Real Steel (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) was addicted to robot gambling which was inopportune, in the least, because he was neck-deep in debt. After his robot was demolished by a raging bull, he was informed that his former girlfriend had passed away and his son, Max (Dakota Goyo), needed an official guardian. Charlie was to appear in court to pick up the boy, but Max’ aunt, Debra (Hope Davis), who married a rich man, wanted to adopt him. For a hundred thousand dollars, the gambler made a deal, unbeknownst to Max and Debra, with the husband: Max was to spend time with his father over the summer but he was to be returned in Debra’s care after their trip to Italy. Written by John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, and Jeremy Leven, “Real Steel” managed to be quite involving as it explored the connection between father and son through robot fighting. The picture was smart in first establishing Charlie as our protagonist on the path to self-destruction. He was a good guy, but he often relied on instincts instead of measured calculation to make a quick buck. On the outside, he seemed to do it for the money. He was a former boxer who saw himself as a failure in that field. I looked at him and considered that perhaps he gambled for the rush. Maybe watching his robot fight was like being in the ring himself. As his machines were eradicated, so were his personal connections. Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), his somewhat girlfriend and the daughter of the man who taught him to box, really needed the money that Charlie burrowed to pay for the gym she managed. This made him so desperate, he didn’t even think twice to sell his son. Charlie and Max were quite opposite but the same in important ways. Meeting for the first time, the son suspected that he’d been sold and asked his father if he, in fact, was. Charlie told the boy the truth but Max, plucky and sarcastic, digested the information with dignity and dealt with it on his own. When presented by bad news, neither shriveled; both saw it as a chance to start anew and to prove everybody wrong. That was the reason why I wanted Charlie and Max to succeed as robot gamblers and as father and son. Notice that I haven’t even discussed the robots. That’s because they were secondary to the human drama that propelled the movie forward, yet necessary as a catharsis for these characters. Max stumbled upon a robot named Atom in a junkyard. It was a sparring robot, designed to take a lot of hits but not actually hit back as effectively. With the help of Charlie’s robots, Ambush and Noisy Boy, that had been destroyed, Max was able to extract necessary pieces from them to make Atom stronger in both offense and defense. Eventually, they won enough fights to gain popularity and be invited to World Robot Boxing Tournament in which they had to face Zeus, the undefeated robot champion. Based on “Steel,” a short story by Richard Matheson, “Real Steel,” directed by Shawn Levy, was ultimately a story of redemption. Our decision to emotionally invest in the characters, if one so chooses, was worthwhile because it wasn’t just about metals clanging against each other like in Michael Bay’s egregious “Transformers” movies. There was something real at stake. That is, a father finding his son and recognizing that he was good enough even though he wasn’t perfect.
The Switch (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Kassie (Jennifer Aniston) decided she was going to have a kid even though she had not yet found the man of her dreams. She told Wally (Jason Bateman), her best friend, her plans but he thought it was crazy idea. She went with it anyway and found a guy named Roland (Patrick Wilson) who was willing to donate his sperm for money. During Kassie’s artificial insemination party, drunk Wally accidentally spilled Roland’s sperm down the sink. His intoxicated mind thought he could get away with it by replacing the lost sample with his own. The next day, he didn’t remember a thing. “The Switch,” based on Jeffrey Eugenides’ short story called “Baster,” was a bit of a surprise because it had a surprising amount of humanity. It could easily have been about the gags–like sperm and the hardship of being pregnant and giving birth–but it made a smart decision to pay attention to the characters’ motivations. Even though some of the lines delivered felt disingenuous, especially when the characters felt like they needed to deliver a speech in order to get their point across, I enjoyed it because I extracted bits of meaning, accidental as they may be, in their attempt. Aniston and Bateman had an awkward chemistry that worked. I thought that specific type of chemistry was vital because their characters conceived a child named Sebastian (Thomas Robinson) who was adorable, equipped with sad eyes, pouty lips, and eccentricities like collecting picture frames and putting strangers’ photos in them. The movie did a good job highlighting the similarities between Wally and Sebastian, but I wish it had spent more time exploring the bond between the mother and son. I wanted to see their similarities, too. After all, it was Kassie’s idea to bring a child to the world. Her trepidation of her dwindling biological clock was not a good enough reason for me to like her. With her specific circumstance, what made her a good mother? She was good with her son when he had to go to bed, but the feminist message embedded in making the decision to raise a child without a man was somewhat lost. Nevertheless, the emotional payoff toward the end was effective because we knew that Sebastian had learned, without being too obvious, to depend on his father and vice-versa. I also wished Jeff Goldblum and Juliette Lewis, Wally and Kassie’s best friends, respectively, had more scenes. They delivered a different sense of humor, Goldblum with his dry and deadpan delivery and Lewis with her baffled expressions and snide remarks, which was a nice balance to more pedestrian comical situations. Directed by Josh Gordon and Will Speck, “The Switch” was a bona fide comedy that lacked complexity but it wasn’t one-dimensional. It was enjoyable because our expectations were met and sometimes that’s more than enough.
