Tuesday, December 13, 2016

400 DAYS (2015)

Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight, December 13, 2016.

 The trailer for 400 DAYS (2015) inspired me to rent this film on Amazon, showcasing it as a cerebral science fiction story about astronauts training for a long-range mission in space, and the mental toll it takes on them. I was worried seeing “SyFy Films” in the credits. My experience with their movies has mostly been SHARKNADO (2013) and other low-budget goof-fests. 400 DAYS, written and directed by Matt Osterman (GHOST FROM THE MACHINE, 2010), takes itself seriously and does a decent enough job, considering its low budget (what we used to call “TV movies”) compared to its big screen cousins. The film tries to be cerebral—trying not to spell out every answer for the viewer—depending on which character you decide to believe.


When the final credits rolled, however, my first reaction was to Google “What does the ending of 400 DAYS mean?” I found a blog entry which began, “I’m guessing you just finished watching 400 DAYS and immediately jumped on Google to find out what just happened.” I’m paraphrasing a little but, yes, this is one of those onion films—it has layers, not all of them obvious. I’m reasonably sure writer/director Osterman was making an entirely different movie than the one my wife and I saw. She was annoyed at the end. I was intrigued. Overall, though, I don’t think the filmmakers carried off these layers as well as they could have. I say all this up front not to give anything way, but to warn you.

1.  If you like your films neat and tidy at the end, this one is not for you
2.  If you like your films to leave much more to the imagination than usual, this still might not be for you because its execution is a little shaky, and
3.  It’ll be hard to write a review for 400 DAYS without dabbling a little in what goes on in the latter part of the movie. I’ll warn you when I’m getting to that.

The premise: NASA is performing an experiment on potential crew members for a future expedition to Mars. A reproduction of the proposed ship’s interior is built underground. A crew of four will stay there for over a year to gauge repercussions of living in close quarters over an extended period of time. The chosen crew consists of three men and one woman. Brandon Routh (SUPERMAN RETURNS, 2006, LEGENDS OF TOMORROW TV Series) is Theo, the assumed leader (not sure why, except that he’s the first character we meet) who spends the night before in a drunk tank mourning a breakup with his fiancé. Said fiancé, Emily, is the medical officer on the ship. She’s played by Caity Lotz (White Canary from the ARROW and LEGENDS OF TOMORROW TV Series… I wonder about a connection between SyFy and Warner Brothers considering the plethora of DC Comics actors). Dane Cook (DAN IN REAL LIFE, 2007, PLANES, 2013) is one of the strongest (performance-wise and physically) characters, engineer Dvorak. Rounding off the crew is a man named Bug (Ben Feldman of CLOVERFIELD, 2008, and the SUPERSTORE TV Series). At one point, we glimpse their personal records. His name is Bug. That should have been a warning to anyone vetting possible astronauts.

Here’s where the realism (or deception, depending on how you watch) of the plot gets wobbly. Aside from Routh, who has retained a bit of his physical shape from playing a superhero, most of the crew looks like they need to hit the gym for a few months before attempting long-term space missions. How these four got a berth on what should be an historic moment for mankind is a mystery. Unless you watch the events play out as I think you should: an experiment, not a dry run for a future mission.

The opening credits show clip after clip of government experiments performed on astronauts during the pre-space program era, and other, hapless-looking people from the fifties who’d probably been paid five dollars to have their veins filled with hallucinogens. It’s creepy (and, to be honest, goes on a little long), but this sort of visual isn’t put into a movie without significance. Not long after the four “undergroundnauts” climb into their home for the next four hundred days, the camera lingers a bit long on three syringes Emily administers to her compatriots—their “vitamin” injections.  We never see her get a shot, though she pops pills in a few scenes. This, plus Emily and mission leader Walter (Grant Bowler, DEFIANCE TV Series), whispering about some secret agreement before this all begins, point to something amiss. She gives Theo an explanation near the end, but at that point things are so upside-down, one isn’t sure whether or not she’s lying.

The first half of the film takes place over their first three hundred and ninety-eight days underground. With one exception, nothing major happens, aside from people sitting around pushing buttons or running on treadmills. There’s very little character development, aside from an occasional argument. Theo pines over Emily’s rejection and Bug gets twitchier as he draws weird maze patterns on his bedroom walls. From the get-go, aside from Cook’s gruff engineer Dvorak, these are not the most interesting characters to watch for half of a movie. The plot hurries through this section to get to the last couple of days, where things get more interesting.

I admit to being disappointed in the first half. The premise of isolation for so long, and the strain on psyches, was where I hoped the film would go. The people making this movie had a different plan on what was going on. In retrospect, some of it worked quite well, because I’m still thinking about it as I write this review with more thoughts occurring to me. Remember what I said, you have to like movies that don’t spell everything out to appreciate what they’re trying to accomplish here.

Early in the experiment, alarms shriek and the entire compound shakes violently. This rattles the crew, not only for the surprise factor, but the fact that the underground complex is able to shake at all. Solar panels up top have dropped to minimum output. The crew can continue with what they have, but need to conserve energy. With the alarm and initial shaking come heavy, lumbering explosions above-ground for days. It sounds like a nuclear war going on. Before going underground, each of them had been warned: do not leave the bunker for any reason, until the end, or else their careers are over. So, no one leaves. They listen, and wonder—to themselves. Dialogue is sparse, but this particular moment could have worked better with more talkie parts. Something big was going on, but no one is wondering, openly at least, what. Moreover, they’ve lost communication with Mission Control. It is never regained. At this point they still have a year left, and most agree it’s probably part of the simulation. They do nothing, try and communicate with the surface, and hang around, waiting.

Over a year later, with no communication with the outside world, Bug is getting twitchier. He sees visions of the son he left behind and, with one exception, seems to be the only person having hallucinations. Dvorak has one early on, where his face is bleeding, but nothing comes of it. On Day 398, someone finds an emaciated, post-apocalyptic man sneaking about the complex. He’d found a way in from the surface. With only two days left before their mission is complete, they decide to sneak up top to find out what’s going on, against the desperate objections of Dvorak, the voice of reason who insists this is still part of the experiment.

On the surface, everything is desolate and dark. The world is covered in grey, fine dust, as though it has been decimated by a nuclear war. There is no radiation, no scorched earth. The air, however, is contaminated and oxygen levels have been severely depleted. They explore the world wearing their suits.

(WARNING: SPOILERS)

Here’s where the story takes a dream-like turn, gets more interesting, and more questions than answers begin pummeling the viewer. As mentioned, it would be hard to review this film without a few plot spoilers, so be warned. The only way I’m able to review 400 DAYS is to talk about the ending at some level. If you’d rather watch this movie yourself with your own theories and unanswered questions, jump to the end. Otherwise, here we go:

Our four explorers wander through what seems like an eternal night. The sun never rises, or if it does, they don’t see it. Everything is dark, the air full of dust. They come upon a small town reminiscent of an Old West ghost town. Dvorak continues to insist it’s all staged, part of the illusion. No one has a better explanation, but they keep quiet, preferring to decide for themselves without rushing to conclusions.

Buildings along the street are ablaze in electric light. The residents rarely speak, are dirty and sickly-looking. No one speaks but one man, their presumed leader. One of the best characters, Zell, is a man barely-restrained from violence, played with strained intensity by Tom Cavanagh (THE FLASH and ED TV Series). Cavanaugh does anti-hero/evil geniuses well. Zell knows more than he lets on. His explanation as to what happened is masked in an “I don’t know for sure, but here’s what I saw” ambiguity. Something crashed into the moon. Not long after, the Earth was coated in dust. The moon is gone, and the Earth is poisoned. They haven’t seen anyone else since. So they say. His interaction, and the way the silent townspeople watch our intrepid explorers, reminds me of the townspeople of Terminus in that skin-crawling WALKING DEAD storyline: intelligent, scheming cannibals. In fact, that is implied a couple of times. But there’s more to this.

