Another Plan from Outer Space

As a longtime fan of Star Trek and other sci-fi, I can’t even count how many times I’ve wished someone would hurry up and invent some form of faster than light travel already. I’d even take wormholes, despite how unreliable they often are in fiction. Sadly, these days the term ‘space race’ mainly seems to refer to corporations vying to be the first to mine huge quantities of gold and platinum from asteroids and possibly cause huge damage to the world economy in the process. There’s also the stuff about a “Space Force” coming from the general direction of the US capital, though sadly it’s hard to take anything from that part of the world seriously anymore. The movie Another Plan from Outer Space offers a somewhat more optimistic view of the conquest of space, even if coming back home is a little problematic.

Jackson and Strickland sitting by the campfire.
No, they don’t sing “Kumbaya” around the fire.

By 2024, in fact, there are 521 colonists on Mars, which, also sadly, will never happen in five years, but we’ll pretend. The crew of the space shuttle Genesis I has just dropped off the latest batch of said colonists and returned to Earth, only to encounter some savage solar flares just before landing that instead cause them to crash. Tachyons were involved, and any Star Trek fan knows those are bad news. The five surviving crew members wake up in the middle of a desert with no idea of where they might be.

Reduced to emergency supplies amounting to little more than a canteen of water each and a couple of days’ worth of food, their situation is dire, especially since they can’t be sure anyone is looking for them, or if any searchers even know where to start looking. Commander Sam Strickland (Jessica Morris) reacts especially badly, to the general surprise of the rest, and Captain Raymond Jackson (Scott Sell) has his hands full keeping morale up. Then there’s the fact that Engineer Hudson (Augie Duke) has apparently had at least one full-blown hallucination. Dr. Koji Yushiro (Minchi Murakami) and Lieutenant Ben Brooks (Hans Hernke) seem to be holding up better, but tension is mounting as the hours tick by and there’s still no sign of rescue. Sam becomes increasingly erratic, and despite Hudson’s best efforts, they can’t be sure that the distress beacon they scavenged from the ship will reach anyone. With danger lurking in unexpected places, the crew is in serious jeopardy — and that’s before some truly inexplicable things start happening.

Despite the name, there are no space zombies involved as in Plan 9, but that’s probably for the best. The movie owes a lot to the classic Twilight Zone series, even having been filmed in black and white. It’s as much a survival tale as science-fiction, but it works equally well as both, with plenty of realistic relationships among the characters. The slow build at the beginning is perhaps a little too slow, and at times it doesn’t seem possible that these people have all been in the same small ship for nearly two years. For instance, one character has a picture of his infant son that apparently no one else has seen yet, and I find that hard to believe. But apart from the occasional hiccup, there are convincing performances and a good sense of the characters fighting against the situation as well as their own natures and limitations. Overall, it’s a solid, old-school science-fiction film that keeps you thinking, as all such films should.

Dragonflies Only Live for 24 Hours

It’s easy to get in the habit of thinking of some people as larger than life heroes. We’d all like to think that police officers, for instance, are incorruptible, or at least close to it. But they’re as human as the rest of us, and sometimes that will lead to them turning to the dark side, with consequences they might never have imagined. In Dragonflies Only Live For 24 Hours, two police officers take one fateful step that eventually leads them down a rabbit hole of corruption and lies.

Part of the problem is that Parker (Judson Vaughan, director of Burn) and Frankie (Karl Kennedy-Williams) are convinced they’ve been unjustly passed over for promotion. And it can really hurt, to feel like you’re being denied something you’ve worked hard for, for no good reason. Considering how far these two go to set things “right”, however, it’s very possible their boss just had a hunch he’d better promote two other guys instead. Frankie and Parker are great friends, though, who stick together even when one of them comes up with an idea that is, to put it mildly, bizarre. They’re a pretty good example of a shared psychosis, actually.

Frankie and Parker
Frankie and Parker keep the streets safe from those who dare to steal garden decor.

Anyway, they consider themselves to be firmly on the side of good as they scheme to go a step further than usual, preventing crime instead of just arresting the bad guys after they’ve already ruined (or taken) someone’s life. Of course, anyone who knows anything about Minority Report, either book or movie, knows that this idea is problematic at best, and these guys don’t even have any precognitives around. But as their plans and schemes grow more intricate and more deadly, it also gets harder to know who to trust, not to mention harder for the viewer to look away.

