Star Trek Beyond Typical Abrams Flash over Content

Directed by Justin Lin
Paramount, 122 minutes, PG-13 (Gratuitous abuse of a Beastie Boys song)
★★ ½

Allow me to commit Star Fleet heresy: a truly good "Star Trek" reboot will only happen when producer J. J. Abrams is given the boot. Abrams doesn't get it. He's so mired in the action film mentality that he thinks that "Star Trek" is still the Western in space of Gene Roddenberry's early days. He's not the director of Star Trek Beyond, but his fingerprints are all over it. There is first, the decision to let Justin Lin direct the film—a man whose resume consists almost entirely of television work. There is, second, an emphasis on having things blow up over having an intelligible script. There is, third, the comic book sensibilities embedded within the film—right down to having the same Spock in two different time periods. This bit of BS sleight of hand is another reason to dump Abrams. He lifted the very idea of Spock Prime from DC Comics and that's what he does–endlessly recycles other people's ideas.

I'm a Baby Boomer. I adore "Star Trek." But if you really want to appeal to Millennials, "The Next Generation" would have been a better franchise to reboot than the original series--its ideals resonate better. Abrams's Original Series reboots are like dead satellites: space junk. In Star Trek Beyond Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew are exhausted after three years in space, with Kirk suffering an existential crisis–an idea lifted from the 1979 reboot film, by the way. The Enterprise crew's R & R at Starbase Yorktown is interrupted when they are called upon to navigate through a tricky nebula and rescue a group of Federation aliens forced to abandon their ship. Or so it seems. They've actually been lured into a trap set by a monstrous alien named Krall (Indris Elba), who has built a bee-like swarm of robots that take down every ship within his planet's orbit. He then enslaves the crews–those he doesn't randomly kill. If only he had the Abronath–an ancient bioweapon–he could expand into Federation space. By golly, guess who has it, thinking it just an interesting artifact?

The Enterprise is destroyed—a visual feast for f/x lovers–and the surviving crew (mostly those not wearing red shirts) are either captured by Krall, or land on the planet. Of course Spock (Zachary Quinto) and McCoy (Karl Urban) are thrown together and, of course, Kirk is at large, with Chekov in tow (Anton Yelchin, who was killed in an accident right after the film wrapped). And, of course, someone–Uhura (Zoe Soldana) in this case–gets to lecture the bully on how the Federation stands for all that is good. The only surprise is that Scotty (Simon Pegg) encounters Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a kickass alien gal with very cool face markings, a cloaking device, and a nifty energy sword. (Wonder where they got those ideas?) From there it's a battle to rescue the crew, get off the planet, warn the Yorktown that the bees are coming, and defeat Krall. It mostly ends well, something I'll tell you, because Simon Pegg's script doesn't make much sense. Even when we can follow it, there are holes large enough for Jupiter to squeeze through. Why, for instance, did Krall wait so long to attack the Federation given that he possessed interplanetary transport for which he didn't actually need the Abronath? How can he have had all that technology, yet never detect Jaylah's movements, or not notice that a starship took off from the planet's surface?

Here's what the film does right: relationships. The banter between characters is crisp and gives them depth. Urban is amazing as McCoy, Pine has his Shatner swagger down pat, and Quinto's slightly more human Spock is engaging, as his non-Vulcan crush on Uhuru—and who wouldn't have a crush on Zoe Saldana? It was a nice touch to show Sulu as gay, just as George Takei, the original character, is gay in real life. Maybe now the series writers can tone down all that subsurface homoerotic tension between Kirk and Spock that's more embarrassing than politically correct. Ditto all the early 21st century cultural references.

The crux of the matter is this: the Star Trek films have made money under the Abrams regime, but they have been crap artistically. They tend to open big and then burn out like a Perseid. Abrams is the king of sequels. In addition to Star Trek, he is the guiding spirit behind Mission Impossible and Star Wars. None of those projects has been more than eye candy. Have we gone down the commercial rabbit hole so deeply that we simply don't care about content any more? How about a Next Generation reboot with someone else on the bridge? Make it so.

