Eagle Eye (2008)

3 stars

Director: D.J. Caruso   Eagle Eye

Writers: John Glenn, Travis Wright, et al.

Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Michelle Monaghan, Rosario Dawson

Viewed: September 26, 2008

Review: The only impressive thing about this ludicrous, derivative thriller is how unabashedly it pickpockets so many superior  films. It doesn’t take itself seriously, which is why I can’t really give it a serious review. I will say this: if you want to catch good old likable Shia, much better this than Transformers or Disturbia.

The Edge (1997)

2.5 stars

Director: Lee Tamahori  the_edgemovie_wallpaper_pictures_photo_pics_poster260310092953the_edge_movie_2-11

Writer: David Mamet

Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin, Elle Macpherson

Viewed: June 7, 2008

Review: My favorite part of this disappointing twister was Anthony Hopkins’ knack for surviving the wilderness with nothing but his wits and a built-in wikipedia. As for the rest, it’s the kind of story that sounds all promising when you read the summary, but somehow grew cold and unsatisfying by the time it reached post-production. I recall random, uninteresting bear attacks and an unconvincingly spiteful Alec Baldwin.

Edge of Darkness (2010)

3 stars

Director: Martin Campbell  360_adarkness_0208

Writers: William Monahan, Andrew Bovell, et al.

Stars: Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston

Viewed: July 5, 2010

Review: I wouldn’t tell people to stay away, but I wouldn’t recommend it, either. This bleak revenge thriller, though indeed vintage Mel, isn’t original, satisfying, or morally compelling enough to resurrect his ethos after his repeated and extremely public crucifixions of it.  

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)


Director: Doug LimanEdge

Writers: Christopher McQuarrie, et al.

Stars: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson

Viewed: June 29, 2014

Review: This was a lot better than I had guessed from the mind-bendingly cheesy premise (“An officer finds himself caught in a time loop in a war with an alien race…”), but not quite high enough to meet my expectations after all the hype from positive reviews. (My fault, not theirs. I should have tempered a tad.)

I appreciated that the entire plot hinges on character development. The only way the story will work—the only way they can save the world—is if the protagonist changes. A smooth talker must become a fighter, a deserter must become a soldier, a coward must become a hero, and he must try again and again, over and over, until he gets it right. It’s stuff like this that makes Edge of Tomorrow burst the seams of its “I’m just a fat-budget summer blockbuster” genre without quite becoming a change-your-life-forever war drama. It’s exciting, smart, stressful, even thought-provoking, but still fun. The way summer flicks ought to be.

If the premise can’t be taken seriously, director Doug Liman certainly doesn’t know that. The key to any time travel movie is that the storytellers themselves be utterly convinced it is real. And Liman is convinced. He sics Edge relentlessly at our throats, rolling us around and around the same day like a video game that kills us every time, but every game-over is a game start-over and we can’t let go of the joystick until we’re through. We are on the clock, and the clock is always ticking.

Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt are both terrific. Blunt’s performance as the gritty Angel of Verdun clinches the case that she can play anything she wants to. Cruise, ditching his typical slick, mission-impossible panache, gives wide-eyed, sweat-faced terror a whole new face–and proves yet again that he still has what it takes to command an action flick. Bill Paxton looks like he was born in this role. His creepy-cozy Kentucky accent works just well enough that we can forgive the cliché, although we still aren’t exactly sure what makes his character tick. (See complaints below.) And I was surprised to discover that the aliens (part tornado, part giant sand spider) are actually frightening whereas most movie aliens put me into contortions as I roll my eyes and yawn at the same time.

There are just a couple disappointments. Liman keeps the tension pulled tight for the bulk of the movie, but then surprisingly slacks off in Act III—just when we ought to be the most nervous because this time Cruise can’t reset. This is it. Winner takes all. I honestly got bored in the Louvre, partly because the climax is too rushed, partly because it is too easy. Liman should have slowed down and let our knuckles get white again.

The other issues are careless mistakes that leave too much unexplained. The first point is exactly how Cruise winds up on the beach. It’s a great hook, really: A soldier who has never seen combat is dropped into the future’s D-Day. How compelling is that? The question we all want to know is, how did he get there? And the movie doesn’t answer this satisfactorily. General Brigham’s (Brendan Gleeson) motives remain murky. Is he a sadist? Or simply a bad strategist? And whatever his justifications are, the master sergeant (Bill Paxton) doesn’t have any good reason whatsoever for shoving Cruise into battle without the most basic weapons training. He could get dozens of people killed. Leaving the gun’s safety on doesn’t solve things either because, look, he figures out how to take it off, yet he still doesn’t know how to control the power of his own full-body weapon. It’s just dumb. The movie’s hook feels shoehorned, stretching our belief far more than the time travel element itself. There are any number of reasons an ill-equipped coward might find himself dropped into hell, but two unexplained idiots don’t add up to one of them.

