Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Trek and Winona Ryder

So here's the thing about Winona Ryder's small role/large cameo in Star Trek. I was happy to see here, although in fairness, she has never really left for people who see lots of films. The last I saw of her was in Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly a couple of years ago. That film featured a pre-comeback Robert Downey. It would be nice if it could do the same for Ms. Ryder.

But what bothers me about Winona Ryder is the way that this one-time semi-defining star of an era has been reduced to a single punchline. The appearance of her name invariably forces a less talented writer somewhere to issue a bland wisecrack about shoplifiting. It seems so undignified. There was a time in my high school and college years when she was the single hip female star of the era. Beyond that, she was an actress readily accepting of challenges. Where a lot of young actresses leave a string of romantic comedies, she left a string of adventurous films - Heathers, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, The Age of Innocence, Night on Earth, etc. Her career has often been likened to that of Natalie Wood, and like Wood, she made a strong impact on American film in a relatively brief period of late adolescence and early adulthood. That something got in the way of lasting stardom does not diminish her accomplishments. To reduce her to a joke is .... well, I just hate to see it. And I hope Trek is the beginning of good things to come.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Star Trek

Star Trek [PG-13]
Grade: A
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Eric Bana, Leonard Nimoy, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Andrei Yeltchin, Bruce Greenwood, Winona Ryder, Tyler Perry
Director: JJ Abrams

Lately I’ve been wanting a film that cones out punching, that doesn’t dally, that just drops the audience into the middle of intense action and lets us swim for our ever-loving lives. I’m talking about a movie that knows how to open a movie. The last one was The Dark Knight. Finally I get my wish with JJ Abrams’ re-booted Star Trek.

A tentacled spaceship with overwhelming firepower. A Star Fleet vessel limping and crumbling to pieces. Dozens of evacuating shuttles. And a baby being born. It’s the Odessa Steps at warp speed. And we instantly know that this one is set for stun.

And that’s just the beginning, because what we get is an exhilarating string of these things. What Abrams accomplishes is to rival Steven Spielberg’s capacity to stage wide-canvas action scenes, dotting the screen with multiple thrillers taking place in multiple locations simultaneously. We shift among them with swiftness, smoothness and ferocity.

So we go from a starship to high-speed parachuting, to a swordfight on top of a mile-high drilling platform. We move from a single cockpit to a starship bridge to watching the battle in slow motion from a million miles away, with spacecraft and torpedoes slowly charging across the eternal night.It’s awe-inspiring. I can’t say enough.

So let’s shower Abrams with praise. After an overhyped transition to the big screen, the Lost impresario finally delivers, re-charging what appeared to be a dead franchise. Returning us to the iconic characters, times, and spirit of the original television series of the sixties, the film invigorates the earliest adventure of Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, and the rest of the crew of the Starship Enterprise.

The geek favorites meet at Star Fleet Academy, but their friendships begin as petty rivalries. As cadets they are dispatched on a humanitarian mission to Vulcan aboard the newly minted Enterprise. The humanitarian mission becomes a military emergency when they meet a heavily armed Romulan mining ship that has traveled from the future through, yes, a temporal anomaly (which happen to be ideal for re-booting). It has come with a nasty captain (Eric Bana) and a destructive plan. As the crew loses its veteran captain (the always steady Bruce Greenwood), the Enterprise bridge dissolves into back-and-forth mutiny as the young officers squabble over what to do.

We can watch the generations roll by through Star Trek. The original series operated with the Silent Generation’s enlightened bureaucracy. In the spiritually sensitive Boomer era, the crew saved whales and sought peace, while the Next Generation provided an oligarchy run by Up With People and the idea that humans are evolving into gods.

It took a while to dip into 90s style sci-fi paranoia, ala Babylon 5 or The X-Files. It didn’t connect with Star Trek’s historically earnest outlook. Star Trek really isn’t Star Trek with Star Fleet officers hiding dark conspiracies and evil motives. The series had becomes moorless and passé.
Rebooted and reloaded, we now have a Star Trek updated to modern action conventions – a crew of orphaned rebel-heroes whose wounded pasts shadow their idealism. In this version, Kirk is the talented but unorthodox son of a dead space hero. Chris Pine, with the toughest measure-up as the embryonic Captain Kirk, cruises with the cocky hamminess inherent in the role. Or inherent in William Shatner. Take your pick.

To call the performers unknown is an understatement. The only really famous person is Winona Ryder, in a small part. But for once Abrams’ don’t-hate-me-because-I’m-beautiful casting doesn’t betray him. Only Karl Urban’s portrayal of Bones flips disturbingly between imitation and parody. Scotty is a parody deftly steered into comic relief by Simon Pegg, who steals all of his scenes. Zoe Soldana gets to play Uhura as saucy, savvy and semi-relevant.

