Monday, April 21, 2014


FLASHBACK REVIEW:  Star Trek:  Nemesis (2002) **½

Despite the critical failure of "Insurrection," fairly strong box-office allowed for one more attempt at a Next Generation movie. It had been four years since the release of the previous entry, however, and Paramount execs had to have been nervous about what would happen to one of their biggest franchises.

The plot involves a coup in the Romulan hierarchy by a Reman called Shinzon (Tom Hardy), a military slave, who falsely offers peace with the Federation. It is revealed that Shinzon is actually a clone of Captain Picard, abandoned amidst a political shift in the Romulan society. He needs Picard's blood to survive, and will use any means to attain it.

This basic story could have made an interesting movie, I suppose, but the overall feeling is again of an extended TV episode. It lacks the personality and freshness of their triumphant "First Contact" adventure. Perhaps the constraints of the character story arches and the fact that so much was explored on the 7 season run of the crew's TV incarnation combined to make it difficult to expand on its themes for the big screen. In spite of a potentially intriguing villain and a major character's ultimate sacrifice near the end of the film, very little in this entry resonates for the audience. Thus it was the final Next Generation film. Another seven years would pass before the franchise would continue in the movies.

FLASHBACK REVIEW:  Star Trek (2009) ***½

Seven long years of speculation and waiting. Was "Star Trek" a dead franchise? Would the Next Generation crew get a chance to redeem itself? Would a new crew be introduced? Would one of the other numerous TV crews get their shot at the big-screen?

Well, the answer is this reboot by director J. J. Abrams ("Super 8"). The film seems to take us back to the story of the original crew, but we learn that time travel by the film's main villain Nero (Eric Bana) as well Ambassador Spock (once again portrayed by Leonard Nimoy) has created an alternate time-line. So while we see the beginnings of Star Trek unfold, there are fresh and new possibilities to explore. In this way, Abrams and the writers have fashioned a tribute and a reboot that also works on its own. For die-hard fans, this is like revisiting reliable old characters, but for new fans it is a great entry point into the franchise.

Certainly it helps to be familiar with the interactions of the characters in previous incarnations, but the structure of film does not require that a viewer be overly acquainted with them.
The cast is well-placed, and the actors give spot-on interpretations without going into all-out imitation. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban are absolutely Kirk, Spock and McCoy, while Zoe Zaldana, Anton Yelchin and John Cho are superbly cast as Uhura, Chekov and Sulu. Simon Pegg may not look quite like James Doohan, but he is instantly recognizable as everyone's favorite Starfleet engineer Scotty.

Then there is the villain, the Romulan Nero (Eric Bana), who seeks revenge on Spock for his participation in a failed rescue attempt that went haywire. He blames him for the death of his family, and in return wishes to have the Ambassador experience the same. He is a worthwhile bad-guy-with-a-sympathetic motivation for the story.

Another thing that works in this film are the action scenes, which were filmed with relatively little in the way of blue or green screen effects. Abrams insisted on using as many real sets and locations as he could, which adds to the feeling of reality. The music by Michael Giacchino is also well-suited, enhanced by a rousing arrangement of Alexander Courage's original Star Trek theme used during the closing credits. The film's makeup won the first-ever Academy Award for the franchise, while it also received nominations for sound, sound-effects editing and visual effects. Criddic also gave the film a win for makeup, while nominating it for Best Supporting Actor (Quinto), Film Editing, Sound and Visual Effects.  Let's hope this version of the series lives long and prospers.

FLASHBACK REVIEW:  Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) ***

Expectations were high after the wildly entertaining and satisfying 2009 reboot, one of the few Star Trek movies to ever flirt with being nominated for a Best Picture Oscar nomination (and maybe the first to be talked about seriously as a contender). It didn't make it, but it was one of the biggest box-office draws of the year and generally successful among the critics. I liked it a lot, too.

With an established cast and character relationships set-up for a sequel, returning director J. J. Abrams could just dive into the action in a prologue where we encounter Kirk and crew on a primitive planet where a mission sort of goes off script and Kirk violates protocol. Although mostly unrelated to the rest of the film, the scene does create a situation based on the personality differences between Kirk and Spock that informs much of what follows.

