The Tomorrow War


Tomorrow isn’t looking quite so bright.

(2021) Science Fiction (Paramount) Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovsky, J.K. Simmons, Betty Gilpin, Sam Richardson, Jasmine Matthews, Edwin Hodge, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Keith Powers, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Mike Mitchell, Jared Shaw, Alexis Louder, Rose Bianco, Seychelle Gabriel, Alan Trong, Chibuikem Uche, Dave Maldonado, Kasandra Banfield. Directed by Chris McKay

 

Among the pandemic’s casualties was this film, meant to be one of Paramount’s tentpoles in the never-to-be-forgotten (no matter how hard we try) summer of 2020 but relegated to the indignity of direct-to-streaming the following year.

High school biology teacher Dan Forester (Pratt), a former Green Beret who has felt unfulfilled since returning home from the Iraq War, is trying to find a research job without success. His wife Emmy (Gilpin) and daughter Muri (Armstrong) believe in him, but he still feels like he’s missing something. Perhaps it’s his estranged dad (Simmons), a no-nonsense macho sort who has become an anti-government hermit living off the grid.

But his life – and everyone else’s – is turned upside down with the appearance of time travelers appearing at a soccer game with disturbing news; earth has been invaded by aliens and 20 years in the future, mankind is on the verge of becoming extinct. The future needs soldiers and they’ve come to the past to recruit them.

The survival rate is appalling, but Dan knows he has to go and despite the objections of his wife and tears of his daughter, he knows that this is the war he was meant to fight. On the jaunt back to the future he befriends fellow scientist Charlie (Richardson) and soldier Dorian (Hodge), the latter of whom is entering his third seven-day tour. Oh, that’s right, I forgot to tell you – they can only spend seven days in the future before being bounced back to their own time.

He also meets a hard-boiled colonel (Strahovsky) who has a nagging familiarity to her (and only the most dullest of intellects won’t be able to figure out why). He faces the aliens – all tentacles and teeth, shooting bony white projectiles from their tentacles, which nets them the name “White Spikes.” But even the infusion of cannon fodder from the past isn’t making much of a difference as the aliens are too many, breed too quickly and are too blamed hard to kill. Mankind may well be doomed – unless someone can come up with a solution to nip the problem before it rears its ugly multi-tentacled head.

This sci-fi action/war movie has elements of alien invasion movies like Skyline and sci-fi war tales like Starship Troopers and falls about in the middle of those two films in terms of quality. Pratt is a bright spot, one of Hollywood’s most consistently successful stars since emerging in the MCU as Star-Lord nearly a decade ago. This doesn’t feel like another franchise film for him; while he excels in the action sequences, he sometimes falters when the scenes are more dramatic in nature. He has always tended to do better with a bit of a smirk than with a bit of pathos.

Strahovsky is a capable actress who should have become a big star after Chuck ended, but hasn’t gotten the kinds of roles that would elevate her there. Simmons shows off his buff bod, astonishing for a 66-year-old man, but is given little else to do. Richardson and Hodge supply good support – Richardson as comic relief, Hodge as resident badass support – but it’s clear that the centerpiece are the CGI alien and action set pieces.

What bothers me most about the movie is the plot inconsistencies. People from the past are sent forward in time to essentially serve as cannon fodder; doesn’t that affect the future if they die in the war, leaving them unable to return to the past and live out the lives they were meant to? It also seems somewhat odd that we are able to invent time travel and yet we have made no significant improvement in armament. Most wars tend to lead to breakthroughs in military technology but nothing here seems to be terribly advanced.

Still, there’s plenty of action, plenty of carnage, plenty of nasty aliens and plenty of Chris Pratt. Chances are this would have done only middling business in the theaters had their not been a pandemic, and likely would have lost money but the sale of the movie from Paramount to Amazon meant it will at least break even for the studio, although whether that translates to profit for Amazon is anyone’s guess.

=REASONS TO SEE: Pratt has become one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some oddball plot inconsistences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sci-fi violence and carnage, as well as some profanity including sexually suggestive dialogue.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chris Pratt is married to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s daughter.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:
Amazon
CRITICAL MASS:& As of 11/28/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 52% positive reviews; Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Edge of Tomorrow
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Black Friday

Objects


These objects may seem to be junk but they won’t be by the end of the film.

(2021) Documentary (Semicolon) Rick Rawlins, Heidi Julavits, Robert Krulwich, Joshua Glenn, Arianna Huhn, Eri Yasuhara, Eugene Wong, Margaret Bynum Hill, Marie Kondo, Jad Abumrad, Rob Walker, Mindah-Lee Kumar, Isabelle Corey, Caren Wheeler, Lynn Levy, Nelson Dale, Amy Gesick. Directed by Vincent Liota

I sincerely believe we all need a little bit of clutter. I distrust too much order; there is something that is authoritarian, almost fascist about it. If life is ordered, there are no surprises. No deeper meaning. At this time in our history, we seem to worship order. Clutter is a sign of an undisciplined mind (although studies prove the opposite); clutter is a sign of an undisciplined life. Clutter is bad for the environment; it means we need more space to hold it and tiny dwellings are better for the environment (poppycock, by the way; tiny dwellings can have as large a carbon footprint as a larger dwelling in the right circumstances). Memories aren’t connected to objects; they are locked inside our brains.