Kennedy-Williams and Vaughan have to carry the show, and they do so brilliantly, creating absolutely believable, fallible characters who are like brothers, joining forces against the world and breaking all the rules — and quite a few laws — in pursuit of a higher purpose. Unfortunately, sometimes the higher purpose gets a little blurry, and the old saying about fighting monsters definitely applies. The supporting cast does an equally stellar job of bringing the often dark world of the film to life. Throw in a little humor, a little irony, and some of the most ruthless schemes and unexpected twists you’ve ever seen, and you’ve got a four and a half out of five star film that takes the entire idea of a cop movie to new and impressive heights.

Bilal: A New Kind of Hero

Every part of the world has its heroes, those whose deeds have become larger than life and whose stories are passed down through the years.  But if you look beneath the stories, you generally find someone who’s less a hero and more a regular person, which only makes them that much more fascinating.  The story of Bilal ibn Rabah is one such example, and the life of one of the earliest followers of Muhammed is brought to the big screen in Bilal: Another Kind of Hero, the first animated feature film from a Dubai studio.
Movie Poster
And this is gorgeous animation, I can’t emphasize that enough.  The characters’ faces do lean towards the cartoonish, faces still being notoriously difficult to animate, but they’re also individual and expressive.  And every other detail is perfect, from the way the desert sun shines through a thin cloth canopy to the worn patches on a guard’s leather armor.  This is a world that looks and feels as real as whatever is around you right now.

In this world, Bilal (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) suffers from nightmares about the death of his mother and his and his sister Ghufaira’s (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams) subsequent fall into slavery.  They grow up as the property of Umayya (Ian McShane), a wealthy and powerful man with a bully of a son called Safwan (Mick Wingert).  Umayya isn’t all that great, either, but he does at least sometimes bother to learn the names of his slaves.  Unable to forget the fact that he had once been free, Bilal doesn’t make the best slave — even aside from anything else, he’ll break any rule if it means helping keep his sister safe — but he forces himself to be resigned to his fate.  Then he meets a mysterious man, who speaks casually but with authority about things like freedom and equality, and Bilal’s journey truly begins.

As fantastic as the animation is — in one scene you can see how drops of water have dampened Bilal’s shirt — it never overshadows the story or the characters.  The tale is told simply, suitable for younger viewers, but that doesn’t mean the grownups will be bored.  It’s an engrossing plot driven by believable people with strengths and weaknesses.  Bilal isn’t perfect, but that just makes him more inspiring as he finds his way in the world while struggling to preserve what’s left of his family.  As in many historical pieces there’s a lack of female characters, but though Ghufaira is unfortunately sometimes reduced to a damsel in distress she also does help keep Bilal focused when he needs it.

The battle scenes are well-done and intense though still PG, and Bilal’s transformation from rebellious teen to a man who at last knows his place in the world keeps the film grounded.  With villains that hit just the right note of wickedness and a vivid supporting cast, Bilal is a vastly entertaining epic that illuminates an era not well known to many in the western world, and thoroughly charms its audience at the same time.

The Big Take

Probably some of the weirdest and wildest stories from established actors are about how they got their big break.  Hopefully not too many of these stories involve actual crimes, because there’s all too much of that in Hollywood.  In The Big Take, however, the crimes get wildly out of hand when the search for funding for an indie film — something that doesn’t normally lead to anything more nefarious than a pushy kickstarter campaign — instead sets off a chain of blackmail, burglary, assault, and worse.

It starts when aspiring producer Vic (Slate Holmgren) runs into famous actor Douglas Brown (James McCaffrey) at the exclusive club where Vic works.  When Douglas — unsurprisingly — turns down Vic’s offer to star in a low-budget movie by a couple of broke unknowns, Vic seeks revenge.  I’m not sure what he originally had in mind, but after he roofies Douglas things take a direction I’m fairly sure Vic would never have predicted.  He’s still quick to take advantage of events, however, and the next thing Douglas knows he’s being blackmailed for the $200,000 bankroll Vic needs to produce the film his friend Max (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) has written and hopes to direct.

You don’t want to mess with Oxana.

