REVIEW: “THEM!” (1954)

I’ve recently started revisiting some of the 1950’s sci-fi classics. I remember growing up and watching many of these films whenever I had the chance (which wasn’t often in the days of no cable TV and only three watchable local channels). The 50’s and early 60’s sci-fi genre saw mankind up against everything from huge tarantulas, sea monsters, giants, and a large assortment of alien threats, and as a young boy I loved them all. Of all of the 1950’s sci-fi creature features, “THEM!” most certainly ranks among the best of the bunch. “THEM!” was first conceived as a 3-D project from Warner Brothers, at least until a series of on-set technical issues arose. So the production team created the film in glorious black and white and I can’t imagine it any other way.

The movie’s main threats are giant ants which mutated as a result of radiation from a nuclear test detonation over the New Mexico desert in 1945. These massive insects are well over 9 feet long with bone-crushing mandibles and are byproducts of the new atomic age (at least new in 1954 – when the film was made). In fact, it’s Edmund Gwenn’s Dr. Medford character who paints the new nuclear world as a terrifying, unknown, and unpredictable place. That theme plays in the background of the entire movie and while maybe not as effective today, it’s still easy to see how it could create a fear and tension on its own.

The ants are first discovered when New Mexico state trooper Sgt. Peterson (James Whitmore) and his partner come across a little girl wandering aimlessly through the desert. She’s in shock and unable to tell them who she is or what she’s doing. They end up connecting her to a demolished camper of a now missing vacationing family. A string of other mysterious deaths, including Peterson’s partner, leads to F.B.I. Agent Graham (James Arness) being called in to help with the investigation. Dr. Medford (Gween), a leading myrmecologist from the Department of Agriculture also joins the investigation along with his “expert” daughter Pat (Joan Wheldon). They discover the reasons behind the deaths and their main goal becomes killing the bugs while containing them within the desert. But that doesn’t work out so well and before long they have a potential global crisis on their hands.

The story is attributed to a collaborative effort, but combined with Gordon Douglas’ marvelous direction, it is extremely clever and well constructed. The story starts off with a murder mystery feel as the officers, agents, and scientists piece together clues to uncover the mystery behind the deaths. What’s impressive is that it doesn’t feel manufactured or underplayed. The early investigation scenes are very well conceived and helped even more by Douglas’s slick use of his cameras. Smartly, the movie doesn’t reveal the ants right away which builds the suspense and anticipation so that when we finally see them, they have been established as a serious threat. Of course by today’s standards there’s nothing particularly scary of unnerving about them. But I still have no trouble going back to when people first saw the film and I still get a little giddy when I hear the ant’s menacing screeches.

I also love the way that everything in the story is taken seriously. Sure, there are some moments of good humor, but as a whole, the story is told in a very factual, pokerfaced way. One reason this is so good is because it leaves the audience toying with the possibilities that these bizarre and outlandish things could happen. While the writing is essential to this, the performances are equally important. Whitmore, Gwenn, and Arness are perfect fits for their roles. Wheldon is good as well although she isn’t all that convincing as an esteemed entomologist. But there are other small but fun roles to be found. A young Leonard Nimoy has a brief scene as an Air Force communications officer. Fess Parker also has a brief but entertaining part as a boozer stuck in a mental hospital.

“THEM!” has been recognized as an influential movie within the science fiction genre. Many great films that followed featured elements that could be traced back to this movie. For example, I couldn’t help but connect the idea of a queen laying eggs deep underground only to have them destroyed by flamethrowers to one of my favorite sci-fi treats of all time – James Cameron’s 1986 classic “Aliens”. It’s also a movie that helped usher in the new era of horror/sci-fi cinema. From the classic Universal monsters to the age of big bugs and spacemen, “THEM!” was at the forefront of the transition. I don’t doubt that many modern moviegoers will have a hard time digesting not only this movie but the entire genre. But the genre holds a special place in my heart and “THEM!” was the quintessential big bug movie.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

“TOTAL RECALL” (2012) – 2 STARS

I don’t often consider the “is it necessary” question when approaching a movie remake. While too many remakes can become tiresome and many result in terrible movies, a good writer and director can provide a unique and fresh take on older material. That’s what I was hoping for from Len Wiseman’s remake of “Total Recall”, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1990 sci-fi action flick. Unfortunately, Wiseman’s film isn’t nearly as fun or engaging as the original. It takes away some of the more entertaining elements of the original and replaces them with a nice new glossy coat of paint.