But that’s not really true. Most of us have keepsakes; a stub from a ticket to a concert that has meaning for us, or a gift from a loved one who is no longer with us. The point is, we impress meaning on inanimate objects that others may not share. The value of an object is directly related to its meaning towards us, not in how much it would fetch at an Antiques Roadshow auction.

This documentary explores the hold objects may have on us, but not in an obsessive/compulsive manner (although it may seem that way to some at first). Three subjects – former NPR correspondent Robert Krulwich, graphic designer Rick Rawlins and author Heidi Julavits are all of the school that objects tether us in time, connect us directly to positive memories.

Julavits is of the opinion (that I honestly don’t disagree with) that every object, no matter how insignificant, has a story to tell. The story may have meaning only to the object’s owner, but that story is a part of the fabric of their life nonetheless. As I sit here writing this on my laptop at my dining room table (where I do all my writing because it is comfortable, I have a great view of my back yard and the woods beyond from the window, and it gives my dogs a place to hang out with me), I can see literally dozens of objects that we have collected over the years. Some have pragmatic value – our good china for special occasions, a Von Briggle vase that my wife – Da Queen – and I bought while on a trip to Colorado Springs where she grew up, a miniature Spanish flag from a Transatlantic cruise, a gravy boat that was a wedding gift. Some of them may have intrinsic value (the vase, for example) but the flag certainly does not, although I think both my wife and I would be loath to give it up.

All three of the film’s subjects have stories like that. For Julavits, she was drawn to some clothing that she found on E-bay that once belonged to the obscure French actress Isabelle Corey, who passed away in 2011. She became almost compulsive about finding more of her things. Part of it was an interest in the woman herself; why did she suddenly stop appearing in films in the early 60s, just when her career seemed to be at its height? Julavits felt that the artifacts from her life might give her a clue, but she found herself being connected in an unexpected way.

Krulwich has held on to a tuft of grass for fifty years. You see, back when he was 15 years old, he was madly in love with a young girl and it appeared she returned his affection. They were in Central Park in New York, in front of Cleopatra’s Needle (an obelisk that is a well-known landmark in the park) and it was a big moment for the young man. He wanted something to memorialize the moment, but there was nothing around. Impulsively, he grabbed a handful of grass and put it in his pocket and has kept it ever since. This might seem to be a little out there, but as Krulwich puts it, whenever he sees the grass he can connect with the excitement of his 15-year-old self and for a moment, the memory is so vivid that he IS 15 again. Who needs a time machine when you have a handful of sod?

Maybe the most affecting story belongs to Rawlins, who as a young boy described himself as “socially awkward.” That might have been because his father’s job required him to move regularly so the family was rarely in one place long enough for the young lad to develop friendships. However, there was a boy by the name of David Turley who did seem interested in pursuing a friendship with young Rick. He invited Rawlins to a birthday party, but as it turned out, the family had to move yet again – on the very day of the birthday party, to make matters worse. Rick, distraught, decided to run over to the Turley home anyway but didn’t know what to say once he arrived there, so he stood on the porch, obviously close to breaking down. Young squire Turley, perhaps sensing his friend’s emotional turmoil, gifted him with a sugar egg – a confection that is very much like a hollow egg-shaped sugar cube. Young Rick was so overcome by the kind gesture that he kept the egg and still does to this day, in a special wooden box (whose significance is also explained in the film). Although I wondered how the egg went so long without getting moldy, it becomes the center for emotional resonance for the film, particularly during a segment about a radio show…well, I won’t get into it but I found myself unexpectedly connected to the story.

And that unexpected connection basically is the story of the movie. Things have a habit of finding a wavelength that matters to us, and we find outselves using that wavelength to recapture the feelings the original moment brought out in us to begin with. That wavelength isn’t just about possessions, either – we find that resonance in particular songs, in smells (my grandmother’s perogies were such an integral part of my childhood that smelling ANY perogies can take me back to that feeling of warmth, love and comfort) and every other sense you can imagine.

Surprisingly, there isn’t a whole lot of scientific explanation in the film, surprising because Liota has a background in science journalism. In the press notes, he mentions that is a deliberate decision on his part because he wanted to concentrate on the emotional side of the equation, and he does exactly that, successfully.

But the other side of that is that we get something of a one-sided conversation. Julavits’ searching for further memorabilia from Corey begins to show signs of obsession and compulsion. And while none of the main focuses of the film could be called hoarders, where is the line properly drawn?

I think there is a happy medium to be had here. On the one hand, too much order is unnatural. Sometimes, it’s not all about what we need, or even what “sparks joy” (because there is always a matter of degree) as Marie Kondo, the maven of decluttering your life (whose book Julavits searches for in her cluttered apartment, one of the more amusing vignettes in the film) puts it. Sometimes a bit of clutter is what we need to prove that we are inhabiting our own lives. Too much order is sterility; it makes the house look unlived-in, not a home at all. And the objects that bring us a connection – with out own past, with friends and family, with important events – are to be prized and treasured. And nobody can put a price on that.

REASONS TO SEE: One of those movies that grabs you unexpectedly.
REASONS TO AVOID: The conversation is a little bit one-sided.
FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly fine for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Liota is an Emmy-winning filmmaker who was a senior producer on PBS’ acclaimed science series NOVA scienceNOW.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: DOC NYC Online (until November 28)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Krimes

To Your Lasts Death


Someone give this guy a hand.

