The Purge: Election Year


Ol' Honest Abe hates what his country has become.

Ol’ Honest Abe hates what his country has become.

(2016) Thriller (Universal) Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Mykelti Williamson, Joseph Julian Soria, Betty Gabriel, Terry Serpico, Edwin Hodge, Kyle Secor, Barry Nolan, Liza Colon-Zayas, Ethan Phillips, Adam Cantor, Christopher James Baker, Jared Kemp, Brittany Mirabile, Raymond J. Barry, Naeem Duren, Naheem Garcia, Steven Barkhimer, Tom Kemp, Portland Helmich. Directed by James DeMonaco

 

We are a violent nation. There’s no disputing it. It runs in our veins, out the pores in our skin, and in every crack and crevice of our souls. We never left the gunfight at the OK Corral; we’re still out in the middle of the noonday sun, blazing away with our Colts – or just sitting on the side of the street, watching the carnage from a safe distance.

But there are those who are tired of it, who think that the Purge is being used to cleanse the poorer neighborhoods so that the government doesn’t have to spend as much on social programs. Senator Charlie Roan (Mitchell) is running for President on a platform of bringing the Purge to an end. She has seen how the New Founding Fathers, in the person of candidate Minister Edwidge Owens (Secor) who is running against her, have been lining their own pockets.

Of course the powers that be can’t have their cash cow being threatened, so they conspire to bring the crusading Senator to a sticky end. They enact a law which exempts nobody from the Purge – which the Senator would be because of her office – and look to place some moles in her team. The only one she can really trust is her security chief, Leo Barnes (Grillo) who was the subject of the previous Purge is now in the Secret Service and he is constantly exasperated by the Senator’s willingness to go walking into a crowd of supporters to press the flesh. Of course, it’s a nightmare for those trying to protect her from nutjobs and assassins.

With the new law in place and little time to shore up the security at the Senator’s home in suburban DC, Leo sets up what is essentially a fortress and leaves the Senator with the only person he can trust – himself, and maybe her campaign manager (Phillips). Unfortunately, his security team has been compromised and when the Purge starts in earnest, her home is attacked. Leo barely gets her out alive. They are rescued by Joe (Williamson) who owns a deli he’s desperately trying to protect, and his employee Marcos (Soria) who has a vested interest in keeping the deli safe. After an attack by a couple of spoiled bitches who were caught shoplifting by Laney Rucker (Gabriel), a sort of local hero from the Purge a couple years previous (essentially taking over from Carmen Ejogo in a role rewritten for Gabriel when Ejogo turned down a repeat performance), the Senator and Leo make their way to a safe zone operated by the legendary anti-Purge activist Dante Bishop (Hodge), who has plans of his own. Can the Senator survive the night and end the Purge once and for all?

I have long since held that the Purge series is a metaphor for modern politics. The New Founding Fathers are essentially Donald Trump in John McCain’s body. This being lefty Hollywood, you can kind of guess the dim view of the NFFs that the filmmakers take. I am not so naive to think that the right are all monsters and the left are all heroically fighting for the rights of the little guy. As the recent WikiLeaks release has shown us, there is plenty of corruption in the DNC to go around as well.

Grillo, who is mostly known for being  a Hydra agent (Crossbones) in the Captain America movies, takes the unfamiliar heroic role and runs with it pretty well. He is not the matinee idol kind of guy; more of a rugged manly sort. Still, he has a future as an action hero if he chooses to go that route. Mitchell, best known for the TV show Lost, is luminous as Charlie Roan. Even the butt-ugly glasses she is forced to wear don’t take away from her natural glamour. Although some are comparing the character to Hillary Clinton, I think she is meant to be more of an Elizabeth Warren sort, although some may disagree. Secor is not really a Trump sort per se, but some will see certain figures of the Conservative Christian group in the good Minister (who is far from good). Mike Pence, anybody?

DeMonaco has helmed all three of the Purge movies and went from a home invasion story to a kind of overview tale to now one that attacks the mythology behind the story, which is a natural progression in my book and lets us see more into the circumstances in which the Purge would be allowed to continue for so long. In doing so, DeMonaco has helped create a cogent cinematic universe which is all the rage these days. Don’t be surprised if this does well that you don’t see a couple of spin-offs headed our way.

Politics aside, there is kind of a neo-Clockwork Orange vibe going on that is fascinating. It is also interesting that a film that is purportedly against the expression of violence is itself so violent. Some might find that a little hypocritical but I think that the irony is intentional; I’m big on giving Lefties the benefit of the doubt. What is less encouraging is that the movie seems a little more self-repetitive; I suspect the franchise could use a different perspective the next time around, assuming there is one. If there is, I wouldn’t mind but frankly, this was the most meh of the franchise so far.

REASONS TO GO: The movie really drills down into the Purge mythology more than any other film in the franchise.
REASONS TO STAY: Seems to be running a little bit out of steam.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence, some of it graphic and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Edwin Hodge is the only actor to appear in all three Purge movies.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Warriors
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Perfect Husband

Speed Racer


Speed Racer

Apparently Speed Racer is out-running the Aurora Borealis.

