Sunday, September 15, 2013

Check Out My New Review Blog!

As I try to refine my writing skills, I will be writing more movie reviews. So that I make my posts about family and other things I choose to blog about more easily accessible, I've decided to create a separate blog specifically for movie reviews.

Please feel free to check out Captain Jon's Reviews, my new movie review blog! I've already posted two reviews; Star Trek Into Darkness (it's the same review I posted here) and The Adventures of Tintin.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Barack Obama: Reluctant Warrior

As we enter into the closing months of 2013, we're faced with a serious debate about the United States' role in the world; should the United States intervene in the Syrian civil war? It's a debate that's been growing for months now with the voices of those in favor of military intervention growing each week as it becomes increasingly clear that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons on its own people.

Courtesy of
This has put President Obama, winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, in a most precarious situation. Here is a man who inherited two wars when he entered into office (Iraq and Afghanistan) and also initiated military actions to overthrow the government in Libya. Since taking office, Obama increased drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan and increased the troop count there while also winding down the war in Iraq. It's quite clear that after twelve years of two wars, the United States isn't ready for more military action.

Yet the debate wages on with Obama, himself, having just made the pitch to the American people for why we should get involved in Syria. And just like the previous five years of his presidency, Obama has many critics and they're coming from both sides of the political spectrum. On one hand, you have people saying that the President's proposals aren't enough. On the other hand, you have those who say the United States has no right to intervene in Syria.

Barack Obama can't win.

There are some who have even said that Obama should return his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize because of his actions as commander-in-chief and that him considering military action in Syria is further proof to support that demand. I'd like to remind these people that it's not like the Syrian civil war just started a month ago and Obama's rushing to jump in; it's been going on for a couple years now and Obama has done everything he can to avoid getting involved.

Since he hit the national scene in 2004, Obama has been an advocate for the end of US military action overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yes, since he's been President he was slow to end the Iraq War and increased troop levels in Afghanistan. But he did so with the intent of leaving those areas responsibly. Even though Obama wanted to bring our troops home, he wanted to make sure that we didn't just abandon the people whose countries we have literally occupied for the last decade. He's tried to be mature in his approach and make sure that things are set there.

Obama has been reluctant to intervene in Syria and only because of recent evidence of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government has he now decided to take action. Does that make him a warmonger? No. Looking at last five years, I would say that Obama is a Reluctant Warrior who only fights the battle that he has to fight. A warrior doesn't go looking for a fight and Obama has never looked for a fight.

Some can easily say that he's been too slow to act in certain situations. This is probably true. However, I think that only re-enforces my case that he's a reluctant warrior. He's careful about how and when to intervene. I recently heard a conservative radio talk show host challenge an aggressive liberal caller to identify the Obama Doctrine. The truth is, Obama doesn't have a doctrine. Unlike George W. Bush who had a clearly defined international strategy, Obama's strategy is constantly shifting and changing because that's what the world does. It's never the same from one day to the next. To have one cookie cutter strategy, in my opinion, is a mistake. You need to be flexible and change according to the times. That gives conservatives fuel to say that he's a weak leader, but I say that it makes him a smart leader because he watches the situation to see how it takes shape before jumping in.

I hope and pray for a peaceful solution to the situation in Syria and that the United States doesn't get involved. I have no opinion one way or another, to be honest, but I do know that our President has a very tough decision to make. I don't envy him but I pray for him to make the best decision he can.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Produced by: J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Robert Orci & Ben Rosenblatt
Written by: Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof & Robert Orci
Executive Producers: Jeffrey Chernov, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg & Paul Schwake
Cinematography by: Dan Mindel
Edited by: Maryann Brandon & Mary Jo Markey
Production Designed by: Scott Chambliss
Costumes by: Michael Kaplan
Music by: Michael Giacchino

Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller & Alice Eve

2013 / 133 minutes / Rated PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence)

A series of attacks against Starfleet send Captain Kirk and the crew of the Starship Enterprise on a manhunt to bring the man responsible to justice. But Kirk, Spock and crew uncover a conspiracy that challenges the very principles of the Federation, a man willing to go to any length to defend his way of life, and a nemesis unlike any other the crew will ever face.

