Star Trek: Insurrection


Data has a bad day.

Data has a bad day.

(1998) Science Fiction (Paramount) Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, Levar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, F. Murray Abraham, Donna Murphy, Anthony Zerbe, Gregg Henry, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Michael Welch, Mark Deakins, Stephanie Niznik, Michael Horton, Bruce French, Tom Morello, Jennifer Tung. Directed by Jonathan Frakes

I sometimes like to characterize myself as a Trekker with both eyes wide open. In other words, I love the world that Gene Roddenberry created, but I don’t love it blindly.

“Insurrection,” the ninth movie in Paramount’s cash-cow franchise, posits a race (the Baku) who are being studied in secret by the Federation and their new allies, the Son’a. When Data (Spiner), a member of the study team and as all good Trekkers know, an integral part of the crew of the Enterprise-D goes berserk. Captain Picard (Stewart) abruptly leaves a diplomatic mission to go and see what’s goin’ on, to quote Marvin Gaye.

What’s going on is that a smarmy Starfleet admiral (Zerbe) has put the Federation in bed with the nasty Son’a (you know they’re nasty because they use subspace weapons and even the Borg don’t stoop to that), with the intention of forcing the peaceful Baku to another world. It seems that particles in the rings of the Baku planet give off an energy that, properly processed, can reverse the aging process … indefinitely. In short, a kind of stellar Fountain of Youth.

Picard objects strenuously, but because of the planet’s location in a remote corner of the quadrant, communication with the Powers That Be in the Federation is impossible. Picard must rely on his own code of ethics to guide him. The title should tell you which direction he leans toward.

Producer Rick Berman may have been too overloaded when making this movie, with two television series and the feature film to contend with, along with the opening of a then-new attraction in Las Vegas. Insurrection is unable to break the curse of the odd-numbered Trek movies – the worst films in the franchise to this point are all odd numbered. Insurrection isn’t as bad as The Final Frontier, but it doesn’t really distinguish itself, either.

The trouble with the Trek movies is that too many of them have a perspective too influenced by the television screen. They don’t really fill up the big screen all that well, unless Nicholas Meyer is directing them. But then, unlike many of the Trek directors, Meyer already had a couple of feature films under his belt before tackling Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that Paramount has often had to offer the directing reins to actors in order to get them to play ball. This leads to the odd situation of having some of the studio’s most valuable properties in the hands of inexperienced directors.

It’s not that director Jonathan Frakes (who also plays First Officer Riker) is incompetent, it’s just that I’d wanted to see more cinematic sweep to a Star Trek movie than heretofore had been shown. For example, Insurrection alludes to a Federation that is desperate for allies after being decimated by the Borg and is involved with a life-or-death struggle with the Dominion. Against that background, you’d think you could get a better plot than one that basically says that forced relocation is a bad thing. I think most of us have already figured that one out.

In a situation like the one described above, you’d also think that the Federation’s premier starship would be on the front lines instead of making diplomatic contact with second-rate species, but that’s just a minor point. The problem here is that once again it seems to be the Picard-Data-Worf (Dorn) show, as LaForge (Burton), Dr. Crusher (McFadden) and Counselor Troi (Sirtis) are given almost nothing to do. Riker is kind of involved but for the most part, it’s all platitudes and posturing and not enough gee whiz.

At the time this was made, I really wanted to see Star Trek movies become more like Major Events with storylines that directly influenced the television shows without forcing the audience to be immersed in the show (as the X-Files movie did). That, sadly, never came to pass which might be just as well; the last two Star Trek movies which have rebooted the cinematic franchise have become Event Films. Part of the problem with Insurrection was the miserly budget which in many ways was justified – up to that point the cinematic Star Trek wasn’t pulling in enough box office for the most part to justify nine figure budgets. The reality was that Trekkers were getting more than their fix of the franchise on TV and the TV version was in many ways superior to what was going up on the big screen. Why pay to see something you can see for free at home, and it’s hard to blame audiences for that. Still, seeing what Marvel is doing with their franchise tells me that it could have been done. Ah well, I suppose in this case I was slightly ahead of my time – or overreaching the grasp of my beloved franchise.