A panicked Douglas turns to his agent Jack (Bill Sage, who somehow reminds me of Brad Pitt now and then) for help.  Not to worry, Jack says, he can spin anything.  When he gets a look at the blackmail material, however, he decides sterner measures are needed and he contacts his “fixer”, Frank (Dan Hedaya).  Pronouncing the blackmailers to be amateurs — and he couldn’t be more right there — Frank is confident he can solve this problem easily. Unfortunately, Vic has accidentally left a clue that points straight to Max, who is blissfully unaware of any blackmail and thinks that Douglas is bankrolling his movie because he likes it.  When the overconfident Frank fails to retrieve the blackmail material — Max is pretty much a pushover, but his feisty Ukrainian wife, Oxana (Oksana Lada), not so much — the fixer calls in his own fixer, Edie (Zoë Bell).

It’s at this point that things get completely out of control, with alliances made and broken, houses robbed, people shot and kidnapped, and generally desperate measures taken all around.  Aside from having the misfortune to get caught up in events in the first place, Max is otherwise so ridiculously lucky as to strain credulity — Frank and Edie veer back and forth between incompetence and absolute professionalism, whatever it takes to help Max survive at any given moment.  And Max doesn’t really have much else going for him besides luck and his wife, the character being otherwise unremarkable.  Then there’s the nature of the blackmail material, which is first of all completely tasteless, and second of all far more useful for blackmailing the person who’s with Douglas on the video rather than Douglas himself.

There is good news, though, in that the script is otherwise well-written and the performances solid, with an excellent blend of action and comedy.  Most of the characters are wacky but likable, though Vic occasionally struck me as a possible sociopath.  The zaniness gets a bit too zany for my taste here and there, but  it’s otherwise an entertaining romp through the roller-coaster world of Hollywood that is often laugh-out-loud funny.  Breaking into the movie business can really be murder.

Written and directed by Justin Daly.

Bunker: Project 12

The search for bigger and better weapons has been going on ever since one of mankind’s distant ancestors figured out that small rocks hurt and big rocks hurt more.  During the Cold War that search sometimes reached epic proportions, with countries everywhere rushing to find something that would keep them from being crushed outright by a stronger country.  And of course both the US and the Soviet Union led the charge to “peace” through really big bombs.  In Bunker: Project 12, however, some Cold War-era mercenaries have been sent after a different sort of super-weapon, left lying in cold storage since the project was shut down at the end of World War II.
Movie Poster

The team isn’t even sure what they’re after, but they’ve been hired by a very wealthy businessman, John Henderson (Eric Roberts), and he’s paying them enough that they don’t ask too many questions.  I’m fairly sure that Bruno (Timothy Gibbs) thinks he’s in charge, or at least wants to be, but as much as they even have a leader that would be Tabeel (Joaquín Sánchez), who seems to be the one thing holding the group together. Well, him and the money, presumably.  Along with Irina (Natasha Alam), Alan (Tony Corvillo), and Carl (James Ferguson), they take their first step towards tracking down the mystery weapon by kidnapping Balanowsky (James Cosmo), one of the few people alive who knows his way through the mazelike underground facility that holds the weapon.

The Russians want Balanowsky dead so their secret will be safe, and frankly he isn’t a whole lot safer with the mercenaries, especially Bruno.  Though Balanowsky knows exactly what they’re looking for, he isn’t talking, and by the time the group starts closing in on their goal, they quickly realize that they’re in way, way over their heads this time.

The film starts out a lot like a Bond movie, which is to say that you’re not entirely sure what’s going on or who’s on which side, but you can be absolutely certain that things will explode and a lot of people will get shot.  It’s inside the research facility that things really get going, however — the stark, abandoned look of the structure makes its narrow corridors even more claustrophobic and eerie as our “heroes” start to discover who and what their real enemy is.  And of course Eric Roberts is always brilliant at looking like he’s up to something, which also helps build the suspense.

It’s also about as logical as a Bond movie, which is to say not very logical at all, and it only gets worse at the end.  But the action and the tension help pull you in despite this.  The characters are interesting and in some cases even strangely likable, despite their dubious profession, and the acting is solid throughout.  While you might guess at the secret of the weapon, it’s still a different and intriguing idea that I wish was explored a little more.  Of course, the ending leaves things cleverly open for a sequel, so that still might happen.  It’s primarily a popcorn flick, but if you can ignore the occasional inconsistency, it’s a wildly entertaining action film.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

I went with Shredder, because he's at least visually interesting.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t generally remember the names of the directors unless they’re either incredibly good or incredibly bad. Guess which category Michael Bay fits into? I think the first one of his I saw — at least the first one where I knew it was one of his movies — was when I rented Pearl Harbor, somewhat against my better judgment given that Ben Affleck was in it, so it’s no surprise that his name gives me some pretty bad flashbacks sometimes. Technically he’s the producer here, but that doesn’t help much.