(2020) Animated Feature (Quiver) Starring the voices of Morena Baccarin, Ray Wise, William Shatner, Bill Moseley, Dani Lennon, Damien C. Haas, Benjamin Siemon, Bill Millsap, Florence Hartigan, Tom Lommel, Steve Geiger, Tanya C. Klein, Jim Cirile, Ruairi Douglas, Charles Wyman, Jason Axinn, Paige Barnett. Directed by Jason Axinn

 

Animated features tend to be fantasy or science-fiction oriented. There are dramas and comedies, to be sure (particularly from Europe), but for the most part there are elements of either one of those genres involved. It makes sense that the horror genre would also be fertile ground for animation, but surprisingly, very few animated features have gone that route.

In this opus, Miriam DeKalb (Lennon) has survived an unthinkable ordeal that has seen all of her siblings killed. Suspected of involvement in the grisly demise of her family, Miriam has been held in the prison wing of the hospital as interrogations by the police have illustrated their disbelief in her story. Then, she is visited by the Gamemaster (Baccarin), an alien being who is able to control time and puts on entertainments in which high-end clients bet on the outcomes. Miriam is given the opportunity to go back 24 hours, armed with the foreknowledge of what is going to happen, and attempt to save her sister and brothers. Should she choose not to, it is likely she will never know freedom again.

24 hours earlier, her father Cyrus (Wise) had gathered them together – sister Kelsey (Hartigan), and brothers Ethan (Haas) and Collin (Siemon) to inform them that he is dying. But rather than using the opportunity to draw the family closer together, their deranged old man – a wealthy arms manufacturer whose run for vice-president of the United States was torpedoed by his children when they informed the press of his many moral failings – chooses to take his revenge for that indiscretion and kill all his children. Sounds kind of medieval (or at least Biblical) to me.

He has locked up the office building and staffed it full of gunmen and set up lethal traps tailored to the weaknesses of each of his children. Miriam tries desperately to tell her siblings what is coming, but that only makes them suspicious that she’s in collusion with Cyrus. To make matters worse, the Gamemaster is changing the rules by changing events from how Miriam remembers them. There are no guarantees that she herself will survive, let alone save her brothers and sister from the maniacal machinations of their father.

Axinn spares no bloodshed and why should he? It’s not like he has to pay for additional fake blood. The problem here is that the various scenarios for each sibling comes off as kind of a lame retread of the Saw series, only much more heavy-handed. Considering that the sky is the limit when it comes to animation, it’s a bit of a drag that Axinn didn’t go more over-the-top here. It feels like a failure of the imagination.

Shatner guest stars as the narrator here and his dialogue is truly cringeworthy. You may be forgiven if you give in to the urge to fast-forward through his narration. It’s not Shatner’s fault; it’s just florid writing. Even Meryl Streep would have a tough time making the narration sound any better than Shatner does.

There’s still plenty of gore to delight the most exacting of horror lovers, and certainly if on the one hand one wishes for a little more originality, the execution of the various torture porn scenes are right on the money and at least as well done as any in that genre. I suspect that most hardcore horror fans and Adult Swim fans are going to find this delightful. It certainly is an idea whose time has come. I just wish the writers would have taken a little more care to utilize the medium to their advantage better.

REASONS TO SEE: Gloriously violent and gory.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story lacks ingenuity.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of bloody violence and gore, rape, nudity and more profanity than you know what to do with.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The animation was hand-drawn and took five years to complete. The filmmakers used Archer and Metaloccalypse as inspirations for the animation style.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Hoopla, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Saw Franchise
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Estate

Tombstone-Rashomon


You’re a daisy if you do.

(2017) Western (Tri-Coast) Adam Newberry, Jesse Lee Pacheco, Christine Dodge, Eric Schumacher, Benny Lee Kennedy, Richard Anderson, Jason Graham, Shayn Herndon, Michele Bauer, Haydn Winston, Bradford Trojan, James Miller, Callie Hutchinson, Rogelio Camarillo Brenda Jean Foley, Frank Gonzalez, Wade Everett, Pablo Kjolseth, Susan Sebanc. Directed by Alex Cox

 

One of the watershed moments in the Old West was the Gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona Territory on October 26, 1881 has taken on mythic proportions in the annals of the American frontier.

What is not well-known is that a time-travelling film crew arrived in Tombstone to document the famous event. Unfortunately, they miscalculated and arrived in Tombstone on October 27. Although distraught at having missed the historic event, they chose to soldier on, interviewing the survivors and eyewitnesses.

Among the participants interviewed were Ike Clanton (Kennedy), J.W. “Doc” Holliday (Schumacher) and Wyatt Earp (Newberry). Also interviewed were Holliday’s common-law wife Mary “Big Nose Kate” Horony (Dodge), Sheriff Johnny Behan (Pacheco) and saloon keeper Col. John Hafford (Anderson). Each gave conflicting testimony as to what happened that day. We’ll never really know for certain what happened in those fateful 30 seconds on that cold, windy day but nobody will ever forget it.

Legendary cult film director Alex Cox comes up with an intriguing concept, but true to his ethos doesn’t really stick to it. Trying to put the events of one of the most famous events in the Old West through the same microscope as Kurosawa’s legendary 1950 samurai film Rashomon, we see footage of the events as told by the various interview subjects, although the title card at the beginning clearly states that the camera crew didn’t arrive until after that all happened. Cox might have been better served to either use animatics to illustrate the testimony (a fairly expensive proposition) or simply not state when the film crew arrived, although that might have messed with the whole Kurosawa angle.

