New ‘Star Trek’ Movie is Bland, Not Bold

As a reset for Paramount’s popular series, the new Star Trek movie, opening this weekend and directed by J.J. Abrams, is disappointing. The original NBC television series was an intelligently written program which put highly individualized characters into often philosophically driven plots and this effort doesn’t come close to measuring up. That said, at least Star Trek has a coherent plot, which is rare. There are no major missteps.

The plot is formulaic, characters are too broad, and the conflict is the stuff of cable reruns. Playing in IMAX theaters (where I saw it), Star Trek contains the requisite action and plot progression but it doesn’t have what it takes for a franchise reboot.

Previous movies are mixed, but the TV series kept things simple, with the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise as the focal point, her international crew poised for action in a clear hierarchy and conflict resolution as the primary plot purpose. Here, we get twin tracks of expository set-up—Kirk and Spock—and it takes too long, wanders too wide, and emphasizes personalities instead of developing dramatic tension. The Enterprise is an egalitarian gathering place where the crew stands around trying to rule by consensus.

Kirk is a playboy, Spock is tortured and everyone sounds like they’re reading from a script. The character Uhura is expanded at the expense of Bones. Sulu, Chekov and Scott are all there (Sulu fares best) and Bruce Greenwood is added as Kirk’s mentor. Some scenes, such as an elevator scene with Spock, are well done, but soon it’s back to the banal. Overbearing music, jerky camera shots, and a Jurassic Park rip-off burden the heavy load and it is hard to get excited about an evil Romulan—who, it is implied, has a point—on the warpath. Finally, Star Trek urges us to abandon reason and act on faith, a bad message you can get from any TV preacher or member of Congress (and, with both advocating religious statism, it’s hard to tell them apart). Many readers are going to see it anyway, but the new Star Trek, while not a bust, is, as I suspected, as blurry as its poster.

Epics Coming to DVD: ‘Benjamin Button’, ‘We the Living’

Paramount releases last year’s best picture, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, on a special, two-disc DVD tomorrow. Though I have not reviewed the DVD (I reviewed the 2008 movie here), the product, which includes printed material, looks promising and I’m looking forward to immersing myself in this beautifully evocative movie again.

The slip-cased Criterion Collection package is presented in widescreen with the following features: a documentary called The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button; director David Fincher’s introduction; scoring, special effects and visual effects bonus bits and an audio commentary by Fincher. It’s also being released on a single disc DVD and on Blu-Ray. I plan to add DVD notes to my original review.

Another three-hour epic, We the Living, which was recut from an Italian pirate film released in fascist Italy and Europe as two separate pictures in 1942, is finally coming to DVD sometime this summer, according to reliable sources. This memorable movie version of Ayn Rand’s first novel (1936) premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in 1986 and was released theatrically in 1988. I’ll have more to report about this exciting news—watch for my exclusive articles about We the Living—for this outstanding motion picture. If you haven’t read the exceptionally haunting novel, a new paperback edition is due out soon (first reported here).

Screen Shots: Wolverine, Ghosts of Girlfriends, Disney Shorts

The thoroughly confusing, cheesy and contradictory tentpole picture, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, has some entertaining moments and its less-than-spectacular execution is the fault of neither of its leading men, Academy Awards host Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber (The Painted Veil). Blending story aspects of The Incredible Hulk, The Bourne Identity, Rambo—even Shooter—the contradictions mount as Jackman’s superwolf comics character is explained from 1845 to present day: his blades spring to attention without the requisite trigger of his anger and he ages despite being immortal—then he inexplicably stops aging sometime around the U.S. Civil War. Wolverine, battling evil, doesn’t have much of a personality, let alone a sense of purpose, despite having over a hundred years to acquire one. The origins of his wolf-like powers are not exactly demystified, either. Since we already know where his story leads, this poorly scripted, fraternally themed soap opera—complete with a bout of amnesia—lacks tension and excitement.

On the other hand, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is a nicely rendered romantic comedy with a clever, if decidedly inadequate, screenplay. With a semi-serious plot based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Matthew McConaughey is cast as the cad with a lesson to learn, with aid from scene-stealing Michael Douglas as his dearly departed uncle. The well-paced story moves to an impending wedding, where the fashion photographer player must face the consequences of his callous, one-night stands. Of course, it isn’t pretty—and, thankfully, it isn’t toilet-joked to death—and some of it’s funny and thoughtful. Unfortunately, they forgot to develop the female lead character (Jennifer Garner). Because she has no life—she comes off as a spinster with nothing better to do than rescue weddings—their relationship has zero emotional impact and there is no convincing evidence that the playboy chooses to change. Still, it beats watching Wolverine.

