Tangent Room


Seeing double.

(2017) Science Fiction (Epic) Lisa Bearpark, Håkan Julander, Jennifer Lila Knipe, Daniel Epstein, Vee Vimolval. Directed by Björn Engström

 

The universe is a complicated place and we know jack about how it works. As a species we’re not unlike infants trying to grasp the linguistic rules of Sanskrit, or in this case, quantum mechanics – literally.

Four internationally renowned scientists are brought to a Chilean astronomy station into a basement room. They are honored to be there because they have been invited by Dr. Wahlstein (Epstein), a brilliant but somewhat neurotic scientist. Each one of the invitees have a different specialization in matters of understanding the cosmos from mathematics to physics. They wonder why they have been brought there and where their host is.

That is cleared up quickly when Dr. Wahlstein appears on a video screen and tells them that he is dead and so shall all of them be by 10 pm that very night. In order to save themselves – and indeed the whole world – they must solve the riddle of a variety of numbers. I don’t want to tell you about what catastrophe is occurring – suffice to say it involves parallel universes occupying the same place – but as the scientists at first think they are the victims of a colossal practical joke begin to realize that their dilemma is all too real and all too dire.

It is a locked room conundrum movie but also that is precisely not what this is. If I sound like I’m talking in circles, I’m trying to be deliberately vague as to not spoil what happens in that locked room too much. The problem is, if I break it down to its very basic level, Tangent Room is about four scientists in a locked room bickering and that sounds about as fun as a root canal. Tangent Room, however, is anything but simple.

This is an intensely cerebral science fiction movie, maybe the most academic you’ve ever seen. It leans very hard on science and while one critic groused that it had its mathematics and physics wrong, I can’t really take that on faith as I don’t know what the guy’s qualifications are to judge that. It wouldn’t surprise me though; cinema has never been shy about sacrificing accuracy for the sake of story.

The performances are decent enough but first-time director Engström (and the film’s writer) doesn’t really have enough time to give the characters actual personalities beyond that of argumentative academics. Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain ran into much the same problem but managed to give us characters worth caring about so when the excreta hit the fan the viewers actually worried about them.

This is going to appeal to physics professors, scientists and academics pretty much exclusively, unless watching four scientists bicker about various aspects of cosmology are your idea of a fun evening out. That doesn’t mean this is a bad movie – it isn’t by any means – but with a little more creativity this could have hit both the gut and the brain but to be honest, anything that affects the brain these days is more than welcome.

REASONS TO SEE: The concept is fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally red-shifts into pretentiousness.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kate Bosworth, who is also a producer on the film, is married to Michael Polish; Polish also frequently collaborates with his brother Mark although Mark isn’t involved with this specific film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes:60% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fermat’s Room
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Extra Innings

Godzilla (2014)


Oh no, there goes San Francisco, go go Godzilla!

Oh no, there goes San Francisco, go go Godzilla!

(2014) Action (Warner Brothers) Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Carson Bolde, Richard T. Jones, Victor Rasuk, CJ Adams, Patrick Sabongui, Jared Keeso, Luc Roderique, Eric Keenleyside, Garry Chalk, Ken Yamamura, Hiro Kanagawa, Jill Teed. Directed by Gareth Edwards

Sixty years ago, Toho Studios in Japan debuted a monster movie unlike any other. As the only country ever to have a nuclear bomb used in war against them, Japan had a unique relationship to the Atomic age. That movie, Gojira which was retitled Godzilla, King of the Monsters with some scenes featuring Raymond Burr added in to appeal to American audiences, was not just a monster movie but also a parable about the nuclear age. The wild popularity of the film would spawn 27 sequels (in which Godzilla became a protector of children and a symbol for Japanese cultural weirdness), a godawful American remake and now this.

Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Watanabe) and his assistant Vivienne Graham (Hawkins) enter a cavern accidentally entered into by a mining company in the Philippines back in the 90s. They discover a gigantic skeleton with two parasitical cocoons inside. One of the parasites has evidently hatched.

