Alita: Battle Angel


Angels in battle.

(2019) Science Fiction (20th Century) Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Lana Condor, Idara Victor, Jeff Fahey, Elza Gonzalez, Derek Mears, Leonard Wu, Racer Maximilliano Rodriguez-Avellán, Marko Zador, Rick Yune, Hugo Perez, Casper Van Dien, Elle LaMont. Directed by Robert Rodriguez

 

Alita: Battle Angel has been a passion project for director James Cameron for nearly two decades; unfortunately, his ambitious projects were time-consuming and it has only been recently when the technology caught up to Cameron’s vision for the legendary Japanese manga this is based on.

Scientist-by-day, bounty-hunter-by-night Dr. Edo (Waltz) discovers a deactivated cyborg in a garbage dump. Realizing what she is, he reactivates her, leaving her without memory of her past. Alita (Salazar) is eager to discover who she is, how she knows virtually every fighting style known to man and what’s to become of her. Dr. Edo wants to keep her hidden and safe, but there are forces who are aware they can make a fortune off of Alita, led by the nefarious Vector (Ali). Complicating things is Hugo (Johnson), who becomes the main squeeze of Alita, who dreams of leaving the poverty of Iron City for the paradise of Zalem, the cloud city where the well-heeled hang their hats.

With Cameron busy directing the Avatar sequels, he handed the reins to veteran genre director Rodriguez, remaining with the project as a producer and mentor for Rodriguez. Rodriguez’ strengths lie in action sequences, making him a wise choice. Cameron, perhaps the best director of special effects extravaganzas in history, definitely had a hand in the vision here. There was some controversy regarding the eyes of the Alita character, which are CGI with the oversize that is typical of Japanese manga. Some found the digital effect distracting and creepy, while others found it to be a nice touch regarding the source material. You pretty much get used to it during the course of the film, so I found it to be a non-issue. In any case, the special effects are nonetheless spectacular, even overwhelming. There is definite vision when it comes to the visuals. The motorball sequences, a kind of cross between roller derby and jai alai (and not unlike the sci-fi staple of Rollerball), are easily the best in the film.

But this is where movie theaters are truly missed; without the complete immersion of 3D with Dolby sound, the movie loses something. It simply isn’t as impactful on the home screen. That makes the run time, close to two hours, a little more wearing. And while non-manga fans may be able to get into the film, it really helps to have at least a general knowledge of the artform and non-fans may find themselves turned off by it – and more knowledgeable fans may nit-pick the details.

This is definite eye candy and if you’re missing the summer blockbusters this year, it does make a decent substitution, but at the same time it might make you long for the theatrical experience as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Great visual effects, although they tend to get overwhelming after a while. The motorball sequences are like cinematic crack.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too long. May not appeal to non-manga fans.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sci-fi action violence and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Waltz was recommended to Rodriguez by Quentin Tarantino, a close friend who worked with Rodriguez on the Grindhouse project.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Max, HBO Now, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews, Metacritic: 53/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghost in the Shell
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Guest of Honour

The Man with the Magic Box (Czlowiek z magicznym pudelkiem)


Did you hear the one about the star-crossed lovers?

(2017) Science Fiction (Artsploitation) Piotr Polak, Olga Boladz, Sebastian Staniewicz, Helena Norowicz, Wojciech Zielinski, Bartolemej Firlet, Bartosz Cao, Anna Konieczna, Agata Buzek, Arkadiusz Jakubik, Bogdan Koca, Roma Kox, Bartosz Bielenia, Bartosz Adamczyk, Kamil Tolinski, Modest Rucinski, Marcin Sitek, Piotr Farynski, Kasia Koleczek, Maria Patykiewicz. Directed by Bodo Kox

 

There are movies that spell things out for you and then there are movies that force you to figure things out. I don’t have a problem with the latter kind of cinema but there’s an occupational hazard that the film can lead you down the primrose path without giving you the payoff you deserve for your efforts.

Adam (Polak) wakes up in 2030 with no memory of who he is or what he’s doing in Warsaw. He is given a job as a janitor in a high-tech office building where good-natured Sebastian (Staniewicz) shows him the ropes. It is at work that he encounters Goria (Boladz), a beautiful but somewhat aloof manager – at least she seems to be as she is one of the few who has an “office” of her own – and with whom he falls deeply in love. At first she rebuffs his advances (somewhat caustically, I might add) but during an explosion and fire in a neighboring building causes the panicked workers to flee their own building, the two engage in sweaty, manic sex.

Adam stumbles upon an old-style radio that picks up mysterious broadcasts which might be coming from the year 1952. He also begins to have visions of that era, visions that he struggles to understand. As it turns out, like Billy Pilgrim, he is unstuck in time and whether he will stay in a past ruled by dictatorial communists or in the dystopian future ruled by a KGB-like secret police but which includes Goria, is anybody’s guess.

I’m not 100% sure that this synopsis does the plot justice. Bodo Kox has created a future that looks very lived-in although to be blunt, the technology seems a might more advanced than ten years hence seems likely to produce. Water is severely rationed (which given the situation with climate change seems like a distinct possibility) and privacy is non-existent (which given how little privacy we currently have given that everything we do is recorded). People live in fear of a secret police that are aware of everything they do. It’s not the sort of Brave New World that we signed up for.

The chemistry between Polak and Boladz is a bit complicated; at times there is a genuine bond apparent between them but at others there’s a distance that’s just as tangible. That chemistry is central to the success or failure of this film and I can’t say that it works completely. This is the film’s most glaring flaw; there are also some logical missteps in the story.

