We're well into Oscar season and I've been despairing for Star Trek, a sensational reboot of the sci-fi franchise that offers the smart, broadly appealing entertainment that Hollywood does best. it's garnered nary a peep despite being one of the best reviewed movies of the year. (Rotten Tomatoes shows a 94% overall and 92% from Top Critics.)
I know, I know. It's sci-fi, it's a long-running franchise, the cast is mostly unknown, helmer J.J. Abrams is from TV, the plot is very geek-centric and so on. The Dark Knight had many of those strikes against it but unlike that nihilistic film, Star Trek is positive and fun. The film has been out for a few weeks on regular DVD ($29.99; Paramount) and in a BluRay Special Edition ($39.99; Paramount but only $20 on sale at Amazon and just $5 more than the standard DVD) that is well worth the price. And now the Producers Guild has wisely named Star Trek one of the 10 best films of the year. Here's hoping Academy members will pop in the DVD or go to a screening, even if they're not a Trekkie. They're in for a shock.
For one thing, an amazing thing happens in the first few minutes of the film: you feel emotionally moved. Now I've watched Star Trek the TV series many times as a kid and dove into Star Trek: The Next Generation and all the films and (with decreasing interest) the numerous spin-offs and prequels and sequels. I've sometimes been very entertained. But I've almost never been moved.
And yet, in the first few minutes of the film we watch a young crew member plunged into crisis and sacrificing himself to make certain the rest of the crew (including his wife, in the midst of childbirth) can abandon ship. Remarkably, the scene is also funny and plugs right into the Star Trek mythology since we get to see how future Captain James Tiberius Kirk got his name. (A DVD extra shows how Spock got his name, BTW.) It's textbook screenwriting. And then your heart gets stuck in your throat. Whoa, I thought. I didn't expect that to happen.
After that the film just hurtles along, thanks to a marvelous cast. Chris Pine as Kirk gives an action film performance worthy of Harrison Ford circa Indiana Jones. (That's the highest compliment I know.) Zachary Quinto (of TV's Heroes and whose casting I wrongly bemoaned) brings exceptional depth to Spock. And straight down the line the cast is great: Bruce Greenwood is a sturdy Pike, Zoe Saldana is a sexy and smart Uhura, Simon Pegg is enjoyably scenery chewing as Scotty, John Cho and Anton Yelchin are distinctive in their small roles of Sulu and Chekhov and Karl Urban is a great Bones. And they're sexy. From Kirk to Chekhov. (And yes, I've freeze-framed the Green Girl scenes. I'm not ashamed to admit it.)
The screenplay is sleekly efficient: we see Kirk and Spock as alienated kids and quickly sparring at Starfleet Academy. The bad guy (a serviceable Eric Bana) is set up without any muss or fuss. The stakes are raised and raised again. And it all barrels along to a bang-up finale.
I have quibbles. The scene of a very young Kirk driving a car off a cliff (and almost killing himself) is idiotic and utterly out of whack with the rest of the film. It should have been left in the teaser trailer. One too many scenes of people dangling off the sides of cliffs or over an abyss are repeated. The snarky little alien sidekick for Scotty is better soon forgotten. But these are indeed quibbles.
Abrams and his team created a film wonderfully faithful to a beloved franchise but gave it new life and reached out to a broader audience than ever before. They also launched what might be a star in Chris Pine. (If nothing else, he's got a great few Trek films ahead of him.) There's a moment towards the end when Uhura confronts Kirk angrily and says, "I hope you know what you're doing" and Kirk quietly responds, "So do I." It's a moment of humbleness and vulnerability (in the middle of terrific action, I might add) that brings an entirely new dimension to the character and the series as a whole.
I've watched it three times in the theater and twice on DVD and just want an excuse to watch it again. The BluRay extras certainly provide them, such as deleted scenes, very good commentary and much more. J.J. Abrams has shown a knack for launching TV shows like Felicity and Alias and Lost and then not seeming to know what to do with them after the first season. I'm hoping that means he has about six good Star Trek films in him before he hits a wall. Hollywood should encourage him by rightly nominating the film as one of the ten best of the year. It won't win of course. (Neither will Avatar.) But it's exactly the sort of film the Academy expanded its list to include. Any voting members who doubt me just need to watch the film.
