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Review Roundup: May 2009

There’s a very good reason that May has been such a slow Netflix month for me, and that reason is: “Star Trek: The Original Series.”

Oh, come on — like you’re surprised? Ivy Walker could have seen this coming! I think we all know ’twas only a matter of time until my inner geek staged a coup, killed everyone else with her “Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson” and took over.

Yes, for the past month I’ve done what I do best: fallen wildly in love with something millions of people dubbed wicked pissah years ago. (That’s just how a late bloomer rolls.) My newfound love for Mr. Spock — that raised eyebrow and those pointy ears are a potent aphrodisiac, believe you me — and the Enterprise’s crack crew has taken up gobs of free time and Netflix rentals; thus, movies, I’m sad to report, have fallen to the wayside.

But then I did what any relatively sane rabid obsessive new fan would do: I blew part of my paycheck on the three-season DVD set so I could return to the land of Netflix. And so I have. Here are three of the precious few rentals that rendered me as speechless as Mudd’s women:

All the Real Girls” (Paul Schneider, Zooey Deschanel, Danny McBride) — If there’s such a thing as visual poetry, David Gordon Green has cornered the market. He turned “Pineapple Express” into a blow-em-up juggernaut filled with unexpectedly tender observations about the nature of male friendship. But before that there was “All the Real Girls,” and what a stunner of a gentle indie-that-could that was. Set in rural North Carolina, Green’s paen to first love tells the uneventful but gut-wrenching story of Paul (the always-flawless Schneider), a notorious rakehell who falls hard for Noel (Deschanel), his best friend’s younger sister. Sounds like the plot for, I don’t know, every Lifetime movie ever made, right? Not in Green’s hands. He has a way of zeroing in on the smallest, quietest moments and making them seem sweeping and expansive (after all, isn’t every romance epic to the people involved in it?). Green’s got an eye for casting, too, and Deschanel and Schneider seem perfectly cast. Deschanel makes Noel naive and wise in equal measure, while Schneider finds heart in a guy who’s made a habit of avoiding intimacy with anonymous sex. Danny “Mother Nature just pissed her pantsuit” McBride shows some surprising range as the unfortunately named ne’er-do-well Bust-Ass. He can do subtle and make it hurt. Green can, too, and that’s why “All the Real Girls” is so beautiful: It captures both the inanity and the depth of love.

Trees Lounge” (Steve Buscemi, Elizabeth Bracco, Anthony LaPaglia) — With few exceptions, alcoholism doesn’t tend to look the way Hollywood wants it to: sloppy, overbearing, dramatic, occasionally explosive. It’s a more quiet slide into nothingness, a kind of suicide by inches that happens gradually and then all at once. Nobody knows that better than actor/director Buscemi, himself a recovering alcoholic, and he communicates this truth beautifully in the simple but haunting “Trees Lounge.” The movie offers a tiny, perceptive glance into the life of unemployed mechanic Tommy (Buscemi), a man about halfway down the slope into alcoholic oblivion. His pregnant girlfriend (Bracco) has dumped him for his ex-boss (Anthony LaPaglia), and he responds by claiming a permanent seat at Trees Lounge, a local dive bar. It’s both accurate and inaccurate to say that’s all that happens in “Trees Lounge.” There’s not much action, to be sure, but Buscemi makes every moment count: It’s the mute desperation of a sad-eyed barfly, the contrast of neon lights against bright noon-day sunshine, Tommy’s realization that he’s drinking alone even when he’s not that hit and hit hard. “Trees Lounge” has a slow burn that can’t be ignored.

The Wackness” (Ben Kingsley, Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby) — Given the unusual pairing of lead actors (the beknighted Kingsley and Peck, a relative newcomer), it’s somewhat surprising no reviewers dubbed “The Wackness” a May/December bromance. Thank goodness for small favors, because that’s a title that would have been wholly undeserved. This unusual and unusually poignant indie Sundance smash, set in 1994, contains not one but three smart performances that deserve — and reward — multiple viewings. Kingsley, of course, gets the plumb part: that of restless, confused and unhappily married psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Squires, who buys weed from his equally uneasy teen-aged patient/pot dealer Luke Shapiro (Peck). It’s an intriguing relationship, since Luke wants hope for the future, and Squires, who pops anti-anxiety meds like M&M’s, is hardly a paragon of optimism. But Luke’s summer romance with Stephanie (Thirlby, a young actress to watch) jolts him out of his inertia and forces Squires, who checked out of life years ago, to dump the self-pity. Kingsley gets the rare opportunity to cut loose, while Peck and Thirlby find the bitter and the sweet in teen relationships. “The Wackness” reminds us that dreams don’t have an expiration date.

