Coherence


On the outside looking in.

On the outside looking in.

(2014) Science Fiction (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Emily Foxler, Nicholas Brendon, Maury Sterling, Elizabeth Gracen, Alex Manugian, Lauren Maher, Hugo Armstrong, Lorene Scafaria. Directed by James Ward Byrkit

Some movies are better the less you know about them beforehand and this is one of them. If you’re planning to see this anytime soon, read no further. If you have seen it and want a different opinion to bounce off of, read on.

On the night a comet is due to pass close by the Earth, Lee (Scafaria) and Mike (Brendon) are throwing a dinner party. Attending are married couple Hugh (Armstrong) and Beth (Gracen), dating couple Em (Foxler) and Kevin (Sterling) and newly dating Amir (Manugian) and Laurie (Maher) who is Kevin’s slutty ex.

The comet’s proximity messes up cell service and actually causes some of the phones to crack their screens spontaneously – why? Someone with a better grasp of physics might explain this one because I can’t. Anyway, soon the power is disrupted and the partiers begin to grow concerned. There is only one house in the neighborhood with lights on and Hugh and Amir volunteer to venture forth and see if  they can use the land line to contact Hugh’s brother, a scientist who specializes in…um, comet phenomena.

Anyway that’s when things begin to get weird. I don’t want to go into it too much because frankly I don’t think I have the brain capacity to explain this properly without  A), messing up the synopsis and B), having my brain explode. Suffice to say that we’re talking some theoretical quantum physics here that the writers seem to have a better grasp of than I ever could.

So what’s to love? Plenty. This is a smart concept, utilizing Schrodinger’s Cat and quantum physics in ways I’ve never seen done in a movie before that didn’t have “Property of Cal Tech” stamped on the disc cover. The writers do manage to explain things fairly clearly so even those of us who didn’t take quantum mechanics back in the day should be able to follow along pretty easily. Clearly the writers have at least a familiarity with the science and that’s kind of refreshing in an era when “dumb (and dumber) is better.”

The acting is pretty sharp with Buffy, the Vampire Slayer‘s Brendon showing some pretty nice chops in a most un-Xander-like role. Foxler, the female lead, reminds me a lot of Elizabeth Olsen and has the potential to become a big star somewhere down the line.

This isn’t a big budget production by any stretch of the imagination. Nearly all the action takes place in a single room and when they do go outside to view the comet it looks realistic enough. This is an example of how you can make a good science fiction film without a big Hollywood budget.

What’s not to love? Well, these are some of the most shallow characters you’re ever going to run into in a film. A friend of mine claims that grounds the film but if I wouldn’t want to spend a moment with any of these characters if they were real, why would I want to spend an hour and a half of my time watching a movie about them? They represent all the things the rest of the country hates about L.A. with wanna-be actors and ballerinas mixing with herbal Earth mamas and talking about Feng Shui and juice cleanses. It’s enough to make you crave an enema after the movie’s over.

I also wasn’t fond of the jump cutting and blackouts that make the film feel choppy. I get that the director is trying to make the viewer feel that something is out of kilter, but it gets old after only a few times it happens and he does it throughout the movie. There’s nothing wrong with trying to do things differently but this was something he should have utilized a little more sparingly. Trust your actor and your story to set the mood.

I wasn’t a big fan of the ending either but to go into it in any length would be to give away too much. Let’s just say that Em doesn’t seem the type to do what she does and I don’t think having a comet pass hundreds of miles away from the Earth is liable to make people behave the way they do here. Nor do I think it would cause an event of this dimension and scope. If you’re going to use physics, at least have the decency to use real world physics consistently. Neil deGrasse Tyson would have a field day with this.

 

It’s definitely fascinating and hopefully if you’ve read this far you’ve already checked it out. I would recommend it to anyone seeking smart science fiction with the caveat that the characters might just drive you to ask for a Joss Whedon rewrite.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating and smart concept. Taut and paranoia-infused.
REASONS TO STAY: Often confusing. Characters so shallow you want to scream.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a smattering of foul language and a scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Elizabeth Gracen won the 1982 Miss America title. Lorene Scafaria directed the apocalyptic comedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Plus One
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Weather Girl

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Into the Storm


They're not in Kansas anymore.

