Pacific Rim: Uprising


Giant robots are inherently cool.

(2018) Science Fiction (Universal) John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Cailee Spaeny, Burn Gorham, Charlie Day, Jing Tian, Max Zhang, Rinko Kikuchi, Karan Brar, Wesley Wong, Ivanna Sakhno, Mackenyu, Lily Ji, Shyrley Rodriguez, Rahart Adams, Levi Meaden, Dustin Clare, Chen Zitong, Calvin Yu, Qian Yongchen, Zeppelin Hamilton, Jiaming Guo, Lyric Lan. Directed by Stephen S. DeKnight

 

This sequel to Guillermo Del Toro’s 2013 giant robots versus giant aliens Japanese cult film lovefest Pacific Rim isn’t going to overtax your intellect nor excite your imagination much; rather it operates on a completely visceral level, relying on eye candy special effects and chest-thumping militaristic dialogue from every action film ever.

]Set ten years after the original, the world is emerging from the invasion of the kaiju behemoths that nearly wiped out humanity. The fleet of giant robotic jaegers, piloted by two humans with minds linked by a neural bridge, are largely for show as the world rebuilds. Then, a rogue kaiju shows up and the world is woefully unprepared. Not only that but there is a giant conspiracy afoot. What is a war-weary world to do?

\Most of the cast of the original is absent, notably lead Charlie Hunnam whose character is mentioned in passing. Boyega plays the son of the first film’s Idris Elba character. Kikuchi, Gorham and Day are the only returnees of note. More importantly, Del Toro was off winning himself an Oscar and therefor had no time for the sequel.

The first film did boffo box office in China, rescuing it from red ink so the sequel is set mainly in China and has a predominantly Chinese cast. Fair enough. However, there is a Chinese reliance on oversold humor and shouted dialogue. This is a very loud movie indeed. It is also predictable as it seems cobbled together from a variety of movies. Having four writers will do that to a would-be blockbuster.

The special effects are what rescue the film; they are indeed impressive. You also can’t go wrong with giant robots battling Godzilla-like creatures. However, this sequel gets perilously close to doing just that.

REASONS TO SEE: The special effects are pretty nifty.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sadly predictable and goes completely off the rails in the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sci-fi action violence and a bit of profanity
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Several of the supporting actors appeared in the Spartacus series, including DeKnight who created the cable TV show.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Vudu,YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews: Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Transformers: The Last Knight
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Bored in the USA

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)


Hercule Poirot is on the job!

(2017) Mystery (20th Century Fox) Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Penélope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Sergei Polunin, Lucy Boynton, Marwan Kenzan, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe, Phil Dunster, Miranda Raison, Rami Nasr, Hayat Kamille, Michael Rouse, Hadley Fraser, Kathryn Wilder. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

 

Train travel has a certain romance to it. Strangers trapped in a metal tube, rumbling across the countryside. Anything can happen; anything at all.

Many might be familiar with the classic Agatha Christie novel, one of the most famous mysteries ever written. Some might be familiar with the even more classic 1974 movie based on it which starred such legends as Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins and Richard Widmark. This new remake stars Kenneth Branagh (who also directed) as the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played by Albert Finney in the original) who is returning to England following a grueling series of cases leading to a successful resolution in Istanbul – not Constantinople.

Taking the Orient Express back home, he is approached by Ratchett (Depp) who is looking for protection after receiving some threatening letters. Poirot, exhausted, turns down the case. The next morning, Ratchett turns up dead. The train is stuck after an avalanche buries the tracks. As crews arrive to dig the tracks out so the train might continue, Poirot must solve the case quickly but there are a number of suspects – everyone in the Calais coach had opportunity and some even had motive. Soon it becomes apparent that the murder has links to a famous unsolved crime of years past.

The Sidney Lumet-directed 1974 version to which this will inevitably be compared was a light-hearted romp with a Poirot who was quirky but undoubtedly a genius. This Poirot is more tortured than quirky, a man who realizes his own obsession with perfection will leave him perpetually disappointed in life and of course he is. This is a different Poirot than any we’ve ever seen onscreen, whether David Suchet of the excellent BBC series or Peter Ustinov of several all-star Christie cinematic adaptations which followed the success of Murder on the Orient Express. The tone here is certainly darker than we’re used to seeing from a Christie adaptation.

