Death Race 2050


Marci Miller makes her point to Manu Bennett.

(2016) Science Fiction (Universal) Manu Bennett, Malcolm McDowell, Marci Miller, Burt Grinstead, Folake Olowofoyeku, Anessa Ramsey, Yancy Butler, Charlie Farrell, Shanna Olson, D.C Douglas (voice), Sebastian Llosa, Emilio Montero, Mark Doran, Karl Muse, Alberto Osterling, Robert Slattery, Daniela Vargas, Jonathan Fisher, Helen Loris, Hailey Livingston. Directed by G.J. Echternkamp

 

In all the annals of filmdom there hasn’t been anyone quite like Roger Corman. His oeuvre of cheap special effects and low budget with a dash of social satire and a low-brow tone has been with him through a nearly six decade career. The original Death Race 2000, made in 1975, was one of his biggest hits, starring David Carradine and a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone. In many ways a live action version of the Saturday morning cartoon Wacky Races, it has been considered a cult classic for decades. In 2008, a remake entitled Death Race was made with Jason Statham starring. Eschewing the light-hearted satire of the original, it was a darker hued straight action movie that was successful enough to spawn three direct-to-home-video sequels, all without Statham.

This one, with Corman’s presence as a producer, is not so much a remake as a reboot. It returns to the slightly off-kilter feel of the original as well as the approximate plot. The Chairman (McDowell) of the United Corporations of America convenes the annual Death Race, the biggest sports event in the world. In it, five racers with souped up vehicles weaponized to the teeth race from Nuevo York to New Los Angeles. It’s not about who gets there first; it’s about who kills the most pedestrians along the way.

=You see, robots have replaced human workers in nearly every job and consequently there’s 99% unemployment and overpopulation. The Death Race thins the herd so to speak. To placate the masses, the Race also offers a Virtual Reality version in which viewers can be in the cockpit of the car of their favorite drivers through proxies who carry cameras and microphones, periodically interviewing their heroes.

The drivers are Minerva Jefferson (Olowofoyeku), a hip-hop artist; Tammy the Terrorist (Ramsey) whose name is self-explanatory; A.B.E., a robotic entry not unlike Knight Rider; Jed Perfectus (Grinstead), a buff sexually ambiguous genetically engineered athlete and the favorite, Frankenstein (Bennett) who is the reigning champion.

Curiously, fans of the drivers line up in an attempt to sacrifice themselves for their favorite drivers. And drivers steal these easy group kills from one another. As they make their way across the country big rivalries develop between Minerva and Tammy and especially between Perfectus and Frankenstein.

There is also a resistance out there who aim to disrupt and destroy the Death Race by any means necessary. They are led by former network executive Alexis Hamilton (Butler) who has a mole; Frankenstein’s proxy, Annie Sullivan (Miller). However the further they get into the race, the deeper the corruption becomes until Annie, whom Frankenstein appears ambivalent towards – he only wants to win – is unsure of what side she’s really on.

The humor here is dark and over the top as is the violence and gore. This is for sure a throwback to Corman’s heyday both in tone and in execution and for that the filmmakers are to be commended. I’m not sure how involved Corman himself was with this but his name is in the credits and in some cases on the title. I’m guessing that if he didn’t have his hands directly in it, they are there in spirit. Certainly the filmmakers understood his style.

The acting is about what you’d expect it to be, but a special shout-out has to go to Bennett. He proves that his work as the smoldering Slade Wilson in Arrow was no fluke. The man has a bright future ahead of him if he gets a few breaks and the right role. He’s got the presence.

The special effects and CGI are bargain basement and that can be an acquired taste. Modern audiences may not tolerate it when they are used to big budget effects. Admirers of classic B-movies will likely be more tolerant but these days that seems to be pretty much a niche group. I also found the soundtrack to be a bit overbearing. It became noticeable on quite a few occasions.

