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by Bill Gibron

10 May 2009

Someone posed an interesting question to me the other day. “Why,” they asked, in classic essay intro parlance, “are audiences and critics going so insane over J. J. Abrams’ new Star Trek film?” The question wasn’t one of contempt but pure curiosity. You see, Hollywood offers dozens of entertainment options every year, and few if any resonate with elements both inside and outside the industry like this one. Of the 221 members of Rotten Tomatoes who’ve reviewed the film, only 10 have disliked it - and outright dismissals are rare amongst even the contrarians. Similarly, the film was projected to only do about $50 to $60 million at the box office over the 8 May weekend, and yet managed to rake in close to $77 million.

But my friend wasn’t quite finished with his inquiry. “Could it be,” he sniped, a small amount of sarcasm creeping through his typically serious demeanor, “that J.J. has done the impossible - that is, made a really good movie in a current realm of unmitigated mediocrity? What I mean is, could Star Trek‘s popularity in whole or in part be chalked up to the fact that, when inundated with junk for 364 days a year, the movie-going public will take a good old fashioned well made ‘movie’ any time?” In essence, the argument is this: Abrams hasn’t made a masterpiece, just a highly sophisticated and expertly helmed piece of pop culture eye candy. It was/is specifically created to please the widest majority of the populace, and will keep the Star Trek name on studio heads minds for sequels to come.

by Bill Gibron

9 May 2009

This is not meant as an objective overview. This is also not meant as some definitive list. As J.J. Abrams literal reinvention of Star Trek prepares to beam onto movie screens worldwide this weekend, I thought I would take a moment and offer my ten most prominent memories from my four decades in the making fandom. You notice the lack of an adjective like “Best”, or descriptive phrase like “Most Memorable”. Instead, these are the images that flash before my mind’s eye when I recall first finding this amazing sci-fi series, and the reactions/distractions I had/picked up along the way. As you see, some aren’t even directly related to the show, though it’s hard to look through my entire aesthetic catalog and not find a link to Kirk, Spock, and the rest of Gene Roddenberry’s merry crew. It will be short and sweet without a lot of metaphysical heft, but that doesn’t diminish the value of any entry here. So without further ado and in no particular order, here are my 10 Trek moments - for now:

William Shatner’s The Transformed Man LP

It was the Holy Grail for us ‘70s syndication fans, a copy of the Enterprise Captain’s seminal sonic assault on what people might call “music”. From the brilliant deconstruction of The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, to the near Billboard blockbuster success of “Mr. Tamborine Man”, the non-singer’s style could be best described as poetry readings on horse tranquilizers. When a copy was finally located, it was share and share alike. I still have my cassette of the album, right next to my mandatory CD translation.

by Bill Gibron

8 May 2009

It’s no secret that most filmmakers have their muses, directors who came before them from whom they draw inspiration and ideas. While some consider it a complimentary homage, others argue that copying another auteur’s style is nothing more than a cynical creative rip-off. Of course, when you do steal, you really should steal from the very best. In the case of videographer turned big screen helmer Benny Boom, there had to have been better references to crib from than the Guy Ritchie catalog. For his first film, the man behind clips for such famous artists as 50 Cent, Nelly, Busta Rhymes and Akon has decided to make his very own version of the UK maverick’s celluloid rocknrolla. Sadly, Next Day Air is nothing more than Lock, Stock, and Two Pot Smoking, F-Bomb Dropping, Hip Hop Barrels.

For Leo, a job working for his mom at a delivery company has its fair share of travails. Not only is his parent constantly after him for dragging a toke or two while on the clock, but he can’t get away with the thieving, conniving things that favored co-worker Eric does. One day, he delivers a massive package to no good criminals Guch and Brody. It turns out the box contains 10 kilos of high grade cocaine. Seeing themselves getting very rich really quick, the duo contacts local drug kingpin (and Brody’s cousin) Shavoo. While they work out some manner of monetary arrangement, however, Mexican gangster Bodega contacts his underling Jesus and asks if he got the blow. When they find out the stuff is MIA, they begin prowling the neighborhood looking for Leo. Too bad they didn’t hunt a little closer - you see, Jesus and his chica Chita live right down the hall from Guch and Brody.

It’s hard to imagine how something like Next Day Air could actually work. It’s too violent and overloaded with gun-toting bravado to be a full blown comedy. On the other hand, it’s so hackneyed and derivative of the Tarantino pool of crime filmmaking that everything eventually drowns. For a director getting his one (and probably, only) shot at making a statement, why would you mimic someone whose already established? Other novice up and comers like Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (the Crank films) take their cues from other forms of media - comic books, video games, and in High Voltage, the DIY dynamic of homemade cinema. With this effort, Boom goes directly to Snatch, steals all the rapid-cutting ADD amplified gimmickry, and then tosses in a ton of F-bombs to keep things “street”. There is no nuance here, no attempt at doing something clever or artistic. Instead, Next Day Air wants to coast on stunts and other attention-getting. All it does is float like a fetid air biscuit.

