Wednesday, November 27, 2013

EUROPA REPORT (2013)

Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight, November 26, 2013
Europa-Report-poster

So, I’ve been looking forward to watching EUROPA REPORT (2013) for a few months now. It first came to my attention on Amazon’s streaming service, where I could have rented it for the price of a movie ticket before it opened in theaters, but I waited. It played in limited release in the theaters, and during this time it was removed from streaming. So I waited. It finally has returned, free for Netflix subscribers or a standard rental charge on Amazon, et al.
Yes, I’m stalling. Because.. I don’t know. This is one of those cases where I liked a film, but kind of didn’t, and am trying to write this review and decide which one wins.
So, let’s work this out together, shall we? Was it worth the wait?
It’s not like my expectations were really high; EUROPA REPORT is an independently-produced science fiction film, conducted by a relatively new director with a screenplay by a relatively new writer and for the most part starring a cast of relative unknowns. Redundant Einstein references aside, the fact that this film chose to take a serious look at what would be involved in a long-term, manned trip to Jupiter’s fourth moon (that would be Europa for those who haven’t had their coffee yet), using science that was NASA- rather than Lucas-based, appealed to me. The previews also promised some action along the way. Let’s do this, I say. Let’s be educated and entertained.

Meh. I think the reason that word just popped out of my fingers is because the filmmakers tried to do both but never found the right balance. At times entertainment overshadowed clarity of story, at other times an assumption was made that we (myself included) are smarter at space-science than we really are. Thirdly, a common error was made, one common to realistic human-interaction films, in that they assumed everyone in the audience once worked at a McDonald’s drive-thru. More on that last point later in the review.

A quick synopsis: A private company funds a manned mission to Europa, Jupiter’s fourth moon (ahh, good coffee). Europa One launches sometime in the near future. The trip is expected to take about 2 years. The crew’s mission is to look for signs of microbial life under the ice-covered surface of Europa… and thus prove we are not alone in the universe (granted, if they only find microbial life, we may as well still consider ourselves alone in the universe for the time being). Six months into the trip, Earth loses communication with the mission and never gets it back. Months and months of silence pass. What happened to the crew?

At some point, the full set of videos from the mission becomes available. Now the truth can be known. How did this happen? EUROPA REPORT is, basically, a found-footage film (or they imply “found” early on but switch it soon after, sort of, just keep reading). To their credit, the footage is done so well that you actually start to forget what you’re seeing are videos from fixed points inside and outside the ship. Found footage concept aside, this movie is also done up like a documentary, occasionally narrated (more so early than later, which I think was a mistake) by the mission commander, played by Anamaria Marinca (UN NUAGE DANS UN VERRE D’EAU, 2012). Marinca was decent as Rosa, but an unfortunate choice in casting because she looks a lot like the main actress who plays the pilot, Samantha (Embeth Davidtz, THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN, 2012, SCHINDLER’S LIST, 1993). Maybe they wanted to imply the two women are related. Maybe. But it had no bearing on the plot so I’m going for the casting error. The pilot, Samantha, also appears as a commentator in the film. Really? But she was on the mission. Ah, so this is not so much a found footage film as a returned footage film? This development was a good twist, because we at least realize that they made it back, or at least she did. We think. At least this way we’re not sure what’s going to happen and are kept guessing throughout.

Davidtz was strong in her role as Samantha. She portrays the pilot with a calm sincerity—as does most of the cast (such as Daniel Wu, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS, 2012; Karolina Wydra, TRUE BLOOD 2013-2014). This every-person quality of the actors, and the fact that most of their faces are not known to the general movie-going audience, allows you to feel these could be real people you’re watching.

Not long after the transmission cuts out, someone has died, though they do not say who or how. We assume this will be revealed. We jump ahead sixteen months and the crew is going stir crazy, especially a gruff Russian named Andrei. The mysterious death has affected him the most, though we don’t learn why until 80% of the way into the movie. Andrei is played by Michael Nyqvist, likely the most recognizable face in the cast, though you’d be hard-pressed to put your finger on where you’d seen him lately (answer: THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, 2009; MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, GHOST PROTOCOL, 2011). As the movie progresses, he becomes one of the more likeable characters, because Andrei has some actual flaws, unlike everyone else who come off as a bit toomentally-balanced for having been cooped up in a tube for 2 years.

They do get to Europa and the movie shines when this happens. The visuals are very intriguing… many are real pictures (or derived from real pictures) taken of the planet and its moon from the Voyager and Galileo spacecraft (the NASA version, not the Enterprise’s). Though the surface landscape, once they land, is more Alan Clark than Carl Sagan, it’s no less awesome.* As I said, the movie shines best in the latter part of this film, where the actors are able to project stunned awe, as if they’ve actually landed there. Another high point is a spacewalk (as doomed as it will be for one of the characters) because it has a realistic, 2001: A SPACE ODDYSEY (1968) feel to it (minus that classic film’s twenty minutes of helmet-breathing for which it’s so known and loved).

In between the opening and Europa is where the Meh came from. In the opening, we get a quick run-forward to six months into the mission, when communication cuts out. I like how they did this, but once the video of the remainder of the mission begins to play out, time jumps back and forth. Not for the crew, but for us:

Perhaps because a 22-month trip to Europa might be boring to the viewer, rather than just skip the zero-gee bathroom and endless staring out the porthole scenes, the director (or editor) went mad with the splicer in the cutting room. Instead of letting us share their trip in chronological order, they brought us 6 months into the trip then 16 months further, then back to the launch and 19 months later, back to 2 months in, 20 months out, 6 months again when communication cut out and the accident takes the life of a crewmember. Finally, things settle down in the final twenty-five minutes.

