The Shape of Water

February 15, 2018 by  
Filed under Movies

Guillermo del Toro always has a way of blending fantasy with reality, and did it to perfection with “Pan’s Labyrinth”. Since then he’s been hit or miss; but here, he takes a familiar story and tells it predictably–yet, it is still an amicable and poignant film.

A mute, lonely woman, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), works at a top secret government lab, as a custodian. Her only “friends” are her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and Giles, her next-door neighbor at an apartment above a movie theater. Giles, also lonely, paints advertisements for a living (or, attempted living), and has many cats. Zelda has a husband; but, as it’s revealed through monologues shared with Elisa, Zelda is just as lonely as they are. The three of their lives are affected when a security command brings in a mysterious sea creature, headed by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Strickland is your typical villain–he’s haughty, mistreating, and patronizing. He’s also quite racist and sexist. But that’s understandable, given the time period–it’s the early 1960’s.

The creature (played by Doug Jones) is a fascination for Elisa, who comes to befriend it as well. It, always referred to as “The Asset”, is presumably male. Elisa begins speaking with him, feeding him eggs, and teaching him basic sign language. She is not caught doing this, except by another mysterious scientist there, named Robert “Bob” Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is also curious about studying the creature’s habits. There is a hitch, though, since the creature was only captured to be vivisected. Bob and Elisa certainly don’t want this to happen, so Elisa decides to “steal” the creature away to her home.

Giles, who desperately wants a relationship with someone (he is gay, and of course that is shunned in society at that time), wants the best for Elisa and wants her to be happy. Things get a little complicated when she brings the creature back, and he tussles with Giles’ kitties. For those who are cat-lovers, you may be disturbed by what unfolds there.

Speaking of which, there are some bold liberties del Toro takes with such a formulaic story. The subplot with Bob being involved with the Russians is the most plausible and very intriguing, even though it’s still predictable. But there are moments, such as the cat scene, that can just take someone out of the picture emotionally. We want to be attached to these characters, and feel them. There are some moments that are either too gruesome, or too racy, or just too over-the-top, to be easily digested. And this story seemingly should be easy digested. I realize del Toro likes to take risks, that’s one of the things I admire most about him as a filmmaker. But sometimes, going too far doesn’t yield the desired effect of breaking new ground. It just comes off as exploitation. In an exploitative film, it works fine. Like Eli Roth’s “The Green Inferno”. We expect to see blood and gore, and we do see more than the average blood & gore film. And we see more than what human eyes should be exposed to. But it’s set up that way. So when we see it, maybe it’s shocking. But it’s not surprising.

“The Shape of Water” has some great performances. Octavia Spencer just nails the (perhaps typecast) role of the sympathetic friend. She’s always a joy to watch. Michael Shannon is great as the stereotypical bad guy, with a nice little touch of having a sweet tooth (to cheap candy, which I think is an important aside). Also, an affinity for “the new car”, driving around to show off. Early in the film, his fingers are bit off by the creature. Elisa finds them, and doctors re-attach. The results get more amusing as the film goes on, and serves as a nice metaphor for his state of mind, and sanity. And, possibly, how two rotten fingers spoil the whole batch.

I actually was not a huge fan of Hawkins’ performance, however. I felt it a bit self-indulgent and her character wasn’t that well fleshed out. We know she’s lonely and wants to love–but there’s nothing in her approach that seems forlorn or yearning. She seems almost content throughout. Certainly we feel her pain when the creature is in danger or threatened; but that’s just the natural reaction to seeing someone or something hurt. Richard Jenkins as her neighbor Giles is pleasant as well, and him being homosexual in a time of homophobia gives us a sense of sympathy for him. In his case, he’s as excluded as the sea creature. Of course, Jones does his best with the creature character. But, there is not much he can do outside of giving us the basic performance. He also sort of falls flat, with no third dimension. Maybe that’s not as important, but I would’ve liked to see some character development with The Asset as well. Stuhlbarg gives a strong performance as Bob, who certainly cares for the creature, and for Elisa’s ability to take care of him. He’s a bit weird, but likable.

