Tomorrowland


George Clooney has a chat with Brett Robertson over her TV viewing habits.

George Clooney has a chat with Brett Robertson over her TV viewing habits.

(2015) Science Fiction (Disney) George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key, Chris Bauer, Thomas Robinson, Pierce Gagnon, Matthew MacCaull, Judy Greer, Matthew Kevin Anderson, Michael Giacchino, D. Harlan Cutshall, Shiloh Nelson, Xantha Radley, David Nykl, Priya Rajratham. Directed by Brad Bird

The future is a subject that fascinates most of us. How we view the future tends to be a reflection of how we view the present; in the optimistic days of the early and mid-60s, the epoch of the New York World’s Fair, there was optimism. Things would get better and our ingenuity would get us there. The future was full of sleek buildings, mass transit via monorail, wondrous scientific advances, cities on the moon, flying cars, jetpacks and cheerful, smiling people without a care in the world. In short, a theme park.

These days the way we view the future is dark and hopeless. Inevitably in our view of the future civilization has collapsed, resources have been depleted and humanity is on the verge of extinction. There are no gleaming cities, no jetpacks, no cheerful, smiling people; just dirty, destitute denizens of a hardscrabble world desperate to survive in a world where survival on any given day is no picnic. Welcome to the 21st century, no?

In Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, yet another Disney film based on a theme park attraction – or, in this case, an entire themed zone within a theme park – there is a return to that bright shiny future but in this particular case, the future isn’t all that it used to be.

Meet Frank Walker (Robinson). He’s a brilliant kid living out in the sticks who dreams of jetpacks and shiny cities and heads over to the 1964 World’s Fair with stars in his eyes and a (nearly) working jetpack under his arm for a competition for inventors. His invention is rejected but a little girl named Athena (Cassidy) gives Walker a pin and tells him to follow her and her group. Walker follows them onto the It’s a Small World ride via which he is transported to an alternate dimension, one in which the future is now. He has arrived in Tomorrowland, a place where humanity’s most creative minds, most artistic souls and most brilliant scientists have gathered to create a Utopia. In short, not unlike the SyFy Channel’s Eureka.

Flash forward 50 years and over to Central Florida where Eddie Newton (McGraw), a NASA engineer, is given charge of dismantling the launch site for the Space Shuttle after which he’ll be out of a job. His spunky daughter Casey (Robertson), who has a brilliant intuitive mind and is able to figure out almost instantly “how things work,” has been repeatedly sabotaging his efforts. One of her attempts at sabotage gets her caught and lands her in jail. When she goes to collect her things, there’s a strange pin among them – one she didn’t have before. Whenever she touches it, she is transported to Tomorrowland, although it is more of an immersive hologram of Tomorrowland. And there’s a time limit on the pin’s battery, after which it  ceases working.

Casey is obsessed with finding Tomorrowland and her search takes her to the doorstep of Frank Walker (Clooney), now a grizzled old hermit whose house looks dilapidated yet is taking in more electrical current than Walt Disney World. It turns out that Frank was exiled from Tomorrowland, and that he harbors a terrifying secret; while in Tomorrowland he built a machine able to look into the future and to his horror, it showed that the end of the human race was approaching. And it appears that Casey may hold the key to stopping it, but they have to get to Tomorrowland to do it. And there are some killer robots who are dead set on making sure that doesn’t happen.

Bird has created a marvelous universe that is brilliant to watch. Sure, it’s a bit of a retro vision but he has managed to make it visually stunning, an extension of the future worlds we saw 50 years ago (that are supposed to be now) but modernizing them somewhat. Tomorrowland thus becomes believable, at least to 2015 eyes.

In a movie in which ideas and dreams are extolled, Bird has several of his own and they bear thinking about. For example, he posits that because we’re conditioned to think that the future is bleak and awful, that we are making it come to pass. It’s a concept not without merit. The news about our present is unrelentingly bleak, when you consider climate change, income inequality, peak oil, religious fanaticism, water and food shortages, overpopulation and all the other issues that are affecting our survival. Hollywood also tends to make big budget sci-fi movies about futures in which mankind is not prospering. Post-apocalyptic wastelands are easier and cheaper to create than futuristic utopias, after all.

