Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Saturn Award’

Iron Man (2008)

06/09/2011 1 comment

Hello, ladies. Look at Tony Stark. Now look at your man. Now back at Tony Stark. Does your man look like Tony Stark? No. Can he smell like Tony Stark? Well, maybe. Is your man the heir to one of the most lucrative weapons manufacturing industries in the world? Does your man have three summer homes and 26 expensive cars? Look down. Look up. Where are you now? You’re at a party, with the superhero your man could smell like. Anything is possible with Tony Stark.

Iron Man is a superhero film directed by Jon Favreau, based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name created by Stan Lee. It stars Robert Downey, Jr., Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jeff Bridges.

Tony Stark is an engineering genius, rich playboy, and currently the head of Stark Industries, a military contracting company he inherited from his father. While his father’s old partner Obadiah Stane takes care of things stateside, Stark travels to Afghanistan to demonstrate the new Jericho missile, only to have his convoy attacked by terrorists on the way back to base. Stark is injured in the attack and taken hostage by a group called the Ten Rings, where he finds that a fellow hostage, Dr. Yinsen, has installed an electromagnet in his chest to prevent shrapnel from entering his heart and killing him. Raza, the leader of the Ten Rings, tells Stark that he can buy his freedom by building them a Jericho missile. Doubting Raza will keep his word, Stark instead builds a suit of powered armor that runs off an arc reactor he builds to power his electromagnet. During the course of his escape, Stark discovers the Ten Rings has weaponry built by Stark Industries. Shaken, he vows that Stark Industries will no longer manufacture weapons. However, he thinks his suit is neat and just needs refinement, so being a good little nerd he hacks away at the design in his workshop. When he discovers that more Stark Industries weapons have been delivered to Ten Rings, Stark realizes his new calling – to use his suit for good to atone for the destruction that Stark Industries has caused with its weaponry. Little does he suspect that someone close to him has other plans for his powered armor…

I will admit that when I first saw Iron Man, I wasn’t as familiar with this particular Marvel character as I was with, say, Spider-Man or the X-Men, and with most of these established characters there just too much continuity across too many alternate universes to justify trying to dredge up everything with their name on it. Fortunately, the movie offers a crash course in all things Tony Stark, and quickly gets the viewer up to speed, as befits a retelling of his origin story. He is at once arrogant and loveable, a charming rogue who had never needed to take any responsibility save publicity stunts and hobnobbing with the beautiful people. Fortunately, when reality slaps him across the face, he rises to the occasion, proving that under the fun-loving playboy lies a genuinely good heart. While the Ten Rings portion of the plot seemed to be banking on the Afghanistan War, the writing was tight enough that the terrorists never stumbled into Sterotype Land, making them seem like a genuine threat. Back on American soil, it was fun watching Stark’s personality simply bounce off the people around him, particularly in his interactions with his long-suffering assistant Pepper Potts, who acts in turns as a secretary, potential romantic interest, and mother figure to the wayward Tony. Their relationship is deeper than mere professionalism, but while they tease with romance nothing ever seems to come of it.

The story is exciting and action-packed, offering a first look into this budding superhero that never feels forced or artificial. Each event flowed naturally into the next, from the introduction of our disgustingly wealthy hero to his transition into a force for good, without sending him spiralling too far into brooding Batman Land. The plot was a lot of fun to watch, especially as he is tinkering with his original suit, trying to improve it, even as he tests of the various weapons and propulsion systems send him careening into walls. His first flight in the iconic red and gold suit offers shades of Icarus’ first flight; Stark enjoys the hell out of his newfound freedom, even as he learns about the suit’s critical weakness (which, like Icarus, he discovers by trying to fly a high as he can). Stark makes a fun, enjoyable superhero, in stark contrast to his DC counterpart Bruce Wayne. Iron Man fans will also notice a lot of nods to the various comics stories, like the proposed cover story that Iron Man is a bodyguard to Tony Stark, as well as early warning signs of his alcoholism.