The countdown begins: 44 days until the start of the Year of Brüno

If I had to pinpoint the very moment when my life went from “average” to “gloriously wonderful,” it would have to be the moment I logged onto MySpace (to delete my old account! I swear by Madonna’s 14 stolen — I mean adopted — children it’s true!) and discovered something most unexpected.

Bruno has a MySpace page. Or, to be more precise, a MeinSpace page.

I ask you: Could this summer rock any harder? With 44 days until Cohen’s latest movie hits theaters (and given the fact that “Terminator Salvation” was a kinda-sorta disappointment), I realize I’m tempting fate. But who cares? “Brazen Temptress” sounds better on a nametag than “Overeager Cohen Stalker.” (Also, the former would make a bitchin’ name for a new stripper perfume.)

So if you, like me, are bemoaning the long wait for Bruno’s arrival in the US & A, house-dance your way over to http://www.meinspace.com/bruno. The music alone will make you party like it’s 1994 (the end of apartheid, naturally).

“Terminator Salvation” a crashing disappointment

I am John Connor, hear me whisper: Christian Bale can't quite revive the role in "Terminator Salvation."

I am John Connor, hear me whisper: Christian Bale can't quite revive the role in "Terminator Salvation."

When I heard the mastermind behind such perennial classics as, ahem, “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” had signed on to direct the fourth installment in the “Terminator” series, I was apprehensive.

When I heard he’d gallantly dubbed himself “McG,” the apprehension turned into dread. 

When I finally saw “Terminator Salvation,” that dread led me to the realization of a hardy truth: The only one-named celebrities worth caring about are the ones with the talent to match their egos.

Here is where McG fails so magnificently. Oh, sure, he’s great with lightning-quick cuts and smash-and-grab action sequences. He has an enviable ability to desaturate colors and present us with a bleak landscape. He can film a fight scene from every conceivable angle. He’s so pleased with these talents, in fact, that that’s all he wants to show us. Hand-to-hand combat. Explosions. Terminators blown to McTerminator nuggets. For almost two hours. This bloody mayhem wouldn’t be so disappointing if there was the slightest whiff of an intriguing story to tell. There isn’t (the superb “T2: Judgment Day” and the just-above-average “T3” ruined that). And so McG blows everything up to distract us.

For awhile, this almost works. When the actors show up, it becomes painfully clear they have nothing to do but try their best to lend humanity to a movie that has none. As Marcus Wright, an ex-con cryogenically reborn into 2018 post-Judgment Day America, Sam Worthington does the best job. Wright, who donated his body to science, awakens to find the world leveled by a homicidal, self-aware Skynet (damn, those robots are quick studies) and its army of Terminators. Resistance leader John Connor (Christian Bale doing his best “Batman voice”) can’t decide why Marcus has arrived, and his presence raises many questions. Was he sent from the future or the past? Is he hell-bent on killing Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), a key player in Connor’s storyline, or delivering the boy unharmed to Connor? Or the most important question: In a gravelly voice contest, could Marcus beat J.C.? (The correct answer to question no. five is a resounding “no.”)

The answers to these questions I will not provide; that’s a fact-finding mission viewers must take themselves. “Terminator” fans should gird their loins, for this is a grim, tedious trip that will yield minimally satisfactory answers. The huge blowouts and Terminator/human fights, so impressive at first, wear down our patience, and there’s no viable human-centered story to win it back. (Note: There are plenty of movies — like “Rambo” or “Predator” — that don’t need plots to move forward. “Terminator” belongs not in this short list.)

Not surprisingly, watching the actors struggle against the tide of McG’s inadequacies is disheartening. Who didn’t have astronomical hopes for Christian Bale as John Connor? The top-notch actor seems out of his depth here. Maybe he’s distracted by the action, overwhelmed by his I-don’t-break-character-till-the-DVD-commentary-intensity. Whatever the reason, he doesn’t dissolve into Connor the way he did into scores of other characters (“El Maquinista” comes to mind). He thinks furrowing his brow and whispering in a creaky, ravaged voice equals great acting. Wrong. He’s playing Christian Bale playing John Connor, and that’s not the Bale his fans (me included) know and love. Exchanging Claire Danes for Bryce Dallas Howard doesn’t feel like trading up, either, but blame that on the script: Howard has nothing to do but look pregnant and pained. Moon Bloodgood, who has some pluck, is funneled into the love interest role and does what little she can. Yelchin’s better than this, too.

