Life

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2017

Columbia Pictures/Skydance Media

Directed by Daniel Espinosa

Produced by David Ellison/Dana Goldberg/Bonnie/Julie Lynn

Written by Rhett Reese/Paul Wernick

See, it’s a good thing that I let a couple of hours pass by between my seeing a movie and writing a review. Because if I had written a review of LIFE right after coming out of the theater I would now be telling you that it’s the worst movie I’ve ever seen. Which isn’t fair to the movie and isn’t true. After all, I’ve seen “The Blue Lagoon” “Cursed” “Cabin Fever” “Altitude” and “Hostel.” All of which were far more excruciating movie watching experiences than LIFE. And it’s not even that LIFE is really all that bad of a movie. It’s worse in that it’s an unnecessary movie. I would have expected to see a movie like this on The SyFy Channel as it’s no more than an “Alien” knock-off. Sure it’s got big star names such as Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds. All of whom must have done this movie as a favor or for contractual obligations as there’s nothing they do in this movie that is particularly outstanding in terms of acting. And it’s got a nice budget for special effects which are pretty good.

But here’s the thing; the days when Science Fiction movies lived and died on their special effects are long gone. Because the technology has advanced to the point where there really is no such thing as a movie having crappy special effects anymore. Every Science Fiction movie we see now has eye-popping special effects that don’t even impress us anymore because we take it as a given that every movie has fantastic special effects. So to really get us into the movie it’s got to have either great characters or a terrific story or preferably, both. LIFE has neither. And at 103 minutes it doesn’t give itself time to have either. The hostile alien antagonist shows up almost at the beginning of the movie and barely 20 minutes in, a major cast member is killed off. And since that cast member provided most of the movie’s wit, charisma and humor up to that point, the rest of the movie is doomed to be flat, predictable and dull.

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The multinational crew of the International Space Station is overjoyed with recovering a probe from Mars that contains soil samples that contain proof of extraterrestrial life. The dormant organism responds to stimuli and soon not only returns to life but quickly grows into a creature that the crew’s exobiologist Hugh Derry (Aryion Bakare) describes as “all muscle, all brain.” The news is relayed to Earth and the news is received with such joy and hoohaw that there’s even a contest to name the thing among elementary schools in the U.S. The creature is christened ‘Calvin’ and there is much joy and celebration.

On Earth, that is. Not on the space station because Calvin breaks out of the lab and quickly establishes that it is hostile and deadly, killing one crew member and serious maiming another in less time than it took me to type this sentence. And from then on it’s a battle for survival. Calvin gets larger and more intelligent the more it kills and the crew soon comes to realize that no matter how this battle comes out, Calvin cannot get to Earth.

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Now I really wish there was more for me to tell you about the movie but that’s it. Really. There’s no characterization to speak of so we really don’t get a chance to know these people before they start getting brutally killed off one by one. There is a scene where the Japanese member of the crew (Hiroyuki Sanada) is shown watching his daughter being born on Earth and for the rest of his time in the movie he constantly repeats how he has to get back to Earth to see her. Okay, I’m not entirely heartless. I fully understand the need of any father to want to see and hold his newborn daughter. But in this case, this is just lazy shorthand characterization to try and make us care about the character without really getting to know him. Give me reasons why I should care about this particular father and his desire to get back to Earth.

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Rebecca Ferguson who was such a knockout in “Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation” tries her best to bring some real emotion to her underwritten role and I give both her and Jake Gyllenhaal props for doing the best they can with such thin material to work with. And once I found out that the writers of this movie were the same writers responsible for the stupendously boring “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” and the spectacularly unfunny “Deadpool” I knew exactly what the problem with the movie was.

My advice? Wait for LIFE to show up on Netflix or whatever is your favorite streaming service of choice if you really want to see it. It’s not worth burning the gas to go see it in the theater.

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103 Minutes

Rated R

Returned

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2015

Creative Genius Films/GVN Releasing/Novus Conten

Produced and Directed by Lamont Gant

Story by Lamont Gant/Victoria Marie/Marion McCaulsky

I’m going to get to the review of RETURNED in a couple of paragraphs, I promise. But I need to go back a bit before I can go forward. There’s a point I’m attempting to make so hang loose for a few ticks of time, okay?