Whether you’re a longtime reader of the Iron Man comics or a newcomer who really digs superheroes, I highly recommend Iron Man. Tony Stark offers a fun-loving superhero to the mix that you wouldn’t mind partying with, in between him saving the city.

The Usual Suspects (1995)


“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

In a world of shadowy morality, something has gone very wrong in a heist on San Pedro Bay. Of all the questions raised, the one the cops most want answered is: “Who is Keyser Soze?”

The Usual Suspects is a neo-noir thriller directed by Bryan Singer. It stars Stephen Baldwin, Benicio Del Toro, Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey, and Kevin Pollak.

Something has gone very wrong in San Pedro Bay, leaving a cargo ship ablaze and only two known survivors. FBI Agent Jack Baer and U. S. Customs special agent Dave Kujan arrive to investigate, and one of the survivors, a hospitalized Hungarian criminal, mentions that someone named Keyser Soze, whose reputation paints him as a legendary boogeyman, was in the harbor killing people. He saw him, though, and can describe him. Meanwhile the other survivor, a palsied con man named Verbal Kint, has his own story to tell, in exchange for near-total immunity. He paints a convoluted series of events leading to the explosion in the harbor, including how his crew was assembled to perpetuate a robbery targeting corrupt LAPD officers, and how they were subsequently hired for another job by the mysterious Mr. Kobayashi, on the behalf of the even more mysterious Keyser Soze. Things start going wrong, as things tend to do in these stories, but not everything is as it seems in Kint’s story, forcing Kujal to try to parse out facts from fiction in order to get to the bottom of what actually happened in San Pedro Bay.

This is not a movie that you can just turn on and zone out in front of. There are twists and turns, betrayals and double-crosses, and you may find yourself wanting to make a flowchart to keep track of all the players and events, only to have your initial theories trashed by later events. There are ultimately three versions of events: two are presented by Kint, and the third is what actually happened. This complicated Rashomon plays with your head as you are forced to not accept the narrator’s account as absolute fact, but rather try to parse out the story yourself – and then the ending hauls off and kicks you in the nuts with the conclusion that you probably still got it wrong the first time. This gives the movie a lot of rewatchability: you watch it the first time at face value, and then you watch it again knowing a lot of things that only come out during the conclusion, and you pick up even more subtle cues and clues with each successive rewatching.

The cast is fun to watch as well. The core group are scoundrels and scumbags, a loose gang of antiheroes out to screw someone over. The two agents are left scrambling in the wake of the massacre, forced to rely on a known con man for the only available account of things. Of the lot, Verbal Kint is glib and helpful and seems willing to aid the authorities – but how far can he be trusted? Everyone has their own motivations and means for reaching their goals, all working at cross-purposes until you’re not even sure who to root for. I won’t spoil anything for those who have yet to watch it, though, except to say that the ending is a HUGE twist, and those who have seen it shouldn’t forewarn people who haven’t. (I had The Sixth Sense ruined that way. Meh.)

If you like your thrillers twisty, your villains terrifying, and your heroes ambiguous, I highly recommend The Usual Suspects. The Rashomon-style storytelling will leave you guessing until the very end.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

05/20/2011 1 comment

What do you get when you cross a Steven Spielberg movie with a Stanley Kubrick movie? What do you get when you update Pinocchio to a futuristic setting? What do you get when you combine all of these together into a single movie? You get this.

A. I. Artificial Intelligence is a sci fi drama film directed, produced, and co-written by Steven Spielberg, based on the short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss. It stars Haley Joel Osment, Frances O’Connor, Jude Law, Sam Robards, and William Hurt, with a brief camero by Robin Williams.