This isn’t for everybody but I suspect those who can appreciate the satire (the Chairman is certainly based on Donald Trump) and the humor, not to mention the gore will find this entertaining. The cheapness of the production which is an art in itself will further endear some. However – and I can’t stress this enough – those that don’t appreciate the art of B-movies will probably find this anachronistic and boring. Keep that in mind as you select it for streaming.

REASONS TO GO: The film is surprisingly satirical. It’s a throwback to Corman’s 70s and 80s films.
REASONS TO STAY: The special effects may be too cheesy for some. The soundtrack is actually annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a butt load of violence and gore, some sexuality, some brief nudity and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sneakers Jed Perfectus wears are Converse All-Star Hi-Tops.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cannonball Run
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The LEGO Movie: Batman

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Son of Saul (Saul fia)


Oscar-winning intensity.

Oscar-winning intensity.

(2014) Drama (Sony Classics) Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont, Jerzy Walczak, Gergö Farkas, Balázs Farkas, Sándor Zsórér, Marcin Czarnik, Levente Orbán, Kamil Dobrowolski, Uwe Lauer, Christian Harting, Attila Fritz, Mihály Kormos, Márton Ȧgh, Amitai Kedar, István Pion, Juli Jakab. Directed by László Nemes

When we think of the Holocaust, it is truly hard to wrap our minds around it. The absolute ghastly nature of it; essentially Nazi Germany created death factories in which living people were brutally and efficiently processed into corpses, then those corpses disposed of. The horror of it fails to penetrate our skulls because we simply can’t conceive of it, even when we see pictures and newsreel footage. Our minds won’t let us.

But it did happen and perhaps one of the more astonishing things is that the Nazis had help in the orderly disposal of the Jews – from the Jews themselves. The sonderkommandos were tasked with cleaning the physical mess left behind by the dying, scrubbing the gas chambers to remove the bloodstains made from bloodied fists beating against the iron doors in vain trying to escape, as well as the excrete of a human body in extremis. They are the ones that process the clothes and take them for sorting, act as cowboys herding the masses of those getting off the train at Auschwitz into the waiting chambers. They are the ones who drag the corpses – now called pieces by the German guards – to the ovens, or out to mass graves. They dispose of the ashes when the ovens get full. And their service buys them only a few months before they are herded into chambers of their own.

Saul Auslander (Röhrig) is just such a man. He walks with a purpose, his visage grim and unsmiling, revealing nothing of what is occurring inside while he does his grim and grisly work. He cares for no-one and nothing; he aids the resistance somewhat, reluctantly agreeing to fight although he says very little about it. His life is a perpetual tunnel vision of task and survival, even if it is only for a few short weeks. Perhaps the war will end before the Nazis get a chance to kill him.

Then he sees a young boy who survives the chamber – barely. German doctors are called in to see the boy, still breathing, lying on a slab. Then they suffocate him. Something inside Saul snaps. He determines to see that this boy, who fought so valiantly to survive, gets a proper Jewish burial with the rites of kadish read by a rabbi. He even claims him as his son, which he may or may not be.

However, there aren’t many rabbis left and those that are aren’t likely to advertise their rabbinical status. Finding one in the hordes of the doomed coming in is highly unlikely. Hiding the body of the boy amid the chaos and paranoia of Nazis and prisoners alike, improbable. Getting both the body and the rabbi outside of the camp for the burial is nigh-on impossible.

The opening shot, shown from Saul’s point of view as chaos comes in and out of focus as he herds new arrivals towards the waiting gas chambers, shows that this is going to be a different and excellent film. Everything outside of what is immediate to Saul is blurred, as if seen through tunnel vision. The style reminds one strongly of the Dardennes brothers who employ a similar technique.

The entire film in fact is shot this way, which is a double edged sword. It allows us to see Saul’s perspective which is very much on immediate survival, and excludes anything beyond that narrow focus. Saul’s world is by necessity a small one, limited to the task at hand of the moment and of avoiding the indiscriminate wrath of Nazi soldiers who aren’t above executing him for a minor infraction.