In 1979, Paramount released “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” It cost them $46 million to make and while the movie more than made its money back the studio was not happy with the eventual return on their investment. They did greenlight a sequel: “The Wrath of Khan” which cost them only $11 million to make and the movie turned out to be such a monstrous hit with fans and critics it also made Paramount enough money to make Scrooge McDuck jealous. 35 years and 11 movies later it is still acknowledged as being the best “Star Trek” movie.

The point I’m trying to make? It’s that science fiction movies shouldn’t depend on their special effects. The special effects are there to support and enhance the story. Story is what happens to people and characters we care about and invest our time in. See, Paramount learned that lesson and in “Wrath of Khan” gave us that. The director, cast and crew of RETURNED don’t need to learn that lesson because they started out with it from Day One, I’m betting. I don’t usually spend so much time in a review going on about a movie’s budget but in the case of RETURNED I think it bears mentioning that on a ridiculously small budget, it is totally and wonderfully astonishing what has been accomplished. If and when you watch RETURNED I think you’ll be impressed by what a dedicated director, cast and crew can do when they’re working on a project they truly believe in. What was the budget for RETURNED you ask? I ain’t gonna tell you. Go look it up like I did as part of my research for this review. I ain’t gonna do all your work for you. You’re on the computer most of the day anyway, aint’cha?

Benjamin Lathan (Blue Kimble) thinks that life has played him a really dirty trick in that he’s a young man with his whole life to look forward to and he somehow ends up battling cancer. He makes an appointment for additional chemotherapy treatment in New York. He boards a plane in Jacksonville and the next thing he knows, he’s waking up in a hospital in Atlanta. FBI Special Agent Jourdan Smith (Theresa Sullivan) informs him that he was picked up floating in the Atlantic Ocean. The airplane he was on and the other 200 passengers on that plane have all disappeared without a trace. But wait. It gets worse. Because Ben got on that plane in 2002. It’s now 12 years later. But on the good side, not only has Ben not aged a day, his cancer has vanished completely.

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That’s a lot for our boy to take in especially when he sees TV reporter Anissa Rogers (Diane Kirby) and recalls she looks just like a woman who attempted to engage him in small talk just before the flight. Ben has no idea how but he knows she’s tied up in the mystery of the missing 12 years, the passengers and the plane. He sets out to find out how. All the while being closely followed by Agent Smith and her cantankerous fellow agent and professional badass Max Fisher (LeThomas Lee) as Agent Smith suspects there is something far stranger than she can imagine at work here. I’d be willing to bet that Agent Smith is an “X-Files” fan.

14715088_669202493256424_1371934667171107368_oRETURNED has a lot going for it in the extremely talented cast who totally commit to their roles and not for a minute are anything less than convincing. Blue Kimble goes through most of the movie playing a man unsure about everything in this new life he’s been thrown into but projects quite well that Benjamin Lathan has a core strength that will see him through. I liked how Benjamin is a proactive character who isn’t satisfied with letting other figure out what happened to him. He goes out and does something on his own.I’ve seen plenty of movies where actors/actresses play multiple roles and it’s rarely convincing. Not in the case of Diane Kirby. She plays three different characters in the movie and the first time I watched the movie I honestly thought it was two separate actresses playing two of those roles. Diane Kirby uses a different manner of speaking and different body language for each character she plays and it’s truly a remarkable piece of acting.

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But the MVP honors for this movie has to be shared by Theresa Sullivan and LeThomas Lee. If there’s a sequel to RETURNED (and there should be as there’s a lot of questions left unanswered) Agents Smith and Fisher should be the stars. Sullivan and Lee have a wonderful chemistry together than makes their scenes snap, crackle and pop. And visually they make a distinctive pair that adds to their appeal. In addition, Theresa Sullivan has a quality I don’t know if there’s a name for but there should be. I don’t know what it is that she does or gives her co-actors but when they’re in a scene with her, she makes them better. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her scenes with Lee. Especially in the scene where they have to give a report to their supervisor. Just the looks they gave each other had me laughing so hard I had to pause the movie for a minute to get myself together.

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But bitter waters must come with the sweet. In this case, it’s the director. He’s going for an arthouse sensibility that I don’t object to. I always appreciate when a director puts himself out there. I’d rather have a director who takes chances and makes choices that are at least interesting and gives me something to feel and/or think about rather than playing it safe all the time (I’m looking at you, Ron Howard) and Lamont Gant does put himself out there.