With its opening scene, Star Trek Into Darkness takes off running and never lets up. With a chase that plays tribute to Raiders of the Lost Ark, we find Kirk (Chris Pine) and McCoy (Karl Urban) fleeing a tribe of primitive aliens after stealing a religious relic so they can lure them away from their village. Said village is in the destructive path of a volcano about ready to erupt unless Spock (Zachary Quinto) can stop it by dropping inside and detonating a "super ice cube". The entire sequence is top notch with colors that harken back to the original series and shows the crew working together to save an alien race.

The Enterprise rising from the ocean
Kirk is ultimately put in a position to choose between violating revealing the Enterprise to the primitive natives and thereby violating the Prime Directive, or allow Spock to die for "the needs of the many". Since we're only ten minutes into the movie, Kirk's choice is rather obvious yet the dilemma is classic Trek. The Enterprise rising from its hiding place underwater right in front of the natives, forever reshaping their society as they begin to worship the mysterious ship. Why is the Enterprise hiding underwater instead of orbiting safely in space? It doesn't make sense but the visual effects mixed with Michael Giacchino's rousing score is most thrilling!

Pike scolds Kirk and Spock for violating the Prime Directive
There's no time to take a breath before Abrams throws us into the plot of Benedict Cumberbatch's mysterious John Harrison. It's clear throughout the film that this villain's manipulations are constantly at play and one can't help but wonder what he has in store next. As Harrison unleashes his first attack on Starfleet, we find Kirk facing the consequences of his actions from the opening sequence. Kirk is swiftly demoted, though this turns out to be rather pointless as he returns to command barely five minutes later. However, it's still a delight to watch Bruce Greenwood's Admiral Pike chewing out Kirk and Spock, especially when Spock lands a couple of straight-man comic barbs during the exchange.

The plot hits full throttle as Harrison attacks Starfleet Headquarters, killing Pike in the process. Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) sends Kirk and the Enterprise into Klingon space armed with long-range warheads to kill Harrison in retaliation. Kirk, wanting revenge for Pike's death, is eager to comply without question. Yet Spock and Scotty (Simon Pegg) argue the moral implications of their mission; follow orders and kill Harrison or capture him and allow him to face a fair trial. What's intriguing about this question is the parallel that it draws (maybe a little too obviously) to the manhunt for Osama bin Laden. Star Trek has always been about making social commentary and it's nice to have such an issue raised here. The drawback, however, is that Into Darkness's brisk pace doesn't allow much time for the question to be debated; Kirk quickly decides to go against Marcus's orders and bring Harrison to justice.

Khan is back and this time he's here to help...or is he?
Following a rather lackluster action sequence on the Klingon homeworld, Harrison surrenders and his mind games begin as he calls upon Kirk to question the motives behind his orders. Cumberbatch is truly Trek fans very familiar with franchise history, newcomers with no prior knowledge will undoubtedly find the moment a little flat. The writers kind of assume that Khan's history is common knowledge, his backstory left rather vague; a little more detail would've been nice. Still, the team of writers bring a new interpretation of Khan and avoid retreading what was done with the character in TOS's Space Seed and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Throughout the movie, you're left questioning if Khan can be trusted as he cooperates with Kirk (even helping him) or if he's got some other hidden motive at work. I'd like to point out, however, that it's Kirk who eventually betrays Khan. Just saying...