Dvorak is the first to point out one major flaw in this place: the townspeople are the same newspaper and media reporters who had attended their “launch” three hundred and ninety-eight days earlier.

The film ends back in the bunker as the clock winds down to 400 with a violent confrontation between Zell and another townsperson, and Theo and one of his gang. When the end happens, you are left both excited at the twist—if there is one—and annoyed. As I stated in the beginning, you are given a mystery. What exactly happens at the end and, answering that, what has happened during the entire movie, are questions needing to be asked.

Personally, I have two theories. The first is that they weren’t underground for four hundred days at all, but the daily injections and some tinkering with the clocks allowed the experimenters to fool them into thinking so. Enough time to create the illusion of a major disaster aboveground. My second theory is that everything was a hallucination, either by everyone, or only Theo. If this is the case, the ending is far more tragic, especially when you do a bit of math. That’s all I’ll say about that. Either way, don’t be surprised if you watch 400 DAYS, then come back here to reread what I deliberately didn’t say or simply Google “What happens at the end of 400 DAYS?” on your phone.

The acting is decent—stronger in Cook’s Dvorak and Cavanaugh’s Zell—but kudos to Feldman’s twitchy Bug. I wasn’t won over by Caity Lotz’s performance, however I reserve the possibility that everything her character said and did was play-acting towards another goal. I rarely see actors playing characters, who themselves are acting, done convincingly. Routh was the solid anchor character Theo, but he—and admittedly everyone else—didn’t act with convincing motivation. Four hundred days underground should bring out one’s quirks and eccentricities. This didn’t happen, occasional hallucinations notwithstanding. These characters were simply too mundane and flat to bring us through the story entertainingly. For comparison, I point to Sam Rockwell’s portrayal of Sam Bell in the incredible indie film MOON (2009). There, the cast is pretty much Rockwell alone on the moon but he, and the script, carries that movie easily to its conclusion.

400 DAYS does not. “TV movie” it might be, but it could have been clearer, or more gripping in the first half. The second half is an improvement, but—with wooden characters caught in this storyline—the viewer likely stays to the end only to see what the pay-off is. Unfortunately, 400 DAYS insists we write the pay-off ourselves, by Googling our questions, writing a film review, or both.

I give it two knives, because I’m a generous sort and the movie did have ambition.

Monday, November 21, 2016

FANTASTIC BEATS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (2016)

Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight November 21, 2016

My son was seven when J.K. Rowling’s HARRY POTTER series began appearing on U.S. shores, in 1998. Each new book, ordered in advance by Grammy and Grampa, arrived, and I would read the books aloud to my son and daughters. These were fun family moments which waned as the years progressed, and the books came farther apart and my children got older. By then, however, we had the film versions. The books and movies, at the risk of sounding overly romantic, were a magical time of bonding with the kids. The characters aged and the stories grew darker, but for a decade, Harry and his friends were there.

Somewhere in the midst of all that, author Rowling released a small chapbook called Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, donating the proceeds to charity. It was a small “reproduction” of a required textbook for the Care of Magical Creatures class at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It was simple, with descriptions of various magical creatures throughout the world, written by fictional “magizoologist” Newt Scamander. Today, the book is in the attic stored with other memories of my kids’ childhood.

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (2016), the film, is a long-awaited return to the world of witches and wizards lovingly drawn and long-breathed to life by Ms. Rowling. Early in the process, Warner Brothers had been tinkering with the idea of making a film based on this small book, set before Harry, and even Voldemort himself, was born. When J.K. Rowling got wind of the project, she took a stab at writing the screenplay herself. Rowling is the only credited writer for the film, which is surprising for a newbie screenwriter. I did a little research and, yes, she was the only one, working with director David Yates on shaping the script for film.

Yates is back after directing the last four films in the POTTER franchise, and I think that’s a good choice. He showed a good eye for keeping the old wonder spread throughout those final films while steering the series into darker waters. FANTASTIC BEASTS has the look and feel of the original Potter stories but—and here’s where we’ll start jumping into the actual review—it is not a Harry Potter movie. People coming to the theater hoping to recapture the tale of a young boy defying all odds by fighting the world’s most powerful villain need to remember: that’s been done. You’ve graduated Hogwart’s. Time to live in this magical world as an adult. (Can’t believe I just wrote that!)

At the edges, FANTASTIC BEASTS could be considered something similar: a reclusive zoologist with Asperger’s defies all odds fighting the most powerful villain of the 1920s. But that’s at the edges, and he doesn’t do much fighting of the bad guys. I was impressed (though others might not be) that they mostly kept our main character away from that realm. What this movie is really about is simply a reclusive zoologist with Asperger’s, devoting his life to studying, cataloging and protecting misunderstood magical creatures, inadvertently stumbling into one dangerous situation after another with no regard for his own safety, only the animals’. Along the way, he meets some nice and not-so-nice people, whom he puts up with as long as they don’t get in the way.

That basic summary is why I enjoyed the film, but also why I’m guessing other reviews might be mixed. Don’t get me wrong, this film is not perfect. I had some issues, but if you go into FBAWTFT with the right expectations, you’ll enjoy it quite a lot. It captures the spirit and flavor of its predecessors, in its own way. It’s like this: in the POTTER series, so much happens outside of the main characters’ sphere (what with being children and Hogwart’s the only world they are able to focus on). Quite a lot of grown-up bad stuff happened before they were born, and continued to happen, but they are only vaguely aware until it affects them directly. It’s why the culminating battle with Voldermort occurs at the school—Hogwarts is their world. We met peripheral characters as we followed young Harry through his adolescence, but these characters live their own lives off-screen. The Ministry of Magic managed other areas besides the educational system. FANTASTIC BEASTSspends its time in this world, the “real world” if you will. It’s full of grown-ups. Disturbed, magical kids, as well, but mostly grown-ups. Add to this the fact it takes place in 1926 America, and we have a whole history of interesting ticks and societal plot devices to play with.

It’s worth mentioning that since the film takes place in America, not Britain, it’s the first time American actors have a chance to play in Rowling’s literary sandbox. When the HARRY POTTER films began, Rowling stipulated that only British actors could be in them: a way of keeping Hollywood from Americanizing the stories. Smart move. Now, the Yanks get to play. Most of the major characters are still played by Brits (who play Americans), but overall I think the Hollywood gang kept up with them.

Eddie Redmayne (of THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, 2014, and LES MISERABLES, 2012) is, without a doubt, the perfect Newt Scamander: laser-focused in his passion for magical creatures and unable to look humans in the eye for more than a few seconds. Granted, I’ve known Redmayne was playing Newt for a year, so that might have swayed my expectation, and the actor, himself, is laser-focused and hardly ever makes eye contact with his costars in any film. Well cast, then, because he seems to play himself. Scamander was a good character, however, who knows what he wants and stumbles over pretty much everything, and everyone, to do it. Sounds like this could be a comedy. Though there are humorous parts, overall Scamander is played very straight. And endearingly.

Since this story takes place in the Twenties, casting Katherine Waterston (STEVE JOBS, 2015, MICHAEL CLAYTON, 2007) as the upwardly-mobile but too-nice Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein was a good one. Her character comes across one moment as mousy, only to take charge and battle monsters and bad guys the next. Like Scamander, Tina often stumbles over people in her pursuit of her goal—to regain her positon as Auror (the magical world’s rendition of the police), which she lost because of some confusing, vaguely-explained reasons.