The original “Total Recall” featured some great action and some genuinely funny moments. But it was also a relative to that great 80’s action genre so it had its share of cheese (which I love). This new version has some good action but it loses its punch thanks to its simple and lackluster story. Colin Farrell plays Quaid, an assembly line worker who has grown tired of his mundane life. About the only excitement he finds are in his reoccurring violent dreams. He decides to visit Rekall, a memory implant company who gives people exciting experiences by injecting them with artificial memories. Quaid chooses the secret agent implants but as the process begins Rekall is stormed by armed troops from the corrupt local Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston). Quaid shoots his way out revealing a skill he never knew he had. He rushes home and tells his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale), but she tries to kill him. Confused and no longer sure who he is, Quaid goes on the run chased by an army led by his one-time wife.

Most of the movie consists of one big chase. Quaid jumps from rooftop to rooftop, dangles from ledges, and dodges bullets while every once in a while stopping to get a little information about who he really is. Now I love good action but I eventually began to lose interest due to the lack of any real substance. Quaid does run across Melina (Jessica Biel), a girl who appeared in his nightmares, and you would expect her to add a little more to the story. But for the most part, she’s fairly shallow and basically just joins Quaid in being chased. Her character in the original film had considerable more depth. Beckinsale’s Lori gives the action scenes most of their life. She’s tough, mean, and persistent and she’s a strong female antagonist.  But the writing let’s her down as well and even she is one-dimensional.

One thing that I did like about the story was the sci-fi world it created. A chemical holocaust has ravaged earth and there are only two superpowers remaining, The United Federation of Britain which is essentially Europe and “The Colony” which is Australia. The two are connected by a massive elevator transport than runs through the Earth’s core. There’s a political tension between the two and it’s fueled by a strong resistance movement which Cohaagen is desperate to squash regardless of the cost. The special effects and CGI deliver a visually sharp and creative world. The UFB is a fancy, upscale region while “The Colony” has a dirty, over populated, inner-city look to it. Both locations are distinctly different but futuristic in their own unique ways. There are also several technologies that should make sci-fi geeks drool including a cool  hand phone implant and a wild electronic rope gun. I loved the environment and the visuals are truly impressive.

There’s little else to say about the “Total Recall” remake. Farrell tries to keep things interesting but in the end all he’s asked to do is run, jump, and look confused. I mentioned that Beckinsale was fairly fun but no other character really stands out. Even the always good Bryan Cranston is your typical cookie-cutter villain and he’s nowhere near as devious and evil as Ronny Cox’s Cohaagen in the original film. There are a few other things that keep the movie from being a complete wash-out. The special effects are dazzling, there are some good futuristic action sequences, and there are several fun little salutes to the original movie. But in the end there’s just not enough here to make this a worthwhile remake or anything more than a mediocre movie. And that’s disappointing, especially from a sci-fi fan like me.

REVIEW: “Men in Black 3”

Let me preface this review by saying that I wasn’t the biggest fan of the previously two “Men in Black” movies. But I was certainly in the minority. The first “Men in Black” earned just under $600 million at the box office. The sequel brought in another $440 million. Obviously expectations are high for this third installment and it’s $300 million budget. Both Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are back as is director Barry Sonnenfeld and Steven Spielberg as Executive Producer.