A Starfleet member is said to be behind a series of terror attacks and the Enterprise crew is ordered to take him out. Certain events make Kirk suspicious of the motivations behind the ordered mission and it is revealed that things are not quite as they seem.

This sequel is best experienced if you have little to no knowledge of plot details. Admittedly, that is tough to do with so much information out there, but I like to do my best to avoid knowing everything about a movie before I see it. In this case, it adds suspense and interest to several plot twists.

The film is, yes, darker than the first "alternate time-line" crew film. Having solidified character relationships in the first film, it frees the film makers up to take them in intriguing directions. The fact that this is almost as enjoyable as the first leaves me a bit concerned that J. J. Abrams is vacating the director's chair to helm the next "Star Wars" installment. Hopefully, whoever takes over can continue the momentum gained by this revitalized franchise.  "Star Trek Into Darkness" received Academy Award and Criddic nominations for Best Visual Effects.


CLASSIC FILM REVIEW:  Star Trek: Generations (1994) ***

The Original Star Trek crew ended its run as a film series in 1991 with the surprisingly upbeat and entertaining "Undiscovered Country." Now the plan was to move the franchise into a new phase. A successful "Next Generation" continuation/sequel series had aired on television since 1987, and it was seen as logical that any new movie would include the characters from that show. Also inevitable was the expectation that the series would be passed on to the new crew in some way by combining elements of both the old and new series. The result was "Generations."

This film is a mixture of big-screen special-effects and small-screen story concepts. It utilizes the directing services of David Carson, who had done episodes of the "Next Generation" TV show, while three members of the original crew (Kirk, Scotty and Chekov) make appearances.

A mysterious energy ribbon causes an under-equipped USS Enterprise-B to go into a rescue mission, barely escaping the ribbon's power source. Unfortunately, Captain Kirk had gone to a lower deck to help with a technical problem when the ribbon breaches the ship's hull and it is assumed he could not have survived. Many years later, USS Enterprise-D rescues people from a solar observatory, among them Doctor Soran (Malcolm McDowell) who is revealed to be obsessed with getting back to the ribbon energy source, to a place known as the Nexus. Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg), the ship's bartender and a "listener" tells Captain Picard the story of how the Nexus is a place of total peace that keeps you trapped by giving you the ability to be in any time or place for as long as you wish. They become aware that Soran poses a threat to thousands of lives through a plan to use a weapon to destroy stars and planets in altering the trajectory of the energy ribbon. Unable to stop Soran's first attempt, Picard decides to use the Nexus to stop Soran from succeeding in this plan, but realizes he needs help. So he enlists Captain Kirk, who has become trapped in the Nexus, to do battle one last time.

While this story-line is interesting enough, there are subplots like Data's quest to experience human emotions. This gets a little silly at times, with awkward jokes thrown into several scenes. The whole film feels like an extended TV episode, though the Nexus scenes have a nice dreamy quality and the Kirk/Picard meeting is fun. This marks the final appearance of William Shatner as Kirk.

CLASSIC FILM REVIEW:  Star Trek: First Contact (1996) ***½

Now that the franchise had been handed over completely to the new crew, the expectations were high. Like series actors Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner before him, Jonathan Frakes (who plays Commander Riker) took the directing reigns.

The Borg, a half-machine/half-alien race encountered in the "Next Generation" TV series, have returned to take over the Earth using time travel. So the Enterprise crew must do the same in order to prevent the Borg from altering history by making sure that "first contact" occurs. With humor, exciting action set-pieces and good supporting characters, this entry is easily the best of the four "Next Generation" films. As in "Wrath of Khan" and "Undiscovered Country," it is clear that a compelling villain helps to make a good Star Trek film. This time, it is the Borg Queen (Alice Krige), a repulsive creature who controls the "Borg collective" and is eager to persuade Data (Brent Spiner) to join her in taking over Earth. Cunning and ruthless, but oddly seductive, she is among the best adversaries in the film series.

