The Brothers Bloom: Where Is Your Soul’s Ass, Anyway?

“I think you have a big hunk of petrified crap up your soul’s ass.” So says Rachel Weisz to Adrien Brody in Rian Johnson’s new caper movie, The Brothers Bloom. Johnson previously directed the interesting low-budget high school-based “film noir” Brick.

I say this is a caper movie, but it’s definitely a different kind of caper movie. The typical representative of the genre–The Italian Job or the “Ocean’s” series–deals with the pursuit of a MacGuffin, and the plot usually undergoes a number of twists and turns, sometimes in an attempt to fool the viewer (e.g. Ocean’s Twelve). There’s usually stuff about the people and how their interpersonal relationships as thieves and conmen are affected, but this is generally baggage that slows the shenanigans down.

The Brothers Bloom turns this on convention on its ear by centering all the action around Adrien Brody’s development. The capers are essentially incidental to the story. This is way better than it sounds. In fact, the Boy and I think it’s the best 2009 movie we’ve seen so far.

The story is about Stephen and Bloom, who are shuttled from foster home to foster home, town to town, until they finally find their calling running elaborate cons. Stephen (Ruffalo) is the planning genius, putting little themes and symbols into their games, while Bloom (Brody) is the sensitive one–the people person who makes the confidence part of the con game work.

The problem is that Bloom is sensitive, and a romantic, and he can’t ever have the one thing the true romantic really craves: genuine human contact. Since he makes contact through false premises (with less than pure motivations), he can’t have a true loving connection. This makes him despondent.

Of course, Brody broods well, and not in a monotone way. (That is, his brooding here seems different from, say, his brooding in The Darjeeling Limited.) As his older brother, Ruffalo gives a really sublime performance. Stephen is clearly a smooth operator, intellectual and calculating, yet he’s not motivated by money. He loves the game; he also sees himself as providing entertainment, moral lessons, artistic resonance, even.

The perfect con, he says, is the one where everyone gets what they want.

This is his ethical code, really, and his failure is that he can’t give Bloom what he wants. If the caper movie is usually cold, this one is the very antithesis. By trying to help him survive, Stephen has turned Bloom into a pathetic, self-loathing character who seems unclear who or what he is. Stephen, for all his apparent glibness and devil-may-care attitude, actually seems to deeply care about Bloom.

Or…does he? This is what Bloom wrestles with. He provides sincerity and depth for the con game, so is Stephen just using him? We quickly see that he’s completely the wrong type to be a grifter. To quote Teddy from Memento, that’s why he’s so good at it.

The brothers work with a mysterious Japanese woman known as Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi, last seen largely naked in 2006’s Babel). Kikuchi is excellent in this film, as a kind of animé-ish Harpo Marx. I have no idea if she can actually speak English, but the device of not having her speak means both that she can remain mysterious and we’re spared a lot of (what would have been) tedious dialogue.

The mark for the movie is a millionaire shut-in played by Rachel Weisz. She’s a woman who, through various circumstances, lives in isolation but is also hyper-competent in most regards. All her time has been devoted to acquiring various skills, except conversational skills. Almost like her character from “The Mummy”, though very well realized and not cartoonish at all.

I sort of run hot and cold on Ms. Weisz, or maybe just some of her movies rub me the wrong way (I’m looking at you Constant Gardener!), but she’s also positively exquisite (in an entirely different way from Kikuchi). Her character is that of an essentially young woman coning out of her shell, and she buoys the movie tremendously. The “crap” line quoted above comes off charmingly sweet and even endearing when she says it.

She embraces adventure (sometimes in a surprisingly sensual way) and brings to the forefront the film’s primary thesis. To wit, in the world of human feelings and relationships, how fake is an illusion that everyone believes?

How much, in fact, is life itself a con game?

This is an honest-to-goodness feel good comedy! As mopey as Bloom is, there are enough laughs and light-heartedness to make you feel good about the proceedings. Suspense and concern are not sacrificed. Instead, the characters care about Bloom–and we do, too–and try to get him out of his funk.

Doesn’t sound like a caper movie at all, does it?

Just for good measure, the cast is rounded out with Maximilian Schell and Robbie Coltrane. Johnson’s cousin Nathan Johnson is back with the score–which I didn’t notice. (That’s often a good sign.) And the whole thing feels just right at 1:45 (minus credits). It could’ve been shorter, but only by cheating us out of the excellent ending and giving us a more Ocean-y/Sting-y one.