I have to give the filmmakers points for trying to deviate from standard time travel and dystopian future formulae. The script could have used another go-round of polish and the leads maybe recast although to be honest I’d keep Boladz; she has star quality. Polak is a bit bland, leading one to wonder what the Polansky she sees in him. Cerebral sci-fi fans should give this one a look.

REASONS TO SEE: The production design depicts a lived-in future.
REASONS TO AVOID: The chemistry between Polak and Boladz is inconsistent.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was nominated for two Polish Oscars in 2017, for Best Production Design and Best Music Score.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brazil
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Incredibles 2

ARQ


Time after time.

Time after time.

(2016) Science Fiction (Netflix) Robbie Amell, Rachael Taylor, Shaun Benson, Gray Powell, Jacob Neayem, Adam Butcher, Tantoo Cardinal, Jamie Spichuk. Directed by Tony Elliott

 

There are times in our lives where we all want a do-over. What if you had to do over the same three hours and every time you did, you still managed to muck it up?

Renton (Amell), a scientist, wakes up with a gasp. He is in bed with his former flame Hannah (Taylor) when masked men barge into their bedroom. And as things turn out, Renton ends up dead on the floor. But then he wakes up again.

He quickly realizes he’s caught in a time loop, one which is lasting precisely three hours, fourteen minutes and fifteen seconds (math majors will get the significance). It’s the near future and in this dystopian vision, a single corporation essentially rules Earth. Renton has been working on a new energy source that will break the hold of said evil corporation and save the planet – the air is already unbreathable.

The baddies want to confiscate Renton’s experiment and kill the inventor of the device that can threaten their employer’s stranglehold on the world and it seems they are succeeding but Renton remembers what is going on from loop to loop and Hannah is beginning to too. Can the two of them figure out how to break out of the loop and use the device Renton has invented to buy freedom from corporate tyranny?

This is a bare bones Canadian production that doesn’t utilize a whole lot of effects or a lot of cast. It mostly takes place in several rooms of a single house, and of course there are no costume changes. Still, one gets the sense of a large budget than what they likely had. Kudos should go to the production design crew for making this look apocalyptic and futuristic without resorting to a whole lot of CGI.

Amell has mostly a lot of small screen experience and that’s fine for something like this that is destined mainly for streaming and home viewing. His performance is solid but not as inspiring as I would have liked in a character like his. I’ve enjoyed his work on TV but he hasn’t yet shown that he can take a feature and carry it yet. Taylor is more intriguing here, but to be fair she has a lot more to work with than Amell, whose character is essentially sci-fi dystopian hero 101.

Like most movies set in a time loop (the most famous being Groundhog Day) there is a certain amount of repetitiveness here that is inevitable. Some movies with this theme handle it better than others; this one is definitely on the lower end of the scale in that regard. The middle third of the movie feels a bit like a slog in places.

Still, as Netflix entertainment goes there is a certain amount of niche filling that this satisfies. Those who like sci-fi and time travel conundrums will probably end up liking this as well. Mainstream audiences may be less enthusiastic but Amell is hunky, Taylor is gorgeous and the baddies are nasty enough to make this a worthwhile investment of time for certain Netflix subscribers.

REASONS TO GO: There are some interesting concepts here.
REASONS TO STAY: As with many time travel films, there is a lot of repetition.
FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of violence and some sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The film played at the Toronto Film Festival before opening on Netflix.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Synchronicity
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Blair Witch

Equals (2015)


Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart have the blues.

Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart have the blues.

(2015) Science Fiction (A24) Nicholas Hoult, Kristen Stewart, Guy Pearce, Jacki Weaver, David Selby, Scott Lawrence, Aurora Perrineau, Nathan Parker, Rebecca Hazelwood, Kate Lyn Sheil, Bel Powley, Yu Hwan Park, Vernetta Lopez, Seth Adams, Dennis Shin, Jessica Lois, Tom Stokes, Teo Yoo, Kai Lennox, Rizwan Manji, Toby Huss, Hannah Grace. Directed by Drake Doremus

 

We are creatures of the heart and the mind. We use our feelings nearly as much if not more than our logic. That often gets us into trouble, both on a personal basis and as a species. Some say that much of the conflict we experience is an effect of the heart, not the mind. These same people think we would be much better if we could switch our emotions off.

In a post-Apocalyptic future, that is precisely what has happened. Silas (Hoult) lives in a park-like city of glass and chrome and emotions have essentially been eliminated at a DNA level – well, sort of. People have to take a regimen of inhibitors to keep their feelings suppressed which at some point stop working. When that happens, people develop something called Switched Off Syndrome – yes, S.O.S. Silas is in the early stages of that. There is no cure and those who get to the latter stages of the disease are generally shipped off to The Den, where they undergo rehabilitation but apparently nobody ever returns from it. S.O.S. is essentially then a death sentence.

Silas works at an electronic publishing firm which seems to specialize in fiction and non-fiction about interstellar colonization. One of his co-workers is Nia (Stewart) who clearly is having some issues coming to grips with her emotions – literally. She clenches her fists and plays with her hair whenever some sort of feeling overtakes her. Their co-workers are too polite to mention anything but they certainly notice. Silas has also noticed Nia but for far different reasons; he notices the sensuality of her lips, the softness of her hair, the curve of her neck.

In this highly ordered society where everyone dresses in white (except for law enforcement which predictably wears black), love is not only discouraged but illegal (they never get into how people reproduce in this environment). And of course, that’s just what Nia and Silas fall in. They begin engaging in sexual relations, also highly forbidden. Silas has been attending a support group for S.O.S. sufferers and meets there a woman (Weaver) who gives him an alternative, albeit a dangerous one. Do he and Nia have the courage to see this through?

