For the Love of Spock


The Nimoys are all ears.

The Nimoys are all ears.

(2016) Documentary (Gravitas) Leonard Nimoy, Adam Nimoy, Mel Nimoy, Sybil Nimoy, Julie Nimoy, William Shatner, Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, Zachary Quinto, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Mayim Bialik, Jim Parsons, J.J. Abrams, Jason Alexander, Walter Koenig, Catherine Hicks, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Nicholas Meyer, D.C. Fontana, Amy Mainzer. Directed by Adam Nimoy

 

The character of Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek series was and is a cultural icon. Played by Leonard Nimoy, then a character actor who had never worked more than two weeks on the same project in his career, he was created at a time of great social upheaval and in many ways stood for rationality, logic and self-control in a time when just about everyone was about as emotional as one could get. He also stood for cultural tolerance, as he was best friends with a human which was a metaphor for the racial turmoil going on in the United States at the time (and sadly continues to this day).

Nimoy’s son Adam, a successful television director, wanted to do a documentary on the cultural phenomenon that is Spock and got his father’s blessing to do it. After a Kickstarter campaign netted the necessary funds, Adam conducted an interview with his father and started to talk to other members of the original series cast when his father suddenly passed away at age 83.

The focus of the film changed from Spock to Leonard Nimoy. It became a love letter from a son to his father. The two had a very rocky relationship at times, particularly when Adam’s drug use became an issue, which fueled displeasure from his father, an alcoholic. They went years without speaking, but eventually reconciled.

He tells his father’s story, glossing over his childhood and young adulthood and bringing him to his days in Trek. Much of  the movie focuses on his time as Spock and in between; on the rigors of fame and having to share his father with an adoring fan base. Early on, he and his sister Julie answered fan mail for their father. It was Adam who in the famous prank showed up on the set without his dad’s knowledge wearing Vulcan make-up (the footage is shown here).

Nimoy famously has had a loving relationship with the Trek community of both fans and the cast and crews of the various TV and film iterations; he also had a sometimes contentious relationship with Paramount, the studio that produced the series; his lawsuit to gain the cast royalties from merchandising was settled largely because the studio wanted to make motion pictures based on the show and Nimoy refused to sign for the film before the suit was settled. It was also at his insistence that George Takei and Nichelle Nichols were added to the animated series cast; he felt strongly that the diversity of the original show’s cast needed to be brought over to the animated show and even today both of those actors refer to the incident with great affection.

The younger Nimoy includes plenty of home movies as well as backstage footage from the show and films which for me personally was very nostalgic; I lived in Los Angeles at the time the show and the first movies were being filmed and I was reminded of that watching the film, bringing on in me a strong sense of comfort. It was an idyllic time and an idyllic place.

The movie does run a bit long in my opinion but love letters always tend to. Fans of the TV show and of Star Trek in general won’t mind; I think they’ll kind of prefer it that way. The interviews with the new cast add a bit of dimension in that all of them grew up with Star Trek even if they weren’t fans and those that were (such as Simon Pegg) were a bit awestruck working with Nimoy in his signature role. Fans like Jason Alexander and Jim Parsons talk about what the character meant to them but at the end of the day, it is his brother Mel who breaks down when talking about the terrible day when Leonard Nimoy passed away that gives us the greatest sense of what the man behind the Vulcan meant to us all.

The film closes with a tribute to Nimoy at the Burning Man festival shortly after he passed away and I swear that the flames on the tribute as, like the other temporary art installations at the festival, burned to the ground brought to mind the Federation emblem in the shape of the flames seemed to be the most cosmic of all the tributes. Spock lives but without Nimoy to give the character its essence (with all due respect to Zachary Quinto who plays Spock in the movie reboot franchise) it is mostly the idea of Spock that we have now – and that gives all of us comfort. Truly, this is a wonderful way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the original show.

REASONS TO GO: Very much a love letter from a son to his father. It’s an interesting perspective on fame by the children of the famous. The backstage footage is pretty nifty.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a little bit on the long side.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some foul language but not a lot.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The movie was funded by a Kickstarter campaign.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Be Takei
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Milton’s Secret

To Be Takei


It's always a great day to be OK to be Takei!

It’s always a great day to be OK to be Takei!

(2014) Documentary (Starz Digital Media) George Takei, Brad Takei, Walter Koenig, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, John Cho, Daniel Inouye, Norman Mineta, Lea Salonga, Dan Savage, Howard Stern, Jay Kuo, Tom Ammiano, Eddie Paskey, Lorenzo Thorne, Telly Leung, Jimi Yamaichi. Directed by Jennifer R. Kroot

From an outsider’s perspective, it seems that it must be great to be George Takei. Beloved Star Trek actor, Facebook sensation, activist and advocate for Japanese-Americans and the gay community, he has been described as America’s gay uncle and that might not be far from the truth.