Aside from Redmayne, I think the strongest performance comes from Dan Fogler (THE GOLDBERGS TV Series, and many voice roles in animated films) as American Jacob Kowalski. Kowalski is what wizards call a No-Maj, the American word for Muggles (non-magical people). As in England, the magical world is hidden from the No-Majs, with much effort and expenditure to keep the two separate. In the U.S., they fear a war between the two populations. Many references are made to the days of Salem and its history of witch trials. Personally, the way witches and wizards are presented in Rowling’s world, I don’t see much of a contest if that should happen. Fogler and Redmayne make a good pair, however. Kowalski’s outgoing personality and wonder at the world he’s thrust into plays well against Scamander’s introversion and lack of surprise at anything that happens. Having discovered the magical world, Kowalski is supposed to have his memory wiped to forget everything he’s seen. He proves too useful, and likable, for anyone to want to do that, so they keep finding reasons not to.

Neither do the most nefarious of characters in the magical world. In Harry Potter’s case, that was Voldemort, who hated Muggles and wanted to wipe them off the face of the earth. In this new film, mentioned in sprinkles throughout the story, is the evil sorcerer Gellert Grindelwald. Headlines in the opening credits show him spreading terror, only to eventually go into hiding. Seeing this, you look for him throughout the movie. The answer, revealed at the end, is ridiculously obvious, but there are a few mysteries going on in this film to keep you distracted and guessing at all of them.

I guess it’s time to give you a taste of what the story is actually about. Briefly: Newt Scamander arrives in New York in 1926, to meet a fellow “magizoologist” (we learn later there is another, more secret reason). He carries with him a beaten, leather satchel full of magical creatures. It’s bigger on the inside, like a TARDIS. One animal in particular escapes into the city—a cute, platypus-like thing attracted to gold and shiny jewels. Pursued by Newt, it sneaks into a bank, where American No-Maj Jacob Kowalski is trying to get a loan for his bakery. The two get their leather satchels mixed up, and later Kowalski inadvertently sets free more creatures into the unwitting streets of New York.

Meanwhile, there is a dark force terrorizing the city, crashing through buildings and tearing up streets like a finger running under a puzzle. Streets being fingered is becoming the new favorite special effect, I’ve noticed. While the magical world’s Aurors investigate, led by Colin Farrell’s (THE LOBSTER, 2015, IN BRUGES, 2008) Percival Graves, Newt’s own escaped creatures become the easiest scapegoat. Knowing J.K. Rowling’s penchant for meaningful names, and how Farrell portrays his character from the get-go, you know that Graves is a bad guy. If he wasn’t, Rowling would have named him Goodman or something similar. No secret there.

Mayhem and lots of city block destruction ensues. Even with a bad guy high up in the Auror leadership, easily manipulating events, a young woman trying to make a name for herself, a nice, friendly American No-Maj suddenly befriended into a world he’d never known, and a scary teenager and his younger sister forced to hand out leaflets by an anti-witch zealot (more on them in a second), the story always comes back to the creatures of the title. They are the focus of the Rowling’s story, and Yates direction keeps it this way, at times by force. I mentioned at the beginning that moviegoers expecting the usual Good Guy versus Bad Guy story might be disappointed, but in many ways FANTASTIC BEASTS battles with itself to be that andabout the preservation of magical creatures. Sometimes it feels as if it’s never quite got a handle on either. In truth, the creature storyline, though interesting, might not be strong enough in its own right to carry the show, so the film adds the threat of evil to add weight, and risk. Both battle for your attention, and sometimes the overall effect leaves the viewer not quite knowing where to keep their attention.

There is one set of characters which act as the connecting point between these two warring plots. Ezra Miller (SUICIDE SQUAD, 2016, TRAINWRECK, 2015) is fantastic (no pun intended) as Credence, a shaky, beaten-dog teenager whose “mother,” Mary Lou (Samantha Morton of the MAX & RUBY TV Series) runs a group called Second Salem, wanting to resurrect the witch-burning days of historic Salem, Massachusetts. She’s decidedly creepy. So is her young daughter Modesty, who skips about singing old rhymes about burning and torturing witches. Modesty and her brother Credence have been abused, and slink through the film with soulful menace. They harbor a secret which becomes key to the film. Our resident bad guy, Graves, knows this, and befriends Credence to get to the girl. She has something he wants, some connection to the invisible, destructive creature rampaging through the city.

There are a lot of moving parts in this story, with the main focus on Newt Scamander and his band of cohorts, including Kowalski, ambitious Auror-wannabe Tina and, eventually, her seductively naïve sister Queenie (Alison Sudol from the TRANSPARENT TV Series… oh, my word, I just got that show’s title… heh… sorry, I can be a little slow sometimes). Flying around them like a Thunderbird (one of the critters in this thing) is the mystery of that weird little family, the monstrous creature that begins killing No-Majs, and the leadership of the New York witches trying to stop everything from falling apart around them. The intertwining stories work well, and overall FANTASTIC BEASTS is an enjoyable film. But there were a few plot kinks and wasted actors worth mentioning.

First off, if Farrell’s Mr. Graves is so keen on finding the girl, and has all the resources of the wizarding world at his disposal, there’s no reason he couldn’t have just gone directly to her instead of using the boy Credence. It wouldn’t have worked out very well in the resolution of the film, I guess. At one point in the movie, Newt and Tina are sentenced to death by Graves for breaking a few laws of magical society, specifically bringing a muggle—sorry, No-Maj—into their world. Seems extreme, but he passes sentence in his office and two women with wands force them to go to this really creepy room where they will die a horrible, liquid acid death (really was a dark scene), but come on, the magical world is some kind of democracy, isn’t it? One angry-looking man in an office says kill these two, and they follow his orders without question? Sorry, it bothered me. I’m a geek at heart, forgiving many things, but I draw the line at bad character behavior motivation.

As far as wasted roles, Jon Voight (MIDNIGHT COWBOY, 1969, BABY GENUISES AND THE SPACE BABY, 2015) and Josh Cowdery (LEGENDS TV Series) play Henry Shaw Senior and Junior (newspaper magnate and state senator, respectively). They seem to exist to make us wonder if one of them is the evil Grindelwald in disguise. When Shaw Jr. is murdered during a campaign speech, it seems pointless. Was this a way to expose the magical world to regular humans? When the identity of the monster is revealed, this death makes no sense. Why were they in the story? There’s also a younger brother, crack newspaper reporter Langdon Shaw (Ronan Raftery, MOONE BOY TV Series), who could have been a significant character, yet spent the film looking smarter than everyone else, and raising his eyebrows in various ah-ha moments near the end. There was no point to his character except to shed more light on the Second Salem movement. Zoe Kravitz (ALLEGIANT, 2016, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, 2015) is credited as “Lestrange,” but her character’s only role in the film is a photograph carried by Newt. An old flame, and a name which should be familiar to those Potterphiles among us. Another seemingly wasted bit of casting—though fun when he is revealed and I imagine will be back—is Johnny Depp as the evil Grindelwald. He gets airtime in the final scenes (no, I promise I’m not giving anything away here—you know he’s going to show up from the opening scene).

They’re already working on a sequel, and perhaps these folks come back (especially Depp and, I suspect, Kravitz, in expanded roles), but I doubt we’ll see most of the other actors again in the series. I hope not. Nothing against them. The New York setting, with its dirty, near-sepia toned cinematography (which was quite good in its own right) was fine for this film, but it’s not going to be much of a draw for a sequel. Newt Scamander is a world traveler. Subsequent films should take risks and set themselves in exotic locales. Africa, the Middle East, Russia, Antarctica, somewhere different, exotic, anywhere but hapless New York or London, which get the brunt of special effects destruction in Hollywood.