The second confusion is about the final reset. This isn’t exactly big enough to be a plot hole, but it does leave us scratching our heads as we try to figure out how Cruise rewound two full days. Perhaps, if the Alpha has the power to rewind once, the Omega has the power to rewind twice? I’m fine believing this if only they told me so, but they don’t.

But for a season whose movies are devoted almost purely to making heaps and heaps of cash, Edge of Tomorrow is one thrillingly intelligent exception. It doesn’t just sell tickets. It actually matters. I mentioned thought-provoking earlier, so here’s what I mean. I couldn’t stop noticing how excruciating it must be for Cruise’s hero to lead the same blind, untrusting people through the same trials over and over—people who owe him their faith, yet always doubt that he truly knows the story. And I was struck by the intense (but, I’m sure, unplanned) metaphor for our lack of trust in God. How often do we stall, question, freak out, run the wrong direction? All this despite the fact that God knows the story on an entirely deeper level than Major William Cage does. He hasn’t simply seen it, He is speaking it live—the perfect story, right now. We can all afford to hang on and follow His lead.

El Dorado (1966)

3.5 stars


Director: Howard Hawks

El Dorado

Writers: Leigh Brackett, Harry Brown

Stars: John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, James Caan, Charlene Holt

Viewed: August 14, 2013

Review: If I were a guy, I’d want to get me a horse just so I could lean in the saddle like John Wayne. Apparently, the Duke did manage to make a few lame movies, but watching El Dorado, you can see why that doesn’t matter. You just can’t touch the legend. I don’t honor that legend compulsively or sentimentally, I honor it because it’s awesome. El Dorado has understandable pacing issues (coming as it did long before the invention of Blake Snyder’s foolproof beat sheet), but has a lot of good character work, including a hero who is far more realistic and relatable than his modern counterpart.

Elizabethtown (2005)

3 stars

Director: Cameron Crowe   elizabethtown01

Writers: Cameron Crowe

Stars: Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Surandon, Alec Baldwin

Viewed: March 13, 2011

Review: Definitely not my least favorite chick flick, thanks to the honestly charming bluegrass South. The story itself had too many unexplored possibilities. It got lost long before Kirsten handed Orlando the map.

Elysium (2013)

2 stars

Screen Shot 2013-10-20 at 7.46.46 PM


Director: Neill Blomkamp

Writer: Neill Blomkamp

Stars: Matt Damon, Alice Braga, Sharlto Copley, Diego Luna, Jodie Foster, William Fichtner

Viewed: August 11, 2013

So a dying man from a scuzzy, hardscrabble, overpopulated country saves a terminally ill girl by breaking and entering into the out-of-this-world paradise of the 1% and stealing their fountain of youth, then topples their government, axes the anti-immigration laws, and basically shoots, maims, and kills his way to universal healthcare.

And Neill Blomkamp says Elysium doesn’t have a message.

“It’s not just hypocritical to say this movie isn’t political, it’s hilarious,” Dan Gainor told Fox News. In his grisly, self-righteous sci-fi thriller (and his first project since District 9), Blomkamp takes on a passel of contemporary hot topics such as poverty, disease, and class warfare (results of sin, all) but preaches a man-centered gospel which Variety terms “one of the more openly socialist political agendas of any Hollywood movie in memory,” and  Glenn Beck lambastes as straight-up communism: “The only thing it didn’t say was ‘A Lenin film—directed by Stalin.’” In Blomkamp’s own wordsElysium isn’t science fiction, fantasy, or forecast (despite being set in the year 2154). Rather, “The entire film is an allegory…This is today. This is now”; which makes his prescribed solution–and message–all the more demonic.

To be sure, the visionary South African-Canadian director wins points with instant story grip, arresting visuals, and his overall distinctly non-American style. Alice Braga;Sharlto CopleyElysium’s post-apocalyptic world, shot in the dumpy, densely populated Iztapalapa district on the outskirts of Mexico City, is utterly believable. The characters are simple, but sympathetic (at times, too much of both). Matt Damon’s talent for combining cynical and snarky with everyman mettle shines in the anti-hero-turned-hero Max Da Costa. And the action (Blomkamp’s real strong suit) feels hyper-real, more like Ridley Scott at his most bloody accurate than the typical futuristic flick playing more like a video game.

But by the time it’s all cooked up and served as a meal? No, thanks.