I don’t know how much research was done into this – probably not a lot – but there are a lot of idiosyncrasies here. For example, the Hungarian-born Horony is confused as to grammar, referring to male subjects as “she” and “her” throughout. Although Horony had been in America for 21 years when the shootout took place. We also see the Earps arrive at the gunfight in a police SUV. I like goofy humor as much as the next guy, but I have a burr up my butt about anachronisms. It would have been just as bad if they had been singing a David Bowie song in the saloon.

The film was shot around Arizona although not in Tombstone itself, which is understandable since modern Tombstone is a tourist mecca and doesn’t really lend itself to filming movies anymore. The costuming is mostly authentic, although the clothes are much cleaner than they would have been in the 19th century.

The performances by mainly unknown actors are solid and believable. My one issue is with the interviewer (Sebanc) who speaks in a flat, emotionless and almost robotic voice. Something tells me that was the direction that Cox gave the actress, but it sounds like the interview is being conducted by Ciri or Alexa.

The movie is interesting enough to watch, but the little idiosyncrasies end up doing it in. Cox has a pretty legit resume and has continued to make flawed but fascinating movies since his heyday in the 80s, and this is another one of those.

REASONS TO SEE: Solid onscreen performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: The interviewer is robotic and stiff.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Cox is best-known for his mid-80s cult hits Repo Man, Sid and Nancy and Straight to Hell.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Fandor
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tombstone
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Widows

Don’t Go


Ireland may not be the best place to go to assuage your grief.

(2018) Mystery (IFC) Stephen Dorff, Melissa George, Simon Delaney, Aoibhinn McGinnity, Grace Farrell, Gavin O’Connor, Lalor Roddy, Des Cave, Luke Griffin, Charlotte Bradley, Sean Mahon, Laurence O’Fuarain, Sahar Ali, Ella Connolly, Tara Breathnach, Grainne Coyne, Aiveen Gleeson. Directed by David Gleeson

When times are hard the movies tend to reflect that – not necessarily about the things causing those hard times but with films that reflect people going through hard times themselves. Any parent will tell you that the hardest time of all is losing a child; it’s not just the anguish of grief but the recriminations particularly when the death could have been prevented.

Writer Ben Slater (Dorff) and his wife Hazel (George) are going through exactly those circumstances. The two are renovating the family hotel that has been in Hazel’s genealogy for generations, a lovely boutique hotel right on the wild shoreline of Ireland. Ben is teaching at a local Catholic school where he pals around with the irreverent Father Sean (Delaney) who recognizes that Ben is using the booze a little too much, even for Ireland.

Often, Ben passes out on the beach near a rocky outcropping where he has a dream – or perhaps memory – of a family day at the beach not long before Molly (Farrell) fell down the stairs of the hotel and broke her neck. It was one of those lovely family days of building sand castles and two parents delighting in the antics of their daughter. Ben is also getting an odd recurring message: Seas the Day.

He becomes convinced that Molly, for whom spelling was a challenge, is the one behind the messages. He also begins to obsess with the idea that he is actually travelling into the past, particularly when he starts returning to wakefulness with mementos of that day clutched in his hand. In subtle ways he has begun changing things in the past but not enough to bring Molly back. To make matters worse, Hazel’s somewhat fragile and emotional friend Serena (McGinnity) has moved back in with them and she carries a secret that can break apart the already on thin ice couple. Things are definitely not right but what will Ben do to make things right?

Think of this as an Irish ghost story without the ghost. Molly’s presence is all over the place for Hazel and Ben, but she’s no apparition and there are no real scares here. Mostly, this is a mystery of a man desperate to change his circumstances and trying to interpret the clues left to him to do it. Dorff, a dependable performer who unfortunately has been stuck with comparisons to Kiefer Sutherland throughout his career, deserves better. His performance here is strong enough to take notice, although not strong enough to overcome the flaws in the script.

The story moves at an elephantine pace and it feels like it shouldn’t be. There are too many scenes that reconfirm points that have already been made; the script could have used a little more brevity or the film more judicious editing at the very least. At times it becomes too much the soap opera which undercuts the basic melancholy which suffuses the movie throughout. Then again, the grim tone could have used a little more lightness.

Besides Dorff, there are other reasons to see the movie. The picturesque Irish countryside and coast make for lovely backdrops and Ferry Corsten delivers a truly lovely score that enhances the beautiful images we are treated to. Still, this is a movie that just can’t seem to get out of its own way and while it comes together nicely with an ending that ties things together, it is definitely a downer of a movie that is best suited for rainy days and broken hearts.

REASONS TO GO: Both the score and the cinematography are lovely.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much soap opera sabotages what would otherwise be a nifty concept.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sex, profanity and drug use extant.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Dorff will be a key cast member in the next edition of True Detective.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Time Traveler’s Wife
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story

Deadpool 2


Deadpool: Superhero in training.

(2018) Superhero (20th Century Fox/Marvel) Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Zazie Beetz, Morena Baccarin, Julian Dennison, T.J. Miller, Leslie Uggams, Karan Soni, Brianna Hildebrand, Jack Kesy, Eddie Marsan, Terry Crews, Bill Skarsgård, Brad Pitt, Lewis Tan, Rob Delany, Nikolai Witschl, Randal Reeder, Shioli Kutsuna, Stefan Kapicic, Matt Damon, Alan Tudyk. Directed by David Leitch

 

The Merc with a Mouth returns for a second go-round (third if you count the abortion that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine) in a movie that takes nothing seriously, least of all itself.