Meanwhile in Japan, American nuclear scientist Joe Brody (Cranston) is concerned about some unusual seismic readings. He sends his wife Sandra (Binoche) to check on the structure to make sure that the reactor they are both working at is intact. Then, all hell breaks loose and a portion of the suburbs of Tokyo are leveled and irradiated.

Cut to present day. Joe and Sandra’s son Ford (Taylor-Johnson) has just returned from Afghanistan/Iraq to his nurse wife Elle (Olsen) and son Sam (Bolde) to their San Francisco home and he looks to get past his bomb disposal career and back into mainstream civilian life when he gets news that will take him back to Japan where he and his father will discover that what happened that fateful day was not what the world has been told…that something has emerged from the bowels of time and threatens all of humanity. Something that is headed for the United States…and there’s more than one…

Since the trailer debuted online, fandom has been foaming at the mouth for this to come out and for the most part, the movie doesn’t disappoint. I doubt you’ll see a more high-energy spectacle all summer long than this. Monsters rampage, buildings fall, people scream and get trampled and crushed by falling masonry. Edwards was going for a certain degree of realism, at least as realistic as you can get when dealing with 350 foot tall reptiles and their insectoid foes.

For the most part that realism is achieved. We get the sense of what it would be like to be in a situation where gigantic creatures were wreaking havoc in an urban environment. The digital wizards at WETA come through again, creating a new vision of Godzilla that is far more terrifying than the stunt man in the rubber suit stomping on a model of Tokyo. This Godzilla moves majestically, even gracefully but with terrifying resolve. His foes are Giger-esque nightmares that will resonate with those who had Starship Troopers-inspired freak-outs in their youth.

What Godzilla lacks is a human touch. Taylor-Johnson, who has done high-profile roles in Kick-Ass and to better effect in Nowhere Boy plays Ford the military man with all the warmth and personality of a wood chipper. His action hero persona is generic, indistinguishable from other performances in similar roles but unlike classic action heroes, there’s no hint of humor or anything human. It’s as if neither the actor nor the director wanted to upstage the imaginary beast.

Other than Cranston, whose obsessive scientist is played with clenched teeth and wild eyes, few of the main characters seem to modulate much beyond infernal calm. Watanabe comes off as a cut-rate Mr. Miyagi, dispensing nuggets of Zen-like wisdom while contributing precious little to the film. I also have to say that Dr. Serizawa’s assertions that Godzilla exists “to restore the balance of nature” is a bit ludicrous at best and makes for awkward movie moments.

Still, this is directed magnificently. Godzilla doesn’t make an appearance until nearly halfway through the film and even then he is scarcely glimpsed until the final third of the movie. Once things get going however, the action is relentless and on an epic scale. It’s hard to use the word “breathtaking” in an era in which visual effects seem to re-set the bar with every blockbuster but it sure comes to mind here. Edwards, who has since been given one of the upcoming standalone Star Wars films to direct (as well as the inevitable Godzilla sequels) is undoubtedly going to be one of the big names in Hollywood for years to come.

So while this isn’t the perfect summer movie, it scores in all the right places to make this the movie to beat this summer. Da Queen, who is not a big monster movie fan in general, loved this movie and if that’s any sort of measuring stick, you will too.

REASONS TO GO: Excellent creature and action effects. Has everything you’d want in a summer action film.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks any notable characters other than the monsters. “Balance of nature” subplot goes off the rails a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of destruction and mayhem, creature violence and some scary sequences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dr. Serizawa was named after one of the lead characters in the original Godzilla in 1954.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cloverfield

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Double

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen


The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Sean Connery is the epitome of an extraordinary gentleman.

(2003) Action (20th Century Fox) Sean Connery, Richard Roxburgh, Peta Wilson, Stuart Townsend, Naseeruddin Shah, Tony Curran, Shane West, Jason Flemyng, Max Ryan, Tom Goodman-Hill, David Hemmings, Terry O’Neill, Rudolf Pellar, Robert Willox. Directed by Stephen Norrington

 

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, based on a wonderful graphic novel by Alan Moore, had such high expectations among its fans that almost no movie could meet them. Consequently it got terrible reviews and a great deal of Internet drubbing, which is too bad, since it’s quite a nice little movie.