The actors often appear lost here, reliable talents like Mos Def (as the con jobbing Eric), Mike Epps (so good in Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins) and Donald Faison (Scrubs) reduced to running around limply without a single punchline to provide. There are moments when you see them mouthing lines that you know aren’t funny - and if you look closely, you can tell that they know they’re not funny either. Even worse, the “thriller” element is only exciting to someone who hasn’t spent a long time at their local Cineplex. Between channeling QT, Ritchie, John Woo, and about a dozen other au courant names, you can really tell that this is Blair Cobbs’ first major motion picture script. It reads like something inspired by, not original to. Add in the glaring leaps in logic and rationality (would a person really looking for a package from a ruthless mobster actually let the delivery man go by without a more pointed inquiry?).

There will be those, however, who argue over the “intended” audience for this film, arguing that Boom and Cobbs are simply playing to a demographic that is grossly underserved by the Tinsel Town entertainment factory. They can argue over the success of Tyler Perry and other urban artists and confirm this fact. While that’s all well and good (and this critic has been known to champion Mr. Madea for his soulful gospel-tinged morality plays), this does not excuse accepting any old piece of garbage aimed your way. To assume that audiences of “color” should clamor for this movie simply because it supposedly plays to their particular perceptions is insulting. No matter your ethnic background, Next Day Air is a talentless travesty, a trying torture fest that wants to believe it’s cool and contemporary. And if you think such vile visuals give your community a bad name, you’ll be doubly offended by what you see here.

Indeed, Next Day Air is a sad excuse for something that, as stated before, no one could have properly pulled off. It’s witless and myopic, viewing the entire world as one big Scarface riff waiting, as Tony Montana would say, to get “****ed”. This is not to preclude Mr. Boom for future success, though one only has this overripe rejects as a means of making such a determination. In fact, this could be the kind of calamity that brings the true visionary out of the pure pretender on display here. Until that fateful day, here’s a warning to audiences intrigued by the possibility of another raw, raucous laughfest. Next Day Air is so bereft of anything remotely hilarious that, if you indeed find something worth snickering over during the course of its cramped 90 minute running time, you’ve clearly discovered a facet of the film not offered up on the screen. In a weekend which sees the bow of one of 2009’s best, this is destined to be one of the worst.

by Chris Barsanti

7 May 2009

Just minutes into J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, you’re left with no illusions that it’s not going to be a dramatically different creature. As James T. Kirk’s mother screams in the pains of labor while onboard a shuttle hurtling away from a doomed Starfleet vessel that his father is piloting on a kamikaze mission toward a menacing Romulan ship (sacrificing himself to save the hundreds of crew on those shuttles), it seems less like something out of Next Generation than a flash-forward scene from Lost. Not surprisingly, Kirk (Chris Pine, who assumes the character’s egomaniacal mantle with shocking ease) grows up to be a danger-seeking punk with a chip on his shoulder the size of the Enterprise, and a dueling interior drive to either ignore or somehow surpass his father’s towering legacy.

This shameless hammering of emotions and its vision of a person born out of conflict and fire is pure new millennial televisual drama of the kind that fuses thriller conventions with soap opera relationship fireworks. And for the most part, it’s exactly what the Star Trek needed to blast away the fusty old traditions that had barnacled the franchise over the course of ten feature films and five series. But while director Abrams’ handling of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman’s propulsive screenplay—which introduces each of the franchise’s main characters with a smooth élan—is sleek and spiffy, to say the least, it ultimately hews far closer to his television work than might have been wise for a big-screen reboot.

In short: there’s no Khan.

Eric Bana as Nero in Star Trek

Eric Bana as Nero in Star Trek

Abrams’ style has tended to emphasize the interplay of relationships between his protagonists—their rivalries and loves, in addition to the inevitable moment of heart-clenching sacrifice—at the expense of the opponent they are arrayed against. So it is with Star Trek, in which the villain, a hulking rogue Romulan miner named Nero (Eric Bana), rates barely a flicker of interest. The film is so enveloped by the hormone-stoked heat and pulse of its intertwined origin stories (all those over-achieving young Starfleet cadets), that when they finally face up against Nero and his seemingly unstoppable titan of a planet-annihilating ship, there’s little to latch on to with the guy, much less fear.

Beneath the bulk and tribal tattoos—this film’s Romulans are to their distant cousins the Vulcans what Tolkien’s orcs were to his elves—Bana manages a few flickers of sulfurous enmity, but it all seems more of a delaying tactic before the film gets back to its real interest: the growing friendship between Kirk and Spock (Zachary Quinto).

Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto in Star Trek

Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto in Star Trek

It’s in the spiky moments of this relationship that Abrams finds the beating heart of the story, not the clashes between Starfleet and Nero. An overly quick scrap of exposition about the reason behind Nero’s universe-destroying rage plugs the necessary holes in the plot, but is hardly the stuff of epic drama.

This is not necessarily a bad move, as the whole point of this Star Trek was to reintroduce the franchise to a new generation, and on that score the filmmakers have done a superb job, updating the characters without losing a bit of what made them special in the first place. Also, it doesn’t set up the sequel for automatic disappointment, in the particular way that Star Trek III and IV couldn’t help but seem wan and pale after Ricardo Montalban ran away with Wrath of Khan.

And just think, they haven’t gotten to the Klingons yet…

by Bill Gibron

6 May 2009

They say it takes all kinds. That’s definitely true of a Summer blockbuster. Movies like The Dark Knight or Transformers don’t just ‘happen’. Their success is not the by-product of niche audiences constantly returning to the box office to reload the coffers. No, a big fat mainstream hit has to cross several demographical boundaries, affecting the committed and casual film fan in more or less the same way. If you can tap into that kind of creative universality, if you can get your movie to resonate with all members of the disposable income crowd (not just teens and college kids), you just might have a major monster on your hands. That’s what every producer is hoping for. It’s what most movies fail to generate. After all, if a success was simple, everyone would be able to make one.

In that regard, SE&L returned to Star Trek this week for a second screening. Our goal - find a few people willing to discuss their investment (or lack thereof) in the classic science fiction series and give us some pre/post opinions. For the most part, the six people questioned (four individuals and one couple) were aware of the franchise. At least two didn’t care about the previous mythology or motion picture entries. Many had not seen the original ‘60s series in many, many years, and at least one admitted that the only reason she was there had more to do with lust than a longing for to see her favorite Federation members up on the big screen. Since it was a press screening - tickets were a hot commodity and several dozen people were turned away when the theater filled up quickly - there was a predisposition in place. But for the most part, the subjects were open and honest.

What’s clear about the concept, outside the movie being shown, is that a blockbuster has to lurch way beyond its fanbase and those who might favor it. It has to tap directly into the sadly conformists mindset of a society that cops to a sheep-like sense of celebration. We don’t want to be left out if something is spectacular, but we also have a tendency to bail when the rest of the citizenry makes a commercial determination. So will J.J. Abrams have a massive hit on his hands, or will his reboot of Star Trek only speak to a certain segment of the movie-going public? Perhaps the following perspectives will clarify its potential popularity.

#1 - Earl and Peggy (older couple, both in early 60s)
Before the screening:
“He wouldn’t let us eat if Star Trek was on,” Peggy said, her now sightless eyes showing the slightest glint of sarcasm. “He’d come home, sit down, and if Trek was on, dinner had to wait.” If you listen to the former military man, someone who survived two terrible tours of duty in Vietnam, Gene Roddenberry’s sci-fi social allegory was a reason to hope. “We’ve been married 45 years,” Peggy beams, “and Star Trek has always been a part of our life. I often joke that he loves (it) more than he loves me.” Earl just looks away, smiling. “It is a fine show,” he sighs, before settling back in his seat. “It was filled with wonderful ideas. I hope they don’t screw it up.”

After the screening:
“I was actually crying there for a bit,” Earl offered, his face registering the embarrassment of a generation not used to showing their emotion. “When (Nimoy) showed up, and he told the new Kirk about their friendship, I lost it.” While she was unable to see most of the movie (legally blind, she still has some limited vision left), Peggy concurs, but for different reasons. “I could tell how much he loved it,” she says, grabbing her husband’s arm. “It was everything he hoped for…and more.”

The consensus:
They’ll be seeing it again, sometime after the opening weekend.

#2 - Pauline (early 50s)
Before the screening:
“I’m dreading this,” the well turned out woman said, hands wringing a napkin that came with her popcorn, “I’m all Shatner.” Indeed, as Pauline explains, the reason she loves Star Trek has little to do with its solid stories of space existentialism. Nor does it have anything to do with later incarnations of the franchise. “I couldn’t stand Next Generation,” she confesses, eyes narrowing as if to accent her disavowal. No, for this widowed mother of four, her love of Star Trek revolves around her admitted sexual fascination with the original Captain Kirk. “William Shatner was just so sexy back then,” she murmurs, “it’s easy to see why he got all the girls.” Dragged by her son to see the new film, she appears disgruntled and uncomfortable. “I just don’t buy this new guy,” she asserts, “he can’t beat my Kirk, and that’s that.”

