Skyline


Skyline

The great thing about this apartment is the view.

(2010) Science Fiction (Universal/Rogue) Eric Balfour, Donald Faison, Scottie Thompson, Brittany Daniel, David Zayas, Crystal Reed, Neil Hopkins, Robin Gammell, Tanya Newbould, J. Paul Boehmer, Byron McIntyre, Johnny DeBeer. Directed by Colin and Greg Strause

The legendary DJ Casey Kasem used to sign off with the same line – “keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.” Little did he know that someday, something would reach back. 

Jarrod (Balfour) and his girlfriend Elaine (Thompson) fly from New York to Los Angeles to visit Terry (Faison), Jarrod’s childhood friend, on the occasion of his birthday. Terry has made good as a Hollywood producer and has a sick penthouse in a Marina Del Rey high-rise from which he views his kingdom.

Elaine reveals to Jarrod that she’s pregnant, which might be a good thing except Terry’s just offered Jarrod a job that would of course require him to move from the East Coast to the West. Elaine is none too happy about this development because apparently success would be a downer. In any case, they go ahead and party with Terry’s friends, including his bitchy girlfriend Candice (Daniel), his lovesick assistant Denise (Reed) and his overbearing buddy Ray (Hopkins). The party gets a bit boisterous, causing security guard Oliver (Zayas) to knock on the door where he gets a belly full of bitchy attitude courtesy of Candice.

Later that night, they are awakened by an earthquake and bright lights outside the building. People who stare at these lights become mesmerized and feel compelled to walk into the light where they’re levitated off of the surface of the Earth. We know this because it happens to Ray and almost happens to Jarrod who is pulled out of the light at the last moment by Terry but not before Jarrod got all vein-y and crap.

After that, all Hell breaks loose. The lights go away briefly, only to reappear, this time accompanied by gigantic alien space vessels bristling with appendages and looking very bug-like. Jarrod and Terry go to the roof to get a better look which turns out to be a really bad idea since Jarrod manages to lock the door behind them and only timely intervention from Elaine gets them safely off after the big alien space vessels disgorge thousands of little probe vessels that look like those tentacle things in The Matrix and are quite adept at sucking individual people off of roofs and, as we later find out, out of windows as well.  

Terry thinks their best bet is to get out of Dodge, preferably by boat since none of the alien vessels are over water. They get into their expensive cars and prepare to drive to the nearby Marina when they are literally stomped on by a giant alien bio-mechanical beastie. Wonder how they’re going to explain that one to the insurance company. They decide to make a run for it back to the penthouse, joined by security guard Oliver who saves them at the last moment from an alien beastie who is slightly smaller than the last one. You’ve seen one alien beastie, you’ve seen them all.

Up to this point, it’s been a pretty good movie. The alien beasties are well designed, the effects shots realistic and while there were a few glitches, the story was moving along at a pretty good clip. Unfortunately, the writers wrote themselves into a corner; much of the rest of the film involves the lot of them sitting around the apartment with nothing better to do but whine and snipe at one another. In other words, they’re essentially sitting around waiting to get sucked out.

It’s a shame, because quite frankly this was a bit of good filmmaking up until that point. The Strause brothers, who have extensive effects experience, utilized some cutting edge technology to make the movie for a bargain basement $10 million, financing the movie essentially themselves. The good news is that it won’t take very much for them to see a profit. The bad news is that the movie has been getting scathing reviews, both word of mouth and online and may not even make back its production costs.

Much of it has to do with the writing. I am not sure why, but there seems to be this belief in Hollywood that when characters are written for science fiction movies, they either have to be too good to be true or too stupid to be believed. The mostly television cast (who have day jobs on such series as “Dexter,” “Scrubs” and “Haven”) do decent jobs but aren’t given a whole lot to do beyond whine, bitch at one another or have fake blood poured over them.  

With an ending that is mind-boggling in its “Really?” factor, Skyline starts off strong and then takes a rapid plunge for rock bottom. While they clearly are setting up a sequel, I can’t imagine anyone who’ll want to see it. Once you’ve wiped out the Earth, what do you do for an encore?

REASONS TO GO: The first half of the film is actually pretty good. The imagery is effective and the aliens are pretty imaginative.