Funny without being silly or campy, profound without being heavy, well plotted without being fake, adult without being crude–the line quoted at the top is the crudest thing in the movie–and easily the best drawn new characters this year.

So, this is my first likely top 10 movie of the year. It’s unlikely that this film won’t make it–nothing else from 2009 has my unreserved approval. Of course, today Up comes out, so this may not be in my #1 slot for long.

Random Update #1: There was one kind of weird thing about this movie. Weisz, who does an excellent American accent, has a nasal resonance that reminds me very strongly of Kathryn Erbe. Ruffalo, meanwhile, wears a long black coat, has the slightly unshaven look, and somewhat similar cadence and look of Vincent D’Onofrio. So, every now and again, I got this weird “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” vibe.

Random Update #2: I didn’t praise the costumes and sets, and I really should have. This is clearly a movie taking place in modern times, yet the Brothers Bloom wear hats and long coats that evoke the early 20th century. Some of the sets seem very ‘20s and others seem sort of ’40s. Part of the con involves traveling by steamer, for crying out load. This was a very nice touch and gave the movie a timeless feel.

Second Chances

I ended up seeing Wall-E a second time, and wanted to post on that, but got caught up thinking about multiple viewings.

(This is another from my discarded file. I never posted it because it just rambles. But what the hell)

When I was a child, say 8 years old or so, seeing a movie for a second time was sheer torture. The sense of boredom was overwhelming. (I did it on a few occasions anyway, which should tell you something about how bored I was.) When I hit my teens, I could see a really excellent movie twice and not be completely restless, I noticed. Even then, it was hard. (I saw Witness and Road Warrior twice.) I saw Star Wars twice and disliked it even more the second time. (Really, it probably wasn’t until 10-15 years later that I began to appreciate that series for what it was.)

Seeing them on TV was different. I remember, for example, watching Alien on TV while eating spaghetti and realizing I wasn’t particularly squeamish. I think because I could look at particular scenes without investing all my attention in the movie, I found it less offensive (let’s use that word) to see a movie more than once. The idea of buying a movie to watch over and over again completely confounded me. VCRs were for time-shifting. (And for recording music videos, which were the only exposure to pop music apart from other people’s loud radios and record players that I’ve had.)

I never quoted from movies back then, either, at least partly because it was a momentary experience, disposable. Someone said to me “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” and I stared at them blankly.

Somewhere in there, that changed, and I’m not entirely sure why. If anything, with the greater volume of available material, there should be no excuse for ever repeating a viewing.

It might have to do with the human brain. At the Institutes, they talk about the need for fresh material all the time. A child’s brain constantly wants new information. That’s why the progression for children’s toys goes something like “play with it correctly, play with it incorrectly, break it to see how it works, move on to the next toy”. You need a high volume of new info to keep a child’s brain engaged.

Paradoxically, however, it’s children who like to watch the same programs over and over again. The Boy was extremely fond of Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards (and, no, I’m not sure that was appropriate) and Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book (and I’m not sure about that one, either, really). Indeed, it was having children that introduced me to repeat viewings for pleasure.

As a side note, having spent a lot of time in “after day” care, there was a point where you were literally forced to stop playing outside and watch TV. Even if you didn’t watch it directly, there was no escape. (This developed two things: My current encyclopedic knowledge of certain abhorrent ‘60s sitcoms, as well as the bowdlerized versions of every Warner Bros. cartoon from the ’40s and ’50s; my abiding hatred of TV-as-noise through the years.)

One thing I can identify, is that I view things radically differently now. You can call it “growing up” but I’m not sure if that’s a correct differentiation. As a child, I was concerned with plot and story mechanics. I read the thought balloons in comic strips without looking at the pictures at all. I burned through picture books. Actually, with comic books, I note that I filled in the visuals with far greater detail than was actually there. (On going back and looking at old comic books of that era, I’m always surprised how little detail work actually made it to the page.)

The appeal of the visual arts were almost completely unknown to me. (I was hugely moved by Michelangelo’s Pieta, but that was a rare occurrence, and I didn’t–and maybe don’t still–understand why that particular piece had such an affect on me.)

I was, in modern parlance, very left-brained. When I drew a picture, it had a plot, .e.g.

At some point, with considerable effort, I started paying more attention to the visual. I also started paying attention to the hows and whys. A lot of bad movies–especially big budget bad movies of today–are packed with high quality craftsmanship, wrapped around a turd of a story. I can entertain myself if the movie doesn’t pick up the gauntlet.