Overall, the film does work with its firm and simple premise. But, I would’ve liked to see some originality when it came to the characters. The actors can bring them out of stock, but the script doesn’t give a whole lot of diversity to work with. There are plenty of nice moments, a few strange ones; and, like I mentioned earlier, some that might take you out of the drama and emotion. That can cost points. But if the shape of water is supposed to be a heart, it’s at least a pretty picture of one.

My rating: :-)

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

December 23, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

“Star Wars” has become less a film franchise and more a cultural phenomenon in the past decade, and a new film–the first not to be helmed by George Lucas–seems almost moot when it comes to critiquing its merits as a film. We know what to expect at this point. Episodes IV, V, and VI all told the story of the Rebellion versus the Galactic Empire. Small fry versus big guy. David vs. Goliath. It was a story we all could relate to; we all wanted to be like Han Solo, but were probably more like Luke. The Force, the Jedi, the Dark Side, were all defining storytelling elements that made that trilogy a classic. Next, Lucas wanted to go back and tell the story of Luke’s father Anakin with episodes I, II, and III. He attempted to tell a backstory that really fell flat, and didn’t create very engaging characters. He certainly managed to create some really annoying ones, though. Through the years, the vitriol for the prequels has abated, and now–for better or worse–they are a part of the “Star Wars” film canon. There’s even a DVD release that puts them in order so you can watch I-VI, as George Lucas, er, intended (if you really want to believe that).

Episode VII resembles the first trilogy (that is, the middle episodes). It begins with action and ends with action, and in between we have a very predictable story arc that is plucked right out of “A New Hope”. We are introduced to a few new characters: a disgruntled Stormtrooper (cloning went out of style) named FN-2187 (well played by John Boyega) opts out of the program and joins a new rebellion called the Resistance to overcome the First Order, which are the remnants of the old Galactic Empire. FN is paired with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, in an appealing role) who nicknames him “Finn”. The big driving story is that Luke, the last of the Jedi, has gone missing and both the Resistance and the First Order are trying to find him. The Resistance obviously wants him to help their cause; the First Order wants to vanquish him. The map to Luke’s whereabouts is given to a cute little droid named BB-8, and that map becomes an obvious MacGuffin very quickly. Meanwhile, a girl, Rey (Daisy Ridley), comes into contact with the droid, and also Finn after his ship crashes on the planet she’s on, presumably killing Poe. Finn, Rey, and BB-8 stumble upon the Millennium Falcon, and we are soon reacquainted with two familiar and very welcomed faces: Han Solo (Harrison Ford, always a pleasure), and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). Solo is back to being a smuggler, but he has left a little legacy behind: Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who just happens to be a part of this First Order, taking orders from a mysterious leader, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) that looks a little bit like a middle earth reject from “Lord of the Rings”. It’s fitting Serkis would play him. Ren has the Force, because his mother happens to be Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), a General with the new Resistance. Ren obviously is torn by two worlds, in a way that Darth Vader was. Ren also wears a mask and has his voice modulated–but here it’s by choice, rather than because of being disfigured and dismembered. Ren is younger, and more unsure of who he really wants to be. It’s a good choice for a character arc, as we know Ren will most likely be the focal villain who we want to like a whole lot more than we wanted to like Darth Vader. But Kylo Ren is capable of some pretty horrible things as well, including dispatching a very well liked character. I still think it was a mistake to be rid of this particular character. But J.J. Abrams, the director, must have wanted to shake things up early.

He does a very good job of balancing the action with the character narrative, and the film’s pace is snappy. Like the original trilogy, the film never feels as long as it actually is. There’s even some good humor peppered in, something that was severely lacking in the prequels, and something that really added to the entertainment value of the film.

And as a film, it does work quite well. As a sci-fi yarn you do have to suspend disbelief at times. But there’s never a point where I felt “out” of this movie. I was sold, from the first moments of the opening crawl, and the film never let me go as an invested viewer. Of course, it ends on a cliffhanger, and so it’s hard to judge how this will all work out in the end.

But it certainly is a very strong start to hopefully a redeeming trilogy, one that can stand the test of time that the original has. It has a lot of pressure riding on it, but I think Abrams & Co. are up to the task.

My rating: :-)

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie

August 18, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

In the fall of 2006, I started mining YouTube after hearing so much about it being this outlet for people to make videos of themselves and whatnot. At first I thought it’d be just a passing fad, something that would be like an internet version of America’s Funniest Home Videos (which in some ways, it still is), but have no staying power. Obviously, I was completely wrong. It grew, and grew, and by the time I got into it, there were already internet celebrities.