Michelle Pfeiffer turns in an extraordinary performance as the predatory divorcee Mrs. Hubbard, portrayed by Bacall back in 1974. While Bacall was loud-mouthed and brassy, Pfeiffer is intense and smart. Once again the characters are very different although there are some recognizable similarities. Pfeiffer twenty years ago was one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood which she remains; that beauty often overshadowed her acting talent which is considerable. Although not in the league of Meryl Streep (who is in a league of her own), she is one of the four or five best American actresses working in film today.

Most of the rest of the cast do at least adequate jobs. Depp is as restrained as he’s been in a decade, playing Ratchett as a thug more so than Widmark did in the same role. Dame Judi Dench is, well, Judi Dench. She brings dignity and a regal air to the role of Princess Dragomiroff. Penélope Cruz has a thanklessly un-glamorous role that she makes her own.

I should mention the cinematography. The 1974 film primarily took place aboard the train. Certainly the Orient Express is the star and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos takes great pains to present her from every angle conceivable. Occasionally he goes a bit overboard – an overhead shot in one of the train’s cars gives us an uncomfortably long view of the tops of the actors heads – but he also manages to make the snowy Yugoslavian countryside look positively idyllic.

Let me be plain; this film is not as good as the 1974 version and I don’t think Branagh had any illusions that it ever could be. However, it is different than that 1974 version and one that is just as valid. You may not love this film in the same way that you loved the original but there is a good chance you’ll at least respect it. You may even want to see it more than once.

REASONS TO GO: Fans of the 1974 version will find the approach here very different. Branagh and Pfeiffer are outstanding. The cinematography is gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: The tone here is much darker than the 1974 version. This isn’t nearly as good as the original which it will inevitably be compared to. You don’t get as good a sense of the era it is supposed to be set in.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence as well as violent thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The song played over the closing credits was sung by Michelle Pfeiffer and the lyrics written by Branagh.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Death on the Nile
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Wonder

Futureworld


The future is phallic.

The future is phallic.

(1976) Science Fiction (American Independent) Peter Fonda, Blythe Danner, Arthur Hill, John Ryan, Stuart Margolin, Yul Brynner, Alan Ludden, John Fujioka, Dana Lee, Burt Conroy, Darrell Larson, Nancy Bell, Judson Pratt, Jim Antonio, Mike Scott, Ed Geldard, Charles Krohn, Jim Everhart, Jan Cobbler, James Connor, Catherine McClenny. Directed by Richard T. Heffron

sci-fi-spectacle

This was a sequel to the popular hit film Westworld which on the day this is being published is making its debut as an HBO miniseries. Rather than a major studio behind the wheel however, AIP was funding this and of course as was typical for AIP films there was a kind of TV movie-of-the-week quality to the proceedings.

Following the disaster at Westworld the Delos resort is trying to regroup. They are so confident that they can resume their resort life of allowing guests to live their fantasies, no matter how illegal or immoral they are, with robots bearing the brunt of sexual congress and murder. Their publicity shill, Duffy (Hill) is so sure that the bugs have been worked out and that the guests are completely safe that he has invited a pair of reporters – print columnist Chuck Browning (Fonda) who helped expose the disaster at Westworld – and Tracy Ballard (Danner), a once-upon-a-time journalist who was fired by Browning but became a famous TV news personality. The two couldn’t be more opposite if they could try, which in movie-speak means they’re going to fall in love.

Westworld has closed (although we get to visit the ruins and get a hand job for doing it), but Delos has retained Romanworld and Medievalworld as well as adding two new resorts – Spaworld which gives the illusion of eternal life and youth, and Futureworld, which allows the wonders of the solar system to be experienced from the comfort of a cruise ship-like spaceship.

Browning is a cynical, suspicious sort – particularly after a tipster named Frenchy (Geldard) shows up dead with an envelope full of newspaper clippings. Browning means to do some investigatin’ and Woodward and Bernstein ain’t got nuthin on him. In the meantime he flirts with Ballard, calling her by the pet name “Socks” which isn’t as endearing as he thinks. And with the aid of disgruntled maintenance worker Harry (Margolin), Browning begins to uncover a horrific plot going on at Delos with the sinister Dr. Schneider (Ryan) at its very center.

