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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.

by Bill Gibron

5 May 2009

Talk about questionable prospects! Who could ever imagine that Paramount, preservers of Gene Roddenberry’s seminal Star Trek empire, would mount a massive reboot of the series, an attempt in 2009 to turn the fortunes of a forty year old property into something modern and merchandisable. For a while, it looked like Shatner, Nimoy, and the rest would have to rally around the aging nostalgia factor and forge a path more backwards glancing than forward thinking. But the past can’t hold forth in the future forever.

Even with the still popular possibilities of The Next Generation (and to some extent, Deep Space Nine), fans both young and old just can’t get enough of the 1960s series. And with prequels being so plentiful (and usually unsuccessful), going back to the very beginning of Trek would appear tenuous at best. Luckily, studio heads cleared enough to give Lost‘s J.J. Abrams the creative Con - and it’s a good thing too. His Star Trek instantly becomes one of the year’s best films.

Troubled and rebellious as a young boy, James Tiberius Kirk can’t shake the feeling that he was meant for something more. Similarly, Vulcan child Spock has difficulty deciphering his half-human, half-alien feelings. The two end up at Starfleet Academy, where they begin to learn the ways of the United Federation of Planets. Along the way, they pick up some close friends - Kirk and new doctor cadet Leonard “Bones” McCoy, and for Spock, the special affections of communications specialist Uhura.

When a mystery mining vessel carrying the angry Romulan Nero breaks through the neutral zone and attacks Vulcan, Captain Pike pilots the newly christened Enterprise to intercept. On board are Hikaru Sulu and Pavel Chekov, the two latest additions to the crew. Eventually, the Federation learns of the Romulan’s time-travel inspired plan, it’s passion to destroy planets, and it’s particular vendetta with Spock - even though they’ve “technically” never met the young alien…at least, not this version of him.

It’s hard to express in mere words how wonderful J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot is, especially for a worn in the wool die-hard Trek head like yours truly. It’s a silly, grinning from ear to ear experience, a ‘wow’ that works overtime to keep from ever letting you down. From the moment we learn of our heroes’ hamstrung youth, to the final confrontation that will define their legacy for star dates to come, there is a reverence and a revitalization that finally turns Trek into everything founder Roddenberry - and his throngs of devotees - hoped for.

This is more than just a ‘remake’ or a ‘reimagining’. This is brilliant filmmaking artistry filtered through a deep appreciation for what Star Trek stands for, for the years it held the lantern for serious science fiction while other efforts traveled toward the ‘dark side’ of action adventure commerciality. Granted, Abrams pours on the thrills, but he doesn’t cheapen the mythology that made Kirk and company true cultural icons.

This is a movie that performs remarkably well on all levels - as an introduction to the seminal characters for newbies, a welcome return visit to younger versions of old friends, a highly sophisticated mainstream entertainment, a rock ‘em sock ‘em effects spectacle, and a reminder that ideas can be just as exciting and interesting as images. Abrams, working from an excellent script by frequent collaborators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, takes his time with each element, letting information and concepts sink in before rapidly and rationally moving on.

The opening battle, which we catch more or less in mid-strategy, instantly encases us in the world we are about to enter. It also sets the emotional tone. By the time an underage Kirk runs his step-dad’s classic car up to (and over) the edge of a nearby ravine, we are ready to go anywhere with this story - and Abrams takes us there, both outside the characters and inside their deepest fears.

This is a true origin story, the kind which doesn’t skimp on the painful parts. Both Kirk and Spock are seen as deeply hurt by their childhood circumstance. It is a realistic foundation which explains a great deal of their later relationship. Similarly, we understand the motives of Uhura and McCoy, each one taking up defense for their friend. As actors, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are so note-perfect as our Trek titans that we often wonder if we are viewing Shatner and Nimoy through some kind of age-defying prism.

Also excellent are Zoe Saldana, John Cho, and in a last act appearance that’s a tad too brief, a wonderful Simon Pegg as everyone’s favorite “beamer” Scotty. Of particular note is Karl Urban. About a billion light years from Middle Earth (where he was Eomer), his McCoy is so delicious dead-on, so absolutely channeling the spirit and spunk of DeForest Kelly that he almost steals the film from everyone else.

