Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) Well, as Ebert used to say, it knows the notes but not the music. J.J. Abrams once again proves himself to be an ace filmmaker with the chops to handle the hell out of an action sequence, but he can’t bother to ask his writers to deliver a screenplay worth filming. Sure, the elements are all here, but there’s no connective tissue, just a series of story beats and adventure set pieces that earn neither their set-ups nor pay-offs. Actions here are driven not by character but by plot – scratch that, not even by plot, but by whatever brainstorming session led to the string of “things that happen” we get as this movie. The film’s big reveal exists not for the sake of story but for the sake of itself; Abrams plows ahead thinking fans will be grateful for the twist on its own, never bothering to wonder if it belongs. It doesn’t. Remove it (indeed, remove all fan service) and you get the same basic set of events, unmotivated by anything other than Orci and Kurtzman and Lindleof thinking it would be something cool to see happen. Worse, when we do get something resembling character motivation or growth, the script stops to spell it out in dialogue, rather than in the actions of its players. This is Trek dumbed down and mostly idea-free, and its attempts at fun action bits fail to make up the difference.
Star Trek: First Contact (1996) It really shouldn’t work on paper. First Contact is too tonally uneven, juggling pitch black thrills and feather-light comedy, and, worse, it’s loaded with in-jokes, references, and callbacks to the Trek universe, moments that fly by with too little exposition for the newcomer. And yet, it works. By God, it works. It’s a ripping adventure that balances its many elements with great skill; Jonathan Frakes is too underrated a director, stuck these days helming television fluff (which he turns into terrific fluff, but still), and First Contact shows how spectacularly he can handle a wide variety of tones. The monster movie elements are chilling, the whimsical Earthbound sequences are endearing, the philosophical angles are captivating in the best Trek sense. It’s just great filmmaking. Ooby dooby.
Duck Soup (1933) and Dark and Stormy Night (2010) I got hit with a particularly nasty cold this week, and so I retreated to my old sick day standbys: goofy comedy. The Marx Brothers never fail, nor does Larry Blamire, whose praises I’ve sung repeatedly. Both nail a one-liner like nobody else.
Pitch Perfect (2012) The story mechanics are fifth-rate, but the charm is certainly there, especially in the chemistry between Anna Kendrick and Skylar Astin. Add in a few sharply comic moments, and Pitch Perfect becomes passable teen flick entertainment. But here’s the thing: so much about this movie skims the surface about remix culture, with a lead character who’s magically gifted with the power of mash-up and a storyline that is, essentially, all about how to make old songs interesting and new, and what a waste to see that it’s just not interested in discussing or dissecting or even thinking about such things. Here’s an opportunity to explore what it means to be creative not through invention but through reinvention, and how a generation has grown up in the age of the remix, but the filmmakers are blind to such themes, instead simply tossing us clips from The Breakfast Club and musical routines straight out of Glee and hoping we’ll just go along with the quirky jokes and the formulaic plot. By refusing to delve deeper, Pitch Perfect is wafer thin.
Star Trek: Insurrection (1998) The other Frakes Trek. Yes, it feels (as it’s been described countless times in the past fifteen years) like a two-part episode and not a movie. More to the point, though, it feels like a movie that was made because Paramount felt like they had to make it and not because anybody particularly wanted it. I admit to liking it more than most, but that’s faint praise, really; it’s decent enough as a lesser companion to Next Generation, and the expected Trek moralizing (in this case, debates on eminent domain and breezy ruminations on aging) offers a few points of interest, but yeah, for the most part, it’s little more than Star Trek: A Filler Franchise Entry.