However, as someone who is prone to vertigo, the whirling camera rapidly goes from being an innovation to an annoyance to being downright disruptive. I found myself unable to look at the screen because I was getting way too dizzy. That kind of defeats the purpose of a movie; how are we to make sense of the images when we can’t see them?

That’s not a minor quibble, but it really is the only one. Everything else about the movie is simply awe-inspiring, from the strong, internalized performance by Röhrig that reveals little about what’s inside of Saul as it in fact tells us everything we need to do. Who is this boy to Saul? Is it his son, as he claims? A representation of the son he lost? Or is he a symbol standing for all the Jews who the Holocaust has taken?

These questions are at the center of the film and they are not easily answered. Saul himself is an enigmatic character who defies us to get to know him even as he gives us nothing to hold onto. For Nemes, he orchestrates this narrative masterfully, telling us a grim and dark story from a brand new perspective, one which we as a cinematic audience have never experienced before. For that alone, the movie richly deserves the Oscar it won last month for Best Foreign Language Film.

This is, simply put, a must-see film. Some audience members, particularly Jewish ones who have family members who were victims of the Holocaust, are going to find this hard to watch. I did, although mainly because my vertigo made me look away more than the stark and often gruesome images. Still, it is worth us to remind us that the capacity of man’s inhumanity to man is nearly boundless, a lesson we still haven’t learned more than 70 years later.

REASONS TO GO: Searing and emotionally powerful material. Röhrig delivers an amazing performance. Innovative camera style.
REASONS TO STAY: Shaky cam caused legitimate dizziness.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly gruesome violence and cruelty as well as a lot of graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is supposed to be from Saul’s perspective only; we never see anything that isn’t within his field of view or hear anything that isn’t within his range of hearing.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Gods of Egypt

Pan


Hugh Jackman glares at his hair stylist.

Hugh Jackman glares at his hair stylist.

(2015) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Hugh Jackman, Levi Miller, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara, Nonso Anozie, Adeel Akhtar, Amanda Seyfried, Kathy Burke, Lewis MacDougall, Cara Delevingne, Tae-joo Na, Jack Charles, Bronson Webb, Mike Shepherd, Brian Bovell, Kurt Egyiawan, Jimmy Vee, Paul Hunter, Spencer Wilding, Dean Nolan, Giacomo Mancini, Ami Metcalf. Directed by Joe Wright

Most of us are familiar with the boy who never grew up, whether through the stage play or the Disney animation. Author J.M. Barrie who created Peter Pan was not terribly forthcoming when it came to his origins, other than what we all know – that he was an orphan who was kidnapped and brought to Neverland where he became leader of the Lost Boys and took on his nemesis, Captain James Hook. But how did he become leader? Where did Captain Hook come from? How did Peter get his sword? And what was he like before he became The Boy Who Never Grew Up?

In Blitz-scarred London during the Second World War, young Peter (Miller) has lived his entire life in an orphanage, run by the malevolent Mother Barnabas (Burke) whom Peter suspects of hoarding the war rations of the Orphanage. With his partner-in-crime Nibs (MacDougall) Peter is also highly suspicious of the rapid disappearance of the boys in the Orphanage; adopted, say the sisters; sent to the country for their own safety, say the sisters. Peter says bunk!

His suspicions soon prove to be correct as it turns out that the boys are being kidnapped by pirates, taken in a flying galleon (which engages in a thrilling battle with Spitfires that are already dealing with the Luftwaffe bombers) and brought to a strange island floating placidly above an ocean which sits in the heavens. This is Neverland and it is ruled with an iron fist by the famous pirate Blackbeard (Jackman) who uses the boys as slave labor in the mines who are digging not for gold but for Pixum, the concentrated remains of dead fairies which Blackbeard killed by the thousands. However, they have all fled to the Fairy Kingdom which Blackbeard cannot find and he is growing frantic; the Pixum preserves his youth and vitality and he will die without it. Peter, kidnapped by the pirates but saving his pal Nibs in the process, ends up in the mines with an adult – James Hook (Hedlund), who is friend to nobody but for some odd reason takes to Peter.

