REVIEW: “Automata”

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The year is 2044. Solar storms have turned the Earth’s surface into a radioactive desert causing 99% the world’s population to die. With only 21 million people remaining, a desperate humanity create primitive robots who build walls around their last remaining cities and atmospheres to protect them from the radioactivity and harsh elements. Millions of robots are manufactured by a corporation called ROC and safety protocols are put in place to keep the robots from harming any life form and to keep them from altering themselves. The ultimate purpose of the protocols is to protect humanity at all costs.

This is world of the 2014 science fiction film “Automata” from director Gabe Ibanez. It stars Antonio Banderas as Jacq Vaucan, an insurance investigator for ROC. Jacq is sent to investigate the claims of a cop who says a robot he shot was altering itself. In order for that to happen someone (termed the “clocksmith”) must be modifying the robots by bypassing the protocols and therefore endangering mankind. The case leads Jacq down a trail of police and corporate corruption, murder, deception, and ultimately revelation.

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Banderas is good as the burnt out and worn down Jacq. His friend and boss Robert (Robert Forster) recognizes his plight but needs him on the case. His very pregnant wife Rachel (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) is concerned with his state of mind and ability to protect them. Banderas seems to be in a perpetual state of exhaustion, but it works here mainly because he doesn’t play a standard, action movie prototype. He’s not the ex-special forces type or the bulked-up one-man army. He’s about what you would expect an ‘insurance inspector’ to be.

The movie sports some nice visuals especially when revealing its dystopian landscapes. The robots’ primitive looks and movements are nice fits for the story being told. Everything from a visual perspective works in “Automata”. But in the end it’s the storytelling that ultimately lets the movie down. There are a host of clever ideas and interesting concepts that the film plays with, but it never sees any of them through. Instead it employs several sci-fi movie and character cliches that undermine the story’s potential. In a nutshell, the film leaves you with the impression that it’s going someplace smart and possibly profound. Sadly it’s only an impression.

It could also be said that “Automata” is missing that cool creative spark we see in good science fiction. It certainly looks the part, but it never engages its audience or challenges them in any way. That’s not to say it isn’t entertaining. Banderas gives a solid performance and Ibanez shows a definite skill with his camera and in moving his story along. But it’s the story itself that lets them down. There is a strong premise at its core and there several themes begging to be expanded on. That’s why I found “Automata” to be a decent but a slightly unfulfilling experience.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW : “The Descendants”

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“The Descendants” is a film from director Alexander Payne that first came out Oscar ripe. It’s a heavy story that deals with several conflicting emotions that flow from situations that are all too real for many people. It can be a difficult film to watch at times but it can also be quite moving. I can certainly understand the reason for the Oscar buzz it received mainly due to some incredible performances. But the movie both underplays and overplays some parts of the story which for me held it back a tad.

The story follows Matt King (Clooney), a husband and father of two who lives in Hawaii. He’s a rich man who gained his wealth by being a descendant of Hawaiian royalty. He is the sole trustee of 25,000 acres of pristine virgin land on the island of Kauai. But Matt tries to stay grounded. He works as a lawyer and uses that salary to support his family while employing his father’s perspective that you should always work for your money. Matt and his cousins have entertained offers for the land. Some want to sell it to a huge group from Chicago while others want to sell to a local Kauai developer. Matt has the final say and must weigh the wishes of his family with what’s best for the community. We learn most of this in the first few minutes of the movie through expository voice-overs. In many films this could be seen as a crutch but here it works surprisingly well and gives us key elements to the story which sets up what’s to come.

But within the first few minutes of the film it’s revealed that Matt’s wife has had a serious boating accident which leaves her comatose in an intensive care unit. Things look bleak and Matt struggles to bring together his two daughters. One is the impressionable 10 year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and the other is the bitter, irreverent 17-year old Alex (Shailene Woodley). To make matters worse, Matt finds out that his wife has been cheating on him with a younger real estate agent. The story takes Matt on an emotional roller coaster as he tries to balance feelings of anger and betrayal with the reality of his wife’s current state. There is a unique complexity to the story and while there is a lot going on emotionally, Payne makes everything feel genuine and authentic.