But when you consider the things he’s been through – being imprisoned in two different internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the no less damaging prison that came from being a closeted actor throughout most of his career (he didn’t come out until 2005 and then in response to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s veto of the gay marriage bill.

He has overcome some difficult, dark days but he has emerged on the other end with a disingenuous smile and a live and let live attitude that might lead some to underestimate how forceful and passionate he is for the causes he believes in. Even his feud with William Shatner doesn’t seem to be something he takes all that seriously; I get the sense he doesn’t feel any ill will towards the actor. Shatner, interviewed for the film, comes off as somewhat befuddled about the fuss and a bit standoffish – “I really don’t know the man,” he protests on several occasions.

Still, I don’t know if I could be as cheerful as Takei given his circumstances. What keeps him sane, I think, is his relationship with his husband Brad. Brad is kind of the sensible, detail-oriented one in the relationship. He takes George’s crazy schedule and makes it work. Sometimes he can be a bit of a nag, other times he can be a bit startled at George’s occasional penchant for oversharing, sometimes he can be a bit of a nit-picker. Still, the love that is there is obvious and deep.

In fact, watching the interaction between George and Brad made me think “That’s me and my wife!” There is really no difference in their relationship than my relationship with my wife other than that my relationship is with a woman and George Takei’s is with a man. They both drive each other crazy upon occasion but they both lean on and rely on each other – and there’s no doubt either man would take a bullet for the other, literally and figuratively. That’s how most good marriages work. People who are fuzzy about whether gay people should be married should watch these two gay people together. They are indeed, the prototypical gay married couple.

I did find that aspect of the documentary inspiring; I also found that the scenes of George’s activism with both Japanese-American causes as well as gay causes to be among the most interesting in the film which is something since I’m a proud Trekker and love the little insights that come in from the surviving members of the crew of the Enterprise. As a Trekker I might have wanted more on his era in Star Trek but the film critic in me acknowledges that would only appeal to a certain segment, myself included.

However, the film critic in me frowns on the way that Kroot bounces around in subject matter, from the internment to George’s early Hollywood years to his discovering he was gay in high school to his Facebook stardom to his relationship with his parents. I would have preferred something a little more linear in terms of telling Takei’s story, although something tells me that George himself isn’t the most linear of men.

A project close to Takei’s heart these days is Allegiance, a musical about the Japanese-American experience in the internment camps that Takei starred in (along with Salonga). The show is largely informed by Takei’s own experiences and shows a depth in his acting that he rarely gets a chance to display. The musical set records at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater and is expected to debut on Broadway during the upcoming season.

Takei himself makes a fascinating subject for a documentary and it’s high time that there was one made about him. There are some great archival photographs and such but I think the focus here is rightly on the relationship between George and Brad – which is clearly the central focus in George’s life – and on his activism. It is impressive that in his 70s George Takei has become much more of a cultural phenomenon than he was as a younger man, and continues to work an impressive schedule not only as an actor but with personal appearances as well as speaking engagements for his various causes. Takei is a national treasure and we should appreciate him as such.

REASONS TO GO: Takei is as interesting a person as you think he is and probably more so. Does a lot to further the cause of gay marriage.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary jumps around from subject to subject in kind of a willy-nilly fashion. May not have enough Star Trek material for some Trekkers.
FAMILY VALUES:  Suitable for family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Takei was born with the first name of Hosato, but was called George by his father, an Anglophile (as his son later became) after the coronation of King George VI in 1937.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before You Know It
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Skeleton Twins

Fanboys


Fanboys

Fanboys on the outside looking in.

(2008) Comedy (Weinstein) Sam Huntington, Chris Marquette, Dan Fogler, Jay Baruchel, Kristen Bell, Carrie Fisher, Danny Trejo, Billy Dee Williams, Seth Rogen, Allie Grant, William Shatner. Directed by Kyle Newman

Fans have a kind of sweet madness. I’m not talking about the people who follow something on a casual basis; I mean the full-out, balls-to-the-wall, obsessive, dangerously knowledgeable super-fans; the kind that show up at conventions and name their kids after characters in the movies.

This specific fandom that Fanboys is examining is the Star Wars fans. The movie is set in 1998, just prior to the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and arguably the best time to be a fan of the series – when anticipation had fans jumping out of their skins waiting for the new movie, the first in more than 15 years.

Four school friends who hadn’t been together since graduation meet up at a party; Eric (Huntington), the lone respectable one who was working for his dad’s car dealership which he was expected to take over some day; Hutch (Fogler) who lives in his mom’s “carriage house” (read: garage), Windows (Baruchel) a computer nerd who has a thing for a chat room geek he’s never met and Linus (Marquette), who is somewhat angry about the way things turned out.