The setting is just before the 20th century. The legendary African explorer and adventurer Allan Quatermain (Connery) lives a semi-retired life, having already found King Solomon’s Mines. He is recruited to save England from a madman, one who is using terrible technology to set world powers against one another in an effort to start a World War.

Queen Victoria is very much against the idea, so she has the mysterious M (Roxburgh) recruit the most extraordinary team of people she can find; Mina Harker (Wilson), who suffers from an unusual blood disease; the brilliant Captain Nemo (Shah), captain of the fabulous Nautilus; Rodney Skinner (Curran), a petty thief who happens to be invisible; and Henry Jekyll (Flemyng), who hides a hideous dark side. They also recruit the fey Dorian Grey (Townsend), a brilliant mind who has seen it all.

Attacked by the goons of their quarry, they escape with the aid of Tom Sawyer (West), a brash American Secret Service agent. Together, as a league, they journey to Venice to prevent the destruction of a peace conference. They are too late to entirely prevent the bombs from going off, but by teaming together they manage to save the city and most of its populace. They find that there is a traitor in their midst, and their adversary is not who they think he is at all.

This film has taken its share of critical abuse, and some of it is deserved. There are some definite leaps in logic; having a sub the size of the Nautilus floating in the canals of Venice is ludicrous at best. The computer-generated Mr. Hyde is dreadful. However, despite the reported problems on the set between Connery and director Stephen Norrington, Connery handles his role like a pro, making a believable Quatermain. He is gruff and irritable but absolutely money in the clutch. This is Connery’s film and he carries it well.

The atmosphere of a Victorian era slightly warped from the reality of history comes off nicely. There are plenty of terrific effects to make this big screen-friendly. The cast, once you get past Connery, is decent enough but nobody really stands out except for Townsend as Dorian Grey, channeling “Project Runway” a bit too much. Wilson, so good in the “La Femme Nikita” TV series, has plenty of screen presence but it’s not really channeled well, more the fault of the filmmakers than the actress.

Does it measure up to its source comic? Depends on what you mean. And it shouldn’t have to. Comparing a movie to a comic is like comparing a car to a plane. They are different media with different qualities. The comic book League is one of the best (IMHO) ever, and the film wisely departs from its storyline. Why compete with greatness when you can, perhaps, establish your own?  Of course, the movie doesn’t really establish greatness but it does try. Seeing all these beloved fictional characters together is a hoot, but ultimately is disappointing; you don’t get the sense of epic adventure their original tales gave us.

The movie actually did better in the global market than it did here in America. Although room is left at the end for a sequel, you will never see one. Moore has divorced himself completely from the movie, which in all fairness, he has pretty much done with every movie made on his source material. Still, it’s a wonderful concept, and the atmosphere combined with Connery as an adventure hero is enough to make this a movie worth seeing – especially inasmuch as this is, in all likelihood, Connery’s final film.

WHY RENT THIS: What is in all likelihood Connery’s final film performance is delivered with all the fire and charisma of all his previous ones. Fascinating concept. A kick to see all those beloved fictional heroes together.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks the epic spirit of adventure of the source. A bit silly in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s plenty of action violence, a few bad words scattered here and there and a bit of sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was one of the first five movies to be released on Blu-Ray by Fox.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $179.3M on a $78M production budget; despite the perception that this was a flop,it actually made a slight profit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Ice Age: Continental Drift

Prometheus


Prometheus

Michael Fassbender wonders about the pretty lights.

(2012) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce, Logan Marshall-Green, Sean Harris, Rafe Spall, Benedict Wong, Emun Elliott, Kate Dickie, Patrick Wilson, Lucy Hutchinson. Directed by Ridley Scott

 

It’s the simplest questions that are the hardest to answer. Who are we? Where did we come from? How did we get here? Where are we going? These are questions that have occupied scientists and philosophers since we were able to put a complete sentence together. We still haven’t answered them. Perhaps we never will.

Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Rapace) doesn’t think so. She and her husband Charlie Holloway (Marshall-Green) have been researching ancient civilizations and have noticed the same glyph appearing in all of them, despite never having met or interacted – a giant pointing at a star formation. Dr. Shaw believes that it is an invitation to meet our makers – and despite the presence of her father’s (Wilson) cross around her neck, she’s not talking about the almighty but of aliens.

She convinces Peter Weyland (Pearce), the mad genius behind the Weyland corporation, to finance the expedition and the trillion-dollar space ship Prometheus is constructed. The crew, including Shaw and Holloway, lie in suspended animation, tended to by David (Fassbender), the gently-spoken, polite android.

As they near their destination it is Meredith Vickers (Theron) who is awakened first. She is neither scientist nor crew – she is an executive from the Weyland Corporation and she makes it clear in no uncertain terms that no matter what the scientists are after, it is Vickers who is in charge. To say the least Shaw is unhappy about this.

However, they have work to do. The scientists believe that what they are searching for is an ancient alien race that they call the Engineers. These beings, in theory, may have caused or altered life on earth leading to the ascent of humanity. As Captain Janek (Elba), the ship’s pilot, brings the Prometheus down to the planet’s surface, straight lines are discovered. As we all know, straight lines don’t occur in nature. They have to be made by an intelligence. As they  come closer to these lines, pyramid-like structures rise from the valley floor. The Prometheus lands.

Immediately the impulsive Holloway goes to explore the structure, sending miniature probes ahead to map the structure and search for life forms. What they find is a game-changer – not every life form is benevolent, for one thing. For another, the most malevolent force against them may well be from within. And now that the Prometheus has discovered the secret of the Engineers, Earth now has a gigantic target painted on it.

The movie was initially intended to be a prequel to Alien but Scott decided that the xenomorph species that confounded Ripley had run its course; while the movie is set in the same universe, it is not a direct antecedent – or so they say (a final scene may well prove that to be false). There is a familiarity to the proceedings, some of which mirror the original Alien nicely (for example, the final log entry for the Nostromo as read by Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is referred to in the final scene of the movie).

But make no mistake, this is definitely not Alien. That was more or less a monster movie with the crew of the ship being stalked and picked off one by one by a single alien. This time, the humans are doing the stalking. They just don’t like what they find.

I have to admire Scott’s willingness to tackle some of the more basic questions of human existence. He posits a theory that other scientists have long held – that without some sort of intervention of a superior intelligence, it is impossible for our species to have progressed as quickly as we have – although anyone who watches “Survivor” may tell you we may not have progressed as far as we’ve thought.

Theron, appearing as a villain in her second summer blockbuster movie this year, isn’t quite as memorable as she was in Snow White and the Huntsman but she carries some of the icy blonde evil from her work in that film over into this one. Here, she is if anything colder and more reptilian and the explanation for her behavior, when it comes, is less relatable than her motivation in Snow White.

Still, Theron isn’t really the focus here – Rapace is – and the veteran of the Swedish Millennium trilogy films shows that her star performances in those movies weren’t just a fluke. Rapace is a major star, one who is going to be headlining big event movies for a very long time to come.

Fassbender also shines here. His David is polite, well-mannered and soft-spoken. His tone is pleasant and soothing, sort of a HAL9000 with legs. He moves unperturbed through the movie, with an agenda that isn’t necessarily one that is shared by the scientists on board. David is a victim of his programming; he neither apologizes for it nor frets about it. He does merely what he is told to do by people who have no morals, no ethics.

Given the current mistrust and anger with large corporate entities, it makes logical sense that they are shown to be amoral and duplicitous with an agenda all their own and if sacrifices have to be made, well, people are as replaceable as post-it notes. In some ways, that’s far more chilling than the ooey gooey aliens that we’re shown but we’re far too inured by corporate misbehavior to be surprised by it.

