Red Planet


Val Kilmer gets a little face time with a killing machine.

Val Kilmer gets a little face time with a killing machine.

(2000) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Val Kilmer, Carrie-Anne Moss, Tom Sizemore, Benjamin Bratt, Simon Baker, Terence Stamp, Jessica Morton, Caroline Bossi, Bob Neill (voice), Neil Ross (voice). Directed by Antony Hoffman

It’s 2025 and do you know where your atmosphere is? Yup…hopelessly poisoned, the soil sterilized by toxins, and our planet has less than a century of sustainable life left in it. That’s just a bad day for everybody.

All eyes turn to the Mars terraforming project; everything seems to be going well, but something odd’s been happening up there; the algae that had been sent to the planet to create a breathable atmosphere seems to be failing, and the oxygen levels on Mars are dropping fast. It looks like we’ll have to take care of this in person or else learn to hold our collective breath.

Mission commander Bowman (Moss) (Nyuck nyuck nyuck on the name, guys, open the pod bay door Hal?) leads a crew to examine the Mars problem. A habitation has already been sent to Mars and should be up and running. The mission is going smoothly, although one of the scientists (Stamp, who is wasted in a too-small role) is showing signs of wigging out, philosophically speaking. The “space janitor” — or systems engineer, (Kilmer) lacks respect from the crew, but has the eye of his commander (and apparently a bunch of other body parts).

Once in Mars orbit, things go wrong as they normally do in space movies. A severe solar flare cripples the mother ship and forces an early launch of the Lander, which promptly crashes (don’t you hate when that happens?) far away from the habitation. Commander Bowman, who had to stay behind in order to get the Lander away, is managing to repair the mother ship for the return to earth, but the mission looks junked, especially when the survivors from the Lander reach the habitation to find it completely destroyed, and only 15 minutes of oxygen left in their tanks. They wait around to die, only to discover something strange — there IS a breathable atmosphere on Mars after all. There is also a pissed-off robot who has gone military on their butts. What’s an astronaut to do?

Well, make chest-beating speeches about duty and sacrifice, for one thing. Kilmer and Stamp are terrific; Moss could have been the big action heroine that Linda Hamilton chose not to be; as it is she’s had a pretty solid career thanks to performances like these. Sizemore and Bratt are solid in support, and the effects are pretty nifty. The script, however, is pretty lame. It’s one Deus ex Machina after another, one amazing miraculous coincidence piled atop another until you’re screaming for mercy, but sadly, in Hollywood, nobody can hear you scream.

Red Planet  is fair enough eye candy, but could have used a plot that didn’t have quite so many holes in it  – the destruction of the habitation is never fully explained; when you figure out what caused it, you wonder how a station that was designed to withstand an F5 tornado could have succumbed to what destroyed it, for example. Kilmer is as laid-back as action heroes go; Sizemore makes a pretty good second banana, but it’s Moss who captured my attention here, as she will yours  and she would have without the somewhat obligatory, unnecessary nude scene.

This came out the same year as Brian de Palma’s Mission to Mars which was slightly better than this although I think Mission stands up better over time, despite the Kubrickian noodling of its ending.  I’m as big a fan of sci-fi adventure movies as you’ll find but even I couldn’t find a lot of positive things here. This was one mission I could have done without.

WHY RENT THIS: Decent special effects. Carrie-Anne Moss rocks.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Poorly written. Too much chest-beating. Kilmer too laid-back for the role.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a fair share of violence and foul language and a brief nude scene.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Many of the Mars scenes were filmed in Wadi Rum, Jordan – a desolate narrow valley.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33.5M on an $80M production budget; the movie flopped big time at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mission to Mars

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Host (2013)

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The Killer Inside Me (2010)


The Killer Inside Me

Don't make Casey Affleck turn this car around.

(2009) Thriller (IFC) Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson, Jessica Alba, Ned Beatty, Elias Koteas, Simon Baker, Tom Bower, Bill Pullman, Brent Briscoe, Matthew Maher, Liam Aiken, Jay R. Ferguson, Ali Nazary, Blake Lindsley, Caitlin Turner. Directed by Michael Winterbottom

 

Roger Ebert once said that what we desire is not a happy ending so much as closure. I think this is rather true; we don’t necessarily want to see things finish with a grin and the warm fuzzies; sometimes we want the tale to end in blood and destruction because that is what has been earned – just as long as all the loose ends are tied up.

