Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater


The Ugly Truth (R)

Directed by: Robert Luketic
Starring: Katherine Heigl
July 2009

“There is Some Truth in This Rote Rom-Com”

: I feel compelled to steer those who might be offended by this film in a different direction. In the guise of a harmless romantic comedy, this film contains brief nudity, pervasive expletives and an abundance of graphic sexual references. You’ve been sufficiently forewarned.

Some time ago, probably with the release of Steve Carell’s 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), romantic comedies took a sharp turn and started becoming, if not more sophisticated, more adult in their content. Many of these edgier relational comedies have, appropriately, receiving R ratings and have largely replaced their tamer PG and PG-13 counterparts released before the millennial mark. Although just as coarse as many of its forebears, The Ugly Truth, starring Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler, has refined the nascent sub-genre of mature rom-coms into brutally honest, relationally challenging fare.

The story begins with a disgruntled news producer, Abby (Heigl), calling into Mike Chadwick’s (Butler) no-holds-barred local access show, which shares its name with the movie’s title. After a spirited debate over Stairmasters and masturbation, Mike drops Abby’s call. As fate would have it, the network hires Mike to add some spice to Abby’s flagging morning newscast…a Hail Mary to boost ratings enough to stay on the air. Abby is forced to work with Mike and, despite the adversarial energy they bring to the set, the ratings immediately skyrocket…proving yet again that sex sells. It’s a foregone conclusion that Abby and Mike will fall in love, but not before the required series of hilarious mishaps and cagey catfights, which comprise the bulk of the story, have had a chance to unfold in the most obvious and pedantic manner imaginable.

As was alluded to in my introductory warning, the subject matter and sexual references in
The Ugly Truth are extremely crude and graphic, to the extent that they might even make a sex therapist blush. A cross between Howard Stern and Jim Cramer, Mike’s show gives garden-variety crassness a bad name…and yet, beyond the outrageously salacious remarks, there is some veracity in what he’s saying, both regarding the eternal battle of sexes and how both genders view the physical, psychological and emotional aspects of sex. This educational component is the saving grace of a film that otherwise would’ve ended up as this year’s 27 Dresses.

Despite its hokey romance (the dialog during the hot air balloon sequence is particularly hackneyed), the movie, by design or happy accident, has tapped into a universal quandary by attempting to answer questions regarding that most mysterious and pleasurable of human experiences. Couching such a serious subject in a seemingly innocuous rom-com allowed the writers (three of them…all female) to broach this touchy topic in a way that’s charming and disarming rather than embarrassing or off-putting. Also, by relegating the bulk of the movie’s graphic sex talk to Mike’s cable show or news segment, a buffer is added between the explicit subject and the real audience, which should make it even easier to open a dialog on the subject in hand…er, at hand.

However, for all of its in-your-face sex education, when the movie ends none of us are any closer to understanding the vagaries and exigencies of human sexuality than when the film began (except for those two teenagers making out in the back row of the theater—hand check!), but I guess that’s really the point. No one, not even Dr. Ruth or Dr. Kinsey, has fully plumbed the depths of the sexual experience. Despite what’s claimed in books or boasted about in high school locker rooms, no one has mastered the art of sex. In fact, those who brag most about their exploits in the bedroom are usually the ones who have absolutely no idea what they’re doing. And
that’s the ugly truth!

Rating: 3

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (PG)

Directed by: David Yates
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe
July 2009

“New Potion Discovered: Potter Six Found to Cure Insomnia”

Only sparks emanate from the spell casting sticks at the Hogwarts School of Magic these days. Perhaps Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his chums, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine (Emma Watson), need to replace the batteries in their wands. I hear Energizer batteries keep going and going…

Unfortunately, so does the successful movie series based on the wildly successful series of novels penned by J.K. Rowling. What’s unfortunate is that the wide-eyed wonder and boundless creativity that were hallmarks of the first few films has all but vanished in the more recent entries in the series. I guess it’s natural that as the plots have become increasingly darker and grimmer, the enjoyment factor has exponentially diminished to follow suit. To make matters worse, the latter plots have become increasingly formulaic and just aren’t as fanciful or fun as earlier efforts.

The penultimate tale,
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, though shrouded with spells of concealment, is ultimately ineffective in hiding its aging formula, brought on by series fatigue. Harry, as well as the story itself, is chiefly concerned with revelations pertaining to Tom Riddle and a mysterious textbook that use to belong to someone who signed the book Half-blood Prince, hence the title. While Harry is consumed with such weighty and worrisome issues, Ron is preoccupied with being a Quidditch champion and agonizing over which of two female companions he should commit to, one of which is Hermoine…awkward!

At this point in the series, the plots are predetermined to the point of being perfunctory: in each movie there has to be a Quidditch match, various classes at Hogwarts where revelations are made, a central mystery, friction between the triad of main characters, etc. Such cookie cutter plots might be exciting for those diehard fans who are delirious with excitement each time a new
Potter book or movie is released, but as for this Muggle, I’d like to see more progression in the story arcs and, dare I be so bold in requesting, some character complexity to these increasingly threadbare fantasy tapestries. When variations on the theme become the theme, then the stories have become a caricature of themselves, not to be taken seriously. This film is the biggest disappointment in the series to date because it merely riffs on what’s been done before while marking time until the finale arrives in the series capper.

