Star Trek

by J.J. Abrams (2009, United States)

I first discovered Star Trek when I was in kindergarten via reruns of the original series. Later, I enjoyed the subsequent movies chronicling the further exploits of Kirk, Spock, et al. However, when Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered—I was in 6th grade at the time, I believe—it was like lightning out of the blue and I became as big a Star Trek geek as you could imagine.

How big, you ask? Well, for example, my friends and I would often get into discussions—in physics class, natch—over the nature and structure of dilithium crystals. We were completely talking out of our butts, of course, but it was great fun to have something that inspired us so much. It was, in some ways I suppose, a nearly religious experience, my first forays into true geek culture.

But notice I said “was”. Subsequent years took their toll on the once mighty franchise as well as my impressions of it. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was great, but with its darker tone and murkier political and religious plotlines, it felt like it was cut from a different franchise. Star Trek: Voyager had its moments, but after awhile, I just lost interest. The crew never galvanized me the way that Kirk’s or Picard’s had, nor did their plight. I couldn’t drum up any enthusiasm for Star Trek: Enterprise. It, along with the later films, felt like desperate attempts to simply bleed a turnip, to wring just a little more cash from the franchise.

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The Rebel

by Charlie Nguyen (2006, Vietnam)

For the past several decades, whenever someone wanted to find the cream of the martial arts film crop, they (rightly) turned to China and Hong Kong. Shaw Brothers, Golden Harvest, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chang Cheh, Gordon Liu, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao—the list goes on and on, stretching back to form an unparalleled cinematic legacy.

However, within recent years, martial arts cinema has spread throughout the globe. Inspired by the aforementioned names, and the many films tied to them, other countries have begun their own vibrant, ass-kicking cinemas which blend together the influence of Hong Kong and China with each country’s own unique martial arts offerings.

Thailand immediately comes to mind, thanks to films such as Ong-Bak and Tom Yum Goong and people like Tony Jaa, Prachya Pinkaew, and Panna Rittikrai, which showed Muay Thai kickboxing in all of this bone-breaking glory. France burst on the scene thanks to Banlieue 13, Cyril Raffaelli, and the rise of parkour. Chile has contributed Kiltro and MirageMan. And now, with The Rebel, Vietnam is stepping up to the plate, and showing off some pretty impressive moves.

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Speed Racer

by The Wachowski Brothers (2008, United States)

I was as dazzled by the visuals in Speed Racer‘s initial promotional materials, teasers, and trailers as anyone. But as is always the case with such things, there’s the nagging suspicion that the film will be nothing more than such, and that the film won’t live up to the razzle-dazzle. And the fact that the Wachowski Brothers were behind Speed Racer‘s camera only made that suspicion worse. I don’t think the Matrix films were shallow by any means, but arguably, the brothers had definitely placed everything but sheer visual spectacle on the backburner by the trilogy’s end.

And when you’ve got the folks behind such films working on a children’s movie that is a remake of a Japanese anime series that, classic status notwithstanding, is more often the butt of jokes than anything else, well, let’s just say that I totally understand folks’ hesitation.

But the thing is, they’d be absolutely wrong.

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Iron Man

by Jon Favreau (2008, United States)

Iron Man is that rare summer blockbuster movie. It can certainly be taken at face value and enjoyed as a big budget popcorn-type of movie—the cinematic equivalent of a bacon double cheeseburger with a big side of greasy fries (to quote my review of Hot Fuzz). However, like Batman Begins and X-Men 2, there are deeper subtexts and themes that you can tease out if you so desire, and you can do so without ruining the pure, thrill-packed entertainment one bit.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr. in a bravura performance) is a brilliant inventor and, thanks to his company, Stark Industries, a multi-billionaire. When not showing off his company’s latest weapons, he’s bedding supermodels and living the playboy lifestyle—much to the chagrin of his close associates, such as personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and military attaché James Rhodes (Terrence Howard). That all changes when, during a trip to Afghanistan to demo Stark Industries’ latest missile system, his convoy is attacked by terrorists.

Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark

Stark is critically wounded in the attack—by one of his own weapons, ironically—and captured. An emergency and unorthodox surgery saves his life and he is put to work building weapons for his captors. There, Stark undergoes a startling revelation, that the weapons he so blindly assumed were being used to defend America have actually ended up in the hands of its enemies.

This, combined with some soul-searching brought on by the man who saved his life, a fellow captor named Yinsen, propels Stark to seek a new direction in life. But first he has to escape, and being the brilliant inventor that he is, he does so with the aid of a giant suit of powered armor complete with rocket launcher, flame thrower, and jet engines (natch).

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Stardust

by Matthew Vaughn (2007, United Kingdom)

I often find that I need to give a movie a “break” before I see it, if I’ve heard too much about it beforehand. Perhaps I’ve heard so many good things about the movie, and I worry that my expectations are too high. Or maybe I’ve heard so many troubling things that I worry that my opinion may be predisposed to be negative. Whatever the case, it often means that I miss out on seeing it in the theatre and have to settle for DVD, but I feel it’s the only way that I can give the movie a fair shake, that I can judge it on its own merits.

I suppose it’s an odd little quirk of mine, but it’s served me well in the past. And so I did it for Stardust, an adaptation of what is most certainly my favorite of Neil Gaiman’s works. I had read some troubling things—e.g., negative reviews that pointed towards disturbing changes to the storyline—but I resolved to watch the film as fairly as possible, keeping in mind all of the usual caveats concerning literary adaptations. It was an endeavor that proved pointless about thirty minutes into the film: Stardust was much worse than anything I had steeled myself for.

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