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3 Stars Movies

Star Trek: The Motion Picture was always out of step with the times

With a release history more tangled than a TNG time travel plot, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is now finally available on Paramount+ in its most complete form yet: a 2022 4K remaster of the 2001 Director’s Edition of the 1979 film. Got that?

Engadget has the full details, but in short, don’t call it a “restoration”. The original elements have been fully rescanned and regraded, with effects recreated, all suitable for contemporary screens. Thankfully for the Trek completist, the basic edit has not changed — so there is no “new” canonical material to trigger a warp core meltdown in Memory Alpha. After more than 40 years, the movie finally no longer has a “yeah, but…” asterisk attached to it.

But I still just can’t get behind it. While it has many of the typical Trek trappings (cosmic alien first contacts, tension between workplace hierarchies and personal relationships, and an overemphasis on Spock — more on that later), it lacks the core spirit of Star Trek, which for my latinum, is gee-whiz model UN nerds in space.

It was also always fatally out of step with the times. It borrowed all the wrong things from prior landmarks like 2001: A Space Odyssey (the ponderous psychedelia, conflict with artificial intelligence, the too-tight jumpsuits and too-short skirts), but not the Flash Gordon adventurism that Lucas and Spielberg would employ to define action and sci-fi in the coming decade.

Back to Spock: The character is the most overused aspect of Trek, appearing in the original series, the animated series, The Next Generation, Discovery, Strange New Worlds, and almost every movie (including the J.J. Abrams reboots). It’s not fair of me to complain about Spock oversaturation when talking about the very first movie, long before the character was run into the ground. But even so, it all just feels so tedious and simplistic. I understand the character appeals to people on the autism spectrum, but doesn’t the concept of a neurotypical person consciously electing to suppress emotion, out of a cultural/religious impulse, undercut the life experiences of those born that way, without that choice?

The character of Spock may be a challenging exercise for any actor, but on the evidence here, I’m not sure that Leonard Nimoy did much more than simply gaze at everything and everyone impassively. And he’s not the only one who seems emotionless: Ilia (Persis Khambatta) is already an alien ice queen when we meet her, so it isn’t much of a transformation when she is reborn as a walking Siri/Alexa device. And Decker (Stephen Collins) never seems too perturbed when she was abducted and assimilated.

Drinking game: down a Romulan ale every time someone says “Spock!” or “orifice”.

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2 Stars Movies

Never Been Kissed: a wacky misunderstanding, or should somebody call the police?

Without thinking about it too much, the basic premise of Raja Gosnell’s Never Been Kissed sounds perfectly fine: an adorkable young adult gets a high school do-over. What could go wrong?

And indeed, roughly the first half of Never Been Kissed is likable, powered almost entirely by Drew Barrymore’s trademark charm and quirk. But the plot begins digging a hole for itself as soon as her teacher’s (Michael Vartan) attention becomes more overtly sexual, her newspaper’s motivations turn crass and exploitative, her nerdy-but-a-knockout friend (Leelee Sobieski) strips down to a leotard for no reason, and her brother’s (David Arquette) own self-actualization turns predatory. And the movie just keeps digging deeper and deeper.

Never Been Kissed never evinces any awareness that its problematic premise is anything more than a wacky misunderstanding. I’m not sure if there was any way for this story to work without being creepy. Or, uh, unlawful.

Let’s try some offhand script doctoring: First, cut the 16-year-old gymnast entirely; that subplot is unsalvageable. Second, perhaps Josie could discover that she misjudged her teacher’s attention, and he is in fact focused on helping her blossom. For example, he could invite her to her office, with she and the audience anticipating a hot assignation, but he instead produces a letter of recommendation for her college applications. This way, it’s cute, they still like and respect each other, and can hook up later, when all is revealed.

Or at the very least, during the editing stage, it could have been made more clear that when Josie confesses, her teacher’s disappointment is specifically over finding out that the newspaper was trying to entrap him. I can’t believe it didn’t occur to anybody in the editing room that the scene played like he was disgusted to find out that Josie was in fact an adult.

Orrrrrr… maybe just don’t attempt this premise at all. I can’t believe Disney+ is trimming swearwords from some of its PG-13 movies, but Never Been Kissed‘s basic plot doesn’t concern them?

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3 Stars Movies TV

The Many Saints of Newark is fanfic for the overrated Sopranos

As Solo and Rogue One were to Star Wars, The Many Saints of Newark is to The Sopranos: mere fanfic dressed up as a prequel. We did not need to learn how Uncle Junior hurt his back.

Unpopular pop culture opinion: The Sopranos is overrated. Yes, it opened the floodgates for what came to be called “prestige TV”, but so much of what followed is better. Tony Soprano may be the archetypal male sociopath character that rationalizes his behavior to himself and to his TV audience, but I would argue that Walter White, Al Swearengen, Jimmy McNulty, and Don Draper are all more complex and interesting figures.