Lou Ford (Affleck) is affable sheriff’s deputy in a small Texas town in the 1950s. He’s well-liked in the community and well-regarded on the force, particularly by his mentor Sheriff Bob Maples (Bower). His girlfriend Amy (Hudson), is a schoolteacher and everyone in town agrees they make a mighty fine couple and the general consensus is that the two will marry when Lou gets the gumption to pop the question.

What nobody knows is the volcano seething inside of Lou. He raped a five-year-old girl as a teenager for which his big brother Mike took the rap for. When Mike got out of the slam, he went to work for contractor Chester Conway (Beatty) and died under unusual circumstances on the job. Lou has always harbored a suspicion that Chester had something to do with it.

He also has a thing about inflicting pain. Introduced to sadomasochism by his father’s housemaid Helene (Turner), he likes to hurt people and the need to do so is getting more and more irresistible. At the prodding of the Sheriff, Lou visits a prostitute named Joyce Lakeland (Alba) who’s been having an affair with Chester’s son Elmer (Ferguson). The visit escalates into a severe spanking which, as it turns out, Joyce really gets off on. The two begin a passionate affair.

Joyce concocts a plan to extort money from Chester, enough for her and Lou  to leave town and set up new lives with. their ill-gotten cash. Lou is chosen to deliver the payoff. Instead he beats Joyce within an inch of her life (intending for the beating to be fatal) and shoots Elmer dead, setting up Joyce to take the fall for the crime.

Lou however fell short in taking care of Joyce and despite his best efforts, she survives. However, suspicion is beginning to fall on Lou from Amy who thinks Lou is cheating on her, and from County district attorney Howard Hendricks (Baker) who thinks Lou had something to do with Elmer’s murder.

A local youth, Johnnie Pappas (Aiken) is arrested by Hendricks for the crime because he is in possession of a marked $20 bill from Chester’s cash. However, Lou had planted that on Johnnie, the son of a close friend of Lou’s. Lou asks to interrogate him and winds up hanging Johnnie in his cell, making it look like a suicide.

Lou’s blood lust is getting out of control and the noose is tightening. Can Lou get control of himself and figure a way out of the mess he’s in, or will he eventually pay for his crimes?

Winterbottom has been a prolific director, with such films as Welcome to Sarajevo, A Mighty Heart and The Trip on his resume. He is competent enough at what he does, and from time to time shows flashes of brilliance but this won’t stand out as one of his better works. I do give him props for taking one of pulp writer Jim Thompson’s darkest and most violent works and preserving the darkest elements intact – that isn’t easy to do these days of focus groups and trying to pander to a general audience.

Affleck surprised me here. His roles have tended to be pretty easy-going and sweet-natured but here he is a sociopath and nearly irredeemable. He is not  aware of the difference between right and wrong – he has no idea why he does the things he does in some cases – and probably wouldn’t care much if he did. He is as self-centered as it is humanly possible to be; everything he does is for his own benefit and to feed his own psycho-sexual needs, which are dark indeed.

Alba has a difficult role as well as the masochistic prostitute. Even Hudson’s Amy has a few kinks of her own. As  a result, the film has been labeled misogynistic, often by high and mighty critics who don’t think that a woman could possibly enjoy pain in a sexual context. Not only is it possible but it is more common than you might think.

Thompson’s writing style rarely flinches at the darker side of human nature. There is brutality and violence and sexual deviancy that’s depicted with unusual candor and directness. The movie doesn’t shy away from these things, often to the point where gentler souls might be extremely put off by them. This is certainly a movie meant for those with stronger stomachs and steelier resolve.

WHY RENT THIS: Affleck portrays the sociopath dead on, something I didn’t expect. Hard-hitting and disturbing pulp fiction.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly brutal and sexually twisted in places. Might be too downbeat for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is sudden, graphic violence that is quite disturbing, some kinky sexual content and graphic nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tom Cruise was at one time attached to the part of Lou Ford with Andrew Dominik directing. When Cruise dropped out, so did Dominik citing that the role was so complex and disturbing it needed a star to carry it.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.0M on a $13M production budget; the film lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Step Brothers

Margin Call


Margin Call

Kevin Spacey discovers the wonders of Internet porn.

