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“Star Trek Into Darkness” Review: J.J. Abrams’ sequel sets phasers to familiar

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J.J. Abrams accomplished what many thought impossible with his 2009 reboot of the “Star Trek” franchise that simultaneously recast the main characters and created a fresh start for future films, so there’s been no shortage of interest in what he’d do for an encore with “Star Trek Into Darkness.”

While hardcore fans and armchair Trekkies alike speculated about the plot and potential cast of characters in the second installment of the rebooted franchise, the real question at the heart of it all boiled down to this: Would the new “Star Trek” follow the course laid out by the previous franchise, or would the crew of the USS Enterprise boldly go where their predecessors had never gone before?

If “Into Darkness” is any indication, the answer is mostly the former, with a little bit of the latter to keep things interesting.

Without revealing too many of the film’s surprises, “Star Trek Into Darkness” finds James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) booted out of the captain’s chair by Starfleet after a routine exploratory expedition takes a bad turn. His demotion doesn’t last long, though, and he soon finds himself commanding the crew of the Enterprise with Spock (Zachary Quinto) at his side, in pursuit of a terrorist named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Harrison’s one-man mission to destroy Starfleet takes the crew of the Enterprise and their quarry across the far reaches of space and into Klingon territory, and sheds light on some dark secrets that could bring the universe to the brink of war.

In some ways, “Into Darkness” is an improvement on its predecessor, taking the outer-space action and ambitious effects sequences of “Star Trek” to the next level and upping the visual ante. The spaceship battles are more intense, the stunts are more fantastic, and even the villain gets an upgrade with Sherlock star Cumberbatch.

Eric Bana’s villainous Romulan miner Nero served as a nice foil for Kirk and the Enterprise crew in the previous film, but his character never managed to stand out from the events unfolding around him. The opposite is true for Cumberbatch’s turn as Harrison, who commands your attention every moment he’s on the screen and also provides a nice distraction from some of the flaws in the film. In fact, the “Sherlock” actor is such a powerful presence in the film that it does him a disservice when his character’s true identity – a classic character from the original television series – is finally revealed.

Rather than letting the audience sit back and enjoy the fascinating character that Cumberbatch is crafting, the film’s big “surprise” removes any uncertainty regarding his motives and what his future holds. It’s all too bad, really, because in the run-up to the big reveal, Cumberbatch manages to give the rebooted “Star Trek” universe an original, memorable villain that differentiates it from everything that came before – much like The Borg did for “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

In tying this particular character’s identity to the past, “Into Darkness” misses a great opportunity to give the rebooted franchise its own identity.

As for the returning cast, the entire crew of the Enterprise gets a bit more time to establish themselves in their roles, and it serves each of them well – particularly when it comes to Kirk and Spock and their relationship. While Simon Pegg is a bit underused as Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, we do get a bit more time with Karl Urban’s version of Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, who hams it up with his trademark metaphors and curmudgeonly spin on the events transpiring around him. Where the first film went a long way toward selling audiences on the new cast, “Into Darkness” finds the actors settling into their roles a bit more comfortably – particularly John Cho (as Sulu), who continues to be one of the standouts in the new-generation “Star Trek” cast.

As a science-fiction adventure for summer-movie audiences, “Into Darkness” does a nice job of providing all the excitement and explosive moments one expects from a blockbuster of this sort, but it might try a little too hard to hit the obligatory beats for fans of the franchise. At times, the amount of catchphrases and call-outs to the past becomes a bit distracting, with each famous line inviting comparison to the previous actor’s delivery and tugging you out of the moment.

“Into Darkness” also suffers some technical issues that could be worth considering when you decide which version of the film to see. While the IMAX format serves the scope of the story well, the 3-D treatment creates a lot of blur whenever the camera pans over a detailed environment. This is especially frustrating during some of the action scenes set against lush backgrounds, as there’s a real sense that the setting would make the sequence even more epic if it wasn’t so blurred. If you’ve had problems with films presented in IMAX 3D in the past, “Into Darkness” will probably offer more of the same.

Still, despite its technical issues and some missed opportunities, “Star Trek Into Darkness” manages to deliver as an effects-fueled summer blockbuster that both advances the new franchise and tells a wildly entertaining story. Most importantly, it leaves fans looking forward to exploring more strange new worlds, new life forms, and new civilizations with the crew of the USS Enterprise.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” hits theaters May 17, and stars Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Zoe Saldana, among others. The film is directed by J.J. Abrams.

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Car Notes

Portlandia Keeps Road Rage In Park

Get a lesson in parking etiquette on a new Portlandia.