Still, for all of its inherent flaws, and there are many, the
Half-Blood Prince has a handful of redeeming story elements. The movie’s action sequences, though few in number, are well executed and brilliantly visualized. The barn burning sequence, in particular, is well staged and adds some urgency and synergy to the doughy middle of the story. Also adding immeasurably to the story, and it’s truly impossible to overestimate the value of his presence or performance in the movie, is Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn, the new professor of potions. Broadbent brings charm and whimsy to his role, which serves as one of the only bright spots in an otherwise dreary film. Another plot element that works well is the intrigue surrounding the assassination attempts made against everyone’s favorite wizard, Gandalf, …er, Dumbledore. This subplot is one of the only story elements to generate any degree of nail-biting suspense in the movie.

In the end, the
Half-Blood Prince is an unsatisfactory chapter in Rowling’s enduringly popular fantasy saga and does little to move the meta-plot forward but insists on using repetitious story lines as filler with as little original material as possible to flesh out the movie. The table has been set for a rousing finale to the series. Hopefully Harry’s swan song will be a marked improvement over this half-hearted effort.

Rating: 2 1/2

The Proposal (PG-13)

Directed by: Anne Fletcher
Starring: Sandra Bullock
June 2009

“Jilts Its Audience with Standard Rom-com Shtick”

The Proposal, starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, is about two people who despise each other but eventually fall madly in love. We’ve seen this scenario a kajillion times before and have suffered through each permutation of the threadbare rom-com yarn with low interest and high anxiety to exit the theater as quickly as possible.

Director Anne Fletcher must’ve thought she’d struck gold in this new take on the ages-old form, if only because of the story’s exotic locale…Alaska. But, whereas location is everything in real estate, it can only take a movie so far, especially if it’s accompanied by a mediocre narrative. Sadly, we don’t get to see much of the Alaskan countryside in the film and when we do it’s either shoddily projected onto a green screen behind Reynolds or unimaginatively framed by Fletcher and her cinematographer. A few eagles factor into the story, but that’s the extent of the wildlife displayed in the movie—no bears and no moose…just Betty White in native Alaskan garb, dancing around a fire and chanting a string of vowels while worshiping Mother Earth. Guess that explains why there aren’t any animals in the movie.

The movie’s premise revolves around Bullock’s bulldog book editor Margaret Tate, who’s facing deportation to her home country, Canada…eh! In an act of desperation, Margaret grabs her assistant, Andrew Paxton (Reynolds), and convinces her boss and an immigration agent that she and Andrew are engaged—much to Andrew’s utter shock and revulsion. Andrew refuses to go along with the elaborate charade until Margaret promises him a promotion. The rest of the movie plays out like
Meet the Parents in Alaska, with only a quarter of the silly mishaps and less than half the charm.

Bullock tries her hardest to invoke Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly from
The Devil Wears Prada, but fails miserably, despite being called “it” or “witch” by her tweeting employees. However, though brusque and business minded, Margaret doesn’t resemble the harsh image painted by her skittish underlings. From a narrative perspective, it’s important that Margaret not be portrayed as too harsh because she has to be likable enough for audiences to cheer her on later in the story.

Andrew is a talented writer with aspirations of becoming editor, but he doesn’t know how to stand up for himself or stand up to Margaret and her frequently unreasonable demands. Andrew, on rare occasions, shows some
chutzpah, but is ridiculously compliant for most of the movie. Ironically, as hard as it is for Andrew to say no to Margaret, he has no problem rejecting his father’s (Craig T. Nelson) continued pleas to come home and take over the family business. A puzzling inconsistency.

The film is buttressed by some decent supporting acting by Andrew’s parents (Nelson and Mary Steenburgen) and grandmother (White), but there’s nothing Oscar-worthy here. Ramone (Oscar Nunez), the town’s jack-of-all-trades—he’s a porter, grocer, adult entertainer and minister—provides some comic relief, but is actually more creepy than funny (the Chippendales striptease scene is one of the most disturbing sequences I’ve seen in a recent film and will surely be a turnoff for men and women of all persuasions). Ramone has several of the more amusing lines in the movie, but, like a cheap watch, his timing is always just a little off. The feeble chuckles generated during the
faux outtakes at movie’s end are like the courtesy laughs you’d pay one of your grandfather’s corny jokes.

Though I must admit that
The Proposal doesn’t have as many goofy gags as the typical comedy film, coaxed laughter is still the movie’s MO. Standard comedic gags, i.e., something tragic happens to a pet (here, an eagle carries off the family dog), a man accidentally knocks a woman overboard and one character schemes to get feuding lovers back together again (in this case White’s meddling grandmother fakes a heart attack so that the emergency helicopter can take them to the airport before Margaret flies back to the “Lower 48”), permeate the film. The promising premise laid out in the early stages of the film quickly devolves into a series of rom-com conventions, most significantly the “two people who weren’t meant to fall in love that miraculously do” plot device.