But at the same time he doesn’t have to remind us all the time that he’s directing. Especially in a scene where Benjamin is having a drink in a bar and he and the bartender (Sayyed Shabazz) get into a conversation about God, prayer and miracles. It’s a wonderfully simple and yet powerful scene. The bartender tells Benjamin a story and the brother is selling the scene for all he’s worth with just his eyes, his voice and his body. And it was working for me. But then Gant throws in some visual flourishes that I felt were unnecessary and actually pulled me back out of the scene when what I wanted to do was fall further into it. And Gant does that more than once during the movie. Hey, it’s okay to let the camera be still and just let the actors act. You don’t have to let us know all the time that the movie is being directed.

And speaking of the scene in the bar…I dunno if Lamont Gant is ever going to read this review but if you do, here’s a word of advice: put Freddi Green in all your movies. I’m just sayin’

So should you see RETURNED? I don’t think its The Second Coming of Black Science Fiction Film but then again, it’s not trying to be and that’s what I liked most about it. It tells a story as well as it can with strong actors giving solid performances and helmed by a director who obviously has a vision and that’s enough for me. The special effects people do what they can with their limited budget and some of the effects are far better than you would expect.

I’ve seen a lot of movies this year and to be honest with you guys, 2016 has been one of the worst as far as theatrical features go. Most of the best movies I’ve seen have been on Netflix and/or independent features such as RETURNED I’ve discovered through word of mouth. I liked RETURNED a lot and even more than that, respect and admire it for what it is. It gave me my money’s worth in terms of entertainment value and didn’t waste my time and that’s all I ask of any movie.

Here’s a link to the Creative Genius website for further information about the movie. You can also purchase the DVD at Best Buy or Wal-Mart. Enjoy.

 

 

Self/Less

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2015

Focus Features/Gramercy Pictures

Directed by Tarsem Singh

Produced by Ram Bergman/Peter Schlessel/James D. Stern

Written by David Pastor/Alex Pastor

Generally when I go to the movies I plan it out what I’m going to see the day before. My wife and I usually go on a Tuesday because it’s Bargain Day at our favorite film emporium and we get away with paying $7. We also make a shopping/errand day out of it, treating ourselves to a bit of fun after taking care of business. But this Tuesday we didn’t plan on seeing anything as there was nothing in the theater either of us particularly cared to see (and “Ant-Man” doesn’t come out until Friday, dammit) so we were just going to call it an early day and head on home.

That’s before a series of truly torrential thunderstorms began coming down. We were in Long Island, a good 30 miles or so from our house and I didn’t feel like driving all the way back to Brooklyn in a thunderstorm so Patricia and I said “what the hell” and elected to kill a couple of hours going to see SELF/LESS. Neither one of us had heard much good about it but we figured; “How bad could it be?”

I shoulda took my chances with the thunderstorm.

Billionaire real estate titan Damian Hayes (Ben Kingsley) is dying from cancer. He leaves behind immense wealth and a broken relationship with his only child, his daughter Claire (Michelle Dockery). As he approaches death the only thing he truly wants is more time to heal the wound between him and Claire. Salvation arrives in the form of the mysterious Professor Albright (Matthew Goode) who claims that through a process he calls “shedding” he can place Damien’s consciousness into a young, healthy body that he says he’s grown in his laboratory.

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Damien is skeptical. He didn’t get to be a billionaire by letting people make a fool out of him, after all. But after a trip to Albright’s lab and seeing the multiple bodies he’s grown, “vessels waiting to be filled” as Albright phrases it, he’s ready to sign on the dotted line. And pretty soon he wakes up in a fine, firm new body with a new name: Edward Mark Hale (Ryan Reynolds)

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Damien/Edward moves to New Orleans, makes a new friend, Anton (Derek Luke) and pretty soon he’s playing pickup games of basketball, jet skiing, clubbing, partying like a rock star and banging supermodels. Life is pretty sweet until the visions start. Visions of a wife and child. Of a house and a life that is not his. Could it be that he’s remembering the life of Edward Hale? Damien sets out to find if the visions have any truth behind them and in the process finds out that Professor Albright and his “shedding” process is far more frightening than he was led to believe.