REASONS TO STAY: The second half of the movie jumps the shark. Once they return to the apartment, everything goes sliding downhill like an avalanche, gaining momentum until it hits bottom or the movie ends, depending on your point of view.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of violence, a great deal of gore, some disturbing images and more than its share of goo. In addition, the language is pretty foul and there is a bit of sexuality involved here. This isn’t for the little ones in any way shape or form and a lot of the big ones shouldn’t see it either.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed almost completely at co-director Greg Strause’s Marina del Rey condominium.

HOME OR THEATER: The alien vessels look better on the big screen, with the sound effects sounding better on a big theater system.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Flawless

Repo Men


Repo Men

Jude Law is knocked for a loop.

(Universal) Jude Law, Forrest Whitaker, Liev Schreiber, Alice Braga, Carice van Houten, Chandler Canterbury, RZA, Joe Pingue, Liza Lapira, Tiffany Espensen, Yvette Nicole Brown, Wayne Ward, Tanya Clarke, Max Turnbull. Directed by Miguel Sapochnik

In the modern capitalist society, if you fail to pay for a purchase it gets repossessed, whether it is a car, a computer or a home. In the future, that also might extend to artificial organs that are keeping you alive.

Remy (Law) is a repo man working for The Union, the worlds largest broker of artificial organs. Prohibitively expensive, generous credit plans are available so that people can purchase a chance at an extended life – at an exorbitant interest rate of course. When people start missing their payments, people like Remy and his best friend Jake (Whitaker) will find you, stun you into unconsciousness with a tazer and remove the artificial organ (which are called “artiforgs”) quickly and efficiently via home surgery. The patient usually doesn’t survive the procedure.

Business is pretty good and Remy is the best there is, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by his boss Frank (Schreiber). However, it is taking a toll on his marriage to Carol (van Houten) who wants him to get a job that involves regular hours so that he might spend more time with their son Peter (Canterbury). A sales job pays much less than repo and as Jake points out, Remy is far more suited to the repo life than to sales which they both regard as weak.

However, after Jake executes a repo in their front yard during a barbecue, she gives Remy an ultimatum; make a change or get out. Remy decides to do one last job, to take the artificial heart from T-Bone (RZA), a producer of soul music that Remy admires. Remy allows him to complete mixing one last song, but when he goes to stop the artificial heart with a faulty defibrillator, the resulting shock about kills him.

He wakes up with a top-of-the-line artificial heart inside of him and is absolutely terrified. There is no way he can continue making payments on the expensive piece of equipment, especially now that the experience of being a client himself has led him to lose his nerve as a repo man, now seeing the clients as human beings with names…and wives. While his own wife has left him, furious that he went on that last job, Remy prepares to go on the run with Beth (Braga), a lounge singer he’s taken under his wing and a girl with more artificial parts than a Chevy. However, in a society where it is impossible to hide from barcode scanners and bioscan devices, how can they possibly beat a system that is so stacked against them?

This is director Sapochnik’s first feature, and as first efforts go, it’s not too bad. The action sequences are nicely directed with a nod towards the Matrix school of stunts and the overall look of the film is gritty and believable. Whitaker and Law have good chemistry in the leads and while Braga is a bit colorless as the romantic interest, she fulfills her function pretty nicely.

There is a lot of blood here. A whole lot of it. You’re gonna feel like you need a shower after jumping elbow deep into this mutha. Those who get squeamish at surgical films are going to be making a bee-line to the bathroom watching this, so my advice to those with weak stomachs is to go in forewarned.

One of the big problems of the movie is the transformation of Remy from repo man to rebel. He goes from being derisive of clients, sneering throughout “a job’s a job” in a thick cockney accent to being heroic. I understand he went through a life-changing trauma (and to be fair, it seems to me that the period in which the change takes place is probably a period of several months to a year, although it seems very quick onscreen) but there’s no transition. One moment he’s vicious and uncaring and the next he’s a saint. That lack of evolution is the biggest drawback to the movie. I think that they could have used an additional ten minutes or so of illustrating the character’s changeover. If you don’t believe his change of heart, you can’t believe the movie.

In all honesty, this is another movie in which the concept is better than the execution. There’s an interesting parable to be had here about public health care I think, and that may have been what the filmmakers were going for all along. Unfortunately, because they made the decision to accentuate the action over the character development, I think the movie ultimately misses the mark. It’s worth seeing, but just barely so.