The one that immediately caught my interest was a guy who went by the name The Angry Nintendo Nerd. The first video I watched was “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”, his rant on the NES version of the game. Immediately, I felt like I was 8 years old again, remembering all the frustrating things about it. I remember all the insane little jumps and the electric seaweed in the underwater stage. As nostalgic and classic as the game was, it certainly caused many headaches. And I liked this refreshing look at these old games–sure, AVN was angry. But you could tell he had a love for these games as well–or at least gaming in general. I subscribed immediately, and through the years I grew beyond just the Angry Nintendo Nerd stuff (renamed Angry Video Game nerd as he got bigger and tapped into bigger markets–plus there’s that pesky trademark issue). I watched “Monster Madness” on his Cinemassacre site, and followed some of his short films like “Rocky Jumps a Park Bench”, and even watched some of his old films he made as an adolescent. His fame grew wider, and I had a feeling he was going to do something more with the Nerd. Of course…the obvious thing was…make a movie.

In 2011, I saw that there was a posting about auditioning throughout the country. Being based in Chicago, I immediately responded saying I was interested. I went to the audition, got to meet The Nostalgia Critic (Doug Walker) and have my picture taken with him, and I wound up on an audition video that was compiled sometime after. Not to brag (because I thought my audition was terrible), but The Critic gave me a thumbs up and said he liked it. Sure, he was probably just being nice. But so what!

Anyhow, I didn’t know what to think of the movie once I started seeing the trailers and such. I knew he was putting a lot of effort into it, as his quality of his other efforts dipped a bit (time constraints will do that); but I wasn’t really into the plot I guess. And I didn’t know if he could sustain this character for a whole two hour movie. I still remember being disappointed with feature-length adaptations of short themed sketch-like endeavors such as “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie”. So once the film was finally completed, and release dates were published, I knew I had to go see it. I just didn’t know that I was excited to.

I decided not to follow his progress, or read any blogs relating to the movie. I didn’t watch any updated trailers. I wanted to go in fresh. So, August 14th, a second showing opened for Chicago, and I went.

Before I start the review, I will admit that I am a total fan of James Rolfe and the AVGN brand. I feel like I’ve followed his career through the thick and thin (there were some lean years) and I have always admired his acumen in both film and gaming. That said, I am not reviewing this film as a fan. I feel like I can’t do that. I have to do service to the film itself and knowing how hard Rolfe worked on this, how many sacrifices he probably made and how wonderful of a wife he must have to go through this with him (and now having a child on top of all that), I will fairly critique the film.

The film opens with an homage to AVGN as a celebrity, and his fans. It references some of his trademark reviews an signature riffs and rants, and splices shots of fans saying how much they are a fan of his. These are genuine videos made by the fans, presumably by those who donated to the film as well.

I’m mentioning this because, even though I am a fan, and I love the Nerd and his rants…this has to be the most useless way to start his film. I realize that Rolfe has a soft heart, and loves his fans dearly (I can’t say enough how much I appreciate his devotion to his fans)–but this wastes some time and it starts the film off wrong, and slow. And no, I didn’t make a fan video and am just disappointed he didn’t use mine. But if you are a fan of his, you already know how funny and awesome he is. If you aren’t, do you really need to sit through 5-10 minutes of people adulating him? I think that’s a bit self aggrandizing, even if Rolfe doesn’t mean to make it that way.

It does serve a narrative purpose, slightly (not enough to justify it completely though). We learn that the Nerd (Rolfe) will do anything for his fans–except review The Worst Game Of All Time–“E.T.” for the Atari 2600. The Nerd, who works at GameCops (ha…) is egged on by a fan of his, and friend, Cooper (Jeremy Suarez), who also does game reviews as well. You could call Cooper a protege. The Nerd is shocked to see that a gaming company, Cockburn Gaming, is launching a sequel called “EeeTee Too” (they also refer to the original as EeeTee). A representative of the company, Mandi (Sarah Glendening), tries to entice the Nerd to review the game. But he is fearful that if he reviews that game, it’ll only stir up more interest in the original, which traumatized his childhood so much (in a very amusing scene) he can’t bring himself to relive it.