But Worthington … he deserves a second look. The American accent certainly needs work, but he has an interesting mix of bravado and vulnerability not seen since, well … pre-“Terminator” Christian Bale. There’s something about his eyes that suggests he can do more than slug bad guys and kiss hot chicks. Here’s to hoping he tries again, and soon.

As for McG, unless he gets over himself, I suspect he’ll keep trying to live his heart’s desire to become Michael Bay. Which, sadly, he won’t. Michael Bay, you see, has the good sense to use both of his names.

Grade: C

“Star Trek” unites fans, newbies with heart, humor

Chums no more: Chris Pine (left) and Zachary Quinto play Kirk and Spock as bitter rivals in new "Star Trek."

Chums no more: Chris Pine (left) and Zachary Quinto play Kirk and Spock as bitter rivals in new "Star Trek."

The problem with “Star Trek” movies — as voiced by an admitted non-Trekkie — is that they feel too much like painstaking love letters to the die-hard fans and snarky reprimands to those who are not. Fans gobble up all the puns and inside jokes while even the most earnest newbies are left confused and hungry (and not in that good “hungry for more” way).

Director J.J. Abrams blows a big, flaming hole through that exclusive tradition with “Star Trek,” a clever, thrilling and fairly brilliant reinvention of an overtired and overdone series. How does he do it? Well, his approach is quite simple: Think outside the Starship Enterprise. (Yes, I did just resist the urge to make a “boldly go” reference.) And damned if he doesn’t pull it off. Abrams plays with the alternate reality concept in a way that allows the future — which includes one Leonard Nemoy as, of course, a wiser, more wistful aged Spock — to collide with present. The past makes a few appearances, too. Don’t quite follow? Go see “Star Trek” and watch this action-packed space opera work its magic.

It helps, too, that Abrams doesn’t take his movie too seriously. He makes a few major departures from “Star Trek” lore: Spock (Zachary Quinto, who delivers a beautifully subtle performance) is something of a Vulcan renegade who bristles when his teachers remark that his human emotions are a “disadvantage.” (His barbed delivery of “Live long, and prosper” is beyond priceless.) Capt. James T. Kirk, as played by the male model-handsome Chris Pine, has a nasty rebellious streak — not to mention a swaggering, James Dean-esque bravado — he can’t quite tamp down. Enter Capt. Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), who persuades the boy to go where his departed father went: space. And so Spock and Kirk become fast rivals aboard a ship headed straight into the path of the vengeful Nero (the nearly unrecognizable Eric Bana), a bellicose Romulan. The characters are part of a prequel-of-sorts, which gives Abrams a chance to create an adventure moviegoers — including those who know Shatner more as the quippy Priceline.com hawkster than Capt. Kirk — can’t peel their eyes away from.

But Trekkies, fear not, for there are plenty of throwbacks, insider jokes that pay homage to the classic TV show. (Hint: When the first character meets his untimely demise, note the color of his shirt.) Dr. McCoy’s constipated, bristly humor remains intact, as does Chekov’s impenentrably accented English. The fight scenes have the carefully choreographed feel of a dance, recalling Shatner’s infamous tangle with Lizard Man. (Though, yes, at times they run a little long.) Grand pronouncements about destiny, choice, friendship and struggle abound, but under Abrams’ confident direction and his actors’ delivery they never feel tacked-on or hokey or campy. Once the characters get on Starship Enterprise, everything clicks.

Of course, said clicking is a task that could not be accomplished without some very careful casting. Here’s where Abrams’ sense of humor comes in: Winona Ryder? Tyler “Madea” Perry? Harold from “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle”? The kid from “Charlie Bartlett”? In a “Star Trek” movie? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes and it all works, giving what might have been a staid production a sense of whimsy. John Cho/Hikara Sulu and Anton Yelchin/Chekov in particular dig into their parts with glee. Karl Urban nails McCoy’s wry observations and slapstick comedy in equal measure. And what doe-eyed Zoe Saldana (let’s all agree she’s moved past that dreadful Britney Spears flick) does with Uhura? Why, it tugged at my feminist little heart’s toughest strings. Smarts, not schmaltz, will do that to me.