The constant Disney references in the movie are probably delightful to most Disneyphiles, from visions of Space Mountain on the edge of the frame during a visit to Tomorrowland, to the It’s a Small World ride in 1964 – which was actually filmed at the attraction in Anaheim, which is much longer than the original which was in the Pepsi Pavilion and not its own stand-alone facility. However, I’m betting those of you who have ridden the attraction are now cursing me because they know they won’t be able to get the song out of their heads for hours. In any case, there are references to Disney movies, Disney theme parks and Disney memorabilia throughout the movie and while most of it is subtle, some of it is blatant enough that it makes one feel like one is experience a 2 1/2 hour advertisement for Disney. But that isn’t the movie’s deadliest sin.

What I object to most about Tomorrowland is that the filmmakers have dumbed it down to appeal to a younger audience. Gigantic leaps in logic and common sense abound here as we get to watch a kid save the world. I don’t object intrinsically to having a kid be smart, but smarter than everyone else? Wisdom comes with experience; it isn’t something we are born with, something movies aimed at kids conveniently tend to overlook in order to stroke the fantasies of kids in that they’re smarter than the adults around them, and more able. While thankfully most of the adults in the film aren’t portrayed as buffoons as they often are in kid-oriented films, not one of them seems to have any sort of optimism within them whatsoever which defies the odds. I think making this too kid-oriented was a tremendous error. Look at the facts; on those Disney attraction-based films that have been completely kid-oriented (i.e. The Haunted Mansion, Country Bears) the box office has been anemic. On those that have aimed to be entertaining to all audiences (i.e. the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise) the box office was through the roof. Not all of it was Johnny Depp, mateys; a lot of it had to do with that most adults won’t watch Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network or the Disney Channel for very long.

Clooney puts aside his suave sex symbol image and plays an unshaven, pessimistic sort who out-Get Off My Lawns Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. He doesn’t flash his trademark grin very often in the movie, but remains engaging and charismatic nonetheless. I can’t say the same for Robertson however. I get that her character is supposed to be optimistic to the point of mania but she comes off as cloying instead. Worse, she seems to be overacting throughout, using broad gestures and expressions where subtlety would have been more appreciated. The 24-year-old Robertson is playing a young girl in her mid-teens and I get that girls that age are generally more dramatically inclined and that playing it over-the-top is more realistic than subtlety but it takes me out of the movie as I am continually reminded that someone is acting here.

This will probably rank as one of the summer’s greater disappointments. I had high hopes for it and was hoping that perhaps a new franchise might be brewing. The movie is doing pretty well at the box office but given its monster budget will have a hard time recouping all of it at the rate it is going.. I think if Bird had taken a page from Gore Verbinski’s book and appealed less to the youngest moviegoing audience and more to a more mature audience, this could have been a huge hit; it does have some admirable ideas to think about and is visually impressive but at the end of the day the things in the film that are annoying trump the things in the movie that are worthwhile. A world of tears, indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Nifty eye candy (not Clooney). Some fairly complex themes.
REASONS TO STAY: Dumbed down. Robertson overacts.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly bad language, sci-fi violence (robots beating each other up) and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Casey confronts the holographic dog early on in the film, her footprints form a Hidden Mickey.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mom and Dad Save the World
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Top Spin

Interstellar


To infinity and beyond.

To infinity and beyond.

(2014) Science Fiction (Paramount) Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Mackenzie Foy, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin (voice), Ellen Burstyn, Timothee Chalamet, David Oyelowo, Collette Wolf, William Devane, David Gyasi, Topher Grace, Josh Stewart (voice), Matt Damon, Leah Cairns. Directed by Christopher Nolan

Physics is a fascinating and maddening field of study. The wonder of the universe is written in the language of physics but so too are its rules and regulations. There are those that see the handwriting of God in physics but there are also those who see it as a frustratingly difficult to coalesce glimpse of the infinite simply because we are still learning to understand the language. In that sense, we are as children trying to speak in a language we only know a few words of.

Reality is a bit less hard to fathom. The Earth is dying. Something called the blight has killed most of the crops and, it seems, the animal life on Earth other than the human species. Only corn remains and when that goes, humanity starves. America has become a gigantic dust bowl straight out of the Depression, covering everything in dust and despair.