There’s also a myth he wants to debunk that there are countless copies of the original buried in the Alamogordo dump in New Mexico, which apparently is very close to Roswell. An irate and insane general, General Dark Onward (hilariously played by Stephen Mendel), goes after the Nerd thinking that he is after the UFO remains at Area 51, not the landfill dump.

Another subplot involves a scientist named Dr. Zandor (Time Winters) who is partly behind the “EeeTee” conspiracy, and his plot was to uncover the UFO conspiracy to help the alien that crash landed here in the 40’s. The alien, voiced by Robbie Rist, is one of the most entertaining characters in the film. Rist, if you’re not familiar, is the voice of Michelangelo in the first “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” film.

One more subplot that adds to the last third of the film involves a theory of a mechagod that will destroy the universe and ultraverse and everything in between…existence as we know it will no longer…exist.

All of this actually winds up working well. The film is part buddy movie, part caper, part monster movie, and part sci-fi yarn. It all comes together nicely, and I credit that to the writing team of James Rolfe and Kevin Finn. They also do a nice job of throwing out references to other films (“They found me. I don’t know how, but they found me.”) and paying homage to old 1950’s B movies.

The special effects are purposely simple; and, in some cases, downright ridiculous. But even though it’s self-aware, there is never once a wink at the camera. Nobody cries out, “It’s a miniature!” or “That’s a spaceship?” While the Nerd references his own trailer (“I only said that for the trailer!”) there isn’t much more of that self-referential humor bogging the film down.

Really, the only two problems I had with the film were the first fifteen minutes; and I thought the character of Cooper should’ve been more well developed. While I get that the in-joke is that he’s a sidekick and they’re mostly useless, he could’ve been stronger as an adversary–or, someone who is the complete opposite of the Nerd. It just creates more possibility of tension, and in some ways Rolfe takes the easy way out of any character conflicts.

There’s another character named McButter (Helena Barrett) who is amusing as well, and gets involved in a predictable catfight later in the film. Most of the cast, actually, is quite charming. And the film does have some really big laughs.

I’d say that I enjoyed the final third of the film the best. And that would be when it becomes a monster movie. Knowing that Rolfe had trademark limits, I liked his clever little ways around any copywritten material or names (Vegas casinos, for example). Again, this film knows it’s low budget. But it’s not trying to be low budget, if that makes sense. While I know Rolfe prefers practical effects to CG, he also knows its constrictions when you don’t have millions of dollars to spend on them.

The film works overall because you can tell how much fun they’re all having with the material, without it being too self indulgent. It walks that line throughout, especially in the beginning; but it never crosses into anything too groan-inducing.

There are some fun cameos in the film, too, which I won’t give away. But a certain bad bird movie heroine has a sighting. OK maybe that was a giveaway. But I didn’t give away the biggest ones.

And stick around at the end, and you will finally see AVGN’s review of “E.T.”

My rating: :-)


October 14, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

This really happened. Keep that in mind when you watch some of the things this film depicts. A trashy sci-fi film, fake at that, saved the lives of 6 people. Now, some of the facts are a bit worked (the script and source material picked wasn’t originally called “Argo”), and I’m sure some of the climactic scenes are dramatized for effect–but director Ben Affleck does a masterful job of putting it all together in a very fun, very engaging, and very absorbing drama.

The story revolves around what is known as the “Canadian Caper”–after the Ayatollah takes power in Iran during the Iran Revolution, the US embassy is stormed and is taken hostage. Six of the members of the US embassy, however, escaped, and took refuge at the house of an ambassador from Canada. The six that have left aren’t accounted for at first; but the Iranians soon notice that there is a discrepancy in numbers. So they will hunt down the six missing and kill them if found. These are the stakes for the US government, and the CIA is brought in. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, in possibly his most low key role) is the one who comes up with the idea of faking a movie production and claiming the 6 are actually Canadian, on location in Iran scouting for filming a science fiction lark that’s basically a rip off of “Star Wars”. He gets this idea one night while talking to his son watching “Battle for the Planet of the Apes”.

