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

Captain America: The Winter Soldier


Captain American Express Shield: Don't leave home without it!

Captain American Express Shield: Don’t leave home without it!

(2014) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Gregory St-Pierre, Hayley Atwell, Toby Jones, Emily VanCamp, Maximilliano Hernandez, Jenny Agutter, Garry Shandling, Bernard White, Callan Mulvey, Branka Katic. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo

The buzz on the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been intense with fanboys eating their own livers in anticipation of its release. Well, now that it’s finally out, does it live up to the hype?

Yup. Steve Rogers (Evans) a.k.a. Captain America a.k.a. Cap is still trying to adjust to life in the 21st century after having been frozen solid since the Second World War. He keeps a to-do list (which varies depending on which country you’re seeing the film in) that includes cultural touchstones, historic events that took place during his hibernation and things to try that just weren’t available back in 1944. He checks stuff off the list – in between missions for SHIELD to save the world or at least keep it safer.

While rescuing a ship hijacked by pirates Steve and his partner Natasha Romanoff (Johansson) a.k.a. The Black Widow discover some data being uploaded to a satellite array that is heavily encrypted. When he delivers it to Nick Fury (Jackson), the head of SHIELD, all Hades breaks loose. It soon becomes clear that SHIELD has been infiltrated and Steve isn’t sure who to trust – Fury, who has lied to him constantly? The Black Widow whose past is shrouded in mystery? Alexander Pearce (Redford), the security council member whom Fury reports to? And what of the Winter Soldier, an equally mysterious assassin who seems to have all of Cap’s strength and agility?

I’m being deliberately vague on the plot simply because I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns that decorate this film, although to be honest if you really want to know more detail you can find it elsewhere on the Net. The movie has been described as a superhero movie with a secret identity as a ’70s Cold War espionage thriller. What that doesn’t tell you is that it takes the best elements from both genres and does them up perfectly.

The Russo brothers ratchet up the paranoia and suspense and keep it in the red zone throughout.  Astonishing action sequences are interspersed with expository sequences that will keep you guessing as to who can be trusted – and who can’t. Some of the turncoats in the film will shock longtime followers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe although some will make sense upon reflection.

There are still plenty of fans who are uneasy with Evans as the iconic Captain, but he does his best work here, capturing Cap’s uneasiness with the grey areas that SHIELD is dwelling in and having a hard time reconciling his 1944 morality with the moral morass that is 2014. He’s got the build and the athleticism to pull off the fight sequences but he doesn’t pull off the charisma and leadership that I always imagined someone like Steve Rogers would possess. Then again, it’s doubtful that any actor could.

We get to see even more of Jackson as Fury and he shines as you would expect. Johansson also has an expanded role but we really don’t find out a ton about her character which is as you might expect; I get the sense that they are planning a Black Widow feature down the line and will probably explore the character in greater depth then.

Redford is magnificent as Pearce. We don’t get to see a lot of villain roles for Redford but he inhabits this one. Wisely, as most great movie villains do, he doesn’t see himself as a villain but as a hero, saving the world from itself. If you remember his movie Sneakers think of the role as a cross between his role and the villain role played by Ben Kingsley.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention Anthony Mackie. He plays Sam Wilson, a decorated paratrooper who is befriended by Rogers and becomes his ally known as the Falcon using a flying suit. His camaraderie with Evans is genuine and the two make a formidable onscreen team. Who knows, maybe a feature starring the Falcon is in the cards down the line.

The Russos chose to use practical effects whenever possible, meaning there isn’t a whole lot of CGI but when they do use it, it’s magnificent. The massive helicarriers look absolutely real as does the Triskelion building that serves as SHIELD’s Washington DC headquarters.

The question is usually with films like this do you need to be fans of the comic books in order to make sense of the goings on? The answer is no, although it would be extremely helpful if you’d seen the preceding Marvel movies, particularly Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers. Those who are completely unfamiliar with the comics and the previous movies and wish to view this as a stand alone movie, you should be good following most of the action although there will be references whizzing overhead that you just won’t get. Don’t fret; they aren’t there for you. Still, even if you aren’t a comic book geek or a superhero junkie, you’ll find plenty to like here. Definitely one of the best superhero movies ever – and likely to be one of the best movies you’ll see this year.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing action and suspense – the perfect blending of both. Keeps you on the edge of your seat for the entire movie.

