The Holly Kane Experiment


“Now, this won’t hurt a bit…”

(2017) Thriller (108 Media) Kirsty Averton, Nicky Henson, James Rose, Lindsey Campbell, Matthew Neal, Sophie Barker, Justin Hayward, Simon Hepworth, Emma Davies, Will Harrison-Wallace, Euan Macnaughton, Tom Cox, Tom Clear, Nicholas Fagerberg, Steve Doyle, Axel Kaae, Aidan Creegan, Stevie Raine, George Stocks, Claire Ashton, Sian Dobson. Directed by Tom Sands

 

There aren’t a lot of things we can be sure of in this life but one is that our thoughts are our own. However, technology is coming in which perhaps we cannot even be sure of that any longer.

Holly Kane (Averton) is a psychiatrist in Brighton who has come up with a means of implanting thoughts into the heads of other people, using sensory deprivation tanks and subliminal audio. She may seem a beautiful, competent professional on the surface but just below she is deeply terrified of becoming like her sister Rosalyn (Barker) who is committed to a mental institution.

Her technique is too much like brainwashing and after being invited to help a patient undergoing an appendectomy do so without anesthesia strictly utilizing her technique, she finds herself being sued by the hospital that asked for her help. No good deed will go unpunished, right? However, her savior comes in the form of Marvin Greenslade (Henson), a pioneer in the field of subliminal communication and a personal hero of hers. He offers to fund her research and gives her office space in his building to do it. Although he’s 70-something, he is clearly attracted to the much younger Holly.

Holly’s personal life is pretty much a mess; her best friend is Jeannie (Campbell) who in addition to being a brilliant chemist is also a bit of a party girl. She is the one who is supplying Holly with the highly illegal substances she needs to concoct a liquid that opens up the mind for adjustment. It also provides a psychedelic trip that while it wouldn’t do Kubrick proud is nonetheless fun to watch.

She’s also getting into the handsome young Scot Dennis MacIntyre (Rose) who although a bit on the scruffy side is nonetheless quite into Holly. However, she calls it off with him when she finds out from Greenslade that he’s a former spy; she lambastes him for lying to her – a lie by omission but still. In any case, as Dennis begins to dig deeper into Greenslade, it turns out that Marvin isn’t the wonderful guy he makes himself out to be. He’s got government connections at the highest levels and might be looking to use Holly’s technique as a means of brainwashing terrorists. He also is using her own technique against her to make her believe that she wants to have sex with him and she eventually does although judging from her expression she’s clearly not enjoying it. He also uses the subliminal audio to tell her to trust only him and to distrust Dennis. Using some nasty spy sorts like, for example, Carl Gower (Neal) who also messes up MacIntyre’s mind when he starts to get too close, Greenslade has eyes and ears everywhere. Can the two escape the clutches of Greenslade before he wipes out their minds permanently?

What I liked the most about this film is that it really evokes a 70s espionage film vibe from the pulsating electronic score to the paranoia to the plot twists and turns. While the suspense for the climactic chase isn’t built up as much as I would have liked, nonetheless this had a distinct cold war feel to it You were never quite sure who you could trust.

The character of Holly Kane is written a bit strangely. At times she’s emotionally closed off; other times she’s very emotional as when she visits her sister after a long absence. Averton plays her as well as can be expected, particularly during one of the most curious sex scenes in movie history when she has sex with Greenslade; her face is so emotionless and her body is so rigid that Greenslade may as well have been schtupping a plank. Otherwise Averton plays Kane cool which goes along with the overall vibe. Even when she’s partying Holly is a bit on the reserved side. There’s a scene in the deprivation tank in which Holly is masturbating which kind of comes from left field; even there her expression is almost clinical.

I’m not sure why the psychiatrist has to look like a super-model. I am also not sure why that she has to be saved from rape and brainwashing by a man who is at least as in trouble as she is. After going to the trouble of establishing Holly Kane as a strong, independent and brilliant woman, writer Mick Sands then turns her into a typical victim. Just once I’d like to see a woman like Dr. Kane not need rescuing from a guy but be able to take matters into her own hands.

The chase scene as Holly and Dennis try to escape the clutches of Greenslade and his goons is oddly flat. One doesn’t get the sense of imminent danger that should go with a scene like this. Time and time again, goons burst into the place where they think the two are only to find them gone. I don’t remember seeing their pursuers in the same frame as them at any time during the chase. It could have used a little more of a thrill factor.