Rob Weir


Pairing Presidents: Clinton and Eisenhower

Clinton and Ike:

This will raise hackles, but there's more that connects Bill Clinton and Dwight Eisenhower than one might imagine. Don't be too quick to dismiss this in the belief that "Ike" was moral and dour, whilst Clinton was hornier than a bunny rabbit in April. Eisenhower biographers don't like to hear it, but Ike probably had a long-term affair with his military chauffeur Kay Summersby. Harry Truman claimed Eisenhower considered divorcing Mamie and Ms. Summersby made a disputed deathbed confession. Still, if collecting conquests were the sole criterion, Clinton would be matched with the greatest Lothario in White House history: John F. Kennedy. But wait… there's more.

How they are similar:

Both were great disappointments to ideologues. Eisenhower took office after the long FDR/Truman reign that instituted social, economic, and cultural reforms that drove archconservatives to despair. They dared hope that Ike would repeal New Deal, end "social engineering," cut taxes for the wealthy, support anti-communist witch hunts, and unleash the private sector. They badly misjudged their man. "Moderate" is usually a hollow term used by politicians seeking to hide the fact they've been forced to "compromise," but Eisenhower is as close to being moderate as one can imagine. Famed as the World War Two general in charge of D-Day, Ike's political views were so little known that both parties courted him in 1952. He easily defeated liberal Adlai Stevenson twice, but Ike was not a conservative poster boy. He quietly (but effectively) isolated the loathsome Joseph McCarthy, resisted big ticket budget items, spurned big tax cuts, and left most remaining New Deal programs intact. There were three big moments associated with his domestic polices, each of which demonstrated Ike's moderation. He signed the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, but it wasn't a liberal moment; it was subsumed within a Cold War defense bill and justified as a way to move troops and materiel quickly in a national emergency. Ike's signature on the 1957 Civil Rights Act is another case in point. It came on the heels of a showdown in Little Rock, Arkansas, in which Governor Orval Faubus refused to integrate public schools per the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education decision. Eisenhower reluctantly sent troops to Little Rock, then signed the Civil Rights Act, but only after assuring it was so watered down that seven years later it was rewritten. Eisenhower once baffled Americans with his advice that the great challenge of the age was to "take the straight path down the middle," but he practiced what he preached. He had four net appointments to the Supreme Court—Charles Whittaker resigned just a year into his term: John Marshall Harlan III and Potter Stewart, both conservatives; but also two great liberals: Earl Warren and William Brennan.

Clinton took over after the Reagan/Bush I interregnum to a hail of misplaced enthusiasm. Liberals hoped he'd be another FDR and African Americans proclaimed him "America's first black president." Oh dear! Clinton's MO was "triangulation," a purposeful attempt to steer a middle path between liberals and conservatives; hence we got a bit of both. Liberal: repeal of Bush I family planning restrictions, cutting taxes for low-income earners, the Family and Medical Leave Act, a diverse Cabinet, several child healthcare bills, Megan's Law, AmeriCorps, a clean water bill….  On the other hand, one could call Clinton the most effective Republican president since Ike: NAFTA, DOMA, a bill protecting religious education, curbs on illegal immigration, welfare reform, shrinking the federal bureaucracy, the Telecommunications Reform Act, draconian crime bills, and repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, the last of which paved the way for the Bush II recession. On balance, Clinton averages out as a moderate—just like his Supreme Court appointees, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

Both men were parsimonious. Eisenhower warned of a "military-industrial complex" and sought to starve it; Clinton produced the first balanced budget since Lyndon Johnson. Both ruled over periods of outward economic prosperity. Eisenhower was in office for the longest period of economic expansion in U.S. history, while Clinton saw the end of the Bush I recession and enjoyed years of Stock Market growth, low unemployment, and minimal inflation.

Neither Eisenhower nor Clinton had unqualified success in foreign affairs. As a Cold War president, Eisenhower maintained needed calm during the Suez Crisis, attempted rapprochement with the Soviet Union, and isolated extremists during a period of global tension and Red Scare. His time in office was marred by periods in which his administration elevated that tension—the issuance of NSC-162, the articulation of the (now discredited) Domino Theory, the cancellation of free elections in Vietnam, the uncertain culmination of the Korean War, nuclear testing, the U-2 incident, and the Bay of Pigs plan. Turning loose the CIA in places such as Guatemala, Iran, and the Congo proved unwise in the long run.

Clinton wasn't much interested in foreign policy, but he charmed foreign leaders. He left what is, at best, a mixed record. Bungled: Bosnia. Success: Kosovo. Bungled: the immediate response to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Wise: His warnings on Osama bin-Laden (and Saddam Hussein). Bungled: the response to US Cole bombing. Success: Bombings of Afghanistan and Sudan. Bungled: Rwanda. Success: the Israel-Jordan Treaty. And so it goes….