Despite Khan's presence, he is not the primary villain. With Khan's guidance, Kirk and crew eventually uncover a conspiracy to start a war between the Federation and Klingon Empire. In a nice twist and a frightening reveal, the mastermind is revealed to be Admiral Marcus commanding a Starfleet warship he and Khan built in secret. Marcus's plan; use Khan's warrior ingenuity to use the secretive Section 31 (a nice nod to Deep Space 9) to build up Starfleet's weapons in order to engage the Klingons in open war. Marcus's motives are fueled by fear following the events of 2009's Star Trek that saw the destruction of Vulcan and the near-destruction of Earth. Marcus wants to ward off any further threats to the Federation head on, even if it means compromising the Federation's peaceful mission in order to protect their way of life. Peter Weller is excellent, strongly conveying Marcus's convictions and he stands out as one of Star Trek's better villains.
Peter Weller is excellent as Admiral Marcus
This presents an allegory to the dilemma presented in today's post-9/11 world. With all the debates surrounding secret surveillance, torture in interrogation and the preemptive war in Iraq, our world has been presented with the question of how far we should go in order to protect our way of life. Into Darkness presents us with two different reactions to the problem. With Kirk we find a character who, at first, is willing to compromise his values to avenge the death of Admiral Pike. Kirk, however, choses to hold true to his values. Marcus, on the other hand, has succumbed to his fear following the destruction of Vulcan and is willing to go into darkness (hence the title) to protect his way of life, regardless the cause. It's an intriguing debate raised by a film that proves itself to be more than your typical summer popcorn fare.

Unfortunately, it's also at this point as the conspiracy ultimately unfolds where the plot becomes a little too convoluted and credibility is strained in order for the pieces to fall into place. Khan's role is a bit of a stretch, something that even Kirk points out as he questions why a Starfleet admiral would seek out the help of a 20th century relic.

Having said that, the script from Alex Kurtzman, Robert Orci and Damon Lindelof is mostly solid. Like its 2009 predecessor, Into Darkness's dialogue is sharp and witty with plenty of jokes to go around. Abrams gives the same conviction and energy in his direction that he did in his previous outing, though there isn't the same sense of urgency as there was in Star Trek, probably because this isn't about assembling the crew. Still, the action is well-handled with most of the sequences quite thrilling. A couple, however, don't work as well as others. The aforementioned Klingon sequence, as well as the final chase between Spock and Khan through San Francisco, which drags out the runtime a few minutes too long. The space dive from one ship to another is thrilling yet derivative of the space jump done in Star Trek.

Acting-wise the cast is solid, though some of the characters do suffer from diminished roles. Pine continues to prove himself excellent as Kirk, though I must admit that I'm ready to see the smooth, confident Captain Kirk of the television series. Quinto and Pegg handle the comic aspects of their roles with aplomb, yet still manage to execute the serious moments as well. Pegg especially is given an expanded role and handles it well. McCoy, sadly, has a more diminished role though Urban makes the most of his time and John Cho as Sulu has a couple strong scenes. Zoe Saldana is given less to do as well, with the majority of her role now to serve as Spock's angry girlfriend. Chekov's role is greatly diminished, suffering the most of everybody. However, the cast is one again excellent, each member sliding easily back into their roles and showing more confidence.

Alice Eve is decent as Carol Marcus and I'm interested in seeing what more can be done with the character. Unfortunately so much time is spent on the plot that very little is done with her. The underwear scene from the promos? Just as pointless here as it was there.

As far as Leonard Nimoy's cameo is concerned, I'm honestly torn. On one hand, it's nice to see the original Spock back. On the other hand, it's rather unnecessary since Quinto's Spock could easily have looked upon Khan's past in the computer, just as the original Spock did in Space Seed. Nimoy's presence also represents the filmmakers' hesitance at completely cutting the umbilical cord to the original universe. It's as though they want to reassure fans that everything that happened from 1966 to 2005 still exist and hasn't been erased. For these new films to truly succeed, Abrams and company must dare to push forward without leaning on the past. You can respect the past without being beholden to it.