Despite the flaws this is a satisfactory film and even a little bit more. It gets the tone right and although it could have used a bit more oomph in the suspense generation, it nonetheless keeps you guessing until the final chase. Considering the miniature budget for this thing, there’s a lot of bang for your buck here.

REASONS TO GO: The atmosphere and paranoia of a 70s espionage film is recreated here in a good way. The concept that both the heroic leads may be clinically insane is interesting.
REASONS TO STAY: The film feels anti-climactic towards the end. The surveillance photo stops get to be annoying after awhile.
FAMILY VALUES: Sensuality, some nudity, rape, drug use, violence and profanity throughout the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tom Sands directed his first feature, Nazi Vengeance (2014) at the age of 24. His brother Mick wrote both of his features to date.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Parallax View
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Bang! The Bert Berns Story

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Captain America: Civil War


Captain America in an All-American studio apartment.

Captain America in an All-American studio apartment.

(2016) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Daniel Brűhl, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Martin Freeman, Marisa Tomei, John Kani, John Slattery, Hope Davis, Alfre Woodard. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo

 

In this post-911 world, we often have to consider the importance of security versus freedom. How much power do we allow our government to have? Is it worth giving up our freedom to be protected? And when does it stop being worth it?

Following the events of The Avengers: Age of Ultron the Avengers have continued to operate without the guidance of Tony Stark (Downey) a.k.a. Iron Man but they still continue to clean out the remnants of Hydra and travel the globe to stop threats of terrorism and barbarity. They are on one such mission to stop Crossbones (Grillo) from obtaining a biological weapon. They do stop the former SHIELD agent turned supervillain but at a staggering cost.

The nations of the world can no longer stand idly by while their citizens are reduced to collateral damage. They sign a treaty known as the Sokovia Accords (named for the fictional country that was decimated by the Avengers battle with Ultron) to put the Avengers under United Nations control, only sent on missions approved by the Security Council.

Stark has put his pen to paper and signed already and expects his good friend Steve Rogers (Evans) a.k.a. Captain America to do the same but to Stark’s shock, Rogers refuses. He feels that the Avengers will not only function less effectively as the tools of bureaucrats and politicians, but that without self-autonomy, more lives will be lost than saved.

It’s not an easy question and not everyone falls on the same side. The Avengers eventually become two different teams, at war with one another. Things get worse when Bucky Barnes (Stan) – a.k.a. the Winter Soldier and Cap’s friend from pre-World War II Brooklyn has had the mind control that was implanted into him by Hydra used to send him on a rampage that ends up with a high-profile murder. T’challa (Boseman) a.k.a. The Black Panther, ruler of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, rich in minerals (including the rare vibranium that is what Cap’s shield is constructed out of) and technology, vows to take down Barnes and execute him. Cap can’t let that happen as it, strictly speaking, isn’t Bucky’s fault.

So it is friends against friends, the U.S. government against the Avengers, Iron Man against Captain America. No matter what, this won’t end well and the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be changed permanently as a result.

This is in some ways the most complicated and thought-provoking film in Marvel’s history. It does tackle a subject that has real world ramifications and comes up with no easy answers – it also doesn’t cop out either, which is to the filmmaker’s credit. When those who ask why the Marvel films are so much more popular than the DC films (at least currently), the simple answer is that Marvel is making better movies. With the exception of some of the Batman films (by Messrs. Burton and Nolan) Marvel’s movies are more interesting, have more character development, and quite frankly are more fun to watch.

Civil War is a little bit darker in hue than the majority of Marvel’s films, but that doesn’t mean it’s set in Gotham. There are no real villains in it for one thing – yes, there is a character named Zemo (Brűhl) who shares a last name with old Marvel villain Baron Zemo who was a Nazi mad scientist and a Hydra operative, but this Zemo is actually in a lot of ways a sympathetic character who has reasons for his madness. And the conflict between Cap and Shellhead are between two heroes doing what they believe is right.

Downey in fact steals the film from Captain America; he is tortured by the damage he has done as a superhero and as a man. His relationship is tanking and he believes that the world would be a better place if the Avengers accepted some oversight and accountability. His anguish not only at what he has caused to occur but in the conflict with his friend Cap is palpable. Downey is an Oscar-nominated actor and this is by far his best performance as Iron Man yet.