WHY RENT THIS: You’re a Trekker completist. Holds up well among the Next Generation movies.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks cinematic scope, playing as an extended TV episode. Tame action scenes.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sci-fi violence, a few mildly bad words and a bit of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The first Star Trek movie in which all of the outer space shots were computer generated. Among the firms providing CGI and software support were Blue Sky Studios and Pixar, both of which would go on to be major CGI animation studios.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 2-disc DVD Collector’s edition includes a look at Alien women in the Star Trek universe and fairly detailed looks at how some of the special effects were created. The Blu-Ray edition (available as part of a collection of Star Trek: Next Generation films) adds a Trek Roundtable in which fans and experts discuss the film with an eye to its place in the overall Star Trek universe and a Star Trek Academy feature which is set up as an Academy lecture on the origins of the conflict between the Baku and the Son’a.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $112.6M on a $58M production budget; the movie pretty much broke even.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rabbit-Proof Fence

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Good Neighbours

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides


Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Queen Anne's Revenge is apparently moths in the sails.

(2011) Adventure (Disney) Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane, Geoffrey Rush, Kevin R. McNally, Sam Claflin, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Stephen Graham, Keith Richards, Richard Griffiths, Greg Ellis, Damian O’Hare, Oscar Jaenada, Roger Allam, Judi Dench. Directed by Rob Marshall

The trouble with living is that we all have to die. Sooner or later, we have to give up our space on planet Earth. However, legend has it that there is a place that we can get at least a temporary extension.

 Joshamee Gibbs (McNally) has been mistaken for infamous pirate Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) and has been taken to London for trial and eventual hanging as a pirate. However, Jack has a daring plan to rescue his shipmate. Unfortunately, like most of Jack’s daring plans, it ends in disaster with a bunch of guns being pointed in his general direction.

Jack is hauled in front of the corpulent King George III (Griffiths) and his obsequious prime minister (Allam) to be offered a proposition. Jack reputedly knows the location of the Fountain of Youth. It turns out that the Spanish have discovered the location and have sent a humorless grandee (Jaenada) to go there. Rumor has it that Jack is putting together a crew for such a venture but this is the first the good Captain has heard of it. However, the crown has a ship and a captain and if Jack joins them, they might have a chance at catching up to the Spanish expedition. When Jack discovers that the captain of the British expedition is none other than his former first mate and nemesis, a dandified Barbarosa (Rush) – who has not only lost a leg but also Jack’s beloved Black Pearl, Jack says no thanks and makes good his escape.

While fleeing the redcoats he is aided by his father (Richards) who warns him against making the trip to the Fountain of Youth. Jack seems more interested in finding out who is impersonating him – which turns out to be Angelica (Cruz), a former lover of his. To make matters even more complicated, she turns out to be the daughter of Blackbeard (McShane), the pirate whom all other pirates fear. One of her crew knocks out Jack with a blow dart and he wakes up on the Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard’s notorious ship which has a bunch of zombies for officers (zombies are much more pliable, according to Angelica).

Blackbeard has very particular motives for reaching the Fountain – it is prophesized that he will be killed by a one-legged man within a fortnight. He wants the waters of the Fountain as an insurance policy.

Blackbeard and Jack know that two additional items are needed for the waters to work – the chalices of Ponce de Leon, which they need to get, and the tears of a mermaid, which they also need to get. As it turns out, mermaids are extremely capricious creatures who can be as deadly as any monster. They are able, however, with the aid of a noble missionary named Phillip (Claflin) they manage to snare a beautiful mermaid named Syrena (Berges-Frisbey).

So it’s a race to the fountain with three interested parties converging on the Fountain and the wreck of de Leon’s ship; which one will be granted eternal life? And will they have chosen…wisely?