Emotionless dystopia-set films are nothing new. George Lucas established himself as a visionary filmmaker even before he explored a galaxy far, far away with THX-1138, which shares many of the visual elements with this film. You would hope then that this film would add something new to the sub-genre and in some ways it does; the film takes the point of view two people learning to feel things for the very first time and in some ways, it is all about the role emotions play in the human experience. Of course, that’s what most of these films are about so it’s not mining any new territory there either.

Fortunately the cast here is solid. Hoult is in the process of becoming an actor that I look forward to seeing in everything he does. He’s got lots of charisma not to mention a good deal of range; he plays comedy and drama equally well. Here he’s called upon to be cold and almost diffident, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. Stewart is an actress who isn’t the most expressive as actresses go, so this ends up being right in her wheelhouse. In response, she actually gives – quite ironically – one of her best performances ever. There’s no denying that she’s a beautiful woman and that beauty is used here as a weapon in the film’s arsenal; it’s easy to see why Silas would get interested.

The problem in portraying a society without emotions is that your movie can get kind of bland and colorless and the production design’s color palate – which is essentially variations of white – doesn’t help with that. While the future is beautiful in its own way, it’s also pretty boring. Yes, people talk about fairly high-brow subjects but at the end of the day however thought-provoking the conversation might be, it loses any meaning because there’s no emotional resonance. You might as well have a Macbook having a conversation with a Microsoft Surface Book. They might come up with some salient points but they also won’t be terribly relatable to who we are as people either.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are very cool. Hoult has become one of my favorite actors and Stewart delivers her best performance yet.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally, it gets too high-brow for its own good. The film is so low-key and emotionless that it actually becomes bland in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Not only is there some sensuality and a bit of partial nudity, there’s also some adult thematic content and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Weaver and Pearce previously starred together in Animal Kingdom.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Island
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru

The Lobster


Sharing a moment.

Sharing a moment.

(2015) Romance (A24) Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Angeliki Papoulia, Ariane Labed, Ashley Jensen, Jessica Barden, Roland Ferrandi, Imelda Nagle Ryan, Emma O’Shea, Olivia Colman, Garry Mountaine, Michael Smiley, Patrick Malone, Sandra Mason, Anthony Moriarty, Judi King Murphy, Laoise Murphy, Nancy Onu, Rosanna Hoult. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Florida Film Festival 2016

Love is certainly not what it used to be. Our choices, with the advent of the Internet and its dating services, have grown but in some ways, our understanding of love has narrowed. Once upon a time, we were limited to people we knew and saw every day in the places that we lived. These days, we can choose from all over the world but rather than make our love lives easier in many ways it just makes finding the right one harder.

David (Farrell) has recently been dumped by his wife (Hoult). Seeing as this is a dystopian version of the Ireland of the quite-near future that means he must surrender himself to the authorities where he will be taken to the Hotel, along with other single men and women of a certain age. There, as he is informed by the hotel director (Colman) that he, like all the others who have come in that day, must find themselves a new mate within 45 days or surrender their humanity – literally. Guests, as they are called, can extend their stays by going into the woods and hitting loners – those who were unable to find a mate and managed to escape the conversion process – with tranquilizer darts with each tranquilized loner adding a day to their stay. After 45 days, those who are still single will be turned into an animal of their choosing. David chooses a lobster because of its long life span, its virility throughout its entire life and as an additional bonus feature that it literally has blue blood. I don’t think David thought that entirely true – lobsters do get eaten.

David makes a couple of new friends – one with a limp (Whishaw) and one with a lisp (Reilly) – other than David, none of the other characters in the film are given names, only affectations. The limping fellow finds himself a girl prone to bloody noses (Barden) which he is not but he fakes it in order to get the all-important move from the singles tables to the couples tables. Couples are also given a month to get to know each other, then they are put aboard a yacht for two weeks. If all goes well, they are given marriage certificates and sent back into the world. If not, they are given a child to help distract them from their problems. If that fails, they are returned to the singles area to start again.

David is accompanied by a dog, but not just any dog – his brother, who failed the process and became man’s best friend. Knowing what happened to his brother imbues him with a kind of desperation, and he begins to cast about desperately for anyone who might possibly be a match, even a heartless woman (Papoulia) who clearly is not suitable for anybody.

Things unfortunately don’t work out for David and with the help of a friendly maid (Labed) he escapes into the woods and meets up with the Loner Leader (Seydoux) who says any relationships are forbidden in the woods and that each Loner must dig their own grave first. There David meets a short-sighted woman (Weisz) – what we in the States call near-sighted – and the two find that there is something between them after all. But now love is forbidden and the couple must find a way to escape everything and everyone and begin a life of their own without the Loner Leader finding out.

This was the opening night film at the recent Florida Film Festival and pretty much the verdict I heard was people either ended up loving or hating this movie, depending on how immersed they became in this somewhat bizarre world, and how willing they were to just let themselves get swept up in it. I have to admit that I can see why people hated it but I ended up loving it just the same. This is a smartly written satire on the importance we place on relationships, with emphasis on grey tones in the cinematography that make the world seem a chilly place which nicely compliments the cold emotional tone.

Nearly all the dialogue is read in clipped, stilted tones like a high school English class reading a play aloud. That got a little tiresome as the movie went on. Most of the rest of the cast were made to keep their emotions strictly at bay, with the exception of Weisz who shows her emotions subtly but recognizably. It’s a very understated performance that reminds us of how gifted an actress this Oscar-winner is.

Animal lovers be warned, there are a couple of scenes that are hard to watch – I almost walked out on the film during one intense scene involving the Heartless Woman but I chose to stick with it which was a good thing. Most of the movie’s emotional resonance comes in the second half.