They’re not in Kansas anymore.

(2014) Disaster (New Line) Richard Armitage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Matt Walsh, Max Deacon, Nathan Kress, Alycia Debnam Carey, Arlen Escarpeta, Jeremy Sumpter, Lee Whittaker, Kyle Davis, Jon Reep, Scott Lawrence, David Drumm, Brandon Ruiter, Jimmy Groce, Linda Gehringer, Keala Wayne Winterhalt, Maryanne Nagel, London Elise Moore. Directed by Steven Quale

In this era of climate change and super storms, we have seen Mother Nature’s fury at levels unprecedented in our lifetime and scientists tell us it’s only going to get worse. That may send a chill through most of us but through Hollywood filmmakers it might be classified as more of a thrill.

Silverton, Oklahoma is very much like many small towns its size throughout the United States. High school seniors graduate amid what pomp and circumstance their towns can muster. Teens suffer from a feeling that their parents don’t listen to them. Lovelorn boys work up the courage to talk to beautiful young girls. Video projects get corrupted and need to be redone. Redneck idiots get drunk and do stupid things all for the sake of YouTube glory. And sometimes, bad storms cause havoc.

Gary Morris (Armitage) is the vice-principal at Silverton High School and both of his sons – Donnie (Deacon) and Trey (Kress) attend the school. Donnie is something of a video nerd, president of the school’s audio-visual club and charged with recording the graduation ceremony. He has also been assigned by his father the making of a video time capsule to chronicle his high school years to deliver to himself 25 years later (an excellent idea by the way).

Pete (Walsh) is a storm chaser and documentary filmmaker who is frustrated with the lack of success this storm season. His funding is on the verge of being pulled and his meteorological expert Allison (Callies) has been spectacularly unsuccessful at using the weather data to predict where tornadoes might appear. However, a super cell has formed and there is hope that it will generate enough tornadoes to finally get Pete the shots he needs to complete his documentary. Taking the armored vehicle TITUS which has the ability to lock into the ground and withstand winds of up to 170 MPH, Pete, Allison, cameraman Jacob (Sumpter) and technicians Daryl (Escarpeta) and Lucas (Whitaker) head to where Allison believes the tornadoes will form – Silverton, Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, Donnie overhears Kaitlyn (Carey) being told that her video project had to be turned in that week for her to be considered for a summer internship, even though the video was hopelessly corrupted and needs to be reshot. Prompted by Trey, he offers to help reshoot footage at the abandoned paper mill some 20 miles out of town, even though it will take place during the graduation ceremony he’s supposed to film. Trey isn’t happy that he is now responsible for filming the ceremony and feeling the wrath of Dad.

A couple of knuckleheads named Donk (Davis) and Reevis (Reep) – think of them as a real life Beavis and Butthead – are doing the usual; getting drunk, trying stupid stunts and dreaming of fame and fortune on the Internet when they see the TITUS whizzing by. Sure that something big is up, they follow, hoping to grab some storm footage of their own.

What nobody knows is that the storm that is beginning to form over doomed Silverton is like no other in history and the destructive power more than anything that they could prepare for. While a desperate father searches for his son, the storm chasers bear witness to an American town being wiped systematically from the map.

The good news first. The storm sequences are very well done with no two tornadoes ending up being too alike. Several strike during the course of the film and all with differing results and creating different types of danger. As eye candy summer movies go, Into the Storm delivers.

However, what happens between the storms is what weighs this movie down. The characters in the movie are given little development and exist essentially to be buffeted by wind and debris, to drive maniacally as tornadoes form around them and to wistfully call home and talk with their angry 5-year-old daughter (in Allison’s case).

The movie starts out going the found footage route, mainly using the footage that the storm chasers shoot as well as from Donnie’s video time capsule. Amazingly, about two thirds of the way through the movie, the filmmakers abandon this approach in favor of traditional cinematic forms to tell the story and then return to the found footage thing for a post-storm coda. It’s a bit jarring, and tells me that they didn’t have the courage of their own convictions to stand by one form or another. Commit to it or don’t do it.