I’ve gone way beyond my word count, sorry, and I’m not sure if I’ve given you what you’re looking for. Is FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM worth the cost of going to the theater? I think so, yes. There is quite a lot of action, with CGI that’s not too obvious. It brings us into a corner of Rowling’s magical universe we haven’t seen before, and Redmayne’s Newt Scamander is fascinating, fun and carefree enough to easily bring us along for the ride. It’s not a HARRY POTTER movie, and if you’re looking for that, you’ll be disappointed. But it is a step deeper into the world, and history, of the Boy Who Lived, with its own flaws and blemishes, wondrous enough visually to make the trip. Quite a lot of awesome films are competing for your ticket prices at the moment, with more to come when December arrives, but for good, sometimes scary family entertainment, you could do far worse. Just go in with the right expectations and you’ll be fine.


I give it three knives.

Friday, August 26, 2016

BEN-HUR (2016)

Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight August 26, 2016

I sat down to watch director Timur Bekmambetov’s (NIGHT WATCH, 2004, DAY WATCH, 2006) remake of the historical epic BEN-HUR (2016) with little preconceived notions about the story. I’ve never seen the original 1959 version starring Charlton Heston, even with eleven Academy Awards under its belt. It’s a badge of shame I hope someday to remove, now that I’ve seen this version and enjoyed it a lot. I was impressed with the scope and authentic feel of the film, among many other facets.

As an aside, I was struck that no one in opening night crowd (and it was a pretty good crowd) was under the age of forty. The name Ben-Hur mustn’t resonate with young people. Too bad, it should.

Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston, AMERICAN HUSTLE, 2013, OUTLANDER, 2008) is a privileged Jewish prince during the Roman occupation of Israel in the early first century. “Prince” meaning he is a member of the upper crust of Jewish society. He is wealthy and lives in a spacious home with his parents, sister Tirzah, and adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell, WARCRAFT, 2016, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, 2014). Judah and Messala are as close as any brothers could be, though Judah is high-born and Messala the orphaned son of a Roman soldier taken in by the Ben-Hurs as a child. Messala is treated, for the most part, as a regular member of the family, but he never quite fits in.

The young men also have complicated love lives. Judah’s sister Tirzah (Sofia Black-D’Elia, PROJECT ALMANAC, 2015) and Messala are in love. He does not feel worthy of her, so leaves to make a name for himself as a Roman soldier in order to stand on his own reputation and accomplishments. Judah loves one of the family’s servants, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi, HOMELANDTV Series, IRON MAN, 2008).  The filmmakers could have elaborated a little on what Mom & Dad think of all this, but BEN-HUR isn’t a three-and-a-half-hour epic like the 1959 film, so they simply smile a lot and aren’t fazed by this. Besides, they’re rich, have good standing in Jewish society, and aren’t overly burdened by the conquering Roman machine ruling over everything.

The Romans are smart but brutal rulers who deal diplomatically with the wealthy elite, but control the poorer masses with violence and fear. Crimes are answered with brutal punishment, especially death. Crucifixions are common. One group of Jews in particular has been a thorn in the Romans’ side for years: the zealots. After hundreds of years of oppression, the zealot rebellion has gained traction, using guerilla tactics, hiding in shadows to attack roman soldiers and garrisons with quick and violent results. To stem the rebellion, punishments have become more severe. Oppression over the population is at its worst.
Why the history lesson? It’s what this film is about, on the surface. BEN-HUR does a good job showing this, albeit mostly from the perspective of the wealthy population, who are the least affected group.
Judah knows what Rome is capable of, so doesn’t make waves. Until the night his sister brings home a wounded young zealot named Dismas (Moises Arias, ENDER’S GAME, 2013, and the HANNAH MONTANA TV Series). Judah reluctantly helps the boy and takes him in until he’s recovered. He learns about the Roman occupation from another perspective, and though he does not condone their violence, he starts to understand a little better the why of it all.

Messala returns home as a captain of the Roman guard, held in high esteem by his compatriots, especially the incoming governor Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek, LUCY 2014). Messala has been hardened from years of bloody warfare. Rome and its mission means everything to him. His reunion with Judah is happy, but tense.

When the Dismas tries to kill Pilate from the Ben-Hur rooftop, the entire family is arrested. Judah’s father is killed, and though Judah pleads with Messala for mercy, his mother and sister are arrested and given a death sentence, though his Esther escapes. Judah is sentenced to a life of slavery aboard a Roman warship, where he will spend years as a rower, below deck. Never knowing the fate of his family, he spends these years sitting in the same seat, rowing and rowing, holding on to his new-found hatred of his brother and the Romans, in order to survive.

With a PG-13 rating, depicting the brutality of Roman occupation and the subsequent affliction of Judah Ben-Hur was a far cry from the Gibson-esque bloodbath of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004), but the filmmakers do a decent job. This is especially true in the bowels of the Roman ship. It’s very claustrophobic, and the eventual—and fateful—battle the ship finds itself in one day, viewed only through cracks in the hull through which Judah can watch, is quite good and frightening.

The tagline for BEN-HUR pretty much tells the overall story arch: “Prince to Slave to Rebel.” When Judah escapes slavery, he vows to learn what happened to his family and, more importantly, seek revenge on Messala.

His view of his world began as apathetic, not wanting to make waves, to live his life as comfortably as possible. After his enslavement, hate drives him on. When he returns home, this emotion is all he has left, even after finding Esther, who has spent the time on the street helping people in need and becoming a follower of a man claiming to be Messiah, Jesus.

What might come as a surprise to some, Jesus plays a significant role throughout Judah Ben-Hur’s life, though has far less emphasis in this current incarnation of the story than the blockbuster 1959 film, and much less than the original novel.

Like the previous films, including a silent version in 1925, BEN-HUR is based on one of the biggest selling novels in American history. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, written by Lew Wallace, was published in 1880. I did some research, and was surprised (since I’d never heard of it) that it was so popular for its time and throughout the twentieth century. In fact, until Gone with the Wind was released in 1936, it was the largest selling book in America next to the Bible. Like its later adaptions, it intertwines the fictional story of Judah Ben-Hur with the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. The book itself opens with the Three Wise Men visiting baby Jesus when Judah Ben-Hur is just a boy. Though Judah and Jesus do not grow up together, their lives are forever entwined from that point on, and the book tells the story of the Christ through the eyes of Judah. The 1959 film has more room, and I assume more social acceptance of religious themes in movies, to delve deeper into the Jesus storyline. In the 2016 version, Jesus appears in three significant scenes. First, when Prince Judah gets into a debate with Esther about Roman occupation.  Jesus (played with silent intensity by Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, THE 33, 2015) is still a carpenter and overhears their conversation. He interjects that God has a path for each of them. And “if God is righteous, then we should do righteous things.” This statement affects Esther, though Judah waves the comment off.

When Slave Judah is dragged through the streets, bound and bloodied, Jesus gives him water. Very little is said, but a connection is made, one that comes arounds much later in the film when Jesus himself is dragged through the streets of Jerusalem. Though the intertwining of these two storylines is somewhat downplayed, it is a critical component, mostly as the film comes to a close. The reason being the underlying story of BEN-HUR: how his view of violence changes over time. From apathy, to hate and the need for revenge, to seeing another way. It’s this other way which eventually is the redemptive path he must find.

The big highlight of BEN-HUR is, of course, the chariot race. If you’ve never seen the movie, or know little about it, you still know that there’s a climactic chariot race somewhere in there. The movie opens at the start of the race, with Judah and Messala posturing with each other from their respective chariots before tearing out onto the “circus,” a huge oval stadium built specifically for these deadly competitions. That’s the teaser, before we are brought back seven years earlier to tell the whole story.

I’d been enjoying the film up to the race, but kept my enthusiasm in check until I was able to see how this pivotal scene played out. Knowing how critical it is to the story, it had to be good. And it was. In fact, it was amazing, full of all the action and drama one would expect from a large scale epic. One aspect I thought was well-done was the lack of CGI. Granted, they probably used a lot of computer-generated effects. But there’s a good mix of live action blended in, so one does not notice the special effects. A good comparison would be the original LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy (2001-2003), which used this mixed-effect technique so bloody well, and its prequel THE HOBBIT (2012-2014) where the CGI was obvious and so prevalent it was almost sad, especially in the final installment. The action and adrenaline of the chariot race never fell into cheesy overkill, allowing the viewer to truly enjoy the experience.