The movie is divided into two distinct sections – the first at the hotel, the second in the Loner’s woods. The hotel sequence is in many ways the most surreal, the sequence in the woods are the most rewarding. For a movie that takes such great pains to come off as emotion-free, the final scenes in which David is forced to make a decision will trigger a variety of strong emotions in the viewer. In fact, there are a lot of scenes in the movie that hit more powerfully because the rest of the movie is so cold from an emotional standpoint.

This isn’t for everybody. Some people are going to find it too quirky, too cold, too smart, too different. That’s all right. Again, there isn’t a lot of middle ground with this movie; people tend to love it or hate it. As for whether or not you should see it, you will likely fall into one camp or the other and there’s no way of knowing which until you see it. My advice is to take a chance and decide for yourself.

REASONS TO GO: A smartly written film. Utilizes barren, cold landscapes to reflect barren, cold emotions. Different than anything you’re familiar with – you’ll either like it or hate it.
REASONS TO STAY: May be excessively quirky for the taste of some.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a small amount of violence but mostly there are sexual concepts including some dialogue.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The song that David and the short-sighted woman synchronize on their CD players and dance to in the woods is “Where the Wild Roses Grow” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds featuring Kylie Minogue. David also sings the same song towards the end of the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Her
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Nice Guys

Children of Men


Clive Owen isn't a swinger anymore.

Clive Owen isn’t a swinger anymore.

(2006) Science Fiction (Universal) Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Huston, Charlie Hunnam, Maria McErlane, Michael Haughey, Paul Sharma, Philippa Urquhart, Tehmina Sunny, Michael Klesic, Martina Messing, Peter Mullan, Pam Ferris, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Gary Hoptrough, Maurice Lee, Dhafer L’Abidine, Bruno Ouvard, Denise Mack, Jacek Koman, Joy Richardson. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

]If the world is indeed going to hell in a handbasket, it follows that it will end with a whimper rather than a bang. Worse than everything ending in a moment is the thought that humanity will die a slow, lingering death.

In 2027, that seems to be the case. It has been 19 years since a human baby has been born and the world teeters on the edge of anarchy and chaos. Only England has a functioning government and it is barely holding on with its fingernails, resorting to a brutal totalitarian government that has banned any immigrants from entering the country, a chilling thought that resonates even more in 2015 than it did when this was made.

Theo (Owen) works at the Ministry of Energy in a London that is beset by terrorist attacks and open revolt. Immigrants are captured by draconian police, put in cages and forcibly deported. Plagues and famine have made things even worse. One morning he barely escapes a bombing in a cafe that shakes him to the core. He is then kidnapped by the Fishes, a radical Immigrant’s rights group that is led by Julian (Moore), Theo’s ex-wife from whom he separated when their child died 20 years previously.

She offers him a large sum of money to use his connections to get transit papers for Kee (Ashitey), a refugee. He obtains these from his cousin Nigel (Huston) but the papers require someone to accompany her, so Theo is paid to do this. Accompanied by Kee, Julian and her right hand man Luke (Ejiofor), they head for the coast but are attacked. In the chaos, Theo gets Kee to the home of his old friend Jasper (Caine), a former political cartoonist living out his days in isolation, caring for his wife who was left catatonic by government torture.

Pursued by both terrorist forces and the government, Theo and Kee must make their way to the coast and meet a ship from a group of scientists calling themselves the Human Project who would take Kee to safety. Getting there, they must run a gauntlet of hatred as armed conflict breaks out between the government and the refugees with Kee and Theo both caught in the crossfire. Kee however carries a secret that may mean the revival of hope, something that has been thought completely lost.

While the movie was an unabashed critical success (many ranking it on their ten best lists that year), it only received three Oscar nominations mainly for the technical end. That’s a shame, because Owen gave what is to date the best performance of his career. Far from being a typical action hero, he careens from situation to situation, often frightened by what was happening to him, trying to survive by his wits in a situation that was rapidly disintegrating. It is to be noted that while bullets fly in the movie, Owen never even touches a gun.

Moore, a perennial contender for Oscar gold, showed why she continually is in the mix for Best Actress or Supporting Actress. Julian is a strong leader with an iron will, not above manipulating someone she once cared about for the greater good of her cause. Still, the movie does reveal a softer side to the character and Moore plays both well. Caine gets a meaty role as a hippie-like character who smokes a lot of strawberry-flavored pot and has removed himself from society, yet brims with wisdom. It’s as charming a role as Caine has ever played and he’s played some good ones.

The tone here is almost uniformly grim, although the movie really is about hope. Its absence is what plunged the world into chaos; the merest glimmer that it might reappear leads people to sacrifice everything. The ending is open-ended and leaves the viewers to decide whether the ending is bleak or the opposite; I suppose that how you interpret it will largely depend on whether your outlook tends towards optimism or pessimism.

The production design is one of decay, crumbling buildings and streets of fear. There isn’t a lot of gleaming, futuristic set design here; this is a world that is falling apart and the sets show it. The fact that it looks real and familiar is a testament to the production design team and Cuaron. Also, some of the action sequences here are absolutely scintillating, particular the attack on the car alluded to earlier and a final battle between the government and the rebels. They are realistic and for the most part shot with a single camera, lending even more of a “you are there” feel to the film, which many have described as a documentary of things that have yet to happen. There is definitely that kind of feel here.

