Film Review: Replicas (dir by Jeffrey Nachmanoff)


Don’t even ask me to explain what’s going on in Replicas, a sci-fi film that was released way back in January to terrible reviews and non-existent box office.

Admittedly, this film has a plot and you can kind of follow it if you force yourself to.  And really, it’s not that unusual of a plot.  It’s another one of those things where a scientist is shocked to discover that his top secret research is actually being funded by the military and everyone in the audience is supposed to be like, “OH MY GOD!  NO!  NOT THE MILITARY!”  As you can probably guess from the title, the film is also about clones.  Have you ever noticed that bad sci-fi films always seem to involve cloning?

It’s not so much that the plot can’t be followed as that the film’s storyline just feels oddly underdeveloped.  Watching Replicas, you get the feeling that the filmmakers got bored with the plot and just decided to go ahead and make the movie, without thinking everything through.  As a result, the film touches on all of the ethical and philosophical issues that come along with cloning people but that’s all it does.  Instead of actually exploring any of those issues or trying to come up with an original spin on the story, Replicas just mechanically moves from one scene to another.

Keanu Reeves plays William Foster, a scientist who, along with his longtime friend and partner, Ed Whittle (Thomas Middleditch of Silicon Valley fame), has figured out a way to transfer a dead person’s mind into a robot’s body, hence bringing the person kind of back to life.  A big evil corporation has set up a lab in Puerto Rico for Foster and Whittle to do their research.  The problem is that every time that they put a dead soldier’s mind into an android body, the dead soldier gets pissed off and destroys the body.  Evil Mr. Jones (John Ortiz) demands that they figure out a way to keep the dead soldier from getting mad.  Somehow, it doesn’t occur to Foster or Whittle that Jones wants them to put the soldier’s mind in the android’s body so that the android can then be used as a weapon of war.

(Also, if you want to use androids as soldiers, why not just do some sort of remote control thing like they do with drones?  Seriously, I don’t think Jones has thought his evil scheme through.  The less complicated the better.)

Anyway, Foster and his wife, Mona (Alice Eve), and his three children decides to spend the weekend camping and things don’t go well.  In fact, they go so badly that Foster ends up crashing the SUV and his entire family ends up dead.  Not to worry though!  Foster’s a scientist and he knows how to create clones.  So, he’ll just clone his family.  Of course, to do that, he’ll have to pretend that they’re all still alive and, because he only has room for three clones, he’ll have to pretend like his fourth child never existed.

Does Foster succeed?  Well, the movie is called Replicas.  What’s weird is that it’s obvious that Foster’s going to succeed but the movie still spends an entire hour with Foster and Whittle trying to figure out how to bring the clones to life.  I understand the movie wanted to at least pretend like there was a chance that Foster might not be able to do it but, again, the movie is called Replicas.

Anyway, Foster does eventually resurrect his family but then he discovers that Jones is actually a bad guy and soon, Foster and the Replicas are fleeing for their lives.  It really doesn’t add up too much because the film doesn’t bother to really explore any of the issues that it brings up.  Potentially big moments — like Foster deleting his youngest daughter’s existence — happen but are never really explored.  You keep waiting for some sort of twist — like the clones turning on their creator or Foster discovering that he’s a clone himself — and it never happens.  Instead, the film turns into a rather standard if not very exciting sci-fi action film.

To give credit where credit is due, Keanu Reeves does appear to be taking the film seriously and he has a few scenes that suggest that the film would have been improved if it had played up the idea of Foster being a mad scientist.  The rest of the cast seems to be either bored or miscast but Reeves does try to bring some heart to the film.  Otherwise, Replicas is pretty forgettable.

Catching Up With The Films of 2017: A Woman, A Part (dir by Elisabeth Subrin)


There’s a great montage during the first half of A Woman, A Part.