In this blockbuster sequel, a despondent Wade Wilson attempts to kill himself which turns out to be impossible. He finds a reason to live when he befriends a 14-year-old sexual abuse victim who calls himself Firefist (Dennison). The kid seeks revenge against the headmaster (Marsan) of an orphanage who has tortured and abused him. When you can shoot fireballs from your hands, revenge isn’t all that hard to come by.

Standing in the way is Cable (Brolin), a time-travelling cyborg who has come back in time to kill the boy. Apparently in the future, a grown up Firefist kills his family and scorches a whole lot of the Earth. To fight the nearly indestructible Cable, Deadpool recruits a superteam of his own although they turn out to be short-lived. Extremely although Domino (Beetz) whose superpower is crazy good luck survives – which is a good thing because she’s one of the best things about the movie.

Nonetheless, Deadpool hopes to reason with Firefist and get him not to turn to the dark side while Thanos…I mean Cable…thinks that the greater good will be served by ghosting a 14-year-old boy. I gotta admit, I was rooting for him to kill the boy at times.

Like the first film there are plenty of occasionally gruesome action sequences. Also like the first film there is an explosion of meta-based humor, poking fun of everything from comic book movies (duh) to Barbra Streisand (Brolin’s stepmother) to every action cliché ever to Les Miserables. There are plenty of brief cameos, some of them virtually unrecognizable.

In short, it’s a hoot and a half. The humor is hit and miss at times but hit more often than not. The movie feels a lot more cluttered than the first but it also has much more scope than the first. The action is an improvement and there’s even a little bit of pathos to mix things up a little bit. I don’t think those who loved the first one will feel any less love for the sequel and I’m pretty sure that most of us will be eager for the threequel. Maybe they can convince Hugh Jackman to show up for the third. That would give Reynolds a whole new opportunity to riff.

REASONS TO GO: Reynolds continues to make Wade/Deadpool a compelling character. There are lots of fun celebrity cameos and Easter eggs throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little bit more cluttered than the first.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence – some of it extreme, gore, profanity and a brief scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dennison, who was 15 when the movie was released, was legally unable to see it in his native New Zealand.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios/Verizon, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/22/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Blue Iguana

Alice Through the Looking Glass


The Mad Hatter through the looking glass.

The Mad Hatter through the looking glass.

(2016) Fantasy (Disney) Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Rhys Ifans, Matt Lucas, Lindsay Duncan, Leo Bill, Geraldine James, Andrew Scott, Richard Armitage, Ed Speleers, Alan Rickman (voice), Timothy Spall (voice), Paul Whitehouse (voice), Stephen Fry (voice), Michael Sheen (voice), Barbara Windsor (voice). Directed by James Bobin

 

Like most normal movie fans, I don’t mind some eye candy now and again – and I’m not talking about the good looking member of the opposite sex. I mean special effects that transport you to strange exotic places, create unusual and astonishing creatures and in essence bring awe, magic and wonder to the movies. However, like most movie critics, I’m not thrilled with special effects for their own sake.

Tim Burton’s 2010 Disney fantasy Alice in Wonderland was a surprise hit – not a surprise that it was a hit so much but how big a hit it became. Grossing over a billion dollars worldwide, it was natural that the studio was eager for a remake but considering the A-list nature of some of the stars and Burton’s own reluctance to make a sequel (James Bobin of The Muppets Most Wanted eventually got the job) has delayed this to the point where some have forgotten how good the first one was.

And it was rather good. I thought it was one of Burton’s best ever, which has gotten me a lot of razzing in the film buff community I hang out in, but I stick to my assessment – it’s imaginative and fun with less of Burton’s neuroses to make it too dark. I’m guessing that the experience Burton had with Disney didn’t stick too well with him, because he has chosen not to direct the sequel and it suffers from his absence.

Alice (Wasikowska) is now a young woman and not just any young woman, but the captain of a sea ship, the Wonder which was once her late father’s ship. Attacked by pirates, she takes an incredible chance against them and (of course) escapes with a daring maneuver. Point for Alice.

However her former fiancé Lord Hamish (Bill) in a fit of pique has taken over her father’s old company and has ordered the Wonder taken away from Alice and that she be reduced to a clerk in the organization. He sneeringly threatens to take away her mother’s home which he coincidentally owns the mortgage on if she doesn’t accept his terms. Turns out he’s not just a twit but a spiteful one as well.

Searching his office for a clue as to how to get out of the situation, Alice is overheard and with nowhere to escape, discovers that the mirror may provide a useful means of egress. She goes through and ends back up in Underland, the world she fell into years ago and saved when she slew the Jabberwocky (which appears in a flashback here but sans dialogue since the voice of the original was the late Christopher Lee). It seems that a calamity has occurred.

The Mad Hatter (Depp) is in a deep depression. He believes he’s found evidence that his family whom he once thought slain by the Red Queen (Carter) is still alive but nobody will believe him – including Alice. However, she determines that the only way to save the Hatter is to save his family from death and the only way to do that is to go back in time.