Besides the woefully underachieving story, the casting of the leads is the most ironic aspect of the movie. Bullock and Reynolds have very little chemistry as a romantic couple, which actually works well when they bicker and backstab their way through their fabricated relationship. When they finally realize that they really do love each other (something we’ve known all along), their lack of chemistry makes the contrived ending that much more improbable.

The series of ending “twists” are so predictable as to be embarrassing, and writer Pete Chiarelli consistently defaults to convenient solutions instead of more complex or, dare I say, realistic resolutions. Though I applaud the movie for largely eschewing the screwball moments that epitomize the vast majority of modern movies in this genre,
The Proposal isn’t nearly as funny as you’d expect, making it an affair to forget. If someone invites you to see The Proposal, my advice would be the same as if they were offering you an illegal substance…just say no!

Rating: 2

Up (PG)

Directed by: Pete Docter, Bob Peterson
Starring: Edward Asner
May 2009

“Up Through the Atmosphere, Up Where the Air is Clear…”

I always find it amusing when a movie title unwittingly becomes the description of its story, theme or overall effectiveness. For instance, the Coen Brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty and two Matthew McConaughey movies, Failure to Launch and Fool’s Gold, each embody the refined essence of their appellations. Whereas those movies accidentally stumbled into titular irony, Up clearly intended its prepositional title to describe not only the story’s frequent trajectory, but also its charming, heartwarming and…well, uplifting themes. And I’m sure Disney/Pixar hopes box office rankings and financial earnings will swiftly and exponentially head in the direction indicated in the title.

At some point in their story lines, each Pixar movie features a stirring or sentimental scene which effectively becomes the heart of the film. These infusions of emotion are often administered in a sequence of shots with a tear-jerking song performed by a big-name artist: Sarah McLachlan’s “When She Loved Me” in
Toy Story 2 and James Taylor’s “Our Town” in Cars, for instance. In Up, directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson hit you with a heart-rending haymaker even before you’ve had a chance to settle into your seat or scoop your first handful of popcorn.

The introductory montage succinctly and skillfully distills the entire life of Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) into just over four minutes of screen time. The sequence is an efficient and effective series of images which encapsulates Carl’s experiences from when he was a young boy all the way up to the present, where Carl is a cantankerous old man. Highlighting key events—like Carl and Ellie’s wedding, the young couple buying and fixing up a house, learning that Ellie can’t bear children and growing old together—the montage conveys a lifetime of milestones and memories without a single line of dialog. The concise sequence enables spectators to immediately identify with Carl’s plight and sympathize with his present despair. As a microcosm of life’s most meaningful moments, the opening montage in
Up stands out as one of the finest examples of time compressed storytelling ever to have graced the silver screen.

Having already emotionally climaxed over the beautiful, wistful opening, I could’ve left the theater completely satisfied at that moment. Part of me wishes I had. Though the brilliant opening rapidly rockets the story to its affective and creative zenith, the balance of the film, including the high-flying finale, fails to reach the same elevation achieved in the first act. I guess it’s true what they say…what goes up must come down!

Ironically, the story starts to deflate once Carl and stowaway adventure scout, Russell, reach South America, roughly a third of the way into the movie. I use the word ironic because the balloons that keep the house aloft start popping about this time. The symbolism here is apropos since the story, just like Carl’s house, looses altitude and starts to sag in the middle of the film.

Carl’s house is a central focus of the film. The house is the means of transportation to South America, is present with Carl during the octogenarian’s journey through the jungle and represents a lifetime of memories which anchor, indeed shackle, Carl to the past which he must let go of before he can have the adventure of a lifetime. In order to fulfill his promise to his departed sweetheart, Carl uses a garden hose to pull his hovering house through the jungle toward its intended resting place near Paradise Falls. After a series of misadventures, which see the house being heavily damaged, set on fire and gorged of its furniture in order to assist the slowly deflating helium balloons in lifting the house, Carl is faced with the fateful decision to either save his life, and the lives of his newfound friends, or save his house.

Such instances of adult jeopardy can make you forget you’re watching an animated feature. Another mature moment occurs when Russell opens up and shares his story with Carl, who’s viewed the youth as an inconvenient nuisance up to this point. Russell recalls a curb where he and his absentee father used to sit on while eating ice cream and watching cars cruise by on lazy summer afternoons. The boy expresses fondness for a particular period of his past when his father was still a part of his life. From this moment on there’s a noticeable shift in the way Carl treats Russell. Carl’s wife is gone and so is Russell’s father; the two of them, along with talking dog Dug and sweet tooth snipe Kevin, become a surrogate family. As an antithesis to the healthy, nuclear family showcased in
The Incredibles, Pixar features a hurting, non-traditional familial unit in Up. In this way, Pixar has acknowledged the disparate realities and fractured identities of the postmodern family.