REASONS TO STAY: Loses steam during some of the expository sequences.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action which means plenty of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice narrating the Smithsonian exhibit for Captain America is Gary Sinese.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/14/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mission: Impossible

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Front Man

Frozen (2013)


Olaf is looking to make some S'mores.

Olaf is looking to make some S’mores.

(2013) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, Ciaran Hinds, Chris Williams, Stephen J. Anderson, Maia Wilson, Edie McClurg, Robert Pine, Maurice LaMarche, Livvy Stubenrauch, Eva Bella, Spencer Ganus, Jesse Corti, Nicholas Guest,  Annaleigh Ashford. Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee

If climate change proponents are to be believed, the world is slowly heating up and eventually catastrophic consequences will come about as a result. Here is an animated movie that looks at a different kind of climate change.

Elsa (Menzel), the princess of Arundel who is heir to the throne, has a unique gift – power over snow and ice. When innocent play with her younger sister Anna (Bell) causes her to injure her, Elsa’s parents take the both of them to Pabbie (Hinds), the troll king. He heals Anna but tells Elsa that she must hide her powers. This causes Elsa to stay in her room for the most part, shutting out the world and Anna in particular whom she loves more than anyone. Anna for her part is mystified, her memory of the events gone. She wonders what she has done to drive her sister away so. The gates to the city are closed and stay that way.

Then comes the day that Elsa must be crowned Queen of Arundel for that time has come. Anna is absolutely over the moon, having become bored with the same halls, the same people. She wants music and laughter and life. She meets a handsome young Prince Hans (Fontana) and while there is a stuffy old Duke (Tudyk) who is endlessly irritated at the mispronunciation of his Duchy of Weselton, there is dancing and fun all around them.

Unfortunately, Elsa’s powers manifest themselves at an inopportune time and she flees to the North Mountain but not before putting all of Arundel into a deep freeze. Anna decides to chase after Elsa and bring her home, leaving Prince Hans in charge. Along the way Anna’s horse bolts, leading her to a trading post where she meets young Kristoff (Goff), who finds the winter more unfortunate than most because he delivers ice with his trusty reindeer Sven. The three of them team up to go to the ice castle Elsa has created for herself, assisted by the tenacious snowman Olaf (Gad) who was brought to life by Elsa’s spell.

However Elsa still hasn’t figured out a way to control her powers and Anna doesn’t yet realize that she has been betrayed by someone close to her. Will summer ever come again to Arundel or is that kingdom destined to be an eternal Winnipeg?

First off, this is one of the most spectacular animated features Disney has put out since Beauty and the Beast and maybe since The Little Mermaid. A kingdom of beautiful ice and snow with a traditional Disney rural kingdom setting makes this familiar and yet new all at once. The visuals are some of the best Disney has ever produced.

That said, they sadly set this beautiful film to a typical Disney story. While this was supposed to based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen it is so loosely based as to be unrecognizable. However I will admit that your little princess-wannabe is going to be in seventh heaven as there are not one but two princesses to ooh and ahh over (all right, one of them is technically a queen).

Oddly, the protagonist is pretty much like every other Disney princess ever – plucky, eager, chomping at the bit to find her prince and compassionate to boot. It is Elsa who is a far more interesting character and I think it’s telling that on a recent visit to EPCOT, the princess holding court at the Norway pavilion was not Anna but Elsa. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Idris Menzel is the voice of Elsa and if you didn’t fall for her talent in Wicked then you really don’t know what talent is. This girl has a voice that could restart a flat-lined heart and make a Republican fund the arts.

I also found Olaf to be a hoot. He’s one of those characters who isn’t very bright but has a heart the size of a small planet and the kind of simple faith that only a child would get. One can envy his world view a little bit as it lacks all the sophistication that we adults like to throw into the mix but at the same time probably is closer to what the world should be than we’ll ever get. I could hang with Olaf and hopefully Disney will realize that they have the kind of character who is going to sell a lot of merchandise and direct-to-DVD videos.