Cooper (McConaughey) is a farmer who once had higher aspirations. A test pilot and engineer who’d worked for NASA until a crash had taken him out of the ballgame, he grouses to father-in-law Donald (Lithgow) that whereas once mankind looked up at the stars and wondered at our place in the universe, these days mankind looks down at the ground and wonders at our place in the dirt. As with most intelligent people, he can read the writing on the wall but still he labors to try and get his crop in as best he can while raising his 15-year-old son Tom (Chalamet) and his 10-year-old daughter Murph (Foy) in a world of frequent dust storms and a malaise where technology is no longer worshiped or seen as the answer to our problems (where in fact technology is largely seen as the source of our problems) and nations no longer bother to field armies because, well, why bother?

Murph and Cooper have a special relationship. Whereas Tom seeks only to follow in his father’s boots as a farmer, Murph is smart, inquisitive and a bit of a firecracker. When she says she’s haunted by a ghost, Cooper gently tells her that ghosts aren’t real from a scientific standpoint, and yet books get knocked off of her bookcase without explanation, and dust that blows into her room settles into a strange patter which turns out to be a binary code of co-ordinates.

Intrigued, Coop drives to the location of the co-ordinates and finds a secret base where NASA still functions. Led by his old mentor Professor Brand (Caine), the facility is constructing one final rocket. It turns out that a wormhole has opened up near the rings of Saturn and have made accessible a dozen planets that are potentially capable of supporting human life. Probes have been sent as well as brave human astronauts. One last mission is planned; to choose between three of the most promising locations and either set up a human colony there or if Professor Brand is able to solve an equation that will allow him to do it, to relocate the remainder of the human race from dying Earth to a new home. However, human astronauts would be needed to make decisions a computer or robot cannot and the journey would be a long one – two years just to make it to Saturn. Coop, being a test pilot and an engineer would be the perfect choice to lead the mission, particularly since he was apparently led to NASA by divine providence – or an alien fifth-dimensional beings who might have a benevolent interest in the human race.

This doesn’t sit too well with Murph who is furious that her father is abandoning her but Coop knows that if he doesn’t go his children will be the last generation of humanity left. Along with Professor Brand’s super-smart daughter (Hathaway), astronauts Doyle (Bentley) and Romilly (Gyasi) as well as a couple of military robots named TARS (Irwin) and CASE (Stewart). In a ring-shaped ship the astronauts enter the wormhole for a system dominated by a giant black hole to find a new home for humanity but the mission becomes even more critical as the relative aging of the crew is drastically affected by the proximity of the black hole. Hours spent exploring a planet will pass in decades on Earth. This means that even if the spaceship is able to return home, Coop will be the same age as Tom (Affleck) and Murph (Chastain) when he returns. While Murph has grown up to assist Professor Brand at NASA, Tom – who thinks all of this is foolishness – continues to farm despite the mounting odds against human survival.

This is as epic a movie as you could hope to make about human survival. It is not an action-packed apocalypse with roaming outlaws and thunderdomes, but one of resignation and despair. It depicts a human race going out essentially with a whimper largely, although there are those fighting to try and make it a bang. Seems reasonably accurate to me.

In fact, the accuracy of the science is one of the film’s selling points. Physicist Kip Thorne, one of the most honored in the field, is a producer and has vetted the science. While some of what is onscreen is conjecture, it is based on real scientific theorem about the nature of wormholes, black holes and relativity. This is science fact, not science fantasy.

McConaughey continues his career renaissance with not only a high profile role but a fine performance in it. His Cooper is extremely conflicted, motivated not so much to save the world but his two children which really is what heroism boils down to – saving those closest to us. It isn’t the kind of stunning Oscar-worthy work that was Dallas Buyers Club but it is memorable nonetheless. Also worthy of mention is Chastain’s performance as the adult Murph. She’s angry but also open-minded and eventually comes to believe in the mission and her dad. Lithgow also is impressive in a brief role as the curmudgeonly father-in-law who is absolutely devoted to his grandkids.

The visuals here are breathtaking, from the majestic black hole to the rings of Saturn to the psychedelic wormhole. As with Gravity before it, you get a real impression of space flight and while no human being has witnessed a lot of the wonders depicted here, again the science is carefully sound so that even physicists have written papers based on the science and images of the film. I don’t think you can get a better testimonial when it comes to authenticity than that.

