Clara


Clara with stars in her eyes.

(2018) Science Fiction (Screen Media) Patrick J. Adams, Troian Bellisario, Kristin Hager, Ennis Esmer, Jennifer Dale, Will Bowes, R.H. Thomson, Dwight Ireland, Bethanie Ho, Samuel A. Harding, Jillian Katsis, Tammie Sutherland, Pierre Simpson, Gabrielle Graham. Directed by Akash Sherman

For the moment, humanity is all alone in the cosmos. It might be teeming with life out there but we have no way of knowing it…yet. As it turns out, NASA is very keen on answering the question “Are we alone?” and is sending up into space a pair of telescopes that stand a good chance of finding extraterrestrial intelligence.

Equally obsessed is astrophysicist Isaac Bruno (Adams). He teaches a course in the subject at Cal Tech and also works with a scientist who is looking at exoplanets. However, the prickly Bruno – who when confronted by a student regarding the importance of love delivers one of the nastiest scientific debunking of love ever recorded – is far too impatient for his own good and when he hijacks a telescope he was supposed to be using for his boss’ research, he is suspended from the university and denied access to the laboratories in which he was chasing his dream.

Far too driven to be bitter about it, he decides to carry on his research from home with the somewhat tentative encouragement of his pal and fellow scientist Dr. Charles Durant (Esmer), he advertises for an unpaid assistant and the only respondent he gets is Clara (Bellisario), who has no experience with science other than painting a mural of a black hole in the lobby of the Space Sciences building and has nothing other than a few items of clothing and a dog named Eve.

At first Isaac is almost insulted by her lack of experience and expertise but after allowing the dog inside his home for a drink of water, he relents and gives the girl the position which is paid only with room and board. It turns out that Clara has a knack for sifting through data and finding promising exoplanets that might be worth a closer look by the James Webb Telescope which is going to be launched shortly and has the ability to determine if life is present on a planet.

Isaac is also soon smitten by his new lab assistant but both of them are hiding devastating secrets. Can Isaac see the life that’s right in front of him or will his obsession for life elsewhere take precedence in his life?

Readers of science fiction have for years complained about science fiction in the movies and television as being dumbed down space operas and to a real extent they are right, although there has been some very thought-provoking sci-fi in theaters and on TV as of late. Sherman, a second time feature filmmaker whose previous outing The Rocket List was also of a similar bent, is apparently very passionate about the science. There is a good deal of dialogue in which the scientists converse that is going to go pretty much above everyone’s head that isn’t an astrophysicist. While authentic sounding – I don’t have the expertise to really judge if it is or isn’t and I’m afraid I’m fresh out of acquaintances who are also astrophysicists – it can be challenging for the average layman to make heads or tails out of any of it.

The heart of any story should be the human heart and there appears to be at least an attempt on the part of Sherman to look at love versus science as a thematic exercise but sadly he really drops the ball. Adams and Bellisario have plenty of chemistry – they are married in real life, after all – but Isaac is so myopic, so involved with his own obsession that he fails to acknowledge what’s going on inside himself. Yes, Isaac has a very good reason to be so clinical and so unfeeling (and no points if you figure it out before the big reveal) but it doesn’t make for compelling viewing. The title character is vivacious and free-spirited but that’s a currency that’s all too common cinematically speaking these days so Clara ends up not really standing out as much as she might.

The ending is a bit florid for my taste but the rest of the film that precedes it at least has the courage to allow itself to be thoughtful. A lot of films tend to focus thoroughly on the heart and none on the brain to the point that you feel like you’ve lost ten or twelve IQ points after having seen them; you won’t have that problem here. In fact, your IQ might actually go up a little if you are willing to learn. Clara is a very flawed film for sure but it’s at least smart enough to know that it will attract a niche audience of science geeks, academics and cinephiles. If only it’s heart was as well developed.

REASONS TO SEE: Smart, savvy sci-fi that doesn’t apologize for being cerebral.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit overwrought and the love story is given short shrift.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes, some sensuality and minor profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bellisario is the daughter of noted television producer Donald Bellisario whose Belisarius Productions were responsible for, among others, Quantum Leap, Airwolf, Jag and NCIS.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Fandango Now,  iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews: Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dark Matter
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Radium Girls

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San Andreas


Either The Rock is striking a heroic pose or he accidentally gave this girl The People's Elbow.