ALSO OUT RECENTLY (HEY, THE HOLIDAYS CAN REALLY TRIP YOU UP)
WINGS OF DESIRE ($39.95 regular or BluRay; Criterion) -- Some films are so powerful and moving, so special to me, I don't like to watch them that often. Sure, I can dive into Casablanca or Close Encounters Of The Third Kind at the drop of a hat. But Wings Of Desire? The story of angels listening in to our deepest fears and desires is so distinctive and wonderful, I don't want to spoil the magic by entering its world too often. Criterion, of course, provides a great reason for doing so. The top-notch transfer does justice to this gorgeous film with one of the most striking (and significant) sound designs in film history. A second disc offers extras on top of the usual commentary track with Wenders: a 2003 documentary about the film, a German TV special made back in 1987 when it came out, deleted scenes and other intriguing odds and ends. If you've never seen this film before (easily one of the best of the 1980s), I envy you.
UP ($45.99 on BluRay but only $18 on sale at Amazon; Disney) -- I'm not much for watching individual scenes or skipping back and forth in movies or TV shows. If I want to watch a movie, I typically watch the movie from beginning to end, the way the filmmaker intended. But the minute I saw Up at Cannes, I was dying to get my hands on a DVD so I could watch the lovely, heart-wrenching little short casually embedded into the beginning of the film. In about five minutes, we see an entire marriage of a couple, from their wedding to old age and it's done with such delicacy and feeling that it takes your breath away. Up is at heart an adventure tale, with an old man and a young kid as the odd couple thrown together into the search for a near mystical waterfall, all of it held aloft by balloons and the grumpy old man's love for his lost wife. Almost as an aside, the film depicts what it's like to be old and alone with more insight and feeling than almost any other film of the year. And it's funny. Another Pixar masterpiece, which is fast becoming a redundant phrase.
ON THE ROAD WITH CHARLES KURALT SET 1 ($39.99; Acorn) -- I have very little patience for folksy tales with heartwarming messages. But newsman Charles Kuralt slides by my Cornpone Alert Warning System because his stories about the byways of America and the people who inhabit them are so fascinating and sincere. He's like an Errol Morris without the fancy camerawork. People really are wonderfully odd and Kuralt captured that in story after story, like the ones about the woman who talked to geese, a pothole festival and an honest to goodness one-room schoolhouse. The set also includes some updates and a bio of Kuralt but you'll be too busy watching the six hours of stories.
INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS ($34.98; Universal) -- Here's another Oscar hopeful, though for some reason it too has lost some steam. Actually, I'm surprised here too. This was Quentin Tarantino's biggest box office hit to date in the US and worldwide. (It grossed $319 million all told. If you count the two Kill Bill films as one movie, they edge it out with a total of $330 million.) And personally I thought the WW II setting kept a lid on Tarantino's more excessive traits to excellent effect. But it's funny: person after person I spoke to insisted it wasn't all that. But then I'd ask them about one of the films remarkable set pieces. What about the scene in the barn, I'd ask? Oh, that was great. What about the scene in the bar? Oh, that was great too. The Jew Bear? Hilarious. Christoph Waltz? Tremendous. Diane Kruger? Wonderful. And on and on. I think it's his most mature film since his debut, Reservoir Dogs.
TAXI FOURTH SEASON AND TAXI FINAL SEASON ($39.98 each; Paramount) -- I learned a lot from Taxi, the quirky, critically acclaimed sitcom that held on for five slightly off kilter seasons. Never walk away from a good TV series with good writing. (Hey Jeff Conaway.) Treat your offbeat secondary characters with seriousness and heart and they won't take over the show or turn it into a cartoon. (Hey Latka, Simka, Rev. Jim and Louie.) Beware of network programmers, who dumped the show from ABC . (NBC picked it up after HBO toyed with the idea.). Best of all, I learned that the names behind the camera (like James L. Brooks) could tell you a show was worth watching even more than the stars in front of it.
THE NEW YORK YANKEES 2009 WORLD SERIES COLLECTOR'S EDITION ($79.95; A&E) -- You can buy a single disc look at the World Series or a Yankeeography look at the entire season. But why would anyone want those when you can dive into this delight? (A delight, at least, for Yankees fans.) You get all six games of the World Series with optional radio commentary (a real blessing, that one, given the lackluster work of Joe Buck, Tim McCarver and Ken Rosenthal -- though Yankees announcers are so lame I listen to the Philly radio guys.) You also get the ALCS Game Six, player interviews, all the post-game hoopla and more. Sports fans should expect no less for any major sport's season finale.