The CIA is hesitant, to say the least, at first. They want to make up a story that the missing six are Canadian, but they are teachers or agricultural industrialists. Mendez points out it’s in the dead of winter in Iran (snow is on the ground), and the only North American school that was in Iran had been closed for almost a year already. Mendez’ plan is “the best bad idea” they have, and so they reluctantly approve it. Fortunately for the CIA, they have a guy in Hollywood that they’ve used before in the past, a make-up artist named John Chambers (gleefully played by the always reliable John Goodman) who happily agrees to help but isn’t quite sure at first how to put it in motion. He enlists the help of a film guru, Lester Siegel (brilliantly played with gusto by Alan Arkin), to bring the project together. They need to make it as “real” as a fake movie as they can–photo ops, a poster, storyboards, a script, and media hype. Somehow they manage to do it (albeit a little too easily as far as the portrayal in the film) and Mendez is assigned to go to Iran, disguised as an associate producer, to meet with the six that are now “part of the film crew”, and get them safely on a plane back to America.

When Mendez gets there, the six escapees are less than impressed with the idea and their covers, and don’t initially trust Mendez (who goes by a cover name). Mendez promises them he’s gotten people home before but admits never in this way. He gives them their cover identities, one being the director, another being a screenwriter, another being a cameraman, etc. They have a day to memorize their covers and know all there is to know about their identities as Canadians, and then they have to go into Tehran to “scout” the location.

It’s a bit less than successful on the scouting, as they’re attacked by some local Iranians who don’t like the look of them; and the housekeeper where they are staying starts to suspect who these six people really are. Tensions begin to mount as the Iranian hostage crisis continues into 1980, and the militants know that six people are missing, and are finding ways to locate their identities.

Meanwhile, Mendez is told by his friend Jack O’Donnell (an Oscar caliber performance by Bryan Cranston), that the CIA has pulled the plug on the “Argo” cover. They’re going to send military to the airport and get them home that way. Mendez doesn’t go for that, and against orders, continues with his plan.

The sequence of getting these six to the airport and the attempt at getting them safely on the plane is exciting, nailbiting, and dripping with suspense. Even though you’re pretty sure you know how this all is going to work out, there are so many close calls (again, most likely dramatized for effect), that you’ll be gripping your seat white knuckled the entire time. This is where Affleck really shows off his chops as a competent and even great film director.

For the most part, Affleck takes a back seat, not a big shot, not overdoing anything, but letting the characters breathe. These six people are the most important in the film, and he lets them be that. His character is the protagonist, but he doesn’t have any big melodramatic uproars or “speeches” that make everyone know that Affleck is at the helm of this whole project. He lets the film speak for itself, and that’s the mark of a true filmmaker.

There are a few little scenes of social commentary about the situation in Iran as well. For a brief moment the camera captures a few Iranians eating at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in downtown Tehran. The camera doesn’t linger, no character makes a mention of it, but Affleck seems to be clearly saying this: they eat our franchised fast food, they entertain the idea of filmmaking in their country, and yet they hate us and want us all dead. Hypocrisy maybe?

Again, he doesn’t push this on us. Only brief glimpses into Iranian lifestyles, and some of the Middle Eastern customs and cultures, and coverage of the demands of the Iranians during the hostage crisis are given. This isn’t a preachy film by any means. But I certainly think there is a message that says “not much has changed” since the crisis ended in 1980. You look at some of the footage, and it is exactly what we still see on the nightly news that goes on over there, especially concerning us, and especially with the recent embassy attack we had only a month ago.

But it’s not all serious, either. The script provides a lot of laugh out loud moments, well delivered by this excellent cast. There are great moments of comic relief just before the suspense can be overbearing.

This is a special film–it gives a deserved nod to the Canadians, to the determination of Mendez, and even the pat on the back from former President Carter who gave the go ahead to keep the mission alive and possible for the six escapees to return safely. This is a quiet film about heroism, but its heroes aren’t big and bulky with witty one-liners and bombastic hi-jinx. Unlike its fake movie counterpart, “Argo” is simply a classy story that says heroes can be soft spoken, but they never give up. And because of that, there’s always hope for a happy ending.