The Thing (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
In John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” the opening shot featured two men in a helicopter shooting at a dog in order to prevent it from reaching an American research facility. “The Thing,” written by Eric Heisserer and directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., consisted of the events that led up to aforementioned curious scene. When a group of Norwegian researchers, led by Edvard Wolver (Trond Espen Seim), stumbled upon an alien space craft in the Antarctic ice, Dr. Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) was immediately alerted. But before the scientist and his assistant, Adam (Eric Christian Olsen), could get there, Dr. Halvorson recruited an American paleontologist, Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), for her expertise. Upon their arrival, they learned that not only was there a craft, there was also an alien trapped in ice a couple of meters from the wreckage. What I enjoyed most about the film was it successfully emulated Carpenter’s paranoid tone. Although I knew what the alien was capable of, there was a sense of excitement in the way Kate and the Norwegian crew opened up the alien’s body and explored the grim and disgusting details inside. When the camera showed the guts and the organs, I felt like I was in that room and I wanted to participate in touching the viscera and the accompanying slime. If anything, the picture proved that even though most of the audience knew what was about to transpire, as long as the journey that led up to the characters’ discoveries was interesting, the project could still stand strong. The prequel shared the same main weakness as Carpenter’s movie. There more than ten characters but we only somewhat got to know Kate. There were at least two other characters worth knowing more about. For instance, how well did Adam and Kate know each other prior to their mission? It seemed like they had some history. If their relationship was more defined, the latter scenes in which Kate suspected that Adam was possibly infected by the alien virus would have had more impact. After all, if you think that someone you’ve known all your life is no longer that person you’ve grown to love and care about, that he or she is simply a replica of an extraterrestrial, and it is necessary to kill that certain someone, wouldn’t you feel rotten before and after deciding to eliminate that person/being? To some extent, I would. Even though, in truth, that friend is an alien, it has the face, the voice, the mannerisms of a human being. I also wanted to know more about Sam (Joel Edgerton), the helicopter pilot. There were a few scenes which suggested that there was an attraction between Sam and Kate. Again, another possible human connection that could have been milked more with the regards to the bizarre happenings. “The Thing,” based on the short story called “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr., while suspenseful most of the time, it was ultimately let down by having too much CGI. I didn’t need to see the craft being activated when it didn’t even get to fly for even a few inches. What I wanted to see more was the creature, hiding inside a human, just biding its time till its prey inevitably lets his guard down.