It’s been almost 10 years since we last saw Agent K (Jones) and Agent J (Smith). K is still the stiff-as-a-board, emotionless, straight-shooter, J is still a rapid-fire wisecracker with attitude to spare, and aliens are still on earth masquerading as humans. They both still serve as operatives working for a secret agency commissioned to protect the Earth from alien threats. This time their main threat is an alien named Boris (Jemaine Clement). Agent K apprehended Boris back in 1969 and put him in a lunar prison designed specifically for him. But Boris escapes and travels back in time to kill Agent K before he is able to thwart his original plan. After noticing K’s absence and a difference in the timeline, J travels back to 1969 a few days prior to K’s death to protect him from Boris.

The movie starts off looking and feeling just like a “Men in Black” film. Funny exchanges between K and J and alien confrontations get the movie off on the right foot. There’s also a really cool time travel sequence as J heads back to 1969. It’s here that the movie both introduces it’s biggest asset as well as hit it’s biggest speed bumps. Josh Brolin plays the younger Agent K and he is fantastic. I swear there were times where I completely believed I was watching a younger Tommy Lee Jones instead of someone doing a Tommy Lee impersonation. Whether it’s his accent, his nicknames, or facial expressions, Brolin nails a 29-year old Agent K.

But while Brolin shines, the story really spins it’s wheels. There are a few back-in-time set pieces and late 60’s details that are fun but they get lost in the story that’s really pretty flat and lifeless. The humor loses it’s pop and seems to rely much too heavily on Will Smith’s quick wit. There’s great chemistry between Brolin and Smith but even it gets bogged down in the sometimes drab exposition. I have to admit, I found myself struggling to stay focused and interested in what was going on especially when an all-knowing alien named Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg) enters the picture. I did enjoy Emma Thompson and Alice Eve as the older and younger Agent O and the movie is a visual delight. I just wish there was more energy and substance to go with the movie’s stronger points.

While I did have issues with the middle of the movie, it was almost made up for by a really good and surprisingly tender ending. There’s no way I can go any further without spoiling things, but I’ll just say that it makes you look at all three “Men in Black” movies from a different perspective. The ending is well conceived and even though there were a few questions that immediately came to mind, it really worked for me.

“Men in Black 3” most certainly isn’t a great movie but it’s definitely an upgrade over the almost unwatchable second film. Then again, that’s not really saying a much. MiB3 starts off strong and has a nice ending but it’s what’s in between that keeps it from being as good as it could be. Brolin is the highlight and he’s a lot of fun to watch. There are also some other pretty good performances. As I mentioned, the visuals are high quality, exactly what you would expect. But none of these pluses can outweigh the minuses. There’s just not enough substance or humor to make this anything more than an okay movie.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

“BATTLE: LOS ANGELES” – 2 1/2 STARS

When reviewing a film I always try to consider what kind of movie the filmmakers intend to make. It’s especially important to employ this philosophy when reviewing a movie like “Battle: Los Angeles”. I enjoy all kinds of movies including those that are intellectually challenging, emotionally stimulating, or even the proverbial mindless popcorn picture. “Battle: Los Angeles” is very honest about it’s intent and never pretends to be something it isn’t. It could best be described as “Black Hawk Down” meets “Independence Day”. It takes realistic, gritty military combat and mixes it with the alien invasion angle. It’s a loud, simple, explosion filled action film that does succeed to a degree.

In some ways it resembles a video game, not only by it’s title but also by it’s look and feel. What’s funny is that many modern video games have more plot than “Battle: LA”. It’s a very basic story. A staff sergeant (Aaron Eckhart) and his new platoon are sent into the alien infested Los Angeles battle zone to help escort out a small group of stranded civilians. That’s really it. It starts with a very brief introduction to the platoon but almost immediately the first attack occurs and the action takes off, only occasionally slowing down for small doses of character developing dialogue. While they try to add some degree of depth to the characters, other than Eckhart’s, none are all that interesting.

The movie also uses ever military cliché you can think of. Whether it’s the personalities in the platoon or the contrived dialogue, you name the cliché, it’s used here. We’re also offered very little in regards to explanation. We hardly know anything about the alien invasion even though we do gather tidbits of information through brief glimpses of CNN newscasts (which I actually liked). The movie vaguely informs us that the alien’s objective is to steal our water and we get a little information about how they function. But to be honest, in this type of film is it really that important? Obviously the filmmakers think not.