One factor in there may have been the formal training in music. All musicians listen to music differently from non-musicians (which is why they like different things from normal people), but having historical perspective makes it apparent how taste is shaped and not the fixed “I know what I like” kind of thing that most people experience.

If you immerse yourself in early Gregorian chant, where only one note is ever sung at a time, and the figures are simple–and it only takes a few weeks of listening to a lot of this–when the second note gets added, it’s like the skies opening up and showing heaven. You can really get a sense of how wondrous and controversial that second note was at the time.

You can repeat this process for many points in music history. And if you love music–I mean, if you really love music, not just the current iterations of pop–you owe it to yourself to embark on some part of that journey.

This is actually harder to apply to movies, but not impossible. It’s very hard to watch Frankenstein (1931) and realize that people had nightmares from that. Someone famously called up the exhibitor in the middle of the night and said “Since you made it impossible for me to sleep, I’m going to make it impossible for you!” or something along those lines.

Hell, it’s hard to do that with The Thing (1982), and I remember being both floored by the movie and the huge outrage over it. People called it “pornography”, the advertising was yanked for it, and John Carpenter’s never been the same. 25 years later and it’s almost quaint. (But then, horror particularly ages quickly.)

But early on I realized, with movies, the key wasn’t who was in it: You’re a chump if you go to a movie with a particular actor–no matter how great–expecting it to be good because the actor is in it. A star (like Will Smith) can carry a weak movie and a great actor can provide good moments in an otherwise bad film, but every great actor ultimately appears in a number of dogs.

It’s not impossible to rediscover . I couldn’t relate to Westerns as a kid at all. It was all sci-fi and horror, if you could get it. I did finally get to a Western film series, where they showed 30 years of westerns, about four movies per decade. And I began to pick up the tropes and symbols pretty quickly–though it was funny to me how many of the movies simply required you to assume the guy in the white hat was the good guy, even if his actions were objectively identical to the guy in the black hat. (Postmodern deconstructionism at work?)

I guess, wrapping this up, the key differences between then and now, barring whatever neurological factors may be at play, are that: 1) I don’t expect to be the passive effect of movies that I watch now; 2) I’m not so heavily invested in the narrative structure for my enjoyment of movies, and have a much greater appreciation for and interest in the technical details that make individual moments in movies work.

Similar experiences anyone?

Night At The Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

The first Night at the Museum movie was a rather pleasant surprise for me and The Boy, who were there at the behest of The Flower. It struck a nice balance between silly comedy and (slightly) less silly stuff aided greatly by Alan Silvestri’s score, which also helps this movie not degenerate into random-feeling chaos.

What? You didn’t expect me to start with the score? In this case, it’s absolutely necessary. The score sets the tone as more light adventure than wacky randomity, even though this movie is a lot more random and chaotic than the first.

And, it must be admitted, quite a bit more leaden. Somewhat ironically, The Boy and I enjoyed it more than The Flower did, who had higher expectations and found it predictable. I suspect this spells trouble for the movie, if the eight-year-old girl demo is finding it predictable.

And it’s not that they didn’t try. There are a few twists and wrinkles, and a few new bits, but a lot of these flat flat. Meanwhile, a lot of the best stuff is recycled stuff from the previous movie that still works. (A lot of humor based on the diminutive cowboy Jedediah, played by Owen Wilson, and Roman Centurion Octavius, played by Steve Coogan, e.g.) Also, this movie suffers from 70% less Robin Williams, so it’s got that going for it.

Actually, the level of talent oozing from this film makes you really want it to be better. Hank Azaria plays Ahkmenrah’s (from the first movie) evil brother with a lispy Boris Karloff accent. Bill Hader shows up as General Custer. Christopher Guest is Ivan the Terrible. And they’re all good, as they always are. Ben Stiller gives his all, like he always does. He has a bit with Jonah Hill that’s very Apatow-ish (clean, but goofy).

Basically, though, the funny’s just not there. Things that should’ve been funny weren’t. The lightness from the original movie is mostly gone. Not content-wise. This pretty much could be “G”-rated; Im’ hard pressed to remember what might have pushed it over the line to “PG”. But delivery-wise. There’s too much self-awareness, too much “look at this, isn’t this hilarious!” going on.

The original walked that line mostly successfully. This one not so much.

Buoying the movie impossibly is perennial Maelstrom crush, Amy Adams. She plays a delightfully heterosexual Amelia Earhart, as a sort of mix of Katharine Hepburn and Betty Hutton. Carla Gugino and her tight sweaters are gone without notice from this movie, to be replaced by Amy Adams in her tight pants (and remarkably fitted aviator jacket).