Heady material for a kids’ movie, to be sure, but have no fear, there’s more to this movie than sitting around a campfire singing Kumbaya. Soon enough we’re introduced to the movie’s villain, Muntz (Christopher Plummer), and his evil canines. The action reaches its apex during a climactic midair skirmish: the battle gives new meaning to the word dogfight since the pilots of the enemy planes are…dogs. Though the frenetic sequence is a ton of fun, it borrows heavily from any number of war movies with an occasional reference to action film franchises such as
Star Wars and Indiana Jones.

Up is a rousing and inspiring journey that fails to reach the lofty dimension suggested in the title due to an uneven narrative and overly pedestrian story elements (I’m talking to you, Kevin). In the end, the film is a mild disappointment because it never quite gains enough altitude to lift its story back up to the level of its brilliant opening. The montage, by itself, is finer than any other Pixar film in its entirety. It’s just too bad the rest of the movie failed to achieve such stratospheric heights.

Rating: 3

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (PG)

Directed by: Shawn Levy
Starring: Ben Stiller
May 2009

“Silly Sequel to Amusing Original Fails to Take Flight”

In the original series Star Trek episode “A Piece of the Action,” the natural evolution of a race is tampered with when a space vessel crash lands on a planet where the imitative populace bases their society on a book they find in the wreckage. By the end of the episode, Captain Kirk and crew set the alien civilization back on a healthy course, but Dr. McCoy accidentally leaves behind his communicator, which will be pulled apart by the inquisitive species and will most likely produce a premature technological leap…and thus the cultural contamination is further perpetuated.

A strange way to start a review of the second
Night at the Museum movie, entitled Battle for the Smithsonian, right? Not at all. An ancillary subplot in the film involves the former museum security guard and now ostensibly successful inventor, Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) accidentally leaving his cell phone in a ticker tape, Times Square celebration post-WWII, via a living picture, which serves as a portal to the past. Unfortunately, this minor, yet significant, plot element is never resolved by movie’s end. What were the writers hoping to accomplish with this dangling plot thread? A sequel perhaps? Like the mechanical arm left behind in Terminator II which just begged another, though long delayed, film? Regrettably, the most interesting and promising aspect of the Museum sequel is this misplaced cell phone and not the many artifacts, antiquities, animals and historical figures that come to life after dark in the New York Museum of Natural History and now the Smithsonian Institution.

As for the museum denizens, many of the side characters have returned from the first film, including: Owen Wilson’s Jedediah, Robin William’s Teddy Roosevelt, Steve Coogan’s Octavius and Mizuo Peck’s Sacajawea. Some notorious or nefarious characters have joined the museum mishmash, including: evil Pharaoh Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria), Napoleon Bonaparte (Alain Chabat), Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest) and Al Capone (Jon Bernthal). The finest new addition to the cast is Amy Adams as Amelia Earhart. Her pluck, charm and tenacity in the face of danger are infectious; Adam’s portrayal of this icon of American aviation is the only element that lifts the leaden plot off the tarmac. And the formfitting flight pants certainly don’t detract from her character’s overall appeal.

The movie’s MacGuffin that everyone wants to get their hands on is the Tablet of Ahkmenrah, a powerful artifact that allows the museum’s exhibits to come to life after-hours. Kahmunrah and his minions vie with Alexander and Ivan for possession of the tablet, but before long a new group is added to the mix…mobsters from the early 20
th century (in one of the movie’s only clever moves, Capone and his cronies appear in black and white). The climactic confrontation takes place in the aviation wing of the museum and you just know Earhart’s piloting abilities will be called upon to save the day. A plot device doesn’t come any more telegraphed than this.

As with the first film, the rampant and widespread destruction of the museum must be resolved and rectified by dawn’s early light so that staff and patrons will have no idea that such calamitous events have transpired inside the exhibits overnight. It’s a similar plot device to the one used in Pixar’s
Toy Story films where the animated toys can have all manner of adventures while people aren’t looking, but must return to their previous spots and act dead when humans come into the room. It sure eradicates a lot of the suspense when the audience knows that no matter what happens—even if a bomb is dropped on the museum!—everything will be back to normal in the morning. In that sense, nothing ever really happens in these Museum movies since the majority of the plot and all of the action is wiped out by a narrative reset button. Sure, the audience remembers what happened, but is any of it really worth remembering?

So, will there be a third film or will
Museum become an extinct franchise? Who knows, just like Back to the Future II had its Café 80s, maybe someday in the distant future we’ll have a Night at the Museum museum.

Rating: 1 1/2

Terminator: Salvation (PG-13)

Directed by: McG
Starring: Christian Bale
May 2009

“We Have Seen the Enemy and He Has a Heart”

There are a lot of firsts in Terminator: Salvation, the fourth film in the series which comes after a six year sabbatical. This is the first film in the series to feature Christian Bale in the role of adult John Connor. This is the first Terminator film not to feature Arnold Schwarzenegger, although a CG version of the original model (nude of course) goes mano a mano with Batman, uh…I mean Bale. This is the first in the series to take place exclusively in the future (except for a brief prologue which is set in 2003). Terminator: Salvation also has a new hand at the helm, McG (We Are Marshall).