I dropped in on the 10th annual Newport Beach Film Festival, where event chief Gregg Schwenk introduced a showcase of rare Walt Disney Studios shorts. The evening was hosted by Disney’s Don Hahn and David Bossert, who provided brief (and, sometimes, cutting) remarks before each animated short. The films were screened at the coastal city’s beautiful Art Deco Lido Theater.

I strongly prefer early Disney shorts, such as the 1942 war propaganda film, “Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Firing Line,” featuring Pluto and Minnie Mouse, a delightfully entertaining depiction of how to store fat to fight the Nazis (lard contains glycerin, which was used for explosives) which extols then-President Franklin Roosevelt’s so-called Four Freedoms. The Burbank studio’s influential 1932 film, “Flowers and Trees,” the first color animated picture ever produced, is also excellent. Fast forward 50 years to Tim Burton’s nihilistic 1982 picture, “Vincent,” more than a bit dark for a family event, and the brilliantly computer animated 2008 short, “Glago’s Guest,” which portrays a Communist soldier as a kind, friendly fellow.

Depicting a brute for history’s bloodiest dictatorship as a harmless chap is offensive, but the worst film was a frantic 1982 nightmare called “Fun with Mr. Future,” a snide slice of environmentalism that deliberately desecrates the Sherman brothers’ classic tune for Disneyland’s defunct Carousel of Progress—”There’s a Great, Big, Beautiful Tomorrow,” a wonderful song composed for that General Electric-sponsored Tomorrowland attraction, which celebrated Thomas Edison’s invention, electricity. The joyless “Fun with Mr. Future” attacks electricity, and watching that travesty is enough to make you want to turn on all the lights. The program ended on an ‘up’ note, with a sneak preview of Disney/Pixar’s soon-to-be-released Up, a colorful, adventure-themed movie that reminds everyone that Walt’s creative successor in animation is, except for the post-apocalyptic WALL-E, more Pixar than Disney. Up looks like a cinematic refreshment for family and friends—perfect for America’s first summer of Obama … and economic discontent.

Supreme Court Rules Against Freedom of Speech

The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision against Fox in the television network’s case versus the fascist Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Fox rightly asserted that the FCC’s “fleeting expletive” rule is arbitrary. But Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, stated that he did not find the rule arbitrary and capricious, as Fox claims. So, this decision is extremely harmful to freedom of speech because broadcasters will continue to be censored and live in fear of government penalties. However, the Supreme Court dodged the issue of whether the FCC rule is Constitutional (censorship is certainly not Constitutional) giving a lower court a crack at addressing that fundamental issue. Look for more on this highly important case, which may determine how quickly we advance toward dictatorship.

Susan Boyle, YouTube Sensation

When a friend sat me down to watch the now-famous clip of Susan Boyle on YouTube (appearing on a British television talent show), I didn’t know what to expect. Of course, most people have heard about it by now because the clip went ‘viral’ and has become among the most watched video clips in the world. Another friend later sent a clip of Boyle’s heroine, Elaine Paige, singing the same song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” from the 1980s’ Broadway musical, Les Miserables, based on the novel by Victor Hugo. I hesitate to venture my thoughts on the video hit as a cultural barometer, however, it has spread so far and wide that it’s hard to deny it suggests a common bond among Westerners. I think the clip succeeds due to the contrast of an admittedly ordinary woman who possesses a lovely voice, the reactions of the judges and audience, which heightened the sense that Susan Boyle overcame their prejudices, and the particular selection of music, a melodic elegy for what might have been, which resonated from a person who seemed matched to the material.

But I think that the clip caught on fundamentally because people want to see a talented person in action. The culture’s not completely jaded. Not everyone is infected with nihilism. People may laugh at cynical shows such as South Park, The Simpsons, and sniveling nightly diatribes by Stephen Colbert, Bill O’Reilly, Keith Olbermann, Jon Stewart and Bill Maher (who can be funny, though not much anymore), but they don’t rush to spread sneers. People, judging by the overwhelming response to what was a memorable moment on television, apparently still seek to spread the sight of something good.