But more than eye-candy, Adams brings a much-needed unselfconscious lightness to the proceedings. At the same time, I did find myself thinking “They must have spent a freakin’ fortune on this movie.” In other words, where the first movie seemed like a shallow “high concept” ultra-slick Stiller vehicle, but managed to hide the gears pretty well, this movie ends up feeling a lot more transparent and cynical.

I didn’t actually dislike it. It’s not overlong. It doesn’t try to be important or relevant. It’s not vulgar or crass. It just doesn’t have the finesse of the first one, which underscores the fundamentally unclever nature of both movies.

Again, The Flower was disappointed, finding it not at all surprising. Part of that, of course, may be that she was five-and-a-half when the last movie came out and is eight now. I would say that if you’re interested in seeing it, and don’t have high expectations, see it in the theater. Because I suspect that the movies’ problems are going to be magnified on the small screen.

Manic Monday Apocalypso on Friday!: Terminator Salvation

We were going to see the new Michael Keaton movie (he directs) called The Merry Gentleman, but it had cleared out to make room for the new Terminator movie, so we saw that instead.

I would save this review for Manic Monday Apocalypso but I figured some of you might consider seeing this this weekend.

I’d skipped the third movie in the Terminator series, feeling that it was really James Cameron that was the heart-and-soul of those flicks, that raised them above standard B-movie fare. (I’m dubious of Harlan Ellison’s claim on the property. Not that Cameron didn’t steal the ideas, only that the ideas are both fairly generic and not at all the point.)

A chilling factor for me is that this movie is directed by the infamous McG, who helmed the two Charlie’s Angels movies. There was much to dislike about those strangely uneven films but they at least weren’t boring. And that’s not a bad way to describe the new movie, though it’s not nearly as uneven as those earlier films. Unfocused might be a better term.

So, let’s talk about the good things. Fine acting, as you would expect from Christian Bale. In smaller roles are Jane Alexander (who could be her own MMA feature for her 1983 role in Testament), Helena Bonham Carter and the great Michael Ironside. The primary supporting roles are played by Sam Worthington and Moon Bloodgood, who I thought were fine, but seem a little callow in comparison. (Partly and maybe mostly, this is their characters, and by the end I think the actors have fleshed them out more than the writers did.) Anton Yelchin, fresh of his Checkov role in Star Trek manages to come off pretty dang tough, and evocative of Michael Biehn in the original movie. They even have a little girl in the Newt role.

Elfman does the music, and does a fine job, though there’s not enough of it. This may sound strange, but there’s not an over-reliance on CGI. The T-800–the classic Terminator–has been slightly redesigned. It was a skinny, skeletal thing in the original, stop-motion animated. But we’re sort of jaded to that now, I think, and the redesign has a more muscular build–like it’s a guy in a Terminator suit. This is a good choice.

Also, the CGI is really good. That helps a lot. It might not be a guy in a Terminator suit, but if not, it’s smooth. This helps the action feel a lot more credible, and to McG’s credit, there are some good old-fashioned fights and vehicle stunts, instead of the CGI spectaculars that get so numbing.

There are a lot of other really nice touches, too, which I won’t spoil by enumerating here.

This movie falls well short of greatness, though. First, we have the time-travel problem. The story requires John Connor (Bale) be the savior of the human resistance, but he mostly seems like a pain in the ass. In fact, I went through 2/3rds of the movie wondering what the hell he was doing that was even necessary, given the way the war was going. That was nicely resolved, though, and ultimately made sense. So I didn’t count that against it.

No, the real problem is with the characters of Marcus and Blair. We see Marcus put to death in the first scene of the movie (in 2009, presumably), and yet he’s walking around in 2018, and Connor and Reese (Yelchin) are secondary characters to him, and–to a degree–his relationship with Blair.

But because the story really should be about Connor and Reese fulfilling the prophecy of the first movie, we get a lot of cuts from Marcus to Connor or Reese, sometimes disrupting the flow of the action. Also evoking Star Trek, in the sense that the baggage the movie is required to carry is both its strength and its weakness.

This forces some awkward scenes, such as Connor having to decide what to do with Marcus. He actually makes up his mind and then yells, inexplicably, “Who are you?!” Bale does a good job, but the whole scene–a dramatic focal point–flops.

The next big dramatic moment, where Connor delivers a speech about how humans are different from machines, also flops out of sheer silliness and inappropriateness.

