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Not quite pals yet: (l-r) Pine and Quinto in Star Trek.

Back to the Future

By Shawn Stone

Star Trek

Directed by J.J. Abrams

This reboot of the Star Trek franchise is flat-out terrific entertainment. By repudiating the sensibility of the later TV shows and films, and returning to the original 1960s source material—go-go boots and all—Star Trek embraces a reckless optimism that is a perfect antidote to, well, the rotten mess we’re living through.

When they restarted the series on TV in the late 1980s with Star Trek: The Next Generation, all the supposed absurdities of the original show were removed. No longer would the three most important officers on the starship be involved in every phaser fight with a rubber-suited alien; problems were as likely to be solved by committee as by decisive action. The miniskirts and go-go boots were gone, too.

This was fine for its time. But do you know what the ultimate absurdity about the show was? The idea that we’re ever going to experience interstellar travel. So bring back the randy, phaser-happy Trek of old!

Kirk is back. So is Spock, Uhura, McCoy, Sulu, Chekov and even Capt. Christopher Pike. It’s just that, now, they’re played by Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zöe Saldana, Karl Urban, John Cho, Anton Yelchin and Bruce Greenwood. Other films have cast new actors in well-loved roles from old TV shows, with varying degrees of success, but never in the case of a property with as an insanely devoted fan base as Star Trek.

Some fans will gripe, but the new kids on the block do very well. (And, as you probably already know, Leonard Nimoy and his pointy ears are on hand, too.)

Director-producer J.J. Abrams, creator of the TV series Alias (the soap opera with sexy spies), and Lost (the action-adventure show set in a kind of “twilight zone,” has adapted to working on the big screen with surprising ease. While his large-scale action scenes are still a bit off—they’re still an advance over the just-acceptable Mission: Impossible 3—he understands the balance of humor, action and suspense needed to make a summer blockbuster thoroughly enjoyable. A good example is a sequence in which Kirk ignores a computer’s warning and goes stomping about on a strange planet—first, strange creatures appear and violent hilarity ensues, then a not-so-chance meeting jerks the action back into the dark heart of the story.

Abrams maximizes every opportunity for character development, too, in the witty script by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, allowing audiences to either reengage with “old friends” or make new ones. (When Simon Pegg appeared, the woman sitting next to me exclaimed with satisfaction, “There’s Scotty!”)

There’s a certain bracing satisfaction in the filmmakers’ radical reinvention of the entire Star Trek universe. It’s even more fun when the film ends and Alexander Courage’s wonderfully cheesy original theme song is performed. Banished from all of the previous Trek movies, it serves to announce that the fun is back.

Theater of the Banal

Paris 36

Directed by Christophe Barratier

In a suburb of 1936 Paris, there is a shuttered song-and-dance hall called the Chansonia. The beloved theater falls into the grasping hands of a nationalist real-estate agent, Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), who reluctantly allows a ragtag group of unemployed locals to restore the theater. That’s the sentimental heart of Paris 36, an underwritten and overstuffed drama that wants to be a Truffaut-style soufflé but falls as flat as the proverbial dessert. The music hall’s manager is Pigoil (Gerard Jugnot), who has a young son who busks with his accordion to keep his father in wine while secretly taking lessons from an old neighbor. With the help of Milou (Clovis Cornillac), a pugnacious worker’s party organizer, Pigoil convinces Galapiat to let him put on a show. The variety act is boosted considerably when a pretty chorine mysteriously arrives and auditions. She calls herself Douce (Nora Arnezeder), and in one of the plot’s more idiotic turns, her singing talent is ignored and she is relegated to being the announcer.

Galapiat falls for her and finances her “wardrobe.” Milou falls for her and woos her with his tough-guy talk of having been in the Red Army. Pigoil’s troupe includes other impoverished friends such as Jacky (Kad Merad), a pathetically untalented comic, and musicians who work for food. Jacky becomes the fall guy for Galapiat’s schemes: Jacky spies on Douce, and does Jewish caricatures at the fascist meetings he presides over. Jacky’s witless involvement in the meetings is the film’s only political barb, despite its stagy ambience of social disintegration. A sudsy pall is cast over the Chansonia when Pigoil loses his son in a custody dispute with his bourgeois ex-wife, turning the plot’s theatrical bonhomie into a French-milled soap opera.

After the flop of the theater’s opening night, the tables slowly (very slowly) turn, and as expected, Douce is revealed to have ties to the theater’s storied past, a local nobody turns out to have been a very big somebody, and one of the performers meets a tragic end. The film’s star-dusted cinematography and evocative soundtrack can’t compensate for a story that’s as trite as the radio jingles Douce uses for a songbook.

—Ann Morrow

Old Dog, New Tricks

Is Anybody There?

Directed by John Crowley

In what seems to be an attempt to garner Michael Caine an Oscar for leading performance, Is Anybody There? Gives the 76-year-old a meaty role in which to chomp his ivories. Playing a retired magician, The Amazing Clarence, Caine rails at our mutual fate, made all the worse by being forced, through straitened circumstance, to reside with decrepit strangers in an old-age home run by well-meaning but harried “Mum” (Anne-Marie Duff) and her out-of-a-job hubby (David Morrissey).

“You accumulate regrets and they stick to you like old bruises!” he rails to the owners’ death-obsessed son Eddie (Bill Milner). It’s refreshing to hear an aged character in movies state it so bluntly, instead of waxing poetic about life’s seasons or such twaddle.

The movie chronicles the unlikely friendship between Clarence and Eddie, and the former’s attempts to draw the latter back into the world of the living. Eddie pines for the days when his birthday was marked by a day trip with his parents, and when he occupied his own room. The onset of hard times and the arrival of the paying guests have turned his life upside down, and one would have to be an idiot not to sense the psychological toll all this is taking on him. Mum seems blindly devoted to the care and feeding of her nonbiological charges, and it’s hinted that they are a replacement for her own never-met grandparents and far-away parents. She advises Eddie to be thankful to have all these old people to school him, but the poor kid just wants to be able to be master of his own telly.

The movie makes some thoughtful observations about the nature of aging, which is sorely needed in this society. And yet, Is Anybody There? misses the opportunity to turn any of its aging pensioners (aside from Clarence) into fully dimensional people. Instead, they’re stereotypes. Only Rosemary Harris, as a former dancer encumbered by a plastic leg, manages to coax something more poignant out of her role, but then again, she’s Rosemary Harris. Too many subplots further muddy the narrative waters.

But if one approaches Is Anybody There? purely as an excuse to see Caine, it’s not half bad. He’s remarkably unsympathetic: We find out that he was a horrible husband, and that his sole wish would be the ability to go back and apologize to his beloved, if mistreated, wife. Old photos reveal a golden-haired young man; the comparison with Clarence’s shabby, bewhiskered present is a striking reminder of what befalls us all. The movie’s best moment, a climactic birthday party, features Clarence at his magician best. He beguiles young and old alike with his witty repartee and fast hands; that is, until a freak accident puts the kibosh on everything. From there, the old man’s demise is set in fast-forward, and we’re left with the warm fuzzy of knowing that he helped to draw Eddie out of his funk.

Still, the suddenness of Eddie’s parents deciding that he can have his old room back, and that they can afford to have a date or family night, gives one the lingering suspicion that they made off good with old Clarence’s worldly possessions—but that would have been a different movie.

—Laura Leon

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