Well, lookey here. I made a promise and I actually kept it.
Last month, I started this new recurring series (for those keeping count, this is something like the 16th recurring series I’ve started on this site). Unlike those others, I actually made good on my promise and returned – ON TIME.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ll plan to drop in at the end of each month and provide all of you with my thoughts on the latest flicks to scurry out of my Netflix queue and land before my peepers. Remember, this is just supposed to be my reactions and observations of the whole laundry list of films that I somehow missed on first run and am now parsing through in the comforts of my own home. To that end, if anyone has suggestions for movies that I’ve just got to see, let me know in the Comments below. Also, if you’ve seen these flicks and have anything to add, please do. I’m begging ya’. There’s nothing better than some good jawing over a great movie or better yet, tag-teaming a turkey. (And with that image, there goes my appetite for Thanksgiving fixings).
On with the show.
Movies like this one are the reason I started this series – to bring awareness to flicks that not only passed me by but also leap-frogged most of the general movie-going public. As I frequent a number of entertainment sites, I knew a little bit about director Danny Boyle’s (Trainspotting) reunion with writer Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later), so this one was actually positioned on my radar. But, these days, I get out to the theater on a much less-frequent basis so it was likely this was always going to bear the Direct-to-DVD mark on my personal To Do List.
So, here’s where my Blog performs a public service. Anyone who is a fan of good science-fiction films (not the derivative hackery of an Aliens v. Predator Requiem) owes themselves a solid to seek this one out.
Here’s the synopsis. Sometime in the near future, the sun begins to burn out. Mankind sends an expedition (dubbed Icarus) into space to travel as close as possible to the Sun and unleash a massive payload (a man-made star) that will kick-start the Sun’s core. It’s a global effort that results in failure. Sunshine picks up with the last ditch effort, Icarus 2, and their journey. Along the way, they pick up a distress call from the original vehicle and circumstances coerce the crew to investigate. And from there, bad things happen.
I gave you that synopsis intentionally. On paper, this reads like a derivative piece of sci-fi pulp that cribs wholesale from Alien, Event Horizon, 2001 and others. And, truthfully, on film it wears those inspirations proudly. But writer Alex Garland and Danny Boyle tweak the formula enough to grant this retelling a heightened sense of urgency. You know that they know that we know we’ve sent these films before and they use those reference points as a springboard to twist conventions.
I did have a problem with some plot elements in the third act. Without giving too much away, a major crisis that develops late is given short shrift and not much explanation is provided to explain how (and I have to tread carefully here) a character is able to do what he does. This may be done intentionally to put the audience on the same footing as the main characters (meaning we know as much as they do), but from a narrative standpoint, it’s a bit frustrating. Still, it’s not enough to eclipse a stellar sci-fi flick.
Sunshine is worth gazing at.
2. 28 Days Later
This is apparently the all Danny Boyle hour as I also caught up with his zombie flick, which he directed from Alex Garland’s script. Part of this is by design. When you are adding to your queue, Netflix will often recommend similar movies tethered by common themes, actors, directors, etc. So, when I chose Sunshine, 28 Days Later popped up, providing me with the total recall needed to add the flick to my queue. This was one of those films I wanted to see when it first came out but missed. Part of that may have had to do with the fact that the original release was dumped to theaters in the middle of Summer 2002, just after the first Spider-Man swung onto screens. Fox Searchlight may have been attempting a little counter-programming to get their little Brit import in front of a US audience but it ended up drowning in the midst of that blockbuster season.
Of course, DVD is a horror flick’s best friend and this one really picked up steam when it made it into the home retail channel.
Well, I’m glad I finally caught up with this. Last year, around the time I Am Legend released, I wrote that I am a sucker for “apocalyptic anything“. You empty a city of its inhabitants, cram the streets with gridlock traffic (like so many crushed tin cans) and then set a protagonist loose among some mysterious plague (be it Superflu, C.H.U.D.s or fast-moving zombies) and I am there every time.
While I was genuinely impressed with Legend’s opening scenes of a vacant New York City, I am blown away by what Boyle has managed to do to London on a budget the size of Legend’s craft services bill. As 28 Days Later begins, we meet the protagonist Jim (Cillian Murphy), who awakens from a coma in a city hospital. As he exits the strangely empty building, he begins to wander the streets of London through various landmarks and side streets and finds nothing but emptiness and decay. Boyle adds to the eerie aura by capturing the proceedings on digital video, giving the film a documentary feel. Boyle may not have had the budget to digitally erase the normal bump-and-grind of every day England but his negotiation skills must be top-notch to close down as many streets as he needs to really sell the illusion that Armageddon is upon us.