It is the near future. With the melting of the polar ice caps, coastal cities have been flooded, forcing people inland. With the reduction in available resources, a new class of robots is invented, capable of emulating human emotions – but their creator has something more in mind for artificial humans. Professor Hobby has created a prototype child robot that is capable of feeling true love, like that felt by a child for its parent, rather than merely emulating the appropriate behaviors. His company, Cybertronics, tests the child robot, named David, on a pair of their employees, the Swintons, whose biological son Martin is sick with an unidentified disease and currently in cryogenic suspension. Monica Swinton is initially afraid of this robot child, but she soon warms to him after activating the imprinting protocol, causing him to irreversibly feel love for his “mother”. Things get awkward later on, though, when a cure is found for Martin’s illness and he is able to come home. A sibling rivalry erupts as the two vie for Monica’s love, with David not understanding what is upsetting their parents so much. Things come to a head at Martin’s birthday party by the pool, nearly resulting in Martin’s drowning, and the decision is made to send David back to Cybertronics to be destroyed. Monica has grown to love David, though, and can’t bear the thought of him being destroyed like a common robot, so she abandons him in the woods, instructing him to do whatever he can to escape. From here, David teams up with Gigolo Joe, a lover-mecha on the run after being accused of murder, and embarks on a journey to find his place in this world, to explore the meaning of love, and to find a way to finally earn his mother’s love by becoming a real boy.

Spielberg is one of the great geniuses of filmmaking, as was Kubrick before his death. It makes sense that Kubrick would have asked Spielberg to helm this movie, and for the most part the two style combined well. This vision of the future is melancholy, by turns heartwarming and heartbreaking as we see the lengths to which mankind will go to maintain their humanity – on the one hand, they fill out their dwindling population with robots created in their own image to act as everything from executive assistants to prostitutes, but at the same time the humans seem to fear their uncannily-perfect creations, exemplified by the Flesh Fair, a sort of demolition derby involving outdated or castoff mechas, attended by those who fear being replaced by their mechanical counterparts. A common recurring theme throughout the movie is the nature of love, explored from the respective points of view of David, the child mecha, and Gigolo Joe, a prostitute mecha. In Joe’s mind, humans are imperfect, but he is programmed to make them feel beautiful. In David’s mind, he himself is imperfect, programmed to love unconditionally but apparently rejected for being artificial. The robot effects are excellent, nudging you into the uncanny valley from the human side as the mechas look too perfect to be real when intact, and entirely too human when malfunctioning or in pieces. In fact, Kubrick had sat on this project for about twenty years because he felt that CG effects would be needed to bring his childlike hero to life.

Now for the shortcomings. First off, while a child robot that will love you forever seems like a great idea, in fact it’s a terrible idea, because you’re stuck with this little entity that will be ten years old and dependent on you forever. Whether or not David’s mass production (and that off his distaff counterpart Darla) ultimately led to the downfall of civilization is left unclear, which brings me to my next complaint: the ending. The last half hour felt tacked on for the sake of giving David at least half a happy ending, and just dragged on and on and on like an ex that just won’t let things go, and just made the movie too damn long. Many have proposed suitable moments where the movie could have ended, albeit tragically, and given that this was originally a Kubrick film this could have fit just fine. Seriously – the epilogue takes place 2000 years later. And it keeps going. And going. And going… Making the end product feel just too damn long.

If you’re looking for a futuristic Pinocchio tale with all the trappings and you’re feeling patient enough to sit through your happy ending, give A. I. Artificial Intelligence a shot. Spielberg and Kubrick’s diverse styles largely combine well to offer an ultimately tragic glance at a dwindling future, even if it could have used a bit more trimming at the end.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)


No one fights like that Khan
Douses lights like that Khan
In a wrestling match nobody bites like that Khan
For there’s no one as burly and brawny
And you can see he’s got biceps to spare
Not a bit of him’s scraggly or scrawny,
And ev’ry last inch of him’s covered in hair!

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a science fiction film directed by Nicholas Meyer based on the television series Star Trek and serving as a sequel to both Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the Star Trek episode “Space Seed”. It stars William Shatner, Richardo Montalban, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and Walter Koenig.