Another significant addition to the new film is the abundance and variety of new Terminators, some of which look like they were leased from the
Transformers franchise. The new models come in all shapes and sizes and serve a variety of purposes in the story…always at the best moment to advance the story, of course. We have modified HK’s (Hunter/Killers, as we learn from Anton Yelchin’s Kyle Reese), scout ships (which serve a similar function but are a bit larger than the mini-hunters in the Terminator 3-D ride at Universal Studios Hollywood), sleek motorcycles which pop out of the legs of a giant Terminator which looks for all the world like Megatron’s cousin, some nifty serpentine Terminators which lurk in lakes and rivers and an assortment of garden variety Terminators like the T-600. The manifold futuristic mechanizations here are reminiscent of Star Wars, especially the prequels, and the aforementioned Transformer films, which some have accused this film of copying.

All of this naturally gives rise to the question, why all the new types of Terminators? There are more new models in
Terminator: Salvation than in all of the previous films combined. This does give the movie a different mood and visual style, but it smacks of the same kind of story contrivance that saw R2-D2 suddenly sprouting thrusters in Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones; the little droid possessed no such propulsion capabilities in the original trilogy. This reveals the inherent weakness of John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris’ script: everything, from one set of credits to the other, is done for the sake of convenience and expedience in order to move the plot toward a harrowing conclusion and yet another sequel. Expedience, when all is said and done, is the film’s saving grace: for all of its newfangled gimmicks and continuity paradigm shifts, the story never allows you the time to take a breath…an oft-used stratagem employed by summer blockbusters seeking to conceal their lack of story with chaotic action sequences and glossy FX.

In addition to the myriad machines, there are plenty of narrative alterations in the new film, including a centralized rebel command and the newest model of Terminator. What isn’t new here is the murky time paradox, which addles the plot with too much exposition while needlessly exasperating a broad swath of the audience with confusing timelines and genealogies when all they really want to do is sit back and enjoy a popcorn flick. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the earlier films, so the paradoxical elements of the plot are a bit fuzzy in my mind. It seems strange to me that an adult John Connor (son) could exist in the same instant of space-time as an eighteen year-old Kyle Reece (father) without the universe imploding. I’m sure Dr. Brown from the
Back to the Future trilogy would have a few choice things to say on the subject.

Be that as it may, the movie contains several intriguing story elements, like: the rebel HQ on a submarine (Michael Ironsides, with his typical tough-as-nails persona, is the rigid commander), a new RF signal which could put an end to Skynet and the latest Terminator/human hybrid, Marcus Wright (played with a great deal of precision by hunky Sam Worthington). The subplot involving Marcus’ ambivalence over becoming a reformed Terminator keeps the audience guessing his loyalties until the bitter end. And is it me, or is there something about Marcus’ composition and manner that just screams Borg?

Though the plot looses focus at times, McG delivers a handful of memorable moments in the film, namely: the bridge ambush, the prison break and shootout through the mine-filled base, the serpentine Terminators attacking Connor and the entire sequence with the giant Terminator. The bridge battle reminds me of similar action sequences in
True Lies (1994) and Mission Impossible III (2006), and the pulse-pounding motorcycle pursuit features a less sparse, more debris-filled roadway than the one seen in the similarly dystopian Mad Max (1979). The final battle inside Skynet, which features resistance officers and Terminators scattering in every direction like frantic stormtroopers on a doomed Death Star, is somewhat protracted and fails to deliver the kind of visceral thrills required of a blockbuster finale. The melee never quite draws us into the fight but leaves us feeling hollow over the shallow spectacle…a fitting culmination to a similarly heartless movie.

Terminator: Salvation has left the gate wide open for a sequel. It has also left us with some hope for the future, unlike each of the bleak resolutions in the earlier trilogy. I actually think the new direction for the series has potential…imagine Red Dawn (which is currently being remade) with Terminators subbing for Russians. If the guerrilla war premise catches on, it could sustain the series for a few more movies until all of the Terminators have been terminated.

Rating: 2 1/2

Star Trek (PG-13)

Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Chris Pine
May 2009

“New Trek Frontier is More Commercial, Less Cerebral”

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens’ famous line from A Tale of Two Cities, quoted near the beginning of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan during a great character moment between Kirk and Spock, had profound ramifications later in that film. Writer/director J.J. Abrams’ re-envisioned Star Trek, which comes seven years after its foundering forebear, Star Trek: Nemesis, and five years after the ill-fated TV series, Star Trek: Enterprise, is the very embodiment of Dickens’ ambivalent phrase.

Boldly going where viewers have already gone before (i.e., a prequel) is seldom a good idea and rarely produces positive results…I’ll use just three words in making my case,
The Phantom Menace (a.k.a. Star Wars: Episode One). But the new trend in Hollywood is to re-imagine, retool or reboot a decades-old movie or TV series, effectively breathing new life into a flatlined franchise. The Batman, Battlestar Galactica, Superman (Smallville, not the flop known as Superman Returns) and James Bond franchises have all garnered commercial success and critical praise for breaking with the established format while maintaining the essence of the original. This reinvention of Star Trek certainly falls into that exclusive cabal of resuscitated series that have found new life by slightly altering the formula.