The one sour note in the symphony are the last 20 minutes. I won’t discuss specifics other than to say that of all the potential doors that the writers could have chosen to go through to end the movie, it felt like they chose the closest one. I won’t say easiest because it requires a bit of explanation but it felt like they painted themselves into a corner and then bent space and time to extricate themselves. Most people who dislike the movie do so because of this sequence.

However, I won’t discount the two and a half hours of magnificent filmmaking that preceded it because of essentially a poor choice of finishes. Perhaps that makes the movie all the more worthwhile to remind us that even Christopher Nolan is human, and even smart humans can make questionable calls.

This is the kind of movie that can be discussed endlessly. Like Stanley Kubrick’s iconic opus which in many ways influences Nolan here, there is plenty of room to figure out What It All Means. This is a movie which rather than staring at the ground and wondering about our place in the dirt looks up at the sky and wonders at our place in the universe. While the filmmaking here does have a major flaw which keeps it from a higher score, it nonetheless is worthwhile filmmaking that deserves your attention and can be recommended wholeheartedly not only to film lovers but to science geeks as well.

REASONS TO GO: Epic sci-fi filmmaking on a grand scale. A rare scientifically accurate sci-fi movie.
REASONS TO STAY: Last 20 minutes are disappointing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of rough language and some fairly intense sci-fi peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the original screenplay for the movie, Murph is a male.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 2001: A Space Odyssey
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I

Chasing Ice


Ice, ice baby

Ice, ice baby

(2012) Documentary (Submarine Deluxe) James Balog, Svavar Jonatansson, Louie Psihoyos, Adam LeWinter, Kitty Boone, Jeff Orlowski, Tad Pfeffer, Suzanne Balog, Dennis Dimick, Emily Balog, Simone Balog, Sylvia Earle, Jason Box, Synte Peacock. Directed by Jeff Orlowski

The world is changing. That’s a given – our lives are sometimes too short a span to really notice it but I think most of us have noticed that the climate has been changing. Storms are becoming more severe; the summer of 2012 is one of the warmest ever recorded. Wildfires are becoming hotter and more frequent.

James Balog is a nature photographer with the National Geographic Society. He is one of the best in the world at it, having won numerous awards for his work which have for the most part dealt with deforestation and endangered species. He has recently become intrigued by ice and on a photo shoot in Iceland watched a massive glacier calve before his eyes.

Aware that scientists were recording that the glaciers were melting at a faster rate than previously recorded, he decided to document the event. To that end he set up the Extreme Ice Survey which raised funds through grants and Balog’s own personal  funds to set up cameras in Montana, Alaska, Greenland and Iceland (and eventually the Himalayas).

The challenges of doing this are severe. The equipment is delicate; setting up cameras designed to shoot photos once an hour for six months at a time in conditions that are as severe as any on the planet requires some innovative engineering (which doesn’t always work). Setting those cameras up requires sometimes precarious mounts which required some climbing skill. To make matters worse, Balog had some serious knee problems which eventually required four surgeries just for him to function.

But the results are worth it. Balog takes some stunning still photos of the ice which are just breathtaking while the video footage shot of the EIS team in these various locations show the stark beauty of the ice. Most importantly the time-lapse photos of the glaciers are terrifying and convincing – if you didn’t believe the scientific warnings before you will now. Of course if you listen to the airheads on Fox News you still might not.

Even more convincing is a massive calving sequence that was caught on videotape by the EIS of a glacier losing ice the size of Lower Manhattan and ten times the height of the Empire State Building. Watching the sequence literally took my breath away and left me with a pounding heart. It’s beautiful yes, but the implications for our world and our species is disturbing.

This is a movie that needs to be seen, to be shown in high schools and shown to government officials. The commentators at Fox News need to be nailed down into chairs and forced to watch it. America is the only industrialized nation on the planet that hasn’t adopted stricter carbon emission laws and it is our job as citizens not just of this nation but of the world to demand our congress do so. It behooves us to remember that we are stewards of our planet – not for those who came before but for those who come after. James Balog and Jeff Orlowski are well aware of that – and the evidence is on the screen.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible photography. Presents the argument for reducing carbon and carbon dioxide emissions concisely.

