G.I. JOE: RETALIATION, ROOM 237, WRONG & More: CFQ Spotlight Podcast 4:13

Don't Get Excited, He's Not Around All That Much: Bruce Willis joins forces with Adrianne Palicki in G.I. JOE: RETALIATION.
Don't Get Excited, He's Not Around All That Much: Bruce Willis joins forces with Adrianne Palicki in G.I. JOE: RETALIATION.

With its nuanced evaluation of modern warfare and the place of the soldier in today’s society, G.I. JOE: RETALIATION represents an innovative vision of armed conflict waged on a global scale. Oh, who are we kidding? G.I. JOE: RETALIATION is the second entry in the toy-based franchise, featuring Dwayne Johnson, Bruce Willis, and Ray Stevenson  facing off the baddies of Cobra in order to make the world safe for… Not sure. Other toys, possibly?
Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski and Dan Persons discuss whether the film will leave audiences shouting “Yo, Joe!” or “Oh, no!” Then, reflecting the rather dizzying variety of new genre films released this past weekend, they discuss ROOM 237, a documentary that examines people’s surprisingly baroque relationships with Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING; WRONG, Quentin Dupieux’s latest dip into skewed reality; and Dan discusses the existential survival film, DETOUR.
Plus: What’s coming to theaters.


LOOPER: CFQ Spotlight Podcast 3:39

A Pair of Thugs Face a Paradox: Bruce Willis (left) confronts his younger self as Joseph Gordon-Levitt in LOOPER.
A Pair of Thugs Face a Paradox: Bruce Willis (left) confronts his younger self as Joseph Gordon-Levitt in LOOPER.

Is LOOPER a moving, existential examination of one man confronting the consequences of his actions? Is it a kick-ass, science-fiction thriller that gets considerable, mind-freak mileage from its time-travel scenario? Or is it an overhyped, poorly-plotted bit of pretentious cool? Surprise, it’s all three! At least it is if you ask Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons, whose opinions diverge widely over this tale of a hard-boiled temporal hit-man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who’s charged with taking out his future self (Bruce Willis) and has to deal with the consequences when he botches the job. Time paradoxes are not the only things batted about in this lively conversation.
Then, Dan weighs in on a couple of home video releases: MUNGER ROAD and THE TALL MAN, and Steve cues us in on the horrific delights coming to L.A. repertory in honor of the upcoming Halloween festivities. Click on the player to hear the show.


Looper opens September 28

TriStar Picture releases this film from DMG Entertainment, Endgame Entertainment, and Ram Bergman Productions. In the futuristic action thriller Looper, time travel will be invented – but it will be illegal and only available on the black market. When the mob wants to get rid of someone, they will send their target 30 years into the past, where a “looper” – a hired gun, like Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – is waiting to mop up. Joe is getting rich and life is good… until the day the mob decides to “close the loop,” sending back Joe’s future self (Bruce Willis) for assassination.
The film is written and directed by Rian Johnson and also stars Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, and Jeff Daniels. Ram Bergman and James D. Stern produce.
Release Date: September 28

Luc Besson Planning Sci-Fi Film

fifth-element_audioAccording to Coming Soon, Luc Besson (THE FIFTH ELEMENT) plans to revisit the SF genre with a new film.  
In an interview with radio station Europe 1, he said he’s designing “creatures” for the project which he describes as  “THE FIFTH ELEMENT to the 10th power”.
He hopes to begin the shooting the film in 2012 and 2013, with a 2014 release in mind.
Certainly the semi- farcical FIFTH ELEMENT was cramed full of strange creatures and imaginative  designs, very much like a issue of Heavy Metal brought to life. Hopefully, the script for this unnamed feature will be given as much thought as its visual style.

Sci-Fi 'Looper' Adds Bruce Willis

armageddon_BW_1Cinematical reports in news from Cannes that Bruce Willis (ARMAGGEDON) has joined the cast of the SF-Action time travel flim LOOPER.
He’ll apparently play a older version of the character that Joseph Gordon-Levitt (3rd ROCK FROM THE SUN)
will portray, as the film takes place in at least two time periods, separated by decades.