The new
Star Trek is an origins tale or, more appropriately, an alternate origins tale. It’s readily apparent that Abrams and his crack writers, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, made it their mission to streamline and accelerate the story of how Kirk, Spock and the rest of the Enterprise crew first meet. The result is an ultra-convenient, yet easily accessible version of the crews’ introductions, which pretty much thumbs its nose at the series’ history and continuity. Such blatant disregard for the sacred Trek cannon runs the risk of creating mass riots by diehard fans, but the ever-clever Abrams has an ace up his sleeve. Returning to one of Trek’s classic conventions, Abrams’ stratagem is to employ time travel as a means of wiping the slate clean, thereby recreating the forty-three year old series in his image. A brilliant strategy! If the series should falter at some point in the future, Abrams can hit the reset button, restore the original Trek timeline and retire to some tropical island with smoke creatures and polar bears.

There’s no denying that this film marks a bold new direction for the franchise—which is exactly what it needed since the early demises of
Nemesis and Enterprise were directly attributable to fan fatigue. In order to regain the vitality it once possessed in spades the series would have to skew younger, feature more action sequences and tone down the lengthy stretches of expositional dialogue laced with techno-babble. Abrams accomplished all of this, and a great deal more, by presenting the most commercially viable Trek film to date. Unfortunately, harking back to Dickens’ best/worst dichotomy, Abrams’ Trek is also the least cerebral of the lot.

What shines even brighter than Abrams’ ubiquitous lens fares, which surely will annoy some spectators, is the cast. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are nothing short of astounding in their portrayals of Kirk and Spock, respectively. Pine and Quinto’s chemistry already rivals Shatner and Nimoy’s, which is quite a boast. Also, you can argue, correctly in either case, that Pine or Quinto anchors the film. Bruce Greenwood brings dignity, nobility and sagacity to the film as Captain Pike. Although frequently overshadowed by Pine and Quinto, Greenwood, who serves as seasoned veteran and elder statesman, skillfully dispenses nuggets of wisdom at crucial junctures in the film, most notably during Pike’s recruitment speech to the brash, black-and-blue Kirk after the hotheaded Iowan youth gets his butt kicked in a bar fight. Pike’s challenge to Kirk, “I dare you to do better,” is undeniably the finest line of dialog in the movie.

Zoe Saldana’s presence isn’t as keenly felt as Pine’s or Quinto’s, but her absence from the movie would’ve left a significant void, especially for female viewers. Saldana’s Uhura is the perfect blend of toughness and tenderness; Nichelle Nichols only exhibited the former on rare occasions (“Mirror, Mirror”). In the comic relief department, we have the bone-dry humor of Karl Urban (Dr. McCoy) and the rapier wit of Simon Pegg (Scotty), who steals the show with a steady stream of hilarious one-liners.

John Cho is a bit understated and underutilized as Sulu (although the “advanced combat training” gag is priceless) and Anton Yelchin’s is over-the-top as the ship’s callow navigator, Pavel Chekov. Yelchin’s
faux Russian accent generates patronizing chuckles from the audience, but it’s a mockery of Walter Koenig’s original portrayal of the character and of Russians by extension. In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), when Chekov asked to see the “nuclear wessels” everyone in the audience laughed because we were still embroiled in the Cold War and Chekov is Russian (the hilarity of the situation and Keonig’s flawless delivery also added to the levity). By contrast, Yelchin’s Chekov tries too hard to generate laughter with his tongue-twisting lines. The scene where he broadcasts a message via intra-ship communications (why wouldn’t Uhura or another ranking officer do this?) is utterly silly. Other than the villain, Chekov’s accent is the only character miscue in the film.

And speaking of the movie’s nefarious one…Eric Bana, through no fault of his own, delivers the weakest performance of the movie as the megalomaniac Romulan, Nero. I say “no fault of his own” because: a. Bana is a capable actor (reference
The Other Boleyn Girl), and b. Orci and Kurtzman rendered Nero as a Muppet with aspirations of becoming Darth Vader. With sound-bite dialog, melodramatic acting and a strange speech impediment a la Christian Bale in The Dark Knight, being a believable baddie just wasn’t in the cards for Bana. Speaking of The Caped Crusader, Nero’s back story reminds me of villainous Mr. Freeze’s in the Batman mythos. Forever separated from his diseased and cryogenically frozen wife, Mr. Freeze frequently takes out his aggressions on Gotham City; but is everyone in Gotham responsible for his wife’s terminal condition? Likewise, Orci and Kurtzman attempt to provide their tragic antagonist with proper motivation, but the whole “You destroyed my planet, so I’m going to destroy yours!” rationale seems sophomoric and more than just a little contrived.

Ironically, as underdeveloped as Nero is, many other elements of the villain’s subplot are equally insipid. The interiors in Nero’s drab, industrialized vessel, Narada, are so similar to Shinzon’s Scimitar in
Nemesis that, at times, I had to remind myself that I was watching a new release and not an oldie-but-goodie on DVD. Clearly it’s time for a new vision in the villain vessel department. To extend the similarities of both movies to the villains themselves; both are bald, both have overzealous henchmen and both are acting outside of official Romulan channels…oh, and minor detail, both want to wipe out the Federation with scientifically advanced super-weapons.