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While “The Descendants” does keep everything feeling reel, it does overplay a vital element to one of the film’s key relationships. Matt struggles and at times looks inept when it comes to parenting. This was never more clear than in his relationship with his older daughter Alex. Payne certainly portrays her as angry and rebellious but I felt he terribly overdid it. I was particularly turned off by her constant vulgarity and irreverence. Even as their relationship supposedly grows stronger, we see her or her airhead boyfriend speak to Matt as if they were drinking buddies. Woodley gives a brilliant performance but I never completely appreciated her character mainly due to some shoddy writing which kills the otherwise wonderful moments between the two. Her character never truly evolves as I had hoped.

And while it overplays that particular relationship I felt it underplayed the relationship between Matt and his wife. To be fair, we do get all the information we need and I had no trouble understanding the relationship between the two. But I couldn’t help but wish for more. We never see them together before the accident. All of the details of their marriage is brought out through conversations with neighbors and family. It’s a smart method of storytelling and I guess it worked well enough. But the nitpicker in me really would have liked to have seen more.

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One of the most important lines in the movie occurs during a conversion Matt has with another character. Matt is told “Everything just happens”. This seems to be a main point that Payne tries to make with this film and we see it throughout the picture. But I couldn’t buy into that premise. I go back to Matt’s relationship with his daughter. Alex’s attitude and disrespect didn’t just happen. She is a product of her parents poor parenting. His wife’s affair didn’t just happen. Her poor decisions and lack of self-control led to the adultery. If “Everything just happens” is a main point as many have said, Payne never sold me on it.

As I mentioned, their are some fantastic performances here. Clooney is controlled and reserved and delivers one of his best performances. I’ve already mentioned the great work from Woodley but young Miller is also quite good. With the exception of the peculiarly cast Matthew Lillard, there are several brief but strong performances from actors like Robert Forster and Beau Bridges. I also loved the use of Hawaii as a location. We do get small glimpses at its island beauty but for the most part Payne treats it as a real place where people live – a community with all the same trials and troubles as any other state. The mix of uniqueness and commonality was very effective.

There is a lot to like with “The Descendants”. It deals with some weighty subject matter in a real and thoughtful way. It shows glimpses of greatness even though it’s brought back down by some poor creative direction that strips one of the more intriguing characters of much of her likability. But I found myself caring about what happened to these people. It’s strong stuff and “The Descendants” handles it all well. It’s a film with a great concept and some great moments. Unfortunately a few speed bumps in the script keep it from being a truly great film.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

“Olympus Has Fallen” – 4 STARS

Olympus posterLet me preface this review by saying I grew up on the action movies of the late 1980s and early 90s. In some ways I cut my movie watching teeth on the films of Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, and company – the same movies that Antoine Fuqua’s “Olympus Has Fallen” undeniably and unashamedly pays homage to. From the bullets and body count to the plot holes and conveniences, “Olympus Has Fallen” mirrors those old-school action pictures. But there is another much more important thing that it has in common with the older films. It’s one heck of a fun and entertaining time. “Olympus Has Fallen” knows exactly what it wants to be. It sets its target, aims for it, and hits it dead center. I’ve always appreciated when a movie does that.

Throughout the reviews I’ve read, there seems to be two main criticisms hurled at this film. The first is that it’s nothing more than a “Die Hard” knockoff. Others blast the film for its blatant flag-waving American patriotism. I find it funny that people have gotten hung up on these two things the most. “Olympus Has Fallen” has its share of problems both structurally and narratively. But these two stumbling blocks for some didn’t hurt my experience in the least. As a matter of fact in some instances they actually helped it.

Look, the “Die Hard” gripe has some merit. In fact you could call this “Die Hard in the White House”. A mysterious terrorist group with North Korean ties attacks Washington DC in broad daylight. It starts with an air assault from a modified C130 followed by a violent ground attack which leaves many civilians dead and the city in chaos. But their prime target is the White House which they manage to take control of in 13 minutes. So much for our impenetrable national security, right? The terrorists seem to have the upper hand except for one small kink – U.S. Treasury desk jockey Mike Banning (Gerard Butler).