This is not a masterpiece in my opinion; the mood can get oppressive and considering the state of the world, it can truly make you question whether humanity is worth saving. But questions like that are important to ask, even if we all agree the answer is “yes” (which most of us, I would hope, do). This is a truly impressive movie that may not necessarily be the sort of thing you’ll want to watch as light entertainment, but it’s one that will give you pause. Movies like this are what make science fiction a compelling genre, particularly when it rises above space battles and monsters. Here, the only monster is ourselves.

WHY RENT THIS: Smart and chilling. Fine performances by Owen, Moore and Caine. Extraordinary action sequences.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too dark and dystopian for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, brief nudity, some drug use and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: P.D. James, author of the book the movie is based on, makes a cameo as the old woman in the cafe with Theo in the opening scene.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an interview with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek on the questions raised by the movie, some of which also appears in the featurette The Possibility of Hope which examines how the current global situation (circa 2007) was leading to the future of Children of Men.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $70.0M on a $76M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Chaperone

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials


Maze Runner The Scorch Trials

You’ve got to learn how to crawl before you learn how to run mazes.

(2015) Young Adult Sci-Fi (20th Century Fox) Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kaya Scodelario, Ki Hong Lee, Rosa Salazar, Dexter Darden, Alexander Flores, Jacob Lofland, Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Aidan Gillen, Terry Dale Parks, Kathryn Smith-McGlynn, Lili Taylor, Barry Pepper, J. Nathan Simmons, Alan Tudyk, Lora Martinez-Cunningham. Directed by Wes Ball

It seems that whenever you’re in the middle segment of a cinematic trilogy, there’s always a bit of a letdown; there’s usually more exposition that action and it lacks the kind of energy that marks the first installment, nor the emotional punch of the third. Would that happen to this sequel to the successful young adult science fiction adaptation The Maze Runner?

Following the conclusion of that film, the survivors of the Glade are brought into an underground facility, a way station before being taken to their final destination. No, that doesn’t sound sinister at all, right? In any case, Thomas (O’Brien) hooks up with Aris (Lofland), a survivor of a different Maze (there are apparently many of them) and discovers the truth about the facility – it is wholly owned by WCKD (pronounced “wicked,” possibly the most unsubtle acronym ever), the corporate blackhearts who created the Mazes and they’re conducting medical experiments on the kids who have made it this far.

Naturally, this doesn’t appeal much to Thomas and he takes the rest of his crew – Teresa (Scodelario), Newt (Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Lee), Frypan (Darden) and Winston (Flores) out of the frying pan and into the Scorch. The Scorch is the world above ground, an arid desert with unpredictable weather patterns, terrifying storms and creatures that roam the wasteland by night. A trip to the local mall leads to the discovery that they are victims of the Flare, a virus that turns the victims homicidal and utterly insane.

Thomas and the gang are looking for The Right Arm, an underground resistance group who may be able to shelter them from WCKD who clearly want them back badly; the chief scientist for WCKD, Dr. Ava Paige (Clarkson) has sent her assassin Janson (Gillen) to go fetch Thomas and his tank engine…er, crew.

After being captured by Jorge (Esposito) and his daughter Brenda (Salazar), they get away from WCKD and head out to find Marques, the man who might be able to find the Right Arm. Once again, it’s back into the fire as a happening party turns into a 90s rave and turns into a real bad trip. Once the kids find the Right Arm, however, they are going to find out that there are worse beasts in the wasteland than madmen, and that courage may not be enough to get them all through. Making it out alive may not be in the cards for all of them, but there may be worse things ahead for all of them.

No need to keep you in suspense; this isn’t as good as the first movie. That movie had a kinetic energy that is severely lacking here. Not that there aren’t some superior action scenes; there are, but while Maze Runner felt like a sprint, this is more of a distance run. Most of the same folks that didn’t get snuffed in the first film are back with a passel of new characters as well as the bulk of the same talent behind the camera. The problem with middle films in trilogies is that they are often connectors, linking point A and point B. The middle of a story is never as interesting as the beginning or the end.

O’Brien is a little bit more animated here but the same problem that plagued the first movie plagues this one; Thomas isn’t a very interesting lead character. They try to make him that way with references to his unremembered past but the real issue is that Thomas acts like every teen hero in every cinematic adaptation of a young adult novel ever, and it really is kind of tiresome. There’s nothing here to distinguish it from its competition and even given that the audience this is playing too is a lot less discriminating, they aren’t dummies; they know lazy writing when they see it.

Most of the rest of the cast is adequate to decent; the most promising performer in the first film doesn’t appear here. It’s just that they’re not given a lot to work with; the characters are mostly bland, recycled from other stories and films. None of them really grab your attention much. That’s the problem with having characters who can’t remember their past; there isn’t a lot for the audience to hold onto other than their actions and when you’re talking about actions that are pretty much standard young adult fantasy fare that’s only worse. Even the zombie-like Flare victims don’t measure up to the monsters of The Walking Dead and the special effects here are pretty much standard.

This is bargain basement sci-fi that doesn’t really generate enough enthusiasm in me to really give it much of a recommendation which is a shame because I thought the first film had some potential. Maybe we’ll have to wait until the final installation in the trilogy to see that potential fulfilled but at this point I’m not especially waiting on the edge of my seat for February 17, 2017 to come around – the date that Maze Runner: The Death Cure is set to wrap up the series. Sad to say, I’d be just fine with them wrapping it up here unless they can do a whole lot better next time.

REASONS TO GO: Some fairly well-done action sequences. Attractive leads.
REASONS TO STAY: Really been there-done that. Lacks energy.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of violence, some thematic elements, a scene of substance use and some mild language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The studio greenlit the sequel two weeks before the first film opened after early reviews and audience scores proved to be overwhelmingly positive.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunger Games
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Intern

The Divergent Series: Insurgent


In the future there will be no chairs.