LORNA'S SILENCE ($28.96; Sony Pictures Classics) -- I consider the Dardenne brothers the directors of the last decade (roughly speaking). They had a string of brilliant films: 1996's La Promesse was exceptional and proven no fluke when in the waning days of 1999 they released the Palm d'Or winner Rosetta. In 2002 came The Son and in 2005 The Child, both featuring their trademark hand-held camera work that hovers practically on top of their actors for a sense of immediacy and peril that is quite remarkable. Actually, Lorna's Silence -- in which a woman is marrying a Russian mobster so he can get a green card but panics when she realizes a drug addict must die for the plan to work -- is the first Dardenne film I didn't love. But many others did, and it certainly has intelligence and good acting to spare.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST ($34.99; Warner Bros.) -- It's pretty remarkable. Even people who don't know a thing about movies have heard of Alfred Hitchcock; his name still has exceptional pull. And every film buff I know appreciates him and loves at least some of his films. Yet I think we're only beginning to appreciate how masterful he really was. Is that possible? I know for some reason the artificiality of North By Northwest -- the ultimate James Bond film, though without James Bond -- used to be off-putting for me. But I like it more and more all the time (though it may never catch up with Notorious, The Lady Vanishes, Rear Window, Psycho, etc.) It's pure entertainment and so technically brilliant (in an almost invisible yet showy manner) that you spot new details every time. This new BluRay edition comes in a nifty package, sort of a hardcover book with 45 pages of colorful info and then the film itself. (I do wish they'd keep the dimensions the same as every other BluRay however.) Top-notch.
BALLAST ($29.95; Kino) -- One of my favorite films of 2008, Ballast is a signal achievement by writer-director Lance Hammer. He has the name of a porn director (or perhaps action films or of course horror), but Hammer delivers a quiet, lovely look at a mother and son who stumble into the orbit of Lawrence, a man still grieving over the death of his twin brother. Simple, direct, beautifully shot, gripping and ultimately hopeful without being cheery or falsely optimistic, this is genuinely independent cinema about shattered lives that can be glued back together again, with luck. But don't pretend the cracks won't still show. Since the film features a cast of mostly non-pros and Hammer developed the film via improv, we may finally be looking at the American answer to Mike Leigh.
ANDY BARKER, P.I.: THE COMPLETE SERIES ($24.99; Shout) -- It's amazing but true: Andy Richter as starred in not just one but two very good sitcoms. First Andy Richter Controls The Universe and now this whimsical tale of an accountant who takes over the office space of a retired detective and soon finds himself solving crimes. Utterly winning in its silliness, the show was dumped by NBC (to put it mildly) and never stood a chance. Now Richter is happily ensconced on the Tonight Show as Conan's sidekick again (Conan helped create this show). But how many actors can claim two well-received series on their resume? Precious few. And anyone looking for sweetly goofy entertainment with twice the laughs of Murder She Wrote and even less suspense over whodunit, here's your show.
A CHRISTMAS TALE ($39.95 regular or BluRay; Criterion) -- I'm not a fan of Arnaud Desplechin. But many terrific actors are. (I've also seen this film mentioned not on just a best of the year list but on a best of the decade list, so others clearly disagree.) In this typically overstuffed soap opera, the great Catherine Deneuve is the matriarch of a family who oh so politely would like a bone marrow transplant from one of her children, thank you very much. Everyone descends on the home for Christmas and even for a French film the casual manner in which affairs are treated is a bit laughable. Still, the cast is excellent (including Mathieu Amalric and many others), Desplechin deploys his usual tricks (like ending scenes with an iris closing in a la old silent films) and the expected Criterion extras are of the usual high quality, including interviews and a documentary about the sale of Desplechin's family home.
ULTRAMAN: THE COMPLETE SERIES ($14.98; Mill Creek) -- Even as a little kid, I realized Ultraman was a very silly cheap little show with the finale usually involving Ultraman squaring off with a "monster" (ie. some guy in a rubber suit). But it's amazing how a show I barely remember can be imprinted on my brain. I don't think I watched it compulsively, but how do I explain the instant recognition of so many of the 39 episodes on this set? Like the series itself, this is a bargain basement set. But the cover is nifty looking and you do get every episode for an exceptionally reasonable price. Go in with eyes wide open and you'll be happy. Will your kids like it? Yes, if you watch it and laugh and enjoy it along with them.
THE GENERAL ($34.95 on BluRay; Kino) -- You can have your Pandora and its 3-D effects. Nothing can make an audience gasp as completely and delightedly as Buster Keaton's genuine stunts on a moving train in The General, one of the funniest and most heart-stopping comedies of them all. (It's actually kind of fascinating how the best silent comedies combined amazing stunts with humor, something almost entirely missing from movies today.) Kino has done an excellent job putting the film out on DVD in the past. So this BluRay is a notable improvement but not one that puts their previous 2 disc set on regular DVD to shame. There's no denying that the added resolution of BluRay provides even more definition to the backgrounds in the movie. And if you are buying this classic for the first time, by all means make this your first choice. It contains all the extras of that earlier set. But either one is a top-tier edition to your movie library.