Either The Rock is striking a heroic pose or he accidentally gave this girl The People’s Elbow.

(2015) Disaster  (New Line) Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandria Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Paul Giamatti, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Will Yun Lee, Kylie Minogue, Colton Haynes, Todd Williams, Matt Gerald, Alec Utgoff, Marissa Neitling, Morgan Griffin, Breanne Hill, Laurence Coy, Fiona Press, Dennis Coard, Simone Kessell. Directed by Brad Peyton

When the earth starts to shake and buildings begin to fall, who are you gonna call? Dwayne Johnson! When the fault cracks in two which the tsunami rolls into, who’ll see you through? Dwayne Johnson!

Disaster movies were a thing of the 70s for a short while, all-star casts of big stars put at risk by natural or man-made disasters. Irwin Allen was the king of these films, and things like The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and The Towering Inferno were big box office champs back in the day. These days, most of those disaster effects are done on computers which you’d think would save money in the budget for amazing casts but here in this 21st century disaster movie, after legitimate stars Johnson and Giamatti as well as next-tier stars Gugino, Daddario, Panjabi and Gruffudd, things get a little thin. Where’s William Holden when you really need him?

Ray (Johnson) is a LAFD rescue helicopter pilot whose devotion to his job increased exponentially when one of his daughters drowned during a rafting trip and he was unable to save her. His remaining daughter Blake (Daddario) adores daddy, but he emotionally shut down after the tragedy and after trying and trying his wife Emma (Gugino) is now his ex-wife and is moving into the palatial mansion of architect Daniel Reddick (Gruffudd) who seems like a genuinely nice guy. When a massive earthquake in Nevada ruptures the Hoover Dam, forcing an all hands on deck call to any rescue helicopter pilots in the neighborhood, Ray has to cancel on a planned road trip to take his baby girl to college. She instead hitches a ride to San Francisco with Daniel. And Emma takes a lunch with his bitchy sister (Minogue).

That’s when Big One #2 hits, in Los Angeles. Ray is forced to save his own wife from a collapsing high rise and when they realize that Big One #3 is going to hit San Francisco at any moment – thanks to earthquake predicting software developed by Dr. Lawrence (Giamatti) whose partner (Lee) was buried alive in the Hoover Dam thing. Now Ray and Emma are heading up to San Francisco to rescue Blake who has been abandoned by the as-it-turns-out cowardly Daniel and has hooked up with a lovestruck Brit named Ben (Johnstone-Burt) and his precocious little brother Ollie (Parkinson).

The effects-heavy San Andreas features lots of buildings and other structures collapsing, people crushed by fallen masonry, a tsunami that takes down the Golden Gate Bridge and Ray driving anything that isn’t nailed down be it on land, in the air or at sea. There’s plenty of shark jumping and WTF moments that will turn your brain into peanut butter if you think about it too hard. My advice is, just don’t think about it and go with the flow.

Other than the adequate and occasionally delightful effects, the big draw here is Johnson. He’s not the most accomplished actor on any given set, but he doesn’t need to be, particularly on movies like this. He gets by on his irresistible charm, his rippling biceps and his genuine heart. You can’t help but like the guy no matter who he’s playing; it will be interesting to see what he does with a villain role in the upcoming comic book hero movie Shazam. Here even at the movie’s most godawful plot moments, he rescues it just by being himself.

Writer Carlton Cuse (Lost) doesn’t deliver his best work here which is kind of a shame; I would have loved to see his ability to draw up fascinating characters in impossible situations transplanted here, but the movie is just so engaging in terms of effects and disaster goodness that it’s hard to really fault Cuse for not bringing on the A game here. This isn’t going to break box office records, nor is it going to redefine the summer blockbuster. While it could have used a more judicious hand in the editing room – dodging falling buildings repetitively gets pretty old after awhile – it nonetheless accomplishes what most of us are looking for this time of year which is a fun ride at the movie theater.

REASONS TO GO: Dwayne Johnson saves the day. Fun summer entertainment.
REASONS TO STAY: Paint-by-numbers plot. Probably a good half hour too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Intense action, disaster mayhem and a few choice curse words here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Riddick’s San Francisco headquarters is actually the Bank of America building, the same building (enhanced with optical effects) that was used for the 1974 disaster classic The Towering Inferno.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Earthquake
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Peace, Love and Misunderstanding