Jerry Goldsmith, working with his son Joel, wrote the score (as he did for "The Motion Picture" and "The Final Frontier"). The sets and costumes are diverse and interesting, and the effects are top-notch. Makeup team received an Oscar-nomination and a Criddic Award.  The film also received a Criddic Award for Best Visual Effects.

CLASSIC FILM REVIEW:  Star Trek: Insurrection (1998) *½

Picard and crew discover that some factions of the Federation are planning an unethical violation of the rules in order to acquire a special radiation protecting the planet where a people called Bak'u live. This element effectively gives its people immortality. Corrupt members of the Federation have teamed up with the Son'a, a race of beings that require constant cosmetic surgery to keep from falling apart. The principle members of the Enterprise crew decide that the ethical questions raised by these actions outweigh any benefit the planet's elements might present, and seek to save the Bak'u from destruction.

After achieving great success with their second outing in "First Contact," the Next Generation crew faltered. For reasons unknown, the series under this crew never regained its footing. Much of the action in this film is ho-hum, the humor flat and it contains two romantic subplots that don't really work. One is between Commander Riker and Counselor Troi that is played mostly for laughs, and the other between Captain Picard and Anij (Donna Murphy), a Bak'u woman. Their relationship is sweet, but underdeveloped and ultimately doesn't go anywhere. The villians, played by F. Murray Abraham and Anthony Zerbe respectively, are pretty unmemorable compared with the Borg Queen or Khan. Overall, the film feels unnecessary and little more than a middling extended TV episode.


CLASSIC FILM REVIEW:  Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) ***½

After the dark themes of death and revenge were explored in the second and third Star Trek adventures, the screenwriters decided to have a little fun with the next one.

The story this time deals with a gravitational crisis brought on by the extinction of humpback whales in the 24th century, threatening all life on Earth. So the crew of the Enterprise find a way to take a trip back through time to the modern-day (1986) San Francisco to try to rescue a pair of humpback whales to repopulate the species in their time. What results is one of the zaniest, lightest and most enjoyable of the entire franchise stories.

Having proven the doubters wrong with his work on "The Search for Spock," Leonard Nimoy again directs. The entire cast appears to be having a lot of fun with this goofy plot and the more humorous atmosphere. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Cinematography, Score, Sound and Sound-Effects Editing.

CLASSIC FILM REVIEW:  Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) **

Okay, we know this one of the worst entries in the series. We know that, given the success of "The Voyage Home" with one its stars (Nimoy) as director, the producers went ahead and let William Shatner try his hand at the helm. Is it as bad as its reputation or has it been underrated? Well, a little of both actually.

The movie begins with a sequence showing Kirk (Shatner), Spock (Nimoy) and Dr. 'Bones' McCoy (DeForest Kelly) on vacation in Yosemite. It's a pleasant enough start, and thankfully brief as they are all called back to duty on board the Enterprise.

It turns out that a renegade Vulcan has lured the Enterprise crew into a hostage rescue mission under false pretenses and plans to hijack their ship to seek out the creator of the universe at a mythical planet called Sha Ka Ree. This Vulcan is called Synok (Laurence Kuckinbill), a half-brother of Spock. He has an ability to use the mind-meld to manipulate people's emotions to get what he wants, but has to compromise with Kirk and Spock when they refuse his propositions. Much of the plot hinges on discussion of what the meaning of this mission is and whether they would find what Sybok believes exists there. Once there, his elation turns to shock as he finds something more sinister than he'd imagined.

Apparently, the production was beset by many problems and budget cuts, leading to a reduction in available special effects and other materials. Director Shatner recalls his disappointment in his book 'Star Trek Memories' by pointing out how several planned effects sequences had to be reduced in scope to the point where he felt the scenes lacked excitement. By contrast, he also states that initial reactions to the film gave him momentary hope that the film could still be a success. Indeed, "Star Trek V" actually had the highest opening weekend of any in the series up to that point, but word of mouth and generally poor reviews hurt the film's run. He was never asked to direct again, although he has adapted his own 'TekWar' stories for TV. As it stands, this fifth entry contains some interesting ideas but never comes together as an engaging adventure.

CLASSIC FILM REVIEW:  Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) ***½

After the failure of William Shatner's directorial effort on "The Final Frontier," the series went back to director Nicholas Meyer, who had directed the successful "Wrath of Khan" and helped write "The Voyage Home." All original series main cast members returned.