It's tempting to say that Ike was saddled by the Cold War, and Clinton was the first post-USSR president, but if one considers Clinton the first Age of Terrorism POTUS, that difference dissolves.

How they are different:

Mainly in style. Eisenhower was grandfatherly and dull; Clinton was Elvis crossed with Kennedy. You'd definitely rather have beers with Bill.  

It is fair game to say that whether or not Ike had an affair, he was a choirboy compared to Clinton. Whitewater, Travelgate, lying under oath, and his sexual peccadilloes turned out to be more smoke than fire, and the attempt to impeach Clinton ranks among history's smelliest foiled vendettas. That said, seldom has America seen such a skilled politician with such a broken moral compass.


Eisenhower is enjoying reassessment and currently ranks 9th (of 42). This rating is assuredly over-zealous revisionism that confuses the postwar economic boom with Ike's actual accomplishments. Clinton is currently # 20 and would be higher, were it not for his personal flaws. Twenty sounds about right for each.  


The Gloaming 2: August Album of the Month

August 2016 Album of the Month

The Gloaming 2
Real World Records
* * * * *

You've probably seen the word "gloaming" in novels. It's not exactly obscure in American English, just underused. Gloaming is often used as synonym for dusk, which sort of gets it, but Celtic peoples often use the word more subtly to reference those precious moments when the sunset is fading and darkness is creeping in rather than suddenly descending. It 's a magical and reflective time, one in which conversations take a gentle, but more serious turn. Jokers become philosophers, silent ones emerge as muses, and the hesitant become resolute.

What a perfect name for this (mostly) Irish supergroup: Iarla Ó Lionáird (vocals), Martin Hayes (fiddle), Comimhin Ó Raghallaigh (drone fiddle), Dennis Cahill (guitar), and Thomas Bartlett (piano). The flavor of this album is akin to (but more energetic than)  Nightnoise (1984-1997), a quiet spinoff project by Scotland's Cunningham brothers (Phil and Johnny) and the brother/sister team of Michéal and Triona Ó/Ni Domhnaill. Their recordings often found their way into "New Age" bins, which is where The Gloaming might end up as well, but that's a misrepresentative category. Think instead a mix of traditional tunes, chamber music, jazz, and original compositions. Think also of the essence of the gloaming. This is music that strikes a mood and stokes the soul, not that which sends you jigging across the room.  

Anyone who knows anything about Irish music will endorse my remark that you should buy anything done by Martin Hayes and his sidekick Dennis Cahill. I'll further claim without any attempt at hyperbole that there may not be a living fiddler/violinist from any musical genre whose ornaments are as tasteful and well placed as those of Hayes. Only a handful rival Hayes overall, and few exhibit his patience in building a composition. Hayes' pieces imperceptibly build, and by the time the flood arrives, it's as if it the waters rose one cup at a time. Check out "The Booley House," a tune that lulls you into a sleepy place. Trust me; your eyes will be wide open by the end of this five-minute set. The same approach is at work on "The Rolling Wave," which transforms itself into crashing surf. Equally impressive is Ó Lionáird, a Gaelic sean-nós (old style) singer who deserves to be as highly regarded in North America as he is in Ireland. Those who've seen the wonderful film Brooklyn have heard him sing an acapella version of "Casadh an tSu'ga'in." It appears on this record with Bartlett's dreamy piano and fiddles accompanying him. Listen hard to Ó Lionáird's voice. It is a beautiful instrument on its own. I am especially drawn to the small husk that emerges when he drops down to a whisper. There aren't too many songs as gorgeous as Ó Lionáird's rendition of "Oisin's Song," a stunning mix of fragility and power. 

But let's also give a shout out to the man who morphs the light and mood of the gloaming into music: pianist Thomas "Doveman" Bartlett. He's the group's token American, but he's also the band's producer, a role he has also served for acts such as Sufjan Stevens, Sam Amidon, Glen Hansard (of The Frames), Julia Stone, and others. Bartlett uses his keyboards to set in-between moods–neither melancholy nor joyous; neither bright nor dark, though they lean the latter direction. Take a listen to "Mrs. Dwyer," one of those tunes that could be either a tribute to the living or a memorial to the deceased.