The sets and cinematography throughout were gorgeous. I assume much of the film was shot in locations to reflect ancient Israel, with effects used to compliment rather than overpower the sets.

The acting was good as well, with a cast culled from around the world. For example Ayelet Zurer (MUNICH, 2005, MAN OF STEEL, 2013), who plays Judah’s mother, is a popular Israeli actress. Rodrigo Santoro (Jesus) is Brazilian. Danish actor Pilou Asbaek portrays a unique, and much less sympathetic, Pontius Pilate than is depicted in other films. From the home front, what story revolving around God doesn’t have this man:  Morgan Freeman (nearly every movie ever made) as the wandering and wealthy Arab Sheik, Ilderim, who takes on Judah as his chariot driver after convincing him that beating Messala in the circus would be more satisfying revenge. With such a unique (and unknown, to me, at least) cast, I wondered if Freeman’s star image and voice might stand out (in a bad way), but he isn’t in this many movies because he can’t act. His Ilderim is a strong side character and anti-hero.

To wrap this up, I need to throw in some spoilers. If you don’t want to know how it ends stop reading now and know I enjoyed the film, with a couple of qualms about the ending.

Yes, some aspects of the ending bothered me, and I’m guessing might have really irked other reviewers, since general reception to BEN-HUR has been meh at best.

The chariot race is the lynch pin of Judah Ben-Hur’s tale, but it’s not the end. Moving from disinterest to rage, there was one more change he needed to go through before out story was finished.

Before the race, he discovers his mother and sister are alive, rotting in a jail cell where they’ve contracted leprosy and live in squalor. This only fuels Judah’s hate. After defeating Messala in the circus and earning his freedom, Judah becomes involved in the zealot movement. Esther has become an apostle of Jesus and is present in the garden when he is arrested. Judah finds Jesus on the road, bloody and falling under the weight of the cross. He gives him water, then grabs a rock to attack the soldiers. Jesus stops him, calling him by name and explaining he does this of his own free will. There is another way towards redemption besides violence. Something about this moves Judah to later collapse at the foot of the cross when Jesus dies as he understands letting go of hate, offering forgiveness to others, is the only true path to redemption.

The phrase “something about this,” however, is where I think this year’s BEN-HUR falls a little short. His exposure to Jesus is scarce and scattered. Aside from one moment of kindness, there was no connection between the two. Yes, Esther is a pre-Christian follower, but his epiphany at the cross, as well-done and dramatic as it was, seemed too much without cause. Even most of Jesus’s disciples did not understand his teachings until three days later. Somehow, Judah understands the basic tenants after three brief encounters during his lifetime. The cause-effect would be more believable had there been more interaction between them, aside from Esther. (Yet another reason for me to check out the Heston version to see if they managed to accomplish this). At its core, BEN-HUR is a spiritual movie, but you can’t cram all religious elements into the last ten minutes!

Lastly, this may sound odd coming from an optimist, but the final scene is too happy. As in the book and 1959 movie, Judah’s mother and sister are healed miraculously of their leprosy. In the book, Jesus heals them at the side of the road before his arrest. In the previous film, they were healed with Judah at the foot of the cross. Here, it rains as Jesus dies and the rain leaks into their prison cell, and they are cured. Of the three, being at the cross works best for the plot. But that’s not my issue, really. In the very last scene, everyone reconciles with everyone else (including Messala and Judah’s sister), and every face has a big smile. The movie is somber and at times quite dark—so this many smiles at the end simply does not work. Hollywood insists that every film end with the main character smiling, to send the viewer home smiling, too (don’t believe me? Just try not to notice it in every film going forward). The film’s predominantly somber tone should have continued until the end, just more hopeful in tone. The Hollywood Rule backfired here, big time.

My issues with the ending scenes notwithstanding (unfortunately, these are what every viewer will leave remembering the most), BEN-HUR is an excellent, big-scale production and well worth the price of a ticket.


I give it three and a half racing chariots.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

STAR TREK BEYOND (2016)

Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight August 6, 2016


When the J.J. Abrams (STAR WARS VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS, 2015, LOST TV Series) reboot of the STAR TREK movie franchise debuted in 2009, I was very happy with how it turned out. And though I also enjoyed the sequel (STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, 2013), with its re-telling of the Kahn legend, I was ready, with STAR TREK BEYOND (2016) for a more original story to be told. Homages to episodes- and movies-past can only carry a franchise so far before it needs to stand on its own creative merits. A lesson I hope the Abrams team has learned when the eighth installment of STAR WARS hits the screens next year (even if FORCE AWAKENS was phenomenal in its own right).

Say what you will about STAR TREK BEYOND (as I will, since this is my review), it has followed this path and given us an original adventure for Kirk and company to fight their way through (even if the Enterprise gets destroyed… again). It doesn’t have quite the heart or oomph (for lack of an actual word) of the previous two films, but it still succeeds in other ways.

We left the crew of the USS Enterprise at the end of INTO DARKNESSpreparing for a five-year mission into uncharted space, in keeping with the original premise of the 1960s TV series. When BEYOND opens, they’ve been at it for three years, and the extended mission seems to have taken a toll on the characters (and, it felt to me, the actors, but more on that in a moment).

Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine, WONDER WOMAN, 2017, THE FINEST HOURS, 2016) is feeling a bit out of place, growing emotionally unanchored in the universe after being in space for so long. He’s having an early mid-life crisis, too, as he approaches his birthday when he will have outlived his father who died saving him and his mother in the amazing opening sequence of the first film. Kirk has applied for a desk job as Vice-Admiral of Starfleet. Spock (Zachary Quinto, HEROES TV series), in a nod to the passing of actor Leonard Nimoy (the original Spock) is mourning the death of, well, himself. Old Spock, we’ll call him. Spock now wonders if his time might be better spent continuing Old Spock’s work rebuilding the Vulcan race after the genocidal events of the first film.

Everyone else just seems tired, and it’s a good time for shore leave. They dock at a remote, but massive space station called The Yorktown. We’ve come a long way from the little Lego construction used as a space station in the original “Trouble with Tribbles” TV episode. The Yorktown is a Death Star-sized bubble containing a complex series of open-air levels and decks, each with entire city blocks reaching upward in different directions: the overall effect being a space-aged M.C. Escher painting. Docking starships enter through a long pipe in the middle of this ball. It’s quite a visual treat, and one of the coolest set pieces in the film. Here, we get a glimpse (albeit brief) into some of the personal lives of the crew, most significantly the fact that Sulu (John Cho, AMERICAN DAD! TV Series) has a husband and a daughter. In a script peppered with personal and genre references, this small plot point was done as a nod to George Takei, who played the original Sulu character.

Not long after, a lifeboat drifts out of a neighboring nebula (a natural phenomenon which has effectively kept most exploration vessels from venturing beyond to explore what may lie on the other side). Its only passenger, Kalara (Lydia Wilson, ABOUT TIME, 2013) explains that her ship has crashed on a planet on the opposite side of the nebula and is in dire need of rescue. Since the Enterprise is the only vessel available capable to making it to the other side, the crew cut their leave short and head out for an unplanned rescue mission.

I enjoyed one small detail around Kalara: she does not speak English, and her language is alien enough to require her wearing a universal translator around her neck. As she talks, the necklace translates for her. In the past, non-humans speaking English relied on the viewer’s assumption that their words were being translated either through their communications or the crew’s communicators. Nice to see an alternative approach out here. If you’re not an avid Trekkie, however, you probably won’t think this small plot point was worth an entire paragraph.