What bogs down the story the most is the confusing and convoluted time travel subplot. A tangled yarn that needlessly hamstrings the plot with chunks of exposition (i.e., the mind-meld sequence, which catches us up on the back story involving Nero and the older Spock) while simultaneously opening a gigantic can of Regulan bloodworms, the plot does make sense if you reason it out…but who wants to put that much effort into a popcorn flick? Besides temporal quagmires, other snafus abound; i.e., can the pair-o-Spocks exist in the same place and time, and can you really see Vulcan explode with the naked eye while standing on Delta Vega (the two planets are in different solar systems)? Earth’s moon doesn’t appear as large in our sky as Vulcan does to Spock Prime as he stands on an icy plain on Delta Vega, which, incidentally, was a desert planet in the original TV series. Perhaps the most annoying sequence in the movie—which, admittedly, I would’ve loved as a boy—is the “There’s always a bigger fish” scene on Delta Vega where Kirk desperately sprints away from two carnivorous beasts. Those who’ve seen
The Phantom Menace will understand my reference…the sequence is such an obvious rip-off of the Naboo ocean scene, Abrams, a self-professed Star Wars fan, should be banished to Delta Vega for concocting such an utterly transparent and ultimately superfluous segment.

I don’t normally pick on movie merchandise in a review, but before the movie was released, I purchased one of the new phasers and thought the alternating blue (stun) and red (kill) settings were pretty ingenious. However, the phaser’s rotating ray emitter is a pathetic gimmick, especially during the film’s final battle on Nero’s vessel. Kirk cautiously moves through a darkened corridor, raises his phaser close to his face and depresses a button that sends the nozzle swiveling in a rapid 180-degree horizontal arch. As if in a Pavlovian trance, every young boy in every theater around the globe turned to his parents at this exact moment in the film and said, “I want one of those!” Shameless product placement? You bet! The worst part is…the phaser makes absolutely no sense from a functional standpoint. In the heat of battle, one might accidentally incinerate an enemy when he had only intended to momentarily paralyze his opponent or vice versa.

Star Trek walks a dangerous line between retro-cool and self-parody. The ship’s bridge looks like an Apple store, but for all of its glossy sleekness, its overall design still looks 60’s chic. There are plenty of self-references in the film—like arched eyebrows, catchphrases and inside gags—and a number of them feel forced. Similarly, classic lines delivered by the new actors probably sound just fine to those “outside of the body,” but diehard fans might struggle with Karl Urban exclaiming, “I’m a doctor not a…” The explanation of how Kirk came to call McCoy “Bones” is quite clever, though, and the “numb tongue” sequence is not to be missed.

If ever there’s been a movie that’s struck the zeitgeist bull’s-eye,
Star Trek is it. In the desperate times in which we live, indeed mirroring the late 60’s in myriad ways, Star Trek offers a ray of hope to our war torn, economically challenged world. Leading off a summer of dark, dismal and dystopian action-adventure flicks (Terminator 4, Transformers 2 and a still darker Harry Potter 6), Star Trek offers an alternate view of the future; if we work hard, keep our wits about us and seek peaceful co-existence with our neighbors. Unless I’ve missed my guess, Star Trek will be a welcome breath of fresh air for moviegoers up to their titanium-plated skullcaps in doom-and-gloom visions of the future. As such, blockbuster status is nearly assured.

Abrams’ first foray into the
Star Trek universe has more pluses than minuses and actually tells a more exciting origins tale than the one presented in the original series. Introducing an entire new generation to “The Wagon Train to the Stars,” Star Trek should spawn numerous sequels in the ensuing years. It’s cool, it’s hip, but it’s not quite Star Trek…at least not the Trek we’ve known.

And so the questions begin: has
Trek sacrificed its cerebral distinctive for mass appeal? Has Abrams, with his compressed story lines, ubiquitous lens flares, MTV style editing and young and sexy cast, bowed to the gods of pop culture? If it finds wide appeal across all demographics, cultures, etc, will Trek loose its cult status and be relegated to the ranks of generic science fiction?

Time will tell the answers to these questions, but what’s been established in this film is that
Star Trek no longer belongs solely to tech nerds, science geeks or fantasy-prone fanatics…it belongs to the masses. First era Star Trek fans now must learn to share their sacred pastime with a new generation of Trek fans who won’t know the difference between a Tribble and a Tricorder. As an acolyte of the Roddenberry/Berman epoch, there’s part of me that wishes Abrams had tampered with someone else’s universe. And yet…another part of me is gratified that Star Trek has finally found the commercial appeal it justly deserves. Oh how that confounding Dickens line vexes.

Star Trek has set the table for meatier, issues-driven films or even another TV series in the near future, it will have served its purpose. Fresh blood is just what the franchise needs. Make it so!