It was too much. The only indication where we were in time was a clock in one specific camera shot. It took me a couple of attempts before I figured out what I was reading (this might have been an issue with screen size, I think there was a “Mo.s” label too small to read on a normal-sized TV). These time jumps weren’t needed. People are watching this film to have a glimmer into what it would be like to travel a manned flight into deep space. Stay chronological and just cut out the slow parts. Jumping around only causes unnecessary confusion for the viewer and at times to the action itself. The death during the spacewalk wasn’t big enough to warrant all this cat-and-mouse, hide-the-big-scenes-until-the-end games. We weren’t vested enough in that particular character, anyway.

This isn’t to say the spacewalk scene wasn’t cool when it finally happened. The physics of it seemed pretty close to real, and the reason for the death of the astronaut was something that I hadn’t realized could happen. The uniqueness of it was very eerie, especially with the near-casualness of how it had to be handled. That’s not a complaint. Just the opposite, in fact.
I’m not going to talk about the ending—no spoilers—but I will touch on a couple of points in the final scenes in order to bring us back around to my earlier McDonald’s comment.
Most of us know that when you have a tiny microphone running alongside someone’s face in a round space helmet filled with sweaty padding and heavy breathing, the voices sound muffled. We’ve seen the moon landing vids, or listened to the space shuttle crew banter about. Everything they say sounds like it’s coming through a McDonald’s drive-thru speaker. That’s fine. For those of us who managed to avoid that particular job requirement (i.e., understanding drive-thru-speaker-ese), we have newscasters who can explain what they are saying, or subtitles. But in a number of climactic scenes of EUROPA REPORT, we had no such translations because we’re watching the events through the ship’s log tapes. (It just occurred to me I could have turned on subtitles, like I usually do for British TV shows since the entire country mumbles.) If this was an actual mission, we would just shrug and raise our hands, stick out our lower lip and vex, “Vat can you do? Nothing, that’s vat.”

But it’s a movie. If cleaning up the dialogue allows us to actually follow what’s happening, do it. There was an announcer who at one point explained what had happened in a prior scene, but the action had already occurred and our moment as a spectator had passed.

So, to my original question: did I like the film? Yes. There were good parts andMeh parts. There were no real sucky parts. I think the film might have done better as more of a documentary-style movie, with more commentary from others interspersed with actual footage of the mission and its subsequent discovery. It might have worked better then, and not worried so much about keeping stuff from the viewer until the last quarter of the movie.

EUROPA REPORT is a good movie, a little frustrating at times, but it mostly keeps your interest. It’s not a great movie. Going in, I didn’t think it would make my Best Of 2013 list next year, and it won’t. There were more good parts thanMeh, and the scenes on Europa were pretty cool. Well worth a view. Especially if you have Netflix.

I give it 2.5 Jovian Microbes out of 5.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

UPSIDE DOWN (2012)

Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight, October 16, 2013



During this year’s Academy Awards, one of the nominees for Best Animated Short Film was a sad, sweet film called HEAD OVER HEELS (2012) in which an older couple, having drifted apart emotionally, lived in a house which had opposing gravity – the wife lived upside down on the ceiling and the husband on the floor. When I came across the romantic science fiction movie UPSIDE DOWN (2012) starring Jim Sturgess (ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, 2007;CLOUD ATLAS, 2012) and Kirsten Dunst (MELANCHOLIA, 2011; SPIDER-MAN, 2002), I wondered if it was a live-action version of the animated short. It isn’t, though both deal with a couple separated by disparate gravitational forces. Must have been something in the air, last year.

UPSIDE DOWN tells the story of two people, Adam and Eden, who live on different Earth-like planets orbiting each other and sharing the same atmosphere. Each planet has its own gravity which prevents the people of the two worlds from interacting with each other. But more on that in a moment.

First, a warning: if I had simply come across this movie on Netflix (where it is available via streaming) and decided to try it out, I’d have turned it off during the first five minutes thinking it was the worst movie ever made. That’s because the opening narrative sequence, where Sturgess’s character Adam explains the three basic rules of life between the two planets, is terrible. Terrible. I like Jim Sturgess, he’s made some great movies, but his narration in the opening sequence is so sickly-sweet, so cloyingly child-like, that it makes you think this might be a film made for kids, and very young ones at that. But the film isn’t as bad as the opening implies—in fact it’s quite good, with amazing visuals and plenty of action and romance to make for a pleasant movie. Just bear with the opening narration, and pay attention to its three rules governing the two worlds since this sets up the plot and makes the later story easier to follow.
What are these rules? First, the gravity of a planet affects only matter from that planet, including people. Even though the two worlds practically sit on top of each other and share the same atmosphere, the gravity of the opposing planet has no effect on someone from the other. In fact, if they stand on the opposing planet without holding themselves down, they’ll fall “up” to their own world. Secondly, if matter from one world comes in contact with matter from the other for too long, it will burn. Because of this, it is illegal for matter from an opposing world (called Inverse Matter) to be taken to your own. Everything, and every one, must be kept separate. Wherever they do come together (such as a massive office tower which spans both worlds), elaborate cooling systems are required to keep everything from going up in flames. The third rule…. Actually, I forget what the third rule is. Maybe I smooshed the three rules into two above. Don’t make me go back and listen to the opening narration again.
The two planets are known as Up Top, a Utopian society of wealth and prosperity, and Down Below, a poor planet subjugated by the corporate rulers of Up Top for their natural resources, where the residents struggle to survive in their poverty day-to-day.
If this sounds familiar, it has been done many times before in films and literature, most recently in ELYSIUM (2013) and the remake of TOTAL RECALL(2012). In ELYSIUM, Earth is in ruins, populated by poor workers who serve the wealthy elite who live on a massive, orbiting space station. In TOTAL RECALL, the Earth is ravaged by… I think it was a nuclear war… leaving England and Australia as the only habitable land masses. England hosts the wealthy and Australia hosts the poor who travel in a long subway system through the core. Whereas ELYSIUM started out as a promising dystopian science fiction film, it digressed horribly in the last twenty minutes into improbable and downright silly action sequences. TOTAL RECALL started as an improbable action film out of the starting gate and never lets up (in other words you went in expecting this and were not disappointed). UPSIDE DOWN is, at its core, a love story set in an improbable universe of dueling gravity. Though there are plenty of cool visuals and interesting sci-fi elements, especially how the main character tries to overcome the laws of physics in his universe to find his true love, the film never strays from this basic premise. If mushy romantic stories, even those set in “space” don’t appeal to you, then UPSIDE DOWN is probably not your bag. But I liked it.