There is also a prophecy among the natives that a boy would come, a Pan warrior bearing the symbol of their tribe (pan pipes) that would kill their oppressor and lead them to freedom. When Peter discovers that he has the ability to fly, Hook sees a way out of the mines and enlists Peter and the overseer Sam Smiegel (Akhtar) – whom Hook addresses as Smee – they are successful but end up captured by the natives led by Princess Tiger Lily (Mara) whose father (Charles), the chief of the tribe, orders that Hook fight the tribe’s most valiant warrior. If he defeats their champion, the three of them go free. If not, the three will be put to death. Tough place, Neverland.

The fight is interrupted by Peter who is discovered to be wearing a chain bearing the tribe’s Pan symbol and Hook blabs about the boy’s ability to take flight. The trouble is, Peter isn’t confident that he can repeat his feat and Blackbeard is on his way to reclaim the boy, whom he sees as not just a threat but as a means to lead him to the fairy kingdom. A final battle will ensue and ’tis life or death. Will Peter become the warrior and leader he is destined to be?

Well, yeah. That’s the thing about prequels; you know essentially how things are going to turn out. Therefore it is important that the journey getting there is interesting. Certainly the visuals are amazing, with majestic flying pirate ships, skeletal prehistoric giant birds and native Neverlanders exploding into multicolored dust when the pirates kill them. Visually, this is a treat.

Story-wise, not so much. The movie plods along with virtually no energy. Peter Pan is meant to make our spirits soar, to allow us to recapture (or retain) our childhood. None of this is really uplifting or enjoyable. It feels like all the effort went into the visuals but the story itself got little more attention than being an excuse for some spectacular production design.

There’s also the odd propensity to use anachronisms, like the miners greeting Blackbeard with an a Capella performance of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Team Spirit” or the Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop.” They both take us out of the movie and remind us that we are watching a movie. The surest way for a filmmaker to sabotage his or her own film is to use pop songs inappropriately.

Jackman, as Blackbeard, alone appears to be having fun here. While he looks something like a demented Cavalier, he has a joie de vivre that is missing from the rest of the movie. Miller as the titular character isn’t bad but he isn’t memorable either. He has some potential I think but he is thrown into the cinematic fire, essentially being expected to carry much of the load of this film and it really is an awful lot to expect out of an inexperienced kid (this is his first feature film). That he acquits himself as well as he does is a minor miracle.

Hedlund for some odd reason chooses to play Hook as the love child of Indiana Jones and James Cagney. It isn’t an embarrassing performance but quite frankly his odd line delivery is distracting and I don’t think he got a lot of direction on how to play the character. The man who is to be the nemesis of Peter Pan should be much darker than this Hook is who comes off mainly as spoiled and scared. There’s no sign of the great pirate Captain Hook here which is a shame.

The movie has been getting roundly panned by critics (couldn’t resist) and has been a box office bomb. I don’t think it’s quite as bad as you’ve heard it is, but it isn’t very good either. I’d put it up there as mediocre mindless entertainment that might be too dark for the kids and too childish for their parents. Considering the amount of money spent on this, I have to say that the audience has much better uses for their time than on this early serving of turkey.

REASONS TO GO: Great production design. Jackman is clearly having fun with this.
REASONS TO STAY: Bloated and top-heavy. Doesn’t have the heart that Peter Pan films should have.
FAMILY VALUES: Some thematic material, some mild cursing and fantasy violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Javier Bardem was originally offered the role of Blackbeard but turned it down.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hook
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Death Valley

Daybreakers


Ethan Hawke tends bar.

