PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE INTENSE: Movie reviews of Good Kill and Tomorrowland by Howard Casner

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good killI have recently seen a movie that, for my money, is more intense, suspenseful and edge of your seat than Mad Max: Fury Road, Furious 7, The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Tomorrowland put together.

But it’s also a much smaller film than any of those; smaller in budget, in size, in CGI.

It’s more than all of those adverbs, I suspect, because it is about a real person put into a real situation, a situation of profound psychological and moral conflict. In the above movies, all the characters had to worry about was the end of their existence.

In the movie I am referring to, Good Kill, our central character has something far greater at stake: the end of his soul.

The basic story line revolves around one Major Thomas Egan, just about the best drone pilot there is. And his job, day in, day out, is to locate the bad guys in the Middle East and blow them up from thousands of miles away. His bliss is basically the same as Chris Kyle in American Sniper, but he gets to do it from the comfort of a chair in an air conditioned unit on a base in Nevada, not far from the R&R resort of Las Vegas. Read the rest of this entry »

Movie Reviews of WORLD WAR Z and WHITE HOUSE DOWN by Howard Casner

About the only positive thing I can say about the rash of apocalyptic movies lately is that most of them have been in the planning for years, which means that they may no longer be reflecting a zeitgeist, and in fact may be a few years behind the times.  If this is true, then the new bunch of movie ideas of the future may very well offer a slightly rosier view of our future.  We can only hope, because these movies are giving us precious little of it.


World War Z (directed by Marc Forster and written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof, and J. Michael Straczynski) is basically Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, but with a zombie twist.   The premise may be pure fantasy, even ridiculous if you like, but there’s just enough realism to the background, to the way such a preposterous event would be handled, that it gets under your skin in a way other apocalyptic movies don’t.  Like another recent apocalyptic film with a similar fantasy premise, Battle Los Angeles, the movie is just a tad too real.


In many ways you know the story.  A virus breaks out that turns people into rabid beasts that have no other goal than to spread the virus to other hosts.  It’s up to our intrepid hero, Gerry Lane (blond, blue eyed Brad Pitt, natch) to save the world, or save it the best it can be saved.  To do so, he must travel the globe from New York to Korea to Israel to Spain, with a side stop in…New Jersey (oh, well, no “if it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium” itinerary can be perfect).   In fact, this may very well be the first travelogue zombie flick.


Pitt also saves the movie.  There is nothing special about his character, or any of the characters.  As in Battle Los Angeles, they are all fairly bland with dialog that falls more than a bit flat.  But Pitt takes control in the old fashioned way of a John Wayne.  If you don’t have a three dimensional hero, you at least have someone incredibly handsome and charismatic to look at.


What’s more, his travels not only help him solve the mystery of the outbreak, it also enables him to meet some of the first rate thespians of other countries.  I don’t know who the casting director is, but he or she is worth their weight in gold.   As Pitt travels from place to place, he runs into such top notch character actors as Luki Boeken from Israel (who usually only produces film); Peter (The Loop) Capaldi from England; Piefrancesco (Columbus in Night at the Museum) Favino from Italy; Ruth (12 Years a Slave) Negga from Ireland; Moritz (The Baader Meinhof Complex) Bleibtreu from Germany.   Perhaps the biggest find of the movie is Daniell Kertez who gives a powerful and touching performance as an Israeli soldier who gets co-opted into the fight.   Mireille Enos of The Killing is also along for the ride; she has the embarrassing and thankless task of the “those also serve who sit and wait” role of Pitt’s wife (sigh).


Though the screenplay cheats once or twice when it comes to the rules (especially a scene on an airplane), and though it has some of the clichés one often sees in genre films like this (a child with asthma, a car that won’t start—though both seem thrown away and used at unimportant points in the story), it is rather intelligent.  It does something really clever: it tells us at the beginning to look for clues.  And through Pitt’s eyes we do.  Because of this, the plot is not just a series of meaningless action sequences in a vacuum.  We know it’s going somewhere.


In talking about sic-fi films, the critic Susan Sontag said that “[s]cience fiction films are not about science.  They are about disaster”.  She also made one another pertinent observation, that one of the continuing themes of these movies it that by giving the world a common enemy, it brought a unity to mankind; all wars and disagreements stopped as all the nations on the earth joined forces as one to defeat this threat to the earth.  She was mainly referring to the films of the 1950’s, but in the end, this is the ironic happy ending of this movie as well.



Can Channing Tatum steal a movie?  That’s certainly a question I never thought I’d ask.  Even stranger, it’s also not a question I’d ever thought I’d answer, “yes” to.  But he actually achieves this remarkable feat in the new action film White House Down.  Of course, it probably didn’t hurt that he was one of the producers, insuring that the movie would play to his particular strengths.  But it must be said, his underplaying naturalness and the stumbling way he says his lines are the primary joy one gets from this  action film.


The story revolves around a domestic terrorist plot to take over the White House.  It climaxes with the possibility of missiles being launched in which the world as we know it would cease to exist.  But since this is a movie directed by Roland Emmerich, that’s not really what’s at stake.  Nuclear war could break out; millions could die; the world could become a radioactive wasteland.  But for Emmerich and writer James Vanderbilt all that’s irrelevant.  In the end, all that really matters is if Channing Tatum’s character Cale can earn back the respect of his young daughter. No, I’m not making this up.  Really.  And it’s almost as close a call as those launch codes getting into the wrong hands.