Now you know how this works, Banning is much more than a pencil pusher. He was at one time President Asher’s (Aaron Eckhart) Secret Service head honcho and close friend to the First Family, but an uncontrollable tragedy cost him his job. But you can’t be a one-man army just by doing Secret Service work. Just like Arnie, Sly, and Chuck in so many of their films, Banning is also a former Special Forces Ranger. Like John McClane in Nakatomi Plaza, Banning is the lone eyes, ears, and muscle inside the enemy-occupied White House. The “Die Hard” comparisons are unavoidable but is that really a bad thing? “Olympus Has Fallen” is a much better “Die Hard” film than either of the last two “Die Hard” movies. And while this doesn’t do much in terms of originality, it nicely uses several of the key ingredients that made that franchise so great.

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Then there’s the patriotism criticism. I guess I missed the announcement. When did patriotism become a liability or a weakness in a film. I can understand it becoming a problem when a movie beats you over the head with it, but that’s not the case here. There isn’t an ounce of subtlety in this movie’s pro-American spirit presentation but I don’t see why there has to be. As long as it doesn’t drown us in it. At one time there was an overload of ham-fisted patriotism in movies but that was a while ago. This was one area where the movie did feel surprisingly fresh. In other words the patriotic angle worked.

“Olympus Has Fallen” is helped by its nice supporting cast. Morgan Freeman is rock solid as always. He plays the Speaker of the House who is elevated to Commander in Chief after the President’s abduction. Melissa Leo was good as the Secretary of Defense even though she’s given a few pretty corny lines to wrestle with. I also loved seeing Robert Forster as a grumbling Army General and Angela Bassett as the head of the Secret Service.

But this is an action movie and the action is the film’s bread and butter. After a rather slow moving beginning which serves more as table setting, the action kicks in gear when the terrorists attack DC. Now I’ve heard a lot of criticism over the special effects but I don’t see it. With the exception of a few small hiccups, I thought the visuals were quite good. Maybe I got lucky but the DLP digital screen at my theater was ablaze with furious gunfire and massive explosions. The C130 attack, while preposterous, looked great and sucked me right in. There’s also a fantastic shootout on the front lawn of the White House that’s nothing more than old-school, bullet-riddled fun. Shootouts and hand-to-hand throwdowns continue throughout the rooms and halls of the White House with the percussion-heavy score amping up the macho intensity. Once the action starts you rarely have time to catch your breath.

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In an action movie like this one has to know it’s violent. But it should be said it’s really violent. Bodies drop at an alarming rate per minute and there’s no shortage of the red stuff. A lot of blood splatters through a huge variety of violent deaths. Be prepared for the numerous neck snaps, knife stabs, and head shots. Explosions are everywhere from jets and helicopters to buses and garbage trucks. Everything is fair game for Fuqua’s explosive experts.

As I hinted at earlier, this type of movie mandatorily requires some suspension of disbelief. You also must be prepared to deal with certain gaps in logic, tons of action movie cliches, and a few gaping plot holes. These things didn’t take away from the fun I had with “Olympus Has Fallen” but they are the kinds of things that keep it from being a truly magnificent film. There are several head-scratching moments that will pull you out of the film if you allow yourself to dwell on them. Why would the entire White House security code system remain the same even though people with access to them have been fired for a year and a half? Why do these and most other action movie villains insist on dragging out their missions instead of quickly carrying them out before the heroes have time to get in their way? I could go on. There are several in this film but if you can put it aside you’ll have a good time.

For me “Olympus Has Fallen” was a trip back in time through both the film’s high-octane action as well as with its predictable shortcomings. This was the real key to my enjoyment. There was a genuine nostalgic satisfaction as well as an appreciation for a film that sets out to be a specific kind of movie and never deviates from that goal. Now those who find testosterone-driven action flicks with fast moving kill counters to be relics from an outdated genre will have a hard time digesting this film. I can understand that. But this movie really surprised me, certainly not for its perfection, but for its rousing fun factor. There are tons of bullets, loads of explosions, and pride in the American spirit. For me, that’s not necessarily a bad thing and at the end of the movie I left with a smile on my face. Mission accomplished Mr. Fuqua!