But it’s Eric Bana who brings it all together. His villain with a heart hellbent on revenge is not some ridiculous raving psychopath. Instead, he’s someone who literally lost everything, and is determined to make those who he believes responsible pay in the exact same way. This leads to Trek‘s biggest surprise - the sheer scope and size of the threat. When we first realize what’s about to happen to one of the series well known places, the shock is matched only by the sensation of seeing it play out powerfully on the big screen. Star Trek is the very definition of a blockbuster, a larger than life experience that has to be seen theatrically to be fully appreciated. This is as epic an entertainment as The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, the original Star Wars, and Christopher Nolan’s operatic Dark Knight.

Once again, long time Trekkies (or Trekkers), have no fear. No one has raped your memories this time around. If anything, Abrams has acknowledged and acquiesced to them, giving your love of the original series as much care and consideration as you do. And those unfamiliar with the voyages of the Starship Enterprise, you too should feel unafraid. Accessibility is the key here, the movie made so stunning in its ability to hook you and keep you happy that you’ll soon forget your four decades outside the obsessive Trek fray.

For all others in between, heed this advice - Star Trek is destined to be remembered as one of 2009’s biggest and best surprises, a gamble that beat both the house and those holding the cards to turn everyone into a winner. This is the reason why movies are magic. This is why some of us fell in love with the original series in the first place. Bless you J. J. Abrams. May you live long, and definitely prosper. 

by Bill Gibron

4 May 2009

It started with a sign. Strike that, with a bumper sticker. Everyday, as I walked to school, I would pass the house at the end of our street and see the familiar message straddled across the back window (apparently, the owner didn’t want their car’s chrome damaged by such a vinyl placard - or perhaps thought the higher placement would attract more attention?). While my memory is now as foggy as a San Francisco morning, I do remember certain parts of the sentiment - and in the light of revisionist history, I am convinced the communication was clear - “Call NBC - Save Star Trek”. At the time, I was probably six, going on seven, and I was unsure what the issue was, including what Star Trek itself…was. Even a couple years later, when older kids in school would lament its passing, I was perplexed.

Fast forward four years. I’m ten going on eleven. Saturday morning TV is my life, as it is for anyone who grew up in the format’s formative decades of the ‘60s and ‘70s. NBC, which I then understood was one of the three major broadcast companies in America, was bringing Star Trek back (there’s that name again…) in cartoon form. Many of my friends in Fifth Grade were ecstatic, anticipating the return of one of their favorite franchises though, honestly, few had any idea what they were actually talking about. As sci-fi nerds, we shared favorite authors and books. But something about Star Trek bridged a gap for many that I, as a maturing adolescent, was yet to discover. So I watched the animated adventures of the Starship Enterprise and was…well, I’m not sure what to say. Then I discovered the reruns of the original series.

You have to remember what life was like 35 years ago. There was no legitimate cable television (though first variations of same were being tested somewhere way out in the Midwest) and for those of us lucky enough to live in a sprawling urban market (Chicago), there were six - count ‘em, SIX! - TV channels to surf through. ABC, CBS, and NBC were the “Big Three” - while there was always a PBS alternative to explore (ZOOM, anyone?). In addition, we were lucky enough to have a local independent, WGN, and a UHF option. So we were literally living in the lap of entertainment luxury, the choices and available time slots seeming to mesh perfectly with our after school/weekend needs. Of course, in retrospect, we were living in an era of paltry opportunities. I sometimes wonder if my appreciation for certain shows is based on a genuine love, or the forced favoritism of having no other alternative.

Yet I loved Trek. It followed me. It tagged along as I moved to Florida (a true bastion of variety nothingness). It accompanied me as I sat through Star Wars seven times. It became a presence in my conversations with friends, and most importantly, a freshman year college ritual. I was one of the few residents in my door with access to my own color TV, and everyday, once classes were completed and the various recreational vices were begun, the 13” mega-screen was tuned to the continuing voyages of that iconic spacecraft and its capable crew going boldly where no man had gone before. My roommate and I would set ourselves up on our beds, then allow in the growing throng, a couple turning into more than a dozen by the time the daily diversion became a habit.