I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll skip most of the plotting. I will say that while this film has its share of thriller moments (and a couple gross out scenes), I found it to be less of a horror film than more of a dramatic parable. The film’s three acts are succinctly sorted – Fright, Flight and Fight. See the flick and you’ll see what I mean.
One last note, when this film first released, message boards argued that the happy ending added to the US version was a let down. Fans wanted the original downer ending that played in the UK. Now, I am usually a sucker for bleak, depressing endings (I like my sunshine in real life but in the movies, I love being sent from the theater reeling). Well, the DVD version contains all 3 endings. I viewed them all and for once, I prefer the Happy Ending. I feel Jim earned it.
3. Michael Clayton
I’ve grown weary of those people who incessantly knock George Clooney as one-note. I’ve heard complaints that he has a handful of expressions and delivers his lines with his head cocked to the floor. Personally, I don’t see it and I find the dude charismatic as all hell. In fact, I find him to be in the mold of the movie stars of old. The guys they don’t make much of anymore. I’d throw a younger Harrison Ford in there with him, too. Guys that can throw a punch, delight a dame and you could imagine yourself tossing six or several beers back with some night.
Plus, Clooney gets extra credit for refusing to follow the blockbuster bread crumbs laid out for him by the Hollywood elite. He seemed to have learned something from his big-time stumble in Batman & Robin and since then he has allied himself with some top-notch talent, not the least of which is his partnership with Steven Soderbergh.
Anyway, Clayton gives Clooney a great role. The film could be described as The Firm 2.0 (with all the evil lawyer/corporate shenanigans on display) but this marks that rare legal thriller that never ventures into the court room. Clooney’s character is a ‘fixer’ who works for a high-powered law firm and helps clean up their messes. When one of the partners (the great Tom Wilkinson) goes off his meds and grows a conscience, Clayton is pushed to reign the guy in. Of course, other elements are at play and he soon finds himself under siege.
This is a crisp, well-written and directed thriller. That should come as no surprise as the guy handling the script and direction is Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter behind all three Bourne flicks. An A-list writer becomes an A-list director. I like that fact that all the way through the film, up to and including the end, Gilroy shades Michael Clayton in steel-grey. Clayton’s actions are morally shaky and Gilroy doesn’t compromise the character. When you think back upon what Clayton does at the end, you realize quickly that it was less about the greater good than it was about self-preservation. Or more succinctly, they pissed him off.
4. 28 Weeks Later
So this should come as no surprise. Sunshine led to 28 Days Later. And what do you think popped up when I selected that title for my queue. Yup, the sequel. Strangely, the Sandra Bullock flick 28 Days has yet to receive a recommendation despite the similarities in titles and the fact it stars a zombie.
28 Weeks Later is neither directed by Danny Boyle or written by Alex Garland (they executive produce) and it shows. The two are credited with the plot scenario but relinquished the reigns to others. I think that’s the main problem with this flick. It has a great premise but the way it plays out feels like a hollow shell of the original.
In 28 Weeks Later, the rage virus that killed most of the English population and turned some into bloodthirsty killers, has been controlled. The film opens with a US-led peacekeeping force brought in to re-open Britain and begin the process of reconstruction and repopulation. Once again, the scenes of a vacant London are very well done although they lack the punch of the first film.
In a really effective prologue, we open on a farmhouse in the English countryside that is sheltering a cabal of survivors. The house is soon under siege and it’s in this chilling segment, specifically with the cowardly actions perpetrated by Robert Carlyle’s character, that sets the stage for the reintroduction of the virus.
There are a number of exciting set-pieces, including a helicopter assault on a field of ‘zombies’ as well as a massive air strike on a darkened downtown London that ratchets the suspense. However, that’s the problem with this flick. It becomes more of an action film, steamrolling the audience with explosions and bombast where the first film was more thought-provoking. Still, I could handle the shift in gears but one plot element did leave me cold. At one point in the film, Robert Carlyle is infected with the rage virus. Following that event, he becomes this unstoppable boogeyman – popping up all over London as the script dictates. That leap in logic runs counter to the creatures’ true nature and really comes off as a hokey plot contrivance.
The film does leave the door open for another flick but I’m not sure I’m ready for 28 Months Later.