And without giving too much away, the story hinges on this bit of information which allows the main Skynet base–and silly me, I thought the Skynet base would be, you know, in the sky–to be attacked. Things don’t come off as expected (do they ever?), yet the Skynet base ends up seeming ridiculously easy to get in and out of.

And there’s the other thing, the big thing, which is that the view of the future doesn’t quite hold up. The original concept had humans as a ragtag underground resistance. This movie carries that idea forward, but at the same time, features humans with subs and jets–neither of which would really be sustainable in that context–and says there are areas the robots haven’t ventured. (And, queerly, at the same time, those areas are not where the humans are strongly based.)

To top this all off, there’s a strongly hierarchical command structure and traditional military at the begining of the movie, with a suddenly completely casual rebel feel at the end. And they communicate via radio. Like, regular radio.

But I suppose I’m just overthinking it. One of the nice thing about those old WWII movies, though, was that were enough people around who had been there, that movies had a certain verisimilitude I’d like to see more strongly applied to post-apocalyptic stuff. (As you know if you’ve read this blog for long.)

Anyway, The Boy liked it very much, though he was a bit taken aback by the PG-13ness of it. And it’s true, this is a much gentler movie than the first two. There were certain things that didn’t hold together for him, but it didn’t keep him from enjoying it.

So, once again, a good summer popcorn movie, like Star Trek, but rife with flaws, like Star Trek.

Management: Boy Meets Girl, Feels Butt

The tried-and-true love story formula (boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy regains girl) has actually held up even in this post-modern, deconstructive age, when you think about it. Really, the main variation is in the final part (boy fails to regain girl), and that was old when Shakespeare wrote “Romeo and Juilet”.

It’s a broad outline.

Storytellers, then, are forced to be creative within those parameters. A lot of fun can be had with the “boy meets girl” and “boy gets girl” parts, and a lot of dramatic tension can be had with the losing and regaining (or not) part.

Jennifer Aniston’s new romantic-comedy (she exec. produces as well as stars) has a lot of fun with the meeting, getting and regaining process, and a nice bit of drama with the losing. It’s really a very solid, good romcom in a world where that’s actually pretty rare. Yet the buzz is already highly negative.

I sort-of think that a lot of negativity surrounding Aniston–and there always seems to be a ton of it–must either come from her success on “Friends” or her relationship with Brad Pitt. Because I don’t see how it could come from her performances. Not that you might not dislike them, but there seems to be positive glee everytime she’s in a low-budget movie.

I’m not intimate with her work and admittedly–like most actresses–she’s often a prop. I think she’s found a way to remedy that by producing her own movies and giving herself meatier roles. Smart and, at least in this case, a very good showcase for her talents.

The premise of Management is a strange one: Steve Zahn–also often under-rated–plays Mike, who works in his parents’ motel in Kingman, Arizona. They’re kind of dull, and he’s kind of dull, too. One day, in walks Sue (Jennifer Aniston)–and her great ass. It’s love at first sight, from behind.

Mike is immediately taken with her, and likes what he sees from the front, too, and contrives an excuse to visit her in her room. As an actor, Zahn’s really to be commended here, because–for all Mike’s listlessness in life–he comes across as genuinely taken by Aniston’s character, and sweet rather than stalker-like. He’s a guy who’s never felt inspired enough to do anything, and as we quickly see, Sue becomes that inspiration.

Sue is a tougher nut to crack. She’s cold, a little prickly, even bad with people, but seeing through Mike’s ruse, she asks what would make him feel like his gambit was successful. She agrees at that point to let him lay a hand on her butt.

Strange, right? Yet, by the end of the movie, we see that it’s perfectly in character for Sue, who manages her dysfunction at one level with a kind of over-the-top altruism. We also see that Mike’s somewhat over-the-top, Quixotic pursuit of her is in line with his previously dormant passionate nature.

So, wow. Here we have a romantic-comedy with carefully drawn characters conflicting over expectations of each other and life, without anyone seeming like a victim. That’s pretty rare these days and I’d like to see a lot more of this.

Occasionally, the move delves deeply into quirkiness. Woody Harrelson plays Jango, a former punk/yogurt mogul/vicious dog trainer, who offers Sue a security–and an opportunity–Mike can’t. “Prison Break”’s James Hiroyuki Liao plays Al, the fast-talking son of Chinese Restaurant owners who immediately befriends Mike in his time of need.