After the last Pirates movie, there had been some talk that the franchise was finished despite the massive box office numbers it had done. The director of the first three films, Gore Verbinski was involved with this new film initially but eventually chose to bow out, allowing Marshall in. Marshall, who has among other films the Oscar-winning Chicago to his credit, was an intriguing choice to direct as he had never attempted a summer blockbuster before, being better known for Broadway musical adaptations. He stages some pretty nice sequences here, action-wise – none as silly as the water wheel sequence from the second film – particularly an early swordfight between Jack and Angelica, as well as the mutiny sequence. Some of the sequences fall flat however, including the climactic battle.

Depp has made this role his own which is good and bad, mostly bad. Despite the presence of a bit of backstory, he adds nothing new to the role. I wouldn’t say that the performance is phoned in because he certainly puts enough effort into it, but there is nothing in it that really calls for me to recommend you see it nor make me super enthusiastic for the next film in the series, for which this is said to be the first in a proposed new trilogy.

Cruz makes a nice foil for Depp. Fiery and temperamental but with a good heart buried under her bravado, she is much more of a presence than Keira Knightley was in the first three films. An Easter egg scene following the credits sets up the next film and implies that Cruz will be a major component in it. That wouldn’t be a bad thing in my opinion.

With Orlando Bloom also absent, more is given for the always-reliable McNally to do. He does well with the expanded role although again he does pretty well with the material and screen time he is given. Graham also adds a bit of luster as comic relief.

McShane has developed into an actor who always delivers an excellent performance regardless of the quality of the material. He makes a perfectly vile pirate who is willing to sacrifice anything and anyone for his own purposes. Of all the pirates we’ve seen in the series thus far, he is by far the nastiest, worse than Davy Jones himself. He also lends a bit of gravitas.

I will admit that this is better than the last two movies in the series. It’s nowhere near as good as the first. It’s decent summer entertainment but just decent; you’ll watch it once, forget it quickly and move on. That’s not much of a recommendation but that’s all I’ve got; McShane is worth seeing anyway.

REASONS TO GO: Some really nifty action sequences and a nice ambience.  McShane makes a worthy Blackbeard. 

REASONS TO STAY: It’s possible Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow has worn out his welcome.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, a bit of fantasy violence and a little bit of innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Penelope Cruz was pregnant throughout the shoot and it was only in several sequences at the end of filming where her sister was used as a body double in order to hide her pregnancy.

HOME OR THEATER: Big action sequences, big fantasy, big performances – big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Kings of the Evening

The Fountain


The Fountain

Just another 26th Century Icarus.

(2006) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn, Marc Margolis, Stephen McHattie, Sean Patrick Thomas, Donna Murphy, Ethan Suplee, Richard McMillan, Lorne Brass, Fernando Hernandez, Cliff Curtis, Janique Kerns.  Directed by Darren Aronofsky

There are some mysteries that fire the imagination and others that are so immense that they’re terrifying. Eternal life is like that. We as a species fear the unknown, and there is nothing quite so unknown as death. We try to avoid it, we shrink from it, we fight to stave it off and yet inevitably, it claims us all. Some come to embrace it, others in time learn to accept it. Others, however, never quite come to terms with it.

The Fountain is an attempt to breach the mystery and it is done in a way that reading a plot won’t really shed a lot of light as to what the movie is about. The storyline is this; in the 16th century, a conquistador named Tomas Creo (Jackman) has been given a mission by Isabel (Weisz), the Queen of Spain who has been beset by the Grand Inquisitor (McHattie) for her heretical thoughts which are a tad more liberal than his liking. A priest, Father Avila (Margolis) under her control has discovered the location of the Biblical Tree of Life which grants eternal life to all those who drink of its sap. Returning to Spain with such a treasure would shift power from the Inquisitor to the Queen, who has pledged that should Creo return successful he would have her hand in marriage. However, to get to the Tree he must fight his way through a bunch of annoyed Mayans in a heretofore lost pyramid.