An actress named Anna (Maggie Siff) wanders around her home, reading scripts for tv shows and movies.  In between shots of her snorting cocaine, we listen as she reads dialogue aloud.  One of the scripts features her as a dying mother who, with her last words, asks her children to look after their father.  Another script is obviously from a Lifetime film and again, the role that Maggie reads is for a mother.  In another script, she’s a love interest.  And, in another, she’s just a bitchy authority figure.  As becomes obvious from the dialogue, none of the scripts offer her the chance to play a leading or even a fully developed character.  In each script, she’s either a plot device or a part of the scenery.  She reads a script, she does a line.  As she finishes each script, she tosses it into her pool until soon, the water is full of shallow characters and clichéd dialogue.  Soon, Anna is floating in the pool, surrounded by the debris of her career.

Anna moved to Los Angeles from New York.  In New York, she was all about theater and seeking truth through acting.  In Los Angeles, she has a role on a sitcom and a certain amount of fame.  People stare at her in restaurants.  Some ask for autographs.  Anna is exhausted, frustrated, and very aware that Hollywood has little to offer an actress in her 40s.

Anna escapes Los Angeles, heading back to New York.  She hopes to reunite with her former friends but, when she arrives, she discovers that some have moved on and some have not.  Her former acting partner, Kate (Cara Seymour), no longer considers herself to be an actress and resents Anna for having left their show to go to Los Angeles.  Playwright Isaac (John Ortiz) has written a play, one that centers around a flawed character who Anna immediately recognizes as being based on herself.

A Woman, A Part is the first full-length feature film to be directed by the video artist, Elisabeth Subrin.  It’s a flawed but promising debut.  For every moment that runs the risk of falling into cliché, there’s a sequence like that pool scene or the scenes where Kate and Anna deal with their fractured friendship.  It’s in those scenes between Maggie Siff and Cara Seymour that the film really comes alive.  When a fan approaches Anna while she’s talking to Kate and Anna responds by saying that everyone should be asking for Kate’s autograph, Kate rightly calls Anna out for her condescending attempt at kindness.  At the same time, the film is also honest enough in its characterizations to admit that much of Kate’s reaction is due to her own resentment that Anna found the success that Kate didn’t.  This is a film that realizes that friendships are often the most complex of relationships.  Maggie Siff and Cara Seymour both give honest and poignant performances.

As I said, A Woman, A Part is not without its flaws.  To be honest, the character of Isaac never interested me as much as Anna and Kate.  There are a few scenes which are just a little bit too on the nose.  It’s not a perfect film but it is a promising one and I look forward to seeing what Elisabeth Subrin does next.

 

 

A Halloween Film Review: Kong: Skull Island (dir by Jordan Vogt-Roberts)


You may have noticed that, in the title of this post, I specifically referred to Kong: Skull Island as being a Halloween film but not a horror film.

That was very much intentional on my part.  Kong: Skull Island is really not a horror film.  (I think you could argue that the only King Kong film that can legitimately be considered a horror film would be Peter Jackson’s version and that’s just because he tossed in a few scenes that were obviously inspired by the old Italian cannibal films.)  I watched Kong: Skull Island a few months ago and I really can’t say that there was ever a moment where I was scared or even uneasy.  It’s just not that type of film.

At the same time, it is a fantastically fun and entertaining monster movie, one that has a good sense of humor about its own absurdity.  Halloween is not just a time to get scared.  It’s also a time to have fun and, for that reason, Kong: Skull Island is a perfect movie for October.  In fact, I think that it was actually a mistake for Warner Bros. to release the film in March.  They should have released it during the first weekend of October.  It could have provided a counterbalance to all of the depressing films that have been released this month,

Kong: Skull Island is a throwback to the gleefully absurd monster movies of the past.  Just so we don’t miss that point, the film starts with a 1944 prologue before then jumping forward to 1973.  (Significantly, not a single scene takes place in the 21st Century.)  Samuel L. Jackson plays Lt. Col. Preston Packard, the tough, no-nonsense commander of the Sky Devils helicopter squadron.  The Sky Devils are finally on the verge of leaving Vietnam but they’ve been asked to carry out on more mission.  They’ve been asked to fly an expedition over a newly discovered island.  The official story is that they’re going to be mapping the island but everyone knows better than to trust the government.