The Klingon empire is in crisis and a decision is made to offer peace with the United Federation of Planets. Skeptical, Kirk and crew reluctantly go along. Then the Klingon Chancellor (David Warner) is assassinated under mysterious circumstances, and Kirk is blamed. Sentenced in a trial to be banished on a prison planet, Spock and the crew must figure out what really happened and save their friend.

The mystery elements help give this sixth, and final, film to include the original Star Trek cast an atmosphere of intrigue that was lacking in the previous installment. Also, the knowledge that this would likely be their last voyage together seems to have made the cast more lively and engaged this time around. As with any good entry, though, the thing that makes this one special are the villains. In particular, a Shakespeare-reciting Klingon general named Chang, who is bent on taking the Federation to war in spite of his leader's wishes to give peace a chance. Veteran actor Christopher Plummer (who recently won an Academy Award for "Beginners") gives the role a more understated quality than might otherwise be expected (think of Lloyd's Kruge from "Star Trek III") and seems to have fun with his lines.

At the end of the film, the principle cast members' signatures are written across the screen in acknowledgment of the series' conclusion. They ended the crew's mission on a high note. The film was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories if Makeup and Sound-Effects Editing.  Criddic gave it nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Plummer), Costume Design and Sound.  It won for Makeup.


CLASSIC FILM REVIEW:  Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) **½

"Star Trek" went off the air after a fan-letter inspired third season ended in 1969. There was a brief animated show featuring the voices of original cast members in 1973-74. In the following years, the series grew a loyal fanbase, prompting discussion of a new television series, to be called "Star Trek: Phase II." Due to the success of the films "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind" the project was shifted to become a feature film. The end result of a long process of luring back Leonard Nimoy to return as Spock, and endless script treatments, is this Robert Wise ("The Day the Earth Stood Still")-directed epic.

Visually stunning, with eye-popping special effects and art direction, the film offers little else. Its story centers on a mysterious mass of energy that is on a collision course with Earth. While the Enterprise tries to make contact with the alien entity, an energy source creates a probe that takes over a crew member to study the ship. After endless discussion and philosophical debating, Spock eventually decides to connect with this entity, now known to be a living machine, through the Vulcan mind-meld technique. These efforts lead to the final confrontation and resolution of the story.

Much of the fun of the original series was lost in the execution of this film, which deals with its philosophical issues of the meaning of existence and the creation of a life force with utter solemnity. It is not a bad film, but it does not really feel like a Star Trek film. Luckily, the financial success of "Star Trek-The Motion Picture" led the way for a long-running franchise that is still being produced to this day.

CLASSIC FILM REVIEW:  Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (1982) ***½

Due to the financial success of "The Motion Picture," Paramount Studios was interested in releasing another film. However, the overall feeling was that the first story lacked real tension and pace. So there was some shifting of the power-players, resulting in creator Gene Roddenberry being replaced as a direct producer with Harve Bennett. Bennett viewed all original series episodes as research and came up with the idea to use an episode entitled "The Space Seed" as inspiration for a second installment.

In that show, a super-human being named Khan threatened the Enterprise and was banished to a deserted planet. For the new film, this character (played with relish by Ricardo Montalban) returns to seek revenge on Kirk (William Shatner) when he seizes a ship landed by unsuspecting crew members and escapes his prison.
 Much of the film's drama depends on the tension between these two characters, while a subplot involving Kirk's years-earlier romance and discovery of a son bring added emotional resonance.

In bringing this sequel to the screen, the film makers sought to improve the audiences participation by allowing the characters to acknowledge the passage of time. Kirk and his crew now openly grapple with their advancing age, leading to some nice exchanges between them. Also, there is more emphasis on battle scenes. By making these changes, and not dwelling too much on philosophical questions, the new film moves at a brisker pace. The success of "Star Trek II," though, lies in the superb portrayal of its villain. Khan is a character of great pride and a lust for revenge that Montalban makes memorable in his performance. In the course of battle with the Enterprise, this dynamic causes one major crew member to make a great sacrifice to save the ship. This will lead to the third entry in the series.