Armitage, so good in The Hobbit trilogy and Callies who turned heads as Lori in The Walking Dead sleepwalk their way through this one. Both in their previous roles showed that they are compelling performers but there is nothing compelling here. Perhaps if they’d been given more to work with. Then again, one has to look at the writing credit to realize that the guy who wrote this also wrote Step Up: All In opening the same weekend to realize that this isn’t a screenwriter who specializes in people stories.

In a disaster movie, it’s not just about the disaster; it’s about those put in harm’s way. We have to have a rooting interest in them to survive and we just don’t here. Kudos to the special effects teams for the CGI storms that are breathtaking but this could have been so much better if they’d put in as much care and craft into writing characters that we care one way or the other whether they survive the storm.

REASONS TO GO: The effects work is worth seeing on the big screen.

REASONS TO STAY: The characters are essentially an afterthought. Feels like a theme park attraction more than a movie.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of tornado destruction and mayhem, some teen peril, a smattering of foul language and sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to keep their spirits up during a wet, tiring and miserable shoot, the extras would often spontaneously break out into song. A favorite was the Styx classic “Come Sail Away.”

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twister

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: What If

Lucy


Lucy in the sky with data streams.

Lucy in the sky with data streams.

(2014) Action (Universal) Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Pilou Asbaek, Analeigh Tipton, Nicolas Phongpheth, Jan Oliver Schroeder, Luca Angeletti, Loic Brabant, Pierre Grammont, Pierre Poirot, Bertrand Quoniam, Pascal Loison, Claire Tran, Sifan Shou, Paul Chan, Laura D’Arista (voice). Directed by Luc Besson

What would it be like if we could be smarter? What kind of miraculous change in our lives would we be able to affect? What sort of secrets would we unlock?

The myth is that we only use 10% of our brains – according to Scientific American that’s simply not true. We actually use all of it, which debunks the science in this movie thoroughly. So, let’s play a game of “let’s pretend” that Besson’s assertion here is true, that we go through our lives only using 10% of our potential.

Hard-partying grad student Lucy (Johansson) might not even use that much. She hooks up with Richard (Asbaek), the sort of guy who would set off all sorts of alarm bells in any rational person but apparently that particular function of her brain is inactive. He is supposed to deliver a brief case to Mr. Jang (Choi) in a posh Hong Kong hotel but wants Lucy to do it instead. She is reluctant and they spend the first seven minutes of an 89 minute film arguing about it. Think of a movie starting with an old style Life cereal commercial “I’m not gonna try it you try it” “I’m not gonna try it – hey let’s get Lucy! She won’t like it! She hates everything!” “She likes it! Hey Lucy!”

 

Actually she is forced to do it when he cuffs the briefcase to her wrist and tells her that Jang is the only one who can remove it. Jang turns out to be a ruthless criminal and Richard, instead of saving his own skin, ends up being the first to exit stage left. Lucy is hustled up to a swanky suite where Jang has just finished murdering a couple of people, stepping over corpses and washing his blood soaked hands in front of an understandably panicky Lucy.

She is knocked out and when she wakes up, there is an incision in her tummy and she is told she is to be a drug mule, transporting a new drug called CPH4 which Jang’s suave English speaking flunky (Rhind-Tutt) assures her that the kids in Europe are going to love. However through a set of unforeseen circumstances, the bag of drugs begins to leak into her system. Lucy begins to learn at an amazing rate, develops powers of telekinesis and control of magnetic waves. She is able to wave her hands and have people fall asleep. The more of the drug that’s absorbed into her system, the more her powers develop. She goes from 20% to 30%, 30% to 40%.

She is easily able to escape from Jang’s thugs and makes her way to a Hong Kong hospital where she demands that the bag be removed from an astonished surgeon, doubly astonished when she shoots the patient he’s operating on dead, telling him “You couldn’t have saved him. The tumor’s already spread.” Even though there still remains about half a bag of the stuff, the damage is done. Lucy can feel her cells reproducing at an accelerated rate. She estimates she has about 24 hours before her body dies.

She flies to Paris to enlist the aid of Professor Norman (Freeman), an expert on the development of the human brain, as well as Parisian detective Del Rio (Waked) whom she brings aboard to protect her but also to nab three other drug mules sent by Jang to other European cities. She needs the drugs they are carrying to complete her work which is now essentially to download everything she knows, which is growing more considerable. As she inches towards 100% neither Professor Norman nor even Lucy herself knows exactly what’s going to happen.