All this was supposed to take place in 1985 and while some of the technology isn’t there yet (human-looking and acting robots) the computers and electronics looked positively archaic by the time 1985 actually arrived. AIP was hoping to cash in on a hit movie which the original studio, MGM, had tried to develop but couldn’t get a script and a budget they wanted. AIP didn’t really care about the script and as for budget, well, let’s just say that they didn’t scrimp but they didn’t break the bank either.

Fonda was at the time still trying to kick his counterculture image of Easy Rider and so his “stick it to the man” mentality that Browning possesses struck a chord with his fans. Part of the dated element of this film is that I don’t think that reporters are as considered heroic and anti-establishment now as they were in the wake of the Watergate investigation of the Washington Post which had just taken place a few years earlier. These days we mostly look as reporters as part of the corporate media machine. They essentially do little to report the news and more to sell advertising and for certain don’t look out for the little guy.

Danner was a hottie back in the day; we sometimes forget that Gwynneth’s beauty came from somewhere. However, AIP wanted this to be more or less compatible with network television standards, so there is virtually no sex, hardly any violence and no swearing. It was a different time.

Brynner, making his last screen appearance, reprises his role as the Gunslinger from the first film (the only actor who appears here from Westworld) and his menacing glare is one of the highlights of the film. Most of the rest of the performances were fairly pedestrian although Ryan did do some mustache-twirling scene chewery as the true big bad, in a generic 70s TV movie kind of way.

Most of the movie seems to have the actors running around the bowels of Delos with a lot of pipes, catwalks and wires which I suppose is better than having to construct futuristic-looking sets. None of it makes a lot of sense but overall, it’s surprisingly entertaining. I first saw it as a teen boy and I carry with me the fond memories of seeing it in a theater which may color my appreciation of it now. Still, while this isn’t the kind of movie that attracts a cult following, it’s still got enough going to make it kind of fun and quite frankly that’s far more than a lot of contemporary films can say.

WHY RENT THIS: There is some fun robot action. Yul Brynner makes a menacing but silent villain. Surprisingly entertaining throughout in a guilty pleasure kind of way.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very dated. Doesn’t make a whole lot of logical sense. The performances seem mailed in.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality and mild profanity and a few disturbing images as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film to utilize 3D imagery, as well as being Brynner’s final film.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
SITES TO SEE: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Westworld
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years

Zootopia


Only someone crazy like a fox could smile at the DMV.

Only someone crazy like a fox could smile at the DMV.

(2016) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Jason Bateman, Ginnifer Goodwin, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, J.K. Simmons, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, Shakira, Raymond S. Persi, Della Saba, Maurice LaMarche, Phil Johnston, Tiny Lister, Fuschia!, John DiMaggio, Katie Lowes, Kath Soucie. Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush

In the animal kingdom, there are different, distinct roles; some are predators, others are prey. The law of the jungle has existed for as long as there’s been in jungle. Predators and prey generally don’t become friends.

That’s not how it is in Zootopia, a metropolis in which anthropomorphic animals live in peace and harmony. “Anyone can become anything” is the motto, and for Judy Hoppe (Goodwin), a perky rabbit living on a carrot farm in the sticks (sorry, couldn’t resist) “anything” means a police officer, something no rabbit has ever achieved.

So despite the deep misgivings of her Mom (Hunt) and Dad (Lake), she heads for the big city and against all odds, graduates the academy and becomes part of a new initiative from Mayor Lionheart (Simmons) to integrate more mammals into the police force much to the disgust of Chief Bogo (Elba), she joins the central city force. Except that Bogo, having little regard for what skills she might possess, assigns her to meter maid duties.

With the encouragement of Assistant Mayor Bellwether (Slate), an overworked sheep, she perseveres and when an opportunity to take a missing persons…,er, animals case, she plunges in with both paws. With the only clue leading to smug con-fox Nick Wilde (Bateman), the two traditional enemies become partners, and eventually learn to respect and care for each other. However, their investigation turns up a massive plot whose origins lead deep into the corridors of power in Zootopia.