CLASSIC FILM REVIEW:  Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) ***

Continuing where the "Wrath of Khan" left off, the title says it all. The crew of the Enterprise, led by Captain Kirk, attempt to retrieve Spock from where he was buried when it is discovered that he may be revived with a risky ancient Vulcan ritual. The crew runs into trouble when a cruel Klingon adversary named Kruge (a pre-"Back to the Future" Christopher Lloyd) shows up to find out about the project GENESIS, which was revealed in the previous film as a device that can change the make-up of any planet or moon. Used in the wrong hands, it can become a powerful weapon, so naturally enemies of the Federation would be eager to possess it. This conflict poses serious complications in the mission to recover Spock.

For this third entry in the series, Leonard Nimoy insisted on being hired as a director in return for reprising his role as Spock. While both then-studio chief Michael Eisner and creator Gene Roddenberry expressed doubts initially, the decision turned out to be a good one. Nimoy handled his duties well and the film is a worthy follow-up to "The Wrath of Khan." The tone of the story is mostly straight-forward, with few moments of humor, but that would be rectified in the next adventure.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Mickey Rooney Tribute

(September 23, 1920 – April 6, 2014)

Born Joseph Yule, Jr., but known to movie-goers everywhere as Mickey Rooney, this mercurial talent was praised as one of the best by such luminaries as Cary Grant.  He began his career as a child in vaudeville, that fabled traveling theater form which lasted from the late 19th century through the early 1930s, and made his film debut at age six in the silent film comedy Orchids and Ermine
(1927).  He gained praise for his role of Puck in the acclaimed 1935 version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.  By the time he played his most famous role, that of the Andy Hardy in a series of popular films starting in 1937's A Family Affair, he had already appeared in numerous projects.  Among them were Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936) and Captains Courageous (1937), both starring child actor Freddie Bartholomew.

Mr. Rooney received his first Academy Award in 1938 for the Best Juvenile Performer, along with singer-actress Deanna Durbin.  The following year he was a competitive nominee for Best Actor for his role in the musical Babes in Arms (1939), which was one of several popular films in which he starred with the extraordinary Judy Garland.  Three additional nominations came for Best Actor in The Human Comedy (1943), Best Supporting Actor in The Bold and the Brave (1956) and Best Supporting Actor in The Black Stallion (1979).  In 1983, he was given an Honorary Award from the Academy "in recognition of his 50 years of versatility in a variety of memorable film performances."  Other accolades included a Golden Globe for Best TV Star - Male for his TV show "Mickey" in 1964 and an Emmy for Outstanding Actor in a Limited Series or Motion Picture for his portrayal of an elderly mentally handicapped man in Bill (1981).

Broadway came calling with a musical revue show called "Sugar Babies" in 1979.  The show was a surprise hit, running for three years and garnering Rooney a Tony Award nomination for Lead Actor in a Musical.  His co-stars included veteran musical star Ann Miller and TV actress Ann Jillian. 

Throughout the next few decades, Mickey Rooney kept on working.  He popped up in voice-overs for animated movies like Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (1989), the horror sequel Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1991) and even a cameo in The Muppets (2011).  He also had major supporting parts in the family film sequel Babe: Pig in the City (1998) and the hit Ben Stiller comedy Night at the Museum (2006), which also starred veteran actor Dick Van Dyke.

Mr. Rooney's personal life was not as graceful as his film career, however.  He was married a total of 8 times, and fathered 8 children (and adopted another son from his sixth wife's previous marriage).  His final, and most lasting marriage was to singer Jan Chamberlin, from whom he was separated in 2012 over allegations of elder abuse.  He testified before a Senate Special Committee on Aging on March 2, 2011. 

Upon his death, a battle over his remains ensued.   Most of his children had been disowned in his will, leaving only his much diminished estate (estimated to worth $18,000) to a stepson.  His wife will receive his social security and some pension payments.  An agreement was reached about plans for a funeral, avoiding a nasty lawsuit.

Fans will remember Mickey Rooney as a tireless legend.  Mr. Rooney's final film, Night at the Museum 3 was released December 19, 2014.