Besson, who has written or directed some of the most compelling action films of the past 20 years (including The Fifth Element, District B-13 and The Professional) channels Stanley Kubrick a little bit here. He inserts mostly vintage clips of all sorts of things like animals mating, magicians creating illusions and cameras travelling through canyons and across endless oceans to denote the gradual increase in Lucy’s powers and knowledge. He is fairly liberal about it when he should have used it a bit more sparingly; it does get distracting and in a film this short feels like filler it doesn’t need, particularly when he could have used the time to build relationships.

Johansson has never been an actress who has played “smart” but this year with roles in Under the Skin as an alien with a superior intellect, and as the operating system in Her she has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is more than an agent of SHIELD. The trouble is that once the drug enters Lucy’s system Johansson’s expression essentially doesn’t change and she speaks in an emotionless monotone. I’m not sure why it is that in science fiction that evolution of the human species seems to be that we move past our emotions. I would argue that our emotions would evolve along with our intellect but that’s another fight for another day.

The special effects are nifty, with Lucy able to see trees absorbing nutrients through their roots, or streams of data travelling from cell phones to the satellites above. Near the end of the movie she takes a journey backwards through time in a sequence reminiscent of the opening sequence of The Tree of Life only with a human element involved – Lucy meets the first known human ancestor, also named Lucy (not a coincidence with the names, that) – going all the way back to the Big Bang and before.

 

But for all the scientific gobbledygook, my favorite sequence in the film is the most human – a phone conversation between Lucy and her mother (D’Arista) in which Lucy tearfully tells her that she can remember everything – even things she shouldn’t have been able to, like the taste of her mother’s milk in her mouth. It is a sense of saying goodbye, and it is a poignant moment because Lucy knows that she will be evolving past the feelings shortly and not long after, departing this Earth entirely.

The movie is largely unsatisfying. We get Hong Kong-style gun battles and the car chases Besson is known for but little development in the way of the characters. Besson likes to move things along at a frenetic pace and that’s not a bad thing but we get no sense of human connection – other than that one scene I just described – between Lucy and the world so when that connection begins to drift away, there is no sense of loss. Certainly there is some fine eye candy but eye candy alone doesn’t make for a substantive and ultimately satisfying film experience. Besson is certainly capable of delivering on those sorts of films but in this instance he fell short.

REASONS TO GO: Nice premise and some nifty special effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Directing misfires. Johansson misused. Look ma, I’m directing!

FAMILY VALUES:  Violence, some of it disturbing, some drug use and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Angelina  Jolie was originally cast in the title role but had to drop out due to directing commitments and Johansson was cast in her place.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Limitless

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Fluffy Movie

The Father of My Children (Le père de mes enfants)


Even the most ideal families may have their own agonies hidden deep.

Even the most ideal families may have their own agonies hidden deep.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Chiara Caselli, Alice de Lencquesaing, Alice Gautier, Manelle Driss, Eric Elmosnino, Sandrine Dumas, Dominique Frot, Antoine Mathieu, Igor Hansen-Love, Elsa Pharaon, Olivia Ross, Jamshed Usmonov, Cori Shim, Yejin Kim, Philippe Paimblanc, Magne Håvard Brekke. Directed by Mia Hansen-Love

Offshoring

For most of us, having it all would have to include a wonderful, loving family, as well as success at doing a job that we loved doing. Sometimes though, that doesn’t always last.

Gregoire Canvel (L. de Lencquesaing) is a film producer who has had some success in the past. Right now he’s got a difficult director with an even more difficult star and the budget is straining at the gills. He’s dealt with that kind of thing before and his family is his safe harbor in stressful times – wife Sylvia (Caselli), eldest daughter Clemence (A. de Lencquesaing, Louis-Do’s real life daughter), Valentine (Gautier) and youngest Billie (Driss).

With his family, he can escape to idyllic homes and memorable holidays. His daughters worship him and his wife, aware in general of the financial difficulties that his production company is facing, supports him and adores him. Gregoire couldn’t have asked for a better family and he knows it.

But even the most loving, supportive family in the world can’t always protect you from calamity and when it comes, his life – and that of his family – takes a decided left turn, leaving pieces to be picked up and wounds to be healed, some of which may never fully do so.