It turns out he has plenty of reason to be angry; he has cancer and won’t live to see the next movie in the franchise released. Eric, who was once his best friend, resumes that role and decides that his friend WILL see the movie before anyone else does. The four of them – and Zoe (Bell), a very cool friend that frequents the comic book store Hutch and Windows work at and quite possibly the only girl that could hang with these guys – will drive from Ohio to Marin County, California where Skywalker Ranch is located, break in and watch the movie. Windows’ online crush even claims she can get them the plans to the Ranch which is legendary for its security.

They take off in Hutch’s tricked out van, a kind of rolling convention on wheels, and head vaguely West. On the way they will encounter evil Star Trek fans, the all-knowing Harry Knowles (of Ain’t It Cool News fame) and William Shatner himself as they race the clock to get their dying friend to the ranch. Will it be worth the trip?

Of course, we all know at this point in time that The Phantom Menace was a disappointment but back then the possibilities were endless. The world of fans was anticipating what they thought would be an epic movie and nearly every fan website was in a dither. It was a kinder world.

However, the story of this movie might have made a good movie of its own. The movie was completed back in 2007 but was shelved by studio head Harvey Weinstein who felt the cancer subplot was too grim for the comedy he wanted; he also felt it appealed to a niche audience and not a general one. Both are legitimate points.

Director Newman fought the changes and Weinstein eventually assigned director Steven Brill to reshoot some scenes and re-edit it. Fans went ballistic, launching a campaign to stop the changes, opening MySpace pages (“Stop Darth Weinstein”) and threatening to boycott Superhero Movie en masse. I’m not so sure that was a threat so much as a relief.

Eventually Weinstein relented and allowed Newman to re-cut the movie a third time…only he gave him only 36 hours to do the work. The movie bounced from release date to release date over the course of three years until it finally got an extremely limited release in February 2009 and, as you can see from the box office performance below, died like the Emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi.

It’s kind of a shame because the movie isn’t too bad. It got a critical shellacking which, frankly, illustrates why critics are out of touch with the audience that comes to the movies. People do get involved with their favorite franchises. Laugh and make fun if you want to, but it fulfills something in people, be it Trekkers, Star Wars fan or Twilighters. Those who judge the lifestyles of these people are the ones who really need to get a life.

For the most part, the performances here are okay although there’s nothing here that’s going to supercharge any careers. Baruchel is sweet as Windows and Marquette has some nice scenes as Linus. Mostly, the star power is in the cameos and there are plenty of those, from Star Wars vets Fisher and Williams to Shatner and Rogen (who is amusing as an overbearing Trek fan).

There are a lot of asides that will have knowing fans nodding in satisfaction; I can see how audiences not super-familiar with the Star Wars saga might feel left out a little. However, the movie really isn’t for them anyway. The DVD extras on several occasions call this a love letter to Star Wars but I don’t think it actually ends up that way. It’s more a love letter to the fans, and not just of Star Wars but of all things that excite the imagination and promote obsession. It’s sweet-natured and while not everything works, I am positive that the love is sincere. I’d much rather see a movie like this one than a thousand big budget big star comedies whose sole reason for being is to fatten the bank accounts of those involved. Sincerity trumps budget every time.

WHY RENT THIS: A very sweet homage to fandom, particularly that of Star Wars. Some of the cameos are actually well thought-out.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit gratuitous in places and the humor – well heck the whole dang movie – is going to appeal to a very limited audience; some of the references will go right over the heads of ordinary folk.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of crude humor, much of it sexual (as you might expect from a bunch of guys who don’t get laid much). There’s also some drug use in the movie, as well as a heaping helping of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The guards at Skywalker Ranch wear uniforms from THX-1138, one of Lucas’ early films (and one he references regularly in subsequent films). The head guard is played in a cameo appearance by Ray Park, who played Darth Maul in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is some webisodes that were available before the movie’s release, as well as a character study but really, most of the extras are relatively mundane as these things go.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $960,828 on an unreported production budget; the film was undoubtedly a flop.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Answer Man

Top 10 Movies of 2009


Top 10 Movies of 2009It is traditional amongst those who write about movies that as one year ends and another year begins that there is a certain amount of reflection that goes on about the year that has just passed and the movies seen in that period. In this list-happy society, most critics put together a list of the top ten movies of the year in order to give their readers some sense of perspective about the year in review.

Far be it for me to argue with tradition. I have always found top ten lists to be somewhat arbitrary – for example, why choose ten movies? What if there are more movies worthy of being honored as the year’s best than just ten? What if there are fewer? How does one distinguish between a big budget Hollywood epic and a micro-budget indie? How can you compare a romantic comedy with a historical drama?