Kong: Skull Island is very well-cast, which is a good thing because the majority of the characters are thinly written.  Among the civilians in the helicopters: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, and John Goodman.  Of course, they’re all playing characters but, for the most part, you’ll spend the entire movie thinking of them as being Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, and John Goodman.  For that matter, you never think of Samuel L. Jackson as being Preston Packard.  He simply is Samuel L. Jackson.  When they eventually discover a castaway living on the island, it doesn’t matter that the man’s “name” is supposedly Hank Marlow.  He’s played by john C. Reilly and that’s who you’ll always think of him as being.   They’re all charismatic actors so you certainly don’t mind watching them but, at the same time, the film understands that the main reason we’re all here is to see the giant gorilla.

To the film’s credit, it doesn’t take long for King Kong to show up.  This is not one of those films where things are dragged out in an unnecessary attempt to create suspense.  (After all, the audience already knows that King Kong’s on the island.)  Almost as soon as the helicopters breach the airspace over Skull Island, Kong shows up and starts knocking them out of the sky.  The survivors end up stranded on different parts of the island.

Of course, it’s not just Kong that they have to worry about.  In fact, from the start, the audience is smart enough to know that Kong is actually one of the good monsters.  However, Skull Island is also inhabited by bad monsters, like these giant reptiles that Kong keeps having to fight.

Early on, there’s a scene in America where, in regards to the Watergate scandal, John Goodman says that Washington, D.C. is never going to be more screwed up than it is at that moment.  That line pretty much epitomizes Kong: Skull Island.  It’s a lark with a knowing sense of humor and it is not meant to be taken at all seriously.  At it’s best, Kong: Skull Island satirizes some of the most pompous monster movies of the past.  Whenever someone says something portentous, you can be sure that the film will quickly find a way to puncture the somber mood.

And it’s all terrifically entertaining.  Watch, enjoy, and don’t worry too much about whether or not any of it makes sense.  A trip to Skull Island is a trip worth taking.

Review: Miami Vice (dir. by Michael Mann)


Michael Mann has always been in the forefront of experimenting and trying out new film techniques and styles to tell his stories. 2003’s Collateral was a veritable masterpiece of directing of a modern, urban noir. He even made Tom Cruise very believable as a sociopathic character. In 2006, Michael Mann followed up Collateral with another trip down the darkside of the law and crime. Taking a concept he made into a cultural phenomenon during the mid 80’s, Mann reinvents the show Miami Vice from the pastel colors, hedonistic and over-the-top drug-culture Miami of the 1980’s to a more down, dirty and shadowy world of the new millenium where extremes by both the cops and the criminals rule the seedy, forgotten side of the city.

Michael Mann’s films have always dealt with the extremes in its characters. Whether its James Caan’s thief character Frank in Thief, the dueling detective and thief of Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro in Heat, up to Foxx and Cruise’s taxi driver and assassin in the aforementioned Collateral. They all have had one thing in common. They’re individuals dedicated to their chosen craft. Professional in all respect and so focused to doing their job right that they’ve crossed the line to obsession. It is this obsession and how it governs everything they do which almost makes it into their own personal form of drug.

This theme continues in Mann’s film reboot of his TV series Miami Vice. The characters remain the same. There’s still the two main characters of Vice Detectives Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs. This time around these titular characters were played by Colin Farrell (in a look that echoes Gregg Allman more than Don Johnson) and Jamie Foxx. From the first moment the first scene suddenly appears all the way through to the final fade to black in the end of the film, the audience was thrust immediately into the meat of the action. Mann dispenses with the need for any sort of opening credits. In fact, the title of the film doesn’t appear until the end of the film and the same goes for the names of all involved. I thought this was a nice touch. It gave the film a stronger realism throughout.

The film’s story was a mixture of past classic episodes rolled into one two-hour long film with the episode “Smuggler’s Blues” being the main influence on the story. The glamour and glitz that were so prevalent in the original series does show up in the film, but it’s not used too much that it turned the characters of Crockett, Tubbs and the rest of the cast into caricatures. The glamour seems more of a thin veneer to hide the danger inherent in all the parties involved. These people were all dangerous from the cops to the criminals. There’s a lot of the so-called “gray areas” between what makes a cop and what makes a criminal. Mann’s always been great in blurring those lines and in showing that people on either side of the line have much more in common than they realize.