REASONS TO STAY: Only if you’re making a fortune in the oil industry and others that benefit from emitting carbons into the atmosphere.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few bad words uttered here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Balog was the first photographer ever to be commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service to create a full set of stamps.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100. I would call it a critical success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: An Inconvenient Truth

ICE AT NIGHT LOVERS: There is a sequence near the end of the movie when Balog takes pictures of ice on a bright moonlit night (he cheats a little with some well-placed lights) that is simply stunning.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Vicious Kind

Mission to Mars


Mission to Mars

A little romantic skydancing never hurts a relationship.

(2000) Science Fiction (Touchstone) Gary Sinese, Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen, Jerry O’Connell, Peter Outerbridge Kavan Smith, Jill Teed, Elise Neal, Kim Delaney, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Robert Bailey Jr., Patricia Harras, Lynda Boyd, Jody Thompson, Lucia Walters Pamela Diaz. Directed by Brian De Palma

The human nature is to explore, to find out what lies beyond where we have already been; to ask questions and then find answers. We explore without; the world around us, and someday, the worlds beyond our own. We also explore within; who we are, where we come from and where we are going. Hey, it keeps us busy.

Mission to Mars looks at that aspect of ourselves. Set in 2020, it posits the first manned mission to the Red Planet. Tragedy dogs the mission even before it leaves; its commander, Jim McConnell (Sinese), withdraws following the death of his wife and co-commander of the mission.

At first, the mission seems fairly routine; to discover the feasibility of colonization. However, the new mission commander, Luke Graham (Cheadle) discovers an anomaly, one which quickly turns deadly. When it becomes clear to mission control that something has gone wrong at Mars Base, a rescue mission is mounted, led by Woody Blake (Robbins), his wife Terri (Nielsen) and mission specialist Phil Ohlmyer (O’Connell). Blake insists that McConnell accompany the team, as he is the one who wrote the mission plan for the original expedition, including a possible rescue situation, and knows more about Mars than any other astronaut. It takes some convincing of the still-grieving McConnell but he eventually realizes that he could save lives so he assents.

The rescue mission also meets with unexpected tragedy after a micrometeorite shower holes the ship. The rescue party has to use all their resourcefulness in order to make it to the planet. There, they find the object of their mission … and a puzzle for them to solve. It explains why the first mission had to die … and a whole lot more. Think of this as a junior 2001: A Space Odyssey with better special effects and a director who is more of a storyteller. That, perhaps, is the biggest problem with M2M; rather than leave the mystery pretty much unsolved, letting the audience come to its own conclusions as Stanley Kubrick did with his film, director Brian de Palma makes sure that everything is explained in nice, neat little packages. That takes away from the grandeur of the mystery, and leaves us feeling like Peggy Lee; is that all there is?

Visually, there are some stunning moments, particularly late in the movie during the Martian Head scene, and during a cataclysmic accident. Sinese and Robbins are solid actors who never disappoint; Sinese is particularly excellent, playing an astronaut for the first time since Apollo 13 and comporting himself as a complex man, switching between mourning his wife and achieving the dream they both shared. Cheadle is an actor whose stock in Hollywood was on the rise when this was made; for me it cemented his standing as an actor whose every role was worth seeking out, a place he occupies to this day.

It makes for an odd switch; I’m usually more forgiving of the excesses of sci-fi flicks than Da Queen, but she liked this movie better than I did. That it got a one-hanky recommendation from Da Queen is telling enough; that she found it thought-provoking should be recommendation enough for anyone. For my part, I give it a mild recommendation; certainly, it’s worth seeing for the scope of its vision as well as the performances of its solid cast. I also give the writers props for avoiding cliché characterization and action for its own sake.

Still, I’ve seen 2001, I’ve enjoyed 2001 (although I didn’t love 2001), but this ain’t 2001.

WHY RENT THIS: Some spectacular effects sequences. Solid performances from Sinese, Cheadle and Robbins.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Explains too much – a little more mystery would have gone a long way. Could have used more depth in characterization.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is a bit of violence, some bad language and a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: There is a “hidden Mickey,” seen here when the Mars Explorer lines up with Mars, the rotating circular hub of the spacecraft and antenna dish form the iconic image of Mickey Mouse. Of course, Touchstone is a division of Disney, and “hidden Mickeys” are notoriously placed throughout all of the Disney theme parks as easter eggs for their guests.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is an animatics to finished scene comparison that is fairly interesting. The making of featurette also shows the input of NASA into the finished film making it a little more interesting than most.