One day, as a boy visiting his Great Aunt Becky (Kate Trotter, LOST GIRL television series, 2010-2012), young Adam learns about a secret family recipe for “pink powder” cultivated from bees which pollinate from flowers on both worlds. She uses this to make floating pancakes, unaware that this combination of elements comingling between the two worlds has potential to revolutionize both. While out gathering more pink pollen for his aunt, Adam climbs to the highest peak of the highest mountain in the area, and meets a young girl walking along a path on the other world. These two points are so close to each other they can have a conversation with each other by shouting “up.” Jump ahead to Adam and Eden as teenagers. They’ve been meeting secretly for years at this very spot. Using a rope, he pulls Eden “down” to his planet and they make out while she is held to his world by laying under an overhanging rock. Since what they are doing is illegal, and since these two peaks are so close together, the government (or the Trans-World company, which seems to be the primary employer of the two worlds and has the government authorities under their control) has regular patrols with orders to shoot anyone found in this restricted zone. Needless to say, things get messy as they begin shooting (badly) at our hapless couple and Eden falls back to her own world. Adam thinks his girlfriend is killed in the fall and, to make matters worse, his aunt is arrested later and he never sees her again.

Ten years later, Adam is eking out an existence at a small workshop run by his friend and employer Albert (Blu Mankuma – 2012 (2009)). Aside from doing odd jobs which mostly involve staring at small objects and poking them with pointy things, Adam is trying to develop an anti-wrinkle cream using his family’s secret pink powder. Since part of the ingredients involves pollen from the other planet, it will try to follow its old gravity upwards. He’s hoping to use this characteristic to make wrinkles smooth out. This is no more earth-shattering than using the formula to cook floating pancakes. When he sees his long-lost girlfriend on TV promoting the all-powerful Trans World Corporation, he decides to get a job there to develop his anti-wrinkle cream using their unlimited resources, and to have an opportunity to contact Eden. Little does he know that she has suffered amnesia since her fall ten years ago and remembers nothing of her prior life. Including him.

Adam’s arrival at the office is where the visuals for UPSIDE DOWN really shine. All floors from the middle of the tower to Down Below are marked at -1, -2, etc. All floors above the middle are 1, 2, etc, with the center floor, level 0, the only place where employees from Up Top work on the same floor as those Down Below. Well, the same level. From Adam’s perspective, the Up Top folks work on the ceiling. If you take a look at the movie poster for UPSIDE DOWN you can see what working on level 0 is like. I wonder what this movie was like in the theaters on the Big Screen. Perspectives keep changing, characters talk to each other from the ceilings, and even on my small screen I had occasional feelings of vertigo. Adam befriends a co-worker from Up Top named Bob Boruchowitz, a middle-aged and gruff employee played with frumpled perfection by Timothy Spall (SWEENY TODD, 2007, and most of the HARRY POTTER films, where he played the rat-like Peter Pettigrew). I particularly liked Spall’s character. In a story where everyone Up Top looks down on our poor hero with noses that are already in the air, Bob is a cordial breath of fresh air. And their friendship becomes more and more entangled in Adam’s quest to meet Eden.

If you know me, you know I’m not big on plot rehashing, but Adam does comes up with a way to get to the upper floors to see his lost love. By squirreling away samples of Inverse Matter, he makes a suit and shoes with hidden pockets which conceal these slabs of metal, enough to weigh him “up” to the other world. Problem is, he can only wear this suit for a couple of hours before everything starts to burn up. This gimmick is key to keeping the plot interesting and offering plenty of perils for Adam to overcome, not to mention a little humor. It’s also a good reason for one of the best effects of the movie mid-way through, when Adam jumps into a lake, then falls up into the sky and down into a corresponding lake in his own world.
The action sequences are brief and decent enough, though I will admit one climactic “chase” scene with Adam and Eden running from authorities through the remains of an old dirigible was a little over-the-top. The movie makes much use of strings to simulate the opposing draws of gravity, and sometimes it works, sometimes it looks a little bit Mary Poppinsy. One nice trick, however, is drawn from an old Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling number in which the camera is fixed to the floor of a room that rotates until the floor becomes the ceiling and the character seems to be defying gravity. The first time Adam changes into his Inverse Matter suit in a small storage room, they use this technique well as his orientation changes from the floor to ceiling while the camera remains fixed on the floor.

