Culture: Trek is over for tired series; Mike Davies reviews this week's new cinema releases.
STAR TREK: NEMESIS CERT 12A 116 MINS
There is a common wisdom that the even-numbered Star Trek movies are better than the odd-numbered ones. This is the tenth in the series. So much for common wisdom.
Having allowed four rather than the usual two years between episodes in order to allow the smell of the abysmal Star Trek: Insurrection to dissipate, this time round Jonathan Frakes has been relieved of directorial duties for what is rumoured to be the last of the Next Generation series - his leadenly workmanlike touch replaced by Stuart Baird.
He, you will recall, made his debut with Executive Decision, a smart popcorn action movie with a nice line in suspense. Flagged up as being one of the darker of the Trek canon, the screenplay has been written by John Logan, who didn't do a bad job with a little Roman number called Gladiator.
Ah yes, but the baird followed up with the turgid Fugitive sequel U.S. Marshalls and Logan's last credit was for the incoherent remake of The Time Machine. And, as if the evidence doesn't already point to the fact sci fi isn't perhaps his forte, then comes the small print which reads 'from an idea by Brent Spiner'.
Despite such omens, it does open on a promising note as the entire Romulan senate is wiped out, crumbling to mummified dust in a coup d'etat. Unfortunately, it's not a note long sustained and the scene quickly switches to find Picard (Patrick Stewart) giving a patriarchal best man speech at the wedding of soon to be departing first officer Will Riker (Frakes) and counsellor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis).
Worf (Michael Dorn) has too much to drink and mumbles sarcastic comments. Data (Brent Spiner) treats everyone to a Broadway show tune while Whoopi Goldberg pops in for her obligatory ten second cameo to crack a gag about having been married 23 times. Can it get any worse, you ask?
Well, with the exception of a coitus interruptus bedroom scene with our newlyweds, fortunately not. But it doesn't get much better either.
En route to the second marriage ceremony on Troi's native planet of Betazed, strange signals prompt a detour to some mystery planet that requires the cinematography to bleach out into sepia tones and for Picard, Data and Worf to trundle around in what appears to be some souped-up golf buggy with a rear-mounted machine gun.
They don't actually need weaponry because, although attacked by hordes of unfriendly natives, the 'bad guys can't hit the side of a barn'-maxim clearly applies across the cosmos.
Anyway, it turns out the source of the signals is a disassembled robot that turns out to be Data's exact twin brother - only an early, less sophisticated model - called B-4 (did I mention this was from an idea by Spiner?) the purpose of which is to set up what the filmmakers would like to believe is a twist but which everyone else will realise makes no sense.
Having got the double theme up and running, next thing you know the Enterprise has been despatched to discuss peace with the new Romulan Praetor, Shinzon (Tom Hardy) who turns out to be not only a Reman (believe me, Trekkies will understand the significance of this) but also half human. More to the point, his human half is clone of Picard.
So, why doesn't he look like Stewart? That'll be because he was engineered by the Romulans to replace Picard as a Federation mole, but the plan was abandoned before the rapid ageing process was activated and the boy was sent off to work in the dilithium mines where he was befriended by the Reman who now serves as his Viceroy (Ron Perlman).
If you're still following this, Shinzon claims he wants peace and a chance for the Remans to make good - in reality of course, like all Star Trek bad guys, he wants to destroy the Federation and Earth, but not before he's bled Picard dry of DNA in order to combat a degenerative gene that's gradually killing him.
So there you go, that's the nuts and bolts of the set-up. And, just to maintain the mirror image structure, at a loss for ideas, Logan has cloned the second half of Wrath of Khan too. You know, the bit about noble sacrifice. I say no more because you'll need something to prompt you to stay awake.
With most of the Next Generation crew reduced to walk-ons at best and Dorn short-changed as comic relief, we're left with Frakes getting to play a very unconvincing action man in a hand-to-hand combat with the one alien that manages to board Enterprise, Spiner mooning around looking either soulful or simple (depending on which android he's playing and whether he's spouting off about higher awareness and confronting his own nature or not) while Stewart once again dignifies the duff dialogue he's given.
Hardy, a fellow English actor who made his debut in Band of Brothers and went on to appear in Black Hawk Down, is very good given the limitations of his character and the muddy nature of his motivations and the dinner scene between him and Stewart where Picard's forced to wonder if he'd have turned out the same had he been through his Mini-Me's experiences, (that'll be the nature v nurture theme then) is charged with an intensity singularly lacking elsewhere.