(2008) Science Fiction Action (Warner Brothers) Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox, Hiroyuki Sanada, Richard Roundtree, Ji Hoon Jung, Benno Furmann, Roger Allam, Kick Gurry, Paulie Litt, Christian Oliver, Art La Fleur. Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski

 

When I was growing up (a preface my father used to make to what would turn out to be a long-winded lecture about why his generation was superior to my generation which sucked rocks), part of my afternoon routine after getting home from school involved turning on the television and watching an anime double feature (although I didn’t know they were called anime at the time) of “Kimba, the White Lion” and “Speed Racer.” I had no conception that what they were doing were anything like groundbreaking – having seen some of those episodes again recently I can tell you with great confidence that they were anything but from an animation standpoint – but I knew they were in color, they were fun and even if they weren’t animated as well as my favorite shows like “Scooby Doo” and “Wacky Racers,” they at least had storylines that I found to be a little bit better than the very light stuff that were common for the time.

The Wachowskis (then still known as brothers) were evidently of the same mindset as I growing up. Fresh off of their world-beating success that was the Matrix trilogy, they basically could do whatever they chose and a live-action remake of the beloved Japanese cartoon series was what they chose. In hindsight it may seem a trifle…ill-advised.

Speed Racer (Hirsch) is a talented young racer in the World Racing League. He is haunted by demons – the death of his brother Rex in a gruesome crash during an unsanctioned race – and yearns to break the records his brother set. Unlike most of the racers in the League, Speed is an independent without corporate sponsorship; his father Pops (Goodman) builds the cars, Sparky (Gurry) maintains them, Mom (Sarandon) makes pancakes and his little brother Spritle (Litt) gets into mischief. Usually around is Speed’s girlfriend Trixie (Ricci) who spends so much time with Speed’s family you wonder if she has a family of her own.

Into their lives blows Arnold Royalton (Allam), chairman of Royalton Industries, one of the leaders in WRL sponsorship. He is impressed by Speed’s record-breaking pace and wants to take him to the next level – the championship of the WRL. He is urbane and charming and loves pancakes. However, Spritle snoops around and discovers that there is a dark side to Royalton and eventually Speed declines the offer. Royalton turns petty and vindictive and vows to destroy the Racer family and does everything within his power to do just that.

Then there’s the mysterious Racer X (Fox) who turns out to be working undercover for Inspector Detector (Furmann) of Interpol who enlists Speed to help find out who’s responsible for the illegal race fixing that has plagued the WRL and caused economic chaos. In order to do that he’s going to have to conquer the unsanctioned race that was responsible for his brother’s death and is the most grueling, dangerous race on the planet – the Crucible.

The Wachowskis have an amazing visual sense and this might be their most brilliant movie from a visual sense ever. The movie uses a palette of bright neon-infused colors, like someone had thrown Slurpees across the screen and then black lighted them. The world of Speed Racer is more brilliant than the cartoon it sprang from, with supercharged cars hurling at you at breathtaking speeds. Much of the movie was filmed against a green screen (a la Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) and much of the world of the WRL is computer generated.

However, as good looking as the movie is it lacks a few things. Like, for instance, a plot that doesn’t disintegrate upon any sort of inspection. I can forgive that to a certain degree – all that technology is fine and dandy but it would have made for a better movie with a bit more attention to detail when it came to the writing. However, there are a few things that just dropped the movie from being a game changer.

The length, for one. Two hours of visual assault begins to numb the senses; there were too many car races and not enough plot development for this type of time commitment. You can only see so many cars racing around a highly stylized track before you begin to yawn unless you’re a dedicated Formula 1 or NASCAR maniac.

And for another, the presence of Spritle and Chim-Chim. Yes, I know they were integral parts of the original cartoon and they were meant to be the avatars for the kids the cartoon was aimed at but I think they outstayed their welcome. They were too much at the forefront of the film and quite frankly, the characters are annoying and they dumb down the movie way too much to be comfortable. Nothing against Litt, the young actor who plays Spritle – he didn’t write the part after all – but I’m to the point that when I see his character onscreen while watching the DVD I hit the Fast Forward button.

Hirsch was cast in this movie after an acclaimed Oscar-nominated turn in Into the Wild and it seemed his career was on the rise. Unfortunately I never got a sense that Hirsch was motivated to do much more than read his lines. This is an unfortunately flat and lifeless performance that harkens back to the emotionless voice acting that characterized the original cartoon and to be fair that might well be a deliberate decision on either the filmmakers or Hirsch’s part; it’s just a bad decision and if it is the case, is another reason why remakes should never try to import things that don’t work from the original just for nostalgia’s sake.

Allam makes for a fine villain and for some quirky reason channels Tim Curry who is also one of the fine villains of recent years. Here he’s both venomous and urbane; always  a lethal but delicious combination when it comes to movie villains. Fox, who was heavily in the public eye for his work in the cultish TV show “Lost,” shows off a different kind of heroism and is one of the best things about the movie. Certainly my attention perks up whenever he’s on the screen.

This is definitely the case of a movie that is innovative and lovely to look at, but falls apart upon too close an inspection. The cure for that? Don’t inspect too closely. Look at it for what it is – an eye candy sugar rush that is going to put you in a happy coma after two hours of non-stop bliss. This is entertainment, pure and simple – imperfect to be sure but entertainment nonetheless.

WHY RENT THIS: Brilliant visuals. Allam is an over-the-top villain and Fox shows off his heroic chops as Racer X.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: About a good half-hour too long. Spritle and Chim-Chim are far, far too annoying.  Hirsch a little bit flat as Speed.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a little bit of violence. Some of the car crash scenes are a little bit gruesome. There are a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Peter Fernandez and Corinne Orr, the English voices of Speed and Trixie in the original cartoon series, voice race announcers in the feature film.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a game and a couple of extra features not found on the DVD edition which itself is nothing to write home about.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $94.0M on a $120M production budget; the movie was a major box office disappointment.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grand Prix

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Amazing Spider-Man

Super 8


Super 8

Elle Fanning can't believer her eyes. Neither can we.