Now, by the time I got to this part of the movie I was 75% convinced that I was watching an uncredited remake of “Seconds” the classic John Frankenheimer directed suspense thriller which stars Rock Hudson in what many (including me) think is the finest dramatic work he’s ever done on film. In “Seconds” a middle-aged business man fed up and unhappy with his life (John Randolph) gets a chance to live a new life in a new body thanks to a mysterious organization run by an equally mysterious Old Man played by Will Geer. Randolph wakes up in Rock Hudson’s body and I will say no more about “Seconds” other than if you have not seen it, then consider it your homework assignment for the weekend to do so.

So the first 20 minutes or so of SELF/LESS point in that direction and actually isn’t bad at all. It’s once Ryan Reynolds takes over that the movie winds down, replacing what started out as a story about dealing with mortality with a By The Numbers action plot. Once Damien starts remembering Hale’s life and gets himself involved with Hale’s wife (Natalie Martinez) and child (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) Albright marks them all for death and they have to take it on the lam.

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Y’know, even if director Tarsem Singh had indulged his extraordinary talent for eye-popping visuals, cinematography and costuming then we would at least have a movie worth looking at. Movies of his such as “The Fall” “The Cell” and “Immortals” are dazzling visual feasts if nothing else. I myself don’t understand the point of hiring a director who is renowned for his visual style and then have him not use that visual style to punch up such a plodding, dull story.

Or maybe Tarsem wanted to show he could direct a B-level actioner like everybody else without falling back on the visuals. Bad choice. I will say that there are a couple of hand-to-hand fight scenes and gun battles that he directs with snap, crackle and pop. But then again, there are half a dozen other action directors that could have done those scenes with just as much skill and energy.

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Ryan Reynolds gives it his all here and I appreciate that he does his job to the best of his ability. He’s not phoning in his performance here and while he can’t carry a whole movie on his back, it’s not for lack of trying. Bradley Cooper, Chris Evans or Chris Pratt would have stuck this movie in their back pocket and walked away with it but Ryan ain’t them. But the fault of the movie doesn’t fall on him or any the supporting cast. Tarsem and his writers David and Alex Pastor iceberged this particular Titanic

Bottom line is this: wait for it to show up on Netflix if you’re at all interested in seeing it. An intriguing premise with talented actors and a phenomenal director is completely wasted and thrown away for the sake of a few car crashes, explosions and fights. What a shame.

116 Minutes

Rated PG-13

Interstellar

interstellar-movie-poster   2014

Syncopy/Lynda Obst Productions/Legendary Pictures/Paramount Pictures/Warner Bros.

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Produced by Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan and Lynda Obst

Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan

You know how I’m always BMWing about how most Science Fiction Movies made in recent years really aren’t Science Fiction Movies? That they’re actually Action or Horror movies in disguise and that the Science Fiction elements are just there to provide an excuse for bigger guns and bigger explosions? Well, you won’t make that mistake with INTERSTELLAR. From start to finish this is a Science Fiction Movie that isn’t interested in trying to give movie goers a rollercoaster ride. And for those movie fans who constant mantra is “When I go see a movie I just want to turn off my brain” you need to maybe go see “Big Hero 6” then. INTERSTELLAR is a movie made to engage the intellect and make you think. If you turn off your brain when you see this movie then you’ve wasted your money. Now, that’s not to say it’s all that good either but nobody can say that Nolan and his crew didn’t go all out to try and give us a “2001: A Space Odyssey” for this generation.

Sometime in the near future the Earth has apparently become one big dust bowl. Corn seems to be the only thing that will grow (one nice visual gag has a family sitting down to eat a meal where the half dozen dishes are all made from corn) and soon Earth will be unable to feed humans at all. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former NASA pilot/engineer who is now a farmer. He hates farming but Earth needs farmers more than it needs pilots. That is until Cooper finds a secret NASA installation led by an old mentor of his, Professor Brand (Michael Caine) Brand tells Cooper that they’ve discovered a wormhole orbiting Saturn. NASA’s scientists believe that extra-dimensional aliens have deliberately placed the wormhole there for them to find new worlds that humanity can live on (then wouldn’t it make sense to have placed the wormhole closer?) and they need Cooper to pilot an experimental spacecraft through the wormhole. On the other side are potentially habitable planets that are being surveyed by members of The Lazarus Mission. It will be the duty of Cooper and his team to confirm the viability of those planets. interstellar-movie-still-013-1500x1000 This news doesn’t sit well with Cooper’s daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) as time will move differently for the explorers than it will on Earth. But Cooper has his duty and so he leaves Earth with his intrepid team. Professor Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), a respected scientist in her own right. Physicist Dr. Romilly (David Gyasi) geographer Doyle (Wes Bentley) and the multi-purpose artificially intelligent robots TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) and CASE (voiced by Josh Stewart) Their quest will take them to a strange new galaxy with worlds both weird and wonderful. But just as much as there is to marvel at, there is also death and despair. The quest to save humanity will not be an easy one and there must be sacrifices to insure that future.