Although perceptive viewers will probably be able to pick up what is to happen, I’m trying to keep it as obscure as I can because when it does occur, it still comes as something of a shock. The event essentially divides the film into two, with one centering on Gregoire and the other on Sylvia and Clemence. Although the second film is clearly the most emotional and memorable of the two, it would lose its impact without the first.

When most directors present a family in crisis in film, generally things get resolved in an hour and a half of screen time but some things cannot be resolved quite so easily, if at all. The consequences of our actions can have lasting repercussions not only on our own lives but on those around us, even on the very periphery. Hansen-Love seems to understand this better than most and uses both stories to drive home the point.

The cast isn’t as well-known in the States as it is in France, but certainly Louis-Do de Lencquesaing has the charisma to transcend language and subtitles. We watch his character slowly unravel, going from a confident, hard-working hustler with a cell phone constantly glued to his ear (sometimes more than one) to a shell of himself, one who no longer has the ability to cope with even the slightest problem. Having seen that kind of thing happen to a man in real life (more than one, in fact) Gregoire’s fall rings true. That we can see it coming and nobody else around him does is truly the tragedy here – often the ones closest to us are the ones we see the least clearly.

This isn’t always an easy movie to watch and if I have a problem with it it’s that the movie ended before the story did, which again is real life – a mini-series probably wouldn’t have been enough. We are drawn to these characters, come to care about them and then poof, they’re gone with so much unresolved. I wanted to know that they were all going to be all right and clearly Hansen-Love doesn’t want you to have a definitive answer on that. Normally, I’m all with that sort of thing but I think the movie did its job too well – when the end credits were rolling I felt frustrated. But at no point did I ever feel that I wasn’t watching a superior film – and this one is.

WHY RENT THIS: A searing emotional drama. Some terrific performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: I would have liked to see a bit more of how the family coped after the closing credits.

FAMILY VALUES: Some very adult themes, some bad language and some smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on the life of French producer Humbert Balsan.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $479,282 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this movie broke even at best.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ordinary People

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Mud

The Adjustment Bureau


The Adjustment Bureau

Matt Damon tries to explain that the Sarah Silverman music video was a joke.

(2011) Science Fiction (Universal) Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, Terence Stamp, John Slattery, Michael Kelly, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Anthony Ruvivar, Lauren Hodges, Jennifer Ehle. Directed by George Nolfi

There are a couple of schools of thought about how the universe works – one in which things are pre-determined, planned in advance and that we are helpless to escape our destiny. The other says things are random chance and our own free will determines our choices.

David Norris (Damon) is an ambitious politician who was the youngest man ever elected to Congress. He’s running for Senate and has a big lead in the polls until a photo from his college days sinks him. He is in a hotel bathroom, running over his concession speech when he meets Elise Sellas (Blunt) who was hiding from hotel security in a stall when he walked in. They meet, flirt, kiss…and Norris is inspired to deliver a speech that makes him an immediate frontrunner for the next election.

David goes to work for his friend and former campaign manager Charlie Traynor (Kelly), a venture capitalist. David is on his way to work when he meets, quite by chance, Elise on a bus. A man in an old-fashioned suit wearing a fedora who we later found out is named Harry Mitchell (Mackie), chases the bus, trying desperately to spill coffee on the former Congressman. He is unsuccessful and David not only gets Elise’s phone number, he gets to work on time.

There he finds things a little strange. Nobody is moving…the people are frozen in position. Strangely dressed men are holding up strange instruments to Charlie’s forehead. David takes off in a dead run to try and escape but he’s captured. He is brought to a large warehouse-like space where another man – dressed similarly to Harry in a grey suit and a fedora – named Richardson (Slattery) tells him that he’s seen behind a curtain he wasn’t supposed to know existed.

You see, life is supposed to go according to plan – a specific plan – and they’re the guys who make sure it does. David and Elise were not supposed to meet again, as it turns out – they’re not meant to be together. Richardson burns the number Elise gave him and sends him on his way with a warning never to tell anybody about the Adjustment Bureau – or else he’ll be lobotomized.