(2011) Sci-Fi Adventure (Paramount) Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, Gabriel Basso, Noel Emmerich, Ron Eldard, Ryan Lee, Ryan Griffiths, Zach Mills, AJ Michalka, Glynn Turman, Bruce Greenwood, Michael Giacchino, Dan Castellaneta. Directed by J.J. Abrams

There is an age that is magic, when the possibilities of life are endless and unimaginable. At that age, summer stretches out like a magic carpet, taking us anywhere and everywhere. Some of those places are places we might not necessarily want to be.

Young Joe Lamb (Courtney) is mourning the death of his mother in a steel mill accident. His father, Deputy Jackson Lamb (Chandler) has some anger issues, blaming town drunk Louis Dainard (Eldard) for his wife’s demise.

Joe’s best friend is Charles Kaznyk (Griffiths), a movie made husky kid who is making a zombie movie for a film festival, on Super 8 stock. Oh, did I mention that this is 1979? It is. Anyway, they want to shoot at the train station and Charlie has decided to add a love interest for his lead actor Martin (Basso) and into the picture comes Alice Dainard (Fanning), the daughter of Louis. She is drawn to Joe, who does the make-up and sound, whose melancholy draws her like a moth to a flame. Neither of them realizes the issue between their fathers, or what Louis’ role in the death of Joe’s mom is.

While filming at the train station, they witness what appears to be an intentional derailment of the freight train by a pickup truck which, to their shock, is driven by their science teacher (Turman) who warns them to tell nobody. When military types led by the hardnosed Colonel Nelec (Emmerich) swoop in, they believe their teacher may have been right.

Soon it becomes apparent that there was something aboard the freight train that wasn’t supposed to be there, something terrifying and angry. People disappear, dogs disappear and property is damaged. The military is covering it up. It has something to do with a creature that was captured on the young filmmaker’s camera, and some strange cubes. When the military insists on evacuating the town, the kids – including pyromaniac cameraman Cary (Lee) will find out the truth, and risk everything to rescue one of their own.

Director Abrams has crafted a loving homage to Steven Spielberg’s early works (and Spielberg produced this under his Amblin banner) especially E.T. and maybe Poltergeist with a heaping helping of The Goonies for good measure. Setting this in 1979 was a good move; it places it squarely in Spielberg’s golden era and adds that nostalgic sheen to the movie.

The juvenile actors in this movie do a really whiz-bang job. Fanning, who up to now has been overshadowed by her sister Dakota, pulls her best performance yet as the lovely but shy Alice, who is the object of affection for Joe. She is both kind and sweet but with a tormented side which shows from time to time. It’s a bravura performance that is nearly matched by Courtney, who is the hero here and a boy who is coping with overwhelming grief and a father who is distant from him and was so even before his wife died.

Now, I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m not big on the “kids saving the day” types of movies. They tend to be insulting to the intelligence of both kids and adults. Still, this one is better than most, harkening back to some of the best movies of the 70s and 80s with 21st century flair and awesome creature effects. What’s not to like?

REASONS TO GO: A really great creature feature, E.T. meets Cloverfield.  Some fine juvenile performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Kids saving the day syndrome.

FAMILY VALUES: The creature can be terrifying and there are some scenes that might be disturbing for the very young. There’s also some language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of the town, Lillian, is named for director J.J. Abrams’ grandmother.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely big screen. This is a popcorn movie all the way.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Frozen

Planet 51


Planet 51

Now there's a sight that would scare anybody.

(Tri-Star) Starring the voices of Dwayne Johnson, Jessica Biel, Justin Long, Gary Oldman, Seann William Scott, John Cleese. Directed by Jorge Blanco

When all is said and done, we’re a pretty scary species. Oh, to ourselves we seem to be okay but if you were to look at our record of genocide, warmongering, cruelty and violence, I’d be mighty scared if I were an intelligent species on another planet that humans came to visit.

Astronaut Chuck Baker (Johnson) has done just that. Planet 51, a planet in the…well, it’s just dang far away, is the destination of his interstellar voyage. However, when he arrives on this Earth-like planet, he discovers that it’s more than just a little Earth-like; it’s just like Earth. America in the 1950’s Earth, that is.

While Chuck is a little freaked by the little green men he’s discovered, the inhabitants of Planet 51 are more than a little freaked out by his presence. In fact, they’re downright terrified, as any self-respecting species would be after decades of alien invasion movies to scare the righteous you-know-what out of them.

Only Lem (Long) has the sense to put aside his irrational fears, even though he’s plenty scared at first. Of course, Lem has a bit of an advantage – he works at the local planetarium, where he tells the schoolchildren who come to watch the light show “the universe is a very, very large place – hundreds of miles wide.”

Once he and Chuck get to know one another, they discover that they aren’t that unalike after all. However, Chuck has a big problem – his lander has been confiscated by the paranoid military-industrial complex exemplified by General Grawl (Oldman) and he has a finite window of time to get back to the service module, otherwise it will leave for the return back home, leaving Chuck stranded there forever. And Lem has problems of his own, trying to impress Neera (Biel), the object of his affections who has a soft spot for the counter-culture (after all, if you’re going to have a ‘50s that means a ‘60s aren’t far behind).