It’s a more common problem for a movie to fail from not having enough substance, but if anything, Alan Taylor’s The Many Saints of Newark has too much material for a two-hour movie. It’s been so long since I’ve seen The Sopranos that it took me ages to untangle the complex family tree in my head. I couldn’t remember which characters we were expected to remember from the series, and which were new.

Some intriguing coloration is given to Tony’s mother, one of the series’ biggest unalloyed villains (not to mention the most Freudian), but it’s barely a footnote in this overstuffed mess. I can’t help but think it would have been a better movie if it had focused on her, and perhaps also Janice and Carmela, both of whom merely cameo.

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3 Stars Movies

Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t bargain or negotiate in The Fugitive

Everyone remembers Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive for Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones’ chemistry (despite rarely sharing the screen) and its iconic action pieces (especially the train and dam sequences). But all of this must hang upon a plot framework, and the lopsided movie’s momentum dissipates as it gets bogged down in the details. The first half is so singularly focused on thrills, that it fails to set up the unexciting pharmaceutical company corruption details introduced too late in the game. For a movie like this, the conspiracy should be as interesting as the action.

It’s also hard to overlook the fact that the Marshal’s (Jones) most defining character trait, that the audience is clearly expected to admire, is that he proudly does not bargain or negotiate. Faced with a hostage situation involving a person of color, his solution is to summarily execute. I suppose this is to raise the stakes for the titular fugitive — you’ll be shot dead before you’re arrested — but even to early ’90s audiences, it’s impossible to imagine a U.S. Marshal treating an affluent white felon the same way as a poor black felon. Seems awkward now that this role earned Jones an Academy Award and a sequel.

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3 Stars Movies

The sour overpowers the sweet in About Last Night…

Even though I think I have to casually give Edward Zwick’s About Last Night… only three stars here, there’s a lot to commend it. There’s no high concept or clever hook to slap on the poster: no one falls in love with their maid or the magnate destroying their small business, no one gets amnesia and falls in love with the wrong sibling from the wrong side of the tracks.

“Get me a gin & tonic or I’ll kill you.”

As a sincere romantic dramedy built on top of a David Mamet play, About Last Night… can’t help but fight its schizophrenic nature. Mamet’s trademark macho aggression keeps piercing through, and the sourness often overpowers the sweet. Several Letterboxd reviews note that the film hasn’t aged well, and while I don’t disagree, I think it’s pretty clear that Bernie (Jim Belushi) is telegraphed as a pig, and if not a virgin, then at least a pathetically insecure liar. That the ostensibly more evolved Danny (Rob Lowe) entertains Bernie’s boasting is a sign of his naïveté, and Bernie’s bad influence is part of what causes his relationship with Debbie (Demi Moore) to fail.

But just when you think this is a unicorn amongst donkeys — a rare non-H.E.A. — the coda in which Danny and Debbie reconcile, while still keeping everything else in their lives that led to their breakup, feels inauthentic. About Last Night… does not compare favorably to Marty (1955), where the protagonist rejects his toxic friends in favor of a healthy relationship with a woman he loves and respects.

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4 Stars Movies

Like a pizza in the rain: Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild

You know you’ve graduated from Movie Buff into Old Movie Buff when you start saying “they don’t make movies like this any more”… but what if they really don’t make movies like this any more?

Catching up on Jonathan Demme’s filmography with Something Wild and Married to the Mob has really brought home the realization that midbudget romantic comedies/dramas have disappeared, especially any suffused with this much personality and quirk.

“Like a pizza in the rain, nobody wants to take you home”

David Byrne & Celia Cruz

Something interesting is happening in the background of every shot, and every supporting & background actor is an eccentric. A simple shot of Jeff Daniels making a phone call has a fascinating person simply standing in the background, a quick scene of buying a used car features John Waters, a New York City diner and a Virginia gas station are staffed by eccentric personalities, and a quick shot of Daniels and Melanie Griffith leaving a motel includes some background action of a family unloading a car that looks wacky enough to be its own National Lampoon Vacation movie. When today’s streaming/A24/Blumhouse financing model strictly limits the cast and locations of movies, a movie like Something Wild may not even be possible any more.

And of course Demme dipped into his deep rolodex of music buddies for an amazing soundtrack lineup, including: David Byrne, John Cale, Laurie Anderson, The Feelies, Sister Carol, and more.

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3 Stars Movies

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is Terry Gilliam’s 8½

If I hadn’t seen The Man Who Killed Don Quixote with my own eyes, I’d have trouble believing it exists. So Terry Gilliam has finally made his Quixote; but it might be more accurate to say that he finally made his .

In a way, Gilliam has been making this movie over and over for years. Longtime fans will recognize his longtime themes of guilt, unhealthy fantasy, escape, and delusion. His infamous, years-long struggle is cleverly written into the story. Adam Driver plays a film director reflexively hailed as a genius, but for a work so obscure that it is remarkable for it to surface in a bootleg copy — but yet somehow also so well-known that he is asked to superficially replicate it for a television commercial. I wonder if it was ever contemplated to incorporate the small amount of footage shot in 1998 with Jean Rochefort and Johnny Depp, but I suspect the last thing anybody involved with this cursed project wanted was more legal issues.