During those heady, smoke filled afternoons, we’d argue over characters and favorite episodes. We’d rally behind certain actors and mock those who favored the so-called “fringe” (sorry Sulu and Chekov). We learned the names of episode writers and sought out books and other contributions by them. And most significantly, we fueled the fanbase fires. We elevated a once dead speculative fiction masterwork, made by people interested in ideas vs. massive merchandising dollars (wonder who that might be???) and argued for its continuing commercial relevance. Debate all you want to over the first fighters in the mix, the men and women who convinced NBC to give the original series one last third season chance. You can also praise the participation of the ‘70s adults, whose fond memories of the material kept the syndication scores high.

But it was us who made Star Trek into the viable property you now see before you today. It was us who tolerated the tepid, trying aspects of The Motion Picture (or “The Motion Sickness” as we called it back then) and turned it into a monster hit. It was us who initially celebrated the returning Wrath of Khan, who practiced our silly Shatner screams and amazing Montalban line readings long before most of you were born. We were the demographic, the 18 to 24 year olds who mandated the movies that were made. We had helped George Lucas cement his status as a fantasy filmmaker to watch (and later, reject). We gave Steven Spielberg his career defining hits, and sadly, helped Hollywood move from the post-modern majesty of ‘70s cinema to the high concept cheapness of the disposable ‘80s.

Perhaps that’s why now, some thirty years after Robert Wise took the original actors and thrust them directly onto the big screen for all the world to see, we Star Trek geeks are ready to see the series reborn. After all the Next Generations and Deep Space Nines, after the outsized ideas of Voyager and the failed origin attempts of Enterprise, the time has come to go back to square one and reset the star date. As Spock would agree, it’s only logical. The first cast is now far too old to jumpstart the franchise, and the various fragmented incarnations of the concept have apparently worn out their welcome (though Jean-Luc Picard and crew could still give the series a run for its residual money). By finding a proper way to bring Trek into the 21st century, by introducing the youth of today to the joys of yesterday’s future, without the stigma of the 11 other films flying over their head, a whole new chapter in series’ lore can be written.

As Paramount reconfigures the original, adding new effects and a professional polish to what was often a seat of their pants production, as DVD gives way to further Blu-ray wonders, fans can look forward to J.J. Abrams reboot masterpiece (my rave review arrives Tuesday) and the possibilities it offers. Let’s face it - if it can satisfy an old school Trek head (both Trekkies and Trekkers seem so…silly) like me, and make me wish for more installments just like it, the individuals behind the scenes are doing something right. Remember, we are the ones who made Star Trek what it is today. It’s nice to know that, some 40 plus years later, the right people were put in place to “save” it. It makes all daily trips past the bumper sticker seem all the more real - and relevant.

by Bill Gibron

2 May 2009

He remains an enigma, a brutal man with the gentle voice that literally took his sport to the heights of popularity, and then brought it crashing down around him when his ever-present vices overwhelmed his always scattered judgment. He was a powerhouse unable to contain his animalistic rage, a strategist who often resorted to pure physicality to defeat his opponents. As a legend, as a myth, Mike Tyson defies easy comparison. He lacks the activist spirit of those who came before him, but he also clouds the conversation over any current heavyweight champion. Now, as boxing dies its MMA trampled death, filmmaker James Toback sits down with the dethroned titan for a one-on-one that feeds into most people’s perspective of the man while offering enlightenment on subjects that heretofore remained unexplored.

Tyson’s story is no different from an entire generation of disaffected black youth. He grew up in a broken home, his mother and relatives so promiscuous that his concepts of sex were blurred and bruised at an early age. Running with the wrong crowd led to random crimes, easy money, and a stint in juvenile hall. A lack of discipline and a hard head took him upstate to more “authoritative” digs. There, he meets a mentor who eventually introduces him to boxing guru Cus D’Amato. Under the wise old man’s strict tutelage, Tyson learns there is more to the sport than punching power. For his elderly instructor, boxing is about the mind, not just the manner. 