As Admiral James Kirk oversees the training of Captain Spock’s hopeful future crew through the Kobayashi Maru simulation, the U.S.S. Reliant searches for a lifeless planet on which to test out the Genesis Device, a torpedo that can terraform planets for human colonization but can also destroy planets. When Commander Pavel Chekhov and Captain Clark Terrell beam down to a likely candidate, Ceti Alpha VI, they instead find a genetically engineered tyrant, Khan Noonian Singh, whose band of supermen were exiled there during the events of “Space Seed”. It appears that since that time, a lot of bad shit has gone down for Khan et all, including the death of Khan’s wife, and he swears revenge. He implants Chekhov and Terrell with mind-controlling alien larvae to compel them to help him take over the Reliant, and from there hatches a plan to ensnare Kirk and destroy him once and for all. Kirk, meanwhile, is on a training mission with Spock’s new crew when they receive a distress call from Regula I, the space station developing the Genesis device. Kirk being Kirk, he comes to the rescue, setting off a deadly game of cat and mouse between old enemies, amid revelations between old friends…

Wrath of Khan is considered by most to be vastly superior to The Motion Picture, and it’s easy to see why. Building on a sequel hook set at the end of “Space Seed”, Khan weaves a tale of tragedy and revenge that pretty much blows the first movie out of the water. Much of Kirk’s old crew is moving on to newer things, but they quickly band together against a common threat, mainly because they’re familiar with each other and simply work well together. Everyone is forced to think on their feet in a deep-space game of speed chess that could potentially cost the lives of Spock’s entire crew. Kirk has clashed with Khan before, and he knows the tyrant’s weaknesses, but the reverse is also true, making the conflict seem very real as the stakes are raised again and again.

The cast is still tight here, having learned how to adapt from TV to film through the previous film. Kirk remains a badass, even as he witnesses the extent to which this madman will go to get his revenge, threatening an adult son Kirk has only just met. Khan is also a badass, albeit one with a laser sight trained on Kirk and everything he holds dear (and incidentally, that was Ricardo Montalban’s real chest exposed by his costume, rumors of prostheses aside). Chekhov barely escapes being shoved into the comic relief corner here, as he serves as a plot device to hook in his old Captain; fortunately his loyalty to Kirk is such that Khan is ultimately unable to use him as an assassin. The subplot involving Carol Marcus and the son she bore with Kirk seems like a natural extension of Kirk’s notorious womanizing rather than just another plot device, and to Kirk’s credit he does adapt to fatherhood reasonably well under the circumstances.

In all, Wrath of Khan easily outshines The Motion Picture both in terms of plot and characterization, and is a worthy addition to the Star Trek franchise. Absolutely see this one.

28 Days Later (2002)


After waking from a long nap, there is always that feeling of disorientation as you try to get your bearings. This is especially difficult if things have changed drastically since you went to sleep. Meet Jim. He’s been in a coma for 28 days. In that time, the world has ended.

28 Days Later is a zombie horror film directed by Danny Boyle and written by Alex Garland. It stars Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson, and Christopher Eccleston.

When a group of British animal liberation activists break into a lab to free some monkeys being used in medical research, they are warned that the monkeys are infected with a “rage virus” in the hopes of curing aggressive tendencies in humans. They don’t listen, and of course once they free one of the monkeys, one of the activists gets bitten, and hilarity ensues. Fast forward to 28 days later. Jim, a bicycle courier, awakens from a coma to discover that apparently London is completely devoid of human life, in one of the eeriest sequences in the whole movie. Then he discovers that, no, London is not abandoned – it’s populated by rage zombies. Yay. Fortunately the merry chase that ensues ends with Jim being rescued by a pair of uninfected survivors, Selena and Mark, who fill him in: the rage zombies are not dead, just really, really pissed off, and they try to kill anyone who isn’t infected. Trouble is, the rage virus spreads through bodily fluids, so a bite on even a bit of slobber getting in the wrong spot means that in a matter of seconds you’re one of them. Selena has hardened herself to this way of life, killing Mark without hesitation when he is cut in another fight with the Infected. It is not long, though, before they find another pocket of survivors, Frank and his teenage daughter Hannah, who offer them a place to stay and a glimmer of hope: a pre-recorded radio broadcast apparently being transmitted by an Army blockade in Manchester claiming to hold the solution to the Infection. Sounds great, right? Of course it does. Think it’ll be that easy? This is a zombie movie – of course it won’t. However, with dwindling supplies, the survivors have little choice but to investigate, and hope that they can survive the hordes of infected Rage zombies on the way…

