LADDER 49 (2004). It was probably inevitable - perhaps even desirable - for a post-9/11 movie to be made that celebrated firemen, but did it have to be as dull as this one? If there's an original moment in this tedious (if earnest) drama, I must have been rubbing my eyes for a nanosecond and missed it; instead, director Jay Russell and writer Lewis Colick have managed to cram just about every overused melodramatic device into this one picture. Basically, only three types of scenes exist in the film: domestic interludes between good-hearted fireman Jack Morrison (a beefy Joaquin Phoenix) and his family, macho antics down at the firehouse between the avuncular station captain (a beefier John Travolta) and his men, and action scenes between the firefighters and their incendiary adversary. In an effort to elevate all these men to the level of heroes, Colick has stripped them of most traits, in effect leaving us with a roomful of cardboard characters (only Robert Patrick, as the outspoken senior member of the team, is allowed any complex shadings). The firefighting scenes are competently presented but tend to blur into each other - for all its faults, the mediocre Backdraft at least made similar set pieces exciting - and the movie's 115 minutes are stretched out long enough to accommodate not only a karaoke sequence but at least two music-backed interludes designed more to fill out the CD soundtrack than advance the plot in any interesting fashion. DVD extras include audio commentary by Russell and editor Bud Smith, deleted scenes, a feature on real firefighters, and the music video for Robbie Robertson's "Shine Your Light."
STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT (1996). Unlike most long-running movie franchises, which tend to have their ups-and-downs (e.g., the James Bond flicks), the now-defunct Star Trek film series managed to proceed on a remarkably even keel. Practically every chapter was lovingly and imaginatively brought to the big screen, and the vast majority proved to be grandly entertaining flights of escapism - even to non-Trekkies like me. First Contact, the eighth in the series and the best of the Next Generation entries, followed suit: Like other installments, it's a brainy bit of sci-fi spectacle, with an occasionally draggy moment no match for the engaging characters, exciting storyline, and overall air of goodwill. The plot is too convoluted to sufficiently explain here, but suffice it to say that the Enterprise crew realizes it must travel back in time to prevent the dreaded Borg (among the all-time great Trek villains) from drastically altering the future of our planet. All of the Next Generation regulars are here (including Patrick Stewart as stalwart Captain Picard), backed by an unusually strong slate of guest stars: Alfre Woodard, James Cromwell and chilling Alice Krige as the Borg Queen. After approximately 40 years, the franchise seems to have run its course (at least until some hotshot Paramount executive comes up with a novel way to milk it some more - Indiana Jones and the Enterprise of Doom, anyone?), but rest assured the series will live long and prosper on DVD. Extras in the two-disc set include audio commentary by actor-director Jonathan Frakes, various making-of specials, features on the Borg Collective, and a tribute to the late, great Jerry Goldsmith, who created the score first used in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and later recycled as the theme music for the Next Generation show.