In the future there will be no chairs.

(2015) Science Fiction (Summit) Kate Winslet, Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Jai Courtney, Mekhi Phifer, Octavia Spencer, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Ray Stevenson, Naomi Watts, Jonny Weston, Daniel Dae Kim, Maggie Q, Suki Waterhouse, Rosa Salazar, Zoe Kravitz, Janet McTeer, Lyndsi LaRose. Directed by Robert Schwentke

These days, dystopian futures seem to be all the rage. No longer does one need to wear shades when viewing the future; we can look forward to darkness, pain, despair and hopelessness. I suppose how we see the future tells us a lot about how we view the present.

For those who don’t remember Divergent or the book series it was based on, the world has been beset by some sort of apocalyptic event and the population has been herded into Chicago and divided into factions according to their gifts – Erudite (intelligence), Amity (peace), Candor (truth), Dauntless (military) and Abignation (service), the latter of which was essentially wiped out at the end of the last movie. There are those who display none of the five qualities; those are called Factionless and live in abject poverty on the edge of society. There are also those who contain two or more qualities – they are called Divergents. Our heroine is one of these.

Speaking of our heroine, now that Tris (Woodley) and her lover Four (James) have foiled the plans of Jeanine (Winslet), the power-mad evil leader of the Erudite faction, they have taken refuge with the pastoral Amity along with Tris’ none-too-brave brother Caleb (Elgort) and the snarky Peter (Teller) who seems to live to push buttons. As for Amity, their leader Johanna (Spencer) is providing them shelter although she’s not entirely happy about it. Jeanine wants to round up the last of the rebellious Dauntless group that has split from the main group that is now commanded by the evil Eric (Courtney) but she seems far more obsessed with a metal box found in the wreckage of the home of Tris’ parents Andrew (Goldwyn) and Natalie (Judd) who both bit the big one in the first film.

That box contains symbols for all five of the factions and seems sealed with even the technology of Erudite unable to penetrate its secrets. Jeanine believes that the box contains a message from the Founders, one which will confirm her campaign to eliminate the Divergents although, ironically enough, it seems that only a Divergent can open the box by passing the simulations of all five of the factions. Naturally Four and Tris are pretty certain that Jeanine must not find out what’s in the box. In the meantime, Jeanine is having Eric and his Dauntless minions shoot nasty little tracking devices that can also allow Jeanine to control the subjects to the point of forcing them to commit suicide.

The odds against Tris and her remaining allies are formidable although she receives an unexpected ally in Factionless who are now being led by, of all people, Four’s mother Evelyn (Watts) who everyone belied was dead and had in fact faked her own death for reasons that are unbelievably flimsy. However, in order to save the Divergents who are being hunted down and forced to undergo the ordeal of the simulations which is killing them off in short order, Tris will have to go to the heart of the beast and face down Jeanine herself.

Somewhat ironically, Insurgent apparently diverges from Victoria Roth’s source novel fairly radically. Being as I’m not familiar with the books, I can’t say whether that’s necessarily a bad thing or not but I can say that the illogical world of the Divergent book series is so full of lapses and plot holes that it’s hard to believe that anyone buys any of this. Any rudimentary student of human nature knows that we are not just one thing; we are many, and to think that keeping all people with a common trait in a society is not a sure way to eliminate conflict. If anything, people with like ways of thinking tend to get in a lot more conflict

The action sequences are pretty good and the special effects are even better, particularly in the sim sequences. There’s definitely plenty of eye candy, particularly for young pre-teen and teen girls who will find young hunks James, Elgort, Teller, Courtney and Phifer making their hearts beat faster than the adrenaline-fueled action scenes.

Unfortunately, one of the movie’s main drawbacks is Woodley. She’s a fine actress as she’s shown in The Descendents but here…I don’t know. She’s supposed to be a strong female role model but she’s stubborn, makes really illogical and foolish choices that put those she’s close to in danger, she wallows in self-pity and she is known to panic occasionally. There are some that will defend her character as being admirable for overcoming her own human frailties and I have to acknowledge that as a salient point, but even so I never really admire Tris so much as feel dismayed by her. Woodley isn’t responsible for the way the character is written but she comes off as shrill here, which is not how Jennifer Lawrence comes off as Katness Everdeen, a female role model who is beset by self-doubt and fear just as much as Tris.

While some of the supporting characters have some depth to them – particularly Spencer and Kim as the leaders of their respective factions Amity and Candor, and Courtney as the deliciously evil Eric – the acting here tends to the scene chewing sort. I can live with that though ahead of the movie’s two most egregious sins; first, that in order for audiences to make sense of this movie you need to either be familiar with the first film or the book series. Those who aren’t are going to have a very hard time following this, so it doesn’t stand on its own very well. Secondly and perhaps more damning is that the movie follows the young adult franchise formula to the “T” – a plucky heroine of strong will is reluctantly put into a heroic role while deeply in love with hunky hero who steps aside to be second banana to his girlfriend who saves the day with her self-sacrifice and love for her man, not to mention wicked fighting skills.

Yeah, you’ve seen it all before and done better than this. This is definitely a step backwards from the more entertaining first film. I really can’t recommend it other than to those who really liked the first movie and are eager to see the franchise played out to its conclusion which, true to recent young adult book series form, will see the final book in the trilogy split into two movies. After this debacle, I’m not sure I want to see either of them.