This is writer/director Juan Solanas’s first feature film, and overall I think he did well. Someone should have pointed out the annoyance factor of the opening narrative, but aside from this, the end result was a beautiful, clever story. The science of the film, naturally, is questionable, but again it’s not as critical to the main storyline as the romance. Both Jim Sturgess and Timothy Spall gave strong performances with their roles; ironically, both British actors have “American” accents throughout. I usually like Kirsten Dunst, who lately has mostly worked the Indie film circuit, but I was less than impressed with her performance here. Her Eden was not very convincing, either alone or with Sturgess. Maybe they simply had no chemistry, who knows? But this shouldn’t detract, much, from enjoying the film.
To wrap up, the film has shortcomings, not nearly as much as you might think during the first five minutes. Go in expecting a sweet Romeo and Juliet story set in a unique, visually stunning universe, with interesting – if not overly plausible – science governing all, and you won’t be disappointed. Aside from the Oscar-nominated animated short HEAD OVER HEELS, you won’t find another story quite like it.

.five of out lovers floating three it give I.


BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: BLOOD AND CHROME (2012)

Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight, October 2, 2013



Ok, so I was a major fan of the reboot of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (2004–2009)… wait, ok, for those under the age of 35 reading this, the version of this groundbreaking science fiction action series starring Edward James Olmos & Company was not the original, it was a re-imagining of the original Lorne Green-led series from the 70’s. At the time (and at my age back then), the original was brilliant and exciting. There was a follow-up series called GALACTICA 1980 (1980, in case the title didn’t cover that) which was so terribly wrong, so sadly-sad it made my 17-year old self sigh in despair and indignation over what they could have done with the series, but did not. Except for one particular episode that told what happened to Dirk Benedict’s original Starbuck character, GALACTICA 1980 would have been so much better if it consisted of only this one episode, and no, I’m not bitter, why do you ask?

The reboot in 2004 completely decimated the original in coolness and effects and weird, minimalist soundtrack, and I couldn’t wait for each episode (on DVD, from Netflix, because there is no cable in my town). Since the new series ended with it’s bizarre-yet-no-less-watchable finale in 2009, there have been a couple of re-do’s of the reboot.

CAPRICA (2009), for one, a prequel which I got a couple of shows into then stopped watching because it was, well, boring. Maybe it got better in later episodes, but I did not give it a chance. When BLOOD & CHROME, another prequel which originally was “aired” as webisodes on the Internet, was patched together as a television movie on the SyFy Channel as a potential pilot for a series (which so far has not appeared…at least I don’t think it has, seeing as my town has no cable), I was intrigued.

With my handy-dandy Roku box, I rented it recently from Amazon.com. And… it wasn’t bad. Unlike CAPRICA, which was more of a noir series based in the GALACTICA universe, but covering the story of William Adama’s (the main character of the original and reboot series) father, BLOOD & CHROME goes back to its roots with Vipers and fiery explosions in the vacuum of space and some pretty decent acting. Now, it’s not the original (the original reboot, I mean, see above), but it gets a B+ for effort.

BLOOD & CHROME tells the story of William Adama first arriving on the shiny-new ship Battlestar Galactica sometime deep in the events of the First Cylon War, as it was referred to in the original 2004 series. In this war, the Cylons—robotic soldiers built by men but which eventually turned against their makers because, if you don’t find something productive for mechanized soldiers with built-in machine guns in their arms to do, they will get restless and start killing everyone—did not yet look like humans and begin infiltrating the ranks of their enemy. They simply flew around in their ships shooting at everybody.

Adama is fresh from the military academy and ready to start kicking Cylon butt. You see, like everyone else, he is a product of the military’s public relations campaign that’s been instilling a sense of optimism about the war and how humankind is faring. When he arrives onboard, he finds a ship full of bitter, angry soldiers who know that things are not going as well as their PR folks have implied.
Assigned to a lowly transport ship instead of a cool Viper (one-man fighter ships used in dogfights with the Cylon vessels, all of which, even back in the seventies, look suspiciously like the X-Wing and Tie fighters from the original STAR WARS films, but that’s OK, back in the day BG was a way to get our STAR WARS fixes during the three years between the Lucas films. And I’m back on the nostalgia kick again sorry..). Where was I?

Oh, Adama is assigned to a transport ship instead of a fighter. Needless to say his first “milk run” to transport supplies to and from the Galactica does not go as he expects, and he and his copilot find themselves in the midst of a covert operation upon which the course of the war with the Cylons is hinged.

The story is interesting, if not a little choppy at times, but this could be the result of multiple webisodes being mushed together to form as seamless a motion picture as possible. It felt like it, with the action rising and falling pretty consistently, too much so. A positive aspect of this, however, is that there’s a lot of action. The dogfight scenes in space and in the atmosphere of an Earth-like planet are quite good – obviously very heavily CGI (versus, say, using miniatures), but so was the 2004 series. I think the visual details are looser and the editing choppier, probably because (and I only assume this) there was a smaller budget and not enough in the till to polish the visuals. Overall, though, the effects are good.
With one exception: the Cylons are exclusively CGI, just as they were in the 2004 series. I had a problem with it then, and still do. How hard or expensive is it to make at least ONE Cylon suit, or a Cylon puppet, something to make our brains think, Hey, that’s really in the same room with them. Because as CGI creations, they do not look real, and so are not as menacing as they could be (compare the Alien suit and animatronic limbs of the xenomorph in ALIEN(1979) to the swimming CGI creatures in ALIEN: RESURRECTION (1997) as a comparison).

The mechanized, CGI-rendered Cylons in the 2004 series were not seen very often, since the human models were the center of attention. In this prequel, they are the only models fighting the humans.
The acting is decent, as well. Luke Pasqualino (THE APPARITION, 2012) plays young Adama with brash enthusiasm—a little over the top at first but he settles down quickly. The producers didn’t pick someone who looked like a young James Olmos, which is fine. Ben Cotton (HARPER’S ISLAND, 2009 and STARGATE: ATLANTIS, 2004 – 2009), as Adama’s reluctant copilot Coker Fasjovik, is the strongest character in the show. Tired and angry and only a week away from finishing up his second tour of duty, he is a good foil to the young, overachieving pilot. The story is stronger for his role. Though Lili Bordán’s Becca Kelly, the true “cargo” on their supply run, played her mysterious character well, the character itself never felt very deep or flushed out. Granted, this is only a single short film and not a five-year series with time to character-build, but knowing this up front she could have been a little more, what, weirder?