These two offer more quirkiness than, say, Mike’s parents. His father Jerry (Fred Ward) is a semi-shell-shocked war vet, while his mother Trish (Margo Martindale) is terminally ill. This movie alternates between almost wacky stunts, like skydiving into a swimming pool, and dramatic scenes, like deathbed conversations.

Screenplay author and first time director Steven Belber makes it all work by never letting the quirkiness get cartoonish.

It won’t get much of a run, and Aniston won’t get much praise for her restrained, subtle performance as a cold woman who slowly begins to melt, to say nothing of Steve Zahn, who didn’t even get much praise for his excellent work in the under-rated Rescue Dawn. But if they were smart about it, this was a no more than $15-20M work that will easily clear that and more when international box office and video/cable rights are figured.

The Boy declared it “good” and was quite pleased with the story. I declare it “good”, too. Since both Aniston and Zahn have three movies coming out this year, I imagine this will get swept under the rug–but it shouldn’t be.

Star Trek: The Next NEXT Generation

I’ve never been a Trekkie or a Trekker. In fact, my mom was a big fan of “Star Trek” and because I hated certain episodes (“Miri”, “And The Children Shall Lead”) but had to watch them anyway, it took me a couple of decades to where I could like the show.

I got into “The Next Generation” for a while but it got more and more ponderous as the series wore on. It seemed that every alien just needed a sympathetic ear and all technology was environmentally destructive. (I’ve heard that Roddenberry had to remind the writers that technophobia was not an appropriate attitude for the show.)

I loved “Deep Space Nine”. Which, it must be confessed, is barely Star Trek at all. Dark, with religion and spirituality woven in, reveling in the dark parts of society that Roddenberry would have us believe didn’t exist (yet which all turned up in the third season of the original series).

The less said about “Voyager” and “Enterprise” the better. (Well, okay, “Voyager” was “Star Trek meets The Lifetime Channel”. “Enterprise” should have worked. And yet, didn’t. Well, I heard it got better after I–and practically everyone else–stopped watching.)

So, was I excited about the new “reboot”? Nah, not really. “Curious” is a better word. The only JJ Abrams stuff I’m familiar with is Cloverfield, which is a good movie made of a pretty thin gruel. All good directors can do that. See The Birds or, hell, look at what Gore Verbinski did with the Pirates of the Caribbean or even Mouse Hunt.

This is kind of the reverse scenario. There’s too much in the “Star Trek” universe–much of it contradictory–to capture in a movie. And if “Enterprise” proved anything, it was that retconning is incredibly dull, except perhaps to die-hard fans.

Now that I’ve seen it, my reaction is a kind of generally positive “Meh”. Read on.

Dropping the canon was an excellent choice: They actually manage to do some pretty surprising things by untethering themselves from the bloated beast that is the Trek universe, while still making plenty of references. And you can savor the irony of fans being upset by this by noting that the device used to justify the changes is a Trek cliché that formed the basis for half the movies and TV series.

It was also smart of Chris Pine, who plays Kirk, not to study Shatner. While I’ve long maintained that Shatner’s performance–his utter conviction in selling some truly awful storylines in front of papier mache backdrops–is a big part of the reason the original show is watchable at all, his performance style is too iconic to be imitated without creating an entirely surreal atmosphere. Pine–apparently drawing on Indiana Jones and Han Solo–still manages to evoke a famliar feeling Kirk.

Using relatively little known actors was also a good choice. The first person I recognized was Bruce Greenwood, playing Captain Christopher Pike, the captain that young Kirk is supposed to serve under. (OK, I “recognized” Eric Bana as the villain, but only because I knew it was him. Bana for some reason never makes enough of an impression on me where I could actually identify him.) I didn’t really recognize Winona Ryder (in Jane Wyatt’s old role as Spock’s mother), though, so maybe I should just give up that battle right there.

The acting is, overall, very solid. Casa Maelstrom favorite Simon Pegg does a nice job as Scotty and Karl Urban steals the show as “Bones” McCoy, channeling the late DeForest Kelley without seeming like a parody. Zoe Saldana plays the Uhura role Nichelle Nichols wishes Uhura had been wrttten for her. John Cho (Harold, of “Harold and Kumar”) plays a tough guy Sulu, while Anton Yelchin (Bird from “!huff”) does a super-young Chekov (with heavier accent than Walter Koneig) to round out the core crew.

The action is pretty good. Kirk is drawn as a rash, arrogant, cocky SOB, and this often results in him getting the crap beaten out of him. (He gets beaten up by redshirts! Who are actually portrayed as pretty tough in this, in contrast to the original series.) They resist the urge to make him a superhero, good at everything, which gives the rest of the crew a chance to do their things.