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It’s the most American form of cause and effect: Park like a monster, receive a passive-aggressive note.

car notes note

This unofficial rule of the road is critical to keeping the great big wheel of car-related Karma in balance. And naturally, Portlandia’s Kath and Dave have elevated it to an awkward, awkward art form in Car Notes, the Portlandia web series presented by Subaru.

If you’ve somehow missed the memo about Car Notes until now, you can catch up on every installment online, on the IFC app, and on demand. You can even have a little taste right here:

If your interest is piqued – great news for you! A special Car Notes sketch makes an appearance in the latest episode of Portlandia, and you can catch up on it now right here.

Watch all-new Portlandia Thursdays at 10P on IFC.

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Naked and Hungry

Two New Ways to Threeway

IFC's Comedy Crib gets sensual in time for Valentine's Day.

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This week, two scandalous new digital series debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib.
Ménage à Trois invites people to participate in a real-life couple’s fantasy boudoir. And The Filling is Mutual follows two saucy chefs who invite comedians to make food inspired by their routines. Each show crosses some major boundaries in sexy and/or delicious ways, and each are impossible to describe in detail without arousing some awkward physical cravings. Which is why it’s best to hear it directly from the minds behind the madness…

Ménage à Trois

According to Diana Kolsky and Murf Meyer, the two extremely versatile constants in the ever-shifting à trois, “MàT is a sensually psychedelic late night variety show exploring matters of hearts, parts and every goddamn thing in between…PS, any nudes will be 100% tasteful.”

This sexy brainchild includes sketches, music, and props that would put Pee-wee’s Playhouse to shame. But how could this fantastical new twist on the vanilla-sex variety show format have come to be?

“We met in a UCB improv class taught by Chris Gethard. It was clear that we both humped to the beat of our own drum; our souls and tongues intermingled at the bar after class, so we dove in head first.”

Sign me up, but promise to go slow. This tricycle is going to need training wheels.

The Filling is Mutual

Comedians Jen Saunderson and Jenny Zigrino became best friends after meeting in the restroom at the Gotham Comedy Club, which explains their super-comfortable dynamic when cooking with their favorite comedians. “We talk about comedy, sex, menses, the obnoxiousness of Christina Aguilera all while eating food that most would push off their New Year’s resolution.”

The hook of cooking food based off of comedy routines is so perfect and so personal. It made us wonder about what dishes Jen & Jenny would pair with some big name comedy staples, like…

Bill Murray?
“Oh, that’s easy Meatballs with Lingonberry Space Jam it’d be great, but then we’d have to Oh, that’s easy Meatballs with Lingonberry Space Jam it’d be great, but then we’d have to… Oh, that’s easy Meatballs with Lingonberry Space Jam it’d be great, but then we’d have to avoid doing any kind of silly Groundhog Day reference.” 

Bridget Everett?
“Cream Balls… Sea Salt encrusted Chocolate Ganache Covered Ice Cream Ball that melt cream when you bite into them.” 

Nick Kroll & John Mulaney? 
“I’d make George and Gil black and white cookies from scratch and just as we open the oven to put the cookie in we’d prank ’em with an obnoxious amount of tuna!!!”

Carrie Brownstein & Fred Armisen? 
“Definitely a raw cacao “safe word” brownie. Cacao!”

Just perfect.

See both new series in their entirety on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Dark Arts

Foot Fetish Jesus And Other Nightmares

Meet the minds behind Comedy Crib's latest series, Quirks and The Mirror.

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The Mirror and Quirks are really, really strange. Deeply disturbing yet hauntingly beautiful. But you really don’t need to read a synopsis of either of the aforementioned shows to understand the exact variety of nightmare-bonkers comedy these shows deliver — that’s why the good lord made links. Instead, take a peek behind the curtain and meet the creators.

Quirks

Let’s start with Kevin Tosi. Kevin does the whole show by himself. That doesn’t mean he’s a loner — Kevin has a day job with actual humans. But that day job is copywriting. So it’s only natural that his suppressed demons would manifest themselves in biting cartoon form, including “Foot Fetish Jesus”, in ways that somehow speak to all of us. If only all copywriters channeled their inner f*ckedupness into such…expressive art.

The Mirror

Onward to the folks at Wham City Comedy.

These guys aren’t your typical comedy collective in that their work is way more left-field and even elevated than your standard digital short. More funny weird than funny ha-ha. They’ve done collaborations with musicians like Beach House, Dan Deacon & Wye Oak, television networks (obviously), and others. Yeah they get paid, but their motivation feels deeper. Darker. Most of them are video artists, and that explains a lot.

See more of The Mirror and Quirks on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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