Ethan Hawke tends bar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Host (2013)


Diane Kruger and her cool ride.

Diane Kruger and her cool ride.

(2013) Science Fiction (Open Road) Saoirse Ronan, Max Irons, Jake Abel, Diane Kruger, William Hurt, Frances Fisher, Chandler Canterbury, Boyd Holbrook, Lee Hardee, Scott Lawrence, Mustafa Harris, Shawn Carter Peterson, Raeden Greer, Bokeem Woodbine, Rachel Roberts, Marcus Lyle Brown, Jhil McEntyre. Directed by Andrew Niccol   

No more war. No starvation. The contributing factors to climate change eradicated and the ecology restored back to balance. No lying, no violence and the world living in happiness and harmony. Sounds too good to be true, right?

Of course. You see, there’s a catch to living in a perfect world; an alien parasite, calling themselves Souls, have invaded the planet, taking over the bodies of humans and eradicating their memories and personalities. Although our bodies remain alive, that which makes us individuals is gone. In essence, this alien invasion is overwriting us and as a result, we’re slowly going extinct. You can always tell the infected bodies however by a strange glowing ring of light in the iris of the eye.

There are some stragglers however and infected humans, called Seekers, chase them down and bring them to the city to have their parasite inserted (through an incision in the back of the neck). The Souls look sort of like sparkly Sea Anemones with thin languorous tentacles with fiber optic cables; very pretty to the eye but not something you’d want inside you.

One of those stragglers, Melanie Stryder (Ronan) particularly doesn’t want those things inside her. She and her boyfriend Jared (Irons) and her little brother Jamie (Canterbury) are discovered by Seekers; she leads them away from her men but cornered, chooses to throw herself out of a window to the asphalt below rather than be taken.

Sadly, they take her anyway, heal her wounds and stick the Sea Anemone…er, Soul…into her neck. The Soul that inhabits her is named Wanderer and the Seeker (Kruger) who captured her wants to know about any other humans that Melanie might have known about. At first Wanderer is very co-operative but to the Soul’s surprise Melanie is still in there, putting up a fight and generally acting out. In fact from time to time Melanie can still exact enough control to make Wanderer’s body do what Melanie wants but those moments are few and far between.

But they are coming more often and Melanie’s memories are enacting a strange kind of sway over Wanderer. Melanie convinces Wanderer to escape the facility they’re being held in and eventually Melanie leads the Wanderer to the New Mexico desert where dehydrated and exhausted, she’s found by her grizzled Uncle Jeb (Hurt) who takes her to where he’s established a refuge for a group of uninfected humans; the inside of an extinct volcano and I really must admit, I like what he’s done with the place, planting a wheat field inside the caldera using banks of mirrors to reflect the sunlight into the cone. There are also thermal streams in the cave which not only provide drinking water but bathing opportunities. If only they had a monorail and sharks with frickin’ lasers on their fins.

Wanderer/Melanie’s presence isn’t greeted with joy; in fact, only Uncle Jeb thinks that Melanie is still in there. Jared, who along with Jamie has found his way to the volcano, is all for killing her right away as his friend Kyle (Holbrook) is inclined to do. Jamie is eventually convinced as is Ian (Abel) who eventually falls in love with Wanderer (who is re-christened Wanda) and soon Melanie’s entreaties that she is still there are believed although it makes things a bit awkward since double dating between Wanda and Ian and Melanie and Jared is problematic.

Still, the Seeker is furious at having lost her Soul so she goes after it with a vengeance and when an ambush goes terribly wrong, the Seeker kind of loses it and violates the codes of non-violence. Can the remaining humans continue to survive with a technologically advanced foe wanting to re-populate their bodies with Sea Anemones….I mean Souls?