Rating: 3

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (PG-13)

Directed by: Gavin Hood
Starring: Hugh Jackman
May 2009

“Vengeance is Mine, Says the Adamantium Man”

My initial reaction to the announcement that there would be an X-Men prequel focusing on the genesis of Wolverine was, “Why do we need a Wolverine origins tale…didn’t we already learn his back story in the X-Men trilogy?” After seeing Logan’s (here “Jimmy” Logan, but I wouldn’t call him that to his face) story fleshed out in more detail in the new movie, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I still think my question is valid and would like to direct it to the producers and powers-that-be in the Marvel universe.

There’s no question that over the last decade Hugh Jackman has made the role of Wolverine his own—few would argue that his is one of the most memorable and enduring in Marvel’s stable of comic-to-big-screen heroes. Here, however, the feral warrior is nobler, wiser and, dare I say, tamer than he was in the
X-Men films, which inhibits a great deal of the character’s irascible charm. What made Wolverine work so well in the X-Men trilogy was his iconoclastic irreverence toward the good mutants at Prof. X’s (Patrick Stewart, who makes a small cameo here that vastly differs from his short cameo as King Richard at the end of Robin Hood: Men in Tights) school for the gifted and his utter disdain for the evil mutants, lead by Ian McKellen’s magnificently malevolent Magneto.

The opening credits appear over a well-crafted progression of battles from the Civil War to D-Day to Vietnam, all of which feature the daring exploits of Logan (Jackman) and his brother Vincent (Liev Schreiber), who kill and are killed, and resurrect to fight another day. The movie picks up in the present day (which appears to be circa 1970 something) with General William Stryker’s (Danny Huston) team demanding, at gunpoint, Nigerians to give up the location of a rare rock. When things get out of hand, translated as Vincent going on a killing spree, Logan turns his back on violent Vincent and quits Stryker’s team of mutant soldiers.

Six years later we see Logan getting in touch with his inner lumberjack in the Canadian Rockies. He has a lover, Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins), and has found contentment away from the deeds of his former life. However, the atrocities he’s committed still haunt his dreams at night. As fate (and director Gavin Hood) would have it, Stryker discovers Logan’s hideout as does Vincent, who kills Logan’s girlfriend. But it’s all a ploy to lure Logan into undergoing a surgery that will give him the ability to defeat his brother and avenge Kayla’s wanton murder. The procedure turns formidable Logan into invincible Wolverine and a hero is born, or reborn if you’ve seen the earlier
X-Men movies.

Save for some nifty swordplay by Ryan Reynold’s Wade Wilson and some mighty fancy shooting by Daniel Henney’s marksman Agent Zero, the first half hour of the film drags on like a platitudinous commencement speech. There are a few touching character moments between Logan and Kayla and the location work is beautifully captured, but the early stages of the film are far too static and uneventful for an action picture. Unfortunately, the action comes in fits and spurts throughout the rest of the movie too. In the vast majority of films I’m thankful for character segues in between action sequences, but when the vignettes are this dull (and it’s physically painful to say this), I’d almost prefer a Michael Bay action first/story second paradigm because at least that way I know I’ll stay awake.

Wolverine’s entourage is as tenuous and transient as the plot: Dominic Monaghan’s electricity manipulator, Chris “Bolt” Bradley, is killed off within the first half hour…about the same time Reynolds’ Wilson disappears, later to reappear as the movie’s ultimate villain, Deadpool. Since working with Stryker, the once ripped mercenary, Fred Dukes (Kevin Durand from
Wild Hogs), has let himself go and now resembles Scottish speaking Fat Bastard (Mike Myers) in the Austin Powers movies. Scott Summers (Tim Pocock), a.k.a. Cyclops, has a place of prominence on the movie poster, but other than slicing open the roof of his school with his patented ocular blast, he doesn’t even factor into the story. Remy LeBeau/Gambit (Taylor Kitsch of TVs Friday Night Lights) doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through the movie, disappears after a Logan/Vincent melee and shows up too late to help Logan and Vincent take out Reynolds’ creepy villain (a rare instance where I wished the concluding battle was protracted: I wanted to see more applications and combinations of Deadpool’s assortment of mutant powers come into play). After the battle, Wolverine charges Gambit with making sure the kids get to safety. However, by the time Gambit catches up with the kids, they’re already safely aboard Prof. X’s helicopter, making Gambit’s presence in the movie utterly superfluous. What a waste of a great character! What a colossal disappointment!

That last statement accurately sums up
X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which isn’t a terrible movie, but certainly doesn’t live up to the lofty expectations placed upon it by clamoring fans and curious cinephiles. Although Wolverine would’ve been more polished in the hands of an A-list director, the movie’s ailments clearly lie with David Benioff and Skip Wood’s clunky script. More action and a more intelligent utilization and deployment of characters should see a marked improvement in the sequel, should this mediocre effort inspire one. If not, at least Wolverine has finally received a moment in the spotlight, even though this isn’t the royal treatment he deserved. Next up: X-Men Origins: Banshee. Let’s see how many theater speakers we can blow!

Rating: 2 1/2