My rating: :D


October 7, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

Typically I get a very uncomfortable feeling whenever I see “time travel” being advertised in a sci-fi film. Time travel is one of the great deus ex machinas that just permeate the sci-fi genre and has had mixed results. Sometimes you get a good yarn like “Back to the Future” or a silly but smart little ditty like “FAQ About Time Travel”; sometimes you get a pretentious laborious bore like “Primer”. In “Looper”, Rian Johnson tries his best to not focus on time travel as much as characters. Much like what he did in his brilliant film “Brick”, Johnson balances character study with high concept plot devices.

It works enough in “Looper” overall, although I must admit the first act of this film is very dizzying and in some ways, downright sloppy. The film revolves around a story about time traveling being outlawed in the year 2074 but there is a crime syndicate that utilizes what are known as “loopers” to assassinate any target of the crime bosses (sent back to the past) and have cases of silver strapped to their backs. Our hero, Joe (played marvelously by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is one of these loopers. In rare instances, you are going to come face to face with your old self and will have to kill yourself, ultimately. This is known as “closing a loop”. A futuristic megalomaniac known as the Rainmaker is trying to close all loops; so Joe’s older self (Bruce Willis) tries to warn Younger Joe and tell him he can change their paths if he can kill the Rainmaker when he’s still a boy. It leads Younger Joe to a farm in which a woman named Sara (Emily Blunt) is protecting her son (Pierce Gagnon, in a role that should receive Oscar attention if there’s any justice in the world). The three of them actually form a unique bond, and this is where the strength of the film lies.

But it takes a very, very long time to get to this farm, and that is the biggest weakness in the film. This is not a film that stresses time travel; and yet, there is way too much exposition in the beginning of the narrative that makes you think there will be some sort of reveal or twist at the end that never comes. Instead, we do get a very deeply involved three way plot between the before-Rainmaker Cid, Joe, and Sara. I feel like if the film was simply these three on the farm most of the movie, it would’ve been stronger. There are so many ancillary characters that don’t lead anywhere and a few red herrings that almost seem like they would’ve been weeded out after a table draft of the shooting script. It doesn’t necessarily take away from the overall enjoyment of the film, but it does make it seem longer than it probably should.

Johnson didn’t seem to have these pacing problems when making “Brick”. Perhaps he was a bit too ambitious with this film. It still works overall, and it’s still dazzling at times, and completely enthralling as a thriller. It just buckles under its overly complicated storyline and sometimes gets weighed down too much by exposition. I feel as though if this film were tighter, it would’ve been close to a masterpiece.

I can accept it as a fine sci-fi thriller with some great character scenes that are so rare in sci-fi films, or mainstream films in general, and recommend it based on the simple fact that it does deliver when it needs to.

My rating: :-)

Men In Black 3

May 30, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

I have a continuing dilemma whenever I see that there will be a  new MiB movie released. On the one hand, I have a lot of anticipation that it will be better than the last one that came out; and inevitably, when I see it, I’m always underwhelmed and disappointed that it wasn’t even as good as the last one that came out. Such is the case again with “Men in Black 3”, a movie with just enough ambition to make a smile-worthy film, but tries nothing new to re-invent itself or push its own limits. It goes through the motions and hopes we are pleased. This may work for some people who just want to get out of the house for a few hours and sit in a cool theatre on a hot day (as I call them, “get away” movies); but for me, at least with this franchise, I’m always wanting more. The jokes are predictable, the climax and resolution always seem to leave me empty–and in this case, kind of sour.

This film begins with a  bad guy named Boris “The Animal” (though it’s just “Boris” to you) who is locked up on the moon after being captured by Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones). He subsequently breaks out and goes back to earth with the intent to travel back in time, kill Agent K, and start an invasion with his cronies, an alien race known as the Boglodites. Agent K’s original capture of The Animal 40 years ago is legendary because he also installed what’s called the ArcNet, a protective shield that won’t allow the Boglodites into the earth’s atmosphere.

Agent K and J discover Boris’s time travel plot when they are checking out routine alien criminal activity, and when K disappears, J also finds himself in a rip in time that makes him crave chocolate milk, and he soon learns that he’s in an alternate present in which K was killed 40 years ago by Boris. J then has to go back in time to save Agent K to the 60’s.