So, if I consider it a decent homage to the past and a good, fresh summer action flick, why am I sort of “meh”? I think because it’s not really great at either. One thing that Star Trek is known for is absurd plot resolutions, the sci-fi equivalent of deus ex machina. “The Next Generation” was so awful in this regard, that it probably put “reversing the polarity” into the cultural lexicon.

There are plenty of absurd situations which might be suspenseful if one didn’t know how things sort of had to turn out. And even if you don’t watch the show, there are certain things you know. So when Kirk is stranded on a remote planet with no way (in the story’s own terms) to catch up to the plot, you know that some sort of technological magic is going to have to arise.

This ultimately diminishes the movie. I would’ve liked to see a reboot like the Bond reboot that eschewed the dumber aspects of the franchise.

The other thing that really diminishes it is Leonard Nimoy. Not that I don’t love the guy, or that he does a bad job. It’s nice to see him don the ears again after 15 years. But he’s a crutch, the deus ex the machina. He acts as both fan service and plot device, and I thank God they didn’t resurrect Shatner for Kirk, despite the pressure. (Kirk pretty definitively died in the first TNG movie.)

The whole thing feels a little stale to me, even with the new angle and approach. Now I’m not sure a (much) better outcome was actually possible here–certainly much worse outcomes were–so I’m disinclined to cast any stones. The kids should like it, the fans (who are a shrinking base, I think) maybe less so, depending on how invested they are in the original history.

The Boy liked it quite a bit, saying it was a lot more than he expected. The two Trek fans I know (including the one I saw it with) also liked it. My mom’s convinced, well-trained as she is, that they’ll move the new franchise in to merge with the old history. I’m trying to explain that the whole point of the movie was to reimagine a lot of this stuff. We have a bet that a certain minor character that died is (or isn’t, I say) going to come back in a later movie as a result.

There’s a lot about this movie that is really well done, too. The production values are quite good. They eschewed the trend of making things darker, both with the physical setting and attitude, and kept it light, even when things were, plot-wise, dire.

Strangely, the music is sort of disappointing. Michael Giacchino, who did the marvelous scores for The Incredibles and Ratatouille, never really delivers the goods with a iconic, hummable tune a la Alexander Courage (who wrote the theme to the original) or Jerry Goldsmith (who wrote the movie theme which became the theme for “The Next Generation”).

Maybe I’m just a grouch, here, or still burnt out from past disappointments, not feeling energized (no pun intended) by the new stuff, and not excited enough by the old stuff to really have that carry me through.

It’s not that I thought it was bad, it’s just that it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be.

The Haunting In Conneck-ticut

It’s a trope of horror stories that the (typically doomed) protagonists are not happy-go-lucky types with the world at their command. Unhappiness, disease or other disturbance is usually the lot of characters about to be visited by some supernatural evil.

Which, you know, kind of sucks for them, quite apart from all the horror they’re about to go through.

There’s a difficult line to tread here. At it’s best, horror is often (but far from always) an analysis of real life problems, but for movie horror in particular, you don’t necessarily want to create a grim story where beleaguered people suffer increasingly horrible fantastic events, while continuing to suffer realistically horrible events.

Which is the line that The Haunting of Connecticut treads very carefully, and maybe not always successfully. This is the “true” story of the Campbells, a financially stressed couple with three kids whose oldest has cancer. The father (played by stalwart character actor Martin Donovan) is a recovering alcoholic whose fledgling contracting business drains the family bank account, while the mother (by longtime Maelstrom favorite Virginia Madsen) shuttles the sick kid (Kyle Gallner) back and forth from Connecticut, where he receives treatment, to their home in…some place eight hours from Connecticut.

OK, this didn’t bug The Boy (and wouldn’t have bugged me at that age, either), but I confess to finding it uncomfortable enough seeing a child (Gallner is in his 20s but he’s playing a teen) racked with cancer and suffering from chemo and radiation to where I tend to demand more out of a movie that uses those things as somewhat incidental story elements.

Anyway, the family makes the logical conclusion that they should relocate, at least temporarily to Conneck-ticut. (Pronunciation courtesy of recent birthday girl Katharine Hepburn in, I think, Philadelphia Story.) But the only suitable place they can afford has some history, so they pass–until the trip gets to be so long, Madsen can’t bear to put her son through it any more and so settles on the house with the history.

