Archive for October 14th, 2009

14
Oct
09

Movie Review: Surrogates

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It’s an eminence front

Starring Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Ving Rhames, Rosamund Pike, James Cromwell. Directed by Jonathan Mostow. Based on the graphic novels by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele

NOTE: I have never read the graphic novels.

I never thought I would be saying this, but this movie needed to be 30 minutes longer.

Bruce Willis plays Tom Greer, a cop in the future. What is the future you ask? Surrogates. Paraplegic scientist Canter (Cromwell) invents a robot that enables those who are disabled to be normal. Per se, a disabled person can sit in a chair and plug into a “Surrogate” which gives them the ability to experience life as any normal walking, talking person can. Over a period of time the Surrogates become more advanced gaining the ability to “look” like the person who is controlling/plugged into the surrogate. VSI, a corporation for the mass production of Surrogates, is created because if the disabled can get a robot version of themselves to experience life without the hassles of aging, getting hurt, or being sick, why can’t everybody else? Soon everyone signs up for a hot, youthful, athletic robot version of themselves.

A human resistance is formed and many cities have “dread areas” where humans live but Surrogates are not allowed. One area is ran by The Prophet (Ving Rhames), who prophecizes about the coming day when humans will revolt against the Surrogates. Incidentally, Surrogate creator Canter disagreed with the idea of Surrogates for the populace and is fired and humiliated for it; he now lives in seclusion.

Back to Greer. He and his wife, Maggie (Mitchell), share an apartment but never truly see each other. After a car accident killed their only son Greer delved into his work while his wife, scarred from the wreck, decides to live through her Surrogate. The world is now became 97% Surrogates and more image-based than before (actual humans are nicknamed “meatbags”). When Canter’s son’s Surrogate is executed by a weapon that not only destroys the Surrogate but its controller as well, Greer steps into a plot that involves Canter, the Prophet, an abandoned military project and the possible death/destruction of billions of people.

2009 has inevitably became the year in which science fiction movies have returned. Maybe not the best of science fiction movies, but better than I’ve seen in a while and scores better than anything the SyFy (shudder) network can offer up on a good day. While it may not be “District 9,” or even “9,” “Surrogates” does provide some interesting ideas and tries to deliver a social message about reliance on computers and the ongoing argument of image versus substance. In a day and age in which we’re on the third incarnation of “The Sims,” or the online game “Second Life,” or even the Facebook/MySpace apps of Farrmville and YoVille, it’s easy to imagine people wanting to live vicariously through an attractive and nearly indestructible version of themselves. If you were given the opportunity to live life lying back in a chair while controlling a robotic version of yourself that could do or say anything you ever dreamed of, would you take it?

Alas, the questions and social commentary the film tries to make are brushed aside for action sequences and plot points that feel like they’re in a race for the finish. At 89 minutes, “Surrogates” feels like a sci-fi picture rushed in order to get it out and on the screen. A good chunk of characterization is sacrificed in order to keep the plot going when it doesn’t need to be. The questions regarding humanity losing itself behind a robotic facade, or what being human really means, or even how far is too far are glossed-over as if the director is too afraid to be labeled “heavy-handed” or to have his work called a “morality play.”

Speaking of direction, it could have been far worse. If Michael Bay had tackled this movie it would have been more useless than “The Island.” Mostow shows capability but not the heart for sci-fi and that’s really unfortunate because this movie could’ve been great. I liked it, but if more characterization had been thrown in it would have been good competition against “District 9.”

At best you may want to set this one on “Rental.” The premise is what sells this movie because, frankly, Bruce Willis playing a cop is about as new as James Cromwell playing a scientist. This has slightly more intelligence than “Die Hard” but less plot and characterization than “I, Robot.” It is worth checking out for robotic Californization (perfect hair, body, etc.) as well as its dark humor (“for all I know you could be a fat guy, naked in his house…”) and while I saw it matinee, I can only suggest Rental or Cable.

My grade: B

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14
Oct
09

Movie Review: The Informant!

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Lies, lies, and corporate lies!

Starring Matt Damon, Melanie Lynskey and Scott Bakula. Directed by Steve Soderbergh.

Mix equal parts of “The Tailor of Panama” and “The Insider.” Stir in “American Psycho” inner monologue. Serve to the entire theater.