The reported plot sounds interesting; future crimminals send their victims back in time, before time travel is invented. Their hirelings, “Loopers”, kill them, and dispose of the bodies of people who technically don’t exist yet.
Of course, something goes wrong with the set-up, leading hopefully to action and adventure.
Are there TIMECOPS involved, as well as Time Crooks ?
Rian Johnson (THE BROTHERS BLOOM, in which Gordon-Levitt also appeared) directs.

Armageddon Blu-ray review

click to purchase
click to purchase

New Blu-ray release of ARMAGEDDON recalls a time when a Michael Bay film was no cause for dread

Difficult as it might be to imagine, the prospect of a new Michael Bay film wasn’t always cause for dread. After a string of successful music videos, Bay hit box office pay-dirt with the buddy-cop action comedy BAD BOYS in 1995, immediately establishing a signature style of kinetic action visuals on a bed of questionably tasteful racial and sexual humor. While the stars were largely responsible for its success, the energy and strict adherence to formula was 100% Bay. He exhibited a far more refined touch in his next – and best film – THE ROCK, which displayed strong sense for casting and a better grip on action sequence pacing. The film was yet another smash, which guaranteed Bay even more control (and a coveted Producer credit) on his third film, ARMAGEDDON, a hugely expensive sci-fiextravaganza that pushed the limits of 1998-era digital effects.
After Manhattan Island is devastated – and the orbiting space shuttle Atlantis destroyed – by a particularly violent meteor shower, a group of NASA’s top scientists led by Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton) discovers that the initial strike was just a preamble to the real threat, a giant meteor the size of Texas that’s due to reach Earth in 18 days. With the meteor too immense to be destroyed by missile, it’s decided that a powerful nuclear device buried near the core would be enough to break the rock up before it impacts. To accomplish the necessary drilling, NASA approaches Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) and his crew of hard-nosed oil rig drillers with the job of a lifetime. The enormity of the task forces Harry to re-hire A J Frost (Ben Affleck) after chasing him away at gunpoint from daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) in an attempt to save her from a blue-collar life. Stamper and his team are trained alongside the crews for the shuttles Independence and Freedom, led by Col. Sharp (William Fichtner), whose military training is put to the test by the less-than-disciplined drillers, particularly the mellower than mellow Oscar Choice and the uber wormy ‘Rockhound’ (Owen Wilson and Steve Buscemi, respectively, making for cinema’s most unlikely geologists). The shuttles finally launch, barely surviving a dock with a Russian space station to gather fuel, where they pick up cosmonaut Lev Andropov (Peter Stormare, reunited with Fargo costar Buscemi). After a dangerous slingshot maneuver around the moon severely reduces the team’s numbers, they must still attempt an unprecedented landing (on a surface without 2 tandem meters of flat space) and then drill through thousands of feet of hard iron for the detonation to be effective. When venting gas destroys the remote detonation system, it’s short straw time for Harry, A J and the remaining crew.
Michael Bay has been making it very difficult to remember that he used to know how to put together a satisfying summer blockbuster. What might have seemed bombastic – or just loud – a decade ago seems almost quaint in the wake of two Transformers films, and Bay’s over-reliance on Americana iconography hadn’t quite worn out its welcome yet (this oversight was taken care of with Pearl Harbor, where we lost count of the number of scenes of Middle-American families huddled around antique radios. Now, were not going to sit here and tell you that ARMAGEDDON is without problems – far from it. The film seriously drags once the crew lands on the offending comet, with Bay creating increasingly incredulous suspense sequences for no better reason than to wring an extra ‘beat’ out of an already exhausted story (and why NASA would think to install Gatling guns on its expedition vehicles would make for a deleted scene that we want to see!)