The movie gets off to a slow start this way. Unlike many horrors where we have a hard time seeing why the characters don’t extract themselves sooner, this one puts us pretty squarely in reasonable shoes. We see how they got there, and the initial signs of hauntings are experienced almost exclusively by the sick kid–who is undergoing treatment that apparently might cause hallucinations–we see why they stay.

In fact, it’s not until relatively late that anything indisputably supernatural occurs. There was a point where it looked like it might all be in the kid’s head, which would’ve been an interesting twist, though not the marketing boost that a supernatural “based on a true” story is presumed to be.

Rounding out the fine cast is Amanda Crew as the niece-who’s-handy-for-the-shower-scene and another stalwart character actor, Elias Koteas, as the priest with all the answers.

So, good acting. Pacing that starts slow but picks up about half-way in and stays pretty solid.

The Boy liked it a lot, and more than I did, but we both appreciated the change in tempo and character, as the movie got more supernatural, and the ending, which wasn’t the sort of knee-jerk nihlism that plagued the After Dark horror festival.

Maybe due to the Amityville connection–the couple that pimped the story when it “happened” back in the ‘90s, were the same couple that pimped the Amityville Horror–it felt a little bit like a throwback, but overall this is a decent movie.

True story? Not so much.

Lymelife: Life’s little tics.

Return with me now to the glorious year 1979, when the air was dirty, the only thing uglier than fashion was interior design, and the children were expected to be more mature than the adults.

Lymelife is a new movie from Derick and Steve Martini, who are (amusingly) too young to remember the time they’re writing and directing about! But they do a good job, mostly, of capturing the time. If I were to quibble, I’d point out that the fashions are maybe a little too restrained, that there was never a disco song playing on the jukebox, and oddly, I swear that when they showed angry Iranians, they showed them with an effigy of Reagan, which doesn’t make any sense.

Also, there was a discussion of the Falklands and how it would result in the older boy being mobilized sooner. That didn’t make sense to me. It might be true, but since Falklands was several years later and a British conflict that they resolved easily on their own, I think, I’m not sure how it was likely to be an issue. Also, prior to the conflict, nobody had ever heard of the Falklands.

As long as I haven’t actually talked about what it’s about, I’d like to say that this movie has an awful tagline. To wit: The American Dream Sucks. This movie isn’t really about the American dream. It’s really just a coming-of-age story where the flow is interrupted by parents who think they can treat their relationships casually without affecting their children.

The story is focused on 15-year-old Scott Bartlett (Rory Culkin) who adores his father, Micky (Alec Baldwin, who’s so good at playing an asshole, you start to wonder how much an act it is) and can’t figure out why his worried, unhappy mother, Brenda (Jill Hennessy) is such a drag. He’s being tortured by his long-time female friend, Adrianna (Emma Roberts) who clearly likes him but is hanging around older bad boys.

When the story begins, Scott’s mother is duct-taping his clothes shut so that the ticks don’t get him–there’s apparently an outbreak of lyme disease on Long Island–and he gets to listen to his parents fighting about whether he can go hunting, and the girl he longs for is not returning the affection, and he gets beaten up by a bully.

The other family in this drama are the Braggs, Adrianna’s parents. Charlie and Melissa (Timothy Hutton and Cynthia Nixon) have their own problems. Charlie has lyme disease, maybe, though it’s obviously pretty advanced, and Melissa–who dresses in a ‘70s porn style (which was not uncommon back then)–sells real estate in Mickey Bartlett’s office.

At this point, the story practically writes itself, but the catalyst for the events that unfold over the next 90-odd minutes is Scott’s older brother Jimmy (Kieran Culkin), on leave from the Army. Jimmy knows a lot more about what’s going on between mom and dad, and the relatively naive Scott ends up having his worldview radically altered.

The Boy said it was good, but he asked me later if there were any “feel-good” movies out that we could go see.

We do seem to be steeped in movies about dysfunction. And none of the wacky comedies we’ve seen lately have turned out to be wacky comedies.

Sad thing is, I couldn’t point to any! Maybe we’ll go see Monsters vs. Aliens.

So, yeah, it’s a good movie, but enough of the dysfunction, you know? I know it means you get taken seriously, and the actors like it because they get to act up a storm, but it’s low hanging fruit. Especially in this case, where there’s not much else going on.

With Is Anybody There? you have the old-folks angle, and with Sunshine Cleaning you have the crime scene cleanup, but here–like The Squid and the Whale–you just have a family coming undone.

Again, good, but it can be a tiring diet.