So goes the story of Mark Whitacre (Damon), Vice President of ADM, a corn-based company located in Decatur, IL. ADM makes Lysine which is injected into corn products as well as any food that has anything to do with corn (note: too many to list). Whitacre is a former biochemist turned businessman faced with a problem: there’s a virus in the mix which is limiting their production and losing the company $7 million a day. Whitacre claims that there’s a saboteur at the Japanese plant who can be outed for $10 mil. Corporate sabotage justifies the FBI to tap Whitacre’s phone line and Agent Bryan Shepard (Bakula) arrives on the scene. Faced with the possibility that he may be found out, Whitacre’s wife Ginger (Lynskey) pleads to Mark to tell the truth and, facing whatever she may say, he tells Shepard about corporate price fixing.

The wheels slowly go into motion. Shepard has an informant on the corporate world who may leak one of the biggest finds ever: a corporation adjusting the price for corn products in various locations just because they can. Whitacre finds in Shepard the ability to expurgate every wrongdoing he sees the company having a part in. His plan: to wipe-out the bad guys leaving him, the shining white knight of justice. He wears wires and holds conferences in places where he has tipped-off the FBI to meetings.

“He tells the truth one day and the next he tells you two lies.” Such is the problem Shepard has with Whitacre. Every truth leads him to more lies and once those lies are explained and set to the truth, more lies follow. Whitacre is affable, personable, and believes that what he’s doing is right and does so with no apparent malice. He wants to go his own way hoping everything will go as planned.

Meanwhile Shepard is trying to make a case against the corporation and finds himself hampered by the same person claiming to “help.” Whitacre tells Shepard one thing, Shepard comments and advises a direction, then Whitacre does what he wants to do without regard to whether it’s safe, sane, or correct. Eventually he becomes the “scapegoat” of Whitacre’s frustrations with himself.

Filmmaker Soderbergh treats the material in a manner akin to being a 70s film; think Coppola’s “The Conversation” via a bumbling exec with the jazz soundtrack of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Instead of making it like Mann’s “The Insider” or a Sidney Lumet thriller, Soderbergh shows that Whitacre wasn’t the only one who made some dumb moves; the FBI did their fare share as well. Plus there’s the “hazy-filter” shots, the attention to (now dated) technology, and the general lightheartedness of Whitacre.

“See this? I’m double-oh-fourteen. ‘Cause I’m twice as smart as James Bond.” No doubt Damon enjoyed saying this line because he’s played Jason Bourne and is known for not being a big fan of the Bond franchise. This line suits Whitacre entirely because, let’s face it, the man is too caught up in saving himself to do the right thing. For instance Shepard tells Whitacre to tell ADM that he will get his own lawyer and that he is cooperating with the government. Whitacre then meets ADM’s lawyer who after having a private consultation says that yes, he will need his own lawyer. He then gets a lawyer and drops the bomb of it all in the firm’s lap. He continues lying and gets a new lawyer, this one a small-town personal injury lawyer. Smart, eh?

Not to be outdone, the question “who is Mark Whitacre?” comes to the forefront and the FBI finds out from ADM’s lawyer that Whitacre was embezzling money the entire 2.5 years he was working undercover for them. How much? First it was $2 million. Then $5 million. Then $7.7 million. The final amount was probably $9.5 million. According to Whitacre he was creating his own severance package in the event he wasn’t working for ADM anymore. This changes the direction from being a case of a VP exposing a corporation to a VP embezzling from the corporation. Shepard’s reputation has been tainted and to make matters worse Whitacre is claiming that Shepard hit him in the face with a briefcase. The lies never end.

The trial comes and goes and Whitacre, having exhausted everything including a claim to being bi-polar, is the biggest loser of all. While his corporate comrades received jail sentences of 3 years each with 45 counts of embezzlement Whitacre receives 9 years and is released in 2006. Whitacre currently works as a COO for a company in California. His wife is still with him.

While the film is enjoyable there is a slight snag: the character never changes. You get into Whitacre’s character via his actions and personal narration but the problem is that he doesn’t change. You empathize with Shepard because he’s trying to do the right thing, the correct thing, and Whitacre just doesn’t care. However, Whitacre isn’t mean or nasty about it; he’s too wrapped-up protecting himself and pretending to be the good guy even until the end. I honestly wanted to see Whitacre break down and say, “Okay. I’ll stop lying and drawing more attention to myself than I have to,” but that never happens. It’s funny how he subverts the idea of change for the sake of complacency, but not smart. By the end of the movie you appreciate Shepard and still like Whitacre, but less than when you started the journey with him.

Good execution, good story, and good acting.

My grade: a standard B.