After the screening:
“WOW! That (Chris Pine) is cute!”, Pauline gushes, her face forming what looks like the first hints of a new school girl crush. “The movie itself was amazing, but I never thought they could find someone to play my Kirk as a young man. But they did.” In more candid terms, she expresses a small amount of disdain for the “hyper” filmmaking and editing, and she clearly only cares about one character here. “Everyone else was okay. But my Kirk…”, she drifts off. Reclaiming her thoughts, she adds, “I can see why it would be popular.”

The consensus:
They did a good job”, Peggy states, enthusiastically. “I might see it again.”

#3 - Will (just turned 40)
Before the screening:
“I’m too young to remember the first series,” he shrugs, glasses poised precariously on his slightly puffy face. “I was born in ‘69, and it was cancelled that year, I think.” Will is a typical screener ‘rat’, someone who makes it his goal to see as many free films as he can on the studio dime. “And frankly, I couldn’t care less about Star Trek.” It might seem shocking to hear someone who is about to spend 130 minutes with a movie dismiss it’s subject matter so, but that’s the standard when it comes to these studio-funded freebies. “I come to hang out with my friends (people who also habitually attend press previews), maybe get a prize.” Trek is just not the draw for him. He’s not sheepish about being so mercenary. “Hollywood makes this crap,” he winks, “but I ain’t going to pay for it.”

After the screening:
“Fantastic…just great.” In some ways, his reaction resembles being born again. “Is this what the whole Trek thing has been about? No?” When it’s explained that, for most, the franchise has been faltering and on creative life support for many years, he seems even more excited. “They did a damn good job then.” He cocks his head as if to tell a secret. “If they can get me to care about this, they can get anyone to.”

The consensus:
He’ll be back - and he’s telling his friends to check it out as well.

#4 - Jeri (24 year olds)
Before the screening:
“Why would they revive this thing?” It’s an honest inquiry from a truly perplexed young woman. “I mean, who gives a **** about Star Trek, really?” In several more incomplete thoughts, a clear judgment is formed. “I’ll give it a shot, but I’m not sure it’s my cup of tea, you see?” In many ways, Jerry is Star Trek‘s biggest hurdle. She’s a female unfamiliar with the intricacies of the series who can’t see herself liking something that doesn’t have “lots of funny stuff” in it. She favors the standard RomCom (she “adored” Ghosts of Girlfriends Past), Twilight, and was particularly impressed with the Sex in the City adaptation last summer. “That’s how you make a TV show into a movie” she barks, her voice confirming her obviously cemented opinion. 

After the screening:
“It was actually pretty good, yeah” she offers, her voice not enthusiastic or overly dismissive. “I don’t know why people were clapping at the end. Who claps at a movie? But it was good.” Before she can chat more, her cellphone goes off and she’s instantly involved in a deep personal conversation that has nothing to do with the film she just saw. A wave of the hand and she’s gone.

The consensus:
Glad she saw it for free. Will tell her friends it’s “good”. Is personally looking forward to other films this Summer season.

#5 - Kyle (15 years old)
Before the screening:
“My friends read on the web that this was good, not geeky” the gangly young man states, his demeanor offering the typical teenage disdain. In between looks that suggest he shouldn’t be bothered, the prime example of marketing demographics offers a gloomy prediction for Star Trek‘s success. “It’s an old people’s thing,” he says, shrugging his shoulders as if to doubt his own thoughts. “My dad likes it. So does my uncle.” The look on his face suggests that he thinks that both men are idiots. When pressed, the desire to speak more or less stops. Kyle returns to his seat and starts shooting odd glances at his interviewer. Clearly, he’s never had to think about a movie as much as he did during the three minutes he was required to speak about it. Once it starts, he is instantly lost in the visuals onscreen.

After the screening:
“Cool…cool” is all he will offer. He seems dazed, as if he just exited an intense thrill ride at a theme park and is looking for a place to sit down for a second. It’s hard to tell if it’s the reaction to the film, or the response to seeing some stranger walk up to him and ask for another opinion. He doesn’t look unhappy. In some ways, his reaction can best be described as “breathless.”

The consensus:
Impossible to gauge specifically as he got lost in the crowd and literally disappeared.

It’s hard to say if these five entries are typical. The first screening of Star Trek, which occurred early on a Saturday morning, was barely full. This one was overflowing with people. The reaction the first time was enthusiastic but rather reserved. This time, the audience clapped, cheered, and audibly followed the film every step of the way. As they were leaving the theater, the local studio rep couldn’t keep up with the comments, almost all of them extremely positive. One person even blurted out SE&L critical consensus about the film - “It’s going to be hard for any other film this Summer to top that.” And perhaps the surest sign that a film had made its point? In the parking lot, conversations and discussions a’plenty. People arguing over plot points and character beats. Couples reminiscing about the parts that they thought were the “best”.  So Star Trek certainly has a chance of being a massive mainstream hit. The trajectory from popular to phenomenon however, will have to remain a marketing mystery - at least until the weekend.

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