As soon as the ship arrives at the planet, they are ambushed, swarmed by thousands of small space craft that chip away at the Enterprise and chew off its nacelles (the long cylindrical “engines” used to create man-made wormholes, allowing the ship to fly at “warp” speed… didn’t think you’d learn anything today, did you?). They eventually behead the ship, leaving the large saucer section to tumble into the planet’s atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the attackers, led by the warrior alien Krall (Idris Elba, Roland in the upcoming THE DARK TOWER, 2017, and in PROMETHEUS, 2012) board the broken sections of the ship by latching onto, then through, the hull, much like pirates boarding old-time sea vessels. Well, OK, not much like that, but the association is obvious. The surviving crew is taken hostage, while those on the bridge (who happen to be the main characters) escape the saucer as it plummets onto the surface of the planet.

Most of the remaining film takes place here, on Krall’s planet, with the uncaptured crew trying to survive and find a way to rescue everyone else. We meet some new characters, see more nods to other science fiction films, and are treated to plenty of non-stop action until the closing credits.
That’s about as much recap as I can handle. What works and what doesn’t in this newest installment of Trek lore?
I’ll get one off my chest now, something I found troubling all the way through and which I touched upon earlier. The characters, and at times the actors themselves, felt disconnected from each other. This might be a deliberate effect on the part of writers Simon Pegg (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, 2004, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION, 2015, and who plays engineer Montgomery Scott) and Doug Jung. The opening captain’s log explains how three years in deep space have affected everyone in some way. However, this might also be me looking for an excuse for what appears to be a lack of cohesiveness in the cast. In the last two films, the strong interplay and quick dialogue between the actors was a major plus. Here, they’re dressed up as their characters, but not fully into it.
Sofia Boutella (THE MUMMY, 2017, MONSTERS: DARK CONTINENT, 2014) as newcomer Jaylah, injects much needed personality and life into this movie. She’s a complicated character, having lost her own people to Krall’s attacks, including her parents, and is living in a cloaked (aka, invisible) but broken spaceship hidden far from the hostiles’ prison camp, from which she’d escaped.
There is a cool scene where Kirk and Chekov (the late, and already much-missed Anton Yelchin, also in ODD THOMAS, 2013 and GREEN ROOM, 2015 – who died in a freak accident last month) are running through the demolished remains of the Enterprise’s saucer section, escaping the bad guys. I might be reading more than the filmmakers intended in this scene, but since the ship’s artificial gravity was explicitly mentioned earlier in the film, I believe that was to make this chase scene work as it did. They are on the planet, which has its own gravity, but as they run through the halls of the ship, they sometimes run up walls and ceilings, slipping down to the floor at other times. This could be due to the angle of the crash, but what struck me was that the artificial gravity was still turned on, but in a broken, messed up manner. Either way, this scene is a visual treat even if, in the end, their eventual escape should probably have resulted in Kirk and Chekov being flattened like pancakes before they got away. You’ll understand when you watch it.
Zoe Saldana (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, 2014, AVATAR, 2009) is back as Communications Officer Uhura, and has a major role in this film, even though she spends most of it as a prisoner of Krall. Her interactions with him are another high point in the film. Her character comes across as the strongest of the Enterprise crew.
I mentioned there are scattered nods to other films here if you look for them. One was in the anatomy of crewmember Ensign Syl, played by Melissa Roxburgh. The back of her head looks just like a face-hugger from the ALIEN (1979) movies. There was at least one other, but I can’t remember off the top of my head (no pun intended) and can’t read my notes (you try taking notes in a dark theater before you judge me!).
I won’t give away the “reveal” regarding Krall that comes late in the movie, but it was clever, though confusing in a number of ways. I’d need to see it again to fully grasp some of the finer details around it. Even so, I got the gist, and in a movie packed with this much action, sometimes that’s the best you can do. But I feel his “origins” could have been better explained, and after finishing this review and talking to my brother Paul, there might be more than a few plot holes here as well.
However, I have to give Pegg and Jung’s screenplay—and, as an extension, Justin Lin’s (FAST & FURIOUS, 2009) direction—some credit. Usually everything in STAR TREK is spelled out for the viewer with little room for obliqueness (I might not be using that word correctly). Not here. I get the impression some elements of this story are doled out sparingly, giving the audience some credit for being able to work things out for themselves, requiring multiple viewings to understand it all. Could also be the script was unclear at times and could have used a few tweaks. But I’m an optimist, and prefer to think their intentions were half-full.
Lengthwise, this movie felt too short. The running time was listed at two hours, but a lot must have been the closing credits since I was back in my car before then. Some of the scenes (such as shore leave, and another later when there is a short-lived breakout from Krall’s prison) felt as if they’d had their arms and legs left on the cutting room floor, perhaps to keep the action moving. If they’d remained, the movie would have been longer, true, but it would have allowed more room for deeper character development. Not that a film of this kind is the best venue for STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION-style character exploration (they tried that in those earlier Trek films with disappointing results), but there was room for expansion. I’ll expect an expanded edition on DVD sometime in the future. Perhaps some of the more confusing aspects of the film will be better explained then.
The climactic fight between Kirk and Krall was, admittedly, quite awesome. I just wonder why so many action films need to end with hand-to-hand combat between the main characters, regardless of how much technology they have at their disposal. As well, without going into details of this scene, I admit feeling I’d seen it before at the end of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.  Still, it’s visually spectacular given the set piece in which it occurs. And I need to stop beginning so many sentences with prepositions.
Overall, this is a decent, original addition to the Star Trek pantheon. I did not enjoy it as much as the first two in this rebooted series, nor does it delve as deeply into the crew’s inner worlds as its predecessors, but it does try something new. It misses some marks, but succeeds in others. I’m going to wager the series’ fan-base will be divided over STAR TREK BEYOND, but in the end it’s not going to hurt the overall franchise. It took a chance, (I’m not going to say it boldly went where no film has gone before, because it didn’t) and if you see it, you’ll enjoy it. You probably won’t love it, but you’ll be entertained.

Monday, June 27, 2016

INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE (2016)

Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight June 27, 2016

I will admit I went into INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE (2016) with minimal expectations. I’d seen the first trailer and didn’t care much for it. There’s a Catch-22 around one’s expectations, however: I had hoped, since my expectation was low, the sequel to the blockbuster movie INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996) would actually knock my socks off. Having hoped for that, I was really going in with high expectations… on and on in an infinite loop of verbose point-making that just won’t end. So let’s just stop and begin again.

The original INDEPENDENCE DAY was exciting and visually-stunning, not to mention a well-acted and cleverly-written disaster movie. That’s a lotof hyphenated words, which indicates I enjoyed it. I didn’t love it, mind you, but it was a fun two-hour thrill ride. Back then, it felt like watching a TV-movie blessed with a massive budget, as most of the cast were culled from television shows (something not normally done in that day). If you’re reading this and wondering what a “TV-movie” is, ask your parents.

The appeal of the original was the blending of modern-day warfare with high-tech science fiction. How would everyday people, soldiers, and politicians deal with an attack from outer space from technologically-advance aliens? The filmmakers did a good job with it, using the device of stolen technology from the mysterious Area 51 as a deux ex machina to defeat the bugs.

(Yes, I probably used deus ex machina incorrectly in this context, but so what? I still used it, which makes me cool, in a pretentious, literary way.)

ID: RESURGENCE (I hope you appreciate how hard it is to spell “resurgence”), on the other hand, is all science fiction. In fact, it goes a little beyond that and just skirts being a live-action anime film. I half-expected the fighter pilots to climb aboard giant, fighting robots (they didn’t, but I said it only skirts the edge). The film takes place in modern day, 2016, twenty years after the devastating attacks of the first film. Humanity has rebuilt civilization. More than rebuilt, in fact, since now everyone has access to the invaders’ technology. Everything is updated, though mostly militarily. Instead of helicopters, we have quasi-spaceships that hover and fly across the world via fusion engines (with lots of bright, blue lights). There is a base on the moon, and even an early warning outpost orbiting Saturn!