BOX OFICE PERFORMANCE: $111.0M on a $100M production budget; the movie’s ambitious budget outpaced it’s decent box office and so it was unprofitable during its theatrical release.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 2001: A Space Odyssey (in case I didn’t make it clear in the review)

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Skyfall

Monsters


Monsters

Whitney Able discovers that blonds don’t always have more fun

(2010) Horror (Magnet) Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able, Mario Zuniga Benavides, Annalee Jefferies, Erika Morales Yolanda Chacon, Javier Acosta Rodriguez, Victor Manuel Martinez Tovar, Walter Hernandez Col, Kennedy Gamaliel Jimenez, Romeo Arista. Directed by Gareth Edwards

The only monsters worth fearing are those of our own making. I don’t know who said it first but maybe it should have been Victor Frankenstein. If not him, maybe a politician we can be proud of.

Speaking of non-existent creatures, Mexico is full of aliens. Not the illegal kind – although they kind of are – I mean the E.T. sorts, the ones who get transported to planet Earth by a faulty NASA probe that crashed in Northern Mexico and hatched some extraterrestrial octopus-looking thingies that proceeded to take over Mexico. As if they didn’t have enough problems.

Samantha Wynden (Able) is the daughter of a wealthy American publisher. That publisher is the boss of Andrew Kaulder (McNairy), a reporter whom the publisher feels can safely escort Samantha through the infested zone back home (there are a few lapses in logic here but we’ll just smile and pretend it all makes sense). He’s loathe to do it but if he doesn’t he’ll be unemployed at a time where that’s not such a good thing to be. Not that there’s any era when it’s a good thing to be unemployed.

So of course they meet and they dislike each other. So yes he turns out to be a screw-up and deeply distrustful of rich people. So yeah they fall in love and wind up in bed. And of course this happens while their happy little trip collapses around them.

Gareth Edwards, the first-time director of this movie, does an impressive job with a pretty slender budget. He employs guerilla filmmaking techniques – shooting on location without permission with locals as extras and even actors. That makes this as authentic a movie as you’re likely to see.

While the concept isn’t particularly new, it is done in a pretty smart manner. This is a universe of corruption and desperation with the innocent people caught in the middle. You can say it’s an allegory of American immigration policies, although I think if so the references are ham-handed. This is not, despite the title, not a monster movie although you do see them from time to time. I think the thought was to keep them in the background for greater effectiveness but this sure could have used a little more monster and a little less romance.

There are only two actors with any experience in the movie and so they pretty much carry the movie and while they don’t disgrace themselves, neither do they seize the opportunity to deliver a career-making performance. I grant you, that can be hard to do when much of their performances are ad-libbed. Able is cute though and has enough charisma to lead me to believe she has a future ahead of her in the business.

The monsters, when seen, are mostly seen in grainy TV footage but they occasionally make devastating appearances. I wish they had a greater presence, but at the end of the day the real monsters weren’t necessarily from outer space. That’s what really makes the movie worthwhile.

WHY RENT THIS: Feels real. Every cent is on the screen.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Weak acting in places. Underutilizes monsters.

FAMILY VALUES: The language here was alone responsible for giving this an “R” rating.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The only two professional actors in the film are Able and McNairy; the rest of the cast are locals who happened to be around when Edwards was shooting.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are several Q&A sessions with various members of the cast and crew at various conventions and festivals.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.2M on a $500K production budget; I’d call it an indie hit..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: And Soon the Darkness

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Day 4 of the Six Days of Darkness 2012

Apollo 18


Apollo 18

These astronauts discover to their shock that the moon really IS made of green cheese.

(2011) Found Footage Horror (Dimension) Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen, Ryan Robbins. Directed by Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego

Once upon a time, traveling to the moon seemed like the ultimate adventure in human achievement. Then in 1969, we achieved it and it seemed like afterwards humanity did a collective ho-hum and we went on to other things, like toppling Latin American democracies. The moon landing program was curtailed after Apollo 17 in 1972.

But according to this film, there was one more mission in 1974 – one that landed on the South Pole of the moon (technically impossible according to the technology of the time), one that was made secret by the Department of Defense.

