralls people with his ability to talk about how he knows the Rolling Stones, and Penelope observes everything from a distance but is unafraid of using her sexuality to get what she wants.

Paul and Marianne have a great sex life, Harry wants Marianne back, Penelope takes a shine to Paul, and the plot goes as expected from there. I suppose this could all be characterized as an erotic melodrama (complete with equal-opportunity nudity), but the key parts of it are obvious from the start and it doesn’t build much from there. There’s a bit of a neat trick near the end when information is held from the audience for once (usually its given out explicitly and repeatedly through flashbacks), but its rendered irrelevant within five minutes. It doesn’t help that none of the characters are interesting in the least, and their actions designed to allow for any amount of plot development rather than natural to the performance. Swinton at least gets to act, mostly robbed of her voice and her eyes (constantly hidden behind sunglasses) but remains expressive through body language. Johnson’s character is a complete mess, a vague sociopath whose great mysteries are incredibly petty. Fienne’s Harry gets it the worst, and while his hammy performance at least keeps the energy up, his character has one note from start to finish, and why people outside of Marianne find him interesting (such as during an awful karaoke scene), I haven’t the foggiest.

To distract from the blandness of the characters, the camera is constantly trying different things, with bobbing zooms and car-following one-take scenes that would be incredibly distracting if there was anything worthwhile to be distracted from. It has one good trick admittedly, where the mirrored film on Marianne’s sunglasses allow us to see multiple angles at once. Everything else feels dragged in from a pulpier movie, and the editing is overprone to jarring cuts that seem to serve no purpose. One particular scene sees Fiennes dancing to the Stones’ Emotional Rescue, and was clearly filmed as if it was expected to be thought of as an instant classic scene. Instead, its embarrassingly cheesy, in the throw-spoons-at-the-screen kind of way.

At the end, it takes a turn that changes the mood a bit, but doesn’t mine that for anything notable really. It makes a quick point about white privilege through the lens of refugee paranoia, but doesn’t seem to say anything about the people at the centre of the story. A Bigger Splash is occasionally pretty, but is really just full of hot air, just like the bearded powder keg of swagger at the centre.

D

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A Bigger Splash (2016)
Dir. Luca Guadagnino
Starring Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenarts, Dakota Johnson, and Ralph Fiennes
Rotten Tomatoes (89%)

A Bigger Splash is a movie only a tourism agency could love