Disney has hit another one out of the ballpark from a box office standpoint and it’s easy to see why. For one thing, kids love their animals and what’s not to love about cuddly rabbits and smug foxes, even if the main fox here looks identical to the title character of Robin Hood – Ooo de lally. Not a problem for the younger set, but for veteran Disneyphiles, it can be distracting.

The movie tackles some pretty complex and timely subjects; the division of people into categories (left and right) is not dissimilar as to what you see in Zootopia. While the movie was written before the advent of Trump as a viable presidential candidate, much of the issues being brought up around that candidacy make up the subtext here. No doubt the bean counters at the Mouse House are quite thankful for The Donald’s controversial campaign right about now.

The voices are cast almost perfectly; Goodwin, who portrays a plucky warrior princess in the hit TV show Once Upon a Time transmits the inner core of that character to the animated feature without making the characters too similar. Bateman, a natural wiseass, also inhabits Nick to a “T” carrying the smug smooth-talking con artist off much as he did in Bad Words. The interaction between the two is genuine and warm, and makes it easy to root for the both of them.

There are a ton of in-jokes, from references to other Disney and Pixar movies (including a hell of a lot that are not but make sense in any case) and to gags based on the theme parks and Disney merch. It’s a little bit Shrek­-like in the rapid fire cultural touchstones but that doesn’t mean it won’t delight adults as well as kids. However, the storyline is a bit derivative even if the subject matter is pretty high on the food chain for a kid’s movie. I suspect there will be a little bit of discussion about this movie long after it’s passed from it’s theatrical run. It probably could have used some judicious trimming, about ten minutes worth I’d say.

Disney’s designers and animators also deserve kudos for the overall environment of Zootopia. Divided into a number of zones – rain forest, sub-Saharan desert, rural farmland, savanna, and even a miniature city for the mice and other smaller creatures, each one is imaginative and believable. Zootopia is a place you’d want to visit – even if you have just the two paws.

REASONS TO GO: Complex story concept. Nice interplay between Nick and Judy.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit derivative. It’s also a little bit long.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of rude humor, some mild thematic elements and animated action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original concept had the story revolving around Nick Wilde but when early test audiences didn’t identify strongly with the character, the decision was made to make Judy Hoppe the focus and the film was re-edited.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monsters, Inc.
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Brainwashing of My Dad

Daybreakers


Ethan Hawke tends bar.

Ethan Hawke tends bar.

(2009) Horror (Lionsgate) Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Vince Colosimo, Michael Dorman, Isabel Lucas, Claudia Karvan, Paul Sonkkila, Mungo McKay, Emma Randall, Charlotte Wilson, Christopher Kirby, John Gibson, Carl Rush, Tiffany Lamb, Robyn Moore, Michelle Atkinson, Glen Martin, Damien Garvey, Jay Laga’aia, Chris Brown, Kirsten Cameron, Candice Storey. Directed by Michael and Peter Speirig

Don’t we all just love those movie trailers that begin with the immortal words “In a world…”? This should have had a trailer like that (and maybe it did) but it might begin “In a world where 95% of the population are vampires.” Now wouldn’t that grab your attention?

Edward Dalton (Hawke) is a hematologist. No big deal to thee and me but in a world (there’s that phrase again) full of vampires it’s an important position, particularly in a world (and yet again) where humans are dying off, meaning the planet’s food supply is hitting critical mass, it’s an important job. Dalton has been tasked by the vampire equivalent of Big Pharma, a company called Bromley Marks, to develop a human blood substitute that vampires can subsist on. Easier said than done since vampires by their nature have rather delicate constitution; a test sample literally causes the subject’s head to explode. Yikes!

This does not make chairman Charles Bromley (Neill) a happy man needless to say and Edward’s day only gets worse on the drive home when he gets into a car accident. Worse still, the car is full of renegade humans. Edward, more of a reluctant vampire who has an aversion to human blood, protects them when the police arrive.

More bad news when he gets home. Edward’s brother Frankie (Dorman) pays him a surprise visit. The brothers have been estranged for some time; Frankie works as a soldier in the human-hunting vampire army and the two have shall we say severe philosophical differences. The two are attacked by a subsider, a bestial vampire who haven’t fed for some time who have lost their memories and identity and exist solely as a slave to their hunger for blood, doesn’t matter whose. The entire vampire race is in danger of becoming these subsiders if a new blood source isn’t found soon. In fact, Bromley candidly admits that Bromley Marks only has about a month’s supply left.