It all sounds kind of preposterous really but actually the concept is intriguing. The Souls are actually pretty much benign and other than taking over our bodies are pretty nice sorts and it’s true that we’ve pretty much screwed up our planet and society left to our own devices. However this aspect isn’t really explored much; the direction is to pander to the young female audience that author Stephenie Meyer, who penned the novel this is based on (and is best known for being the creator of the Twilight saga), has cultivated.

The love triangle is a theme in her works to date (although her bibliography is admittedly pretty small). It is appealing to a young girl to have two hunky guys moon-eyed in love with her and Meyer and Niccol play up that aspect. Melanie is a plucky heroine who as played by Ronan is a bit stronger than Bella Swan and less reliant on those around her. However there isn’t much action here – a lot of dialogue takes place in Melanie’s head (or Wanderer’s head if you prefer) and that isn’t terribly cinematic no matter how you play it.

In fact there’s a hellacious amount of dialogue here, far too much to support this kind of movie and thus it gets a little bit boring to be honest. Even if they’d chosen to go cerebral and explore the whole “is freedom worth losing control for” which dovetails nicely into our post-911 paranoia, you’d expect there to be a lot less exposition in something like that.

The visuals are nice and the cave set is nifty. I also like the chrome-plated vehicles the Seekers use. The acting is solid if not exemplary, with the reliable Hurt making Jeb a salt of the earth sort that audiences tend to click with. Ronan is a terrific actress but comes off a bit petulant in places and there is soooo much kissing that it begins to get a bit old – and I like kissing.

This is one of those I wish movies. I wish it hadn’t been quite as long. I wish it had a bit more passion from the cast, although given that the Souls are written as emotionless creatures there’s at least an explanation for that. I wish it had given credit to its audience as having as much intellect as hormonal drive. I wish American culture would stop pandering to the lowest common denominator and start aiming higher. I wish I could have given it a higher rating but frankly, it just didn’t earn it. It’s not a bad movie although I’m sure some will think it so simply because they’re not part of the target audience – it’s just not as good a movie as it could have been.

REASONS TO GO: Some nice visuals. Consistently well-acted by its predominantly young cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Prefers to play to teen girl hormones than explore the potential genuinely interesting issues it raises. Oddly low-key.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few scenes of teen sexuality and some violence but nothing that you wouldn’t see on network television.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Before Diane Kruger accepted the role of the Seeker, Haley Atwell, Claire Danes and Eva Green all turned it down.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100; the critics ripped it a new one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twilight

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: On the Road

The Matrix


The Matrix

Keanu Reeves demontrates proper Bullet Time technique.

(1999) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Gloria Foster, Joe Pantoliano, Marcus Chong, Julian Arahanga, Matt Doran, Belinda McClory, Anthony Ray Parker, Paul Goddard, Robert Taylor, David Aston, Denni Gordon. Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski

Reality can often be a four letter word; dull, vicious, cruel, lonely…reality sucks for most of us. However reality is a matter of perception and perception can be messed with. What we see, feel, experience is always – always – a product of our senses. What if those senses were wrong?

Thomas Anderson (Reeves) is a cubicle code writer by day and a hacker who goes by the handle Neo by night. His dual existence is dull and boring, but he is eager to discover the nature of something called the Matrix, cryptic references to which he’s found on his computer. A fellow hacker named Trinity (Moss) confirms that there are answers out there and guides him in the direction of a legendary hacker named Morpheus (Fishburne).

However, not everybody wants Neo and Morpheus to meet. Government agents, led by a man named Smith (Weaving) arrest Mr. Anderson and grill him on Morpheus and the Matrix, but Neo knows nothing. Undeterred, Neo meets with Morpheus who gives him the choice of a red pill and a white pill to take. The white pill will merely give him a good night’s rest; the red pill will show him the truth about the Matrix. Neo takes the red pill.