Overall, the story of their surprise mission is interesting, but some of the events that unfold, especially when finally arriving on the planet, feel too contrived as reasons for the next rise in action, like Cylon worms they meet in a cave. (Note to writers: having a ship or bus or plane crash in a remote somewhere and only stop just… before… falling into a deadly chasm has become cliché. Stop it. It belongs in the Stop Doing That box along with demon-possessed people turning blue with bulging face-veins – see my review of CASE 39 for further explanation).

The climax is decent, if a little open-ended and inconclusive. Rushed, might be a better word. Again, this might be due to the serialized nature of the original episodes on the web. Doesn’t mean I have to like how the strung-together version finished up.
So, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: BLOOD & CHROME comes much closer to being a contender for a decent new show in the franchise and honoring the original, (and it did a much better job than CAPRICA, in my opinion, with less money and resources), but in order for it to aspire to sit at the big kids’ table with its predecessor, it would need enough writing and money and time to work with. As a standalone film, it is an enjoyable and action-packed science fiction movie that should satisfy most BG fans. Or at least tide them over until the SyFy Channel, or some other network, chooses to make it an actual series.


I give it 3 Vipers out of 5.

ANOTHER EARTH (2011)

Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight, August 19, 2013

another earth 00

ANOTHER EARTH (2011) is a movie much like MELANCHOLIA (2011)—which came out at roughly the same time—presenting itself as an art-house science fiction film, but is actually more of an introspective drama, using a science fiction subplot as an underlying premise. Though both films focus on a character’s inner turmoil and self-obsession, MELACHOLIA remains, in story and tone, entrenched in the deepest wells of self-imposed misery throughout, ANOTHER EARTH gives its characters a chance of redemption, and healing.

I really enjoyed ANOTHER EARTH. Mostly because I did not, based on the trailers, approach it with any expectations that at some point CGI aliens would rain down on Earth through a space portal with rows of spinning chewing teeth. On the contrary, the only bit of special effects throughout the film is the beautiful sight of, yes, another Earth floating in the sky. It serves as a trigger for the characters in the film, a focal point which captures the hearts and dreams of those here on this Earth.

ANOTHER EARTH opens with a buoyant scene of party goers celebrating high-schooler Rhoda’s acceptance to MIT, with kinetic, celebratory music pounding in the background. Don’t let this fool you. As a very drunk but happy Rhoda (Brit Marling, ARBITRAGE, 2012), who also co-wrote the screenplay with director Mike Cahill) drives home, she hears for the first time on the car radio about a new planet discovered in the same orbital path as ours in the sky. Like every good drunk driver, she sticks her head out the window to get a better view of the small blue spot in the sky, and kills an entire family waiting at a red light. Almost an entire family. The young father, a composer named John (character actor William Mapother, known mostly for his dark role as Ethan Rom in the LOST TV series, 2004 – 2010), survives. The scene is shocking and abrupt, a brilliant way of changing the tonal gears in the movie from ‘everything is wonderful’ (be it in Rhoda’s or John’s lives) to everything is over.

Jump ahead fours years later and Rhoda is released from prison where we assume she has served time for vehicular homicide. Her once-proud parents cannot relate to her any more, and her younger brother Jeff (played with quiet, but genuine, intensity by Robin Taylor, STEP UP 3D, 2010) struggles to rebuild a lost relationship with his big sister. Rather than try to pick up the pieces of her broken, once-promising career, Rhoda takes a job as a janitor in her old high school in New Haven, Connecticut.

While this is going on, the world has spent four years getting used to the presence of the now-large earth-like planet (complete with its own single moon) hovering in the night sky. It has gotten closer, but never through the film is anyone concerned with the two planets colliding, ala MELANCHOLIA. But that’s not to say the planet is not discussed. It’s talked about constantly, by television and radio personalities interspersed between scenes.

This is the second and critical aspect of the film. Like Rhoda’s occasional inner dialogue in certain scenes, the comments of those in the media are a running soundtrack alongside band Fall on Your Sword‘s techno-minimalist score. To truly understand how these characters think and behave, knowing what is being rattled on about by everyone in the world (via talk shows, news channels, radio shows, what have you) is critical. I highly recommend watching ANOTHER EARTH with subtitles turned on. Whether you find the DVD (if there are any surviving video rental stores in your town) or do what I did and rent via Amazon or some such streaming service, without subtitles the commentary is nothing but background noise, but as the movie progresses, and especially towards the end, what they say sets the stage for what is to come.