Humanity has come a long way in two decades. At least the military has. Most average people still drive cars and school buses. Aside from being able to pick apart and recreate the alien tech left behind after the mother ship went boom after the last attack, this scenario is plausible for another reason: every country has banded together, forgetting their ideological differences, working as one race to rebuild the planet’s infrastructure. At the same time they have are constantly preparing for the next invasion, if one should ever come. The base on the moon is used for controlling an array of laser cannons. We never see the outpost around Saturn, though it is soon destroyed by the aliens as they close in on Earth.

Earth’s technological leap makes sense, and is a logical progression from the previous movie. What it causes, however, is the removal of a significant element in the previous movie: humans surviving MacGyver-like against an advanced race. 
Granted, when the aliens finally show up, it’s in a whopper of a ship, three thousand miles across, reaching from the east coast of the US to the west coast of Europe. Their technology has not advanced much compared to when they first attacked, and this gives humans a better fighting chance. But this is a Queen’s ship, and she’s one smart cookie. And did I mention the ship was three-thousand miles wide?
Most of the original cast of INDEPENDENCE DAY returns for RESURGENCE, twenty years older but no less entertaining. Bill Pullman (SPACE BALLS, 1987, AMERICAN ULTRA, 2015) plays the retired, somewhat twitchy former President Whitmore; stuttering, mumbly Jeff Goldblum (JURRASIC PARK, 1993, THE FLY, 1986) is scientist David Levinson (who, we learn, has been in charge of building Earth’s defenses); Judd Hirsch (TAXI and NUMB3RS television series) is still kicking as David’s father, Julius Levinson. Brent Spiner (STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION television series), as Dr. Brakish Okun, wakes up from a twenty-year coma as the new ship comes into range. We’re also given a brief cameo by an older, but no less elegant, Vivica A. Fox (KILL BILL VOLUME 1 & 2, 2003/2004) as Jasmine Hiller, the exotic dancer who saves the first lady in ID1, and whose husband was played by then break-out star Will Smith. Smith is not in ID2, unfortunately. To deal with his absence, the writers had his character die years earlier during a test flight, leaving behind Jasmine and their son Dylan.
Dylan has grown to be the head of an elite group of young fighter pilots. The planes look a lot like our current jets, except they go a lot faster, shoot lasers, and can go into space. They didn’t combine together to form a massive robot lion, but that might have gotten left on the cutting room floor. Jessie T. Usher (WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL, 2014) plays Dylan, albeit it a little stiffly, as if the young actor isn’t quite comfortable in the role.
Liam Hemsworth (THE HUNGER GAMES, 2012, THE EXPENDABLES 2, 2012), however, shines as Dylan’s rival and hot dog pilot Jake Morrison. Jake happens to be engaged to ex-president Whitmore’s daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe, IT FOLLOWS, 2014). The super jet team is rounded out by Chinese flying ace Rain Lao, played by askance-glancing Asian actress Angelababy (HITMAN: AGENT 47, 2015). Not a typo. It’s the name she uses, and Jake’s buddy Floyd (Nicolas Wright), who nearly kills them all a couple of times, yet is still considered one of the elite.
There’s a decent mix of new and old blood in the movie. For fans of the first, Bill Pullman’s haunted President Whitmore is a treat. He (and many more humans across the globe) had made a psychic connection with the aliens twenty years ago, causing serious psychological strife. With the monster ship approaching, his nightmares are growing worse. In truth, they’re not nightmares at all, but a link to arriving alien queen. This post-psychic anxiety has actually become a psychological phenomenon, studied by the likes of David Levinson’s former girlfriend and science buddy Catherine (Charlotte Gainsbourg).
Yes. There are a lot of characters in this movie. A bit too many, in fact, each with their own backstory. Like the original film, the script juggles six or seven of these subplots beneath the overarching premise of earth being attacked. The difference here is that none have any real meat to them. Judd Hirsch’s character, after almost dying on his boat when the alien ship lands, spends the rest of the movie driving a bunch of orphaned children around, arriving at Area 51 just in time for the climactic battle. His story adds a bit of humanity to an otherwise shooty-up space story, which I did appreciate, but not much else. It felt inserted into the film instead being a natural part of it. I’ve always loved Hirsch, though, so that’s okay. None of the others had much more depth than his storyline, anyway. 
Dylan is angry at Jake for nearly killing him in a training exercise years before (considering his father was killed that way, you can’t blame him).  Young Patricia Whitmore misses her fiancé, Jake, and they need to pick out a house to buy before the wedding. (Honestly, that’s their subplot.) Current President Lanford (Sela Ward, GONE GIRL, 2014, and the CSI: NEW YORK television series) makes a couple of speeches, but doesn’t do much else, so overshadowed is she by ex-president Whitmore’s legacy. One other newcomer, who I thought was actually in the original but wasn’t, is William “No One Has Ever Spelled My Last Name Right” Fichtner (THE DARK KNIGHT, 2008, CONTACT, 1997) as General Adams. The military leader contends with a hodge-podge of scientists and soldiers all trying to save the world. In the end, no one had enough screentime to flesh their characters out as much as they should have.
The strongest performances are from Pullman, as President Whitmore, and Hemsworth’s cocky flyboy Jake Morrison. Pullman and Hemsworth are the stars of the film, and I admit it was fun watching the latter actor in a more smiley, active role after the eternally-pouty Gale in the HUNGER GAMESseries. He finally gets to smile in a film almost as much as his brother Chris (aka Thor in the Marvel movies).
INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE is not going to be up for a Best Picture Oscar. It’s less David and Goliath than its predecessor, and the bulk of the individual storylines are thin. So, is it worth forking out 30 bucks a person for a night at the movies instead of waiting for its streaming release?
Well, depends if you have a home theater system. Visually, this has some cool scenes. Before the Queen ship arrives, there’s an eerie appearance of another craft, materializing through some kind of wormhole (this is never explained, however) above the moon. The giant alien ship which arrives soon after is impressive. Because of its size, it not only wreaks havoc with the moon as it passes almost through it, but has its own gravitational pull that drags up half of China as it comes in for a landing on top of the Atlantic Ocean—one set of feet in Europe and another in the United States.
This was interesting, but I’ll admit to being a little confused about what I was seeing from time to time. It’s so big, I had difficulty figuring out what was happening. The film did have the requisite monster waves, boats rolling around, and cities destroyed. Everything you’d expect in a Roland Emmerich film. You’ll see dog fights with aliens and other stuff which I’ll won’t discuss to avoid spoilers. Visually, you will have gotten your money’s worth. If you went to a matinee and had a coupon for the popcorn.
As an aside, I occasionally give a film nods for musical score. In this case I noticed the music, composed by Emmerich-alums Harold Kloser (2012, 2009, THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, 2004) and Thomas Wander. Problem is, I noticed it in an intrusive way. The score was not nearly as pervasive as, John Williams’s score in HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE (2005) which just wouldn’t take a break, but it was close. Sometimes you can relegate it to the back of your mind, but sometimes it’s just a bit much.
Again, I could talk about other parts of the film, good and bad, but that would require some spoilers and, to be honest, I’m out of time. We’ve reached the end. Without giving anything away, the last few lines open up the possibility that INDEPENDENCE DAY might just become a trilogy. RESURGENCEwraps up its story nicely (if not a little silly-ly), but it opens the door a crack for yet another sequel. I doubt it will happen, but if it does, expect a full-fledge space opera.
That’s the key to getting the most out of INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE. Don’t expect the innocence of the first, but a film with both feet and a couple of tentacles in the science fiction genre. If you set your expectation properly, you might enjoy it more than I did. Or decide to wait for the video, if straight sci-fi isn’t your bag. For me, I give it two knives. (Two and a Half if someone buys your ticket and chips in for popcorn).

