Review: San Andreas

san andreas one sheet movie posterEarthquakes are scary things, and the Western US is on the edge of tectonic plates, so every so often there’s a pressure build-up and slip that causes either a little jiggle in the earth or a major quake like the Northridge quake in the mid 90’s or the Loma Prieta quake in San Francisco back in 1989. Cinema loves disasters because they force the drama. Rescues! Peril! Families Torn Apart! Explosions! Fires!

So it’s no wonder that San Andreas picks up the mantel of disaster movies by postulating a massive series of earthquakes that start in the Las Vegas area, move down to Los Angeles, then travel up the, yes, San Andreas fault to San Francisco, where it wreaks all sorts of destruction and produces a massive tsunami that floods an already destroyed downtown area.

But to be blunt, San Andreas is awful. It’s riddled with trite, painful dialog, the performances are almost universally poor, the storyline doesn’t actually make any sense to even someone with the slightest clue about disasters and even some of the special effects look like they’re shot with toys.

And it pains me to say this because I’m a fan of Dwayne Johnson (who plays LA Fire & Rescue chopper pilot Ray Gaines). But even his considerable charm and humor fail to materialize in this shlockest film that is so formulaic that we can predict every single plot “twist” at least fifteen minutes before it appears.

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Review: Tomorrowland

tomorrowland movie poster one sheetMy daughter and I watch a lot of old movies. The previous era of cinema appeals to us is because of the underlying optimism and the comfort in knowing that the bad guy will get their comeuppance and the good guys will overcome, the proverbial happy ending. Life isn’t quite so graceful, unfortunately, but part of the draw is that older films offer a happier, more optimistic world.

By contrast, modern cinema seems to often lack a moral compass and while this ambiguity can sometimes lead to great movies like The Usual Suspects, other times it produces films that celebrate the bad guy. Case in point: Gone in 60 Seconds. The “heroes” of the film are car thieves. How is that honorable and worth celebrating? Because the other guys in the movie are meaner than they are.

Tomorrowland is an energetic, optimistic film about hope and imagination, core messages that are easy to forget in our modern if-it-bleeds-it-leads era. As lead character Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) explains, we can choose to feed the pessimist or the optimist in our head, a decision that determines which predominates and what kind of person we become.

Tomorrowland starts at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, with earnest young tinkerer Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) entering his homemade jet pack into an inventors contest, hoping to win the $50 prize. Haughty judge David Nix (Hugh Laurie) is unimpressed with an invention that doesn’t quite work, but it’s his companion Athena (a splendid Raffey Cassidy) who catches young Frank’s eye. She slips him a mysterious pin with a “T” emblazoned on it and encourages him to follows her onto the It’s a Small World ride. Turns out that the ride is a secret portal to a future world called Tomorrowland where the sky is full of flying cars, robots do all the tedious work, everyone’s happy and healthy and the only limits on what can be created are the imagination of the creators.

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Review: Dark Star: H. R. Giger’s World

dark star h.r.giger's world movie poster one sheetIf you’ve seen the extraordinary sci-fi / horror thriller Alien then you’ve encountered the world of surrealist artist H. R. Giger. In fact, he was part of the team that won an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Visual Effects for their work on the film. Sadly, Giger passed away a year ago, leaving a massive legacy of weird, twisted, surreal paintings, lithographs and sculpture both at his bizarre house in Zurich, Switzerland and at museums and galleries throughout the world.

But who was Hans Rudolf Giger and why was his entire artistic career focused on his dark, erotic visions of the inner world of our nightmares and greatest fears? Unfortunately and rather surprisingly, that isn’t really explored in this documentary by Belinda Sallin. It’s a documentary in the most literal sense in that it documents portions of Giger’s life, including interviews with many of the most important people in his world, but never gets below the surface, even when interviewing Giger himself.

What does come out is that Giger had a strange life, starting with the gift of a human skull from his father when he was but a six year old boy.  To show that he wasn’t afraid of death, he tied a string to it and dragged it around the streets. A few years later, his sister teased him for being frightening of a mummy at the museum, and in a reaction that hinted at his life obsession, he surreptitiously returned to the museum for weeks to overcome his fear.

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Review: The Connection

la french / the connection movie poster one sheetNew York City in the early 1970’s was awash in heroin. It was not only the recreational drug of choice, it was the dealer’s and mobsters import of choice too, and almost all of it came from Turkey by way of France. The purification process and smuggling of the heroin, hundreds of kilos at a time, all came out of the port city of Marseille, and the NYPD battle against this criminal nightmare was memorialized in the terrific, Academy-Award winning The French Connection.