Ridley Scott hasn’t done a science fiction film since Blade Runner in 1982 but he still shows a tremendous confidence of vision. The special effects are amazing and for the most part, practical. For those who have issues with 3D, this one used a system based on the one that Avatar used and the shadows and darkness were added in post-production, which makes it a lot less clear when watching with the polarized 3D glasses we’re forced to wear to view it. In other words, it’s not so hopelessly dark that we can’t make out what’s going on, and the 3D is used to good effect here which is unusual for the gimmicky technology.

And yet my recommendation isn’t quite as high as you might think. For one thing, while the movie admirably tackles some pretty lofty subjects, it doesn’t always succeed in addressing them satisfactorily. I was also left curiously flat by the movie; while there are some awe-inspiring moments, this doesn’t have the fire that the first Alien had and I never got as invested in this film as I did in that one.

Prometheus is a movie that set high standards for itself and met a majority of them. Unfortunately, it didn’t meet enough of them to be a truly great movie. At least Scott and cohorts were shooting for greatness rather than trying to be all things to all audiences. There’s something to be said for that.

REASONS TO GO: Magnificent effects. Aims high. Rapace could be the next Sigourney Weaver.

REASONS TO STAY: Fell a bit shy of its lofty goals. Never really blew me away.

FAMILY VALUES: The violence can be intense although not terribly gory and the creature images can be nightmare-inducing. The language isn’t particularly child-friendly either.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the conditions for Scott to do the film was that he not be pressured to tone things down for a younger audience. He was supported in this by 20th Century Fox chairman Tom Rothman who allowed Scott to make an R-rated film, even though that might cost revenue in the short term.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100. The reviews are solidly on the positive side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 2001: A Space Odyssey

ICELAND LOVERS: Many of the exterior scenes were shot there, as well as in Scotland.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Exporting Raymond

Creation (2009)


Creation

Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany pray for bigger audiences on cable.

(2009) Historical Drama (Newmarket) Paul Bettany, Jennifer Connelly, Jeremy Northam, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, Martha West, Jim Carter, Zak Davies, Freya Parks, Robert Glenister, Bill Paterson, Harrison Sansostri, Ellie Haddington. Directed by Jon Amiel

There is little doubt that one of the most important – and controversial – scientific findings ever is Charles Darwin’s theory of Evolution. It called into question some of the most deeply-held tenets of the Bible – the story of creation – and put in a rational, logical sense of reason into a subject that had always been to that time more faith-related. Putting pen to paper and telling the world of his ideas would take an enormous toll on Darwin the man.

Darwin (Bettany) is a family man, married to first cousin Emma Wedgwood (Connelly) with ten lovely children to keep him busy. One in particular – 10-year-old Anne (West) – is the apple of his eye, an outgoing, inquisitive soul who seems to be the closest to his own heart. However, she contracts a disease (Scarlet Fever or tuberculosis depending on which account you believe) and despite Darwin’s heroic efforts, taking her to the seaside for a “water cure,” little Anne passes away.

This devastates Charles and Emma both. They both cope with their grief in different ways. For Charles, his unanswered entreaties to the Almighty are proof positive that there is no God, for how could a being as advanced and compassionate as all that allow a child to die such a horrible death. For the deeply religious Emma, it only deepens her faith, knowing that her precious child is in the bosom of heaven with the angels.

This causes no little strain on their marriage as you might imagine, and the once-robust Charles is beset by illnesses of the digestion, hallucinations and fatigue. It has been 15 years since his voyage to the Galapagos Islands on the H.M.S. Beagle but he is still having difficulty writing the ground-breaking treatise that would become “On the Origin of Species.” Friends like Thomas Huxley (Jones) and Joseph Hooker (Cumberbatch) urge him to finish his work while the Rev. John Brodie-Innes (Northam), a close friend and confidante of his wife, is troubled by its implications. Huxley, almost gleefully, exclaims “Congratulations sir, you have killed God!” which further troubles Darwin.

He is fully aware of the ramifications of his treatise and even more aware of what it will mean to his wife and his marriage. Emma is terrified that by publishing his work, Charles will be damned to Hell and be separated from her and his children for all eternity.