But you have to give credit where it’s due, and Bay (along with producer Jerry Bruckheimer) shows an almost wizardly casting sense; in addition to giving Billy Bob Thornton his first truly high-profile role in a Hollywood Studio film, ARMAGEDDON features genuine ‘catch a rising star’ turns from Owen Wilson, Jason Isaacs, Steve Buscemi and Michael Clarke Duncan. Almost more impressive is Bay’s knack for filling many small roles with the likes of Will Patton, William Fichtner and Peter Stormare – all welcome faces who take hackneyed characters and make them entertaining and watchable. Plus, look fast for Udo Kier (as a harried NASA psychologist) and Grace Zabriskie (a nagging wife who unwittingly names the meteor).
As for the leads, Willis and Affleck do just fine. Willis can do this sort of thing in his sleep, but to his credit, rarely does. He can take a potentially cringe-inducing scene like his final communication with daughter Liv Tyler, and find a genuinely affecting emotional beat to build on. Affleck, in an early role, doesn’t have the effortless gravitas that his costar does, but exhibits a nice, unaffected humor when given the chance (“I have no idea what I’m doing! See that button (hits button) I have no idea what that does!”) But it’s Thornton that you’ll be remembering, lending the same sort of authority as the executive director of NASA that Ed Harris did in Apollo 13 – and in far less forgiving surroundings!
Unfortunately, the success of ARMAGEDDON seemed to kill one part of Bay while simultaneously awakening another.  His follow-up film, Pearl Harbor, made money, to the extent that it was shoved down the collective throat of audiences in the months prior to 9/11, but good luck finding anyone who actually liked it. Bay’s casting instincts were off, and the few genuinely affecting moments are lost in an orgy of self-indulgent visuals and carelessly slight characterizations. After a brief detour on THE ISLAND (a film that featured a slow narrative build-up in its first act), things have only gotten worse since then, with the two overblown TRANSFORMERS films.
Unfortunately, Disney has let ARMAGEDDON down with a so-so Blu-Ray release that didn’t have to be. Criterion had previously released a deluxe 2-disc DVD, and though that set sports a non-anamorphic transfer (not, unfortunately, odd for a 1999 DVD release), this long out-of-print edition is still desirable for its extras, commentary, and extended cut of the feature (amounting to about 3min) – none of which are in evidence on the new Blu-Ray.  It’s possible that Criterion owns the rights to all of the above, but given Disney’s business practices, it’s a bit much to believe that they would hand over the rights to all that value-added material without at least tying a string to it.
Armageddon (1998)In any case, what matters is the image quality, and it’s quite good. Like Tombstone, Disney’s other high profile Blu-Ray release streeting on Tuesday, April 27th, ARMAGEDDON appears to have been struck using the same master for the older DVD releases. That’s good news the film, which always looked good on home video – even VHS – and not so good for a heavily filtered and artifact-plagued Tombstone. Unlike Bay’s heavily digitized Transformers films, ARMAGEDDON feels amazingly film-like, enough so that we were amazed to see some textural film grain pop-up now and then (particularly in darker scenes).
Equally good is the DTS-HD master audio that retains aural nuance and readable dialog levels without sacrificing the show-off sequences, like the initial meteor shower over Manhattan (featuring several disturbingly realistic shots of the WTC towers being hit) or the beautifully handled dual shuttle launch sequence.
Back in 1998, nobody was going to argue ARMAGEDDON’s place in the annals of great cinema, but more than a decade on, when summer blockbusters like G I Joe thrash about in an unconvincing digital world that leaves even engaging actors like Dennis Quaid adrift without a paddle, who’d have thunk that we’d be holding up a Michael Bay picture as a paradigm of taste and restraint?

Cybersurfing: Unbreakable 2 on the way?