I’ll admit the system isn’t perfect. Although I’m calling this piece the Top 10 Movies of 2009, what it really should be called is an arbitrary list of ten movies I thought worth singling out. Certainly, these are the movies that I found most praiseworthy of those released in Orlando theaters during the calendar year of 2009 – at least the ones that I saw (I was unable to see the very much acclaimed Up in the Air by the time this was written). These are all movies that, in some way large or small, affected me the most or I found to be the most innovative.

2009 will go down in the record books as a record box office bonanza as movie theaters took in over $10 billion in box office receipts for the first time in the history of the movies. Some of the movies on this list contributed a good deal to that bottom line, while others barely made a dent. It was a year of giant robots and of heart-fluttering teen vampires. Franchises were reborn while others were shown the door.

Hollywood continued to be youth-driven as movies tended to be skewed towards teen and family markets, the two demographics that tended to be responsible for the most repeat business. Studios resorted to innovative and alternative methods of marketing their films, sometimes eschewing traditional mean of marketing entirely in lieu of internet and viral campaigns meant to generate buzz. The stakes for the publicity machines have never been higher; most big budget releases have to make at least one third of their budget back in the opening weekend in order for the movie to have even a small chance of making back their budget. Hollywood began to live and die on a steady diet of buzz.

The Internet and sites like Latino Review, Ain’t It Cool News and Collider began to be major players in determining the marketability of films to the target audience of internet-savvy young people, whose buy-in to a movie was critical to a film’s success – and whose lack thereof could be lethal. Movies like Paranormal Activity became critical and commercial successes despite having almost no budget and no star power, being solely driven on a clever internet marketing campaign and word of mouth as generated over the net. Studios took note of the success of the movie and are quietly gearing up sub-divisions to develop smaller-budget movies for niche audiences.

While many complained that Hollywood relied too heavily on concept films, sequels and merchandising-driven films in an overall litany of accusations that there is no originality in Hollywood anymore (a claim, ironically enough, that is unoriginal in itself), certainly there was plenty of innovation to go around. From new means of storytelling to breakthroughs in special effects, movies continued to push the boundaries of filmmaking in 2009. Avatar released near the end of the year ended years of speculation and delivered on director James Cameron’s assertion that it would change moviemaking forever – and it will. That is why it is on the list below.

As with most lists, this is meant to generate discussion and I invite you to participate by adding your comments. Certainly, you won’t agree with every movie on this list – I can almost guarantee you that even I won’t agree with every movie on this list in a week’s time. What I can guarantee is that every one of these ten movies deserves at least a viewing, whether in a theater if the opportunity is still there, or at home on DVD, Blu-Ray, On-Demand or Cable. I’m sure you’ll find something worthwhile about all of them. Therefore, without further ado, here is my list. Enjoy.

The Hangover10.  THE HANGOVER

(Warner Brothers) Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms, Heather Graham, Justin Bartha, Sasha Barese, Jeffrey Tambor, Ken Jeong, Rachel Harris, Mike Tyson, Mike Epps, Jernard Brooks, Ken Jeong. Directed by Todd Phillips

Released June 5, 2009 In a summer crowded with sequels, big budget science fiction and action movies and high concept films, this comedy from the people who brought you Old School didn’t attract a lot of attention; that is, until people actually saw it. One of the funniest movies to come along in years, it took the conventions of male buddy movies and turned them on their ear. It would establish the three leads of Cooper, Galifianakis and Helms as legitimate box office stars and establish box office records for “R” rated comedies.

WHY IT IS HERE: We’ve all had lost weekends, but none like this. Waking up with no memory of what happened the night before in a totally trashed suite at Caesar’s Palace is the stuff that dreams are made of, or in this case box office gold. As the events of a wild night of debauchery are slowly pieced together, everything becomes significant and nothing is left to chance. This is as well-written and well-conceived a comedy of this type as I’ve seen in decades.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The madness of Ken Jeong, as a kidnapped Asian high roller who leaps out of the trunk of the Mercedes stark naked and screaming invectives. It is one more surreal moment in a movie filled with them.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $277.3 million domestic (as of 12/17/09), $459.4 total.

BUDGET: $35 million.

STATUS: Currently available on home video. A sequel is scheduled to be released Memorial Day weekend, 2011.

Red Cliff9. RED CLIFF

(Magnet) Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Chang Chen, Zhao Wei, Hu Jun, Zhang Fenyi, Lin Chiling, Shido Nakamura, You Yong, Ba Sen Zha Bu, Hou Yong, Philip Hersh (voice), Jiang Tong, Song Jia, Tong Dawei. Directed by John Woo

Released November 18, 2009 John Woo was once the most acclaimed action movie director in Asia, with some of the best movies of the ‘90s to his credit. Hollywood beckoned, and Woo went on to make memorable movies like Face Off and Mission: Impossible II. In his first movie in his native country in more than a decade, Woo surprisingly did an epic period movie, something he wasn’t particularly known for. With his action movie flair and his over-the-top visual style, Woo would create the most expensive movie ever made in Asia but the gamble paid off when it became a huge hit there.