Picking up the story four years after the 1971 movie, the newly released The Connection (French title Le French) tells the story of what happened on French soil and how the French police, notably dedicated magistrate Pierre Michel (played in the movie by Jean Dujardin), brought down Gaëtan Zampa and his drug-funded Marseille mob.

I really wanted to like The Connection. Tied to one of the best crime movies ever made (The French Connection won five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Gene Hackman who is great as the unconventional cop Popeye Doyle) it seems like a terrific premise, telling the “other side” of the story. Unfortunately, there are two films competing for our attention, a movie that’s overtly tied to The French Connection, complete with similar drug-stuffed automobiles and similar cinematography, and a second, more interesting movie about how Michel and his small team of loyal cops spent years fighting not just Zampa and his drug lords, but corruption within the French police force and government too.

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Review: It’s Alive

it's alive one sheet movie posterHorror films explore not just the dark recesses of our collective psyche, but also wrestle with contemporary mores and values. Lots of people avoid them because of the gore, the jump frights or the sheer weirdness of the worst entries in the genre, but there are other horror films that offer a remarkably different perspective when watched 10, 20 or more years later.

When I flipped on the 1974 shlock horror film It’s Alive, about a mutant baby who goes on a murderous rampage, famously including the birth room at the hospital, I didn’t have very high expectations, but as it proceeded, I realized just how engaging the movie was as a remarkably cynical statement on the obstacles families face with a “different” baby.

In the film Lenore (Sharon Farrell) and Frank (John P. Ryan) are expecting their second child when she has a painful birth that produces, well, a monster, a horrible clawed beast that proceeds to slaughter everyone in the room except mom, then vanish out a skylight. Fortunately all of this happens off-camera (a remake would add all the missing gore and completely change the tone of the film) and when Frank finds out, he’s furious that the hospital is at fault and that they’ve stolen his baby.

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Review: Far from the Madding Crowd

far from the madding crowd movie poster one sheetBased on what’s considered one of the best novels of its time, director Thomas Vinterberg’s Far from the Madding Crowd follows orphaned heroine Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) throughout the formative years of her young life, the men she attracts and her relationship with each of them.

There are three men who are attracted to the beautiful, headstrong and tempestuous young Bathsheba: the sturdy, plodding Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a sheep farmer who is captivated by her plucky spirit, Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a handsome and reckless Sergeant in the military and William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a prosperous, older man with a substantial estate. Each of these men represents a different archetype: quiet and earnest, albeit without resources (Oak), flashy, fun and narcissistic (Troy) and boring but reliable (Boldwood). Which will Bathsheba pick as her husband?

Lavishly shot in the English countryside and beautifully costumed, it’s a period drama that had me shaking my head time and again as the story unfolded. Turns out that it’s not only highly predictable, but director Thomas Vinterberg never gave depth to any of the characters so it never went beyond archetypal drama on screen. The Brooding Man, The Hurt but Hopeful Man, and The Narcissistic Man kept moving in and out, taking turns with Bathsheba’s attention.

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Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

avengers: age of ultron one sheet posterDo superheroes get bored? Is it possible that being constantly on call to save the world every time something bad happens might get just a bit in the way of having a pleasant life, a family and a social life? That’s the central question of the terrific new Marvel movie Avengers: Age of Ultron. And I’ll make this easy: Just go see it.

The story is propelled by a question that’s on a lot of people’s minds nowadays: Can our attempts to create technological systems that protect us backfire and become dangerous in their own right? This might be the central question of all science fiction, actually, first showing up in the cinema in 1927 with Metropolis, and more recently in films like The Matrix, The Terminator and Ex Machina.

In Avengers: Age of Ultron it’s Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) who creates an artificial intelligence built around tech stolen from Hydra in a thrilling, albeit somewhat half-baked opening scene, tech that we’ve, well, seen before in earlier Marvel movies. Problem is, while he and his fellow mad scientist Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) are earnest in their desire to establish “peace in our time” (a line filched from WWII propaganda). Ultron gains a body and quickly becomes powerful enough that its desire to create peace by simply eradicating those pesky Avengers becomes a serious threat.