The action sequences have to be at the core of any superhero film and they are spectacular here. There’s a fight at a German airport that may go down as one of the best in Marvel history and it utilizes the talents of many of the supporting characters and a couple of new ones, including the previously mentioned Black Panther but also the brand new Spider-Man (Holland). Holland may be the best Spider-Man yet (sorry Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield) and acquits himself well both as Spider-Man and as Peter Parker. Based on the snippet of him and Aunt May (Tomei) in this film, I am much more interested in seeing Spider-Man Homecoming next year than I already was.

All of the characters here other than a few who have little more than cameos are shown to be quite human and as humans are, imperfect. This makes the superheroes more relatable to everyone. Who hasn’t had relationship troubles, or felt like they didn’t belong, or chafed at having their autonomy taken from them, or mistrusted authority, or agonized over inventing a self-aware robot that nearly wiped out the human race? Okay, maybe not the last one.

The plot here is dense and for those not really immersed in the Marvel Universe, it may all be too much. In many ways, this is the first Marvel film I felt that it would be actually advantageous to have seen all of the ones preceding it in order to understand it better. It can still stand on its own, but I have to admit that the more you know about the MCU, the easier this will go down. There are also a whole lot of characters here and their relationships and motivations may not be clear to everyone. I suppose that’s just a byproduct of having so many films in the MCU now.

The Russos have shown themselves very capable directors. While I don’t think this film quite measures up to Captain America: The Winter Soldier in terms of quality, it’s damn close. The brothers have been handed the reins to the next to Avengers films and this one shows that the franchise is in safe hands.

REASONS TO GO: Great battle sequences. Excellent debate starter (security vs. freedom). Portrays the heroes as fallible and human.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too much plot and character. Occasionally confusing, particularly to casual viewers.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of superhero violence, action and mayhem, more than you can shake a stick at.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At 2 hours and 27 minutes long, this is the longest Marvel movie to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marvel’s The Avengers
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: My Love, Don’t Cross That River

Avengers: Age of Ultron


Hawkeye takes the heat.

Hawkeye takes the heat.

(2015) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Anthony Mackie, Andy Serkis, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Linda Cardellini, Stellan Skarsgard, Claudia Kim, Thomas Kretschmann, Julie Delpy. Directed by Joss Whedon

As Uncle Ben from the Spider-Man series was wont to say, with great power comes great responsibility. It also makes sense that with great power comes great ego. When you have god-like powers (or are an actual god), the tendency would be to think that your powers make you right. When you get a roomful of such beings who may disagree on certain things, how possible is it for them to work together?

Avengers: Age of Ultron picks up from the pieces of HYDRA’s infiltration of SHIELD as shown in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and continued in the television show Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD as the Avengers are mopping up certain HYDRA bases trying to find Loki’s scepter which Thor (Hemsworth) is eager to restore back to its place in Asgard.

Despite heavy resistance from HYDRA and their leader Baron von Strucker (Kretschmann), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Evans) leads the Avengers to their goal and retrieves the scepter as well as capturing von Strucker. Von Strucker has been using the scepter to experiment on humans, bestowing on twins Quicksilver/Pietro Maximoff (Taylor-Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Olsen) superpowers; in Quicksilver’s case super speed, in the Witch’s case the ability to enter minds and to shoot red hex blasts from her hands. She implants a suggestion in Iron Man/Tony Stark (Downey) to sow discord among the Avengers, somewhat successfully. After all, the conflict was essentially already there.

Stark uses the scepter to kick start an artificial intelligence he calls Ultron which is meant to be a program that protects the planet from alien invaders, an event from Marvel’s The Avengers that so traumatized Stark that it has literally become his greatest fear that the next time invaders come he won’t be able to stop them. However, Ultron (Spader) decides to make himself a body and after quick consideration comes to the conclusion that the best way to protect planet Earth is to remove the human beings from it and to start anew, preferably with metal constructs as the dominant species. That Stark doesn’t tell his fellow Avengers what he’s up to (although The Hulk/Bruce Banner (Ruffalo) assists him reluctantly) further stirs the pot.

As you might guess, this doesn’t sit too well with the Avengers who go out to stop Ultron, who has recruited the twins to his side. They get wind that Ultron is visiting Ulysses Klaw (Serkis), an arms dealer in the African nation of Wakanda to retrieve as much vibranium as he can get his metal hands on and each are given a kind of dream courtesy of the Scarlet Witch that stops them in their tracks and further makes the team wonder if they can function properly. Afterwards, with their gaudy New York headquarters compromised, they retreat to a farm owned by Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Renner) and his wife (Cardellini) to lick their wounds. Thor heads off to find out the meaning of his dream, enlisting old friend Erik Selvig (Skarsgard) to help him.