WHY IT IS HERE: Hollywood has not made many movies with this kind of scope except in replication by CGI. Here, there is literally a cast of thousands. Every scene is filled with subtle visual nuances as well as grand, epic scale. Soldiers march in disciplined formations, a massive flotilla floats majestically down the Yangtze River and arrows fly like a swarm of deadly locusts. These kinds of movies are prohibitively expensive to film, so chances are we won’t see many of them ever again.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The sea battle scene in which Zhuge Liang entices Cao Cao’s forces to loose 100,000 arrows at his straw bale-covered ships.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $485,186 domestic (as of 12/27/09), $531,538 total (note that these figures are for the truncated single-film release here in the States, not the massive, two picture extravaganza originally released in Asia where it set box office records).

BUDGET: Not available.

STATUS: Playing in limited markets. Aired on HDNet cable in December. Scheduled for home video release March 23, 2010.

Star Trek8. STAR TREK

(Paramount) Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Eric Bana, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, Bruce Greenwood, Leonard Nimoy, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Ben Cross, Winona Ryder, Chris Hemsworth, Jennifer Morrison, Rachel Nichols, Faran Tahir. Directed by J.J. Abrams

Released May 7, 2009 When Star Trek: Nemesis tanked and the television ratings for “Star Trek: Enterprise” were disappointing, it appeared the franchise had lost its steam. Paramount, not willing to give up on one of its most important assets, took some time off to retool and put the fate of the franchise squarely in the hands of producer-director J.J. Abrams, creator of such television fare as “Lost” and “Alias,” as well as movies like Cloverfield and Mission: Impossible III.  The move proved to be a wise one as anticipation grew among not only diehard Trekkers but among summer action movie junkies as well, especially once the trailer hit. Paramount was rewarded with the biggest box office for any Star Trek movie.

WHY IT IS HERE: While I admit to having a bit of a blind eye when it comes to Star Trek, this really is a terrific movie. It is action packed and character driven, a rare combination. Perfectly cast, the actors recreate the roles of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the Enterprise crew with nary a false note, adding the actors’ own takes while remaining true to the spirit of the character. Dizzying special effects, a script that paid respect to the original Federation mythos while making logical sense was a feat in itself. This is a movie even non-Trekkers can love.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The halo dive from a shuttle craft to the mining platform by Kirk, Sulu and an expendable security officer was breathtaking.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $275.7 million domestic, $385.4 total.

BUDGET: $150 million.

STATUS: Currently available on home video. A sequel is in the planning stages.

Inglourious Basterds7. INGLORIOUS BASTERDS

(Weinstein) Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger, Melanie Laurent, Daniel Bruhl, Samm Levine, B.J. Novak, Til Schweiger, Michael Fassbender, Gedeon Burkhard, Jacky Ido, Mike Myers, Denis Menochet, Sylvester Groth. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Released August 21, 2009 Tarantino can always be counted upon to take something conventional, turn it on its ear and then give it a Wet Willie besides. Here, he takes the war movie, revs it up a notch, dials up the amp to 11 and unleashes it on the late summer audience. The result is Tarantino’s best opening weekend ever and one of his biggest grossing movies to date. He also gave us Christoph Waltz, one of the nastiest villains since Goldfinger and certain to get an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor next month.

WHY IT IS HERE: You have never seen a movie like this. You will never see a movie like this again. Hip and retro and intelligent all at once, nobody can make B movie conventions seem so damn smart like Tarantino. His movies are maniacal grins, fueled by tequila and mescaline, meant to be experienced as the kick-off to a weekend-long bender. Did I mention this movie rocks?

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: There are several, but the one that made me sit up and take notice came near the end when Hans Landa interrogates Bridget von Hammersmark in the theater office. He knows, you know he knows, she knows he knows but what follows is still shocking and brutal.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $120.5 million domestic (as of 12/17/09), $311.7 total.

BUDGET: $70 million.

STATUS: Currently available on home video.

Avatar6. AVATAR

(20th Century Fox) Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso, Peter Mensah, Matt Gerald. Directed by James Cameron

Released December 18, 2009 They say that James Cameron’s entire career has pointed to this. When the dust settles, it will undoubtedly be the phenomenon of 2009, the movie that changed everything. It is expected to be second only to Cameron’s own Titanic on the all-time box office list and is almost certain to spawn several sequels – Cameron himself said that it would be a waste if the programs that created Pandora were not used for a second movie at the very least.

WHY IT IS HERE: This is the most fully-realized alien environment ever captured. The ecology makes sense; the technology makes sense as well. Earlier, we talked about traditional epic movies going out of fashion; this is what will replace them. Worthington delivers a star-making performance that is sure to elevate him to the top echelon of Hollywood actors.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Where to begin? I love some of the scenes in the forest as the various phosphorescent flora are explored, but the last battle sequence will take your breath away.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $352.1 million domestic (as of 1/4/10), $1.018 billion total.