Not to be overlooked are Dennis Cahill and Comimhin Ó Raghallaigh. One of the mistakes all of us occasionally make is focusing overmuch on those who stand in the spotlight. We forget that their marvelous musical acrobatics crash without the solid rigging built by others. Those who've seen or heard Martin Hayes know exactly how heavily he relies upon Cahill, a guitarist who can add more depth with a single well-struck chord or ringing harmonic as a show-off can with a prolonged solo. Ó Raghallaigh is a bit like that too, and his work shines on this album in the cadences, many of which are built upon his explorations of the affinity between the fiddle and the uilleann pipes.

This is a rare and beautiful album. My only complaint is that it ended.

Rob Weir



Pairing Presidents: G. W. Bush and Franklin Pierce


George W. Bush and Franklin Pierce rank among the biggest disgraces in American history. It is a testament to our republic that we survived them. Many scholars would suggest a Bush/James Buchanan comparison, but I see Pierce as more actively inept than the do-nothing Buchanan.

How they are similar:

Bush is a Texan; Pierce was from New Hampshire, but each was sympathetic to some of the worst Bad White Boy behavior the South could muster. Franklin Pierce's secretary of war was none other than Jefferson Davis, its own statement about his views. Pierce was an active racist who supported slavery and its expansion. He wasn't in office when the farcical Lecompton Constitution was recognized in Kansas Territory, but there's no question he would have accepted it. As it was, he saw the anti-slavery (and more representative) government in Lawrence as traitors. If you're not versed in this, the point is that Pierce's actions exacerbated the tensions that led to the Civil War. At every step of the way, Pierce listened to the pro-slavery advocates that dominated his Cabinet. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act was a lousy compromise that destroyed the Whig party, hastened the rise of the Republican Party, spawned the emergence of John Brown, and led to bloodshed in the two territories that is now viewed as a "shadow war" presaging the Civil War. Pierce vigorously enforced the Fugitive Slave Act. He was careful with his language, but he was racist in deed and disposition.

The same is true of Bush. Like Pierce, his actions spoke louder than hollow words such as his claim to be a "compassionate conservative." When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, affluent white communities received immediate aid; black communities waited. Nor did he have sympathy for Latinos; instead he spoke of vigorous immigration enforcement, a wall on the Mexican border, and a "merit" system for green cards; he rejected amnesty for longtime illegal residents. His overall lack of compassion led to urban protests that are among the largest in U.S. history.

Bush's Kansas was Iraq. After displaying calm leadership after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Bush squandered the international goodwill present on September 12. His immediate goal of overthrowing the Taliban government of Afghanistan and its Al-Qaeda allies was applauded, given their involvement in 9/11, but the Bush deployment merely chased both groups underground; both continue to disrupt the region and export terrorism. More baffling was Bush's decision to declare North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as an Axis of Evil. This was a complete fabrication, as was Bush's decision to invade Iraq on the mythical grounds that it possessed weapons of mass destruction. Bush sucked the United States into a quagmire from which it is yet to extricate itself. His equivalent of Jefferson Davis: his hawkish, acerbic, and Machiavellian vice president Dick Cheney. His near equal was his first secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who was eventually driven from office.

Neither Pierce nor Bush tolerated dissent. Under Pierce, anti-slavery advocates found themselves on the defensive. Things got so bad that Senator Charles Sumner was brutally attacked in the halls of Congress by S.C. Representative Preston Brooks and nearly died of his injuries. Under Bush, the U.S. became a national security state–perhaps a necessary precaution against terrorism, but an overreach that trampled free speech, ostracized dissenters in general, indiscriminately spied on American citizens, and was used to isolate those who disagreed with Bush on anything.

Pierce favored imperialist expansionism such as the actions of William Walker. These individuals sought to exert control in Latin America and expand slavery there. Bush did not engage in anything so crude, but his foreign policy was marked by an aggressive unilateralism that placed the United States above the views of the United Nations, NATO, or international human rights standards. Bush authorized the use of waterboarding of suspected terrorists and placed those in US custody in places such as Guantanamo outside of both international and domestic legal protections. He also cancelled previously accepted treaties, such as the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. Nor was he supportive of UN programs to reduce AIDS. Foreign respect for the United States reached historic lows under Bush.

Both men appointed archconservatives to the Supreme Court: Alabama slaveholder John Archibald Campbell by Pierce; Samuel Alito and John Roberts by Bush.  