INTERSTELLLAR is not going to be a movie for everybody. It doesn’t have fistfights every few minutes or spaceship chases/battles. The conflicts here are mostly cerebral and fought between intellect vs. emotion. That will cause some to perceive INTERSTELLAR as slow moving and I have to admit I was one of them. This also isn’t a movie that’s going to take the time to explain everything to you. You’ll just have to take a lot of the science on faith and that’s okay by me. As long as the characters sound like they know what they’re talking about, that’s good enough for me.

But INTERSTELLAR is not all about the hard science and grandeur of space. The heart of the story is the relationship between Cooper and Murphy and how it binds them despite the gulf of space and time separating them. And the acting of Matthew McConaughey and Mackenzie Foy convinced me of the depth of their relationship. Once Jessica Chastain takes over as an older Murphy there’s more intensity to the character but I think I preferred Mackenzie Foy’s characterization. Anne Hathaway and John Lithgow along with two actors that really surprised me when they popped up (Topher Grace and Casey Affleck) provide their usual solid work in supporting roles. interstellar-movie-still-007-1500x1000 What didn’t I like about the movie? Despite the fact that the Earth is dying, nobody seems to really be all that upset about it. Matter of fact, everybody seems to have accepted it really well. And we’re really not shown much of a disaster outside of a few dust storms. Despite all the family drama going on, the movie never engaged me on an emotional level. It’s a visual feast, especially if you see it in IMAX as I did but emotionally I just couldn’t get invested in the characters and the often dull dialog they had to work with. The third act just didn’t feel right to me as there were just too many things happening that seemed pulled out of a hat and for a movie that up until then had prided itself on its hard science it suddenly took a left turn into the kind of time travelling jiggery-pokery “Star Trek: Voyager” used to resolve it’s stories. But it’s ambitious and I always respect a filmmaker who goes out on a limb to do something different and give us a personal vision. It’s not my favorite Nolan movie (that honor goes to “Inception” which for me so far is his best movie) but it is worth seeing just on the basis of its spectacle and grandiose desire to be a movie with more of a purpose than just selling popcorn. interstellar-black_-hole_-interstellar-is-the-best-movie-of-2014 165 Minutes Rated PG-13

Looper

2012

Film District/TriStar Pictures

Written and Directed by Rian Johnson

Produced by Ram Bergman and James D. Stern

It wasn’t until I got back home and was able to look up information on LOOPER that I realized that the director of this movie also wrote and directed “Brick.” Now that really threw me for a loop (sorry, couldn’t resist) because I loved “Brick” and thought it highly original and couldn’t take my eyes off the screen while watching it. But in the case of LOOPER I kept thinking of other movies such as “The Terminator” and “The Fury”and looking at my watch wondering when it was going to be over with.

Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) works as a Looper in the year 2044. His job is a simple and extremely lucrative one. In the year 2074 time travel has been invented and then promptly outlawed. Organized crime bosses get hold of the technology and use it to send people they want killed back in time to 2044 where a Looper waits to dispose of them. The job comes with one hell of a retirement clause. When a Looper’s time is up in 2074 he’s sent back in time to be killed by his younger self in 2044.

This is the dilemma that faces Joe when his older self (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time. But Old Joe manages to escape being killed at the hands of his younger self. He explains to Young Joe that in 2074 there’s a criminal mastermind called The Rainmaker who is closing all Looper contracts. Old Joe sent himself back in time and intends to find The Rainmaker who in 2044 is a ten year old child. Old Joe intends to kill him, thereby changing the future and preventing the murder of Old Joe’s wife.  Young Joe really doesn’t care. He’s happy with his life the way it is and as long as Old Joe is still alive he’s on the run from his boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) who himself is from future and manages the Loopers. Abe has his elite crew of enforcers, The Gat Men who are hunting both Young and Old Joe.