I love zombie movies. They can be goofy and fun, or terrifying and claustrophobic, sometimes even within the same movie. 28 Days Later offered an interesting twist on the classic zombie – the living zombie, something previously explored by Romero’s original version of The Crazies but nearly forgotten until now. 28 Days Later crosses the living zombie with the fast zombie – something used extensively in the Return of the Living Dead series but since discarded until fairly recently with the Dawn of the Dead remake. This combination of zombie traits makes for a frenetic, terrifying take on the zombie movie. You don’t have time to react. You have to kill them or be torn apart. Infection takes seconds. And they absolutely hate you. The military subplot also reminds me a lot of the military subplot in Day of the Dead; the Army dudes have their own ideas about what constitutes a “solution” to the Infection, and once it is discovered you’re left with a general feeling of, “Well, we’re screwed now.” Because that’s what the military does in these movies: they take a bad situation and make it worse in the hopes of making it better.

The cast was tight and well-cast. Cillian Murphy works well here as disoriented coma patient Jim, the guy to whom the London situation must be explained by the others. He just wants to survive and get back to a normal life, and he is just as desperate and terrified as one would expect an uninfected human in a zombie apocalypse would be, but when he snaps – boy howdy. His woobie-ness goes away instantly, turning into a savagery that makes his later role in Red Eye look like Barney the Purple Dinosaur. Selena is another aspect of the zombie survivor, reluctant to make any human connections because she know that she might have to kill any allies without hesitation. Frank and Hannah comprise another aspect, the caregiver playing at normality to avoid traumatizing his young ward too much. And Major Henry West… you know, I’ve seen Christopher Eccleston in three roles so far, and only one of them, the Ninth Doctor, has been even remotely benevolent. I would call him Pragmatic Evil here.

Overall, 28 Days Later is a worthy addition to the zombie subgenre, effectively walking the line between subtlety and blind terror in its depiction of a once-bustling city given over almost completely to the Rage Virus. I highly recommend this one to all zombie fans.

Speed (1994)


“Pop quiz, hotshot. There’s a bomb on a bus. If the bus goes above fifty miles per hour, the bomb is armed. If it goes below fifty, it blows up. What do you do? What do you do?”

There are relatively few movies out there where the entire premise can be explained in a single line of dialogue. Fortunately, this one sticks to the basics. Bomb. Bus. Nameless potential victims. Mad bomber. Love interest. Heroic cop. Shit blowing up. All that’s left is for you to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Speed is an action thriller film directed by Jan de Bont and written by Graham Yost and Joss Whedon (Yes, that Joss Whedon). It stars Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper, Sanda Bullock, Jeff Daniels, and a Santa Monica city bus.

Howard Payne is not a happy man. So show how unhappy he is, he traps a bunch of people in an elevator rigged with explosives, threatening to send who whole mess plummeting to a rather abrupt doom if his demands are not met. He is thwarted by SWAT officers Jack Traven and Harry Temple, who rescue the hostages, but Howard appears to get blown up by yet another bomb. Oh well. Jack and Harry are commended for their bravery, and all seems well, until the following day when a city bus driven by a friend of Jack’s goes boom. Jack receives a call at a nearby pay phone, and learns two things in rapid succession: Howard Payne is (surprise!) still alive, and he has rigged a second bus to explode. Once the bus goes above fifty miles per hour, the bomb is armed, but once it drops below that… well, you get the idea. Since this second bus is an express bus, stopping it before the bomb is armed proves futile, leaving Jack with no alternative but to board the bus at cruising speed in order to ensure the safety of its passengers and try to figure out how to get everyone safe. Now, he and his fellow police officers must think fast during the only fixed scrolling level in cinematic history to keep a city bus from going boom.

This is not a complicated movie, as summarized by Payne. As one of the crew for Die Hard, naturally de Bont would bem well-suited for this “Die Hard on a Bus” scenario, and as far as that goes he does not disappoint. Speed doesn’t try to pretend to be anything but an extended car fu story, and in this respect it does well. The plot is exciting, the villain is Evil with a Reason (which you find out as the cops dip into Payne’s backstory), and the idea of being trapped on a city bus rigged to explode is a commuter’s nightmare.