How they were different:

Pierce was more intelligent than Bush, but the biggest differences lay in domestic politics. Pierce isn't remembered for much on this score, but the economy remained stable under him. Bush oversaw an economic crisis following the collapse of the housing market and the economy did not recover until after Bush left office. His own deficit spending was partly to blame. He inherited a surplus from Clinton and squandered it on indiscriminate spending on the military and national security. Tax cuts also hurt. Mainly, Bush inspired little confidence for investors. His plan to privatize Social Security is now viewed as a disaster narrowly averted when Congress failed to enact it.

Bush left behind a host of questionable domestic bills, including the controversial No Child Left Behind Act that led to increased testing of students. He vetoed SCHIP, which expanded medical coverage to children when Barack Obama signed it into law. Bush was anti-science (see his views on stem cell research) and weak on the environment. His energy plan consisted largely of drilling for more oil until late in his second term. Evangelical views shaped his views on abortion, women's rights, school curricula, and other issues.

Scholars' rankings (of 44):

Scholars currently rate Pierce as number 41 and Bush as 34. The Pierce rating is about right, but look for Bush to plummet. Once the final Obama factoring takes place, I'd rank Pierce 43 and Bush 42–enough stink to open a waste facility. Conservatives nostalgic for Bush are delusional.


Kris Drever's Latest Hard to Pigeonhole

If Wishes Were Horses
Reveal Records 058CDX

These days, musical genres are collapsing faster than an old man's arches. I wonder where stores will file the latest from Scotland's Kris Drever? World music? Celtic? Folk? None would be correct. His latest effort consists of eleven tracks, ten of which are originals. Only his cover of "Capernaum," a song popularized by The Tannahill Weavers on a 1994 titular release, is particularly "Celtic. " If you've never heard it, it's about Edinburgh, and let's just say it presents the city's past in ways unlikely to find their way into Royal Mile tourist brochures. Drever's album themes center on loss, longing, and disappointment—as suggested by the album's title and fifth track, which applies the old proverb "if wishes were horses then beggars would ride." That latter song uncoils atop a galloping guitar clip that reminds us of Drever's evolving maturation as an artist. His smooth, faintly nasal vocal is accompanied by guitar that is solidly in the jazz-infused style of Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, Martin Carthy, and other U.K. pioneers of song framing. Drever's voice and instrumentation are so impressive that they take the edge off of tough topics, like the impact of deindustrialization in "I Didn't Try Hard Enough," a tune so bright and catchy you'll probably find yourself humming it as you blissfully forget it's about a man who took four years to get his life back on track when the factory closed. The point, though, is that he did, and that's another thing that's another edge sander. Most of the songs also offer what might be called mature, cautious hope. Take "When We Roll in the Morning" (and you can't not think of Martin Carthy on this one). In the opening line Drever sings of an ended relationship as "like a death in the family," but then we learn he has fallen in love for the third time and is hoping for the best. Is this "if wishes were horses" foolishness, or the sort of perseverance that yields happiness? There is a sense on this album that one does indeed arrive somewhere good in the end. The bright guitars (Drever and Ian Carr) and vocal cadences on "Shipwrecked" feel like a more highly produced version of one of Dougie MacLean road songs, though "The Longest Day," inspired by Thomas Wolfe's axiom "you can never go home" uses wistful guitar with ringing melancholy tones, to remind that maybe the journey itself is the point.

Drever takes on other topics, though usually circuitously rather than in a preachy way. "Don't Tell Me That (Human Nature)," suggests that we sometimes must cut ties with old acquaintances when "the things that you're saying/Seem benighted to me." "Hard Year," a tune with memorable small runs, has a pop feel, but the song is basically telling another person to stop wallowing and get on with things. Drever has the wisdom to round off his recording with two don't-think-too-hard songs. The deliberately sluggish "Five Past Two," recounts one of those days in which nothing goes right and nothing gets done. My personal favorite is the last track, "Going to the North," a cheery song about home as a place where things make sense when nothing else does.  How does one classify this record without getting ridiculously postmodern and just labeling it "music?" It's not remotely Celtic, its band-arrangements feel more like pop than folk, and the music lacks the exotic otherness generally applied to world music. Drever works with a full band: Carr (guitars, trumpet), Euan Burton (bass, keyboards), Louis Abbott (percussion), Yolanda Quaterly (backing vocals), but it's not really a quintet effort. Let's call it a singer-songwriter album that showcases Drever's superb guitar work. Sample some tracks on YouTube and see what you think.

Rob Weir