With the focus provided, Tyson becomes a champion. With the spoils of any conquering warrior come the typical fame game trappings. Sadly, the young man, barely into his 20s, gives into many of them. A highly publicized marriage and divorce, a rape charge and jail term, and a series of spectacular/specious fights turn the world icon into a jaded, disenfranchised joke. Now he wonders, in his early 40s, what he will do with the rest of his life. With the help of archival footage and an incredibly candid back and forth with the subject himself, Toback takes everything we know about the man and filters it through a viewpoint veiled in a kind of denial and an unequaled sense of personal shame and pride.

This is a gutsy move on Tyson’s part. He realizes that, no matter what he says, there will be a contingency that sees through his so-called “excuses” and infers things into his words that really aren’t there. At the beginning, when he cries over his time with D’Amato and the number of juvenile titles he’s won, there’s an honesty and vulnerability that sheds new light on his character. But when we get to the Evander Holyfield fight and the infamous ear bite, the repeated mantra of “headbutt - revenge” grows old. Tyson has a lot of those moments, well measured out explanations for elements of his life that require a more profound insight. It’s not quite rehearsal. Instead, it’s the words of someone who has had plenty of time to think about his particular lot, and has come up with a complete set of well rationalized answers that he believes will quiet the critics - or if not silence them, give them a bit more backstory to chew on.

Yet Tyson also recognizes his flaws. He realizes his lustful appetites, especially for women, got him in more trouble personally and legally than he should have ever experienced (his comments about the crime that got him sent away for three years are particularly brutal in their direct disdain). He freely admits to letting “leeches” suck away his money, making his last few fights all about the paycheck. He never defends his words, using a sideshow carnival barker strategy of promotion to explain his often outrageous words. There are times when he ties himself to individuals he’s not worthy of being associated with (Muhammad Ali is name checked, and Jack Johnson is referenced as well), but Tyson never forgets that boxing is basically an individual sport. It was he who came so prepared for his first fights that they barely lasted beyond the first round. It was also he who enjoyed the party aspects of his persona to the point where he, physically, couldn’t handle the competition.

For his part, Toback knows he has a live wire on his hands and never lets the camera leave him for long. This is not a standard exercise in talking heads. Tyson is the only voice we hear, except for various ring announcers and close confidants offered during the insert material. The camera stays close, never really leaving the ex-champs face, and the lisp that many have laughed over throughout the years is here, even more pronounced than before. Toback wants a linear story - childhood to fame to fall to fatherhood (Tyson’s new role is as able daddy to his six kids) - and he basically gets one, allowing the audience to drink in the totality of the man’s ludicrous existence. Time disappears for some of the discussion, our frame of reference forgetting that Tyson was barely 20 when he won his first heavyweight title, and not even thirty when he exited an Indiana prison. As he says at one point during the course of the conversation, he’s lived a whole lotta life in his merely 42 years on the planet.

That’s perhaps why Tyson isn’t the apology everyone is looking for. It is not a mea culpa meant to resurrect his reputation and rebuild his professional mantle. At his age, he is unsure what he will do next. There is no George Forman like resurrection in the future, the goodwill he built up three decades ago all spent on a wine, women, and the same old hard luck song. He maintains a friendly relationship with his ex, honors his numerous tattoos, prays to Allah (he defends Islam as the religion of love), recognizes his shortcomings without striving to fully correct them, and appears content to let the rest of the world define him as monster…or misbegotten hero. While there have been better documentaries on the subject of fallen idols, the gladiatorial nature of Tyson’s trip through the fame machine is fascinating in its own right. Because it’s personal, it matter - even if the end result is no more clear than the mystery that is the man himself.

by Bill Gibron

1 May 2009

Remember when Matthew McConaughey was the next big thing? Around the release of A Time to Kill, when he was the “it” actor bound for superstar glory. Of course, many of these publicity puff pieces ignored the fact that he had been in the business for about three years prior, offering memorable performances in Dazed and Confused and Boys on the Side. Since this media-based blitz, his celebrity has revolved more around what he does off the screen (Naked bongo playing? Recreational pharmaceuticals!) than the roles he originates. In fact, his recent track record has him rapidly becoming the slacker personification for RomCom retardation. Even with its Dickens’ inspired gimmick, his latest film Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is the same old stereotyping. It shows that McConaughey definitely understands his current passé place in the contemporary cinematic landscape, and will probably do very little to change it.