I can’t even use the joke anymore about not having seen the original, because now it’s just starting to seem really sad, how pop-culturally challenged I am. But I did have a vague idea about TMNT going in — I at least knew their names, knew they were trained by a rat, and there was someone named April who helped them out. And that’s all the same in this movie, so off to a good start, right? Except no, we’re not, because the stuff that’s different is almost invariably silly.

Anyway, Megan Fox is April, and while she seems to act marginally better here than she did in Jonah Hex, that isn’t saying much. Not that the part really requires a lot of acting, so it could have been worse, at least. She’s a reporter (currently stuck doing fluff pieces) obsessed with tracking down the Foot Clan, which I originally thought must have been a Michael Bay-ism but apparently is from the original. Meanwhile, the ninja turtles are also fighting the Foot Clan, though secretly, as it seems they keep sneaking out of the sewers when their sensei / father, Splinter (voiced by Tony Shaloub of 1408) isn’t looking. He isn’t really a sensei since he learned all his martial arts moves from a book. Seriously, just one book that somebody threw away. I thought he would have at least watched some YouTube videos.

But he learned all this stuff somehow and trained the turtles, etc. I’m told they were accidentally mutated originally, but here some people experimented on the turtles and the rat, though I’m pretty sure that turtles are not standard lab animals. The some people in this case include April’s father and Eric Sacks (William Fichtner, Elysium), who’s incredibly rich and is helping the NYPD fight the Foot Clan, though I’m also pretty sure that police departments don’t generally hire outside contractors.

Anyway, Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) is still a big bad guy, except here he wants to drain the turtles of their blood. No, he isn’t a vampire; he wants the chemicals in their blood, rare compounds that everyone thought were lost forever since the lab where they were experimented on was burned down. He and his cronies have an Evil Plan that requires these chemicals, you see.

Here’s where the biggest plot hole comes in. Splinter and the turtles were all part of the same experiment, yet for some reason it doesn’t even occur to Shredder that he could use Splinter’s blood. I would think Splinter’s blood would be better, given that he’s at least a mammal and not cold-blooded like a turtle. So it makes little sense for the bad guys to be so hot to capture the turtles and just leave the rat to die. Also, given that the turtles have supposedly been fighting the heavily-armed and trigger-happy Foot Clan for months (Splinter is apparently pretty lousy at noticing when they’ve snuck out) it makes equally little sense for them not to have figured out long ago that their shells are bulletproof, but for some reason they only make that discovery towards the end of the movie.

All the turtles are also vaguely embarrassing, either now and then (Leonardo, voiced by Johnny Knoxville of The Last Stand) or pretty much constantly (Michelangelo). I think he was supposed to be sort of a surfer-dude type, but he kept hitting on April and trying to do hip-hop and it just wasn’t working. Yes, I realize they’re basically supposed to be teenage boys, who often are vaguely embarrassing, but it was still a bit much.

Let’s see. There was also Vern (Will Arnett, Men in Black 3, and also Jonah Hex) the news cameraman who was really obviously trying to get April to go out with him except she never noticed because she was too busy focusing on the Big Story. I liked him. He managed to be both overconfident and awkward at the same time. So for his sake, I’m willing to go up to two and a quarter. I’m feeling generous. They did at least have the sense to keep the movie short, even if the filmmakers seem to think that upstate New York looks more like the Rocky Mountains. And not having seen any earlier incarnations, at least I didn’t have my childhood ruined.

The Last Airbender

The Last Airbender movie cast versus the animated series cast.

Once there was an animated series called Avatar: The Last Airbender. Thanks to James Cameron, no one can use the name Avatar anymore, so we’re stuck with the subtitle. I haven’t had cable in years, so I didn’t know the series existed myself until I started seeing all this buzz. M. Night Shyamalan likes to keep us all on our toes with his choices of subject, apparently. His last name, in case you’re wondering, is pronounced “sir”, because on the billion to one chance I ever meet him, that’s what I’m going to call him. I hear he gets mad if you mispronounce his name.