Over at Popmatters.com, Bill Gibron goes ecstatic over the possiblity of a sequel to UNBREAKABLE, word of which was floated by actor Bruce Willis during a press junket appearance for the current release COP OUT. UNBREAKABLE of course was the disappointing follow-up collaboration between Willis and writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, whose THE SIXTH SENSE became a sleeper blockbuster hit in 1999. Unfortunately, as interesting as it was in conception, UNBREAKABLE was a misfire in execution, offering the first indication (proven all to true by subsequent work) that Shyamalan was not a sure-fire magician who turned everything he touched into gold.
Considering the missed potential in the original, I can kinda, sorta see the promise of a sequel (take a good idea, badly done, and do it right the second time), but I have my doubts. I have the feeling that any follow-up would act less as a revision than as an attempted vindication of the original. Better to just let things lie.

Surrogates – Blu-ray Review

Click to purchase
Click to purchase

If the notion of an $80 million B-picture sounds like a contradiction in terms, Jonathan Mostow’s SURROGATES will be a real eye-opener. An adaptation of a limited run comic series, the film takes place in a Boston roughly 20 years in a future, when the vast majority of mankind interacts with the world only through a robotic avatar (hey, it was a word before Cameron, you know). Called surrogates, these physically perfect, model-beautiful representation of the human body are neurologically linked to the user from the moment of purchase.
At the time the story takes place, we’re told that 98% of the human population have and use surrogates for everything from going to work, to shopping, to late night partying at after hours clubs. The good news is that crime is virtually non-existent (criminals can, of course, use surrogates, but they can also be shut down by the police while in the process of committing the crime); however, the cost to mankind is less obvious. The vast majority of the human race now spends almost all their time lying in a near comatose state inside darkened rooms within an electronic cocoon, their heads hardwired into computers while their bodies atrophy from lack of exercise and sunshine.
One night, a surrogate is gunned down in an alley behind a club using a powerful energy weapon that kills the user as well as the machine. The user, in this case, happens to be the son of the creator of the surrogate technology, Dr. Lionel Canter (James Cromwell) who loaned the use of the robot to his college-age son for the evening. Heading up the tricky investigation is FBI agent Tom Greer (Bruce Willis), arriving at the crime scene via his own blonde-haired surrogate. Tom and his wife had retreated to life through their surrogates after the death of their young son in an auto accident (which also left his wife with a large facial scar); they rarely even lay eyes on each other’s human forms. Tom’s investigation leads him to the world of Dread Reservations – humans-only territories that practice a form of self rule – under the leadership of an anti-technology guru known only as “The Prophet” (Ving Rhames) who may be planning an uprising amongst his followers.
Even with an $80-million price tag, Surrogates appears more budget-challenged that you’d expect a Bruce Willis sci-fi/action vehicle to be: CGI isn’t unlimited (which works to the film’s advantage), and after Willis cashed his check there wasn’t enough left to put together a compelling supporting cast. Nothing against Rhames and Cromwell, but the former isn’t given anything interesting to do in a pretty silly role, and the latter has played to this type far too many times to be terribly effective (his character in I, Robot is similar enough to rate as an homage – if there were anyone who liked I, Robot enough to care).
The budgetary constraints do serve to create an endearing B-picture air about Surrogates, and director Mostow has been quite adept – in films like Breakdown and U-571 – at making a little look like a lot (and, conversely, making a lot look like a little in Terminator 3). The film’s not-too-distant future is smartly designed to look not much dissimilar from our current world, with surrogates seeming to be the only major technological advance. This enforced low tech approach works well, until it runs up against a similar economy in story and plot; the film takes great care in answering certain questions about the robots (recharging stations appear in the street with the frequency of phone booths in pre-1980 movies) while ignoring certain major issues (98% of the world uses surrogates?!?). These are relatively minor frustrations, but they do keep a good film from being any more than that.
The film’s heights come courtesy of an extraordinary turn by star Bruce Willis, whose performance ranks as one of the braver appearances by a major Hollywood star in recent memory. We’re first introduced to agent Greer in the form of his surrogate (imagine a Hudson Hawk-era Willis with a mop of slightly incongruous blonde hair), but once Greer’s robotic doppelganger is incapacitated, Greer must interact with the world as he is; a grizzled, bald and tired middle-age man. In addition to looking every day of his 55 years, Willis also spends much of the running time with massive facial contusions and abrasions – we can’t think of another actor in Willis’ strata that has ever allowed themselves to look this awful on screen, particularly at an age when most of his contemporaries are vainly attempting to hide the ravages of age.
The other actors, including his partner, Radha Mitchell, and wife, Rosamund Pike, don’t get the time to develop anywhere near as well (and appear mostly in surrogate form). At a brisk 89 minutes (including credits) Surrogates rarely loiters long enough for the inquisitive viewer to ask too many questions; it’s a well paced, entertaining show that proves that every action film needn’t carry with it a studio-busting budget.
Image wise, Touchstone’s Blu-Ray release is a decidedly mixed bag. While there was clearly some filtering used to make the surrogates of the older actors appear youthful (an effect much better used here than in the last X-Men film, in which Patrick Stewart resembled his own video game character), this appears to have been applied to the entire frame, rather than only to the faces and skin. In all but the daytime outdoor sequences, backgrounds appear variably pale and washed out. We viewed the film with a friend who instantly assumed that it was deliberate method, used to highlight the unreality of the world that the characters inhabit. This may indeed be true, but we have a hard time imagining a filmmaker like Mostow having much patience for this sort of trickery.
The uncompressed DTS audio suffers no such distortion and sounds every bit the muscular blockbuster. Extras on the standard DVD run a bit light (not surprisingly, since Disney all but abandoned the film in theaters without advance screenings for critics). We do have a decent commentary track with Mostow and a music video that we didn’t last long with. The Blu-Ray has a few exclusive features, including a non-starter EPK piece, a featurette on the graphic novel on which the film is based (no, we hadn’t heard of it either), and 6 minutes of deleted scenes.