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Review: Ex Machina

ex machina movie poster one sheetWhat makes us human? It’s a philosophical puzzle that goes back as far as human history is recorded, something we’ve wrestled with since the dawn of time. In the modern era, it was savant Alan Turing who suggested the definitive test for the “humanness” of an artificial intelligence, now known as the Turing Test: if you interact with an unknown entity through a computer and cannot ascertain whether it’s an AI or an actual person, then it should be considered human.

Cinematically this has been a ripe area for exploration too, including the chilling 70’s sci-fi film The Forbin Project, the teen-focused Wargames and, of course, HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Indeed, almost all science fiction set in the future assumes that we will have sentient, self-aware computers, they just disagree on how malevolent they’ll be. Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics might not be enough to save us after the singularity, the moment when “they” become more intelligent than we humans are.

Into the middle of this drops the fascinating Ex Machina, which revolves around the AI robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) who has been created by quirky genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and is going to be evaluated in a face-to-face Turing Test by the idealistic loner Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). The key question becomes profound: If Ava is sufficiently self-aware to have a chance of passing this Turing Test, what happens if she doesn’t actually pass? And what behaviors will it inspire in her to improve her chances of having Caleb confirm she is indeed sentient?

Director Alex Garland brings a surreal, at times metaphysical tone to the film with its beautiful wilderness setting where inventor Nathan has built his underground research station below a Fallingwater-inspired ultra-modern home. The cold, unfeeling beauty of the home, where concrete walls and rough stone from the existing terrain directly parallel the cold finish and appearance of Ava, a robot designed to be beautiful in all but the kinesthetic.

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Review: Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police

can't stand losing you: Surviving the Police one sheet posterEvery guitar player in every garage band in the world dreams of hitting the big time, of having sold out concerts, worldwide acclaim and screaming fans who are willing to do anything to spend time with you. Musicians don’t just make it overnight, however, there’s a long, sometimes decades long, journey, and if you do attain that level of success you quickly realize it has a dark side too.

Andy Grieve’s biographical documentary Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving the Police is about guitarist Andy Summers of The Police and serves as a splendid example of the highs and lows of rock ‘n roll stardom. Narrated by Andy and featuring many of his black and white photos from concert tours, recording sessions, and home life, Can’t Stand Losing You also mirrors his life, with a narrative pace that slowly runs out of energy as the film proceeds.

Summers was born during WWII in England, during a time when housing was in such short supply that his Dad bought a gypsy wagon for the family. Growing up in Birmingham, he was given his first guitar at 11 and absolutely fell in love with the instrument, becoming a virtuoso by his late teens. Summers headed to London where he joined Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band and enjoyed early success until the band reinvented itself as the psychedelic Dantalian’s Chariot.

Dantalian’s Chariot soon fell apart and Summers bounced to The Soft Machine for a few months, then flew out to Los Angeles to join Eric Burdon and the Animals. The big time! Except Burdon broke up and reformed his band less than a year later. Without Summers.

LA wasn’t a compete bust, however: He met his future wife Kate and the two of them flew back to London (with money borrowed from his Dad) where Andy became a studio musician, notably showing up as a soloist on Mike Oldfield’s album “Tubular Bells”.

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Review: The Protokon

the protokon one sheet movie posterClassic science fiction often involves filmmakers trying to portray what’s ahead for mankind, whether it’s the Empire versus the Rebel Alliance, the relatively near future of 2001: A Space Odyssey or a dark future as portrayed in Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green or Gattica. It’s rare for a modern filmmaker to try to create something with old-school verisimilitude, however, so while The Protokon might not stand up as much of a thoughtful cinematic experience, its retro 80’s look and style make it worth a viewing anyway.

In fact, writer director Anthony de Lioncourt runs the entire finished film through a digital “aging” process to add visual artifacts and even sneaks in a copyright in the opening titles that places it as a film from 1983. It also has the dark, over-saturated colors of its genre, along with semi-mystical elements, some of which are straight out of Logan’s Run and others from Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

The story revolves around James Tain (Mark Mattson), whose life is shattered when a band of thugs attack him and his fiancée, leaving him unconscious and her dead. His entire world focuses on revenge and when the mysterious Elijah (Jaiden Kaine) makes him the proverbial offer he can’t refuse, a chance to wreak his revenge in return for unwavering loyalty to The Order, the film becomes a choice between good and evil. Th real story then is the same as that explored in 80’s films like Rambo and the 70’s films Billy Jack and Walking Tall: what happens to a man after he’s wrought the revenge he’s so long imagined?

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