Miami Vice‘s story doesn’t leave much for back story exposition for the main leads. Michael Mann takes the minimalist approach and just introduces the characters right from the beginning with nothing to explain who they were outside of the roles they played — whether they were law-enforcement or drug dealers. The script allows for little personal backstory and instead lets the actors’ performance show just what moves, motivates and inspires these characters. Again, Jamie Foxx steals the film from his more glamorous co-star in Colin Farrell. Farrell did a fine job in making Crockett the high-risk taking and intense half of the partnership, but Foxx’s no-nonsense, focused intensity as Tubbs was the highlight performance throughout the film.

The rest of the cast do a fine job in the their roles. From Gong Li as Isabella, the drug-lord’s moll who also double’s as his organization’s brains behind the finances to Luis Tosar as the mastermind drug kingping Arcángel de Jesús Montoya. Tosar as Montoya also does a standout performance, but was in the screen for too less a time. Two other players in the film I have to make mention of were John Ortiz as Jose Yero who was Montoya’s machiavellian spymaster and Tom Towles in a small, but scary role as the leader of the Aryan Brotherhood gang hired by Yero to be his Miami enforcers. Both actors were great in their supporting role and more than held their own against their more celebrated cast mates.

This film wouldn’t be much of a police crime drama if it was all talk and no action. The action in Miami Vice comes fast and tight. Each scene was played out with a tightness and intensity which prepped the audience to the point that the violence that suddenly arrives was almost a release. Everyone knew what was coming and when the violence and action do arrive it goes in hard and fast with no use of quick edits, slow-motion sequences or fancy camera angles and tricks like most action films. Instead Michael Mann continues his theme of going for realism even in these pivotal moments in the film.

The shootouts doesn’t have the feel of artificiality. The gunshots inflicted on the people in the film were brutal, violent and quick. The camera doesn’t linger on the dead and wounded. These scenes must’ve taken only a few minutes of the film’s running time, but they were minutes that were executed with Swiss-like precision. The final showdown at an empty lot near the Miami docks was organized chaos with the scene easy to follow yet still keeping a sense of anarchy to give the whole sequence a real sense of “in the now”.

The look of the film was where Mann’s signature could be seen from beginning to end. He started using digital cameras heavily in Collateral. His decision to use digital cameras for that film also was due to a story mostly set at night. The use of digital allowed him to capture the deepest black to off-set the grays and blues of Los Angeles at night. Mann does the same for Miami Vice, but he does Collateral one better by using digital cameras from beginning to end. Digital lent abit of graininess to some scenes, but it really wasn’t as distracting as some reviewers would have you believe. In fact, it made Miami Vice seem like a tale straight out of COPS or one of those reality police shows.

Michael Mann stretches the limits of what his mind and technology could accomplish when working in concert. Mann’s direction and overall work in Miami Vice could only be described as being as focused and obsessive over the smallest detail as the characters in his films. This is a filmmaker who seem to want nothing but perfection in each scene shot.

With Miami Vice, Michael Mann has done the unthinkable and actually made a film adaptation of a TV show look like an art-film posing as a tight police drama. Everyone who have given the film a less than stellar review seem to have done so because Mann didn’t use the 80’s imagery and sensibilities from the original show. There were no pastel designer clothes and homes. There was no pet alligator and little friendly banter and joking around. Mann goes the other way and keeps the mood deadly serious. This was very apropo since the two leads led mortally dangerous lives as undercover agents who could die at the slightest mistake. The fun and jokes of the original series would’ve broken the mood and feel of this film. I, for one, am glad Mann went this route and not paid homage to the original series. This some saw as a major flaw, but I saw it as the main advantage in keeping Miami Vice from becoming a self-referential film bordering on camp.

Miami Vice was a finished product thats smart, stylish, and innovative crime drama. This was a film that people would either love despite some of the flaws, or one people would hate due to not being like the original TV series. Those who decide to skip watching Miami Vice because of the latter would miss a great film from one of this generation’s best directors. Those who do give this version of Miami Vice a chance would be rewarded with a great tale of cops and criminals and the obsession they have in their set roles.