Audrey (Karvan), the leader of the humans that Edward had encountered the previous night, sends him a note to meet her in a desolate spot. There she introduces him to Elvis (Dafoe), a former vampire who has returned to human form again. Edward is excited at the prospect of regaining his humanity and once more venturing out into the sunlight, something vampires are unable to do. He agrees to help Elvis discover how to safely administer the cure.

In the meantime desperation has led to chaos in the vampire community and Edward becomes cognizant of the fact that those who stand to benefit from a blood shortage are the ones who would also benefit from a cure never reaching the vampire community. Games of politics and power are afoot and both the human and vampire species hang in the balance. Can Edward and his human allies get the cure out to the vampires before both species go extinct?

The brothers Speirig got this gig on the strength of Undead, their clever and innovative 2003 zombie movie. This isn’t quite up to those standards, although I will admit their vision of a vampire society ruling the globe is intelligently thought out. The vampire society is believable as an extension of our own, with similar values albeit a more cavalier attitude towards morality. Although not by much.

For those of us who love B-movies, there is plenty here to love – nasty creatures, plenty of gore and violence, a bit of sexiness and some over-the-top visuals. Everything to pander to the baser instinct of the moviegoer which is not in and of itself a bad thing. Sometimes we need the schlock entertainment of a good grindhouse movie. Quentin Tarantino recognizes that and more and more filmmakers have come to understand just how informed our society is by these movies.

The sense of humor here is quirky and a bit on the sick side, so if you like your jokes punctuated by exploding body parts, this will no doubt appeal to you. Most of the action sequences with a couple of exceptions are well-staged and exciting, although not what you would call game-changing. Nothing new here, but what is here is well-executed.

I wish I could say the same about the cinematography and visual effects. Due to their aversion to UV light, the vampires live their lives essentially indoors and in bunker-like conditions. This makes for murky atmospherics made worse when there seems to be a constant out-of-focus element to the photography. Now perhaps I got a poorly processed disc for home viewing but everything looked like it was filmed with bad fluorescent lighting, making everything look dreary. The CGI are likewise slapdash and could have used a bit of refinement.

Other than that this is solidly entertaining and Hawke, while not one of his better roles, at least makes a game effort for a genre he has admitted he’s not terribly fond of. Dafoe is, well, Dafoe and that should tell you all you need to know about his performance. Most of the rest of the cast are fairly unknown here in the States (this is an Australian production; the German-born brothers Speirig have lived there since boyhood) but are pretty competent. While this is more of an action film, I did miss the sensuality that most vampire films tend to have; it could have used a little more of it.

Still in an era where vampire movies have essentially lost their luster due to the Twilight/Vampire Chronicles generation, this is one of those rarities – a vampire movie that actually appeals to more than the preteen female audience. It is appealing in an ironic sort of way that the vampire protagonist here shares a first name with the romantic focus of Twilight. I for one am happy to champion these sorts of films if it means that we can get the nastier monsters of old that we used to love to fear.

WHY RENT THIS: B-Movie goodness. A sick sense of humor while not for everybody, was good for some intentional laughs.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Dark and murky cinematography. Cringe-worthy CGI.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly strong bloody violence, brief nudity and a fair amount of cursing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After being filmed in 2007, the movie sat on the studio shelf for more than a year before being released overseas. It’s American release was on January 8, 2010 – nearly three years after filming had been completed.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a short film the Speirig brothers directed from 2000 that gives a good sense of their visual style, as well as a gallery showing the various lobby posters and marketing for the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $51.4M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stake Land
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Case 39

I, Robot


Ever feel alone in a crowd?

Ever feel alone in a crowd?

(2004) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Alan Tudyk, James Cromwell, Bruce Greenwood, Adrian L. Ricard, Chi McBride, Jerry Wasserman, Fiona Hogan, Peter Shinkoda, Terry Chen, David Haysom, Scott Heindl, Sharon Wilkins, Craig March, Shia LaBeouf, Simon R. Baker, Kyanna Cox, Emily Tennant, Tiffany Knight. Directed by Alex Proyas

Isaac Asimov was one of the giants of science fiction. Like many of the sci-fi writers of the golden age (and on into today), he had a scientific background. He also had an interest in robotics and wrote many stories on the subject.

