Abrams Finds Thrills in ‘Star Trek’; ‘Frances Ha’: Movies

J.J. Abrams’s “Star Trek Into Darkness” is so much better than it needs to be you just might regret decades of smirking at Trekkie convention-going geeks.

Smart, emotionally resonant and staking a 21st-century claim on Gene Roddenberry’s 1960s humanism, “Darkness” celebrates the Trek mythos -- there will be Tribble -- while delivering a thrilling, up-to-the-minute entertainment.

Abrams goes at warp speed into a universe that, after 11 movies, should be a tired, shriveled red dwarf by now.

Instead, “Darkness” is a blast. Convoluted, sure. But compare it to “The Great Gatsby” for a quick (or not) lesson in the difference between exhilarating and exhausting.

For his second “Trek” installment, the director reassembles his 2009 “Star Trek” writing team of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, adding his “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof.

Debate over the team’s fidelity to Trek minutiae can wait till the next Comic-Con. Abrams’s gift to outsiders is letting us feel we belong, even if you recognize a key moment only from its parody on “Seinfeld.”

The movie opens with a breathless preamble that finds a young (pre-William Shatner) Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), Dr. “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) in mortal danger on a primitive far-off planet, threatened by body-painted natives and an apocalyptic volcano.

Rule Breaking

The quick resolution -- the ever-emotional Kirk breaks a Starfleet rule to save the logic-loving Spock -- puts the duo’s thorny friendship front and center, where it remains throughout the movie.

With the Enterprise gang safely back on 23rd-century Earth, “Darkness” really gets underway with the arrival of rogue Starfleet officer John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a terrorist who launches two devastating homeland attacks before retreating to a Klingon-controlled planet.

So begins Zero Dark Trekkie, as Kirk and company set off to assassinate Harrison, in direct opposition of Starfleet’s ethical code.

Soon, Kirk agonizes over the extent to which he’ll allow a bomb-exploding madman to make madmen of himself and his beloved crew.

Malevolent Force

And what a madman. Harrison turns out to be the greatest Trek villain of all, though that’s all you will get out of me here. The British Cumberbatch (“Sherlock”) is a deliciously malevolent force. Almost handsome with eyes wide-set as a shark’s, Cumberbatch keeps us guessing: Is he evil or just misunderstood?

We all know where it’s headed, yet Abrams almost has us believing otherwise.

The director is less adept at reinventing the familiar crewmates.

Urban’s Bones is one tantrum from parody, and Zoe Saldana’s Lt. Uhura (romantically linked with Spock, as in Abrams’ 2009 “Star Trek”) carries petulance well into the final frontier.

Little harm done. The action set pieces -- and they come fast and furious -- triumph, from starship battles to an improbably rousing mano-a-Vulcan fight.

Abrams has the brains (and the skill) to pump Trek’s 3D machinery with genuine feeling. When “Darkness” goes for the heart, it lands beautifully.

“Star Trek Into Darkness,” from Paramount Pictures, is playing across the U.S. Rating: **** (Evans)

‘Frances Ha’

Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” is about being young, creative and broke in New York. It’s also a love letter to the director’s girlfriend and star, Greta Gerwig. They wrote it together.

With its black-and-white photography and short takes and fast jumps, it pays homage to the films that Jean-Luc Godard made with his wife, Anna Karina, in the early ’60s. Godard was smitten, too. (And so were we, watching them.)

Gerwig plays Frances Halliday, a hopeful but struggling modern dancer who spends most of her time with Sophie (Mickey Sumner), her roommate and -- she’s convinced -- soul mate. But they’re both straight, and their inevitable breakup comes at a rotten time, when Frances’s career is hitting a wall.

The movie’s almost too charming first half-hour gives no clue as to how dark it’s going to grow once Frances’s exuberance curdles into drunken loudness and naked need, and she turns into the kind of overbearing New Yorker who can clear a room fast. You can see the pity and disgust in Sophie’s eyes.

But the intent is to give us a glimpse of the abyss, not to push us in. “Frances Ha” is a comedy; it ends with the small visual joke that explains its name.

“Frances Ha,” from IFC Films, is playing in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: *** (Seligman)

‘Becoming Traviata’

When Jean-Francois Sivadier mounted “La Traviata” for the 2011 Aix-en-Provence Festival, critics grumbled about some of the weaknesses in Natalie Dessay’s voice. But they were rapturous about her acting. Philippe Beziat’s rehearsal documentary “Becoming Traviata” shows why.

Though the title suggests we’ll watch the soprano grow into the part, as soon as we see Sivadier at work with her on the Act I party scene, she’s deep in the role of the doomed courtesan. Her dazed fragility doesn’t mask an intensity so scary that every time the director comes up with an idea, we fear that her head is going to explode into a thousand glittering pieces.

Instead, she listens docilely and, usually within seconds, assimilates the new gesture.

Between Beziat’s painterly compositions (he’s made several music documentaries), Verdi’s score (sometimes with a pianist, sometimes with the London Symphony Orchestra under Louis Langree) and Sivadier’s exchanges with Dessay, it’s a feast.

Die Hard

But all we get is a taste. After the first act, Beziat has to rush through the rest -- until the end, when we see director and diva figuring out how to stage Violetta’s final collapse. (Their striking solution: Kill the lights before she hits the floor.)

Dessay’s waifishness makes her entirely believable as a woman dying from a lung disease. And the camera adores her. When her voice goes, she could have the career in movies that once seemed to await Maria Callas.

“Becoming Traviata,” from Distrib Films, is playing in New York. Rating: ***1/2 (Seligman)

What the Stars Mean:

***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)

Muse highlights include Ryan Sutton on restaurants and