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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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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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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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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.

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3 Stars Movies

Motherless Brooklyn is a civics lesson wrapped in an actorly exercise

I understand the generally negative reception that Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn encountered, but I didn’t dislike it for two very mundane reasons:

1. I happened to watch it in the middle of binging HBO’s Perry Mason miniseries (with which it coincidentally happens to have a great deal in common), and frankly, Motherless Brooklyn comes out on top. Perry Mason‘s unrelenting dour tone and gruesome violence could have used a dose of Motherless Brooklyn‘s lightness and humor.

2. I recognized at least one location as being just a few blocks from my apartment. Funny how a few simple props like a vintage phone booth and some old newspapers can zap a Brooklyn street decades into the past.

But yes, Motherless Brooklyn is not great in and of itself. Ed Norton’s performance is little more than an actorly exercise, and it’s bewildering how many other characters his character Lionel meets are so patient and understanding of his tics. Alec Baldwin’s growly performance is more The Simpsons‘ Mr. Burns than Glengarry Glen Ross. And for a movie about racist civic policies, it’s awkward for it to feature Michael K. Williams as the apparently unnamed “Trumpet Man”, a character dangerously close to magical black person cliche.

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3 Stars Movies

A time twisty scenario: Interstellar

Interstellar‘s torturously complex premise requires a constant stream of exposition throughout, something I don’t recall being a problem in Christopher Nolan’s other time twisty scenarios like The Prestige and Inception. It’s also less emotionally urgent than either, perhaps indicating that the premise and structure overwhelmed everything else.

If Coop (Matthew McConaughey) — and by proxy, the audience — needs to have everything constantly explained to him (before, during, and after anything happens), maybe he’s not the right person for the job. I know, I know, he’s the pilot, and realistically each member of such a crew would have their area of expertise. But perhaps the protagonist of the film, and the one that is most lauded by humanity at the end, should have been either Murph (Jessica Chastain) or Amelia (Anne Hathaway).

And I think maybe we were supposed to feel sentimental affection for the robots? I couldn’t even tell you how many there were.

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3 Stars Movies

Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die is an unaffectionate homage

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that Jim Jarmusch would make a zombie movie, since he’s already cycled through idiosyncratic interpretations of westerns (Dead Man), vampires (Only Lovers Left Alive), samurai (Ghost Dog), and thrillers (The Limits of Control). But unlike these, The Dead Don’t Die reads as an unaffectionate (or to coin a word, disaffectionate) homage to its genre.

Directly quoting Night of the Living Dead and Return of the Living Dead, The Dead Don’t Die initially seems to be taking a nostalgic poke at contemporary interpretations of the genre: be they the frenetic 28 Days Later rabid variety, or the mopey end-times soap opera of The Walking Dead. But Jarmusch takes the inherent nihilism of the zombie horror subgenre to its logical end: there is no “post-” after the apocalypse, and zombie movies are dumb and you’re dumb for watching them.

The cast is notably diverse in race, age, and gender (at times looking like the most Jarmusch that ever Jarmusched, with just enough room for delights like Iggy Pop as Coffee Zombie, Carol Kane as Chardonnay Zombie, and Tom Waits as Hermit Bob). But while The Walking Dead has vague themes of the apocalypse being the great socioeconomic leveler, here it’s part of a cynical joke. It’s hard not to interpret the casting of Tilda Swinton as a scotswoman in samurai kitsch as an allusion to her role in the Disney/Marvel appropriation of an asian comic book character in Doctor Strange.

Fittingly, her subplot builds to a glancing swipe at sci-fi/superhero blockbusters, with the iconic Star Wars Star Destroyer reduced to a tchotchke keychain wielded by its star Adam Driver, and then inflated back up into a dinner-plate flying saucer straight out of Plan 9 From Outer Space. Zombies and spaceships are taken seriously by millions as part of a modern mythos, but from the condescending perspective of Swinton’s woman-who-fell-to-earth, it’s all naught but “a wonderful fiction”.

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3 Stars Movies

1917 is not the first single-take movie, but it’s one of the best

Every review or casual comment about 1917, from pan to praise, will all begin with the same undeniable fact: it’s an astounding technical achievement. While far from the first apparent single-take feature-length film, it’s certainly one of the most seamless. Better, the feat is partially insulated from charges of gimmickry in that the structure derives directly from the urgency of the plot. There’s an essay waiting to be written about how both Sam Mendes and Christopher Nolan approached the venerable war film genre in the 21st Century: by experimenting with structure and time.

A couple things took me out of the experience:

  1. The very intrusive score. Often so overbearing that I suspected the filmmakers doubted the power of their imagery. (a particular example being Schofield’s mad run across the battlefield being accompanied by a pounding rock score, when surely the shells, screaming, and guns would have been more effective)
  2. Sentimental war movie cliches, most notably coming across a pretty young woman in the middle of a battlefield.
  3. Casting movie stars as the various superiors the soldiers encounter throughout the film has some deleterious effects: it’s distracting when the two leads are relative unknowns, it calls attention to an episodic structure, and it relies too much on melodramatic camera reveals (holding the lens on Mark Strong’s boot for so long seemed a bit rich).
  4. An unimaginative, unevocative title. These are not perfect analogies, but imagine if Platoon had been titled 1967, or if M*A*S*H had been 1951.
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