“Battle: LA’s” action is it’s bread and butter and it’s largely impressive. Director Jonathan Liebesman used handheld cameras to give his film the familiar documentary feel while recreating the chaos and intensity of war. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before but it works more often than not. While a few scenes are a little disorienting it’s very effective most of the time. The CGI is generally good and especially shines in the large-scaled shots of the city and in images showing the massive destruction from the battles. The look of the aliens is serviceable but I was never blown away by them or their technology. There are some fierce action sequences particularly a frantic battle on a freeway and the final battle which I won’t give away. For my money, these scenes worked pretty well.

Aaron Eckhart is well cast as the combat-seasoned staff sergeant and the only remotely interesting character. Michelle Rodriguez plays the exact same type of role she always plays. The other performances range from fairly good to pretty bad. But then again this isn’t a performance driven picture, right? The bigger problem is the actors aren’t given much to work with. They also aren’t asked to do much more than shout and shoot so judging acting performances in this type of picture is pretty pointless.

“Battle: Los Angeles” isn’t a perfect film but it’s an honest one. It’s aim was to be a pre-summer popcorn action movie and it hits it’s mark. The trouble is the plot is paper-thin, the aliens aren’t that menacing, and it’s loaded with pointless, forced, and clichéd dialogue and profanity. But the action is intense and it’s shot and edited in a way that pulls you into the combat. Even with it’s shortcomings, it manages to be a fairly entertaining getaway, but it’s not one that will stay with you very long.

“LOCKOUT” – 3 STARS

I grew up watching those 1980’s and early 90’s tough guy action movies. During that time, the action genre was immensely popular. For years those movies made one-man-armies and cheesy one-liners commonplace. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t fun and I wouldn’t hesitate calling some of them personal favorites. “Lockout” takes a lot of its inspiration from those 80’s action flicks and it unashamedly tries to recreate the tone and feel of those films. Because of that, the movie could be an immediate turn-off for those who didn’t care for the genre or a disappointment for those who don’t get what the film is aiming for. I found it to be a fun piece of popcorn entertainment despite its few noticable shortcomings.

“Lockout” doesn’t pretend to be earth-shattering or ground-breaking by any means. It’s very straightforward in its presentation and even the trailer seemed patterned after those from the 80’s. Several elements of the story are fairly familiar but with a futuristic, sci-fi angle. Guy Pearce bulks up to play a government operative named Snow. He’s an irreverent, wise-cracking loose cannon who finds himself framed for a crime he didn’t commit (stop me if you’ve heard this before). Meanwhile Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace), the U.S. President’s daughter, is visiting an orbital space prison known as MS ONE on a humanitarian fact-finding mission. But while there, the prisoners revolt and take charge of the space station. Snow is asked to go in and rescue the President’s daughter in exchange for his freedom. Of course he agrees but with his own ulterior motives.

The story moves at a pretty fluid pace and at 95 minutes it’s pretty compact and doesn’t drag things out. In many ways Snow is your prototypical tough-guy. He’s tough as nails, has a bad attitude, and fires off more one-liners than bullets. Clearly he’s written to take wise-cracking to the extreme but it’s a little overdone. In fact, it’s almost as if Snow is completely incapable of carrying on a normal conversation. One the flip side, this isn’t a movie centered around stimulating conversation and several of Snow’s quips are quite funny. But it also makes him an incredibly one-dimensional character.

The movie is chock full of CGI and special effects. Some of the effects are well done and they do a lot to create a believable sci-fi environment. But there are also several examples where they look more like a video game than a movie. Before the movie started, the trailer for Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” was shown and the difference in the special effects between the two is staggering. But to be fair, “Prometheus” has about five times the budget and “Lockout” just tried to make due with what it had. The action scenes are pretty well done even though so much of it happens off-screen. This was clearly done in order to obtain a PG-13 rating. But in a way it subverts the tough and gritty look of the film and takes away an edge that would have made the movie better in my opinion.