While I wish the story was a bit less rote and that the music was more memorable, nonetheless this is a pretty decent effort in a year when animated features really were uniformly bad with only one or two exceptions. While this doesn’t reach the standard of Disney classics, it is still good enough that if your kid wants to see it more than once you probably won’t mind getting the home video edition and watching it along with them – after having seen this in the theater several times of course.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully animated. Olaf is a keeper.

REASONS TO STAY: Songs are nothing to write home about. A little bit rote.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a couple of rude jokes and some semi-violent action.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A cameo is made by Rapunzel and Eugene (Flynn) during the opening of the gates during the musical number “For the First Time in Forever.” They can be seen entering the screen from the left – Rapunzel has short hair and is wearing a purple and pink dress while Eugene is wearing a maroon vest and brown sash.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/11/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tangled

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Flypaper

Where Do We Go Now? (Et maintenant on va où?)


Where Do We Go Now?

The Lebanese team voguing competition is underway.

(2011) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Claude Baz Moussawbaa, Leyla Hakim, Nadine Labaki, Yvonne Maalouf, Antoinette Noufaily, Julian Farhat, Ali Haidar, Kevin Abboud, Petra Saghbini, Mostafa Al Sakka, Sasseen Kawzally, Anjo Rihane. Directed by Nadine Labaki

 

It is sometimes mystifying why men fight and kill over religious belief. It’s not like our religions vary to so much degree that they are completely incompatible; at the end of the day, they’re more like than unalike.

A small village in an unnamed country (but thee and me can call it Lebanon, where the movie was filmed) has been cut off from the rest of the world by land mines, leaving the only way in and out a tiny road over a terrifying bridge. In some ways this has benefitted the village; the Muslims and Christians who make up equal parts of the population live in relative harmony, the mosque and church alongside each other and the priest and imam both in agreement that peace between their flocks would be beneficial to all.

That doesn’t mean they achieved it without cost; the town’s cemetery is littered with graves of men and boys taken well before their time over religious violence. The women of the town have grown tired of endless funerals and mourning their husbands, sons and fathers. They all get along famously; why can’t the men?

When Roukoz (Haidar), whose scooter trips to neighboring towns for supplies represent the only contact with the rest of the world, brings in an antenna, the town once again is blessed with television reception – albeit on a single television set. With it comes news of strife between Muslims and Christians elsewhere in the country. This sets the men to muttering amongst themselves.

Some have no time for this. Beautiful Amale (Labaki), a Christian, is having her cafe repainted by the handsome handyman Rabih (Farhat) and she dreams of a relationship with him. He also finds himself attracted to her but neither know how to breach the subject of actually dating.

However, little incidents begin to inflame the men of the town. The holy water in the Church is substituted by chicken blood. A herd of goats is let into the mosque. The women do whatever they can to defuse the situation; Takla (Moussawbaa), the mayor’s wife, fakes a miracle. Ukrainian strippers are brought in to distract the men. When that fails, the women host a party in which treats laced with hashish are served to mellow out the boys.

However, things get a great deal more serious when Roukoz, on one of his trips to town, is caught in the crossfire between Christian and Muslim militia and is killed. Nassim (Abboud), his cousin, mournfully brings back the body, unable to tell even which side shot the fatal bullet. Realizing that this incident could set off the powder keg, the women resolve to keep the incident quiet until tempers cool down. But can they be successful, or will more bodies be joining Nassim in the graveyard?

This is a story that in many ways is close to Labaki’s heart. Obviously she’s passionate about it, having co-written, starred in and directed the material. She grew up in Lebanon where, as she put it, time was equally divided between home and shelter. There were many days, she said in a studio interview, when it was too dangerous for her to go outside. She got a front row seat to religious conflict.

A significant number of the cast were locals with no acting experience and yet they perform well as an ensemble here. Labaki and Farhat by necessity take much of the attention, having a romantic attraction but even the Ukrainian actresses who plaid the strippers have a naturalistic feel to them. The people here seem comfortable in their roles; one wonders how much of it is what they are used to in their real lives.

