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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Review: Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek Beyond (2016): Written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, directed by Justin Lin.  Starring: Chris Pine, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Sofia Boutella, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba.  Running Time: 122 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            Although it’s really only been a few short years, it feels like ages since we last had a Star Trek film.  After my review of the last one kind of wentoff the rails, I was in forced detox mode for some time, and could only be spoken to about the original series (and Next Gen, obviously).  But now that ol’ J.J. has scampered off to leave his prints on another pillar of modern Sci-Fi (and has proven to be markedly better at it that he was at making Star Trek), and after nearly a decade of this series officially existing, we finally get a movie worthy of this franchise’s remarkable cast. 

            The last film left off with the Enterprise about to set off on its 5-year mission to explore the cosmos, and we start off here after 3 of those years have passed.  In need of a bit of “shore leave,” the ship docks in the latest, most technologically advanced outpost the Federation has yet built, a marvel of buildings and homes spiraling around each other inside a massive glass shield.  After a great introduction to the Federation version of the Elysium Fields, a broken-down ship with a single passenger comes tumbling out of a nearby nebula, seeking help for her crew stranded on a massive planet in the nebula’s center. 

            As required by official Star Trek law, the Enterprise is the only ship in the vicinity, and is dispatched to locate the planet and the crew.  Right after locating the planet(the nebula is as disappointingly easy to traverse as the God Fog from Star Trek 5), though, a strange fleet of swarming, bee-like ships attack, literally tearing the enterprise into pieces and forcing the entire crew to evacuate ship, only to have most of them swooped up by the enemy ships and taken prisoner. 

            Separated into several groups, the crew must struggle to find their way back to each other and stop a looming threat to the Federation that, they learn, has been festering on this world for a long, long time.  Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, and Chekov are able to escape capture, but Urahara and Sulu are part of the surviving group taken by the forces of Krall (Idris Elba), a strange being with a power that lets him literally drain the life out of others.  What (and who) he constitutes a late plot development, so all I will say here is that Elba succeeds in making Krall by the far the most interesting, engaging, and intimidating bad guy in this entire trilogy. 

            Another unforgettable new character (who I expect will become a new cosplay standard for Cons) is Jaylah, a warrior stranded on the same planet who, after meeting Scotty, agrees to aid him and the others in their attempts to rescue the remaining crew.  She is a legit scene-stealer, a perfect foil for Scotty and the others, and getting to see her kick more ass is the only remaining reason I have to want to see another film in this franchise. 

            With Abrams off the set, there’s also a blessed absence of lens flare, making this the best-looking and best-shot film of the trilogy as well, and Michael Giacchino’s score wonderfully accompanies the slick visuals.  While the film does feel a bit rushed at times (there are a few story parts that don’t add up, and it feels like some stuff with Jaylah and Krall got cut for time’s sake), it mostly jives along at an expertly brisk pace.  It even finds room for a hilarious musical scene that might be the funniest visual sequence I’ve seen so far this year.  It’s a great example of the kind of cheesy, off-the-wall cheekiness that used to be a hallmark of the original show, but that had been mostly missing from this reboot. 

            Star Trek Beyond is an immensely fun time, easily the best Star Trek film to hit theaters since the original cast hung up their Starfleet uniforms, and well worth a viewing for any devoted Trekkie.  May the world of Gene Roddenberry continue to live long and prosper. 

-Noah Franc 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Review: Censored Voices

Censored Voices (2015): Written by Mor Loushy, Daniel Sivan, and Ran Tal, and directed by Mor Loushy.  Starring: Amos Oz.  Running Time: 84 minutes.  Based partially on The Seventh Day, by Avraham Shapira. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            The opening moments of Censored Voices are remarkably effective in setting the tone for the rest of the film.  An old-fashioned tape player is set up in a small, dark, office room.  The thin strips of film are pulled out and tied to the appropriate knobs; a quiet reminder of how much care and patience was once needed to be able to hear voices from the past.  As this is being done, a man appears down the hall, walks into the room, and sits down. 

            This man is the Israeli author Amos Oz, and the tapes being set up are recordings he and fellow writer Avraham Shapira made nearly 50 years ago in the wake of the 6-Day-War of 1967, argued by many to be the genesis of the modern Israeli state.  Then and now, the staggeringly successful Israeli military campaign, which preempted expected attacks by the country’s hostile neighbors and tripled the county’s size almost overnight, has been hailed as a resounding example of effective military leadership, and remains a powerful point of pride and joy for Israeli citizens and indeed for many Jews around the world. 

            And yet, when Amos and Avraham began traveling travelling through several Kibbutzim (small, tight-knit Jewish farming communities with a long history in Israel), they uncovered a much more mixed set of feelings simmering just below the bubbling, positive surface of public euphoria, especially amongst the soldiers who had actually fought the war and were now being lauded as new heroes of the Jewish people (one of them explicitly compares himself and his comrades to the Maccabees).  With a borrowed tape recorder, they recorded a series of long, rambling conversations with the new veterans where, bit by bit, they started to open up and delve into their feelings of uncertainty about the war and what its effects would be on themselves and on the nation they ostensibly fought to save.   

            While most of the recordings are set to various bits of archival footage from the fighting and aftermath (as well as some powerfully-chosen bits of then-live news reporting by an American news crew), at some of the saddest, or most interesting, or most poignant moments, we cut to shots of the soldiers themselves as old men, hearing themselves for the first time in nearly half a century, speaking words they had almost forgotten.  They never speak directly to the camera (and we are notified that none of them are shown in the archival footage used), but they don’t need to.  Their eyes tell the whole story.  There are worlds of lived experience, pain, joy, and regret compacted into their stares into the camera.  In some cases, they are clearly haunted by how presciently their younger selves managed to predict the continuing and increasingly complex obstacles to peace created by the outcome of the war, begging the question; if they fought and died to save Israel from destruction, did they really succeed? 

            A considerable part of the weight this film carries comes from the fact that these more uncertain, or downright pessimistic, parts of the interviews were kept under a tight lid by the Israeli military for nearly 50 years- when the authors first tried to publicize them, nearly three-fourths of them were censored (hence the title), and only about a quarter were allowed to be released; these were used as the basis of Shapira’s book The Seventh Day.  Only now was it possible for director Mor Loushy (who showcases her powerful instinct for juxtaposition-through-editing throughout the film) to gain access to the remaining tapes, and to get Oz to guide her through the timeline of their creation. 

            It is not a movie containing any major historical revelations- even examples of atrocities and massacres committed by Israeli soldiers are nothing new- but it’s straightforward and blunt presentation of the very mixed (and, as a result, very human) feelings of those who did the actual fighting makes it essential viewing for anyone still struggling to understand how the global order took its present shape.  Even without any clear push on the director’s part, the connecting threads between those fateful six days just half a century ago and the problems plaguing the world today are clear as sunlight.  The soldiers admit their discomfort at deliberately turning whole towns into wandering refugees, afraid of what that means for their future and for their own humanity.  An American newscaster, describing the arid environment of a newly-created refugee camp, comments that “the only things being planted here are seeds of revenge.”   

-Noah Franc