Sony Animation, who gave us Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, actually didn’t have much to do with this; Spanish animation studio Ilion is actually the entity that is responsible. It’s their first effort and as any first effort goes, has its good points and places where they didn’t do quite as well. The entire small town Pleasantville­ vibe with the sci-fi touches (cars that look like something out of the “Jetsons” for example) is done well enough, but could have been more clever and maybe a little more quirky.

There are plenty of cute characters that will keep kids occupied, like the mechanical Rover that oozes oil when it’s frightened, a dog-like creature that pays homage to the Alien movies, and the aliens themselves, a cute cross between sea monkeys and tree frogs with more than a little nod towards the Shrek franchise (green creatures with antennae sticking out of their foreheads, although they aren’t nearly as grumpy or gross as the ogres). There are plenty of bright colors to distract the very young but quite frankly, not enough real humor to keep their parents from getting bored.

Johnson’s Chuck is a bit on the smug and self-congratulatory side, a bit of a refreshing change from the insecure heroes we usually get in animated films – oh, wait, that would be Lem. In fact, most of the rest of the vocal cast is merely adequate but then again there is truly nothing offensive here; but by the same token, there’s nothing really exciting either. It’s a diversion, nothing more.

WHY RENT THIS: Johnson’s overbearing hero is a nice change of pace from the usual animated hero, who as a rule tend to be more like Lem. Some cute little pop culture commentaries.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be a little too weird for kids. The animation is just not all that impressive.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little inappropriate humor, but nothing that most tykes haven’t seen already on the Cartoon Network.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the most expensive movie ever produced in Spain, with a budget of roughly $70 million U.S. dollars.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An obstacle course came featuring Rover is the most kid-friendly feature here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $105.4M in total box office on a $70M production budget; the film flopped.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

Moon


Moon

Ground control to Major Tom.

(Sony Classics) Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey (voice), Dominique McElligott, Rosie Shaw, Kaya Scodelario, Benedict Wong. Directed by Duncan Jones

As resources become more and more scarce here on Earth, it is inevitable that we will begin to look outward to fill our needs. Certainly mining on asteroids and on the moon seem to be logical solutions for those needs. It also seems logical that in such inhospitable environments, much of the work will be done by robotic machines. Where will humans fit in that equation and what will happen to them so far away from help?

Sam Bell (Rockwell) is getting near the end of his three-year contract. He is the lone caretaker and worker at an industrial mining base on the far side of the moon. His job is to maintain the remote mining vehicle that scoop up the rocks and refine them, and make sure that they are loaded onto unmanned vehicles that transport them to Earth.

He has no direct communication with home – because he is on the far side of the moon, the signal must be bounced off of Jupiter and sent back home, a process that takes several days. He exists on taped messages from his wife (McElligott) and interactions with the station computer GERTIE (Spacey) who shows emoticons to supply an emotional context to the calm, soothing monotonic voice that issues from the voice synthesizer.

When Sam has an accident on the lunar surface, he wakes up in the medical bay with no memory of the accident or how he got back to the base. It takes him some time to recover, but when he discovers that one of the mining vehicles isn’t working, he takes a trip out there to fix it and discovers something shocking.

Beyond that you don’t need to hear more. Suffice to say there are some plot points that are unexpected and give the movie a whole new twist. That makes it a very refreshing and unique science fiction film, one that doesn’t rely on monsters or mutants or spectacular spacecraft battles.

The look of the movie is very much influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey and Outland. The environment of the base is sterile and antiseptic but very much lived in, from the pin-up pictures on the walls to the dings and scratches on the surfaces of the walls and furniture.

This isn’t what you would call action-packed either. Instead, Moon relies on Rockwell to carry the picture and as he has proven in a number of recent movies, he’s perfectly capable of it. Much of the movie is Rockwell conveying the loneliness and frustration of being so near to returning home to his family; there are moments that are quite moving in that sense, but Rockwell doesn’t need to go over the top to get there, so he reins it in.

That’s a wise choice as an actor; this movie is not loud or obnoxious. It’s a quiet movie meant to inspire reflection and thought rather than visceral chest-pounding testosterone-inducing thrills. The movie has some points to make about the dehumanizing elements of industry and the inherent loneliness of working a dangerous job far from home.

The movie got a lot of buzz coming out of Sundance in 2009, and for my money, earned every bit of it. This isn’t the kind of movie that is going to set off fireworks and oohs and ahhs from the audience from its eye candy. Instead, it’s going to stick in your mind for weeks afterwards as you try to wrestle with your own ideas that the movie’s plotline leads you to. I’m not sure if it will qualify as a classic (something tells me that in years to come, it will be considered just that) but it certainly is the kind of movie they haven’t made since the era of Kubrick – hard science fiction. Guys like Larry Niven and the late John W. Campbell should take heart that the genre they made great is still alive and well.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie is certainly different than most sci-fi features we’re used to. It’s refreshing in that you never know exactly what’s going to happen next.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Much of the movie involves Sam interacting with the computer or watching old messages; in other words, not a lot of action or interaction here.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is pretty blue and there are some moments that might be too intense for youngsters, but this will be fine for teens that are into sci-fi.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Duncan Jones is David Bowie’s son. While this is his first feature film, he’s directed a number of commercials in the United Kingdom.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Another science fiction short by Jones, Whistle about a contract assassin who uses satellite surveillance, is included on Blu-Ray editions along with a making-of featurette that includes director Jones answering questions at the movie’s Sundance Film Festival premiere and at a later screening at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Do watch the movie before seeing the featurette, however – some major spoilers are revealed during the featurette.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Predators


Predators

Adrien Brody, Alice Braga and cohorts are definitely NOT in Kansas anymore.