Astronauts Nate Walker (Owen) and Ben Anderson (Christie) along with Command Module pilot John Grey (Robbins) can’t even tell their families about their mission, which is top secret. They are tasked with positioning some listening devices on the surface of the moon that will help give early warning about missile launches from the then-Soviet Union.

However, the astronauts encounter something odd. Their communications are cutting out frequently because of an odd frequency which they think is being transmitted by the listening devices, although frankly that puzzles them because they shouldn’t be transmitting anything. They continue to do astronaut-like things – taking rock samples, driving the lunar rover around, and planting the flag.

However things take a decided turn for the strange. They discover a Russian landing vehicle in a nearby crater where they also discover the body of a cosmonaut who apparently was injured and died. Things get really weird when the astronauts try to take off and something slams into the lunar module, damaging it. Now they are in a race against time for survival – and they aren’t alone.

This is purported to be NASA footage from 1974 that was culled from hundreds of hours of footage uploaded to a bogus website (www.lunartruth.org) which the studio is marketing as actual footage. And yes, some of it is actual footage – from previous lunar missions, mixed in with footage shot in Vancouver.

This is Lopez-Gallego’s first English-language film after a couple of pretty nifty Spanish horror films. Like many Spanish directors, he has an eye for mood and a knack for increasing the tension nicely. There are plenty of startle scares here and quite frankly I cried out several times during the movie, something I very rarely do during horror movies. That’s money as far as I’m concerned.

Yeah, the whole found footage thing is getting a bit tired, but it is done cleverly here and great attention to detail is laid in, from shooting it so the horizon is low (as it is on the moon) to re-creating the lunar and command modules and shooting on 16mm film that is properly grainy and washed out, color-wise. All of these are effective.

The science here has been described as “preposterous” and quite frankly if you know that much about physics and engineering you’re going to be driven crazy, but then again that’s usually the case with most space-set movies. What it all boils down to is whether or not the movie is scary and as I’ve already stated, it is big time. Check your higher functions at the door and be prepared to have your primordial self pee its pants as your nightmares come to life on the multiplex screen.

REASONS TO GO: I’ve seen all sorts of horror films and most don’t scare me much; this one did.

REASONS TO STAY: The handheld cams are dizzy-making at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some nightmare-inducing scenes as well as some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the movie, the actors walk normally on the lunar surface. In reality, astronauts had to shuffle their feet somewhat in order not to go leaping around the moon like gazelles because of the low gravity.

HOME OR THEATER: The lunar desolation should be seen on the big screen, but the 16mm cameras work on the home screen as well.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Bringing Out the Dead

The Box


The Box

Frank Langella really needs to buy himself a better razor.

(Warner Brothers) Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, James Rebhorn, Holmes Osborne, Sam Oz Stone, Gillian Jacobs, Celia Weston, Deborah Rush, Lisa K. Wyatt, Mark Cartier, Keith Robertson, Michelle Durrett. Directed by Richard Kelly

Our lives are often a test, one in which we are called to make choices between short-term self-interest and the long-term benefit of the entire species. It is a test we continue to take over and over again, not always successfully.

It is 1976, and the Mariner project is sending data back to NASA at their Langley research facility in Virginia (and if you’re not sure what state you’re in, the filmmakers helpfully tell you in big bold letters at the beginning of the film). Arthur Lewis (Marsden) is a scientist who worked on that project (he helped design the camera that sent back those shots from the surface of the Red Planet) who dreams of being an astronaut, dreams which are dashed when he receives a rejection letter from the powers-that-be.

His wife Norma (Diaz) is a teacher at a ritzy private school where their son Walter (Stone) also attends. Norma walks with a limp and has to take pain pills because of a doctor’s who left her foot under an x-ray machine until it charbroiled. She’s just been told that the school is eliminating employee discounts for student tuition, which means that the already-financially strapped family (since when does a rocket scientist not make enough to make ends meet?) will have to live even more within their means.

