Star Trek (2009)

It took a lot of guts for the filmmakers to call this movie simply “Star Trek,” after 10 movies had gone before, but the gamble seems to have worked. The filmmakers apparently did not grow up as Star Trek fans, but they seemed to have grasped what made the original series so fascinating. They even use the original music (a particular bugaboo of mine about the earlier movies). Their creative reimagining of the series will likely revitalize the franchise.

Action fans won’t be disappointed, but there’s a pretty good story line too. There are plenty of visual jokes that fans of the series will enjoy — e.g., all the StarFleet cadets wear red shirts. But the inside baseball never interferes with the story line, so the movie can be enjoyed by old fans and new ones alike.

The young actors playing Spock and McCoy are spookily good at recalling the mannerisms of the original actors without caricaturing them. Zach Quinto in particular looks and acts more like the original Spock than Leonard Nimoy, who also appears in the movie as the time-travelling Spock Prime. The other actors re-create the original roles without reference to the original actors, which gives them the opportunity to make Sulu, Uhura, Chekov and Scotty more than cartoonish ciphers.  Chris Pine does the seemingly impossible — he gives us the rule-breaking, hell-raising, but fundamentally brilliant James T. Kirk character without any of Shatner’s histrionic silliness. But this is really Spock’s movie, as in retrospect the original show maybe was too.

Star Trek was never about the gadgets, or even the “logic vs. emotion” banter between the principals.  It presented an optimistic view of a multicultural, non-ideological, peaceful and prosperous future — which is why, of course, Star Fleet is based in San Francisco. It’s a vision that was certainly needed in the 1960s, but seemed naive and dated in the greed-celebrating decades that followed. Perhaps in this time of turmoil, Star Trek will find its audience once again.   

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

It’s easy to see why this movie didn’t do well at the box office.  It has no action, not much by way of plot, and the two characters whose romance is the emotional centerpoint of the film are hardly ever on screen together. Its pleasures are more akin to those of reading a good book than those we have come to associate with movies. I was enchanted by it — even though I saw it on an airplane. I even liked the voiceovers (probably because it gave you a chance to listen to Fitzgerald’s wonderful prose.)

I’m a big sci fi fan, and it was interesting to see a “conventional” author play with the tools of speculative fiction. Fitzgerald imagines a man whose life runs in reverse — born with the mind of a child and the body of an old man, his mind ages while his body gets younger. Lacking the ability to hold a career-oriented job, marry and raise a family like everyone else, how would such a man build a life?  How would he form relationships, and what would they be like?

Benjamin spends his early life in a retirement home, surrounded by old foks with brains operating in reverse. Later, he becomes a merchant seaman, where no one thinks much about the past or the future.  Eventually, he forms a relationship with a dancer, a woman who lives for her art.  It is part of Fitzgerald’s genius, I think, to show us that even in the “real” world there are many whose lives follow a different path.

Brad Pitt is excellent in the title role (IMO, he is often underrated because of his looks). Cate Blanchett is her usual outstanding self.  There were also many fine performances in smaller roles, particularly Tilda Swinton as an English woman whose lifelong dream is to swim the English Channel.

Much of the film is lovingly shot in post-Katrina New Orleans.  No CG.

Changeling

A sci-fi writer (Babylon 5) looks at LA in the 1920s as though it were another planet — and it is. A young mother of a missing child refuses to accept the obvious imposter the LAPD insists is her lost son. Lacking fingerprints, DNA evidence, or any other “scientific” method of identification, the story becomes a battle of credibility between a police captain and a single mother.  She has none.

This is one of those tales in which the most bizarre things (the ease with which a woman without a man to protect her could be confined to a mental institution, or the roller-skating phone company managers)  are true, and only the stuff that seems normal to us (the woman’s angry confrontation with a police psychiatrist) are fictional. At the end of the day, Clint Eastwood, that most unlikely of directors, has created an interesting and absorbing story that offers more subtlety and truth about the gender relationships of an earlier era than many of the feminist polemics that been coming out of Hollywood in recent years.

Angelina Jolie is OK in the title role, but I was unduly distracted by her artifically enhanced lips.  Many of the actors in the featured roles were outstanding, particularly John Malkovich as the radio televangelist who takes an interest in the case, and Michael Kelly as the LAPD’s One Honest Cop.

But the real star of the film is 1920s Los Angeles, a lost landscape known to us only from the movies (Chinatown, Roger Rabbit), and here presented with real trolleys.  No CG.