He wakes up in a nightmarish world, in a small pod filled with liquid. Morpheus rescues him and takes him aboard the Nebuchadnezzar, a high-tech airship. Morpheus explains that the year isn’t 1999 but closer to 2199 and that mankind lost a war to sentient machines of their own making, who have made the surface nearly uninhabitable. Humans are used for their bioelectric energy which is harvested; the humans are kept docile by having their minds plugged into the Matrix, a computer-simulated world of 1999 that fools the human race into thinking that everything is okay. Morpheus and his group which includes Trinity, Cypher (Pantoliano), Tank (Chang), Mouse (Doran), Dozer (Parker), Switch (McClory) and Apoc (Arahanga) are part of a resistance movement fighting the machines. They are headquartered in Zion, a hidden underground city that the machines have as yet been unable to locate.

Within the Matrix, the resistance is able to act with superhuman abilities because of their knowledge of what the Matrix is. Neo is trained to do this as well. Morpheus believes Neo to be “The One,” a messianic person who has been prophesized to end the war and put the humans back in control. Neo isn’t so sure but is willing to be examined by The Oracle (Foster) who is the one who made the prophecy to begin with.

They take Neo back into the Matrix to meet the Oracle who implies that Neo isn’t the one, but he will have to make a crucial decision that may result in the death of Morpheus. Shortly thereafter they are ambushed by Agents and Morpheus allows himself to be captured so that the others may get away. However, there is a traitor in their midst and not all of them will make it back. The future looks even more bleak for the humans now – unless Neo can realize his undiscovered potential.

This is one of those movies that is a game-changer. The Wachowskis, who had previously directed the critically-lauded Bound proved that they had an amazing cinematic vision. The look of movies, particularly action films, has been heavily influenced by this movie from their super slo-mo “bullet time” effects shots to the shades-and-dusters costuming. Turn of the millennium hip was largely defined by The Matrix.

Reeves will most likely be most identified with this role. Having achieved stardom with the Bill and Ted movies he became in every sense an A-list actor with this. His Neo was cool and hip, but also had doubts and fears. He’s heroic but someone people could relate to. I think most adolescent boys in 1999 wanted very much to be Neo.

But the acting is not what drew people to this movie. It’s the incredible visuals. How many computers in 1999 had screen savers with the “raining” numbers graphics that made up the Matrix? How many movies had the “bullet time” slow motion bullets with liquid contrails? Sure, there were plenty of antecedents for this movie – no movie exists in a vacuum – and the Wachowskis were almost certainly influenced by the films of Sam Peckinpah, the art of H.R. Giger, anime, Hong Kong martial arts movies and the fiction of William Gibson, but they drew all those elements into a nice package that resonated with people all over the planet. The Matrix isn’t a perfect movie – the second half isn’t quite as good as the first – but it is a movie that almost 15 years later continues to influence the way movies are made and is just as entertaining now as it was the first time we all saw it.

WHY RENT THIS: Visuals that are just as dazzling now as they were back then. The ultimate cyberpunk movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sort of loses its way near the end.

FAMILY MATTERS: A whole lot of violence and a little bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Neo is an anagram of One.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The original DVD release included a White Rabbit feature in which when activated a white rabbit would flash in the bottom right of the screen; if the enter button was pressed on the remote, a featurette would run explaining how that sequcnce was made. The Blu-Ray edition expands on this.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $463.5M on a $63M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Johnny Mnemonic

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Rubber

Flame & Citron (Flammen & Citronen)


Flame and Citron

It's a game of cat and mouse, but who is the cat and who is the mouse?

(IFC) Thure Lindhart, Mads Mikkelsen, Stine Stengade, Peter Mygind, Mille Hoffmeyer Lehfeldt, Christian Berkel, Hanns Zischler, Claus Riis Ostergaard, Flemming Enevold. Directed by Ole Christian Madsen

In German occupied territories during World War II, life was much more different than it was in Allied territories. There were those who co-operated with the invaders, and others who wanted nothing more than to have their country back.