Enter the Mysterious Man, in this case Arlington Steward (Langella). With a severely disfigured face that looks like one of his zits might have had C4 in it as a teen, Steward bears a mysterious wooden box that contains nothing except a glass dome that can only be opened with a key, and a large red button. He gives Norma the key and explains, in clipped cultured tones, that pushing the button will accomplish two things. First, someone unknown to Norma and Arthur, somewhere in the world, will die as a result of them pushing the button. Second, they will be paid one million dollars, tax free, in large crisp hundred dollar bills. In order to demonstrate his sincerity, he gives Norma one of them “for her trouble.” The two of them have 24 hours to decide whether or not to push the button – otherwise the offer is withdrawn and the box will be given to someone else.

The couple goes back and forth. Their conscience dictates that it is never all right to kill, even for a large sum of money but their immediate needs say that a million dollars can make their lives a hell of a lot less complicated. As the minutes tick down to the deadline, one of them will make an impulsive decision that will change their lives forever, put them all in mortal danger and introduce Arthur to a mysterious conspiracy between the NSA, NASA and other governmental organizations that may affect the future of the human race.

This is based on a short story by the great Richard Matheson (and was later developed into an episode for the 1986 version of “The Twilight Zone,” albeit with a different ending) who has given us stories that have become movies like I Am Legend, What Dreams May Come, Somewhere In Time and numerous episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and “Night Gallery,” to name a few. He is one of the most imaginative writers of the 20th century. Here what he has is a morality play that is as relevant now as it was the day it was written – the battle of short-term gain and long-term care. In other words, doing the right thing vs. doing the easy thing.

Director Kelly has an affinity for science fiction and, well, creepy stuff. He creates an atmosphere in which anyone at any time can be “an employee” as Steward terms it, his eyes and ears on the subjects of what he labels “a test.” I know I’m being a bit vague, but I don’t want to ruin any of the twists that give the movie some of its spice. One of the things I can talk about is that he nicely re-creates the era.

Langella is fabulous as the mysterious Arlington Steward. He is creepy and not quite normal but at the same time urbane, polite and charming. He tips his fedora at a jaunty angle and walks with the deliberate pace of a man who knows exactly where he needs to be and is quite sure he isn’t in a hurry to get there. Marsden also does a fine job in the lead role of the disappointed rocket scientist who goes from financial problems to fighting for his survival.

I’m not usually a big fan of Cameron Diaz – for some reason she seems a little neurotic to me usually – but she does a solid job here. There are some nice supporting roles here too, particularly the veteran character actor Rebhorn as Arthur’s boss.

One of the biggest problems with the movie is the score. Members of the Montreal-based rock band Arcade Fire are responsible for it and I was frankly quite disappointed. It’s intrusive, overbearing, somewhat cliché in places (I don’t know about you but I am quite tired of having an Important Event or a Big Scare announced with screeching strings) and comes damn close to ruining the movie. I would have preferred something toned down a bit; a bit more minimalist.

Kelly, who wrote the movie, chose to flesh out the script with a good deal of business involving the government agencies mentioned above as well as a series of nosebleeds, slack-jawed observers, a wind tunnel and mysterious gates that may very well lead to Eternal Damnation. These sideshows, while visually effective, tend to take the focus from what was the main crux of the original short story, to the detriment of the film. That’s a shame because it might have gotten a higher rating otherwise.

There are elements of science fiction, horror, political thriller and historical drama here, so you can’t say that you didn’t get your money’s worth. What you can say about The Box is that it’s got the best use of Sartre I’ve ever seen in a horror/science fiction/thriller/drama before. Hell is other people according to Sartre but in Richard Kelly’s vision, we are all caught in our own boxes that we are stuck in until we’re planted in a pine box, and what we make of it can be Hell – or it can be something else. It’s a test that the human race continues to take – and fail.

REASONS TO GO: You can’t go wrong with Richard Matheson. A modern morality play that is an essay on human nature that is even more true and contemporary now than it was when the original short story was written. Langella gives a marvelously creepy performance.

REASONS TO STAY: An overbearing score is intrusive and nearly ruins the film. Some of the action is a little bit over-the-top. It feels like the script was fleshed out with some unnecessary business.

FAMILY VALUES: Some horrific images and a few good startle scares are sure to give the little ones nightmares. Okay for teens though.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Kelly is best known for directing the cult classic Donny Darko.

HOME OR THEATER: There are a few grand effects shots and a couple of other sequences that would look better on the big screen but otherwise just as effective at home.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: He’s Just Not That Into You