Surrogates: Sci-Fi Thriller’s Reflections on the Self and the Synthetic

Surrogates (2009)Last month I heard about a forthcoming science fiction film by thumbing through one of my wife’s entertainment magazines. A little further research on the Internet led to a trailer, and after viewing it I was hooked. The movie became an instant part of my “must see” list for the last few months of 2009. The film is SURROGATES, and it caught my eye because it includes several elements that are attractive for me, especially its storyline, which involves the increasing interpenetration (if not dependence) of human beings upon technology, particularly various digital technologies such as robotics.
Like many science fiction movies these days, SURROGATES is based upon a graphic novel, in this case by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele. It tells the story of a society in the not too distant future when advanced robotics have come to play a significant part of life around the world. As the film’s opening narrative discusses, the first experimentations with robotics began with an animal-robotic interface, before moving on to the use of robotics to assist those with physical disabilities, and then taking quantum leaps in application when the military became involved in the technology by creating robotic troops to enter into battle.
The robots are the products of Virtual Self Industries, and the technology becomes so advanced that it is possible for human beings to connect the neural pathways of the brain to robots so that everything the robot experiences is felt as the experience of the human being. This makes it possible, indeed desirable, that people live their lives not through the imperfection and limitations of their bodily selves, the “meat bags” as they are derogatorily referred to in SURROGATES, but through robots who are designed by each human being as an idealized expression of themselves. This creates something of a utopian world where fantasies can be lived out, and crime rates drop dramatically around the world as people immerse themselves in their surrogacy of robotic life and fantasy.
But in human experience utopia is often interrupted and broken. In the case of SURROGATES someone begins killing robots, which shouldn’t be a problem because of built-in safeguards that protect human users from damage and destruction to their “surries,” but in this case the deaths of robot surrogates lead to the deaths of the human users on the other end. Murder of human beings through surrogates presents the first instance of murder in many years.
This leads to a criminal investigation led by FBI agent Greer (played by Bruce Willis), with his partner agent Peters (Radha Mitchell). Like the rest of the world, Greer and Peters live their lives through robotic surrogates, and as they pursue the investigation they discover the frightening ability of a human to kill another human through secret military technology, apparently with connections to Virtual Self Industries, and the serious falling out between the corporation and its founder, Older Canter (James Cromwell) who’s son was one of the first murder victims that began the investigation.
Along the way Greer uncovers conspiracy and cover-up, questions about the military and the extremely powerful VSI, a potentially dangerous tension between the mass of society dependent upon surrogates and a group of humans living without and in opposition to surrogates on human-only reservations under the leadership of The Prophet (a quasi-religious figure played by Ving Rhames), and through all of this Greer comes to grips with his own relationship to surrogates and its impact upon his marriage.
Although SURROGATES will likely not set great box office records, in my view the film is a significant one. Many times I build up great expectations based upon film trailers and storyline summaries, only to become somewhat disappointed when the film does not live up to its hype and my perhaps unrealistic hopes. Thankfully, this was not the case with SURROGATES. It presents a well written storyline that includes a good balance of drama, as relationships and tensions between characters are developed, and a good dose of action and crime drama to compliment these elements. When this is combined with the futuristic possibilities and questions posed by our relationship with technology, it makes for not only entertaining, but also thought provoking cinema as well.
In terms of the serious cultural issues suggested in the film, in my reflections on these matters prior to the film’s release I wrote previously:

“Although the sci-fi premise and scenario of SURROGATES might seem far removed from our own circumstances, it may not really be the case. Consider our fascination with ‘pseudo-events,’ the play revolution fueled by digital entertainment, and posthumanism. In his book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (Vintage, 1992), historian Daniel Boorstin argues that Americans live in an ‘age of contrivance’ and that our public lives are filled with various ‘pseudo-events’ or ‘artificial products’ that simulate reality and which leave the individual who experiences the events or utilizes various products feeling as if they have experienced reality when in fact they have had their stereotypes confirmed by an encounter with the simulation.
“In addition to our experiences with pseudo-events, recall the great amounts of time we spend on play, particularly in the digital realm. Play is becoming an increasingly significant facet of life in those parts of the world where economic factors allow it to be so. This is particularly the case with the continued popularity of professional sports, and a new dimension of play has arisen with the increasing numbers of people spending time in various virtual worlds in cyberspace, such as Lineage, Gaia Online or Second Life. In his book Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun is Changing Reality (Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), Edward Castronova believes a ‘fun revolution’ is underway that will change the way in which we behave in the ‘real world.’ He says that, ‘An understanding of fun will become integral to understanding why the real world is losing people [to virtual worlds], and what to do about it.’
“Finally, there are the discussions of transhumanism or posthumanism where the combination of robotics and human consciousness are seen as the next steps in human evolution and societal development. When the concepts of pseudo-identity, the large numbers of people spending great amounts of time in cyberspace or in other forms of digital entertainment, and posthumanism are taken together, it is not too much of a stretch to conceive of a future wherein people play or live their lives immersed in fantasy scenarios through robotic avatars as in SURROGATES.”

Millions of people spend countless hours online immersed in social networking sites like Facebook, or in alternative worlds like Second Life. Is it much of a stretch of credibility and possibility to consider human beings spending most if not all of their lives experienced through robotic surrogates if the technology were available and affordable?
Science fiction has a long history of presenting warnings to human beings about the dangers of technology, including the robotic, and SURROGATES is part of this tradition, but it also includes far more. It provides seeds for reflection to those who are able to use the film in a way that offers the critical distance necessary to think about the uncomfortable issues it raises. These include things such as the value and place of simulated and synthetic experiences, virtual and “real world” identities, idealized selves, and cultural conceptions of personal beauty.
For me SURROGATES was both a thrill ride and a venue for serious reflection, akin to a combination of WESTWORLD and BLADE RUNNER for the 21st century. With films like this and DISTRICT 9, the latter half of 2009 has been a good period for quality science fiction.

SURROGATES (2009). Directed by Jonathan Mostow. Screenplay by Michael Ferris & John D. Brancato, based on the graphic novel by Robert Venditt and Brett Weldele. Cast: Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, Boris Kodjoe, James Francis Ginty, James Cromwell, Ving Rhams, Jack Noseworthy.