Thanks to a piece of a map he manages to get from Old Joe, Joe has the location of one of Old Joe’s targets, a boy named Cid (Pierce Gagnon) who lives on a farm with his mother Sara (Emily Blunt.) Sara isn’t inclined to let Joe stay at all but he’s able to persuade her that they need his protection. Turns out that they may all need protection from Cid who possesses incredibly powerful telekinetic powers that enable him to strip flesh from bone with just a thought.  Will Cid’s power tip the scales in Joe’s favor when it comes time for the showdown between Old Joe and Young Joe? And can Cid’s power protect him from Old Joe who is convinced he will grow up to become The Rainmaker?

LOOPER has gotten wonderful reviews and I can’t help but think that maybe it’s me that’s got it wrong as plenty of reviewers see something in the movie that simply escapes me. The movie takes itself far too seriously for my taste. It sets up a wonderful situation but takes it into a dour and dark direction that I really didn’t like. I was looking forward to a lot more between Old and Young Joe and didn’t get it. Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt have a surprisingly short amount of screen time together.

And maybe it’s just me but it seemed to me that certainly there must be more efficient ways of killing people and disposing of their bodies than sending them back in time. I also didn’t like how the movie abruptly changes gears halfway through and almost becomes a brand new movie with all new characters by the time we get to the farmhouse. Then we have to be dragged back to the movie that we started watching forty-five minutes ago so that everything can be rushed to the conclusion. It’s not even exhilarating to see Bruce Willis mowing down hoards of Gat Men with a pair of machine guns as you would think it would be. And that’s because I got the impression that somebody just up and thought there should be a scene of Bruce Willis with machine guns in each hand because it’s expected. And don’t get me started on the ‘romance’ between Joe and Sara which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

As does the whole subplot of Cid having telekinetic abilities. Early on in the movie we’re told that due to some random mutation, 10% of the population has telekinetic powers. Most people can barely lift a quarter or a Zippo lighter but Cid can destroy whole houses if he gets pissed off enough.

Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt I’m willing to give a pass on this one because I’ve enjoyed their work so much in past movies. But I’m still disappointed in both of their performances. The wonderfully named Piper Perabo is wasted in her miniscule role as Young Joe’s showgirl girlfriend. Pierce Gagnan is actually quite good as Cid and he’s got a really nice scene with Gordon-Levitt where he explains his family background while tinkering with electronic gizmos he’s built himself. What little humor there is in the movie comes from Jeff Daniels. He kept me chuckling with his sly hints to people on a course of action that they should take and when they question him on why they should do that, he sighs wearily and says, “I’m from the future, remember?”

So should you see LOOPER? I’m going to give it a grudging recommendation. It could just be that I was looking for a different type of movie and didn’t get it which accounts for my disappointment. I will say that this isn’t simply an action movie in sci-fi drag so if you are in the mood for a serious piece of science fiction in your current movie diet then LOOPER may be just your main course.

118 minutes

Rated R

Sunshine

2007

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Directed by Danny Boyle

Produced by Andrew MacDonald

Written by Alex Garland

My wife Patricia got turned onto Danny Boyle when she insisted on seeing “28 Days Later” when we were on vacation in Florida.  She loved the movie, mainly because she’s a big fan of Doomsday Movies anyway.  Give her a movie where the world is going to hell and she’s sitting in the theater with a big ol’ grin on her face.   Sometimes I worry about her.  But I digress.  She would give me no peace until we saw “28 Weeks Later” which she also loved but I think she may have cooled on Danny Boyle with SUNSHINE.  Not that it’s a bad movie.  Not at all.  It’s extremely well made, the acting is solid and the special effects are state of the art.  But SUNSHINE starts out as one thing then turns into another and along the way there are so many references and homages to other science fiction movies that I’m afraid I spent more time thinking about all the other movies SUNSHINE reminded me of rather than concentrating on the actual movie itself.

It’s the year 2057 and The Earth has entered a new Ice Age (a pox on you global warming fanatics, say I!) and the nations of the world have pooled their remaining resources to build The Icarus II, a giant spaceship carrying a thermonuclear bomb the size of Manhattan.  The idea is to drop it in the sun and re-ignite the sucker.  Earth has already sent one spaceship:  The Icarus I on the same mission seven years previously but they never accomplished it as all contact was lost.  If Icarus II doesn’t succeed Earth has no more resources for an Icarus III so this crew had better get it right.