THE CLAUDETTE COLBERT COLLECTION ($49.98; Universal) -- I've never been a huge fan of Colbert: she always seemed too prim to be sexy, too uptight to let loose. And yet you can't argue with success. (Artistic success, that is. I can argue with commercial success plenty.) Colbert had a lot of it, from It Happened One Night to Midnight and many more. This Universal set is a grab-bag of movies with one corker. Three-Cornered Moon (1933) is an oddball pre-Coder about a struggling family; Maid Of Salem (1937) is a ham-fisted look at the Salem witch trials, I Met Him In Paris (1937) is a diverting romantic comedy about a famous designer desired by three suitors -- diverting in a 3 in the morning, TCM sort of way; No Time For Love (1943) is an ok romantic comedy with her regular co-star Fred MacMurray; and The Egg And I (1947) is a Green Acres precursor that launched the Ma and Pa Kettle series. But by far the best of all is the Ernst Lubitsch film Bluebeard's Eighth Wife from 1938, with Gary Cooper as the much-married Bluebeard and Colbert as his not-so-blushing bride. You know you're in Lubitsch territory when they meet at a department store where he wants to buy only the tops to some pajamas and she is willing to buy only the bottoms. Worth the price alone.
THE EXILES ($29.95; Milestone) -- This long-lost independent film is a landmark work rescued by author Sherman Alexie and indie hero Charles Burnett. Made in the late Fifties and early Sixties on a shoestring by Kent Mackenzie, it looks at Native Americans looking to stake a claim in Los Angeles without losing a sense of community. In general, it's the sort of film notable for what it is and what it captured rather than as a dramatic film itself. The acting is mostly rudimentary, with the voice-over narration of the people we're watching rather flatly stating the obvious. But two elements keep this from a mere curio. One is the many glimpses of Los Angeles we get in the film, which are fascinating. The other is the fact that this is one of the most dynamically and excitingly shot films I have EVER seen, indie or otherwise. I kept thinking of Touch Of Evil, the camerawork was so good. I'm tempted to credit Mackenzie mainly since he was the driving creative force and three different names are credited as cinematographer. But they all deserve mention for an exceptional job: Erik Darstaad, Robert Kaufman, and John Arthur Morrill. Credit also to film editor Warner Brown and the uncredited Sven Walnum, who according to the notoriously undependable IMDB at least, worked the camera and helped with the editing. Amazing work.
RUMBA ($26.98; Koch Lorber) -- Maybe you're a fan of westerns. Not many of them get made, so when one pops up you are just happy to see the horses and the horizon and the shoot out at the end. The same goes for musicals (though happily, those are relatively in vogue at the moment). Well, Guy Maddin isn't the only filmmaker who can plumb the past for inspiration. The team of Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy delight in silent film antics and have produced a followup to their gem L'Iceberg. In Rumba, a couple that excels in ballroom dancing is thrown into turmoil when a car accident leaves one without a leg and the other without their memory, none of which can keep them from their destiny to rumba together. There's no denying this isn't the sheer delight of L'Iceberg (by all means, rent it), but fans of that will enjoy this one too. Their gags are sometimes so simple and sweet, you can't help smiling: a shot of students pouring out of a school with joy after the last bell seems to go on too long; all the kids are gone and yet the camera doesn't move until suddenly you hear more whoops of joy and then suddenly the teachers are rushing outside just as giddy with delight. Can't wait to see them at it again.
WALLACE & GROMIT: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION ($29.99; Lionsgate) -- That's the complete shorts collection, since this includes four shorts but not the feature film Curse Of The Were-Rabbit. "A Matter Of Loaf & Death" is probably lesser W&G, especially since we're comparing it to the perfection of "A Grand Day Out," "The Wrong Trousers" and "A Close Shave," three classic shorts. It's almost counter-intuitive to see the delights of stop-motion animation in BluRay, but the chance to see the characters and all the details of their sets in such clarity is lovely. Exceptionally funny.
Thanks for reading. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his weekly music radio show at Popsurfing and enjoy the weekly pop culture podcast he co-hosts at Showbiz Sandbox. Both available for free on iTunes. Link to him on Netflix and gain access to thousands of ratings and reviews.
NOTE TO READERS: I was provided with review copies of all the DVDs covered here. However, I would add that I receive more DVDs than I can ever cover and -- with the exception of elaborate boxed sets -- I almost never guarantee any particular DVD will be reviewed.