Perhaps the biggest boons to “Star Trek” are its more-than-capable leads. Pine, who looks like he just wandered off a CK underwear shoot in New York City, has good comic timing and the ability — like Shatner’s Capt. Kirk — to seem supremely cocksure and vulnerable at the same time. But Pine’s Kirk never feels like a third-rate copy. Color me shocked: Pretty boy can act. That goes double for Quinto, who has the unenviable task of playing a character driven by strong emotions he cannot show. Quinto makes it look oh so easy, communicating young Spock’s anguish in the tiniest of gestures: a twitch of an eye, the imperceptible furrow of a brow, a slight crack in his voice. These nuances give Quinto’s Spock a humanity that sneaks up on us. It’s surprisingly touching.

Which is why this “Star Trek,” the 12th installment in a long, mostly forgettable line of “Trek”-based films, stands out: You don’t see it coming. The jokes, the dialogue, the characters — after so many years, it’s hard to believe they could seem new again. Prepare to be stunned.

Grade: A-

Back from Beantown

me_boston

I came, I saw, I whale watched.

I should have learned my lesson by now: Every time I go on vacation, something huge and unexpected happens. In 2006, I went to Cleveland, Tennessee, and my grandmother died. In 2007, I went to Washington State and there was a huge fuel crisis. In 2008, I went to Washington again and came back to discover a friend had not only accepted a brand-new job but made solid plans to move. (This one, obviously, is much better than what happened in 2006 and 2007, but still.)

I have got to stop underestimating my supernatural powers.

But I’m happy to report that this year’s unexpected happening has a positive note: namely, Pam is pregnant! (If you don’t watch “The Office,” please stop reading. You’re sucking the joy out of my post.)

OK, now that that’s out of the way I can get on to the business at hand: recapping my jaunt to Boston (if you can call an eight-day trip in Boston a “jaunt”), home of “The Departed,” The Dropkick Murphys, Boston Common (also seen in the aforementioned film) and untold other wonderful things. Since it’s impossible to cram eight days’ worth of walking, getting approached by four very polite panhandlers, driving, getting lost in downtown Boston and eating something that was simultaneously very spiny, rubbery and chewy at a Vietnamese restaurant (it was tripe, you see), I’ll hit a few highlights and lowlights.

Brattle

When I saw Brattle, I'm pretty sure the choir of angels in my head finally got the chance to rejoice.

Best find: The Brattle Book Shop on West Street off Tremont in Boston. A used book store filled with various and sundry treasures (the first collection of Emily Dickinson’s poems! vintage postcards with inscriptions!), Brattle’s worth the T ride it takes to get there. Spending two hours in a bookstore and walking out with a sack full of hardback books for $7 or $9 each? That is my inner geek’s idea of a good time. (Wait — I have an inner geek?)

Want to know what a waste of $8 looks like? What a coincidence -- I have a picture!

Want to know what a waste of $8 looks like? What a coincidence -- I have a picture!

Winner of the Glorious Disappointment and Utter Waste of Time Award is … the Salem Witch Museum! Nestled in downtown Salem, where profiting off the deaths of 19 innocent people is not only acceptable but encouraged, this time suck/so-called “museum” is nothing more than a 20-minute presentation in a dark auditorium with wax figurines and voiceover narration. Don’t be fooled by the official-looking building: The Salem Witch Museum is a tourist trap, alright. Which I fell right into. Learn, I beg you, from my idiocy, and use that $8 entry fee to purchase the T-shirt below as a souvenir.

Ah, Salem -- profiting from the deaths of

Ah, Salem -- profiting from the deaths of 19 innocent people and unapologetically ignoring basic punctuation rules in the process.

Or here’s an even better option: Take that money, go buy yourself a witch costume, wander around Salem and see if you can recoup your expenditure. Given the high quota of foolhardy tourists (including me), it shouldn’t take too long. Bonus: You’ll have yourself a bona-fide Salem-approved Halloween costume for the next Halloween!

When I die, I want my headstone to read: "Here lies Meredith Carter. On May 12, 2009, she saw two Humpback whales. She died happy."

When I die, I want my headstone to read: "Here lies Meredith Carter. On May 12, 2009, she saw two Humpback whales. She died happy."