There are only eight crew members: Capa (Cillian Murphy) who designed the bombs.  Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada)  Navigator Trey (Benedict Wong) Pilot Cassie (Rose Byrne).  The psychiatrist Searle (Cliff Curtis) Communications/First Officer Harvey (Troy Garrity) Engineer Mace (Chris Evans) and the botanist Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) who tends the ship’s hydroponics oxygen garden that helps recycle the air.  They’ve formed a strong bond in the time they’ve been together due to the urgency of their mission.  A mission that after 18 months is reaching its end.  But everything is changed by their receiving a distress signal from Icarus I which has been locked in orbit around Mercury all these years.  The decision is made to rendezvous with Icarus I in order to secure their bomb and therefore drop ‘em both into the sun.  The idea being that two huge honkin’ bombs will be better than just one.

Now obviously none of these crew members have ever seen “Alien” or they would have known what happens when you deviate from your mission profile.  Things go horribly wrong.  And so they do for the crew of the Icarus II.  It’s just one damn thing after another as the crew makes mistakes that result in them losing much of their precious oxygen.  So much in fact that it’s doubtful that even if they complete their mission they’ll be able to get back to Earth.  They get aboard the Icarus I and find that the crew, following ‘God’s will’ destroyed their computer, disabled the bomb and committed mass suicide.  The navigator makes a crucial error that results in the death of a crew member and he goes suicidal.  In fact, for every mistake the crew makes, somebody dies.  Valiantly they go on with their mission but their chances of completing it get even smaller as it soon becomes apparent that something from Icarus I has come onboard the Icarus II and this something is more than willing to help the already frightened crew of the Icarus II die.

The first half of SUNSHINE reminded me of a couple of other science fiction movies: “2001: A Space Odyssey”  “2010” “Solaris” and most notably “Silent Running”.  There’s also heavy “Alien” influences, including a scene with the Icarus II crew sharing a meal together that is so much like a similar scene from “Alien” that I’m convinced they’re using the same utensils from that earlier film.  And I was even more reminded of “Alien” in the second half of the movie where the crew has to fight for their lives against a hideously bloodthirsty entity that is bent on killing them off.   But it’s that second half that threw me off as I was really enjoying the first half of the movie.

Let me explain: back when I was growing up, the term ‘Science Fiction Movie’ meant something quite different from what it means now.  Somewhere around the time “Predator” hit the screens, science fiction movies mutated into action thrillers with science fiction elements tossed in for flavor.   But before then, science fiction movies were a totally different animal.  And I think that with SUNSHINE Danny Boyle and his writer Alex Garland (who I understand is a legitimate science fiction writer) were trying to do an honest-to-Arthur C. Clarke-science fiction epic with solid characterizations.  But I don’t think they had they conviction to go all the way through with it as they turn the last half of the movie into a bloody carnage of mayhem and murder when in the first half they’d set it up so well that the crew’s problems were caused by their own human failings.

I’m never going to warm up to Cillian Murphy, I guess.  I liked him well enough in “28 Days Later” and “Batman Begins” but I’m not about to break my hump rushing out to see a movie just because he’s in it.  I was much happier to see Michelle Yeoh here.  Having been a fan of hers since I saw her co-starring with Jackie Chan in “Supercop” I was pleased to see her in a role where she had a chance to do some acting and not just kick ass every ten minutes.  Chris Evans is probably my favorite actor in this movie as he’s the obligatory Only Guy Who Makes Sense.  You know what I’m talking about.  In a movie of this sort there’s always one guy who knows what he’s talking about and always tells the others: “Well, if we do this, we’re going to screw up.” They don’t listen to him. They screw up.  Then they come to him to pull their collective asses out of the pit of alligators they’ve fallen into.  Which he does so only so he can say; “I told you so”  It also tickled me to death that the guy who plays The Human Torch in the “Fantastic Four” movies is on a mission to reignite The Sun.

So should you see SUNSHINE?  I would say yes if for no other reason than it’s an interesting throwback of a film to a time when science fiction movies were more about ideas, concepts and characterizations than eye-popping action sequences.  I liked how the scientist characters in this movie acted like scientists and not action heroes.  I’m not sure if the ending worked for me but then again, I’m not sure I understood the ending.  It’s got all the right elements that a good science fiction movie should have.  I just wish it hadn’t changed gears so abruptly halfway through the movie and had the courage to continue on with its theme of human fallibility in the face of cosmic finality rather than turning into a big-budget remake of “It Came From Outer Space” in the clutch.