Flame (Lindhart) – so named because of his red hair made more striking after a botched dye job – and Citron (Mikkelsen), who got his nickname because he had previously sabotaged German vehicles while working at the Citron motorcar factory, are Danish resistance fighters. Well, perhaps “fighter” is a bit of a stretch; a better description would be “assassin of Nazi sympathizers.”

Flame is a young man, a little bit cocksure and passionate in his hatred of Nazis and their collaborators. He takes insane chances; the Germans are well aware of his activities, they even have a description of him and yet he boldly enters a bar where Nazi officers hang out and orders a drink.

Citron is ten years older, a family man, a bundle of nerves, popping pills to keep himself going. Perpetually unshaven and sweaty, he has the look of a man who is slowly falling apart. Looks in this case aren’t deceiving.

They report to Aksel Winther (Mygind), a somewhat bureaucratic kind of man who issues the pair their orders, the source of which is never clear. There is increasing tension between the pair and their handler; they have mostly been given collaborators and all men, but the list is starting to change. First, they are asked to murder women, which even Flame balks at. Finally, they are called upon to assassinate German officers, but when they encounter Gilbert (Zischler), he raises disturbing points that cause them to question the justness of their cause.

Further complicating matters is Flame’s attraction to Ketty (Stengade), a courier for the resistance who may be working for the Germans, or may be working the Germans for the resistance. With the Nazis closing in on the pair and caught between conflicting resistance groups with a growing suspicion that they are being used for purposes that are for personal gain rather than for the good of Denmark, the two who have sacrificed nearly everything for their cause determine that there is only one thing they can do – try to take down the chief Nazi Hoffman (Berkel), even though the attempt will almost certainly cost them their lives.

This movie is admittedly influenced heavily by the 1969 French classic Army of Shadows which chronicled the French resistance through director Jean-Pierre Melville, who was actually a member of the French resistance during the war. Madsen is far too young to have taken part personally, but he displays a flair for capturing the tension experienced by the two men, the growing unease with the deeds they’re forced to do.

Lindhart and Mikkelsen do some admirable work here. Lindhart has a great deal of screen charisma, and he gives a sense of the bravado and dangerous skills of the assassin, giving him a human side to balance it out. He yearns for something that he can’t have, and it produces a certain amount of rage and despair in the man.

It is Mikkelsen who steals the show for me, charismatic as Lindhart is. Citron is tortured by the deeds he and his partner do, and the resulting stress is wiping out his marriage and impacting his relationship with his children. Twitchy as Citron is, Mikkelsen is really the emotional core of the movie.

The tension is palpable throughout as the Nazis search for the elusive assassins and the politics within the resistance further muddy the waters. Some of the assassinations depicted here are brutal, and those who are sensitive about such things would do well to take that into account when deciding whether or not to see this.

Americans who watch this might be a bit put off by the pacing, which keeping in line with European sensibilities is far more deliberate than what they are used to. Madsen prefers to allow the tension to build and build during the course of the film until the viewer is nearly ready to leap out of their own skin. I have to admit, being unfamiliar with the exploits of the real-life Flame and Citron amplified that tension, so Danish audiences, more likely to know at least something about these natural heroes, might get a different sense from the movie.

While Flame and Citron are based on actual resistance fighters from the war, this is a fictionalized version of their exploits, although most of the salient facts are here. The movie received some criticism for its depiction of corruption in the Danish resistance, and I can understand the point. However, this was never meant to be a documentary – it is more about the morality of murder, and the increasing murkiness of its depths the more you do it, no matter how just the cause.

WHY RENT THIS: An account of a little-seen side of World War II. Lindhart and Mikkelsen give strong performances, and Madsen ratchets up the tension to a very high degree.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pacing is very deliberate for a movie of this nature.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the assassination sequences are most definitely not for the squeamish. There is also a fair amount of bad language as well as some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With a budget of 46 million Danish kroner, this is one of the most expensive movies ever made in Denmark.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Other Guys