So there’s this kid with tattoos all over him. Wait, I have to start further back. There’s this world where everyone belongs to one of four groups: Air, Water, Earth, and Fire. Some people can also ‘bend’ their native element, as in make walls of earth spring up and send blobs of water flying. This bending is a lot like Tai Chi, requiring various stances and movements to get the really big and cool things to happen. It’s visually very cool, but it gets a little silly in the battle scenes. I mean, why do people just stand there and watch their opponent do the long, slow dance that means death at the end of it? Break their concentration! Knock them over! But it’s tradition, I guess, so what can you do? Each generation also has one person, a spiritual leader who can bend all four elements and who is called the Avatar — I mean the A word — and the kid with the tattoos is the latest reincarnation. Imagine the Dalai Lama with super powers.

Thanks to a freak accident, this reincarnation — a boy named Aang — ends up out of commission for a long time. Without the A word person around, things turn bad pretty quickly. The Fire Nation, under Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis, and I’m so sad that he’s playing a bad guy this time after Sunshine and Live Free and Die Hard), has gotten all uppity and wants to take over the world. And they’re off to a good start, because they use their fire to make Machines. Most others seem to live at about a medieval level of technology, but they have battleships with flamethrowers. Actually, they’d love the Really Big Gun from Jonah Hex.

The takeover is going pretty well so far, but once Aang is back in action, he’s ready to stop it. He’s rescued by Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, who’s also in those Twilight movies and is therefore probably being mobbed by teenage girls even as you read this), members of the Southern Water Clan. Water Clan also means ice — the southern group dresses and lives somewhat like Eskimos or some other Inuit tribe, whereas their nothern counterparts remind me of Lapps or Finns, or possibly Russians. The Air clan looks mainly Tibetan, the Earth tribes seemed more Chinese, and the Fire Nation more like Indians — India Indians, that is — though everyone uses something that looks a lot like a Chinese alphabet. There’s a pretty rich background here, thanks to the series, and you get a good sense of it.

The three kids join forces and head out on Appa, Aang’s pet flying carpet. He was a flying bison in the series, but here, at least, he looks like a cross between a bearskin rug and the horned monster from Where the Wild Things Are. They are kids, by the way — at 25, Jackson as Sokka is the grandfather of the four main characters (though I’m sure the character is meant to be younger), all the way down to twelve for Aang — which is normally a scary thing, but that didn’t bother me at all going in, and I was right not to worry. Whatever else you might say about M. Night, he can get kids to act. I don’t know how he does it.

Anyway, the quest to save the world begins, and our heroes rack up a lot of frequent flier miles. Everywhere they stop, they start up a rebellion against the Fire Nation. But Aang, being brand-new to his job, still needs to learn a few things, and that has to take priority. Except at any given moment, it’s kind of hard to tell exactly what their priorities are. First they want to keep Aang’s identity secret. Two seconds and one scene change later, they’re telling everyone who he is. Once Katara asks Aang if he knows what to do. He says yes, but instead of asking what that is, or better yet just letting him do it, she tells him that they have to go. They repeat each major plot point until you want to throw things at the screen, but leave you to flounder in figuring out things like the mysterious dragon that appears from time to time. The repetition reminds me of 300 syndrome — a couple of times the narrator says something, and the next thing you know, that something is being acted out on screen. I’ll never understand why filmmakers do that. Show, don’t tell!

Maybe they assumed the audience already knew the mythology, and that’s one reason why it’s so jumpy and twitchy and generally confusing. It’s a bad idea to assume that everyone knows even Batman’s backstory; so it’s really off-base to presume that everyone watching this flick will have seen even one episode of the Nickelodeon series. Maybe they were trying to be artsy and got carried away. Maybe the original episodes were like that. Or maybe the editor just needed a vacation.

Just choose your favorite maybe. Whatever the reason for the way it leaps almost randomly from scene to scene, it loses half an idol just for that, knocking it down to two and three-quarters out of five. The effects are seamless. The acting is solid, and a special shout-out to Dev Patel as the exiled Fire Prince Zuko, fighting to reclaim his honor; and his uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub, Yinsen of Iron Man), who both do an excellent job as the antagonists — I hate to call them villains because they end up just so likable. And I suspect the sides will shift a lot for the next flick — yes, it’s meant for a sequel, even down to starting out with calling it “Chapter One: The Book of Water”, thus setting things up nicely for books two and three, as in the series. I don’t know yet if it will happen, but as long as they get a different set of editors in the booth, it might even be one of those rare cases where the sequel is better than the original.