How much you enjoy White House Down will probably depend on your tolerance level for silliness on the day you see it (it’s one of those movies, you know the kind, where everyone starts out being a crack shot and then, once the big opening action sequence is over, no one can hit anyone else except when it’s convenient for the plot).  I guess, though, if truth be told, I was in a particularly good mood that day, because I kind of got a kick of the sheer lunacy of it at times.


It does have a nice supporting cast, with Richard Jenkins as the Speaker of the house, as well as a welcome appearance by the veteran Michael Murphy as the VPOTUS.  Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum have a nice chemistry together (actually, Tatum has a nice chemistry with everyone).  And for what it is, Vanderbilt’s screenplay is very well written: stupid, over the top, preposterous, but well crafted where everything that happens has a payoff (sort of a variation on those lines from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall: “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible”, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions”).


If you’re a Republican, see the first half.  If you’re a Democrat, see the second.

Movie Review of STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS by Howard Casner

What may be most surprising about the new franchise entry Star Trek Into Darkness is how much it has in common with Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, at least from an aesthetic point of view.  Both are filmed as if everyone and everything was caught up in a fever; both are overdirected with an emphasis on the visual over narrative; and both strive to make their stories relevant to current events.   But though …Gatsby never quite reaches the heights it could and doesn’t quite come together, at the same time, …Into Darkness is such a failure it makes …Gatsby look like something directed by Orson Welles.


There is something incredibly sad and dispiriting about …Into Darkness.  It’s actually easy to miss it, but a lot of people die in this movie; I mean, a lot of people.  But with perhaps one exception, they are all disposed of with the flick of a CGI switch and without any sort of context or build up so that their deaths have any sort of emotional impact.   These characters (if you can even call them that) don’t die in ways that mean anything; they die in ways to thrill the audience so those watching can ooh and aah at all the explosions and neat SFX going on.  And there’s just something depressing about taking a franchise that, from its original incarnation and up through the movies made with the original TV cast, was meant to be uplifting and full of hope with a theme of the sacredness of life, and turning it into a cold, merciless killing machine, like the Terminator.


J.J. Abrams is the director and the screenplay is by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof, all of whom, except for Lindelof, were responsible for the 2009 rebooting.   I have to be honest.  The story here never made a lot of sense to me.  It begins with a terrorist attack by the villain de jour, Khan (played by buffed up Benedict Cumberbath, though not as buffed as Ricardo Montelban who originated the role, but hey, some pecs are harder to fill than others), in which he manipulates events to get all the top military brass in one room.  Why?  Well, unless I missed something (and in the spirit of full disclosure, it’s quite possible I missed a lot in this movie), his real target is only one person in that room.  All I could think afterwards was: Khan is this genetically altered superhuman, a scientific genius, and had the freedom of mobility of any other citizen, so why didn’t he just take his target out the old fashion way of a Tony Soprano: just show up on the bastard’s doorstep and blast a hole in his head.  No, Khan’s approach here is what is called in screenplay parlance as trying to swat a mosquito with an elephant.


This lack of logic doesn’t stop here.  Our intrepid hero James Tiberius Kirk is quick enough on his feet to figure out before anyone else that the meeting of the brass was a set up.  Yet, he then seems incredibly slow on the uptake when it never seems to occur to him that Khan’s stashing himself away on the Klingon planet of Kronos might just also be a set up.  In fact, this is one of those screenplays in which people tend to act in certain ways to make sure the plot works out the way the writers need it to rather than let the characters dictate what happens.


To the filmmakers’ credit, and as was said, the authors try to make this Star Trek relevant and there are some interesting ideas that are broached in the first act.  There is a clear parallel to the present day controversy over using drones to take out American citizens without benefit of trial or a discussion as to whether they have Constitutional rights.  And Peter Weller plays a Karl Rove/Donald Rumsfeld type character who tries to start a war under bogus pretenses.  But after these intriguing and thought provoking issues are introduced, they’re pretty much dispensed with (as quickly and with as little conscious as those unknowns that are killed off) so Abrams can get around to doing what he does best: blow things up.  As I said, it’s all a bit dispiriting.


Even the strongest aspect of the 2009 entry doesn’t wear well in this sequel.  Whatever else one can say about the previous Star Trek movie, it was brilliantly and cleverly cast.  Half the fun of the film was enjoying how well everyone fit and played their roles.  But here, the acting is pushed to the edge with in your face line readings and everybody wearing their emotions on their sleeves.  No one has the impact of the earlier film here because there’s no room for subtlety among all the ticking time bomb plot turns going on (all of which seem to be set for thirty seconds, yet feel like they take minutes to happen).  And it doesn’t help the actors that there’s precious little humor here, far less than in the previous entry; even Hamlet has more laugh lines.   Cumberbatch as Khan is perfectly fine, but since most of his acting is relegated to telling everyone what happened in the past (and even this is a bit hard to follow and understand) and he’s given no real emotional arc to play here (in the episode in the TV series, he’s at least allowed to fall in love), he can do little but sit and glower.    Only Weller really makes an impression.   In fact, about the most interesting thing about the cast this time round is there willingness to be billed in alphabetical order at the end (which must have made John Cho’s day).


Even the climax feels like a downer.   Kirk sacrifices himself in the same way that Spock did in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  It certainly doesn’t have anywhere near the emotional impact of Spock sacrificing himself.  And not only does it just feel lazy and unimaginative, it also feels like an insult to the writers of the earlier movie.


Tell me what you think.