In the meantime romance begins to blossom between Banner and the Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Johansson), and Nick Fury (Jackson) arrives to give the team a pep talk. Thus they head out to stop Ultron, even though it might cost them their lives. And Ultron plans an extinction level event to take out the entire planet. Can the Avengers stop a being that may be smarter and stronger than they are collectively?

Believe it or not, that’s just the bare bones outline of what’s going on in this movie; there are tons of subplots going on as well. Along the way we get more insight into the characters of Hawkeye and the Black Widow (which are welcome) and extended battle sequences which after awhile, truthfully, begins to feel repetitive.

Whedon was able to weave all the different characters together in the first Avengers movie in a way that brought disparate elements into a congenial whole. He is less successful at it this time, which I think has more to do with an attempt to tell a story with so many moving parts, meant to not only influence events in Phase II of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but also lead directly into the next Phase. In many ways, this is the worst review I’ve ever written; there’s so much Marvel-centric jargon here that it’s nearly impossible to really sum up the movie without going into detailed background, so much so that to really do it justice the review would end up being novel-length. Therein lies the rub for the movie; whereas Marvel’s The Avengers didn’t require a lot of explanation, this one does.

Still, the battle sequences are plenty amazing and while there are so much of them that after awhile there may be some overload particularly among audiences who aren’t young and male, they are all impressive enough to make for wonderful summer entertainment. I’m also liking Whedon’s attempts to illustrate the team’s dysfunction, their self-doubts and the realization that even if they succeed the collateral damage may be unfathomable. Whedon goes well out of his way to depict these warriors as human beings chock full of frailty; it doesn’t always work but at least it makes the movie more interesting than just a mere smashfest.

This sounds very much like a negative review and maybe it is; after all, Marvel has been setting the bar high with their cinematic universe and the last two films in the series have been absolutely outstanding, year-end top 10-worthy features. This doesn’t quite reach that bar but maybe it doesn’t have to. For those looking for ideal summer blockbuster entertainment, this more than fits the bill. It’s the kind of movie made for hot days, cool theaters and freshly popped popcorn. It’s the kind of movie that you’ll want to see with friends and go out for pizza afterwards. And yeah, it may not be the best Marvel film ever but it isn’t the worst either and it more than gets the job done.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of superhero goodness. Looks at the inherent dysfunction of a team of powerful beings.
REASONS TO STAY: Feels less focused than the previous Avengers.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of comic book violence and mayhem, and a couple of suggestive comments.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Juggling all the characters in this film was so grueling and exhausting that Whedon elected not to direct the next Avengers movie, scheduled for 2018. Instead, Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘s The Russo Brothers will take on the next two-part Avengers: Infinity Wars.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man 3
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: My Life in China

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

Big Hero 6


Hiro and Baymax get stealthy.

Hiro and Baymax get stealthy.

(2014) Animated Feature (Disney/Marvel) Starring the voices of Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, Daniel Henney, T.J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans Jr., Genesis Rodriguez, James Cromwell, Alan Tudyk, Maya Rudolph, Abraham Benrubi, Katie Lowes, Billy Bush, Daniel Gerson, Paul Briggs, Charlotte Gulezian, David Shaughnessy, Terri Douglas. Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams

We are not a one of us who knows what we’re truly capable of until we test ourselves. Whatever motivates us – ego, greed, tragedy, desire, altruism – it remains for us to see what we can do.

Hiro (Potter) is a robotics genius. In the alternate world of San Fransokyo where Japanese immigrants rebuilt the city after the 1905 earthquake and meshed the architecture of Occidental and the Land of the Rising Sun to create a more quake-resistant city. The San Francisco Institute of Technology is one of the finest cutting-edge schools in the nation and the city is a jewel of natural beauty married to technological advances.