However, it turns out that Time is a person (Cohen) who doesn’t much appreciate people meddling with the events of the past. However, Alice steals an orb that will allow her to go back in time and warn the Hatters’ family about their impending demise, but what she doesn’t realize is that the Orb powers the Great Clock which is what regulates Time itself and without it, everything will cease to be.

The plot goes on from there and if you want to find out more, see the bloody movie but let me just say that the problem with this movie is the problem that all time travel movies have – they are generally confusing, contradictory and make the viewer’s head ache if they think about it too much. Given that this is a family film, the wee ones will probably be able to just accept the situation and keep going from there – kids are remarkable that way – but their parents will end up scratching their heads and wondering why they didn’t stay home and paint that spare room.

That’s not to say that this movie is less interesting than watching paint dry, far from it. Once again, some of the images are fantastic, such as Time contemplating an eternity of watches, each representing a human being who is still alive. When their watch stops, so do they and Time collects the stopped watches. Time is a bit of a melancholy fellow.

And Cohen plays Time with great depth and many layers. While I’m not sure why he had to give him a Yiddish/German accent other than that Cohen always plays with accents, nonetheless this is one of Cohen’s less strict comedic parts. There are moments when Cohen gets to cut loose as a comic but he tempers those with moments that really touch the heart.

Wasikowska is plucky not only in character but as an actress; the role, as written, is pretty colorless and she does what she can with it but I would have liked to have seen more depth to her. When her mother’s situation becomes apparent to her, we see her determination to save the day, but nothing of the emotions behind them. Alice is as two-dimensional here as the paper the original story was written on.

And again, this has little to do with the book Charles Dodgson a.k.a. Lewis Carroll wrote, so purists beware. Not that the plot matters overly much; Bobin clearly exists more time and energy in the special effects than he does on character development and plot (perhaps writer Linda Woolverton, who wrote the first Alice might bear some responsibility for this) which frankly is a mistake. As undiscerning as American audiences are, give them characters they care about in an environment that makes them slack-jawed with wonder and they’ll return again and again to see your movie. It really isn’t a very difficult concept to follow.

I was sorely disappointed in this sequel as I loved the first movie so much. This is more or less mediocre, not the crash and burn some critics made it out to be but certainly not a home run either. Audiences have reacted accordingly, with a resounding “not interested.” It will likely recoup its budget and maybe make a little bit more after its home video run, but this Alice isn’t as inviting for a return trip to Wonderland as the last.

REASONS TO GO: Some truly amazing images. Cohen gives his best performance ever.
REASONS TO STAY: Over-emphasis on effects over plot. Time travel is confusing and contradictory.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild rude language and plenty of fantasy action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Sacha Baron Cohen’s first appearance in a film distributed by Disney.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snow White and the Huntsman
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Captain America: Civil War

Synchronicity


This happens all the time.

This happens all the time.

(2016) Science Fiction (Magnet) Chad McKnight, Brianne Davis, Michael Ironside, AJ Bowen, Scott Poythress, Erik Thirsk, Derek Ryan Duke, Claire Bronson, Sergine Dumais (voice), Elle Sunkara, Ashley Drayton. Directed by Jacob Gentry

Time is not a delicate thing. Once it passes us by, it’s gone forever. There are those who dream of travelling it’s currents and eddies, seeing the events of the past and perhaps even influencing, but time is a much sturdier thing than even a river. Time is impenetrable.

Jim Beale (McKnight) is a brilliant scientist with a bare-bones lab who has discovered a way to open a wormhole, theoretically opening the door to time travel. However, he needs a lot more funding to see the experiments through. That’s where Klaus Meisner (Ironside) comes in. He’s a wealthy industrialist with the cash available to fund the project, but his motives are far from altruistic and he wants control of the invention once Beale gets it to work.

Into his life comes Abby (Davis), a mysterious woman with whom Beale starts a romantic relationship, but her own agenda remains unclear. Suddenly Beale is forced to make a split second decision and he leaps into the wormhole itself – and finds himself being the world’s first time traveler. The trouble is, he’s only traveled a week and he is forced to try to keep the timeline from being polluted – or there will be devastating consequences not only to himself but maybe to existence.

This is sci-fi on a low, low, low budget and if you don’t mind overlooking some anachronisms (much of the “technology” here looks to be of the Atari-era level, even though this seems to be set in a not-too-distant future but decidedly future. There is a lot of blue lighting, light filtering in through window slats and shadows – add a little neon and you’d have Blade Runner. This is a terrific looking movie.

The story is pretty nifty, so much so that I really tried to give you a very bare bones summary. While some of the twists and turns are a bit predictable (including, sadly, the big reveal at the film’s end), there is enough here that is not that you can at least give the movie style points.

Where the film falls down is in a couple of places; the character of Abby for example, is a bit too hipster-ish. She chain-smokes (In fact, one gets the sense that the filmmakers are heavy smokers since so many of their characters do so in kind of a reversal of modern sensibilities) and always seems to have that air that she’s privy to a joke none of us understand. I don’t necessarily blame the actress, but quite frankly I’m at a loss as to why Beale would be attracted to her the way that he was. The script doesn’t really give her much appeal, unless of course chain-smoking hipsters who may or may not be who they seem to be gives you a film boner.