I’m going to stop here and reveal that I’m instantly on edge whenever time travel is introduced to a plot as a device. It’s so incredibly contrived and overused and because there are so many possibilities and flaws, it winds up being ludicrous and unconvincing. It also usually leads to many, many plot holes. When I was reading about the production of this film, Will Smith had said they had tried everything to make sure that the film’s time travel rules were followed as best as they could. At the same time, the film’s director, Barry Sonnenfeld, admitted they did not have a definitive act 2 or 3 when production began. Well, it certainly showed.

J has to convince K about this plot of Boris (played by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement) going back in time, stopping K’s original arrest of Boris by killing K, and also killing  an alien named Griffin whose race created the ArcNet (Arcadian is the name of Griffin’s race, and Net is pretty easy to figure out) and gave it to K to begin with. Griffin (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) is kind of like a cross between Tobey Maguire, Elijah Wood, and Robin Williams. He has one of the more memorable scenes when the three of them are in the infamous The Factory (although the Andy Warhol joke is a bit weak, I thought), when he goes on and on about possible futures, confounding Agent J. 

The best scenes in the film involve Agent J (always charismatically played by Will Smith) and the young Agent K (well imitated Jones by Josh Brolin–he has a knack for imitation). We finally see a softer side of Agent K, and find out he did at one point have a love interest, Agent O (played in the present tense by Emma Thompson). That plot is never really explored but it’s probably for the best as it would’ve been far too complicated to sort out in an alien comic action adventure movie.

As relieved as I was that it didn’t become a love story, I was also left unmoved by the main story involving the plot to save Agent K. I’ve enjoyed the two characters through their movies, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say I really cared about them. And usually by the time the new movie comes out, the old one has evaporated from my mind. These are not inherently memorable films. While the chemistry is fine, and it’s fun to see some of the antics the MiB go through to catch the bad guys (bowling with an alien’s head, for example), it never really leads to anything that memorable. I also found the villain Boris to be a bit stale at best; and at worst, kind of irritating. You never really get a good read on what kind of personality he has. He’ll toss out a one-liner here or there that makes you think he’s hip; but then he’s stone faced or upset about being called “The Animal”. I also thought that the lack of “place” in the 60’s was a missed opportunity. I get that they can’t go “Austin Powers” on everybody, but what were aliens like 40 years ago compared to now? There could’ve been many possibilities for humor and even some adventure. There’s one flat joke about how the Neuralizer has evolved but that’s pretty much it.

Where the film ultimately fails, though, is the ending (how could you guess?). There’s a twist which I won’t give away–I will just say that it has its heart in the right place, but unfortunately doesn’t have its logic in the right place. Up until that point the film was digestible. Nothing great, but nothing bad. But the twist, with all of its intentions, just falls flat. And you don’t even have to think that hard about it. Almost immediately you will think, “Are they just throwing this in here for the sake of it?”

Sometimes I wish someone would just tell a screenwriter, “Look you don’t have to just throw a twist in there okay?” Just resolve the movie and move on. Sure, the film would still be less than a masterpiece. But it at least would be closer to that than an out of focus Polaroid, which is what “Men in Black 3” ultimately is.

My rating::?


September 28, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

The premise of this film is nothing we haven’t seen before. I was immediately reminded of a lot of different films, such as “Blade Runner”, “Strange Days”, “Total Recall”, and even “The Terminator”. The idea revolves around our own feeling that we need to create a perfect self, since we are so full of flaws. Of course, this is primarily driven by aesthetics. Our imperfections on our body, and nothing else, has driven this human race to go through incredible lengths to make ourselves look better. In this case, you can do so by creating a “puppet” of yourself, and hook yourself up remotely to this “double” of yours. They’re known as “surrogates”, and almost 90% of them look like they were spawned from the Bret Easton Ellis universe. You can live out your wildest fantasies with these things, and if they die? No worries. You aren’t affected. You can just buy another one.

Until one night, an operator is killed along with his surrogate. And the operator just happens to be the son of the creator and former CEO of the company that makes them. The FBI is brought in, and the main team on the case includes Agent Greer (played by Bruce Willis); of course a covert plot is uncovered, and just about everything you can imagine from a garden variety action thriller ensues.

