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Ready-Mades

Same-old, same-old -- Maid in Manhattan and Star Trek: Nemesis.

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Stop me if you have heard this plot before: Poor working-class girl dreams of a better life for herself, magically (and a touch deceptively) becomes beautiful and attractive to a rich mover-and-shaker, and then must flee lest she be found out as the real (poor) woman she is -- but not without proving herself first. The story is that of Cinderella, remade countless times into countless romantic comedies that, in the last two decades, have included Working Girl and Pretty Woman.

Someday, moviegoers will grow weary of this formula. Shouldn't romance and achievement be more evenly distributed among the boys and girls of our impressionable youth, not to mention their adult counterparts? I long for the day when movie formulas include impoverished, scrappy young men (more sincere than Jerry Lewis' 1960 Cinderfella?) going through ridiculous, labyrinthine trials to secure the attentions of successful, wealthy, powerful, eligible women. "Wow," he would say, "If only I could escape the dirt and grime of my crowded urban tenement and unpromising, dead-end job in the mailroom and get that pretty, corporate lady to take notice of me. Maybe I should disguise myself as a Wall Street executive and " And, to the tune from Snow White: "Someday my princess will come "

Until that day, we are stuck with mindless retreads like the latest incarnation -- Maid in Manhattan. Structurally, Maid is a bit more faithful to the fairy tale and thankfully lacks Melanie Griffith as the heroine and features housekeeping as the mercifully less-syphilitic profession than Ms. Julia Roberts' vocation in Pretty Woman. Jennifer Lopez takes over daydreaming duty as Marisa Ventura, maid in a hoity-toity Manhattan hotel. She dreams of more than changing sheets and replacing toiletries, however. She wants to be a manager. Meanwhile, hotel guest Christopher Marshall (Ralph Fiennes) is a New York assemblyman on the verge of announcing a senatorial campaign. Handsome and high-profile, he is the Prince Charming of our tale, and an unlikely mix-up has him meeting Marisa in the hotel's "Park Suite" while she's trying on another guest's fancy outfit. He thinks she is another guest -- not the maid, certainly -- and the rest of the film has Marisa dodging her bosses and trying not to get caught being courted by someone whose sheets she should be changing (not mussing!). Meanwhile, Marshall has a campaign to run, and paparazzi everywhere are dying to know who this Mystery Lady is. Natasha Richardson is thrown in as Caroline, the guest who really is staying in the "Park Suite" and who accidentally interprets Marshall's romantic overtures as intended for her.

Maid in Manhattan, alas, has none of the ambitions of Working Girl (ironically, they share a screenwriter in Kevin Wade), where heroine Tess dreamed way outside the box and believably risked it all. Nor is there the charm of Pretty Woman. But wait. Admire the true-to-design Pretty Woman parallels: gruff, lovable, and bald hotel employee who sees through her ruse and helps her along (then Hector Elizondo, here Bob Hoskins); gruff, unlovable, and bald Prince Charming stooge (then Jason Alexander, here Stanley Tucci); and tough-talking Italian confidante who inspires her to dream (then Laura San Giacomo, here Marissa Matrone). There is even a musical dressing-up montage (of course). It's just not the same.

Fans of romantic "comedies" will like this okay. Jennifer Lopez is pretty and spunky and all of the things Meg Ryan used to be and less annoyingly so than Meg. She's very cute with the goofy-grinned Fiennes, whose initially wavering American accent is shielded by fellow Brits Richardson and Hoskins, who effectively throw us off the scent. Hoskins, incidentally, turns in the film's best performance as the hotel's stately butler, while Richardson is deliriously over-the-top as the snobby Caroline. But, unfortunately for all of this talented cast, there's just no writing to support them. No jokes for which to apply comic timing. No drama (just some whining) for which we can really care about them. And, am I crazy or does the couple's last embrace occur in front of a mural of New York City being attacked on September 11th? What's that about?

Stay home tonight instead. Rent a better movie. Cuddle. Tell jokes. Save your money.

Fans of the Star Trek industry -- yes, it is an industry: with five television series, 10 films, and zillions in merchandise -- will be familiar with the old saw "Even-numbered Star Trek movies are better than odd-numbered ones." And this is true. Now, it's time for number 10. Ladies and gentlemen (drum roll, please), we have a tie!

Some background on me and where I come from: There are two kinds of Star Trek fans. The first, more harmless variety is called a "Trekkie." Trekkies will have some videos on their shelf and a fan magazine or two tucked away and will catch as many episodes of whatever series is currently in production as is humanly and socially responsible and possible. The only time you may see a Trekkie in a Starfleet uniform will be at Halloween. Then, there are Trekkers -- die-hard fans. They're hard-core. They go to conventions. They wear the uniforms and Star Trek ties to non-Star Trek occasions. They can order a pizza or hail a cab in pitch-perfect Klingon with a straight face. I am more of a Trekkie. I never went to a convention, though I did meet Mr. Sulu at a video-store opening and got an autographed picture. (It's framed, along with my cocktail napkin from the real Cheers). I provide my context here, because it is as a Trekkie that I am here to report that the franchise is just about out of steam. I hate that! I love Star Trek (though I lost touch after The Next Generation left the air, I confess). As a young, nerdy teenager, it was Star Trek that first introduced me to concepts of justice and diplomacy and social responsibility and racism and everything I didn't know existed outside of my then-myopic, uneducated universe. It opened doors. Doors aren't opening anymore. But they are creaking a bit.

The plot, kept brief to showcase the plagiarism of the essence of The Wrath of Khan: The captain is getting older and pondering mortality and the future. After a festive occasion, the Enterprise is called to confront a menacing foe from the captain's past -- who knows the captain almost as well as he knows himself. After a familiar face from the crew is turned against the ship, there is a showdown in which Enterprise and assailant are both immobilized and only the ultimate sacrifice will save the ship -- and possibly Earth -- from a Doomsday device.

If you followed The Next Generation series, you will know that plots were borrowed heavily from the 1967-1969 original. This was fine. Technology had sped so fast in the interim 20 years that minor tweaking was all that was needed to spruce up old story lines. There were new issues, new ethics. Not so anymore. Nemesis doesn't seem very interested in exploring complicated issues. There is no inspiring liberal agenda like glasnost or "Save the Whales" or scientific responsibility. Nor is there the action that supports fandom of truly cool science fiction like The Matrix or Aliens franchises. The special effects are fine, but nothing new at all, and when the ship is attacked, the camera still shakes and everyone falls down just like they did 30-odd years ago. Also, in the 80 years since the setting of the original series, the Federation still hasn't figured out how a cloaking device works. And I report no new developments in phaser or photon torpedo technology. I demand progress!

In Nemesis, the old foe is actually a younger version of Captain Picard: a clone, created by the Romulans as a weapon to destroy the Federation. He is played by newcomer Tom Hardy and, while a fine, acid-tongued villain, Hardy is almost too damn cute for the part. Doe-eyed and pouty-lipped, he's an all-too-adorable nemesis against the steely gaze of Patrick Stewart's Picard. And Picard's mortality is, well, old news. William Shatner's 1982 mortality was more interesting because Captain Kirk was an athletic hothead learning how to be wise. While a better actor, Stewart's Picard was always introspective. The variations are not interesting enough to revisit -- again.

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