This is definitely a bit of a fantasy, a what-if women were in charge in that region. When given the more subordinate role women play in that part of the world, it’s a legitimate question and I’m sure one that many women in that war-weary region must ask themselves as they attend another funeral, or read in the newspapers of another atrocity.

My issue with the movie is the attempt to juxtapose levity and pathos. When it’s done right, it’s seamless and natural but here it’s kind of jarring. On the one hand, there’s a fairly comic scene of the men high on hashish, but prior to that the mother of the slain Roukoz is comforted by the women of the village. It’s an extremely emotional scene whose effectiveness is cut off at the knees by the blissed-out men thereafter. The movie could have been that much more powerful had it been more successful at balancing the two elements.

The village life depicted here is endearing and comforting in its own way; even big city dwellers long for the familiarity of small town life (although not necessarily the insular attitudes which are largely absent here). While there is an element of the fantastic here (there are musical numbers here which also serve to jar the audience out of the movie a bit, although they are admittedly well-staged), it is the realism of the village life that I found stayed with me most, although I admired the subject matter a great deal. It’s not as effective as it might have been in addressing it but the movie is still one I can give a strong recommendation to without hesitating.

REASONS TO GO: Moving in places and amusing in others. Fascinating subject matter and canvas.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks focus.  

FAMILY VALUES: There is some implied sexuality, some images of violence and thematic drug use in one scene.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Where Do We Go Now? is the highest grossing Arabic language film in Lebanese history and the third-highest overall.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lysistrada

VOGUE LOVERS: In the opening scene, a group of women walk in to the town cemetery. Along the way the walk evolves into a bit of a dance which looks very much like Madonna’s old Vogue thing.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Eclipse

A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (San qiang pai an jing qi)


A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop

Two out of three...

(2009) Comedy (Sony Classics) Honglei Sun, Xiao Shen-Yang, Ni Yan, Dahong Ni, Ye Cheng, Mao Mao, Benshan Zhao, Ran Cheng, Julien Gaudfroy, Shuo Huang, Wenting Li, Sisi Wang, Xiaojuan Wang, Na Wei. Directed by Zhang Yimou

People are fallible. We are prone to making mistakes and letting our hearts guide our actions when our heads should prevail. We often fail to recognize or foresee the consequences of those actions when we take them.

Wang (Dahong Ni) is the owner of a noodle shop in the middle of nowhere. Location being everything (even in ancient China), his clientele mainly consists of wanderers and nomads on their way to somewhere else – anywhere else but there. He has a comely wife (Ni Yan) who has been unable to give him children. Frustrated at both his wife and his lot in life, the miserly Wang takes out his frustrations on his wife and his staff, but mostly on the former whom he humiliates sexually whenever he can.

She responds by buying a gun from a Persian trader (Gaudfroy). Now, she exclaims, she has the most powerful weapon in the world at her disposal. She also has a lover, the cowardly and timid Li (Shen-Yang) who mostly wears pink and rarely does anything that his lover doesn’t approve of.

Wang doesn’t like this much, as you might imagine. So much so that he talks to the corrupt and jaded local magistrate Zhang (Honglei Sun) and persuades him to kill his wife and her lover, then make the bodies disappear – for a large fee. Zhang figures he can do better and so he kills Wang instead, hoping to get all of his loot – except he killed Wang before he could get the key to his safe…and Wang just won’t stay dead…

Yimou, the award-winning director of such movies as Raise the Red Lantern and Curse of the Golden Flower (not to mention the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics), remade this from the Coen Brothers 1984 cult classic Blood Simple and overlaid it with his stylish and colorful visual sense.

He also chose to take the dark, noir-ish thriller that the Coens made and turn it into a broad comedic thriller. Purists are going to be horrified about that, and a lot of critics who loved the original had a hard time with the remake.

It certainly is a different film, although it strikes all the right plot points as the original, only approaching them differently and adding a subplot about a rival gang of thieves. The darker tones of the original are gone though; this is far more light-hearted.

However, Yimou has that distinctive sense of color and scope that make his films so breathtaking and awe-inspiring and he uses it to his advantage here. Although the noodle shop is grim and colorless, those that live in it wear brightly colored robes and carry on in an epic vista that wouldn’t look out of place in a John Ford western.