The film begins almost like “District 9” does, with a series of “explanatory” scenes that bring us up to date on the technology and progression of the “Surrogate” project; but that would be the only similarity I’d draw between the two. Where “District 9” blatantly has a purpose and an agenda, “Surrogates” plays around and dances around a lot of interesting themes and doesn’t delve into any of them. Instead the film just delivers a tired plot and an underdeveloped theme of losing your identity and self through these robots.

There is a collection of humans, known as Dreads, that have “reservations” as it were, where no surrogates are allowed. Their leader is The Prophet–and would you guess that he’s got dreadlocks? I mean, that is pretty much a guaranteed symbol of enlightenment and power. But there’s a twist with The Prophet–one you can see coming a mile away if you’re paying attention in the least. But again, these scenes with the Dreads are very trite and predictable, and nothing really interesting happens with them.

There could have been a lot to this movie. I’m guessing the graphic novel series it’s based on digs more into the themes of human insecurity and our thirst for beauty and youth. The film only runs at 90 minutes, so there wasn’t a lot of room for these different ideas to grow. But then why make the film? Why did we need another action film with a flimsy who-dun-it story and a pathetic excuse for a car chase climax?

And while I’m on a roll, why does every single IT/Computer hacker have to resemble Harry Knowles? Seriously. Have some imagination!

While the film is an utter disappointment for what it could have been, it does deliver in some respects. If you were missing Bruce Willis with hair, for one, you get to see that. Also, there are some interesting scenes between him and his wife, about their deceased son. But overall, the movie takes itself too seriously and it doesn’t develop itself enough to really care about these characters, nor does it give you any sense of discovery about human worth and whatnot.

But what did you expect from the screenwriters of “Terminator Salvation” and “The Game”? I hope not much.

My rating: :?


August 8, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

Sci-Fi films have become so flimsy lately; they don’t seem to be about ideas but rather gimmicks just to show off spiffy special effects and create new toy lines. But there are a few movies in the past few years that have been able to delve into what sci-fi is really about: questions rather than answers, and situations that may be far-fetched but still ground into some kind of reality that we can understand and relate to. I think of “Sunshine” and “Children of Men” first, but here’s a little movie that will probably be passed over in the box office, and may not get any kind of attention until it comes out on DVD. That is a shame, but similar things happened with “Sunshine”, and I think that movie is finally getting some due credit.

“Moon” is a film that is hard to give too much away about in terms of plot; there is something that happens about thirty minutes into it that completely turns it on its head, and the rest of the movie–if I were to explain it, would probably ruin your experience. I had no idea what the movie was about going into it. I think that’s the best way to approach it. I urge you not to look up the film on Wikipedia–they give away every single thing about it.

The movie works almost like an “Outer Limits” or “Twilight Zone” episode. It begins with a man named Sam Bell (played by Sam Rockwell) who is on a 3 year contract to carry out harvesting missions on the moon: to mine for helium-3 from the moon’s surface and bring back to Earth to aid in nuclear power. He is all by himself, except for a robot companion named GERTY (Kevin Spacey provides the voice). While he is there, he receives various transmissions from the Lunar Project managers, and his wife, who is with their 3 year old daughter. Sam is two weeks away from the end of his contract when he suddenly injures himself after seeing one of the harvesters break down. He thinks he sees a vision of someone, a girl, and loses concentration. When he awakens, there is a surprise waiting for him. And everything is changed.

And that’s about all I’ll give you for the plot. It is not a complicated movie, but it is very interesting, and Sam Rockwell gives an Oscar-calibur performance that will most likely go unnoticed by Hollywood. I have no idea why this movie was released in the middle of the summer, but it is an independent film that, after it premiered at Sundance, couldn’t get a big release I suppose. It’s not exactly blockbuster material, but it’s thought-provoking, and it’s very well done. Rockwell definitely carries the movie because, well, he has to, he’s the only character throughout. Much like Will Smith in “I Am Legend” and Tom Hanks in “Castaway”, Rockwell shows he has immense power as a leading actor; I can only hope this brings him some bigger roles down the road.

The film is rather short which is also a nice thing; it doesn’t go on too long, it doesn’t get pretentious even with its somewhat strange plot (it does make sense once it’s explained). It stays even throughout, and it never disappoints. If you find a way to see this gem before it leaves theatres, you will not be disappointed. If you do miss it, look for it on DVD when it comes out.

My rating: :-)