Thus begins a cat and mouse game between David and the Adjustment Bureau. David trying to get back together again with Elise…the Bureau trying to keep them apart. Eventually, a higher-up named Thompson (Stamp) is drawn into the case but how can David find the love of his life when men who can alter reality itself are arrayed against him?

George Nolfi is directing for the first time; he’s better known as a writer for such movies as Oceans 12. He shows a surprisingly deft hand at the helm – he’s got a solid future in directing if he continues to direct.

He also scripted, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, whose works have been turned into such films as Minority Report, Total Recall and Blade Runner. Movies based on Dick’s work have varied in execution; this one, I’m happy to say, is one of the better ones. It brings up an age-old argument in a sci-fi setting and while Dick was firmly on the free will side of the discussion (as is Nolfi), he does make a credible argument for the other side as well.

Damon is one of the more appealing A-list actors; he has become a terrific everyman in the vein of Jimmy Stewart, and he continues to improve with every performance. This is another one, and he is certainly solid again, dependable and likable. He also has good chemistry with Blunt; while her character is a little bit bland, she does an admirable job filling it. Their back and forth reminds me a bit of the romantic comedies of the 50s.

There aren’t a lot of special effects; mostly the effects are optical, particularly in sequences involving doorways that transport the bureau men from one place to places far away. There’s a chase sequence involving David and the Bureau men late in the film that’s dazzling but also dizzying…it’s a little disorienting even as David goes by a variety of New York landmarks, including Yankee Stadium and the Statue of Liberty. It’s on the breathtaking side.

Mackie is emerging as a tremendous actor. An Oscar nominee for The Hurt Locker, he is very solid here as a Bureau man with a conscience. Slattery, who is one of those “you’ve seen his face but don’t know his name” kind of guys, also does real well as the bureaucrat (pun intended). Terence Stamp is, well, Terence Stamp.

While the movie is being marketed in Bourne-like fashion (Universal has worked with Damon on those films) this really isn’t. It’s a bit of a pastiche – part romantic comedy, part morality play, part sci-fi action thriller. It’s unusual and while not innovative, it fits the bill for a springtime action movie that probably would have drowned in the summer with all the more spectacular blockbusters. Still, it’s a solid and surprisingly thoughtful movie that even has a few religious overtones – you draw your own conclusions as to who the chairman is. This is the kind of movie that has good juju – it’s entertaining and smart. You can’t ask for more than that.

REASONS TO GO: An interesting concept nicely accomplished. Damon is becoming a 21st century Jimmy Stewart.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the plot ideas are a little hard to follow and the final chase scene is disorienting.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of sex, a little bit of violence and a little bit of strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the short story which the movie is based on, the lead character is an insurance salesman rather than a politician.  

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the overhead city shots benefit from the big screen, most of the rest of the movie works on the small screen just as nicely.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: What Goes Up

Eagle Eye


Eagle Eye

Shia LaBeouf discovers that the Republicans have control of the House.

(2008) Action Thriller (DreamWorks) Shia LaBeouf, Michelle Monaghan, Billy Bob Thornton, Rosario Dawson, Michael Chiklis, Anthony Mackie, Ethan Embry, Anthony Azizi, Bill Smitrovich, William Sadler. Directed by D.J. Caruso

George Orwell, a writer in the 1930s, predicted a society in which a somewhat fascistic government has complete knowledge of your activities and observes you via cameras placed everywhere. In this society, the rights of the individual have become secondary to the rights of the state, and the “Big Brother” figure, meant to be reassuring and friendly, becomes sinister and twisted.

Does any of that sound familiar? Our society has used defense against terrorism as an excuse to invade our privacy in every conceivable way. Our phone calls are monitored without our knowledge. Our internet usage is monitored without our knowledge. Our credit cards and bank accounts are monitored without our knowledge. I wouldn’t be surprised if our bowel movements are also being monitored. If that all sounds a bit paranoid, it’s probably from watching too many movies like this one.

Jerry Shaw (LaBeouf) is a slacker who works in a copy store (one not unlike Kinko’s) and lives hand to mouth. He’s far smarter than the job he does requires, but he seems to be pretty satisfied with underachieving. He then gets devastating news; his twin brother, a high ranking officer in the military, has passed away suddenly in an unusual accident.