Friday, June 10, 2016

I ORIGINS (2015)

I ORIGINS i origins (2015) I ORIGINS (2015) I ORIGINSOriginally published in Cinema Knife Fight June 10, 2016

Not too long ago, I discovered a gem of an independent science fiction film called ANOTHER EARTH (2011), written and directed by Mike Cahill; produced and co-written by the film’s lead, Brit Marling. See my review here. When a new work by Cahill was released, I ORIGINS (2014), it immediately went on my radar to watch and review. Finally, here it is.

Does I ORIGINS live up to its predecessor? No, not really. It’s an interesting little film, just not nearly as gripping in plot and characters as ANOTHER EARTH. In fact, as I explain below, it is a movie with profound, but largely unexplored, potential.

Michael Pitt (SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, 2012) plays Ian Gray, a graduate student researching the evolutionary development of the eye. Every animal’s (including human’s) eye pattern is unique within a billion-to-one ratio (something like that, I never wrote down the specific number), much more than fingerprints. Ian is obsessed with eyes, taking pictures of them whenever he can. It’s a hobby and clinical obsession with which he slowly builds a database of unique eye patterns.

Some say the eye is the window to the soul. Ian doesn’t believe in a soul, and hopes his research will prove him right. His subjects range from mice to blind, single cell organisms, used to uncover the evolution of this starkly unique physical trait. More than scientific curiosity, Ian wants to disprove the idea of an intelligent designer. There is no God, or higher intelligence controlling the universe. Everything happens by chance, every trait and physical characteristic a random turn in evolution.

Why he feels the need to disprove anything is never said, not specifically, except that as random as it can be (genetically-speaking), life should always be viewed rationally. And to him, the concept of an outside intelligence guiding events around us is as far from rational as one can get.

Pitt plays the role with a sullen, brooding manner which fits the character. Ian is a socially reclusive (for the most part), opinionated, and highly intelligent scientist with a strong sense of what is the right way to see the world. He has little patience for anyone who thinks differently. Pitt does well with the character, and has a decent presence on the screen, but Ian is not a very likeable—or relatable—person, so we never have much of a connection to him as a viewer.

After meeting, then losing, a woman he makes a strong connection at a party, Ian finds her again weeks later when a seemingly deliberate series of events around the number “11” lead him to her. Sofi (played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey—PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES, 2011) is his polar opposite: physically, emotionally and spiritually. She moves through life nurturing a strong spiritual sense of everything around her. They were destined to be together, she explains, implying they may have been together in previous lifetimes. Ian rebukes this idea. In fact, any time the subject of a supernatural influence arises in conversation, he gets defensive, even condescending in his reply. Still, she patiently explains that his moment will come when he is face-to-face with something bigger than him, on a spiritual level, and Ian will need to decide whether (or not) to accept it.

Berges-Frisbey portrays the best character in this film, full of life and comfortable in her own skin. She adds much-needed light to the otherwise routine existences of the other characters. A third significant character, who is quite opposite of Sophie, and so much more like Ian, is Ian’s lab assistant Karen, played by Brit Marling (who, as I’ve mentioned, was the lead in ANOTHER EARTH). Along with being able to keep up with—and sometimes exceed—Ian’s brilliant mind, Karen is very much attracted to him.

When Sofi dies in a rather clever, and coolly grotesque, manner midway through the film, I ORIGINS gets a much needed boost of, well, something interesting. Until this point, the only scenes which felt to be moving the plot along at a decent rate were whenever Sofi was on-screen. Her death adds a bump to everything that came before, giving the viewer a chance to be shocked and think, Oh, ok, here we go, things will happen now. In this scene, Pitt shines as Ian, who holds his new wife’s bloody body in his arms.

When the story cuts ahead seven years, Ian and Karen have married and have a new baby. His research is complete and has made them both famous—at least in some circles. He’s also infamous as a scientist using his work to disprove God.

Here, more than anywhere else, I ORIGINS had a choice in what direction to take, and chose wrong. I won’t rehash any more plot except to say that a call from a doctor about some tests on their new child sets Ian and Karen on a journey to discover if perhaps the idea of eyes being windows to souls has some merit. Ian starts this journey wanting to believe, for personal reasons, while at the same time keeping himself as far away from the precipice of life re-evaluation as possible. Until, at one point, he is pushed (metaphorically speaking) over the edge.

The second half of the film is more interesting, with varied locations and storylines. This, from the introduction of some strong (and potentially strong) new characters. Especially Archie Panjabi’s (THE GOOD WIFE TV Series and BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM, 2002) Priya Varma, whom Ian encounters in India while trying to locate someone with a specific eye pattern. (I did mention I’ve stopped rehashing the plot, so just work with me here). Panjabi is always a strong presence in whatever she does. Here is no exception, even if she doesn’t have much to say in the way of deep dialogue.

On a lesser scale, Steven Yeun (Glenn from the TV series THE WALKING DEAD) has a minor role in the first half of the movie as Ian’s oft-drunk roommate, and less-efficient lab partner. I was excited to see Yeun in a role other than Glenn the zombie fighter, but his Kenny simply appears when a background character needs to be a sounding board for someone else. He doesn’t do much else.

Yeun, however, is not who I was referring to earlier when I mentioned the introduction of a “potentially strong” character.

William Mapother (the LOST TV series, as well as ANOTHER EARTH) introduces us to Darryl McKenzie late in the film, in a single scene. McKenzie is on business in India and staying at Ian’s hotel. He is also a preacher. This single scene brings with it such a quiet menace, I assumed Darryl would be back as a major foil to Ian’s New-Aged quest. He wasn’t. In fact, aside from standing in the distance at an elevator, forcing Ian to take the stairs in a key scene, the preacher man has no point in the film (aside from, perhaps, paying Mapother’s rent that month). This is too bad. As a character actor, William Mapother is awesome. He eats up the screen in his unique way wherever he appears, and could have injected this film with much-needed antagonism.

Herein lies the rub, if I may misquote the Bard. I’m one of those readers (and viewers) who sometimes wishes there was no bad guy, just people struggling and working through life without having to deal with an antagonist at every turn. But for a story meant to be entertaining, it needs something. The only battle Ian has throughout the film is with, well, Ian. It’s a Man versus Himself  narrative struggle, but I don’t think it’s enough. This might work in a quiet, romantic film about two elderly residents struggling with a decision to sell their Brooklyn apartment, but not in a plot where a scientist is trying to discover the meaning of life.

I ORIGINS needed more story than one man’s struggle to overcome his own viewpoint and admit that the universe might be more than the randomness of genetics. Though the ending does satisfy, in that Ian comes to a decision on that metaphorical precipice, to me the story is only just beginning. Much of this film could be condensed into a few scenes, to make room for Mapother’s preacher—was he there to kill Ian, or spy on him in order to preserve his own stubborn faith? When Ian leaves his hotel room just before the credits roll, what will his life be like? In the early moments of the film, Ian finds his lover Sofi initially through a series of coincidences and intuition, all centering around the number 11. Why 11, and what was causing this?

There was an extra scene after the credits rolled, which only exacerbates my problem with this movie—without giving things away, it opens up a whole new potential story, highlighting what could have been done before the credits.

Maybe I ORIGINS was intended as an introduction to a larger film series. Obviously there are budget and time restrictions, but if there is no forthcoming series of films, so many “what ifs” will never be answered. Of course, if a series does show itself, it runs the risk that the individual parts (films) of the whole are too thin.


As much as I hoped for more based on my enjoyment of his previous film, Cahill’s I ORIGINS stabbed me with only 2 knives. Even so, I’ll definitely check out his next. Who knows, maybe someday a director’s cut will be released with more Mapother and Yeun.