The film's most frightening sight: the U.S.S. Vengeance
chases down and attacks the Enterprise at warp
Visually Into Darkness is the best looking Star Trek film to date. The effects are top-notch, by far surpassing the work done four years ago. I wasn't as put-off by the use of lens flare this time around as I was last, though it would be nice if Abrams cut back a little more. One of the best sequences (and most chilling) was the sight of the Vengeance bearing down upon the Enterprise and attack it mid-warp, knocking the ship to a halt near Earth's moon. It's a fantastic sequence and even tops, in my opinion, the two starships falling to Earth at the end of the film. Though the crash of the Vengeance into San Francisco isn't as spectacular as the Enterprise-D crash in Star Trek: Generations (I still point to that as how to crash a starship), it's still quite incredible.

Michael Giacchino returns in his second outing as composer, bringing back some of his themes from his previous work. His theme for Khan is simple yet suspenseful. His score here is stronger than Star Trek because it brings a much more mature sound than before. Giacchino has grown as a composer over the last four years and it's great to hear the maturity come across here.

Powerless, the Enterprise falls to Earth
At the end of the day, however, the focus of Into Darkness is the growing relationship between Kirk and Spock. Pine and Quinto continue to display their excellent chemistry and their work is solid, bringing back fond memories of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Because we can believe in their friendship and the two work so well together, it makes the film's ending work. I have intentionally saved this aspect of my review for last as I'm about to dive into what's easily the most controversial aspect of the entire movie. In order to save the Enterprise from its fall to Earth, Kirk must realign the warp core; to do so would mean a lethal dose of radiation.

Yes, this is The Wrath of Khan but with a twist. It's easy to see how many Star Trek fans would be upset with some lines directly lifted from the 1982 movie. Some will attribute this to laziness, however I find it to be a nice homage and it provides a different emotional value from The Wrath of Khan. In The Wrath of Khan, Spock's death was the culmination of years of friendship between Kirk and Spock. Kirk's Into Darkness death is the solidification of their friendship. It works so well because Pine and Quinto sell it. In the hands of less-capable actors, it would've fallen flat and been a travesty. Yet, they make it work. The only aspect of the scene that doesn't work (I even chuckled) is Quinto's scream of "Khaaaannn!" It was a little too over-the-top.
The Wrath of Khan with a twist; Kirk meets his end to save
the Enterprise and her crew
Kirk's death, however, is more than just the beginning of his friendship with Spock. It also marks him becoming the captain he's always been meant to be and follows through on the theme established in Star Trek, whether intentionally or not. When Kirk and Spock first met, Spock challenged Kirk to realize that a captain cannot cheat death. Here, Kirk is presented with the no-win scenario he cheated his way through in the Academy and realizes that in order to save his crew, he must die. It's nice to see Kirk come full circle and grow from being brash and arrogant to being humble and selfless.

Of course, we can't have the next film be Star Trek The Search for Kirk, so we're presented with Khan's superhuman blood that has magical healing properties. Kirk is thereby revived and is ready for his next adventure. Khan's super-blood is a little too contrived and a bit of a cheat, but it isn't enough to scuttle the movie.

Overall, Into Darkness is another fun, solid entry into the Star Trek film franchise. It's not as fresh as its predecessor, yet it's one of the better films. I'm ready for Abrams and company to cut the cord to the original universe and do their own thing with this new universe, but Into Darkness is a fine tribute to Star Trek's past. In an era where rebooted franchises (like Battlestar Galactica and Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy) are dark and serious, J.J. Abrams' Star Trek films are a welcome glimmer of light that make you feel hopeful for the future, something that Gene Roddenberry envisioned with the original series. There's plenty of heart and spirit and a good allegorical message to make us look at what's going on in our world today, something which holds true to the very spirit of Star Trek that Gene Roddenberry envisioned nearly fifty years ago.
The Enterprise boldly goes onto its next adventure
Bring on the fiftieth anniversary!

Writing: 1.25
Character: 1.25
Acting: 2.0
Entertainment: 2.0
Music: 1.0
Visuals: 1.0

TOTAL: 8.5 / 10

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Star Trek Is Broken...Is It?