What is to come, you ask? Well, now that you’ve hung with me this long I should give you the gist of the main storyline, when Rhoda crunches up her nerves to go to the home of the man whose family she murdered four years ago. He’s living alone, surrounded by the detritus of his own broken life (and body, if the bottles of pills scattered throughout the house are any indication). His life is a solitary mourning for his wife, son, and unborn child. He drinks, sleeps, and wastes away. Rhoda knocks on his door (surrounded by bags of trash on the front lawn as if he forgot to pay his trash bill) ready to apologize for what she had done, but when John answers she loses her nerve and tells him she is from a cleaning company offering a free one-day trial for potential new customers. He relents and lets her in, tells her to start in the kitchen then proceeds to ignore her from the other room. After a moment considering how best to escape, she decides to clean his kitchen. He likes her work, and tells her to come back the following week, which she does week after week, tearing up the checks he gives her on the way home. Eventually he becomes used to her presence and starts to open up to her.
The rest of the story follows along paths you would expect, but others you would not. Throughout watching this film the first time (I re-rented it the other day to refresh my memory for this review), I wondered why he did not recognize her, or her name when she tells him, but the accident left him a little messed up, and we learn at one point why her rather unique name did not ring a bell. As the story continues, you truly care what will happen when he learns the truth of her identity, especially as they grow closer.
Mapother plays the part of John with sad grace. He has an everyman kind of air to him, allowing us to be in his place for a time, knowing that yes, if the same happened to us, we could easily have given up. Marling is a strong actress with a captivating screen presence who is very believable as a woman holding on to so much self-loathing that she not only lives a solitary life, but hides her beauty and personal potential behind dark hoodies and knit caps. She does an excellent job playing dual roles as she slowly begins to emerge from her imposed cocoon as someone she finds herself caring for draws it back out.
Meanwhile, as the relationship between Rhoda and John plays out, a billionaire philanthropist holds a contest, offering seats on a spaceship he is building for a privately-funded trip to Earth 2, as it begins to be called after a shocking live broadcast from SETI. The agency’s chief scientist establishes communication with – herself. Seems the planet not only looks like Earth, it is Earth. An exact copy down to the people inhabiting it. Same history, governments and most importantly people. At this revelation, the world is once-again enthralled with the blue planet in their skies. The overarching question becomes, via a media commentator is, “What would we really like to see if we could stand outside ourselves, and look at us?”

Rhoda writes the required essay to win one of the seats, explaining that early explorers throughout history weren’t famous scientists or celebrities, but convicts and outcasts from society, seeking another chance, another world where maybe things could be different.
The movie is subtly riveting, and I was reminded very much of another indie film (and to this day one of my favorite science fiction films): GATTACA (1997). Though GATTACA truly is science fiction, using the genre to its fullest with very little special effects, the focus on the film remains a yearning, a need to fit in the world while knowing one is an outcast to society. The chance to go somewhere else, even if it means dying on the way, is strong. How many times have we stood outside and stared at the skies and yearned to know what was out there? Never? Hmm, maybe I’m just weird. And outcast.

One character whose quirky eccentricities didn’t work as well as the filmmakers had probably hoped was an older, blind gentleman who somehow works alongside Rhoda cleaning the school. Though his presence and occasional dialogue do contribute to the ethereal atmosphere of the movie, something he does later in the film is just too dark and fringy to work, in my opinion. Everything else seemed real, plausible, but he was more like an eccentric character who came in seemingly to add to the surreal atmosphere of the story. Director and co-writer Mike Cahill (who also teamed w\up with Marling on the documentary BOXERS AND BALLERINAS, 2004, his only other directorial work prior to ANOTHER EARTH) didn’t need it. They did just fine with this movie without this character. Kumar Pallana’s (THE TERMINAL, 2004, THE ROYAL TENNENBAUMS,2001) performance was strong on its own, but the story would have worked just as well without it.

The ending was a good twist and very satisfying in my mind. It’s one of those that when the scene fades to black you’re left sitting in your chair, chewing on it, working out what exactly it means. Like I said above, you need to listen to the commentaries throughout (with subtitles) to truly appreciate and understand it. I got it, and my daughter Audrey did, too. I hope you do, too, because it really brings the entire film together.
To wrap up, ANOTHER EARTH is a hidden gem of a film, quiet, beautiful and full of the promise of redemption and second chances in the face of terrible consequences. As I said in the opening, it’s not a traditional science fiction film, if it’s science fiction at all. Science takes a back seat to human pain and emotion, to the truth of how we can become so self-centered in our pain that we don’t let ourselves truly live in the world around us. But, sometimes, we learn how anyway.

I give it four other Earths out of five.


AFTER EARTH (2013)

Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight, June 25, 2013

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I have to admit I was pretty surprised to discover AFTER EARTH(2013) hadn’t yet been reviewed by our illustrious staff here at Cinema Knife Fight. They must have assumed that I’d eventually break my writing silence and review it, seeing as how I’m one of the remnant of M. Night Shyamalan fans. Yes, many of you might be surprised that AFTER EARTH is more than just a Will Smith (I AM LEGEND, 2007, INDEPENDANCE DAY , 1996) vehicle. The film is written and directed by one of my favorite directors, who created some of my favorite  horror/sci-fi films, including THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) and SIGNS (2002), but after a series of underwhelming (to the general audience) films like DEVIL (2010) and THE LAST AIRBENDER(2010), the marketing department for  his newest film decided that his name not only doesn’t sell tickets, it might hurt, at least until he can build up a resume of new hits under his belt.

Although I enjoyed AFTER EARTH sometimes for reasons other than its predictable plot (the primary being I watched  it with my son Andrew who’s getting ready to head out to the Big City to find his way through the perils of corporate life), overall I was sadly underwhelmed by the movie. But it’s a great father/son bonding film. It’s sweet in some ways, as well.

But, as far as plot development and the overall script, I’m afraid the film is lacking on many levels.

I did say M Night Shyamalan is my favorite director, and he is. In fact I’d go as far as to say he’s one of the best. That being said, he is by far not the best screenwriters in the business. I will make one assumption based on the “Story by Will Smith” which scrolled across the screen at the end: perhaps Smith did more than come up with the overall story and actually wrote the bulk of the script, then had Shyamalan clean it up and make it look pretty. But if that’s the case Shyamalan should have told Smith the story was weak. Actually, the main issue was more that it was predictable. I knew (as did Andrew and most of the folks in the theater) what would happen in the climactic scene. Everything in the opening scenes existed only to point to this, and not nearly as subtly as THE SIXTH SENSE.