Of course we know that he did eventually publish his work and that it did create a firestorm of controversy, so the actual publication of the work is not in doubt even if the filmmakers have a tendency to make it a point of suspense. However, it is not so much Darwin’s theories that are on display here (although there are some nice animation sequences used to explain the concepts) so much as Darwin the man.

As such, a heavy burden falls upon Bettany to carry the story and he is more than up to the task. Bettany has impressed me over the years with his ability to take on a wide range of roles, from villain to action hero to mild-mannered academic as he is here. He imbues Darwin with a decency and gentleness that humanizes the nearly-mythological figure who often is castigated for being godless. Darwin was far from godless; he was a believer for at least a portion of his life, but his belief system shifted elsewhere.

Connelly is given the difficult task of taking a rigid and inflexible person and making her likable, but she possesses the skills to accomplish just that. This isn’t a glamorous role and Connelly, who is one of the most beautiful women in the world might have easily passed on something like this, but to her credit took it on and conquered it. Emma can be dogmatic at times, but there is no doubt that she possesses a fierce devotion to husband and family. Despite her misgivings, she comes to understand that if her husband doesn’t publish his work, someone else will eventually reach the same conclusions as he (which Alfred Russel Wallace did – it is a letter from that scientist that eventually prodded Darwin into completing his work) and in the end she supports him.

Amiel directs this at a stately pace and if at times it gets a little bit overly-contemplative, that can be forgiven. This isn’t an action film to say the least, and there are some big concepts involved that deserve some conversation.

It is a testament to how Darwin’s work continues to be a source of controversy to the religious right that the film had difficulty in picking up distribution in America, at last falling to Newmarket which had a hit a few years back with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. This isn’t going to change your mind about religion or evolution but it might give you some insight as to the man who brought evolution into our collective midst, and the personal demons he had to face down in order to do it. This is the kind of solid film that won’t let you down if you choose to rent it for an evening’s viewing.

WHY RENT THIS: A sober and even-keeled examination of Darwin the man. Bettany and Connelly bring humanity to roles that are difficult at best.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly slow in places.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie deals with grief as well as religious faith, subject matter which might be difficult for younger folk to follow.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a biography of Darwin by noted author Randal Keynes, who is Darwin’s great-great-grandson.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a surprising amount. Several featurettes look into the life and times of Darwin, visit his home (which is a museum today) and participate in the debate that Darwin’s work engendered.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $896,298 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Assassination of a High School President

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)


The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

Keanu Barada Nikto.

(20th Century Fox) Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates, Jaden Smith, Jon Hamm, Kyle Chandler, Robert Knepper, James Hong, John Cleese. Directed by Scott Derrickson

It is no secret that we have been poor custodians of our planet. One wonders what superior intelligences might think if they noticed us, and if they would be moved to step in.

Dr. Helen Benson (Connelly) has a full plate. Not only is she an academic with a classroom-full of disinterested minds, she has an unruly stepson named Jacob (Smith) who has been acting out ever since his father – her late husband – died in Iraq.

One night she is fetched by stern, humorless military sorts who escort her from her home to an unknown destination. They won’t – or can’t – tell her what’s going on, but there is no doubt it’s serious; a busy freeway has been completely closed off for the benefit of their motorcade.

It turns out there’s a spaceship approaching Earth and it appears it is going to land in Central Park, which should have alerted the Men in Black immediately. Instead, we get the Army with a bunch of trigger-happy jarheads that open fire the moment something emerges from the spaceship, which is actually a sphere of swirling green.

Lots of these spheres have landed all over the Earth, but none of them have a giant robot (which is called Gort after some military acronym that I forgot five seconds after the line was spoken). It is about to open up a can of giant robot whoopass on the Army when the fallen alien speaks “Klaatu Barada Nikto.” Truer lines have never been spoken.