I’m a big fan of Guy Pearce. When it comes to movie roles he has a pretty diverse resume, but I haven’t seen him play a character quite like this. It doesn’t take long to figure out his approach to Snow. Pearce is clearly having fun with the role and his performance is quite good. I never felt Pearce let’s Snow become just a caricature and in several instances he elevates the material. Maggie Grace does a decent job although she’s not quite on Pearce’s level. The movie is helped by some really good smaller supporting performances. It’s funny to say about this type of movie, but the acting really rises above the story in many places.

“Lockout” is getting hammered by critics and I find that to be no surprise. This is another example of some critics not measuring the film by what its trying to be. Now I’m not saying “Lockout” is incredible filmmaking or a new classic. It clearly has it’s issues that do drag it down a bit. The special effects aren’t the best and the action is sometimes pruned to the point of being ineffective. But I still found it to be an entertaining sci-fi B movie led by a really, really fun performance from Pearce. “Lockout” won’t win any awards but for the most part it accomplishes what it intends to.

“THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU” (2011) – 2 STARS

I think it would be fair to say that “The Adjustment Bureau” was a fairly big disappointment for me. The trailers and TV spots for the movie really sold it as something it’s not so I found myself expecting a little more than I actually got. I also felt the movie was going for an almost Hitchcockian feel. I mean look at the above movie poster that was released for it. Even it looks fresh out of Alfred Hitchcock’s creative mind. Unfortunately nothing in the film feels as creative as the poster and ultimately it’s a letdown.

In “The Adjustment Bureau” Matt Damon plays David Norris, a young hotshot Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, who loses his bid for office due to his questionable maturity and impulsive behavior. While rehearsing his concession speech he bumps into and immediately is attracted to the mysterious but beautiful Elise (Emily Blunt). The problem is they aren’t meant to be together, at least according to “the plan”. Enter The Adjustment Bureau, a group of stiff, ominous men in hats who intervene to make sure this sprouting relationship never takes place and that “The Chairman’s” plan stays on course.

“The Adjustment Bureau” could be called a romantic sci-fi thriller. Sadly the film’s romance has no believable foundation. While Damon and Blunt have good on-screen chemistry, it was hard for me to believe in their romance. Director George Nolfi never allows the relationship to grow, instead choosing to springboard their undying love out of a few short hours together. I also felt the sci-fi element was pretty underwhelming.  There’s nothing that stands out about it. Instead we get doors that transport you from one part of the city to another (which is cool the first 10 times they are used) and magical hats that serve as keys (yes, I just actually said magical hats that serve as keys). The film also lacks any real sense of urgency that’s found in better thrillers. I never felt any intensity nor did I ever feel that there was a steady or consistent buildup.

Most of these problems are the results of a slow, lumbering script. The film spends too much time in the first act examining David’s political ambitions instead of developing the romance which is the supposed centerpiece of the entire picture. Then we get numerous scenes of tedious dialogue between David and Bureau members, meant to inform the audience but instead ends up deflating any momentum the film may gain. As more is revealed the sillier things get and by the time we get to the rather flat and uneventful ending, I wasn’t that interested.

As I mentioned, Damon and Blunt have good chemistry and both give earnest performances and could have pulled this film off with better material. I enjoyed seeing Anthony Mackie in a bigger role but he seems out-of-place in this picture. “Mad Men’s” John Slattery and  the great Terence Stamp also appear but neither are given the chance to do much that’s memorable, again a result of the sub-par material.

If you watched the trailer for “The Adjustment Bureau” you would be expecting an action-packed, intellectual thriller. Instead you get nothing close to that. This is supposed to be a film that promotes thoughts of free will versus fate but honestly, I was never engaged enough to be moved intellectually. The film is well made, uses some great Brooklyn locations, and has some nice performances especially from it’s two leads. But the inconsistent script, lackluster ending, and flat-out silliness brings down what could have been a fun movie.