During a very hurried opening scene we learn that something bad happened to the earth ecologically, things went from bad to worse and the human race had to leave the planet to survive (in this way it opened much like this years OBLIVION, minus the invasion). Our technology had advanced enough (we assume) that we could settle on a remote system’s star using warp technology and now live on a decent planet with very little vegetation, red rocks, and cliffs. Very, well, Red Rocks-ish. Now, there was some other point about an alien race that did not like us, and decided to wipe us out by genetically engineering these man (and woman) eating monsters called Ursas which are blind (OK, so not the brightest aliens), but instead track humans through fear. The explanation for this worked OK, so let’s go with it. Over time, a number of human soldiers learned to master the art of fearlessness—feeling no fear, at all, and thus becoming invisible to the monsters. They began to teach others this technique while using this new blind spot to begin wiping the creatures out. They still exist, in limited numbers. It is never explained if more are being made or bred, or where the aliens are now…. again, the opening recap was pretty quick and hard to follow.

Oh, Will Smith’s character Cypher was one of the first to master this ability of feeling no fear after a near death experience. He’s a General now, a “war” hero and loved by many. He also seems to have carried his lack of fear into other personalities, like love and affection. Not that he doesn’t love his family, he just acts a bit stiff around, well everyone, including his son.

This is an interesting trademark of most Shyamalan films. His leading man is always played to near-stiff perfection. Bruce Willis’s character both in THE SIXTH SENSE and UNBREAKABLE (2000) never smiled and spoke quietly, in an almost monotone manner. Mel Gibson’s fallen priest in SIGNS, though obviously a little depressed, had deadpan expressions most of the way through (as did his brother played by Joaquin Phoenix… however that name’s spelled), and walked around with his arms limp at his side like they were  bound. I remember distinctly watching SIGNS (and loving it, by the way) and thinking that someday Shyamalan would have to cast William Hurt because the man is known for his deadpan, even-handed approach to leading-man-ishness (enter M’s next film, THE VILLAGE, 2004, starring Mister Hurt himself). So, seeing the usually animated Will Smith playing a quiet, introspective, emotionally-repressed father in AFTER EARTH came as no surprise.

Let’s give credit where it’s due to Smith and his son Jaden, who plays Cypher’s son Kitai. I think they both did a tremendous job with the roles they were assigned. Jaden played a whiny, needy teenaged boy, and did it well. I’ve seen him in the remake of the KARATE KID (2010) and THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS (2006) when he was younger and I know the kid can act. The problem with his character is they really pushed the “fearful child” angle (and his father feels no fear now, giving us the father/son angst angle, replacing sports or overachieving). Will Smith plays his quiet, brooding father well, keeping his cool but loving his son dearly. Cypher battles a slowly growing sudden fear —of his own death, but mostly his sons—as the movie progresses, mostly through cracks in his expressions and delayed stares. I know people have said his acting was wooden and stilted, but I disagree. For the part he and Shyamalan gave him, he did very good.

Unfortunately, the movie itself is neither original nor interesting enough to take such talent and make it truly shine. Smith’s Cypher takes his son with him on a routine transfer of a captured Ursa (one of the monsters) to some moon station where his men can practice not being afraid (and thus being invisible). An asteroid shower causes damage to the hull and after jumping into a worm hole to escape the asteroid, they end up outside of Earth (somehow, some preset location, the closest habitable planet?) but are too damaged to turn back. The ship breaks up on entry into the atmosphere. The crew is all killed, except for Smith & Smith. And the captured monster, which escapes and is seen no more (until, as you all have guessed, the climactic scene of the film).

Smith, Sr. is injured, resulting in Smith, Jr. needing to travel alone through some beautiful, lush terrain to reach the tail section of the ship to retrieve a homing beacon. The Earth they are marooned on is no longer destroyed, in fact it doesn’t look like anything is wrong with it. There were earlier comments before crashing that everything on the planet has adapted itself to be fatal to humans, a way for a dying Earth to rid itself of its biggest threat. My son Andrew had a good point, maybe AFTER EARTH was a sequel to THE HAPPENING (2008) where nature decides to kill humans by making them kill themselves. Maybe. However, there really wasn’t any of this fatal-to-humans stuff, except for some slugs which secrete a poison, and extremely cold temperatures at night. The rest are natural predators like baboons (in a pack or solo they can be dangerous, and Smith, Jr. threatens them), and lions.

Smith, Sr. is able to follow Jr. and act as his guide via a comm-link along this adventure, much like a Dad can be a mentor and guide for his son off to college or moving to the Big City via Skype or cell phone. As they move along there is the requisite bonding that takes place. Not as much as I expected, at least they made the Dad change only a little—they’re on the planet for a couple days max as it is. Complications happen, but I never felt too worried for the characters because everything was happening too by-the-numbers for my taste, the threats simply not threatening enough. One “danger” Smith, Jr. faced even ends up being a mode of rescue later. This particular detail I expected early on, but how it was done I thought was kind of cool, as kitschy as some people might possibly think it is executed.

So in the end, I’m saddened that my favorite director guy M Night Shyamalan made a movie I was less than impressed with (alongside DEVIL and the second half of THE LADY IN THE WATER, 2006). But there were some positive experiences in the movie—Smith Sr.’s acting, as understated as it was, and good visuals (alongside some iffy CGI moments, such as when Smith, Jr.’s flashbacks to how his sister died at the hands/claw of an Ursa in their home). Overall I think the director should stick to what he does so well, direct, and leave the writing to people who do that well (and as much as I really enjoy almost everything Will Smith is in, I think he should be kept away from the typewriter, too, if this is the result). Or at least, someone tell him what’s wrong before it goes any further than the screenplay. I’d hate to think someone of Shyamalan’s caliber doesn’t listen to honest criticism. Maybe Smith doesn’t. If it’s been done too many times before, if it’s predictable, someone should have spotted this and corrected it, not just rushed it to the distributor because of the star power, or marketing’s need to get it in print by Father’s Day.