While recovering from its gunshot wound, the alien begins to evolve at an accelerated rate, eventually evolving into Keanu Reeves (I guess the alien wasn’t done evolving yet…thanks folks, I’ll be here all week). The alien, whose name is Klaatu, demands to be taken to our leaders (sorry, I couldn’t resist) which according to Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Bates) is out of the question. Instead, she sets up Klaatu to be interrogated. This is what is known in the biz as a bad choice.

Using powers beyond human ability, he escapes and seeks out Dr. Benson, the only human who has treated him with any kindness at all. The government is absolutely bonkers to get him back and puts out an APB, which means that everyone is chasing Klaatu, Dr. Benson and the spoiled brat…I mean Jacob. Dr. Benson finds out to her horror that Klaatu represents a coalition of aliens that have been observing our planet and are very disappointed at how we’re treating our planet. Therefore, in order to save this life-giving orb, they need to wipe out the parasites that are killing it…namely us. She must find a way to convince him that we are worth saving, otherwise we’ll be joining the dinosaurs on the woulda coulda shoulda list.

Obviously this is based on the 1951 classic sci-fi film of the same name. Derrickson and his writers are relatively faithful to the original, making only minor changes in the overall story but some of them are rather crucial. While the first was an anti-war and anti-nuclear holocaust warning, this one is squarely on the side of those scientists who have been making dire predictions about where the planet is going (and somewhere, Al Gore is smirking “See? You shoulda voted for me”). It’s the details which are vastly different and quite frankly, therein lies the devil.

While this isn’t particularly a special effects-driven movie, they are pretty spectacular when the movie chooses to use them. The robot Gort, who is 28 feet tall (20 feet taller than the original Gort), is particularly menacing although some purists were screaming when they found out that Gort was actually a biological being and not mechanical.

On that score, I have my doubts about Keanu Reeves. His stiff, emotionless demeanor actually works here as an alien being. He is well matched with Connelly, who is one of the more expressive actresses we have going. She is the yin to his yang in the movie, and that makes the movie far more successful than it might have been otherwise; whereas Keanu is the movie’s brain, Connelly is the heart.

Monty Python’s John Cleese does a fine turn in a non-comedic role as a scientist Helen brings Klaatu to talk to in a last-ditch effort to convince him not to kill everybody. Bates is always dependable to be plucky although she brings an element of menace that she usually doesn’t display. Jaden Smith, excellent in The Pursuit of Happyness is merely average here; he’s such a brat that you just want to throw him under the nearest freight train, which I suppose must mean he’s a plenty good actor because if he was really that whiny and disrespectful, his dad Will Smith would have long ago put the fear of Gawd into him.

If the movie has a flaw, it’s that it tends to be a bit preachy and a little overbearing. While I get the urgency of the message, I still get peeved when someone feels the urge to nag me about it, even if it is for my own good. It’s enough to make me want to trade in my Hybrid for a Hummer.

The movie may have been a little too thoughtful for its own good in that regard. It surprisingly doesn’t disgrace the original, which I quite expected it to do – that’s a very high bar to live up to – but it doesn’t measure up to it either, which I also quite expected from it. This won’t make the Earth stand still, but it might just make it take notice if we’re lucky.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some very nifty special effects and Connelly makes a great every-woman.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes a little bit over-ponderous and preachy.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some images of global disaster and some occasionally disturbing violence; those prone to nightmares and the more sensitive sorts should probably not see this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Central Park bridge under which the surviving heroes take shelter with at the movie’s conclusion is the same one used at the end of Cloverfield.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes on the eco-friendliness of the production as well as on the real-life search for extra-terrestrial life. Visual Effects supervisor Jeffrey A. Okun discusses how the filmmakers arrived at the final version of Gort, which is fascinating stuff. The Blu-Ray edition has a feature that allows you to design your own Gort, and finally as a special bonus treat, the two and three disc DVD editions as well as the Blu-Ray edition come complete with the 1951 version this movie is based on, starring Michael Rennie and the late Patricia Neal.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $233m on an $80 production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Killshot

The Box


The Box

Frank Langella really needs to buy himself a better razor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: He’s Just Not That Into You