★ / ★★★★
Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) and Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams) were graduate students who became increasingly involved in a series of murders in the projects. Word went around that if one said “Candyman” five times while alone in the bathroom, Candyman (Tony Todd) would appear and kill the daring summoner in the most gruesome way possible. Was it simply an urban legend designed to scare those who lived in the violent neighborhood or was there something darker that needed to be explored and revealed? Based on the short story “The Forbidden” by Clive Barker, “Candyman” failed to generate genuine scares because it neglected to define what was fantasy and what was reality, and it was plagued by characters who were supposedly smart but almost always chose the stupid decision when the occasion called for it. Take Helen for example. Despite the murders, she decided to drag her friend to the scene of the crime without taking any sort of precaution. She had no knowledge about the people who lived in the projects or how to effectively communicate with those connected to the infamous murders. She only had one thing in mind: She had to take pictures in order to avoid a “boring thesis.” Nevermind the men who could easily get their way with them. Nevermind offending those who just wanted to move on from the grizzly incidents. When Helen seemed to descent into madness, there were a plethora of unintentionally funny moments. As she awoke covered in blood with no memory of how she got there, she decided to pick up a meat cleaver next to a beheaded dog. Did it not occur to her that what she just touched could potentially be the murder weapon and she was getting her fingerprints all over it? And were we expected to believe that a baby that Candyman abducted could live for over a month without food or water? After all, the film eventually implied that Candyman was only real in Helen’s mind. There were many glaring inconsistencies so I was constantly taken out of the experience. The writing was weak and the direction was no better. There were more than a handful of unnecessary shots of bees which were designed to give us the creeps, Candyman’s face appeared on the screen to make us jump out of our seats, and nonsensical decisions placed too conveniently to trigger one set of events to another. Directed by Bernard Rose, “Candyman” lacked genuine tension and suspenseful sequences that basic horror films should have. It would have been an entirely different experience if the writing was more focused and, more importantly, if the graduate students thought and acted like excellent detectives instead of blond sorority girls typically slayed early on in standard slasher flicks.
Total Recall (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★
Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) had a recurring nightmare about being with a brunette (Rachel Ticotin) in Mars. Feeling like he needed a break from his job, he decided to get an operation done in which scientists would upload memories of him going on a vacation onto his brain. The operation failed (with disastrous results) because, as it turned out, the current memory Douglas perceived to be his real life was simply artificial. Douglas decided to go to Mars and face a corporate leader (Ronny Cox) who was behind the charade. However, before he left, he had to face his wife (Sharon Stone) who felt strongly against his course of action. The first few minutes of the film did not give me a good impression. I thought the acting was laughable, especially from the lead, and I wasn’t quite sure if the campiness was intentional. But as it went on, I became more impressed with its creativity in terms of the questions it brought up regarding which reality was real, the technologies that defined the future, and the intense action sequences. I had fun with its many product placements which were popular back in the late 80s but lost selling power after twenty years. Furthermore, for a science fiction film, I did not expect it to have so much blood. There were times when I felt like I was watching a horror film. The picture constantly changed gears. It wasn’t just about Douglas’ quest to find his true identity. There was a subplot about humans and mutants in Mars who decided to join forces and rebel against the greedy corporate leader. Cox’ character was determined to keep the element that could ultimately create atmosphere in Mars for himself for the sake of cash flow. Slow death of dozens of lives due to a lack of oxygen meant absolutely nothing to him. In a nutshell, I was convinced that he was a villain worth experiencing a painful demise. “Total Recall,” based on a short story by Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” and directed by Paul Verhoeven, was a very entertaining film because it had a plethora of ideas that shaped and defined its underlying themes. Impressive special and visual effects were abound which helped to elevate our perception of the futuristic world. After the main character’s discovery that his life was a simply a fabrication, every scene that followed was thrilling action scene. But there was a question that lingered up until the final scene: Was everything we saw reality or was it the “perfect” fantasy vacation that Douglas asked for?