BUDGET: Not available, but the general consensus in Hollywood is that it is north of $300 million.

STATUS: Still in wide release, as well as selected IMAX and 3D venues.

Invictus5. INVICTUS

(Warner Brothers) Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge, Patrick Mofokeng, Matt Stern, Julian Lewis Jones, Adjoa Andoh, Marguerite Wheatley, Leleti Khumalo, Patrick Lyster, Penny Downie, McNiel Hendricks, Louis Minaar, Zak Feaunati. Directed by Clint Eastwood

Released December 11, 2009 As an actor, Clint Eastwood could be counted upon to display toughness. As a director, he can be counted upon to create compelling movies that are Oscar contenders year after year. This one is no exception. While it hasn’t gotten the box office love that many of his other efforts have created (see below), it is nonetheless a brilliant movie that gives us a peak into a time and place most of us have little or no knowledge of.

WHY IT IS HERE: It’s Clint Eastwood, right? As underdog sports dramas go, most have little impact beyond the moment they portray in the community that is depicted. The moment here shows a country, once bitterly divided, coming together and learning to co-exist. If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The final scene, which portrays a moment of historic importance in the history of South Africa. It will send chills up your spine.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $30.89 million domestic (as of 1/4/10), $30.89 worldwide.

BUDGET: $60 million.

STATUS: Still in wide release. General release has yet to take place overseas.

4. DEPARTURES

(Regent) Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ryoko Hirosue, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Kimiko Yo, Takashi Sasato, Taro Ishida, Yukiko Tachibano, Genjitsu Shu, Sanae Miyata, Toru Minegishi, Tetta Sugimoto. Directed by Yojiro Takita

Released May 29, 2009 The winner of the 2008 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar was this entry from Japan. Reviewed recently on this site, it deals with mourning and death in a way that Western filmmakers would never have even considered. Because so few movies deal with the grief of losing a loved one in a truly realistic way, it makes movies like this one all the more impactful.

WHY IT IS HERE: This is a movie about dealing with death in our lives, and as such can be a really useful tool. It is beautifully made, covering the gamut of human emotions. There is some surprisingly subtle humor, as well as pathos that will make your heart ache and your throat constrict. There are tears and laughter and turmoil, and this is as cathartic a movie as you will find ever.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: There is a scene where a husband, who has berated the lead characters for being five minutes late, breaks down at the funeral of his wife. Even just writing about it here is bringing tears to my eyes.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $1.49 million domestic (as of 1/3/10), $67.9 total.

BUDGET: Not available.

STATUS: Currently available on home video.

Up3. UP

(Disney) Starring the voices of Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer, Delroy Lindo, John Ratzenberger, Bob Peterson, Jerome Ranft, David Kaye, Elie Docter, Jeremy Leary, Mickie McGowan, Danny Mann. Directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson

Released May 29, 2009 Year after year, Pixar outdoes itself not only in the look of their animated films, but in the complexity of their stories. This is their best outing yet, a movie that appeals not only to children with its exotic locations, sense of whimsy, talking dogs and brightly colored big birds but also to adults. The relationship between Carl and Ellie Fredericksen is real, believable and something we all aspire to. The regrets of Carl Fredericksen are the regrets we all feel as we age.

WHY IT IS HERE: Quite simply, it is perhaps the best animated feature ever made. It is certainly in the running for a Best Picture nomination for the Oscars later this month, and it is a shoe-in to win the Best Animated Feature. There are plenty of animated movies that have made me laugh; there is only one that has made me cry. All right, two if you count the time I saw Bambi when I was four years old and was devastated by the death of his mother.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The opening montage that depicts the life of Ellie and Carl together; it is one of the most emotionally effective sequences of any movie, let alone an animated feature.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $293.0 million domestic (as of 1/6/10), $683.0 total.

BUDGET: $175 million.

STATUS: Currently available on home video.

Capitalism: A Love Story2.  CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY

(Overture) Michael Moore, Wallace Shawn, William Black, Marcy Kaptur, Elizabeth Warren, Baron Hill, Elijah Cummings, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Robert Powell, Sarah Palin, John McCain. Directed by Michael Moore

Released September 23, 2009 Some movies are just going to be polarizing no matter what. Conservatives hate this movie with a passion while extreme liberals tend to love it. I guess its placement on this list gives you an idea where my political beliefs lie. Moore, one of the most controversial documentarians of all time, takes on one of the most sacred of cows in the American landscape – capitalism itself. Long held as the source of our freedoms and prosperity, Moore skewers it on the lance of logic and humor and shows that it is the source of freedom and prosperity only for a very few.