I appreciate that while The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is extremely Gilliamesque in its themes, it is rarely egregiously so in its art direction. In the 1996 documentary The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys, Gilliam observed that by that point in his career, craftspeople were so aware of and influenced by his work that he found they could deliver Gilliamesque costumes, props, and sets without his input. Things escalated to the point of self-parody in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus‘ woozy digital phantasmagoria, but thankfully things here are once again mostly practical.

Trivial perhaps, but if I may add a heartfelt complaint: a pox on Screen Media Films for authoring a blu-ray specifically designed to not remember where you stopped, and to disable the FFWD, NEXT, or MENU buttons during the trailers. I will never understand this kind of consumer hostility. Why punish the movie lovers who have paid to own or rent your film?

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4 Stars Movies

Sit on my interface: Hackers is a 90s treasure

I can’t believe I haven’t had the pleasure until now. Energetic, funny, quotable, and scattered with fantastic montage sequences. The moment when Johnny Lee Miller sees Angelina Jolie for the first time is choice. And check the surreal imagery and avant-garde editing of its characters’ erotic nightmares — seriously; more than one!

It’s all laughably preposterous, but in a good way. And I’m not even talking about its hilariously fantastical vision of internet technology — I’m talking about: Miller’s accent, Lorraine Bracco’s horny sexbomb lawyer, Fisher Steven’s hair, the floppy discs tucked in trousers, the animated cityscapes of cyberspace, the rollerblades. Most of the actors playing high school kids are too old, and most of the actors playing grownups are too young. I could go on. A delight.

“Eww… hard copy.”

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3 Stars Movies TV

L.A. Takedown is the rough draft for Michael Mann’s masterpiece Heat

I finally, finally, finally had the opportunity to cross L.A. Takedown off my movie watchlist — a largely unavailable holy grail that I’ve been desperately curious to see for years.

If director Michael Mann had not reworked this material into the masterpiece Heat, L.A. Takedown would probably be pushed so far down his IMDB or Letterboxd listings that it would get lost behind his more readily available TV work like Crime Story and Miami Vice. But for students of his work, L.A. Takedown is an incredibly fascinating relic; like reading a rough first draft of a well-known novel.

It’s amazing to see how virtually the same material (plot, structure, character, and even exact dialogue) in the same order — including the deafening downtown LA shootout — can comprise the ingredients to both this and the polished near-perfection of Heat. There can’t be many precedents for this; maybe Alfred Hitchcock remaking his own The Man Who Knew Too Much?

Aside from everything it shares with Heat, it’s just as interesting to consider what L.A. Confidential lacks:

  • 100% less Henry Rollins & Tone Loc, and it’s the poorer for it.
  • What I consider one of the key moments in Heat: Hanna (Al Pacino) spotting a sad woman alone in a car, and deducing that Neil (Robert De Niro) has seen the heat around the corner.
  • Acting. I know, ouch, right? The main cast is pretty blah (and hard to tell apart, to be honest), but in supporting roles: Michael Rooker! Xander Berkeley (who’s also in Heat)!
  • Another of Heat‘s unfair advantages: a killer soundtrack. But this does have the then-contemporary Jane’s Addiction live on stage, and an exclusive Billy Idol song, which isn’t too shabby for a TV movie.

It’s also difficult to imagine a time when US TV networks would finance and produce a violent, handheld, and hard boiled movie like this — any movie at all, really, even if it was originally intended as a backdoor series pilot episode. I’m not even sure what the hook or selling point would be for a casual 1980s TV audience, but I’m sure it’s no accident that L.A. Takedown has more of a “just deserts” moralistic ending than Heat.

Categories
2 Stars Movies

Daylight is anti-city-living propaganda

The best part of every disaster movie is the opening montage depicting unrelated people boarding the boat that’s going to sink, the airplane that’s going to crash on a desert island, the tower that’s going to inferno, or the bus that’s going to be hijacked in an overly complicated scheme by a charismatic villain. These kinds of movies like to pretend that catastrophe is the great equalizer, uniting victims across class, race, and gender, but we all know that’s just pretend.

Rob Cohen’s 1996 Daylight exemplifies the genre’s failings, notably the stock stereotypes (the sassy Caribbean woman, the guy who loves his sneakers, convicts in a prison bus, etc.), and that there’s always a macho Sylvester Stallone-type around to take charge.

Daylight also earns major demerits for its pervasive anti-city-living propaganda. There’s no way that Amy Brenneman’s character, a struggling divorcée living in a walkup rat trap studio, owns a car. This was clearly written for the tourist who happily dips their toes into Manhattan for a Broadway show, an overrated cupcake, and maybe The Met, but then turns right around and says “sure, it was nice to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there…”

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