Best Bucket List Adventure: Hands-down, the New England Aquarium Whale Watch. During the 90-minute trip outside Boston Harbor, I admit I began having some doubts. This was mainly due to the fact that the naturalist, realizing we were antsy because we hadn’t seen any whales yet, started filibustering her own whale watch. So determined was she to distract us that when she exhausted her Humpback whales playbook, she moved right on to Northern Right whales, then Minke whales, then dolphins, then (and this is where I suspect she was sorry she knew how cold that water was because she wanted to swim back) the NEA’s refund policy on whaleless whale watches. But before Nervous Naturalist could take the plunge, we spotted our first Humpback — a female named Cajun — feeding. About 30 minutes later, Etch-a-Sketch (a male who lived up to his zig-zaggish name) swam under our boat and made me scream like a little girl for, oh, about the 40th time in two hours.

I shipped up to Boston, alright, but my wooden leg was NOWHERE to be found.

I shipped up to Boston, alright, but my wooden leg was NOWHERE to be found.

Ah, yes. One bottle of Water Babies sunblock: $7. One whale watch ticket: $44.95. Getting to cross something off my bucket list? Priceless.

The fine folks of Woods Hole, Mass., do enjoy a little gallows humor now and again.

The fine folks of Woods Hole, Mass., do enjoy a little gallows humor now and again.

“Meredith, You’re Not in Minimally Adequate South Carolina Anymore”: The best indicator of this phenomenon — which isn’t that different from Toto’s “Oh, hell, I’m not in Dorothy’s bike basket anymore!” moment — was the sculpture in Woods Hole, home to countless renowned marine mammal research facilities. I’m a fan of morbid humor (as in “Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”), so Woods Hole, I salute you.

Oh, Emily, how could you not be at the museum for the book signing?

Oh, Emily, how could you not be at the museum for the book signing?

Worship, But Worship Slant: It wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate to say that my copy of Emily Dickinson’s poetry — the 1976 edition, that is — is, well, kind of a like a Bible. I’ll even go so far as to admit that sometimes, when I have a problem, I’ll whip out that dog-eared book, open it to a random page, point to a poem and find an answer to said problem. (I do the same thing with episodes of “Golden Girls.”) But don’t write me off as a whack job with an Emily shrine made of salami and other assorted fresh cold cuts stashed in my closet; I swear I’m just a garden-variety fan. Which is why I had to make a pilgrimage to the Emily Dickinson Museum in downtown Amherst, Mass. Since Emily Dickinson is like, say, my Bob Dylan or Tom Petty, the two-hour tour flew by. That $10 admission fee was a small price to pay for getting to see where America’s greatest poet (oh, yeah, I’m a little biased) changed history.

Forget Myrtle Beach -- give me the rocky, craggy shores of the Maine coastline any day of the week.

Forget Myrtle Beach -- give me the rocky, craggy shores of the Maine coastline any day of the week.

Best Misty-Eyed Kodak Moment: Growing up, I never quite remembered to pay much attention to the jar of rocks my grandmother kept stationed on a windowsill in her den. It wasn’t until she died and our family began the painful but inevitable process of consolidating her life into boxes that I remembered the glass jar and claimed it as a memento. It turns out each unusual rock represented one of her travels, and one was taken from Maine’s coastline. In Ogunquit, Maine, I couldn’t help but take a few to add to her collection. And though I’m not the sentimental type, after I picked them up I could hardly see to climb back up the rocky walls.

The Mary Baker Eddy Memorial: A tribute to original thought in a state that encourages it.

The Mary Baker Eddy Memorial: A tribute to original thought in a state that encourages it.

Is This a Cemetery or Is This a Cemetery?: For years I hated cemeteries (one too many Stephen King/George Romero movies, or that really creepy scene in “Now and Then”). But then I started to appreciate their strange, unsettling beauty. Because cemeteries are like snowflakes or Jackie Earle Haley movies: original, unsettling and yet reassuring. Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass., stands as the first landscaped cemetery in the U.S., and its crown jewel is the Mary Baker Eddy Memorial, dedicated to the woman who founded the Christian Science movement. My religious tendencies are murky at best, but I can’t help but admire a woman who bucked the system and was, in her own way, a revolutionary.

Boston: It's like New York, but with less lines in the roads and better crime dramas.

Boston: It's like New York, but with less lines in the roads and better crime dramas.

Chatting with (very polite) panhandlers in Harvard Square, hunting down deplorably tacky trinkets in Boston’s Chinatown, navigating the T with just a map and my wits, accomplishing a lifelong dream of whale watching: I’ve got to say that Boston 2009 was one hell of a trip. Does anyone have any cranberry juice? I feel a toast coming on.

(Do I really have to keep pointing out the “Departed” references?)