(20th Century Fox) Adrien Brody, Alice Braga, Topher Grace, Laurence Fishburne, Walton Goggins, Danny Trejo, Oleg Taktarov, Mahershalahashbaz Ali, Louiz Ozawa, Changchien, Carey Jones, Brian Steele, Derek Mears. Directed by Nimrod Antal

A very simplistic world-view of life is that we are either predators or we are prey. It’s simply a matter of where we want to be on the food chain, and what we’re willing to do to get there.

Royce (Brody) awakens in a very confused state. One moment he was with his unit, the next there was a bright light and now he is in free fall. That’s not a good place to be when you’re just waking up.

He manages to deploy a parachute and ends up landing safely, if a little bit roughly, in the jungle. One by one, a number of other parachutes deploy and soon there’s a group of people, all with roughly the same story, including Isabelle (Braga) an Israeli sharp-shooter, Stans (Goggins) a convicted killer two days from lethal injection, Nikolai (Taktarov), a Russian trooper keeping the peace in Chechnya, Hanzo (Changchien) a Japanese yakuza, Cuchillo (Trejo) a Mexican druglord, Mombassa (Ali) an African militia man and Edwin (Grace), a doctor.

Royce, for his part, is a black ops mercenary with not much in the way of a moral compass beyond getting the job done and surviving it. What they are all doing there is a bit of a mystery, as is where “there” is – Isabelle, who claims she’s been in most jungles of the world, doesn’t recognize this one. Amazon, maybe?

All that goes out the window when Royce notices that the sun remains stationary in the sky. It further takes a turn for the Twilight Zone when they emerge into a clearing to see a whole arsenal of moons floating serenely in the sky. They are most certainly not in Kansas anymore, or anywhere else on earth for that matter.

The appearance of strange bad-tempered warthog-like creatures with an array of bony spikes protruding from just about everywhere on their bodies doesn’t bode well. However, soon enough Royce figures things out – they are on a game preserve and they are being hunted. Sure enough, a Predator soon makes an appearance, with just enough technology for Isabelle – who was apparently privy to a lot of sensitive information – to recognize them from a report about a strange encounter with an American military team in South America in which only one survivor emerged. Will this team, stranded in an alien planet with no food or water, have even that many survivors?

This is billed as a sequel to the original Predator (1987) and there are plenty of references to the original from the obvious (Isabelle’s report) to the subtle (the playing of “Long Tall Sally” over the end credits, a song that was also played at the beginning of Predator). Obviously, the filmmakers had a great deal of respect and reverence for the original.

They may have been a bit too reverential, however. The storyline is essentially identical to the first Predator with a group of well-armed military people being picked off in a jungle one by one by predators, although in the original it was just one. While the original Predator saw an established and cohesive American military team being attacked, here it is a bunch of people from a variety of different disciplines and nations all brought together for the first time, and they bicker a good deal, although when the rubber hits the road they are terrifyingly good at what they do.

The cast is surprisingly good, especially Brody who isn’t known for action movies. He does a credible job here as the brutal and taciturn mercenary. Brody has obviously bulked up for the role, although he isn’t as muscular as, say, Stallone or Schwarzenegger, he has that wiry muscular toughness which is more in line with what you see in the modern military. Fishburne has what amounts to an extended cameo as the only survivor of a previous group brought to the planet to be hunted – he is there essentially to supply a bit of comic relief (only a bit) as well as a sense of perspective about how long this has been going on.

The action sequences hit all the right buttons, from the “predator vision” which is meant to resemble infrared, to things going boom. There are a number of nausea-inducing killings, which are very high on the cool meter, as well as a really nice sequence when Hanzo goes mano a mano with a Predator.

One of the little things I liked was that the Predators have different looks to them – I’m not talking subtle differences, but major ones, the way you would find in different ethnic groups. One of the problems with science fiction movies is that you rarely get a sense that alien races have the diversity of the human race; they have a tendency to be generically the same.

There are a few little quibbles with science in the science fiction here. A planet or moon that keeps one face turned towards the sun with planetoids or moons orbiting nearby would be torn apart by the gravitational forces; at the very least it wouldn’t have much of an atmosphere. Since some of the scenes take place at night (which I’m assuming occurs when one of the planetoids or moons gets between the game preserve planet and the sun) the screenwriters could have avoided this merely by giving the planet a rotation. Other than the scenes with the spiny warthogs and the view of the multiple moons, there’s no sense that you’re on a distant planet; all of the fauna are earth-bound varieties which would be extremely unlikely, unless the Predators terraformed the planet and seeded it with plants from our own world, which would seem to be a very expensive and labor-intensive job just to create a game preserve.

But these are quibbles and most viewers aren’t going to care about such things. This is about action and there is plenty of it. The action and character development is good enough to make this an enjoyable two hours. In a summer full of disappointments in terms of quality movies and box office, Predators stands out as one of the better popcorn movies in an off year for them.

REASONS TO GO: Solid summer action film fare. Brody is impressive as the mercenary.

