The Captains of Star Trek

DATELINE: No Vanity from Shatner!

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When first we saw that William Shatner had produced, written, and directed a movie documentary about the five captains of the Star Trek franchise, we suspected vanity. He calls it The Captains, putting himself into a stew with the others.

How wrong we were about the ego of Captain Kirk’s acting creator. Shatner’s touching and delightful film shows what an erudite, generous, kind man he is. Each conversation with one of his successors in the Star Trek world is careful and insightful.

He talks to Scott Bakula, Sir Patrick Stewart, Kate Mulgrew, Avery Brooks, and Chris Pine.  He genuinely likes these actors and respects their opinions.

Also around are those who were part of the franchise like Jonathan Frakes (The Next Generation) and even his old friend Christopher Plummer (from The Undiscovered Country, Star Trek VI). Shatner understudied Plummer in Henry V on stage at the beginning of their careers! 

Obvious questions were on Shatner’s mind in a personal way, and he turned it around to find out if playing a Star Fleet captain had an impact on the personal life of the actors. It deals with divorce to mortality. Of course, it is big.

Shatner notes how he might have been embarrassed to leave serious classic acting to do Star Trek, and how often he was denigrated for his work. Yet, talking to the other stars, he becomes more aware of why playing a leader required an attitude.

In the meantime, he shows humor and expresses insight into his own career. There are even clips of him, as a blond in the mid-1950s playing Billy Budd on Canadian TV.

He learns that every star suffered 16-hour work days on the series and movies, and that it had a devastating toll on their personal lives and children.

Yet, this is not a downbeat story: Shatner has come to revel in his role as Captain Kirk, not always something he could claim. Each actor he speaks with shares personal feelings that elicit a growth in Shatner on the screen.

What a marvelous little film, even if you may not have seen some of the Star Trek oeuvre, there is much to savor here.

 

 

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Hell and High Water for Comanches

DATELINE:  Move Over, McMurtry

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Looking for all the world like a Larry McMurtry story about the modern West, or one of those films of Martin Ritt, the new movie with Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster, and Chris Pine, stands out on the barren landscape.

It’s not wrong to put it on a short list with No Country for Old Men.

High or High Water features a highly intelligent script, with motifs of billboards along the highway—and the repeated issue of rednecks being smart.

It does not hurt to have parallel storylines:  two bank-robbing brothers and a modern version of Lone Ranger and Tonto on their tail. Therein is a sharply focused tale.

Foster and Pine give performances as the brothers that suggest acting DNA is thicker than high water. Bridges outpaces Tommy Lee Jones at his laconic, sarcastic best to interplay with his Indian companion and fellow Ranger.

The old Ranger wants to outsmart the desperado brothers, looking to his last case before retirement. The brothers want to outsmart the banks and legal system. It smacks of an earlier time, and one witness is surprised that robbers are not Mexicans.

Minor characters may be the best barometer of fate. There is a kind of friendly camaraderie among the West’s denizens—which leads the Bridges character to comment “how much I love West Texas.”

Like the stories of McMurtry a generation ago, we see how much fate is in the genes of character. Directed with sharp clarity by David McKenzie, the film was called originally Comancheria—after the tribe and region where the Native Americans set the bar for Westerns.

This modern Western rises above that high water mark.

Kirk & Spock Return in Fine Form

DATELINE: Beyond Star Trek

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The latest entry in the ageless series of movies and TV shows is decidedly less than warp driven Star Trek. New devotees who think this one ranks up there with the best were likely born yesterday, not during the heyday of the TV series.

The franchise has survived worse entries than Star Trek Beyond. When the cast of characters is allowed to peek out from behind the noisy, endless special effects, they still glow with humanity and humor.

Alas, this latest version devolves into one of those car chase in space epics. And, when will they realize that lizardoid villains are tiresome? We prefer the deranged humans like Khan, not Klingons on steroids.

Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are the perfect new partners of the series as Kirk and Spock. They continue to delight—and Simon Pegg and Karl Urban continue to play Scotty and Bones like the original actors. Everyone must have a showcase scene nowadays as there are no second bananas, like in the old TV shows.

One controversy here was to make Zulu (the ageless John Cho) as gay as his first real life actor George Takei. It is nearly pointless in its depiction. And, yes, there is a testimonial to the late Leonard Nimoy who graced the two earlier reboot movies.

In two or three years another episode with this marvelous cast will reappear, minus the charming presence of the late Anton Yelchin, the latest Chekov. We hope the remaining actors will have more banter and interplay, as well as psychological depth.

Fans will not be deterred from this one. It is what it is.

 

 

 

A Slight Rise above Mundane for Jack Ryan

 DATELINE: MOVIE MASHUP

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Director and Archvillain Kenneth Branagh

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is some kind of Tom Clancy spinoff for a new movie series franchise. They managed to rope in Kenneth Branagh as both villain and director. And, that put this standard spy thriller into another realm.

Branagh, when he avoids updated Shakespeare, actually directs intriguing films that take tired, old genre action pictures and turns them interesting with minor details.

This film has traditional chase scenes and superfluous action to keep dullards awake. Heaven knows that the tale of a Russian economic czar with a drug problem is tiresome enough. You also have boring “suspense” with the hero downloading key information off computer systems all too easily hacked and onto his handy thumb drive. Oh, please.

In the hands of Branagh, the movie’s routine action may actually take second place to the deeper psychology of the characters and the use of literary detail in the most surprising of places. You hardly expect a discussion of Russian literature and Lermontov over dinner in one of these films.

Yet, Branagh also uses Kevin Costner and Chris Pine in mostly juxtapositions of their careers. Costner was Pine 30 years ago. And, Branagh loves old movies: this film features the voice of Barbara Stanwyk in Sorry, Wrong Number and Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby as glosses on the plot.

So, if you think you have seen this movie many times before, you could be taken aback by a few minor details that set the film apart from others it imitates. Two delightful scenes involve former ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov as a Russian government official. He’s unbilled and almost unrecognized.

If this movie turns into a franchise foundation film (like Branagh’s version of the first Thor movie), you can count on the fact that nothing to follow will have the same level of delicious detail.

Out of the Darkness with Star Trek

DATELINE: MOVIE MASHUP

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Chris Pine & Zachary Quinto as Legends Captain Kirk & Spock

 

Something remains comforting when there is no need for exposition. Star Trek into Darkness brings the mythology of 40 years together instantly.

The film, cleverly written, annotates the original series and the highly successful transition of an episode into Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan back in the 1980s. Now we have the younger versions predating the older action and thus giving us more information and more to savor.

Though the movie still contains much action and adventures, special effects and whatnot, no other movie can provide deeper emotional resonance with a lift of the eyebrow or a snide crack of the major characters at each other.

That is the beauty of having legendary status and national mythology mixed into our 20th and now 21st centuries. If the Greeks had Odysseus and the Romans Romulus, the American mythos may live as long and prosper.

The latest generation incarnates the central figures of Kirk, Spock, Khan, Scottie, and their immortal personalities.

Echoes of the terrorist attacks just recently seen in Boston and Benghazi seem to give an instant comprehension of what the future holds. It’s not much different than the present.

Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are again compelling (as is the rest of the cast), but a special kudo must go to the quirky Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) of modern incarnation now playing the role originally created by Ricardo Montalban. The characters are more British now (as is Dr. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) from Star Trek II), but it feels like a reunion of ideas and idols.

Though the storyline is enriched by the knowledge of the entire oeuvre, viewers can still discover it anew and lock in like a tractor beam to the larger meanings.

It’s timeless and it’s intriguing. That’s why national mythology is important and lives forever.

Directed by J.J.Abrams, this latest film in the series contains a few surprises and many parallel homage moments to the Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan version.

If you enjoy unusual movie reviews, try MOVIE MASHUP or MOVIES TO SEE–OR NOT TO SEE. Both books are available on Amazon.com in softcover or ebook formats.