WHY IT IS HERE: When I heard about this movie, even I thought he was going over the top. Like most people in America, I had always believed capitalism to be a good thing, and socialism and other economic systems to be failures. However, Moore is able to show very effectively how the system has failed us and how it has become a monster, designed to keep the very wealthy in power and to make them wealthier. It is a compelling argument, even if you don’t necessarily agree with all of his conclusions. He also makes me hope that Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) runs for president someday; she would make a far more effective leader than Secretary Clinton or even, IMHO, President Obama.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Moore’s attempted citizen’s arrest of banking executives.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $14.3 million domestic (as of 12/17/09), $15.9 total.

BUDGET: Not available.

STATUS: Scheduled for home video release on March 9, 2010.

(500) Days of Summer1. (500) DAYS OF SUMMER

(Fox Searchlight) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Clark Gregg, Minka Kelly, Matthew Gray Gubler, Chloe Moretz, Rachel Boston, Geoffrey Arend, Patricia Belcher, Yvette Nicole Brown, Maile Flanagan. Directed by Marc Webb

Released July 17, 2009 There are a lot of critics who have declared the romantic comedy is dead, and certainly it appears to be a bloated corpse in many ways. Hollywood seems to be content to churn out formula rom-coms with the same attractive stars and the same invariable results. They continue to do it because we, the audience, gobble them up like a kid with his candy bag on Halloween. Perhaps that is why Webb decided to make an anti-romantic comedy. Despite the presence of the hysterically funny The Hangover on this list, this is what makes the top spot as not only the funniest movie of the year but also the best.

WHY IT IS HERE: Webb takes filmmaking conventions and turns them on their ear, telling a non-linear story using a variety of techniques and makes each of them work. Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel make the most attractive couple of the year and even after they explain why it would never work, you nonetheless root for it to. There isn’t a false note in this movie; from the moment I saw it at the Florida Film Festival back in April of 2009, I knew this was something special. Some people look at indie movies with the same high regard they hold picking up dog feces in and I will admit, this is as indie a movie as it gets – still, it is a groundbreaker and a game-changer in the way cinematic storytelling is done, perhaps not as obviously as Avatar is but still. When choosing the best movie of the year, it has to meet the criteria that if you were going to recommend only one movie made in 2009 for someone to see, which one would it be. I chose this one. I hope you take the opportunity to go see it on home video if you missed it in the theaters (and many of you did, given its limited release). You won’t regret it.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: There are a ton of them, but for me the best scene was the one in which Tom goes to a party that Summer is hosting; shown on split screen are what he is anticipating will happen and what actually does. The differences are subtle but devastating.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $32.4 million domestic (as of 12/17/09), $46.6 total.

BUDGET: $7.5 million.

STATUS: Currently available on home video.

Star Trek


Star Trek

Eric Bana gives Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto some hair care tips.

(Paramount) Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Eric Bana, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, Bruce Greenwood, Leonard Nimoy, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Ben Cross, Winona Ryder, Chris Hemsworth, Jennifer Morrison, Rachel Nichols, Faran Tahir. Directed by J.J. Abrams

Even icons from time to time must reinvent themselves, if for no other reason to remain relevant in changing times. That is even more true for those having to do with the future.

The Federation starship U.S.S. Kelvin is investigating strange readings at a black hole. To the surprise of the ship’s captain (Tahir), a gigantic spacecraft of unknown design emerges from the singularity and without any provocation at all, opens fire on the starship, crippling it. The captain is forced to come aboard the unknown ship and is escorted to its captain, a Romulan named Nero (Bana),  who proceeds to ask the Federation representative some rather odd questions, the strangest being what stardate is it. The answer drives Nero berserk and he murders the captain and once again opens fire on the Kelvin.

The second-in-command (Hemsworth) orders an evacuation of the doomed Kelvin, paying special attention to his wife (Morrison) who is in labor. He intends to join her, but the ship’s automated functions are out of commission, and they are needed to gain critical time for the crew of the Kelvin to make their escapes. He realizes with sickening horror that he must remain aboard to run the ship manually. The young lieutenant saves his crew by ramming the dying starship into the unknown spaceship, crippling its weapon systems and propulsion. The name of the young hero? George Kirk.

Years later, his son James (Pine), born the day of his death, is adrift in Iowa, drinking in dive bars, picking up every woman he can and generally just lashing out at the world. While attempting to pick up a pretty Starfleet cadet named Uhura (Saldana), he gets jumped by a number of cadets, holding his own for awhile before getting his tush handed to him until Captain Christopher Pike (Greenwood) stops the fracas and clears the bar. He talks to the young Kirk about his father, and the difference he made to the 800 lives that were saved by his sacrifice and invites Kirk to join the Academy.

At first Kirk is reluctant to join Starfleet but eventually relents. On the shuttle ride to San Francisco, he meets an irascible divorced physician who is joining Starfleet to rebuild a career that had been essentially stymied in his divorce. The medico’s name is Leonard McCoy (Urban).