Jerry goes home for the funeral where he and his father get into the same old argument; “When are you going to do something with your life? When are you going to be more like your brother?” Blah blah blah.  When Jerry gets home his empty bank account suddenly has three quarters of a million dollars in it. When he opens his apartment door, there are cases of weapons, explosives and enough stuff to blow up a whole chunk of city. He also gets a phone call from a mostly expressionless female voice informing him he needs to leave the apartment within ten seconds or be arrested by the F.B.I. Jerry is understandably overwhelmed and a bit skeptical…until ten seconds later when the F.B.I. barges into his apartment and arrests him.

He is being held as a terrorist by Agent Thomas Morgan (Thornton) in a cushy high rise which of course is what most F.B.I. offices seem to look like these days. In the meantime, Rachel Hollomon (Monaghan) sees off her son at the train station; he’s going with his elementary school band to play for the President in Washington D.C. She also gets a phone call from the same expressionless female voice that called Jerry, warning her that if she doesn’t follow instructions to the letter, her son’s train will be derailed. To prove that They can do it, the expressionless female voice shows live security cam pictures of her son on television sets in a nearby electronic store window (do electronic stores even have television sets in windows anymore?) so she does what she is told.

Back to Jerry. He receives another phone call from the expressionless female voice essentially telling him to duck. More of a believer this time, he does duck – particularly when he sees a giant crane arm hurtling towards the window. He is told to jump and with F.B.I. agents shooting at him, he jumps. Eventually he winds up on an elevated train – did I mention this was set in Chicago? Not that it matters. In any case, Jerry loses his cell phone so the expressionless female voice – or EFV as I’ll refer to it from here on in – calls him on someone else’s cell phone. Or, shall I be more accurate and say everyone else’s cell phone.

It becomes obvious that the EFV is the voice of an organization that has control of just about everything electronic, from traffic signals to cell phones to automated car crushers to satellites to power grids. That in itself is pretty impressive, but what does the EFV want, what part do nobodies like Jerry and Rachel play in the grand scheme of things and when is the next car chase?

Those are the kinds of questions you’ll be asking yourself when you watch this movie. Director D.J. Caruso previously worked with LaBeouf on the much better Disturbia which was also much smaller in scope. Not that I mind bigger scope, by the way.

The problem here is not so much with the acting, although LaBeouf and Monaghan don’t get much time to do any; they’re far too busy hurtling from one action sequence to another at breakneck speeds. The problem here is that the writers kind of write themselves into a corner. They make the EFV so omnipresent, so powerful that you wonder why someone so smart and so in charge couldn’t just take much easier short cuts rather than running two bedraggled citizens ragged on a cross country chase.

The movie obviously owes a lot to some classic suspense movies, like The Man Who Knew Too Much and movies like War Games and Colossus: The Forbin Project (while I’m dancing around who is behind the EFV, most folks know by now who it is either from having seen the movie, reading about it or just reading this review). It feels a bit like a pastiche, although Caruso proves himself more than capable with action sequences. There are some pretty nifty ones here, particularly one that takes place in an airport baggage conveyer system, and near the end in the streets of Washington D.C.

Dawson enters the movie early on as a military intelligence officer investigating the death of Jerry’s twin. She stumbles on this whole mess by mistake and winds up making a nice foil to Thornton’s corn pone F.B.I. agent; the two bicker quite a bit from the movie and provide some much-needed comic relief.

The key to enjoying a movie like this one is understanding its limitations. This isn’t meant to be examined seriously or given much attention to its own internal logic. The fact is that Eagle Eye does what it means to do quite well. It’s a roller coaster, not a math quiz, and it’s meant to be enjoyed without thinking too much about it. Just put your hands in the air and let the ride take you where it will.

WHY RENT THIS: Some great action and wonderful stunts to be seen here. The movie raises some interesting questions about how safe are we with all the surveillance that goes on, and how easily that information can be abused.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There is a bit of a preposterous factor, and LaBeouf and Monaghan do not make for the most compelling leads ever.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence, as well as some choice words but nothing I would fret too much about.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of the EFV a.k.a. Aria, the computer program which is heard over cell phones and in the underground bunker, was voiced by an uncredited Julianne Moore.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The standard single disc DVD release has no features to speak of; on the 2-disc special DVD edition and the Blu-Ray, viewers are treated to a discussion between Caruso and his mentor, director John Badham whose War Games is obviously an inspiration for this (Caruso served as a second unit director on that film). There’s also an interesting but generic piece on the constitutionality of surveillance.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $178.1M on an $80M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Tokyo!