Rated: R

108 minutes

Real Steel

2011

Touchstone Pictures

 Directed by Shawn Levy

Produced by Susan Montford and Don Murphy

Screenplay by John Gatins

Story by Dan Gilroy

Based on “Steel” by Richard Matheson

Ever since I first saw the trailers for this movie I have refused to call it by its actual name of REAL STEEL.  Far as I was concerned this was “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots: The Movie” and now that I’ve actually seen it, I think it deserves that title even more.  Because that’s just what it is; robots rockin’ and sockin’.  Wrapped around the epic ‘bot battles is a heartwarming story of a father and son reconnecting and without the story, the movie wouldn’t nowhere be near as much fun as it is.

It’s twenty minutes into the future and human boxing has been replaced by robot boxing.  Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) stays in the game thanks to the underground illegal robot boxing arenas.  He buys robots on the black market.  Robots who usually lose.  On the run from men who owes a lot of money to, Charlie is informed that his ex-girlfriend has died, leaving behind her 11 year old son, Max (Dakota Goyo).  Charlie has absolutely no interest in being a father so he makes a deal with Uncle Marvin (James Rebhorn).  Marvin wants to go away to Italy with Aunt Debra (Hope Davis) for a final fling as a couple before settling down to raise Max.  For $100,000 Charlie agrees to sign away all legal claim to Max and take care of the boy for three months.  Neither Charlie or Max is happy about the arraignment and caught in the middle of their mutual antagonism is Charlie’s long suffering girlfriend Bailey (Evangeline Lilly).  She’s had with fixing the busted up robots Charlie keeps bringing home.  And the final straw is when Charlie badly mishandles the controls of a Japanese fighting robot named Noisy Boy.  Noisy Boy gets trashed in a fight, leaving them all broke as Charlie spent his $50,000 advance buying the robot.

But things change when Charlie and Max find an entire working robot in a junkyard while foraging for replacement parts to repair Noisy Boy.  The found robot, named Atom is a sparring robot.  He can take a lot of punishment but he can’t dish it out.  Taking parts for Noisy Boy and another robot, Charlie and Max upgrade Atom and take him on the road where Atom proceeds to take the robot boxing world by surprise when he wins match after match.  In the process attracting the attention of genius robot designer Mashido (Karl Yune) and Farra Lemcova, the brains and money behind Zeus, undisputed champion of The World Robot Boxing League.  Atom is becoming too popular too fast and so a unique challenge is proposed.  One that may destroy the bond that has been forged between not only between father and son but between boy and robot as well.

Don’t let that last line throw you.  You don’t have to have seen a lot of boxing movies to tell how REAL STEEL is going to end up.  Or think this is going to be a heavy emotional trip.  Every single beat REAL STEEL hits goes all the way back to 1931’s “The Champ”.  That’s not to say that REAL STEEL doesn’t have fun with boxing movies tropes.

I especially enjoyed the choreography of the robot fighters as well as their distinctive visuals.  In the “Transformers” movies it’s impossible for me to tell the robots apart or understand what’s going on in the fight scenes.  Not so in REAL STEEL.  The great Sugar Ray Leonard was the boxing consultant for the movie and it shows.  Even though these are CGI/animatronic seven foot tall, thousand pound robots, they move with the fluid grace and realism of human boxers.  It’s exhilarating to watch.

So should you see REAL STEEL?  Absolutely.  It’s a fun movie and Hugh Jackman is always good in whatever movie he’s in (yes, even “Australia”) while Evangeline Lilly surprised me.  I only know her from “Lost” but judging from this movie, she’s got a nice career ahead of her.  Dakota Goyo plays one of those hyper-intelligent movie kids that usually gets on my nerves.  You know the type; they’re not really kids at all but small adults.  However, in this movie it kinda works as Max is a kid who has been forced by circumstances to grow up before his time while Charlie has simply grown older.  Not necessarily ‘up’.  There are a couple of amusing scenes where Charlie and Max appear to have switched roles as child and adult.

I usually don’t hope for sequels but I am hoping for a REAL STEEL sequel.  And maybe they’ll go ahead and call it REAL STEEL II: ROCK ‘EM SOCK ‘EM ROBOTS.  That would be nice.

127 minutes

PG-13