Hiro’s brother Tadashi (Henney) is, like Hiro, a genius at robotics. Whereas Hiro is out for financial gain in underground street Robobattles, Tadashi is creating a robot that will genuinely make the world a better place. Tadashi attends SF Tech with his friends Honey Lemon (Rodriguez), Go-Go (Chung), Wasabi (Wayans) and Fred (Miller) under the tutelage of Professor Robert Callaghan (Cromwell) who is respected and admired by his students. Tadashi is urging Hiro to come join him at the school after Hiro graduates high school but Hiro is none too eager to join up with, as he terms it, Nerd Tech. However, he grudgingly agrees to sign up after Tadashi pesters him enough.

Then tragedy strikes and Hiro discovers that there is something terrible going on, something involving his own invention – mini-bots that can be controlled by brain waves – and a kabuki-masked villain. Using Baymax (Adsit), a robot that Tadashi was working on, Hiro and his friends will have to develop armor with different powers in order to stop a catastrophe from happening and to bring the bad guy to justice.

 

This is the third straight fall release from Disney Animation to hit a home run (Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen preceded it) and quite frankly after a less-than-satisfactory year for animated entertainment at the box office, trust Disney to set things right in that regard. This is a natural, with cuddly soft robots resembling the love child between Gigantor and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, both references likely to fly right over the head of most younger readers.

While the cast isn’t particularly well-known – no Tom Hanks or Paul Newman or Billy Crystal here – it is pretty solid and a bit younger and hipper than the voice cast that Pixar generally uses. T.J. Miller as Fred is especially fun; reportedly he ad-libbed a lot of his dialogue. The main roles of the brothers are less well-known voice actors and come off as fairly bland typical animated prince guys.

The city of San Fransokyo while not dazzling visually is inventive, clever and looks like it could be a real place. Sure some San Franciscans may take umbrage at the liberties the animators took with their home town but as an ex-resident I have to say that I’m delighted to see The City by the Bay portrayed both in an animated feature and a Marvel comic. It is after all one of the most charming big cities in the country.

 

While this is definitely more Disney than Marvel, there is plenty here to keep those who aren’t still drinking out of juice boxes plenty to cheer about. The humor can be dry and acerbic as well as broad enough to land a 747 on. Kids will laugh, their parents will too. It’s a win-win.

There are some moments that actually brought a tear to my eye which is something in the animated feature world had previously been reserved only for Pixar films. This isn’t a movie that’s talking down to anyone and at the same time isn’t afraid to tackle issues that most kidflicks shy away from. That’s pretty refreshing and while it deals with some pretty tough subjects it doesn’t turn maudlin nor does it pander. What we end up with is a way in to conversations that some kids sadly are forced to have when they are far too young. You’ll get what I mean when you see the movie.

This is the first Marvel property to be developed by Disney as an animated feature. While it isn’t a part of the cinematic universe that the House of Ideas has created (for one thing, characters in the comic include Silver Samurai and Sunfire, are actually part of the X-Men universe and unavailable for Disney) it does have a fresh four-color look all its own. However, those coming to the theater expecting an animated Guardians of the Galaxy will leave disappointed; this is clearly separate from anything else Marvel has done. Which is, in my book, a good thing.

REASONS TO GO: Inventive and fun. Surprisingly moving in places.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t retain the Marvel “feel.”
FAMILY VALUES: There is some action and peril, a bit of rude humor and some thematic elements that may be too much for the littlest of tots.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third consecutive non-Pixar and non-Studio Ghibli animated film that Alan Tudyk has voiced, making him the John Ratzenberger of Disney.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Iron Giant
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Whiplash

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

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines


Ol' red eyes is back.

Ol’ red eyes is back.

(2003) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Kristanna Loken, Claire Danes, David Andrews, Mark Famiglietti, Earl Boen, Moira Harris, Chopper Bernet, Chris Lawford, Carolyn Hennesy, Jay Acovone, M.C. Gainey, Susan Merson, Elizabeth Morehead, Jimmy Snyder, Chris Hardwick, Brian Sites, Alana Curry, Rebecca Tilney, Helen Eigenberg. Directed by Jonathan Mostow

Poor John Connor. He survived an unstoppable relentless killing machine from the future, but could he survive a movie without director James Cameron or actress Linda Hamilton as his mother Sarah? At least for the third go-round in the franchise he had Arnold back.

This time around, Connor (Stahl) is fully grown and he’s a mess. A loner who never really got over the events of his past, he’s further shut himself out from society after the death of his mother. He lives on the streets, for the most part shunning the city where he was born, although he comes back from time to time — like for example when he has a motorcycle accident and needs to steal some drugs from a deserted veterinary hospital to help dull the pain and stop the terrible dreams of Judgment Day that continue to plague him, even though he and his mom, along with the Good Terminator, stopped the machine-driven Armageddon from occurring, right?