14
Oct
09

Movie Review: Jennifer’s Body

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It would be nothing without Megan’s body.

Starring Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried, Johnny Simmons and J.K. Simmons. Directed by Karyn Kusama

Okay. I thought this movie was going to be crap-tacular. It wasn’t. I really wanted to hate this movie. I couldn’t. Then again, the movie wasn’t all that great.

The films begins with a teenage girl named Anita nicknamed “Needy” by her friends. Needy is in a mental hospital where she has been labeled “The Kicker” because she has a habit of not taking her medication and kicking the orderlies an appreciable distance. Upon being sent to solitary confinement, we learn that she wasn’t always like this…

Needy was your average, overlooked high school geek with a boyfriend named Chip (Johnny Simmons). Her best friend since sandbox days has been Jennifer (Fox), the popular, beautiful, attractive, head cheerleader. They live in the small town of Devil’s Kettle so named because of a waterfall that flows into a vortex where whatever goes is never seen or heard from again. Scientists have proved it using small, red GPS balls.

On one particular night Jennifer takes Needy out to Melody Lane, the epitome of small town dive bars, where up-and-coming indie band Low Shoulder are having a show. Jennifer has been a big fan ever since running across their MySpace page (amazingly they’ve never friend requested me) and they plan to “make it big in a Maroon 5 way” (the running gag of the movie). Before their first song is over Melody Lane catches on fire. Needy, Jennifer, and the band make it out alive. Transfixed with the band the lead singer takes Jennifer into his conversion van and bolts down the road.

Needy is upset with the band taking her best friend, more upset when Jennifer shows up covered in blood, and even more upset when Jennifer spews black liquid onto the floor before smiling and leaving. The next day Jennifer seems perfectly fine and happy, disregarding the fact that a bunch of her high school friends were among those trapped and burnt up in the Melody Lane blaze. Out on the football field she seduces the lead football player and takes him into the woods where we see Jennifer for who she is now: a demon possessing the body of Megan Fox (or a high school teenage girl, take yer pick).

Jennifer’s callous attitude strikes Needy as odd, as well as the “psychic” connection she has with Jennifer before a new victim is claimed. Turning to the occult section of the high school library (check your local school for yours, kids) she finds out about “demon transference:” if a sacrifice is not a virgin then she does not die. Instead she becomes possessed by a demon which will feed on human flesh. It can only be killed when the demon is hungry by piercing through its heart.

Jennifer is now Countess Elisabeth Bathory-come-demon from hell. When she’s “full” she’s nice, attractive, and feels great; when she’s hungry she’s grumpy, has blemishes, and feels like crap. During one scene Jennifer shows off her newfound abilities which include ripping into her skin and having it self-repair, explains how the band sacrificed her to make it big like Maroon 5, and passionately kisses Needy. Jennifer then disappears and sets her sights on the upcoming dance/benefit for the families of the victims of the Melody Lane mishap in which Low Shoulder will not only be performing but giving 3% of the proceeds of the sale of their single, “Through the Trees,” to the benefit. Low Shoulder isn’t the only reason Jennifer plans to attend; she wants Needy’s boyfriend Chip.

As I said before I really wanted to dislike this movie. In a sea of retarded 70’s and 80’s horror remakes (“Friday the 13th,” “The Last House on the Left,” “Sorority Row,” and that’s just this year) it’s good to have a horror film that tries to be as original as possible. The problem with this movie wasn’t so much the storyline as it was the direction. The movie starts off with what everyone expected: Diablo Cody’s signature “Juno” pop culture slang and vernacular. Jennifer and Needy speak some of it in the beginning but after the 1/3 mark, it almost ceases to exist. Not that it’s a bad thing because while it worked for “Juno,” the idea feels misplaced in the horror world.

The second problem with this film would be in the question “what kind of movie do you want to be?” It was tense but not scary. It had moments of satire but wasn’t a satire. Only one high school couple had sex and at least one of them lived to the end. Uneven overall would best be describing it. A few laughs, satire that barked instead of bit, and the wonder if it was supposed to be the movie it was trying to be or making fun of that kind of movie. Smarter than your standard slasher but more complacent than your standard studio horror remake.

I’ll let you decide whether this one is worth your time. My best suggestion is to save this as a Halloween Rental along with the Midnite Movie “Countess Dracula.” Megan Fox, Ingrid Pitt, some friends, and alcohol. How can you lose?

Watch for J.K. Simmons as Mr. Wroblewski, a science teacher with a claw hand.

My grade: B-