Detective Del Spooner (Smith) of the Chicago PD lives in a world that’s a lot different than ours. For one thing, it’s 2035 and robots have become ubiquitous particularly in doing the kind of jobs humans don’t like doing – waste disposal, household work, drudgery. Spooner has a thing about robots – he doesn’t trust them. He’s a bit of a technophobe, preferring the world of the early 21st century which he considers to be the good ol’ days.

When kindly scientist Dr. Alfred Lanning (Cromwell) takes a header from the top of his company’s skyscraper, it looks like suicide at first but Spooner ain’t buying it. Lanning was responsible for most of the advances in robotics that have allowed robots to be so prevalent and his company was about to release their latest model. Their CEO (Greenwood) is keen that there is no hint of trouble on the eve of the release that will put one of their new models in every U.S. home.

Spooner doesn’t like that idea much, particularly since he has a nasty hunch that a robot had something to do with Dr. Lanning’s death. The robot, a twitchy sort named Sonny (Tudyk) may be the key to unlocking a nasty little conspiracy. Disbelieved by his superiors, on the run from homicidal robots and with only a comely robot psychologist (Moynahan) on his side, Spooner will have to save the day – or see humanity become slaves to robots.

It’s hard to believe it but this movie is ten years old now. Doesn’t seem that long since I saw it in the theater but thus is the passage of time. While the CGI  was groundbreaking in its time, these days it looks a little bit dated which is the big trouble with CGI – someone’s always inventing a better mouse trap in the field.

The filmmakers brought in Akiva Goldsman to make the film Will Smith-centric and this is definitely a Will Smith film. He’s onscreen nearly the entire time, and to be honest Spooner isn’t much of a deviation from the typical formula of Will Smith characters. Agent J and Spooner would get along fine.

The character of Sonny is largely shot in motion capture with Tudyk providing both the movement and the voice of the robot and it’s right on, a cross between HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Niles from Frazier. Sonny of all the robots has personality, showing more than the colorless emotionless mechanical voice that we normally get for robots. Sonny can get frustrated and angry but also expresses compassion born of his adherence to the three laws of robotics (an Asimov invention that plays an important role here). Sonny in many ways is more real a character than many flesh and blood characters in the movie.

What irritated me here is that the movie has the opportunity to talk about the relationship between humans and technology and how technology is affecting us as humans. The writers take stabs at it from time to time but almost in a half-hearted manner and without much consequence. There seems to be more of a reliance on car chases and fight scenes than on any real thought. On that aspect, Asimov would have been rolling in his grave had he seen what had become of his work although in all honesty there really isn’t enough of it in there to justify labeling this with Asimov’s name. This turns out to be sheer popcorn entertainment – not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that it could have been so much more. And should have been.

WHY RENT THIS: Sonny is as fully-realized a character as CGI will allow. Will Smith just being Will Smith.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Storyline weak and full of missed opportunities.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly intense but stylized action sequences and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the movie claims to be “inspired by Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot,” there is no story under that name written by Asimov. It is a collection of short stories thematically linked to the Three Laws of Robotics. The movie was originally written separately with no link to Asimov but when Fox optioned the Asimov stories it was decided to adapt the existing screenplay to include the Three Laws and add a character from Asimov’s stories.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: While the original DVD release had no additional features of consequence, the All-Access Collector’s Edition has a Director’s toolbox looking at the three main special effects houses that worked on the film and followed their specific assignments for the film. There are also interviews with Asimov’s daughter and editor discussing the late author’s views on how robots would impact the future. The toolbox feature is also available on the Blu-Ray edition in a truncated from.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $347.2M on a $120M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blade Runner

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Rid of Me

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit


Chris Pine realizes there's No Way Out.

Chris Pine realizes there’s No Way Out.