In modern times, Dr. Tommy Creo (Jackman again), a brilliant medical researcher, is racing against the clock to find a cure for the extremely aggressive brain tumor that is slowly killing his wife Izzi (Weisz again), an author who is writing a book about a conquistador’s quest for the Tree of Life. She has left the final chapter unfinished, wanting her husband to complete the book for her when she is gone. Tommy, for his part, is driving his team relentlessly, causing his boss Dr. Guzetti (Burstyn) to remonstrate with him. She wonders if he shouldn’t be spending more time with Izzi in her last days rather than on this fool’s errand to find a cure. His teammates Antonio (Thomas), Betty (Murphy) and Manny (Suplee) are concerned that he’s lost his perspective. Tommy, however, is working on a plant from South America that may yield the cure he desperately needs for his starry-eyed wife, who is trying to make her peace with her eventual fate.

Five hundred years from now, a hairless astronaut named Tom (Jackman a third time) hurtles through the void in a transparent bubble-like spaceship with a dying tree with the intention of flying it into the center of a dying star. His motives are unclear; whether he intends to restore life to the star, or life to the souls of those the ancient Mayans believe went to this place to rest or perhaps some other theory altogether. He hallucinates the presence of his lost love who looks suspiciously like Izzi, practices yoga and meditates as the sphere speeds towards the nebula.

Director Aronofsky has made not so much a movie you watch passively but an event to be experienced. Critics and audiences alike have lined up on either side of the coin; the movie was roundly booed at its Venice Film Festival premiere and has received a critical pasting. However, those who get this movie absolutely love it. Aronofsky really doesn’t give you much room for anything else but absolutes here, which is ironic since the movie has a tendency to be vague with its message.

That message is left open to interpretation, with Aronofsky asking the viewer to reach their own conclusions about the movie. There is a certain 2001: A Space Odyssey feel, particularly to the 26th century sequence and there has been some grousing that this is a movie best encountered while stoned out of your mind. Not being a stoner, I can only imagine what this movie would be like whilst altered.

Jackman does his best work to date as the three Creos (which is Spanish for “I believe,” by the way). All three characters are alike in that they are extremely driven, but different in that they are driven in different ways. Jackman is at once a brutal conquistador, a brilliant but bereaved researcher and a serene Zen monk-like astronaut. Weisz, who at one time was not one of my favorite actresses but has been on a roll lately, makes the best she can out of a role which really doesn’t require much from her other than to smile beatifically most of the time and give soulful looks from a warm bath.

The effects are not CGI on purpose, as Aronofsky felt that would date the movie (not mentioned is that his budget was cut in half by the studio; undoubtedly he had to get a little bit more imaginative with the effects in order to pull it off, and cutting expensive CGI shots would seem to be the right way to go here). Still, there are some spectacular sequences, particularly on the Pyramid and then again as the spacecraft reaches the dying nebula. The whole she-bang is framed by one of the most beautiful scores you will ever hear, penned by Craig Mansell and performed by the classical group the Kronos Quartet and the rock band Mogwai.

This is not a movie for everybody. Several audience members walked out after about 20 minutes and the teenagers expecting some sort of space opera were completely baffled by what they saw. This is the kind of movie that requires an intellectual commitment, and a lot of people who go to the movies are out to turn their brain off, which is fine – I do it all the time. However, if you’re in the right frame of mind, exploring the mystery of eternal life and our attitudes towards it can make for a fine evening’s mental exercise. I realize I’m something of a voice crying in the wilderness, but The Fountain is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, but not many will share that opinion, and that’s fine by me.

WHY RENT THIS: Great performance by Jackman and thought-provoking script. Despite the lack of CGI, still beautiful to look at. Outstanding score by Mansell and performance by the Kronos Quartet and Mogwai.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The triple timeline story is often confusing and frustrating to follow.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some surprisingly violent action sequences as well as some sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Xibalba Nebula refered to by Mayan astronomers as the place where departed souls enter the afterlife, is located in the constellation Orion.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The movie’s torturous journey to the screen included an aborted first film that starred Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett that was halted not very far into production after creative differences between Pitt and Aronofsky and budgetary concerns from the studio led to the cessation. The feature “Australia” discusses this, although not in as much detail as we’d like.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.0M on a $35M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Happy Feet