Already at the academy is a young half-Vulcan named Spock (Quinto). Tormented by young Vulcans for his half-human ancestry, Spock elects to follow the Vulcan disciplines of logic and dispassion of his father Sarek (Cross) with the blessing of his compassionate mother Amanda (Ryder). Despite this, Spock elects to decline admission to the Vulcan Science Academy (the first Vulcan ever to do so) and join Starfleet. After graduating from the Academy, he devises the notorious Kobiyashi Maru test, the infamous “no-win” scenario.

In the meantime, a brash young Ensign Kirk is blowing through the academy in a mere three years, still picking up women wherever he goes including a beautiful young Orion ensign (Nichols) who has come up with a rather ingenious solution to Spock’s test, landing him in hot water with the Academy dons. Unfortunately, an emergency comes up that relates directly to Kirk’s past, one that will bring all the disparate elements and characters together and forge together a crew that is destined to become a legend, while a man from the future (Nimoy) holds the key to the lives of Spock and Kirk.

The Star Trek franchise has been in decline for several years now, with an over-saturation of product that eventually seemed somewhat formulaic in many ways. Star Trek reboots the franchise with the original characters as seen through fresh new eyes. Director J.J. Abrams balances a delicate line of maintaining the spirit of the original series while adding additional elements of action and epic scope. Thus his new re-imagining of Star Trek will please not only hardcore Trek fans but also more general audiences.

Electing to go with a cast of young actors while steering clear of big name actors (Bana as Nero is the most recognizable face in the show other than Nimoy, and Bana is nearly unrecognizable in any case), and they come through in spades. All of the major crew members (Cho as Sulu, Pegg as Scotty and Yelchin as Chekov, as well as Urban and Saldana) have extremely pivotal scenes and establish their characters nicely.

Much of the success of Star Trek rests on the shoulders of the two leads, and they pull through splendidly. Pine captures the essence of James Tiberius Kirk without the quirks and mannerisms of William Shatner. He nails the bravado, the charisma, the independence and the compassion of Kirk but at the same time manages to render him human and fallible. Like Shatner’s Kirk, he is rash and sometimes prone to egotism, but at the heart of him is his brilliant intuition and willingness to risk. Pine takes an epic character and makes him accessible.

Quinto, best known as Sylar on the hit TV show “Heroes” makes a marvelous Spock. He radiates icy calm that masks the boiling inferno below the surface. Spock is heavily conflicted but chooses not to come to terms with his conflicting natures; instead he subverts his more human aspects in favor of the Vulcan stoicism. Quinto also has an uncanny resemblance to Nimoy as a young Spock, and fills the boots more than adequately.

There are plenty of breathtaking special effects, not to mention some intense action sequences, the best of which is a parachute jump onto a drilling platform high in the atmosphere of Vulcan. Visually, this is a movie that will rock your world.

But is it Star Trek? That’s the question most Trek fans were hoping to have answered. I have to say, yes and no. The original television series in many ways was less action-oriented than this is. Yes, there were plenty of fistfights, phasers set on stun and epic space battles in the original, but the themes had to do with things that were important to series creator Gene Roddenberry; man’s inhumanity to man, racial tension, drug abuse, gender inequality and the supreme waste and ultimate uselessness that is war. Here, we are being re-introduced to the characters that the producers hope to rebuild the franchise with and the movie is more about that than taking on issues.

However, the foundation has been laid and hopefully in the future we’ll see stories more in tune with the high bar that Roddenberry set. Given the outstanding box office returns the movie had, it is inevitable that there will be at least one or two more installments in the movie series if not more. The action and special effects will get the bodies in the door; the characters will bring those bodies back for more. Abrams has hit a home run with the new Star Trek. Now, the question becomes can he do it again?

WHY RENT THIS: Breathtaking special effects and heart-pounding action sequences drive the movie. Young actors bring established characters back to life with fresh perspectives. Pine makes a fabulous Captain Kirk and could be a future star.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The overall tone that Trek-haters despised is still present here.

FAMILY VALUES: Some scenes of brief sexuality and some violence; also there is a nightmare-inducing creature during the Delta Vega sequence. Otherwise, fit for most young audiences (but not for the very teeny tiny).

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The seven years gap between this movie and Star Trek: Nemesis is the longest in the franchise history.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are three different home viewing versions of this so far: a single-disc DVD which is essentially just the film, a 2-disc Special Edition DVD which contains some deleted scenes including Abrams’ take on the Klingons, and a 3-Disc Blu-Ray which contains a humongous number of featurettes, as well as a 360 degree view of various Enterprise and Romulan sets. There is also a feature on Gene Roddenberry’s legacy.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Disney’s A Christmas Carol