(2011) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Aasif Mandvi, Ashley Williams, Susan Blackwell, Maria Dizzia, Jim Kirk. Directed by J.C. Chandor

Money makes the world go round, and certainly we all need it to get by. There are those, however, who can’t get enough of it and have plundered and pillaged their way into a global economic meltdown. The worst part of it is that there are those who knew what was about to happen but did nothing; they are at least complicit partners in the crime.

At a staid, respected Wall Street firm in 2008, layoffs are underway. A tap on the shoulder is the kiss of death as 80% of the workforce on this particular floor is about to be sent home. One of those being let go is Eric Dale (Tucci), a manager in the risk assessment team. As he is being escorted out, he hands a flash drive to his protégé Peter Sullivan (Quinto) and tells him it’s something he was working on and asks Peter to see if he can finish it. Then, somewhat strangely, he tells him to “Be careful.”

Well, that’s like catnip to a former rocket engineer like Sullivan so while the other survivors are out celebrating their stay of execution, Sullivan is working on the file and when he figures it out, the results are so monstrous that he has to call someone in. That someone is senior trader Will Emerson (Bettany) who in turn calls his boss Sam Rogers (Spacey), the head of trading.

What Sullivan has discovered is that the company has purchased a lot of mortgage-based securities that, if their value were to deteriorate by just 25% would mean that the companies losses would be greater than what the company was worth. That would mean bankruptcy and scandal and the end of the gravy train they’ve all been riding on.

During the course of the night, the findings are pushed up the ladder. The head of Risk Management Sarah Robertson (Moore) and her boss Jared Cohen (Baker) are brought into the loop and it soon becomes apparent they knew  a lot more about the situation than they had let on. It quickly becomes a case of looking out for your own tush as the firm’s British CEO John Tuld (Irons) flies in via helicopter as dawn breaks.

These executives will be making decisions that will have far-reaching economic implications, not to mention a moral dilemma as Tuld’s decision is to sell off the worthless securities before it becomes general knowledge that they’re worthless. Can Rogers order his traders to essentially destroy their own careers to save the firm? Should he?

The story is rather loosely based on that of Lehman Brothers (whose CEO is Richard Fuld) although there are certainly some factual differences. That there are those in the financial industry who played fast and loose with the rules and with morality there is no doubt. That the greed of banks, financial firms and those politicians who helped remove the safeguards and overseers that might have protected us from these rapacious sharks has put our economy down the tubes there is also no doubt.

Chandor, the son of a Merrill Lynch executive, has an insider’s perspective and he helps make a movie that really covers some fairly arcane numbers-based material without going too far over the heads of the average audience member. There’s some good writing here; understanding what happened in 2008 often feels like you need a degree in math just to grasp the basics. Here, it’s shown in fairly plain terms what happened to a lot of firms at the time.

The performances here are universally compelling. Spacey is more or less the focus of the moral dilemma; he alone of most of the executives has a pretty good wrestling match with his conscience. He isn’t possessed of a snowy white soul – he certainly is flawed – but at least his first thought isn’t of his own career but the ramifications on the general public when this gets out.

Irons is also amazing as the reptilian CEO. There is a moment when he’s rattling off the dates of all the crashes and downturns on Wall Street, seemingly not noticing how much closer together those dates are getting as the years go by. Does he really not notice or does he actually not care that each of those dates represent enormous human misery?

This isn’t what you’d call action packed fare; much of it takes place in conference rooms at high level meetings. It gets pretty talky at times. While this is mostly an indictment of the greed and arrogance of Wall Street, it also does put a certain onus on the general public for aiding and abetting, a charge which isn’t entirely unfounded. In that sense, this is as fair and balanced a portrayal of the meltdown as I’ve seen to date.

This movie puts a human face on the greed and how the mentality of CYA and testosterone-fueled “profits first, people second” culture in Wall Street made what happened in 2008 inevitable. This is the dark face of capitalism and that the executives sound uncannily like prison guards at Dachau only makes this movie more compelling.

REASONS TO GO: A very realistic look at what goes on behind the curtain on Wall Street. Terrific performances and a well-written script augment this.

REASONS TO STAY: A little bit on the talky side.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed mostly at One Penn Plaza in New York on a floor recently vacated by a trading firm.

HOME OR THEATER: I’d see this in a theater if you can.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: In Time