REASONS TO STAY: This is essentially the first Predator relocated, with a team that isn’t as cohesive as the first one. You rarely get a sense that you’re on an alien planet.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of gore and violence, as well as some nightmare-inducing Predators running around. Given the pervasive foul language as well, I’d restrict this to older teens for the most part.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rodriguez conceived the idea for the movie back in 1994 and wrote a script that was submitted to Fox, who rejected it for being too expensive to produce. 15 years later, they changed their mind and Rodriguez wrote a modified version of the script that would be less expensive to produce, and delivered – the movie cost $40 million to make, relatively inexpensive for a high-profile summer sci-fi action movie.

HOME OR THEATER: In all honesty, the jungle location is more claustrophobic than grand in scale; it will easily fit in your home theater system. Those with smaller televisions might want to take this in on the big screen, however.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Inception

Sunshine


Sunshine

Ain't no sunshine when she's gone...

(Fox Searchlight) Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Cliff Curtis, Rose Byrne, Troy Garity, Benedict Wong, Hiroyuki Sanada, Mark Strong. Directed by Danny Boyle

Boyle is the director of such impressive films as 28 Days Later, Trainspotting and Millions, all of which I would highly recommend (his next movie after this one was Slumdog Millionaire, previously reviewed in this blog). A couple of years ago, I was in puppy heaven when I discovered that he was doing a science fiction film.

It is about 50 years in the future and the sun is dying – take that, you global warming alarmists! A mission was sent to re-ignite the sun with a kind of stellar bomb, but that mission failed and the astronauts aboard the Icarus were presumed lost. The situation on Earth growing more desperate, a second mission – Icarus II – is launched and with it goes the hopes of humanity.

Things seem to be going pretty well, but as they approach Mercury, they pick up the distress signal of the first mission. Logic dictates that the crew continues on their way, explode their bomb and then see about the other Icarus but no, they have to go there first. Hey, what’s logic when you have science fiction? Anyway, predictably, bad things happen when they try to change course, an EVA repair mission goes the way of most EVA repair missions in science fiction movies these days and things burn up, flash freeze, explode and so on. What’s an astronaut to do?

Where to begin? This is a wildly uneven movie. There are a lot of great visuals, some wonderful dramatic tension and Chris Evans darn near steals the show – yeah, I know, Chris Evans – and the soundtrack kicks bootie. To the bad, you’ll notice at no point in my synopsis did I mention a specific human character. That’s because they are so interchangeable and unmemorable. Not all of it is the fault of the generally solid cast – it’s just that they play mostly subdued, as you would expect highly trained astronaut/scientists to be in that situation. In going for realism, Boyle winds up giving his dramatic tension short shrift. With a cast that includes some very good actors like Michelle Yeoh, Cillian Murphy and Cliff Curtis, that’s a bit of a crime.

Surprisingly enough, I found the direction of Danny Boyle to be one of the movie’s weaker points. Boyle is a genuine talent – his resume is nothing if not impressive – but he falls prey to the “Look, Ma, I’m directing” syndrome, taking himself far too seriously, sacrificing story for overly-clever directing moves. For example, the villain – who is apparently fully human – is rarely glimpsed as anything more than an impressionistic figure. When the heroes engage in hand-to-hand combat with him, the results are nearly unwatchable and actually gave me a headache. One of the more interesting moves is that as the crew of the Icarus II board the Icarus I, faces (I assume of the first crew) flash onto the screen like some terrible subliminal ad gone awry. I’m not sure what Boyle is trying to accomplish here, but if a director needs to explain what you’re trying to get across, then he/she didn’t do a very good job in the first place. In the end, the movie breaks down in the third act, just when it should be picking up steam. You get the feeling that they were rushing things more than a bit – in any case, I think if Boyle had paid more attention to storytelling and less to style, he might have made a really super film.

While I complain a great deal here, there are some compelling reasons to see this. For one thing, it’s a “smart” science fiction movie – think Solaris and Event Horizon and those are rare enough as to be very precious. And yes, I listed a number of failings of the director, but in all fairness, he got more right than he didn’t, and that’s a plus too. This is not what you would call a popcorn movie, but at the same time the gorgeous visuals – the screen is constantly bathed in warm golds and yellows of the solar winds – beg to be seen on a big screen or at least an HD plasma home theater.

This is quite the disappointment; I was hoping this could be a sleeper hit, but the box office here in the States was dismal. That’s too bad – but I can understand why people aren’t warming to this movie, and considering how close it comes to the sun, that’s unacceptable.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific visuals. Chris Evans gives an unexpectedly strong performance. Astronaut-cicle; need I say more?

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Look Ma, I’m directing. Messy third act. Style over storytelling.

FAMILY VALUES: Violence and some icky visuals. A little bit of language too.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The helmet design for the space suits were based on the character Kenny from “South Park.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The scientific advisor, Dr. Brian Cox of the University of Manchester and the CERN project provides a commentary track. There are also two unrelated short films that director Boyle included simply so that the filmmakers could be seen by a wider audience.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Noise

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen


In this movie machines command far more attention than the stars.

In this movie machines command far more attention than the stars.

(DreamWorks) Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, Tyrese Gibson, Kevin Dunn, Ramon Rodriguez, Julie White, Isabel Lucas, John Benjamin Hickey, Rainn Wilson, Michael Papajohn, Deep Roy. Directed by Michael Bay.

The most anticipated movie of summer 2009 was easily Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. After Michael Bay’s Transformers was a megahit in 2007, a sequel was inevitable. The questions are; would it be entertaining and would it be as good as the first.

Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf) is trying to put his past behind him. Having helped defeat a race of evil robots, he is ready to resume a more-or-less normal life. He’s leaving home for college at an Ivy League school, much to the pride of his mother (White) and to the financial discomfiture of his father (Dunn). He is still with Mikaela (Fox), a much hotter girlfriend than he has a right to be with, and a robot guardian who transforms from a sick sportscar into Bumblebee a mute robot with the loyalty of a terrier.

However, destiny isn’t quite done with Sam Witwicky. A sliver from the Allspark that was destroyed in the first movie remained in his hoodie. When Sam picks it up, he begins to have visions of strange symbols, the meaning of which he can’t understand. He also begins to display an understanding of math and physics that is way beyond what humans currently understand.

The benevolent Autobots have not strayed far from Earth. Led by the noble Optimus Prime, they assist NEST, a military team led by Major Lennox (Duhamel) dedicated to rooting out stray Decepticons that have remained after the battle in which their leader, Megatron was apparently destroyed. Optimus and Lennox are disturbed because they have been a lot busier of late than they’ve ever been. Lennox believes that a signal sent out into space by Megatron before Optimus shut him down may have attracted new Decepticons to Earth, but for what purpose? With the Allspark gone, there isn’t anything left on Earth that the Decepticons would want – or is there?

The reason for the season turns out to be found in an ancient fact; the Transformers had been on Earth thousands of years before. It turns out they had been hopping from planet to planet, utilizing a machine that was able to extract energy from stars. The Primes, the ruling class of the Transformers, had forbidden the use of this machine on a planet that had life on it, but one of their brethren, to be known thereafter as The Fallen, attempted to use the machine on Earth, leading to a battle that would ignite the civil war that continued for millennia. The machine remained hidden on Earth, and the means to use it protected by the very bodies of the Primes. The Fallen, locked in exile off-planet, has plans to reactivate the machine and claim final victory over his nemesis Optimus Prime, but he would need his apprentice Megatron to do it. The wheels are turning and events set in motion. The stakes are sky-high; if Sam Witwicky can’t decipher what these symbols mean, the human race is lost.

Michael Bay has developed a reputation as a director as one who specializes in loud, aggressive action movies with lots of explosions, and this one is no different. In some ways, it’s the perfect summer movie – it doesn’t require too much thought and moves from one action sequence to the next with a minimum of exposition and a maximum of explosion. There are also gratuitous shots of Megan Fox looking worried (and sexy), annoyed (and sexy), disappointed (and sexy), scared (and sexy) and sexy (and….oh never mind). It’s a wet dream of a movie for adolescent boys. The pacing is meant for those with the attention span of adolescent boys.

The problem here is that most of the acting is as wooden as a log cabin. LaBeouf in particular seemed uninvested in the movie; I got the impression that we would have seen more passion from him at the bank while he was depositing the very large check he undoubtedly received for making the movie. Also, I have no idea why Megan Fox is in this movie other than to provide the target audience of young boys some sort of fantasy figure to run in slow-mo away from explosions. On that end she is at least successful; she looks very good running in slow-mo away from explosions. Only Turturro, Dunn and pop star Tyrese seem to be having any fun at all and Turturro is so over-the-top he’s almost annoying, like he’s a villain in a Robert Rodriguez children’s movie.

The special effects and action sequences are top-notch; I can guarantee you get more than your money’s worth in those departments. They’re good enough in fact to allow for a mild recommendation, which is more or less irrelevant because this movie will make big box office bucks regardless of what any critic has to say. And say it they will, and not without justification. My issue with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is not that it’s a bad movie; just that it’s a lazy one. It could have been written better, it could have been a much more satisfying film in so many ways if the filmmakers had taken the time to give it just a little bit of depth. One of my favorite movies from last summer was Iron Man – there was no shortage of action in that movie, but it was well-written and well-acted. Iron Man is a movie I own on DVD; I doubt I will be that interested in owning Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen unless it shows up in the Blockbuster pre-owned bin at a ridiculously low price.

So about those questions I asked earlier: is it entertaining? Definitely yes. Is it better than the first movie? I’d have to say no. If the reason you’re coming to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is, as my 20-year-old slacker son says, an excuse to see robots battling each other, you’re in for a treat. I have to admit, though, that’s an awfully low bar of expectations to have in this day and age.

WHY RENT THIS: Special effects and robot battle scenes are extraordinary. Those who grew up with the Transformers are going to not only want to rent this but buy this for their home collection.

REASONS TO STAY: Poorly written and woodenly acted. It’s sometimes difficult to tell which robot is battling which, and who the good guys are (hint: they are the ones with color). It’s definitely aimed at adolescent males which may be a problem if you aren’t one.

FAMILY VALUES: Smaller children may be terrified at the battle scenes and the very LOUD sound effects.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John Turturro was allowed to climb the pyramids in Giza for a climactic scene, a rarely-granted privilege. While filming the scene, he became so overwhelmed by the location that he broke down in tears.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: On the 2-Disc DVD and Blu-Ray editions, there is a feature on the history of the Transformers, and one in which a film crew accompanied director Michael Bay for 24 hours revolving around the film’s premiere in Tokyo. On Blu-Ray there is an Allspark feature that allows you to Transform customizable vehicles to see what happens. There is also a database of new characters for the movie that allow viewers to take a unique 3-D 360 degree look at the machines.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Away From Her

Mutant Chronicles


Take off, hoser!

Take off, hoser!

(Magnolia) Thomas Jane, Ron Perlman, John Malkovich, Devon Aoki, Benno Furmann, Sean Pertwee, Anna Walton, Pras Michel, Tom Wu, Steve Toussaint, Luis Echegaray, Shauna Macdonald, Christopher Adamson. Directed by Simon Hunter.