Yet the bravest risk, and the greatest reward, comes from the nearly unthinkable decision to put the film’s emotional center on the legendarily emotionless character. What started as a one-episode gag 40 years ago – that Spock is half-human – fully fleshes to its completion. This Spock is prideful, ambitious, shy, vulnerable, orderly, rebellious, an enigma to both of his worlds. The Spock we are given here is a human wanting to be a Vulcan. Wholly and admirably, Quinto re-builds the Vulcan from the inside out. Is it too early to say that Quinto is a better Spock than Leonard Nimoy?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Battle for Terra

And Battle for Terra over at

Ghosts of GIrlfriends Past

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past [PG-13]
Grade: D
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Michael Douglas, Breckin Meyer, Lacey Chabert, Robert Forster, Anne Archer
Director: Mark Waters

You know from that opening Google Earth shot – that one that starts in outer space, re-enters the atmosphere, hovers over a city, and ends on a street corner, always in New York – that you should not expect much from Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. That shot has turned into a cliché more quickly than any kind of shot in the history of film.

Actually, that awareness probably starts with that foolish title. It also emits from its status as a snowy Christmastime movie dumped in April. And then there’s the slight problem that it stars Matthew McConaughey, American film critics’ favorite punching bag when M. Night Shyamalan is on vacation.

So it’s a bit surprising that the film occasionally turns into, “well that’s kinda funny” territory. But only for a moment here and there. In between is a stocking full of stereotyping, misogyny, and a general case of creative swine flu. The film is completely detestable, but not entirely unentertaining.

So you would think everyone who heard the basic idea of the script would see ghosts and walk away. Although after that detour into Juno, Jennifer Garner’s return to her magnetism for bad scripts makes the stars feel back in alignment. The plot takes Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and turns Scrooge into a sex-addicted, love-em-and-leave-em celebrity photographer. Two guesses who plays that guy. Perfect for the season.

Connor Mead has a beautiful studio with near-naked models winging their way from set to set. Some of them – well, a lot of them – wander up to his studio after the camera quits. It’s there where he conducts his real business, like breaking up with three women on the same conference call.

On this winter weekend, though, his dorky brother is getting married in Connecticut, which in the movies seems to be the only state that still issues marriage licenses anymore. While there, he finds a group of bridesmaids whom he’s slept with. Perfect. Not so perfect – it includes his childhood love Jenny, a doctor who has never given up on him having a soul buried somewhere. She seems horribly invested in trying to drag out those hidden feelings that she just knows, knows, knows are really deep inside, and she wants to settle down with him in an old-fashioned romance.

Being that this is Hollywood, the idea of an old fashioned romance here has to be modified for the times. In a flashback, when Jenny forces Connor to perform a proper courtship, she holds out sexually until she tames him into a gentleman. For a whole three weeks. Just like your grandparents Henry and Ethel.

Of course, to get that old-fashioned romance, we have to welcome visits from a fleet of broadly comic ghosts. One of the ghosts is his dead playboy uncle (Michael Douglas), on the prowl in his giant Cadillac convertible, who looks like he hid from his sexual conquests by taking refuge in Dean Martin’s closet. The good news – it’s stupid, but at least it’s not boring.

Through the device of its bridesmaids, Hollywood also digs right in to its current reigning concepts of all women. The seemingly contradictory ideas that they’re sex-starved wildcats and all they think about is their wedding. In fact, the movie somehow manages the ultimate Hollywood alchemy by twisting these two clichés into the same characters!

So what’s good about this? Bits and pieces. It has the occasional really funny line that comes out of nowhere. Take for instance the moment when the teenage Ghost of Girlfriends Past shows him his brief relationship with Jenny in the 1990s. How? A slow-motion montage of the couple’s best moments. Lame. A slow-motion montage of the couple’s best moments set to “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper? Lamer. How bout having the goofy brace-faced ghost look at the audience and say, “Now we’re going to watch a montage of your best moment with Jenny scored to ‘Time After Time’ by Cyndi Lauper?” Comedy gold. And McConaughey is a reasonably good physical comedian. There’s a pretty good little sequence with a collapsing wedding cake. And Robert Forster gives one of the funniest blood-and-guts soldier stories you’ll ever hear, at a completely inappropriate moment.

I do wonder if I have an unfortunate soft spot for McConaughey. I don’t seem to watch his films with the same sense of vengeance as others. Perhaps I appreciate star charisma, even when employed at a bottom-feeding level. Perhaps it’s a Dazed and Confused hangover. One thing is for sure, he keeps getting older while the lingerie models stay the same age.