REASONS TO GO: Decent action, decently photographed, decently acted. An interesting parable for the health care debate.

REASONS TO STAY: Law’s changeover from violent and amoral to caring and concerned is a bit abrupt and unbelievable.

FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of violence and plenty of gore, lots of foul language and a little bit of sexuality – put it all together and it adds up to not for kids!!!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jake teases Remy about the title of the book that he writes as being weak, but it’s the actual title of the novel the movie is based on.

HOME OR THEATER: A very mild nod towards the big screen for some of the effects shots, but you could go either way with this one.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Stranger Than Fiction

Extraordinary Measures


Extraordinary Measures

Harrison Ford is getting tired of Brendan Fraser's claims that Rick O'Connell was a better archaeologist than Indiana Jones.

(CBS Films) Brendan Fraser, Harrison Ford, Keri Russell, Courtney B. Vance, Meredith Droeger, Diego Velazquez, Jared Harris, Alan Ruck, Patrick Bauchau, David Clennon, Dee Wallace, Ayanna Berkshire, P.J. Byrne. Directed by Tom Vaughan

There are no limits to what a parent will do for their children. Once in awhile, there are situations that call for parents to demonstrate that, to risk everything for the sake of their children – particularly when everything is precisely what’s at stake.

John Crowley (Fraser) is a successful marketing executive at a pharmaceutical firm. He has reason to be in that particular business; his daughter Megan (Droeger) and son Patrick (Velazquez) suffer from Pompe disease, a genetic disorder in which the muscles are unable to break down sugars due to the lack of a critical enzyme. The disease is incurable and fatal. Megan has just celebrated her eighth birthday and is showing signs of entering the disease’s final stage. A respiratory failure nearly finishes her off, but she shows surprising fight. Most of the doctors involved in Megan’s treatment are advising Crowley to enjoy what little time he has left with his two sick kids.

He and his wife Aileen (Russell) are on the edge of despair but Crowley has found a lone researcher at the University of Nebraska, Dr. Robert Stonehill (Ford) who has formulated some radical solutions for a possible treatment. It is the closest thing to hope that Crowley has found, but repeated calls to the good doctor have gone unanswered. Taking the bull by the horns, the desperate father goes to Lincoln to meet with Stonehill, only to be stonewalled. Crowley chases him out of the university parking lot and finally corners him in a bar. Stonehill is gruff, but sympathetic. He is nowhere near producing a working drug, and the money it would take just to set up testing for the drug – half a million dollars to start – is prohibitive. Without batting an eyelash, Crowley tells Stonehill that he has started up a foundation that is in the process of initial fundraising and that he could raise the necessary cash. Stonehill gives him a month to do it, but is skeptical that Crowley will raise anything at all.

Instead, Stonehill and his wife roll up their sleeves and get to work. They run fundraising events and call friends, colleagues and parents of children with Pompe like Markus (Vance). They don’t quite make the goal, but they raise $91,000, enough to at least keep Stonehill involved. Instead of doing research at the University, which Stonehill believes doesn’t value his work, he decides to start a new biotech company with Crowley as his business partner. This will mean that Crowley will have to quit his job, which his boss (Ruck) pleads with him not to do; Crowley is on track to get a promotion and a significant upgrade in salary. Crowley however is not swayed; if there is even a shot of saving his kids he has to take it.

The new startup needs to raise some venture capital in order to get off the ground. They approach the Renzler Group in Chicago, headed by Dr. Renzler (Clennon), an old friend of Stonehill’s. The meeting goes disastrously however when Dr. Stonehill has a meltdown when he is questioned about the new start-ups plans to get the drug to market. Stonehill, a career academic and scientist, has never done this before, and the group is understandably nervous about the prospects of investing money in a company whose principals are woefully inexperienced.

In order to get Renzler on board, which Crowley knows is critical for the start-up company’s very existence; he has to give Renzler far more concessions than Stonehill is willing to give. He manages to broker an agreement with Dr. Renzler, but Stonehill is furious at the terms and wants no part of the deal. Crowley responds that he can continue his career of curing diseases in theory but not helping a single patient in reality. Mollified somewhat, Stonehill signs the agreement.