A lot of debate has been swirling around the internet lately with regards to Star Trek Into Darkness's standing amongst the fan community. A recent fan convention in Las Vegas not only saw the film booed at its mere mention, but also found it voted as the Worst Star Trek Film Ever. Yes, that's right; these fans say The Motion Picture (used to cure insomnia) and The Final Frontier (nearly The Final Film-tier) are better than Into Darkness! A more recent convention saw fans treat Into Darkness with a kinder sixth place ranking but that still didn't stop from definitively stating that "Star Trek is broken" (because Nemesis opening second to a Jennifer Lopez romantic comedy and making less than the Nick Cannon film that opened that same weekend meant Trek was perfectly healthy).

That said article argues that Into Darkness lacks Gene Roddenberry's vision, isn't meaningful and that moviegoers are tuning elsewhere. I guess $460 million in global box office receipts, the biggest total of any Star Trek film, is plenty of cause to say that moviegoers aren't tuning in. Let's also not forget that STID holds an 87% rating on the film review site, one of the highest rankings for any Star Trek film, but I suppose that's reason enough to believe that STID didn't resonate with audiences or critics. By the way, moviegoers gave the film a 91% approval rating.

I will soon be posting my review of Star Trek Into Darkness, something I've been trying to form all summer, but first I want to share my opinion on the state of Star Trek.

Star Trek is alive and kicking!

It has found a wider audience than ever before. While 2009's Star Trek may have made more money domestically, Into Darkness saw the largest overseas audience in franchise history. The last two films have also been hits with critics and general audiences alike and new fans have been won over, accomplishing what five TV series and ten previous movies were unable to do. Into Darkness may not have been the Dark Knight-like smash Paramount had been hoping for, but it can't be disputed that it's been a popular and financial success.

So what about Star Trek is broken? In my opinion, it's not the franchise that's broken; it's the fans. Star Trek fans have always been a tricky group to please. Some prefer Deep Space Nine over Voyager and vice versa. Some like only the original series and none of the spin-offs. It really comes down to everyone's particular taste. But one thing is certain; with five series and nearly eight hundred television episodes, there's quite a lot of history that's been built over the course of fifty years. The most die-hard fans can tell you who said what in which episode and whether or not it contradicts something that someone else said five seasons ago in another series! Because of that, many of them expect whoever makes Star Trek to adhere to the universe that's already been crafted without exception!

Trek fans, therefore, have become narrow-minded.

Thus their problem with what's been deemed the Abrams-verse. The point of the 2009 film was to wipe the slate clean of the continuity that was bogging down the franchise and to start fresh while still respecting what's come before. Abrams succeeded, especially since it was specifically stated that these new films took place in a new timeline. Yet die-hard fans aren't satisfied. Some are even miffed that Khan was used in the film in a different fashion from before. If comic book fans were as particular as Trek fans, The Dark Knight would've been trashed endlessly for its use of the Joker who had already been used in 1989's Batman, even though both films exist separate from each other. Being so close-minded goes against the very spirit that Star Trek has spent fifty years proclaiming!

Into Darkness isn't a perfect film but some fans are unwilling to accept it simply because it's different and doesn't fit into what they want to see...whatever that is. J.J. Abrams and his team have taken the universe and interpreted it for a new age. Star Trek was all but dead after Enterprise went off the air in 2005 after they spent episode after episode of doing the same thing and viewers weren't buying it. Abrams has found a formula that puts butts in the seats and has audiences wanting more. Trek fans are like that group of people who like a really cool indie band until everybody else eventually finds it and it becomes popular; then the original fans stop liking it because it's now so popular!

If fans of Star Trek really want to honor the franchise they love then they need to be willing to accept the infinite possibilities for interpretation that exist. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and they don't have to like it, but they should at least give it a chance.

More Nicholas!

Here are some more pictures of the little guy! He's grown so much in the last seven months! It's so hard to believe!