Sun gets the most of my attention; Zhang is laconic and somewhat low-key but he has a vicious side that reminds me of a cobra. Sun gives him that sense that something dark and nasty hides just below the surface. Playing a man who is dangerous is a difficult proposition; doing it without giving much away emotionally is even harder but Sun pulls it off.

The comedy is very broad and exaggerated, which while common with Asian audiences might be out of step with more subtle American tastes. Think of it as a Hanna Barbera cartoon without the intellectual undertones. It’s not for children though – but some of the set pieces would definitely appeal to less sophisticated senses of humor.

There is some bloodshed though – this isn’t strictly comedy – but considering how sexual the situation is there is almost no sexuality, which again illustrates the cultural differences between the Americans and the Chinese. This gives the movie a curiously sexless feel, and the sex did add a certain amount of kick to the original like adding jalapenos to a salsa.

I’m a big fan of Yimou but this one misfired for me. I’m recommending it mainly because the man always knows how to make a great-looking movie and this isn’t an exception but be advised that American audiences might have a tough time with the humor and the tone. If you can overlook that, you will find yourself enjoying the movie on purely a visceral level, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

WHY RENT THIS: Yimou is one of the most striking visual directors of our time. Some broad laughs.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The noir tone of the original is sorely missed.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence and some sexual themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the original was sent in modern (at the time) rural Texas, the remake is set in the remote desert Gansu province of ancient China.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The making-of feature is longer than the actual movie, but there are parts of it which are fascinating.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $38M on a $12M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Illusionist

Eagle Eye


Eagle Eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Tokyo!

Flushed Away


Flushed Away

Roddy St. James wanted a couple of slugs with dinner, but this isn't what he had in mind.

(2006) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellan, Jean Reno, Bill Nighy, Andy Serkis, Shane Richie, Kathy Burke, David Suchet, Miriam Margolyes, Rachel Rawlinson, Susan Duerden, Miles Richardson.  Directed by David Bowers and Sam Fell

It is no secret that a life of privilege and ease and a life of work and stress are as worlds apart as can be. Night and day doesn’t even begin to describe it. We all aspire to be in the penthouse, but generally most of us have to settle for scraps floating around in the basement.

Nowhere is this allegory more succinct than in Flushed Away. In this animated feature, a pet mouse named Roddy St. James (Jackman) lives in pampered gentility in the fashionable Kensington district of London. His home is a magnificent, plush cage with all the amenities a rodent could aspire to. Better still, when the human inhabitants leave the house, as they do frequently, Roddy gets free run of the house. Being a refined and sophisticated mouse, he looks for the right outfit for the right occasion, be it volleyball at the beach or fine dining. He has a wardrobe – well, it belongs to the dolls but it fits him nicely – and prefers the studied elegance of a tux to just about anything else in his closet.

With England gripped by World Cup fever – the finals are just a few days away, and the plucky Brits are taking on the Germans – Roddy finds there is one thing that he doesn’t have in this existence of plenty – company. He is a pampered pet, but a pet nonetheless and it is a cage where he sleeps, no matter how gilded the environment.

That all changes when the plumbing backs up a bit and out jumps Sid (Richie) from the depths below. He is a sewer rat with a cockney accent and a foul leather jacket. Sid takes one look at the new digs and decides he wants to stay permanently. Roddy is aghast at the concept, but plots to get rid of the unwelcome guest. He escorts Sid to the bathroom and offers him a nice Jacuzzi bath. Sid, being a worldly rat, is not fooled by Roddy’s weak scheme. Instead, he gives Roddy a nice push into the “Jacuzzi” and pulls the lever to activate the bubbles. Of course, Roddy is flushed down the toilet.

He winds up in the sewers, far from his beloved home. Everything is strange and unfamiliar, especially the slugs who are everywhere, squealing in high-pitched terror. Then, Roddy finds himself in a city…a copy of London made out of garbage and debris, inhabited by rats. It is a wondrous place, with peg-legged salts (whose wooden legs are made of pencil stubs) selling fish and chips…well, fish…well, it looks a lot like fish…from the harbor side. Roddy wants nothing to do with all of this, however. Like Dorothy before him, he just wants to go home.