Connor Mead is a famous photographer. He’s also a well known ladies man. Only problem is, Connor treats women like casual sex objects only, never allowing his real sentiments to be revealed. It’s earned him the reputation as a major league jerk. When he accepts an invitation to be part of his younger brother’s wedding, Connor expects a certain amount of criticism. What he gets instead is the cold shoulder from old flame Jenny Perotti and a visit from his dead Uncle Wayne, a noted lothario who raised his orphaned nephew in his slimy, sleazy image. He warns Connor that he will be visited by three ghosts, spirits from his past, present, and future who will illustrate how wayward his view of the fairer sex really is. Of course, Connor doesn’t believe in spooks - that is, until they actually arrive, and explain how deep the feelings are between himself and his lifelong gal pal.

When it sticks to the interpersonal stuff, the emotional links between old lovers, close brothers, and the family that supports both, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is quite tolerable. In fact, it’s actually quite good at times, filtering the feelings we all have through a prism of practicality and believability. This isn’t a movie about cosmic connections or spiritual belonging. Instead, director Mark Waters (Mean Girls, Freaky Friday) and his writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (responsible for the reprehensible Four Christmases) want to show people acting like real individuals, relating in ways the seem familiar and yet can easily fit into their goofball gimmicky premise. Whenever McConaughey or costars Jennifer Garner and Breckin Meyer interact, their conversations resonate with a kind of common sensibility that really hits home.

However, whenever the Scrooge stunt takes front and center, Ghosts goes flat. Worse, it indulges in some of the most hackneyed hokum this side of a medicine show. Michael Douglas, looking like a spray tan version of producer Robert Evans, is all ham and no humanity as the bed hopping relative who lived his life like one big narrative from Penthouse Forum. A little of Uncle Wayne goes a long, long way, and Waters unfortunately overindulges in the character’s tail chasing tenets. By the time he tries to convince Connor that there really is no reason to love somebody fully, we’ve already had more than enough of his scotch-soaked hedonism. Similarly, Lacey Chabert’s borderline Bridezilla provides sporadic smiles, but none of the boffo bellylaughs the over the top performance seems to suggest.

Additionally, most of the physical comedy feels like padding, trailer-told sequences such as the wedding cake crash (or a last act chase to right a ridiculous wrong) coming completely out of another script. There are also attempts at visual panache that just don’t cut it, as when Connor visits an “endless” bar where his many conquests sit waiting to read him the romance riot act. The setting looks fake, the effect nothing more than grade school smoke and mirrors. When he wants to, Waters knows how to handle the fantastic. Everything revolving around Connor’s initial trip back, spearheaded by the iconic ‘80s idiocy of Emma Stone as our hero’s hapless “first”, has the air of knowing nostalgia and smarts the rest of the film severely lacks.

And still, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past does work…kind of. We want to see McConaughey and Garner together, the latter getting most of the good lines as a way to show her still hurting heart. We enjoy the affection the two brothers feel for each other, and Connor responds in interesting ways when he sees himself as a boy. When we get to the last act soul searching, the Christmas Carol shtick starts to get in the way and yet we still want these characters to be happy and whole. Perhaps we’re just projecting our own misguided youth on these far too familiar fictional characters, or looking to like something that really doesn’t deserve such judgment. Still, almost subconsciously, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past provides the requisite amount of enjoyment for its scant, superficial running time.

This is the kind of film that does make one wonder about the state of cinema dealing with adults and the real world problems that sometimes (mis)guides their affections. Stripped of its spectral aspects, this could still be a really good story, a Rachel Getting Married or Muriel at the Wedding without either of those films’ post-millennial self-serving irony. McConaughey has this kind of character more than down pat, and Garner gives good caustic. Meyer and the rest of the cast, when not going for the cartoonish, are also quite capable. In fact, the most miserable element here is the one that undermines almost any attempt to modernize or manipulate Dickens’ definitive original. There was really no need to spend times with the Ghosts in this look back at Girlfriends Past. The non-paranormal material carries the day, if just barely.   

//Mixed media

Of Pillow Forts and Play: Epic Games' 'Fortnite'

// Moving Pixels

"Everybody loves building a fort.

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