The future is not a very nice place. The resources of our planet have all but been exhausted by the 28th century. No longer a planet divided into nations, the world is ruled by mega-corporations. There are only four left, more or less divided into geographical territories, and they fight over the scraps that Mother Earth has left.

One such battle takes place in Eastern Europe, where a strange seal is uncovered in the Earth. A stray shell cracks the seal and inadvertently re-activates a massive machine that has been dormant for thousands of years.

In the distant past, the machine had come from outer space without explanation and began mutating the human population into homicidal creatures whose sole purpose was to kill, or capture the remaining humans for mutation. An ancient hero managed to overcome the mutants and seal the machine in the depths of the earth, leaving behind a document that has been unknown to the general population but guarded by a group of monks who revere the Chronicles as scripture.

The mutant outbreak gets to be overwhelming – the corporate armies can’t withstand the onslaught of the mutants, whose arms have become deadly bone-blades. Major Mitch Hunter’s (Jane) unit barely survives – they wouldn’t have without the sacrifice of Mitch’s friend and mentor Nathan Rooker (Pertwee). The decision by the Earth’s erstwhile political leader Constantine (Malkovich) is to evacuate as much of the remaining people on Earth off-world to Mars. Unfortunately, there aren’t nearly enough transports to evacuate everyone on time and massive panic erupts, with the accompanying studies in humanity’s baser emotions.

However, Brother Samuel (Perlman), one of the last remaining members of the Order that has guarded the Chronicles for so long, has a plan. He will lead a team into the Machine itself and plant there a weapon left behind that the Chronicle says will end the threat of the Mutants and the Machine forever.

An elite team of commandos from all four corporations are assembled, led by Major Hunter. His team includes the arrogant, elitist Lt. von Steiner (Furmann), the silent but deadly swordsman Severian (Walton), the easy-going Cpl. De Barrera (Echegaray) and the beautiful Cpl. Duval (Aoki). Together with Brother Samuel they journey to the location of the Machine, but quickly discover that even the skies aren’t safe from the rapidly evolving mutants. Can these few stand against the vast hordes of Mutants taking over our planet?

Hunter has crafted a visually arresting movie. There’s an excess of carnage – the Mutants kill with bladed arms, slicing and dicing a swath through the film’s endless supply of extras. The look has been described as “World War I meets Steampunk” and that’s quite accurate. It begs a few questions – how does a civilization that has the capability of off-world colonies rely so heavily on steam-powered vehicles that have gauges and valves instead of digital readouts and computers. And of course, the usual Hollywood bugaboo – if there is an ancient weapon capable of destroying the unbeatable foe, why wasn’t it used the first time out?

The cast is pretty impressive for an independent action movie. Perlman plays a character more akin to the Beast than to Hellboy (remember his work on the TV series “Beauty and the Beast”?). Jane, who has starred in such movies as Punisher and The Mist, is one of those actors who don’t seem to get the respect he deserves. His heroic Hunter tosses off one-liners that would do Schwarzenegger proud, and has the charisma to be a leading action star. Malkovich, who is only in a couple of scenes here, is typical Malkovich for his role. Aoki is, like Jane, an incomprehensibly underrated actress who doesn’t get the attention she should be getting.

The real star here however is production designer Caroline Greville-Morris. Her task was to create a society that is crumbling, advanced and yet without the resources to sustain it. Something tells me that she was given the directive to make it look deliberately like First World War trench warfare in the initial battle scenes, and it does, down to the uniforms of the corporate soldiers.

There is some CGI here, but it isn’t the centerpiece of the movie, which is amazing considering the subject matter. The mutants make excellent monsters, and their relentless, unremorseful bloodlust and rage are completely credible. I’m not that familiar with the pen-and-paper RPG that this is based on, but I’m assured it’s fairly faithful to the storyline of the game.

I didn’t expect to like The Mutant Chronicles as much as I did. This movie has been around since last year (it’s already seen release in Europe for nearly a year) but the producers have had difficulty securing an American distributor. Normally that sets off alarm bells in this critic’s brain. After finally cutting a deal with Mark Cuban’s Magnolia Releasing, Cuban made the odd decision to air the movie first on his HDNet cable channel before its theatrical release (which unfortunately has been limited to New York and Los Angeles). That’s a shame, because despite all its logical flaws, it is a highly entertaining sci-fi war film. I’d characterize it as The Dirty Dozen if written by John Carpenter and directed by George Romero. That’s pretty high praise in my book. In any case, if you get an opportunity to see it in a theater, or on HDNet, or eventually on DVD/Blu-Ray, by all means do so – you won’t regret it.

WHY RENT THIS: The WWI meets Steampunk production design is visually arresting. Fine performances by the leads, particularly the underrated Jane, are unexpectedly welcome. Truly menacing villains and some excellent battle sequences make this an exciting sci-fi war film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story has some severe logical flaws that at times take you out of the movie’s world. The carnage can get brain-numbing after awhile.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of carnage and foul language. The mutants are so unnerving that they’ll give younger viewers nightmares for weeks. Okay for older or more mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Mutant Chronicles began life as a pen-and-paper role-playing game developed in Sweden.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An HD-Net making-of documentary, footage of the movie’s Comic-Con panel and a seven-minute teaser made by director Hunter to generate buzz and illustrate to his cast and crew what kind of mood he was looking for.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Wrestler