Unfortunately for Connor, wrong. Also unfortunately for Connor, the veterinary clinic isn’t quite deserted. Kate Brewster (Danes), the vet who runs the clinic, shows up unexpectedly to handle a pet emergency. So does the T-X (Loken), a cyborg from the future which wasn’t supposed to exist anymore. This one is supposedly even more lethal than the T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgment Day and she looks like she’s going to have her way with the trapped Connor when who should bust in but Arnold the Terminator. From there on in, it’s non-stop action leading to a wickedly twisted ending.

T3 did decent box office, enough to warrant a T4. Its critical reception, even within the action film addicts community, was more chilly. I have a few basic problems with T3. For one thing, one of the main action movie bugaboos: too many coincidences. Kate Brewster happens to be an old crush who gave Connor his first kiss as a young lad, and is the daughter of the general who heads the Skynet project for the government? I mean, really.

Secondly, Loken, while gorgeous, doesn’t really project the air of invincibility Robert Patrick did in T2. You got the impression that the Sarah, John and Arnie were overmatched and could get wiped out at any time by the T-1000. Not so here. Although the new Terminatrix has some built-in weapons and the ability to remote-control any machine she interfaces with, one gets the feeling that Arnie could lay the smack-down on her without dropping his cigar if he had half a mind to. I didn’t buy the menace that Loken was selling, and it did affect how I viewed the movie.

My other problem is with the whole idea of a Terminator coming to assassinate Connor. He is far too accepting of another set of androids from the future, almost seeming to expect them. Shouldn’t he be trying to figure out how Judgment Day could be back on the clock even after he had ended any chance of it taking place?

To the good side, the writing is a cut above the average action fare, and the twist at the movie’s end is a stunner. In fact, a number of conventions of the Terminator universe are turned on their heads in this movie, including the issue of Connor’s survival. Arnold has the terminator thing down to a “T” and could play the part in his sleep (and essentially would in Terminator Salvation). You get the feeling he really enjoyed himself making this movie, although, of course, he remains fairly emotionless onscreen. At the time this was made, the Awesome Austrian was on a roll, delivering some surprisingly strong acting performances (The Sixth Day and End of Days) that while not entirely deflecting the naysayers who said that the soon-to-be Governator couldn’t act, at least making the din of that accusation a bit less loud.

Director Jonathan Mostow had some pretty impressive shoes to fill in Cameron’s absence, but he is given a good template from which to work, and acquits himself nicely. The action sequences are well done, and the byplay between Connor and the Terminator is snappy. The only quibble I have here is a lack of spectacle; T3 seems in places more like a TV movie than anything else, but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad entertainment.

This would be his last starring role before embarking on the political career that would take him to the Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento. There had been talk when this film was released that a fourth Terminator film would star Schwarzenegger and would continue directly where this one left off but those plans had to be scrapped. He has since announced that he would return to the role for a fifth Terminator film to be released in 2015 after appearing in Salvation through footage from the first Terminator.

While in nearly every way possible the third installment didn’t measure up to the first two films in the franchise, it is nonetheless entertaining enough to warrant a look and it is certainly much better than Salvation. This is essentially the role most associated with Schwarzenegger during his acting career, and the robot has always overshadowed the messianic John Conner figure in the imagination of the moviegoing audience. Our fascination with that character of the unstoppable robot has kept this franchise alive and active for well over 25 years. Not every movie franchise can say that, but as long as that fascination remains and they keep making Terminator movies as the Terminator himself might say, “Ah’ll be bahck.”

WHY RENT THIS: Arnold in his signature role. Stunning twist. Some nifty action sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: T-X not nearly as impressive as one would hope. Too many action movie cliches.

FAMILY MATTERS: A good deal of sci-fi action and violence, some foul language and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Other than Schwarzenegger, the only actor to appear in the first three Terminator films is Boen as Dr. Peter Silberman. Boen has not appeared onscreen since, confining himself mainly to voice-over work.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The DVD came in a two-disc edition packed with promotional features along with a Gag Reel and an odd two minute scene that seems to explain why the Terminator has an accent. There are also some features on the making of the T3 video game and the action figures that the movie spawned.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $433.4M on a $200M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Think Like a Man