It is a good movie to see with your boys, though, for a belated Father’s Day present..

So, reluctantly, I give my buddy M Night Shyamalan’s newest film one of two possible ratings:

As a standalone science fiction film with a large budget, major movie stars and directed by MNS: 2 out of 5 Father Figures.

As a movie—to rent—and watch with your kids, make it 2.5


That’s about it. Nice to be back here in these fine pages, and special congrats to our fearless leader, L.L. Soares, for taking home the Superior Achievement in a First Novel Stoker for his very original debut, LIFE RAGE. Nice job, my friend. You earned it.

Dan's PICKS FOR BEST FILMS of 2012

Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight, January 9, 2013

Ok, so, though you haven’t seen much of me in these webbie, wobbly… thingies we call Cinema Knife Fight, that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen my share of movies this year. In fact, I was pretty amazed how many 2012 releases I’d seen (still nowhere near enough, however).  There are a number of movies I did not, or have not yet been able to see (DJANGO UNCHAINED, CLOUD ATLAS, LIFE OF PI and HITCHCOCK to name only a few), but of the films I did manage to see, here are my FAVORITE FILMS OF 2012:

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1. THE AVENGERS—I was left a little wanting with CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011) especially in its latter half, and IRON MAN 2 (2010) was a pretty weak sequel in my opinion, so I was worried about how THE AVENGERS would work out. Oh, Me of Little Faith. Joss Whedon hit this out of the park, as did every cast member. It says a lot when an entire cast’s performance makes Samuel L. Jackson’s seem almost boring. Great fun, especially for a lifetime comic fan like myself.

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2. LES MISERABLES—I know, this isn’t a genre film, but I had to include it. My wife cried pretty much all the way through this, and she’d seen the play 3 times before this. I didn’t cry, but was blown away by the vocals, the acting, the choreography—you name it. The movie was brilliant. It should tell you something that I had to pee for the last 45 minutes but didn’t get up until the credits rolled.

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3. FLIGHT—A sleeper that I don’t think many people saw, unfortunately. This intense, heroic and sad story of a pilot who saves a crashing airliner only to face his own demons (alcoholism and drug abuse) gives star Denzel Washington a chance to command the screen every moment he’s up there. Powerful movie.

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4. SKYFALL—In my opinion, this is the best James Bond movie ever. I hear that some people fell victim to raised expectations going in and I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. If you thought Roger Moore was the best James Bond, with all the gimmicks and jokes, you might not like this back-to-basics, serious spy flick. But I did—a lot. In my mind, Daniel Craig is the best Bond, hands down.

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5. THE HUNGER GAMES—An extremely good adaptation of the masterful YA novel, with a cast pulled right from the pages. The editing during battle scenes was choppy and scattered—but this was deliberate both to show the chaos and to keep the film from getting an R rating (thus excluding 90% of its audience). But that was the only negative aspect in my opinion. Besides, if I didn’t include it here, my daughter will never forgive me.

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6. THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY—This was exactly what I had hoped from Peter Jackson & Co., and more so. I actually left the theater wishing we’d seen the 3D version, which is unlike me, because it was so visually stunning. Very well cast, the film pays loving homage to the first third of the relatively short Hobbit novel, while adding enough extras (from other Tolkien sources) to keep you interested for 2.5+ hours. The Gollum vs. Bilbo scene itself is worth the price.

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7. LOOPER—A smart, fast-paced science fiction film which does not try to explain every little detail but appreciates the intelligence of 80% of its audience. This time travel story of a man from the future trying to keep his past self from killing him in the past is fast-paced and exciting and not as confusing as I make it sound—besides, this is only half the story.

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8. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN—I was not sure how this reboot / re-imagining of the Spidey mythos would work (though I knew it needed something after 2007’s repetitious SPIDERMAN 3). I was pleasantly surprised. It was fun, funny, clever and exciting, as it should be.

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9. WRECK-IT RALPH—Came into this one with my 21-year old son not knowing much about it, but left warm and fuzzy having seen a clever, funny and sweet film which gives many nods to the video games that were around when I was 21.

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10. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD—This odd, almost experimental film is not for everyone. My wife Linda did not like it. I was spellbound from the beginning to the end. What exactly is going on it not always clear, except that these are some poor, poor people living off an unforgiving land which is about to get even more unforgiving. The relationship between the little girl and her semi-abusive, semi-loving father is equally warm and heart-wrenching.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

THE LORAX (was sweet and clever and did my favorite Dr. Seuss book justice)

THE WOMAN IN BLACK (a great and spooky gothic horror, with minimal music blasts to scare you, just creepy settings and scary scenes)

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (very good finale to the series, but not my favorite of 2012, and not *quite* as good as the first two films).

Finally, even though they’re on TV and not the big screen, want to at least give a nod to THE WALKING DEAD and DOCTOR WHO as very enjoyable, unique and captivating viewing as always.

(If you noticed PROMETHEUS is missing from these lists, yes, I still have a couple of healing wounds, but I blame my own expectations for the film, not Mister Scott. He made the film he wanted to and it was very good in its own right. )

There were many more that did not make the Top 10 but which were extremely good films in my option (CHRONICLE, THE GREY,MOONRISE KINGDOM, among others) and some not so good, but I’m out of room. I wish everyone a wonderful 2013 and hopefully we’ll see each other here more often in the months to come.