McKnight is a decent enough lead but his character kind of drifts through the movie and the only time he seems to show any sort of fire is when he does the most impulsive and reckless thing he could possibly do. His connection to a scientific breakthrough may be enough to attract a woman like Abby to him but at the end of the day this would have been a better movie if we’re led to believe that Abby may actually harbor some affection for him; it’s hard to believe that she would.

In fact the whole romantic angle really falls short for me. The sparks between the two romantic leads were more like dying embers and no real heat is generated whatsoever. The film is really saved by Ironside, the veteran character actor who has played all sorts of bad guys in his career, is the most watchable of the actors here. While we know that Meisner is up to no good, Ironside at least makes the character interesting and watchable. Veteran character actors like Ironside class up any production they’re cast in.

The worst thing here is the dialogue. It’s clunky and uses phrases that nobody living in 2016 actually uses – who says “I got duped” unless they’re in an Oscar Wilde play? There are a lot of quotations of both abstract scientists and authors whom you wouldn’t expect to find in a thoughtful sci-fi film. This could have used a good deal of polish, particularly in the aforementioned dialogue.

Quite frankly, this isn’t a movie I can throw a lot of support behind, although I think it’s clear that Gentry has a terrific visual sense. The movie’s failings, particularly what’s coming out of the actor’s mouths and the way the characters acts, are pretty substantial. The visual look is at least reasonably cool and the premise intriguing but like a lot of time travel films becomes a little overly confusing. The acting is passable with the exception of veteran actor Ironside but again for the most part not especially notable. While this has gotten a fairly small theatrical release, you’re probably better served to see it on your local VOD network or on iTunes where it’s currently available.

REASONS TO GO: Decent enough premise. Michael Ironside is always welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is clunky. The characters don’t act like real people.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language as well as some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gentry co-directed The Signal.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Timecrimes
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Hail, Caesar!

Back in Time


Marty McFly can't understand what all the fuss is about.

Marty McFly can’t understand what all the fuss is about.

(2015) Documentary (Gravitas) Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Claudia Wells, Bob Gale, Don Fullilove, James Tolkan, Huey Lewis, Alan Silvestri, Andrew Probert, Dean Cundey, Dan Harmon, Adam F. Goldberg, Bill Shea, Frank Price, Rob Klein, Ed Dennis, Tyler McDonald, Martin Sanchez, Adam Kotras, Joe Wolser, Jill Henderson. Directed by Jason Aron

When it opened in 1985, Back to the Future was an immediate sensation and a runaway hit. Some have proclaimed it the perfect movie; nearly everyone in the industry praises the script as one of the best ever written, making a time travel story work (much harder than you’d think) but supplying it with memorable characters, plenty of thrills, great eye candy (for its time) and thought-provoking situations. After all – if you traveled back in time when you were high school age and met your parents while they were in high school, would you have hung out with them?

That’s at the heart of what Back to the Future is. Thirty years after the original, we have finally surpassed the date that Marty McFly came to the future – from this point forward the entire trilogy takes place in our past.

In many ways a cultural touchstone, we mostly all grew up or have been fascinated by as adults with the concepts of hoverboards, self-lacing Nikes, jackets that blow-dry themselves, lawyers being abolished and of course flying cars. This was a bright future – not necessarily pristine as there were bad neighborhoods, drug abuse, poverty, crime and Griff who was a little bit of everything with a bionic twist.

Now we’ve reached that era and while it isn’t exactly the future that Zemeckis and Gale envisioned, they did get a few things right – including 80s nostalgia, thousands of cable channels and Mr. Fusion. Just kidding about the last one.

This documentary looks not only at the movies and in particularly the sequence set in 2015, but also at the BTTF fandom, including the Flux Capacitors rock band (who will be playing in a road show along with screenings of the movie in select cities starting next month) and Delorean enthusiasts who have had their cars customized to look like the time machine. Some of these are even street legal.

While I have to admit that the interviews with Michael J. Fox were a little bit hard to watch – yes, all the cast members are 30 years older but Fox’s Parkinson’s reminds us that he has been through a lot more than most of us have been through over that same time – it is clear that everyone involved with the movie has fond memories not only of the shoot but of the public’s reaction to it and the continued enthusiasms displayed by the fans.

Some folks might not realize that when the movie first started shooting, Fox wasn’t available because of his Family Ties commitments; actor Eric Stoltz was cast as Marty instead. However, six weeks into shooting it became clear that Stoltz, who is a very fine actor, just wasn’t right for the part. They managed to then get Fox, who would film his television show on weekdays and on weeknights and weekends would do the movie. It was exhausting but was clearly worth the effort because we, the viewing public, not only got a classic TV show from the deal but also a classic movie trilogy.

I have to admit that I appreciated the fan stories much more than the professional talking head interviews, much of the material for which has been covered in interviews on DVD and Blu-Ray editions that are easily available, much of it on the new 30th anniversary Blu-Ray collection. In some ways, this documentary is a bit of a disappointment; the editing appears a little haphazard, the flow of the film is a little choppy and as I said, the reliance on talking heads is too much.

Still, the movie is so good, so iconic, so central to Western culture that it is hard to watch this movie and not feel the warm fuzzies inside. We all connect to the trilogy whether we saw it as children or as adults. Even if the insights here aren’t especially new or revealing, it is still fun to revisit the movies as well as the fans who have been so devoted to them. Zemeckis has said that there will be no Back to the Future 4 (although I’m a big believer in “never say never”) so we will have to make do with this and what transpires in comic books and videogames that are inspired by the film. With the recent milestone in our review, it is a very good time to go back in time.