That said, the acting is… about what you’d expect in a movie like this. Keanu Reeves had made other movies between Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey and this one, but I think this is the first one where he managed to really shake off the spirit of Ted Logan and start to mature as a serious actor. Dennis Hopper is wonderfully hammy as mad bomber Howard Payne, and Sandra Bullock is charming as the frazzled brunette role she would go on to play in later movies. Among the supporting cast, the other police officers were surprisingly competant given the usual trend in the action genre, but amongst the imperiled passengers the only real standout is Alan Ruck’s character Stephens, notable for his diplomatic translation over a radio of Jack’s reaction to finding a second explosive device on the bus.

So, if you’re looking for a decent action movie with a deceptively simple plot, you could do worse than Speed. It’s not complex, but it is engaging in a Snakes on a Plane sort of way, and it would be worth a rental one evening if you had nothing else to do.

Minority Report (2002)

04/18/2011 1 comment

Wouldn’t it be great if we could prevent crimes before they were committed? I mean, that’s the goal of any law enforcement agency, because investigation and prosecution of any crime takes resources, and with something like murder there’s no guarantee that things will be made right ever again. Figuring out how to flag people before a crime can be committed sounds awesome… until they flag you for something you haven’t done yet. Then things get a little… complicated.

Minority Report is a sci fi thriller film directed by Steven Spielberg and based on the short story “The Minority Report” by Philip K. Dick. It stars Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, and Max von Sydow.

It is the year 2054. John Anderton is the head of Washington, D.C.’s PreCrime police force, who tracks and pre-emptively stops future murders with the aid of three pre-cogs, mutated humans who can see the future. Anderton has been a bit of a mess since the unsolved disappearance of his son, and while his obsession led him to join PreCrime, it has also resulted in his wife leaving him and his addiction to an illegal psychoactive drug. Pre-Crime’s success in preventing murders means it is poised to go nation-wide, but on the eve of this event, the system is audited by one Danny Witwer from the Department of Justice, during which the pre-cogs predict a murder – to be committed by John Anderton. Now on the run from his own co-workers, Anderton tries to solve a murder he hasn’t committed yet, of a man he’s never heard of, but it isn’t long before he finds himself immersed in another cold case connected to PreCrime. What he finds out about both cases threatens to shake the supposedly infallible PreCrime system to its core…

I am not a huge fan of Tom Cruise. He’s done some good movies, of course, but many of them seem to play off the fact that he’s pretty rather than a good actor. Fortunately, Minority Report is one of his successes. As is generally the case in films adapted from Philip K. Dick, the plot is tight and intricate, and the inclusion of precognition in a law-enforcement setting only enhances the story rather than cripples it. Spielberg took great pains to nudge the future technology over to the “hard” end of the sci fi scale, and many technologies portrayed in the movie (such as the data tiles and the 3-d screens) have since been developed in real life. The near-future portrayed in Minority Report feels real and organic, allowing the plot to gleefully deconstruct the idea of PreCrime in a logical fashion.

Of course, throughout the film is an exploration of free-will vs. determinism, similar to that seen in Paycheck: if an agent that can see into the future predicts an outcome, is it set in stone? Are the players in the prediction fated to hurtle blindly towards an inevitable outcome, or can they choose their future? Here, the impetus is more of an emotional one than a logical one: Anderton fully intends to kill the man who took his son, no matter who he is or why he did it. This conflicts with his cop instincts to bring the culprit to justice, but seriously – what parent would not want vengeance on the behalf of their child? What parent would hesitate to kill anyone who hurt their kid? Anderton’s motives are sound and sympathetic, and his moment of truth at the climax will have any parent nodding in recognition.

If you want a thrilling whodunnit film with a new twist, and you don’t absolutely hate Tom Cruise, I suggest picking up Minority Report. It will have you on the edge of your seat from the moment that red ball drops.