REASONS TO GO: Some very intense action sequences. Some decent supporting performances by Courtney, Spencer and Kim.
REASONS TO STAY: A lot of over-acting. Requires that you either are familiar with the books or saw the first movie. Too much like other young adult franchises.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of action violence, some foul language and thematic elements and brief sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the first movie was filmed mostly in Chicago (where the action is set), the sequel was mostly filmed in Atlanta.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Host (2013)
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: People Like Us

The Zero Theorem


Qohen Leth parties like it's 2099.

Qohen Leth parties like it’s 2099.

(2014) Science Fiction (Well Go USA) Christoph Waltz, Melanie Thierry, Matt Damon, David Thewlis, Ben Whishaw, Lucas Hedges, Tilda Swinton, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Rupert Friend, Peter Stormare, Dana Rogoz, Madison Lygo, Ingrid Bisu, Naomi Everson, Radu Andrei Micu, Tudor Istodor, Olivia Nita, George Remes, Iulia Verdes, Alin Olteanu, Margarita Doyle. Directed by Terry Gilliam

The more complicated life gets – and make no mistake, it grows more complex with each passing day – the more we struggle to make sense of it. If you think it’s bad now, just imagine with those living in the future are going to have to contend with.

Qohen Leth (Waltz) is an office drone who has all sorts of issues. He’s a bit of a hypochondriac, sure that he is dying. He refers to himself in the second person – we instead of I, us instead of me. He works for Mancom, a company that makes some kind of software that brings convenience – or nothing at all. He is a data cruncher which in the future involves a Tetris-like placing of data squares into geometric city-like constructions, while furiously pedaling a flywheel. Data is transferred in vials of liquid. Being an office worker in the future sucks.

Qohen lives in an abandoned church infested with rats and pigeons, leaking from the roof and looking inside like a bomb hit it. He sleeps in the pipe organ and really would prefer to work at home, having no love for his fellow man. He’s also obsessed with a phone call he is sure is coming – one which will explain to him What It All Means and what his place in the grand scheme of things is. He’s twitchy, neurotic and in short, the very model of a modern Major General.

He asks his boss Joby (Thewlis) to get him permission to telecommute which doesn’t seem likely; the company likes keeping track of its workers. Qohen also meets Bainsley (Thierry) at a party thrown by Joby that Qohen goes to reluctantly, mainly to try and get a one-on-one audience with Management (Damon), the reclusive CEO of Mancom. He doesn’t know how to handle the forward Bainsley and although she gives him her card, there doesn’t seem to be any future for a relationship there. However, he is successful in getting time with Management (who wears clothing to blend into the decor) and at last is given a project he can work on at home.

New equipment is installed in his cluttered cathedral, mainly by the genius level Bob (Hedges) who turns out to be the son of Management (now doesn’t that sound like an office-based horror flick?) who addresses everyone as Bob because he doesn’t have time to learn their names. But he really isn’t a bad sort.

In the meantime Qohen is doing strikingly well with the project and getting close to making it work and things with Bainsley are turning out superbly, particularly when they meet on a digital beach where the sun is eternally setting. Life is good online at least.

But the closer Qohen gets to completing his project, the more frustrated he gets and the more he begins to retreat back into his shell. As it turns out, the project is about mathematically proving that everything equals nothing, which proves that there’s no point to life. The chaos this will create Mancom will profit from. And so it goes.

This has director Terry Gilliam’s thumbprint all over it, from the details, the somewhat wacky atmosphere that has marked all his work from his time as the only American member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus through his visionary career. Gilliam is certainly an acquired taste; not everyone gets his sense of humor and clearly his films don’t make a lot of money with few exceptions (Time Bandits being one). However, his work can be startlingly good and when it works he is one of the best directors living today. Even throwaway lines – an advertisement for the Church of Batman the Redeemer – can bust me up laughing.

Waltz, head shaved and twitchy, is terrific here. You get the sense that this is an individual who is in deep pain and takes great pains to make sure he remains so. There are some hints that give background into his psyche  but clearly this is a man who in our society would be undergoing all sorts of therapy and might well be committed. He seems to fit in real well in the future.

He gets some fine support, particularly from Hedges whose Bob becomes good friends with Qohen in an oddball way, and Thierry who is beautiful and charismatic as the love interest. All of the characters show some sort of vulnerability at some point, wearing masks to hide their pain. Qohen is a little more up-front about it. Management, being management, shows no weakness.

Visually this is an amazing movie, from majestic scenes of a black hole to the rotting interior of Leth’s home and the clever scenes of what is supposed to be London (maybe) in the near future but is more than likely Bucharest. There is a definite steampunk look to the film which is kind of a thing this year in indie films.

This hasn’t received any sort of release yet, although the movie’s website is promising a summer release. I hope that the distributors deliver on this; this is a movie that should be seen, by Gilliam’s fanbase if by nobody else. This is among his very best films which makes it a classic in the making, so serious film buffs should check this out even if they aren’t especially fond of Gilliam’s work.

REASONS TO GO: When it hits the mark, it’s mind-blowing. Terrific set design and Waltz is terrific in a very different role than you’re used to seeing for him.

REASONS TO STAY: As Gilliam films are prone to do, they can meander sometimes. If you don’t like Gilliam’s films, you won’t like this.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some expletives here and there as well as some sexuality and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the park scene, screenwriter Pat Rushin (who also teaches creative writing at the University of Central Florida) can be seen on a bench writing on his briefcase; he’s actually writing motivational lines that scroll across the computer screen in the cubicles during a different part of the film. His wife can also be glimpsed reading a newspaper.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/2/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brazil

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Railway Man

Divergent


Theo James has caught Shailene Woodley in his net.

Theo James has caught Shailene Woodley in his net.