(2014) Spy Thriller (Paramount) Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, Kenneth Branagh, Peter Andersson, Colm Feore, Lenn Kudrjawizki, Alec Utgoff, Elena Velikanova, Nonso Anozie, Seth Ayott, Gemma Chan, David Paymer, Bogdan Kominowski, Maggie Daniels, Matt Rippy, Hannah Taylor Gordon, David Hayman, Isobel Pravda, Annika Pergament. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

In many ways war has become obsolete. A world war seems pretty unthinkable when so many nations have nuclear capability. In the 21st century rather than waging war on a battlefield, it seems far more effective to wage economic war electronically.

Jack Ryan (Pine) is studying for his doctorate in economics when the World Trade Center comes down. He is moved to join the Marine Corps and is advancing in rank when his helicopter is shot down. He is badly injured and must learn how to walk again. He catches the eye of a pretty physical therapist named Cathy (Knightley) who is preparing to be an eye surgeon and doing a student rotation in PT at Walter Reed. He also catches the eye of Thomas Harper (Costner), head of a CIA team whose mission is to prevent terrorist attacks. Harper recruits Ryan to keep an eye on terrorist money laundering on Wall Street, helping him complete his doctorate and placing him at a high-profile Wall Street firm.

That proves dividends when Jack notices certain accounts at a Russian firm have been hidden from his company. That seems extremely suspicious to Jack so he goes to Moscow to run an audit where he meets billionaire Viktor Cherevin (Branagh) who sets off all of Jack’s up-to-something sensors. Things are further complicated when comely Cathy, now Jack’s girlfriend and completely unaware of his double life as a CIA analyst, impulsively travels to Moscow and becomes caught in the middle of what could be a crippling economic blow to the United States.

As the first Ryan film not to be directly sourced from an existing Tom Clancy novel, the movie rewrites the origins of the bestselling character and updates it somewhat (the first Ryan film appeared in 1990, eleven years before 9-11). Pine becomes the fourth actor to portray Ryan in five films which is perhaps one of the reasons this franchise, while profitable, has never really taken off like Bond for example, which seems to survive the changing of actors much better than Jack Ryan does. Also, the Bond films have surmounted the end of the Cold War much more effectively than the Jack Ryan movies which really need a Soviet presence to work properly.

This is perhaps the least visually impressive of the Ryan movies but yet still packs a decent visual punch. We don’t really get to see the high-tech CIA headquarters much (read: at all) and most of the really impressive visual stuff takes place at the headquarters of the Russian financial corporation that Ryan is auditing.

The cast is fairly impressive, with veteran Costner coming off with the win as the laconic CIA officer who, when asked by Jack if he and Cathy can have a moment to discuss their relationship situation after she discovers his double life, says flatly “No. This is geopolitics, not couples therapy.” It’s a highlight in a movie that lacks light moments.

Pine plays Ryan as a literal analyst; he always seems to be thinking ten steps ahead of things. Often this leaves him feeling cold and unapproachable to the audience. I would have liked to have seen more humanity from Ryan, who as portrayed by Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin and Ben Affleck, always seemed to manage some humanity while still coming off as the smartest guy in the room. Pine gets the second part right.

Branagh, once the heir to Sir Laurence Olivier’s mantle in terms of being the finest actor and director of Shakespeare onscreen, has of late been trying his hand at action movies, having previously directed Thor before taking this one on. He has a fine visual sense as a director and uses that to his advantage here. As for action sequences, there aren’t really a lot of them here – a motorcycle chase near the end of the film, a fight with an assassin in a hotel room and a very suspenseful sequence in which Jack is trying to retrieve data from the computer of Cherevin before getting caught. That contributed I think to what I felt as an overall lack of energy in the movie; it didn’t seem to flow the way I would like an action movie to flow.

As the bad guy, Branagh is very understated (as opposed to the villain he played in The Wild, Wild West in which much scenery was chewed) and makes a nice foil for Ryan, full of quiet menace but with real rage boiling underneath the surface. If the movie were a tiny bit better, he’d have been a classic espionage villain but even as it is he is still a superior villain. I wonder what Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan (still the best of the bunch) would have done with Branagh’s Cherevin.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific cast. Believable plot. Nifty production values.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie has a curious lack of energy.

FAMILY VALUES:  Yeah, there’s violence and some intense action; there’s also some brief strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Costner was originally cast as Jack Ryan in the very first movie in the franchise, The Hunt for Red October but wound up turning it down to make Dances With Wolves instead.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Sum of All Fears

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: I, Frankenstein