Otherwise, it's down to long plodding talky stretches before the action finally arrives. Okay, so it's a change to find a blockbuster that doesn't feel the need to pound through scenes like a speed junkie, but there's a difference between slow and dull. Except Baird doesn't seem to know it. When the action does arrive, while the visual effects are superb when not borrowing from Star Wars hallway shootouts, it's the same old Star Trek with the crew falling over the furniture as the control deck suffers from camera shake, sparks shooting from the walls (this in a ship that's not powered by electricity) and, yes that's right, the warp drive shutting down and the shields collapsing.
Since they've been collapsing in virtually every episode since the series began, you'd think they'd have ironed out the bugs by now, or at least use Duracell. Good job those bad guy aliens still can't shoot straight, even if they do have a bigger ship and bigger guns.
The tag line says 'a generation's final journey begins' implying - along with the departure of two key characters - that this is the last of the Next Generation series (allowing Stewart to get on with his X-Men franchise, director Bryan Singer making acameo appearance here), but in given the poor US box office reception (where it opened to less than Insurrection) and the whole lacklustre and underwhelming nature of the movie, it might just be that this is the entire franchise's final frontier. Make it so.
CITY OF GOD CERT 18 129 MINS SUBTITLED
The title refers to a suburb of Rio De Janeiro, but it's soon obvious that God is an absentee landlord in the favela, a low-cost housing project build during the 60s which rapidly degenerated into the area's most dangerous ghetto.
Based on the hefty autobiographical coming-of-age novel by Paulo Lins who grew up there and directed by Fernando Mirelles (with a co-credit for Katia Lund), this sprawling multi-narrative epic has been hailed as a Brazilian Goodfellas in its charting of two decades and dozens of characters through a complex epic sweep of flashbacks and flash forwards. It might not be quite in the Scorsese class, but its position as this year's Amores Perros is without question.
The film's narrated by Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), an aspiring teenage photographer who we first encounter as a young boy at the tail end of the 60s, much impressed by the exploits of the Tender Trio - three local teenage robbers who include his brother Goose.
He is, however, largely deterred from a life of crime when the trio take 11-year-old new boy Lil Dice along when they knock over a motel brothel and, unbeknownst to them, after they've fled the pint-sized psycho goes on a massacre rampage that draws police heat and leaves gang leader Shaggy shot dead.
As Rocket seeks to escape the cycle of violence and pursue his photographic ambitions (spurred by watching the police taking snaps of the dead hoodlum), Lil Dice embraces it with a vengeance, building a gang of juvenile gangsters around him as he grows up to adopt the name Lil Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora) and (having eliminated all rivals in a scene that can stand toe to toe with The Godfather) become the ghetto's disco era kingpin of drugs and murder. He's only held in check by buddy Benny, a chilled type everyone regards as the coolest, most mellow gangsta in town.
The film's energetic chicken chase opening scene tells us there'll be some sort of showdown, but before we return there we'll have been witness to bloodbaths, betrayals, power struggles, corrupt cops, the transformation of a peaceful bus conductor from vengeful vigilante to rival gang leader, escalating street warfare and the disturbing sight of gun toting eight year old kids murdering children of the same age in cold blood.
Arguably, despite powerful individual scenes, the constant shocking carnage ultimately proves emotionally numbing and the over-long epic lacks the intimate resonance of Hector Babenco's 1981 Pixote which also documented Brazil's child crime problems.
But, working with a cast of non-actors - the children drawn from the very favela depicted in the film - Meirelles brings a visceral rawness that drives the narrative with compelling urgency, lacing the bleak accumulation of tragedy and terror with a dark gallows humour and even flashes of tenderness while never presuming to sit in moral judgement on the characters.
These, it is clear, are the products of the terrible poverty and social neglect that builds a climate where crime is the only means of survival, gangsterism brings respect and glamour as well as money and life comes cheaper than death.
It's a lesson Brazil has learned the hard way and still failed to address, but also a cautionary tale of political shortsightedness equally soberingly relevant to inner cities and urban estates from Los Angeles to North Peckham. See it and pray.
Patrick Stewart dignifies the duff dialogue as captain Jean Luc Picard in Star Trek: Nemesis
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|Publication:||The Birmingham Post (England)|
|Date:||Jan 3, 2003|
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