(2014) Science Fiction (Summit) Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Jai Courtney, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Miles Teller, Zoe Kravitz, Maggie Q, Ray Stevenson, Mekhi Phifer, Ansel Elgort, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Christian Madsen, Amy Newbold, Ben Lamb, Janet Ulrich Brooks, Clara Burger, Anthony Fleming, Ryan Carr, Alex Hashioka, Will Blagrove, Rotimi, Justine Wachsberger. Directed by Neil Burger

We have a tendency to slot people into boxes. This one is a hothead, that one is a braniac, this one is a stoner, that one is a loser. It is easier for us to compartmentalize people but it doesn’t begin to tell the whole story about someone.

In the dystopian future projected here, this has been taken to the ultimate level. After war has devastated the United States leaving Chicago one of the few inhabitable cities (and that just barely), the surviving population has been divided into five factions centered around a characteristic considered to be a virtue; Abnegation (selflessness), Dauntless (bravery), Candor (honesty), Amity (kindness) and Erudite (intelligent). On Choosing Day, 18 year old citizens must choose one of these factions to belong to. Once the choosing is made, there’s no turning back.

Aiding the candidates is a test which tells them which faction they are best suited for. However when Beatrice (Woodley) who grew up in Abnegation takes the test, she is shocked to discover that her test was inconclusive – she isn’t suited for any one faction. What is more puzzling is the reaction of Tori (Q), the administrator of the test – she is fearful, warning Beatrice to tell no-one of her test results.

On the day of the Choosing Beatrice chooses Dauntless, much to the disappointment of her mom (Judd) and dad (Goldwyn), who are doubly disappointed because Beatrice’s brother Caleb (Elgort) chose Erudite. Beatrice, now going by Tris, is surprised to discover that she and her new friends Christina (Kravitz), Al (Madsen), Will (Lloyd-Hughes) and to a lesser extent the mouthy Candor transfer Peter (Teller) aren’t in yet – Dauntless only takes a percentage of its recruits; the rest are rendered Factionless with nowhere to go.

In charge of their training is the brutal and sadistic Eric (Courtney) who seems to have an immediate dislike of Tris and Four (James), a taciturn trainer who seems far more capable than Eric. Tris, raised among the Amish-like Abnegation, has trouble with the physical requirements but battles as hard as she can. In the meantime she hides her test results, labeling her as Divergent and apparently a threat to the Erudite faction who are actively hunting Divergent citizens down.

As Tris becomes closer and more attracted to Four, she discovers that there are some odd things going on in Dauntless. For one, secret visits by Jeanine (Winslet), leader of the Erudite faction, to Max (Phifer), leader of the Dauntless, and things that don’t add up are going on. Tris quickly realizes she’s involved in a very dangerous game and she doesn’t know the rules. When things go South, Tris discovers a horrifying plot by the Erudite that will take all of her bravery, compassion, honesty, intelligence and kindness to overcome.

Based on a bestselling young adult sci-fi trilogy by Veronica Roth, Summit is eager for this to become their next young adult franchise. Like previous franchises Twilight and The Hunger Games, Divergent is led by a female protagonist who, like Katness Everdeen in the latter series is strong and forced into becoming something of a symbol. Woodley is going to inevitably be compared to Jennifer Lawrence whose Katness has become somewhat iconic. Unfortunately, her performance doesn’t hold up.

It’s not for lack of talent or lack of trying. This simply isn’t the right kind of role for her. Woodley spends most of the movie looking befuddled because her character is largely in the dark about what’s going on around her. There is a gun battle scene near the end of the film when Tris essentially gets hysterical (and to be fair for good reason) but it’s disconcerting to see your lead character and role model fly into a tizzy.

Winslet is likewise wasted in a role in which she is cast as an icy blonde bitch who just wants to rule the world. She is a formidable actress who would have made an equally formidable villain but she’s not really given anything to work with as the focus is more on the young ‘uns. She only gets to let loose in villainous glee late in the film and by then the audience has essentially lost all interest in the character.

Only James really fares well among the lead. He is hunky handsome (or so say some of my younger female friends) and has a good deal of brooding presence. He may well emerge from this film the big star that Woodley should have been although time will tell on that score.

I’m not sure what Roth’s political views are or if she has any but I have to say that the story reads a bit like a wet dream of the far right; the villains of the story are the educated who want to take the freedom of everyone away and take control over every aspect of life because they know better than the rest of us. The military faction are the most free-spirited, running joyfully through the streets of Chicago with big mother-effin’ grins on their faces. I’m sure most military sorts will tell you how much running makes them smile. I could be reading too much into it (and I probably am) but I couldn’t help make the observation.

The old familiar theme of teens feeling like outcasts are also explored. Those who refuse to be pigeonholed are persecuted while those who conform are considered virtuous. Just like high school except on a more global scale.

The effects are pretty decent and there are some nifty action sequences but this is definitely a movie targeted for young adult audiences, particularly the female persuasion. I suspect male audiences will find this less palatable than The Hunger Games. This isn’t a bad movie despite all its shortcomings – I will say I was entertained and most of the audience I saw it with was too – but it didn’t generate in me the excitement that the Jennifer Lawrence series did from the get go. I suspect it will have enough inertia to get the proposed two sequels made but I doubt very much it will become the cultural phenomenon that THG became.

REASONS TO GO: Complex background explained well. Some fine action and effects sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: Woodley a bit of a misstep casting-wise.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of action, some of it intense. There’s also some more adult thematic elements along with implied sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Teller and Woodley are close friends in real life and Woodley had a very hard time during their fight sequences to be aggressive and antagonistic towards him requiring Teller to pull her aside and have a conversation with his former The Spectacular Now co-star.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Host

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Shuttle