The Signal


The Signal

End transmission.

(2007) Horror (Magnet) Anessa Ramsey, Sahr Ngaujah, AJ Bowen, Matt Stanton, Suehyla El-Attar, Justin Welborn, Cheri Christian, Scott Poythress, Christopher Thomas, Lindsey Garrett, Chadrian McKnight. Directed by David Brucker, Jacob Gentry and Dan Bush

When the end of the world comes, how would you spend it? Would you want to be with the one you love to face the inevitable or would you fight for survival?

The end of the world has come to Terminus, although the people there don’t know it. Mya Denton (Ramsey) is having an affair with Ben (Welborn) who begs her to come with her to the bus station and leave her abusive husband Lewis (Bowen) behind. Mya can’t quite bring herself to do it and she goes home to her husband, who is having an argument with two friends as they watch the ball game. Suddenly, Lewis grabs a baseball bat and begins beating one of his friends to death with it. Batter up.

This section, titled “Transmission I: Crazy Love” was directed by Brucker. Up next is “Transmission II: The Jealousy Monster” directed by Gentry. Mya and Lewis’ friend Rod (Ngaujah) try to get away but Rod has been infected by the signal and causes their car to crash. Nice guy Clark (Poythress) tries to make sure Mya’s okay but she doesn’t trust anyone so she warns him off and makes for the bus station on foot. Meanwhile Clark’s neighbor Anna (Christian), who is throwing a New Year’s Eve party, is distressed over having had to murder her husband who was trying to strangle her. This has driven her over the edge and she thinks that Clark is her husband. Lewis arrives, completely enraged and hallucinating badly, believes that Anna is Mya. Jim Parsons (McKnight), an invited guest, arrives and believes he wants to get laid. Lewis kills everybody just to make things less confusing.

The final section is “Transmission III: Escape from Terminus” and is directed by Bush (by a process of elimination). In this portion, Ben escapes to try and find Mya and Lewis heads over to try and find her first, as the city crumbles into chaos. What state will she be in when they find her?

Each of the three sections is done in a different style; the first is a kind of indie drama, while the second is black comedy; the third is action packed. It can get a little bit jarring moving from section to section, but mostly, the actors all remain the same.

While these are essentially unknowns, the acting is pretty decent enough – I’ve seen worse with bigger budgets. The effects are essentially bargain basement as you might guess, but there are so few of them that mostly it’s about fake blood and make-up wounds which are relatively inexpensive compared to CGI. Everything else is just a matter of planning and luck.

Most indie horror movies have a tendency to either be too cerebral to be truly terrifying, or too gory to be terrifying (one gets numbed to gore pretty quickly). The Signal finds the right balance and ends up being terrifying. While the concept of signals sent over the airwaves to cause mass psychosis is nothing new, this is one of the best versions I’ve seen. It’s equally irreverent as it is relevant to our use of technology and the dangers of being too reliant on it. If you’re looking for a scare flick you haven’t seen yet to while away a Friday night, this one might be for you.

WHY RENT THIS: As indie horror films go, this is a gem. Less claustrophobic than Pontypool and certainly a little wackier.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Three separate directors directing separately make for some interesting style differentials, but this can also be unnecessarily distracting.

FAMILY VALUES: A lot of bloody, gory violence and a good deal of filthy language. There’s some brief nudity and sexual innuendo as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fictional city in the film is called Terminus, which was the original name of the city of Atlanta, Georgia where the movie was actually filmed.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are several online viral videos that marketed the movie before its limited release, including the bloody results at a television station when the signal first arrives as well as a cheerful family picnic amidst the carnage and mayhem of the apocalypse. Two minutes of the short The Hap Hapgood Story were aired during the film; the entire ten-minute short is thoughtfully provided here. Finally, you can see the signal itself, eight hours and 24 minutes worth, if you really want to.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $371,568 on an unreported production budget; while there’s a chance the project made money, it probably didn’t.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: The Celestine Prophecy