They set up a lab in the middle of Nowheresville, Nebraska and things aren’t going well. They are running through their funds at an alarming rate and their investors are demanding that clinical trials begin on Stonehill’s enzymes or they will pull the plug. Crowley is aware that there is a large biotech firm that has been working on a Pompe treatment as well; better funded and better equipped, they might well reach the market before Stonehill’s group with some sort of treatment. Aware that Stonehill’s theories and scientific genius are salable assets, he convinces Stonehill that in order for their small company to survive they will have to sell themselves to the larger company. Stonehill blows yet another gasket but once again gets on board with the program.

Crowley and Stonehill don’t fit in well initially. Stonehill hates being bogged down with protocols and procedures, while Crowley is constantly butting heads with Dr. Webber (Harris), an executive who is more of a bureaucrat. Time is ticking down on Crowley’s children and he is becoming desperate. Can they come up with a treatment in time to save the Crowley children?

This is the first release by the new film arm of the CBS Network, and some have snickered that it has a bit of a TV movie-of-the-week smell to it, but that’s not completely true. I thought there were a lot of positives to be sure.

This movie is based on a true story, albeit very loosely. While John Crowley and his children are real, Dr. Stonehill is not. He is an amalgam of several scientists, in particular Dr. Yuan-Tsong Chen at Duke University. In reality, Pompe kills most children before their second birthday; Megan and Patrick are eight and six, respectively, in the film,. In perhaps forgivable license, Megan is aged so that she may display spunk and wisdom beyond her years to evoke more symathy from the audience and to be sure Droeger does a credible job in the role.

Ford is an actor who knows his own limitations, but he is also conversely well aware of his strengths and this role is right in his wheelhouse. Stonehill is grumpy, cranky, narcissistic and just plain ornery. Ford imbues him with all the gruffness that he can give him, which is considerable. Nobody does gruff quite as well as Harrison Ford. And while critics have been picking on Brendan Fraser, I think he did a credible job as the desperate father. Sure, there were some maudlin moments but I think that was a function of the script more than a reflection of Fraser’s abilities as an actor (check out Gods and Monsters if you want to see him at his best). What’s criminal here is that Keri Russell, an actress who is wonderful whenever she is given something to work with, is once again shuffled off into the background without much to work with. As anyone who saw her in Waitress will tell you, she is absolutely capable of carrying a movie, so it’s a shame she is reduced to mainly playing a doting/grieving mom. There is a scene in which she and her husband are interrupted in the course of having a rare intimate moment by a nurse coming to their home for her shift; it was one of the few moments when you got a sense of the relationship between John and Aileen Crowley.

Where the movie excels is in its portrayal of the pitfalls, obstacles and long odds that face the development of an orphan drug, and the road it must take to make it into the pharmacies. I found some of the boardroom scenes more provocative than the medical ones, which is fine by me.

It also has to be said that the movie is a little soft on the pharmaceutical industry in general. It should be noted that the drug that was actually developed for Pompe patients, Myozyme, costs about $300,000 a year and must be taken for the entirety of the patient’s life. There have been instances in which American insurance companies have refused to pay for the treatment, which is a death sentence for the patient and yet another talking point on why health care reform is so badly needed in this country (for the record, most other developed countries provide Myozyme for those who need it).

There are some very powerful moments, particularly when the Crowleys are in despair. Once in awhile there is a touch of the maudlin in the brush but the canvas isn’t affected by the unwelcome addition as much as you might think. Still, the film might have benefitted from less dramatic license and more of the struggle not only to find the cure but in getting it funded. Less would have definitely been more in this case.

FOR MORE ON THE CROWLEYS FOLLOW THIS LINK: The Crowley Family Website

REASONS TO GO: An intriguing glimpse at how orphan drugs are brought to the market. Very powerful in places from an emotional standpoint.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally veers from emotionally powerful to maudlin. Russell, a fine actress in her own right, is given very little to do. Many liberties are taken with the facts of both the disease and the Crowleys’ story.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of foul language, but some children may find the frank treatment of the Crowley children’s condition a bit disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: P.J. Byrne, the actor playing the Crowley children’s physician, has a cousin who is actually treating the real-life Crowley children.

HOME OR THEATER: Nothing here screams big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Book of Eli