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