Children of the Corn (1984)
★ / ★★★★
After church, Job (Robby Kiger) and his father went to a diner for breakfast. It seemed like a regular Sunday in Gatlin, Nebraska but something sinister happened. The kids started to give each other strange looks and the next thing we knew, they started killing the adults around them. The only kids who did not seem affected were Job and his sister (Anne Marie McEvoy) who had a gift of foretelling events through drawing. When a couple (Linda Hamilton, Peter Horton) accidentally ran over a boy, they eventually decided to stop by Gatlin to report the incident. The picture started off strongly. The thought of kids murdering people without reason, including their parents, gave me the creeps. I was curious about what triggered the strange events and the endgame of those involved. Unfortunately, the film failed to give any answer. Instead, it spent half of its time showing us the couple driving on a seemingly interminable freeway. While their interactions were somewhat amusing and the establishment of their characters necessary, there wasn’t enough edge to hold my interest. I saw one distraction after another which made me think about the weakness of both the writing and the execution. I wanted to know more about the psychic sister. What made her and Job unsusceptible to the urge to commit murder? Instead, the picture focused on the many speeches of Isaac (John Franklin) and almost caveman-like Malachai (Courtney Gains). It was obvious that the material wanted to comment on taking religion too seriously along with their respective scriptures word-for-word, but focusing on that one aspect diminished the creativity and imagination that should have been applied to the overall story. It would have been more haunting if the monster or devil known as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” was not shown but merely implied. It wasn’t that I was unconvinced my the special and visual effects (I’m always more concerned about the concept), but the idea that some force could drive children to madness was enough. Sometimes simplicity is key. It just needed to elaborate on its big ideas and consistently raise the bar instead of recycling horror movie clichés. Based on Stephen King’s short story and directed by Fritz Kiersch, “Children of the Corn” was a huge disappointment because it had such a promising first scene. When the couple walked around a seemingly abandoned small town, I felt like I was there. It needed more creepy moments like that instead of its dull fixation on human sacrifice.
The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, “The Adjustment Bureau” was about a U.S. Congressman named David Norris (Matt Damon) and his accidental discovery of men in hats (John Slattery, Anthony Mackie, Terence Stamp) whose jobs were to make sure that fate went according to plan. The event that triggered it all was David’s chance encounter with Elise (Emily Blunt), incidentally, the night David was destined to lose the election. The moment David and Elyse met, they immediately felt a spark, a signal that perhaps they just might spend the rest of their lives together. But the mysterious men in hats and their boss upstairs knew that David and Elyse were not meant to meet each other, let alone be together, so they were willing to do whatever means necessary to keep them apart. The film was a successful hybrid of romance and science fiction. Its casting should be recognized. From the moment David and Elyse met in the men’s restroom, Damon and Blunt convinced us that their characters were perfect for one another. They played each other off with ease. From the awkward “What are you doing in the men’s restroom?” look to the way the their bodies moved closer to each other as their first conversation went on, the picture convinced us that they had chemistry. Casting was fundamental but critical because if their interactions lacked charm, we wouldn’t have been emotionally invested. If we didn’t want them to end up together, the conspiracy that wanted to keep them apart would have been ineffective. I admired the fact that there was not a defined good versus evil. The agents of the Adjustment Bureau were assigned a job and their job just happened to involve separating forces that greatly attracted each other. There were some plot holes, especially since the film took the liberty to fast forward in time for several years without explaining some events that happened in between, and misplaced expositions designed to explain what was happening and why certain things had to happen a certain way, but such elements were almost expected in high concept movies. For me, what mattered more was the material always looked forward so its pacing was steady. Like people in love, as long as I remained curious about the mystery and how the romance would eventually turn out, I learned to live with its imperfections. Unlike most films with romance in their veins, David and Elise’s fate as a couple wasn’t perfectly clear. There was a discussion of death which could serve as a foreshadowing. There was a question whether we should leave someone we love if we knew that our presence in their lives hindered them from reaching their potential. But there was also an implication that if enough unpredictable ripple effect were created, perhaps fate could be changed even in the slightest ways. Directed by George Nolfi, “The Adjustment Bureau” was able to reach a balance between intelligence and heart. But what it required from us was a little bit of imagination.