REASONS TO GO: Clearly a labor of love. Fan stories are quite interesting. The background of Zemeckis’ previous films gives good context.
REASONS TO STAY: Talking head overload. A bit disjointed. Doesn’t feel fully formed.
FAMILY VALUES: Some references to the sexuality of the trilogy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original Back to the Future had its initial surprise premiere at the Century 21 theater in San Jose, California.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix, Vimeo, Amazon, iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trekkers
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness commences!

Terminator Genisys


I just want to set the world on fire...

I just want to set the world on fire…

(2015) Science Fiction (Paramount) Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Jai Courtney, Emilia Clarke, J.K. Simmons, Dayo Okeniyi, Matthew Smith, Courtney B. Vance, Byung-hun Lee, Michael Gladis, Sandrine Holt, Wayne Bastrup, Gregory Alan Williams, Otto Sanchez, Matty Ferraro, Griff Furst, Ian Etheridge, Nolan Gross, Seth Meriwether, Afemo Omilami, Teri Wyble. Directed by Alan Taylor

Some franchises seem to need little encouragement to be creative. Some tell a single story over the course of several films. Others essentially make the same movie over and over again.

The War Against the Machines is reaching it’s end; John Connor (J.Clarke) and his troops are storming an L.A. prison camp which hides Skynet’s secret weapon even as another brigade is storming the main server complex in Colorado. Complete victory is within their grasp; except that Skynet has sent a Terminator (Schwarzenegger) back in time to assassinate Sarah Connor (E. Clarke), his mother, before he can be born. John sends his right hand man, Kyle Reese (Courtney) back in time to stop the unstoppable cyborg.

Sounds familiar right? But this isn’t a reboot. When Reese gets there he discovers the Terminator has already been dispatched – by another Terminator, reprogrammed and sent back further in time to save Sarah – and now to save all of them from a liquid metal T-1000 (Lee) that is nearly impossible to destroy, but clever Sarah manages to find a way.

Now, they have a chance to stop Judgment Day itself but something is wrong with the timeline. Reese saw John getting attacked just before he was sent back in time and now Judgment Day isn’t in 1997 but in 2017. And the means that the nuclear holocaust will be achieved is through a new operating system, Genisys, that will link up everybody and everything – including the nukes. With the aging Terminator whom Sarah calls Pops – as he keeps insisting, he’s old not obsolete – the two will try to save the world from Skynet one last time but Skynet has an ace up it’s sleeve that nobody foresaw – except those who saw Paramount’s second trailer for the movie that spoils one of the biggest and unexpected twists that could have been this summer.

The Terminator franchise has seen better days. The first two films in the franchise were box office smashes and are beloved of science fiction and action film fans alike. The last two have done decent financial numbers but both critics and fans alike have excoriated both of them. Where in that demarcation does this one fall?

The latter, unfortunately. Critics have given this a spanking as you can see by the numbers below and fans have been essentially unimpressed. To be honest, I can’t say that this is one of the better movies in the series but it isn’t the worst either – Terminator Salvation gets that dubious honor – and quite frankly I think it holds up pretty well, despite the critical lambasting it has taken.

]Schwarzenegger, who essentially just made cameos during the last two films which were both filmed during his gubernatorial days but is fully back here and he steals the show. Arnold has never been the greatest of actors (though he has improved) but he’s always had a load of charisma. He manages to play the sympathetic Terminator nicely with genuinely horrifying attempts at a human smile, and a few unintentionally funny quips.

Too bad Arnold as a robot is more lifelike than the human characters. Jason Clarke has shown himself to be a capable lead actor in Life on Mars and in other films, but here he seems terribly lost. I’m not sure if he just required better direction, or any direction but I get the sense that he’s not sure how to play this messianic character and so plays him without much to recommend him by. At least he does a better job than Christian Bale did.

Courtney, who has been a villain in the Hunger Games movies does a mite better, but again seems a bit over his head. The same could be said for Emilia Clarke who has turned heads in Game of Thrones but seems strident and unlikable here instead of tough. Makes one wish her colleague in Thrones, Lena Headey, would have been the one asked to take the role here. She did a far better job in The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

The action sequences are better than average and the special effects likewise. Where the movie really falls down is in the story; it’s so convoluted, with parallel timelines and all sorts of techno babble which ends up slowing the momentum of the movie down at key moments (in one incredible sequence, four different characters try explain a plot point four times to a disbelieving character which is just beyond comprehension why anyone writing a major summer movie would do that. I think they should have simplified things a little or just didn’t explain anything and let the audience just go with it. They would have been better off in the long run. However, fans of the series might be interested to know that there will be at least two more movies made; Paramount has already greenlit them because the rights to the franchise revoke back to James Cameron in 2019 so the studio intends to get as much return from their investment as possible. I hope that the audience does, too.

REASONS TO GO: Some fine summer entertainment and eye candy. Schwarzenegger is clearly having fun.
REASONS TO STAY: Convoluted plot. A little too much like previous entries in the franchise.
FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of sci-fi violence and gun fighting, some partial nudity and a few choice words here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jason Clarke is the fifth actor to play John Connor. Rusty Griswold of the Vacation series has also had five actors in the same role, the only characters known to have that many different actors playing them.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I, Robot
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Desire for Beauty