The only ship captain brave enough to travel the dangerous waters of the sewers to the world above is a lady named Rita (Winslet), captain of the “Jammy Dodger.” She is plucky and brave, but suspicious. Seems there’s a nefarious criminal after her – one Toad (McKellan). She has something of his – well, it was hers before it was his but that’s not the way he sees it – a ruby. Roddy arrives just as a couple of his nastier henchmen – Whitey (Nighy), an ex-lab rat, and Spike (Serkis), a street-smart hooligan – come to retrieve the Toad’s property.

They wind up capturing the pair, especially since Roddy, who doesn’t care how he gets home as long as someone gets him there, sells Rita down the river. However, when Toad (as most criminal masterminds will) decides to deep-freeze them both, Rita rescues the both of them, taking a critical item that Toad wants even more than the Ruby (which is just glass, by the way) since it is central to his plans of taking over.

Once Spike, Whitey and their fellow henchmen are unsuccessful at recapturing the pair, the disgusted Toad calls in the big guns; the French super-criminal Le Frog (Reno) and his group of miming, prone-to-surrender French Frogs. In the meantime, Roddy meets Rita’s family and begins to realize just what he is missing. Still, he has to get back home and promises Rita real jewels to get him there. She may not trust him, but she is loyal to a fault, particularly when a bargain has been struck. Still, with the villainous amphibians on their trail, can they make it to the penthouse once again?

Aardman Studios, the creators of Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit are responsible for this. It is their first foray into computer generated animation – they are known for their stop motion animation, which doesn’t work very well with water, which much of this movie is set on or near. They brought in veterans of Shrek to help them, and so this has the look and feel of an Aardman film without the thumbprints – although the software written for the movie actually digitally inserts imperfections into the characters to make it look more like a traditional Aardman movie.

Like most Aardman movies, Flushed Away skewers British life and frailties (although they go after other nationalities, with the ugly American tourists and the supercilious French) and carries a tremendous amount of in-jokes. For example, when Roddy is going through his wardrobe, he finds a yellow spandex outfit that looks suspiciously like what Wolverine wears in the comics (Jackman, of course, plays Wolverine in the X-Men series). A cockroach is seen reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Roddy encounters a Nemo-like clownfish in the sewers.

The real attraction here are the slugs. Although at first it looks like they’re going to be a one-joke occurrence, they settle into a role as a kind of Greek chorus, singing popular songs to emphasize various points during the movie. They never fail to amuse; in fact, every time they came onscreen, I wound up laughing, many times out loud. They’re by far the best part of the movie, not unlike Scrat the Squirrel in Ice Age. If the movie does well, don’t be surprised if we see a lot more of the slugs over the next couple of years.

The movie is well-cast, with Jackman bringing a kind of dorky charm that he displays from time to time onscreen (see Kate and Leopold). His chemistry with Winslet is surprisingly good, and Reno has a great time lampooning a character he played in Leon: The Professional. The problem I have here is a minor quibble; the story is a bit unnecessarily complex. They have this whole subplot with the ruby and then cast it aside very abruptly when Toad sets his eyes on something else. That left the ruby kind of superfluous; they’d have been better off without it and just have Toad go for the thing he really wants from the get go, instead of having to contrive for Rita to steal it. I guess they must have needed to pad the running time a bit.

Still in all, this is real entertaining for kids and their parents alike. The slugs are some of the funniest characters this year, and to my mind this is right up there with Cars and The Ant Bully as the best kids movie of the year. Considering this is an Aardman production, that’s not surprising at all.

WHY RENT THIS: Like all Aardman productions, this is big time quality all the way, and plenty funny for both kids and adults. The slugs are hysterical.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the British in-jokes may not necessarily play well outside of the U.K.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the humor is a bit crude and a few bad words, but otherwise suitable for most kids and certainly all teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robert DeNiro and William Shatner were also considered for the part that eventually went to Andy Serkis.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of extra slug songs. There is also a pipes maze in a fair-to-middlin’ kids section.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $178.1M on a production budget of $149M. The movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Ninja Assassin