It’s not that cancer and global poverty and abusive elitist governments don’t need to be addressed, it’s the fact that the savior of the world isn’t and can never be man. Salvation does not lie in revolution, or in stealing from the haves and giving to the have-nots, or in commanding that everyone be granted free and equal ownership of the best technology, the best medicine, the best land, the best air quality. Blompkamp actually gets it right when he says: “Our problems are inherently unsolvable…I don’t think humans are able to deal with what we have.”


Bottom line, you can’t fix dystopia with utopia. You can’t fix a fallen world with Elysium—even with distributing Elysium to everybody.You fix it with the gospel, because where the gospel penetrates, God’s blessings and a spirit of giving always follow. The poor (Jesus promises) will always be with us; the answer is the mercy which God commands us to show to the poor.

Which leads me to the best and final point of the film: survival isn’t the chief goal. Staying alive isn’t the highest good. Life is best when it isn’t clenched, but lain down. In giving his own life for those of many others, Max shows the real answer to a dying world: not a sentimental, socialistic free-for-all, but self-sacrifice.

And this conclusion is one of the very few but very powerful things about Elysium that makes me want to tell good stories as well as Neill Blomkamp tells a bad one.

The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

4.5 stars

Director: Mark Dindal  Emperor's New Groove Kuzco the llama and Pacha

Writers: Chris Williams, Mark Dindal, et al.

Stars: David Spade, John Goodman, Eartha Kitt, Patrick Warburton

Viewed: November 14, 2008

Review: One of my favorite animated films (a couple others being How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda). It’s the Nebuchadnezzar story told with loads of cheeky satire and well-placed, self-deprecating nonsense. Food for kids and adults alike.

Empire of the Sun (1987)

3.5 stars

Director: Steven Spielberg  empire_of_the_sun87

Writers: J.G. Ballard, Tom Stoppard, et al.

Stars: Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson

Viewed: July 23, 2012

Review: If Steven Spielberg was thinking that since he had Christian Bale, he didn’t need a tight, disciplined screenplay, he was very nearly right. This leisurely, semi-biographical POW drama is worth watching if only for 13-year-old Christian’s performance — so good, you feel like it just couldn’t have been pretend. It reminded me of the sort of talent Elijah Wood produced at the same age.

Quibble: the innocence of kids is a very true thing and yes, it can even survive the horrors of war, but Spielberg promotes it as an intrinsic good to be protected and worshipped almost as a way to salvation. Just like he does in Schindler’s List with the little pink-coated girl and in War Horse with the horse (don’t get me started). I could wish that Empire of the Sun were more about Christian Bale coming of age and less about him remaining a sweet and innocent singer of lullabies.

Enchanted (2007)

2 stars

Director: Kevin Lima  Picture 1

Writer: Bill Kelly

Stars: Amy Adams, Susan Surandon, Patrick Dempsey, James Marsden, Timothy Spall

Viewed: April 25, 2008

Review: I was clobbered with Amy Adams’ hopelessly idiotic histrionics five years ago and haven’t recovered since. Not even her I’m-a-real-girl belly fat in The Fighter restored her image after this insultingly vacuous twaddle. If you want an entertaining mash-up of classic fairy tales, stick to Stardust. (Just ignore Robert De Niro in the tutu.)

Ender’s Game (2013)

3.5 stars 1101_asa-butterfield

Director: Gavin Hood

Writers: Gavin Hood, Orson Scott Card

Stars: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Ben Kingsley, Abigail Breslin, Viola Davis

Viewed: November 2, 2013

Review: Just about the biggest thing in Ender’s Game’s favor were my low, low expectations. The book didn’t grab me (thus, it lies unfinished) and the trailer was a no-hoper, but the movie kept surprising me at every turn with complex, changing characters and a solid story (told in varying spurts of talent as from a temperamental faucet) with a heavier message than is usually tackled by films starring mostly actors whose voices still haven’t finished changing.

Special effects and acting were both stellar, obviously; it’s 21st-century sci-fi we’re talking here, boasting the legend Harrison Ford (in a gravelly Obi Wan-Morpheus-General Patton hybrid), plus Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Abigail Breslin, Hailee Steinfeld, and rising star Asa Butterfield. Especially Asa Butterfield.

The 16-year-old Brit won high praise back in 2011 (when he was 13) with his multi-faceted portrayal of  the eponymous hero in Hugo, but in Ender’s Game, Asa’s range isn’t so much limited as it is keenly subtle, staying at a low simmer for much of the movie—perfect for a Ender 1brilliant boy who doesn’t (can’t) say most of what he’s thinking. Or feeling. And let’s not forget the physical stuff: marching, martial arts, push-ups (200 at one time for multiple takes), and flying around in a harness in order to achieve the look of zero-gravity for big chunks of the story (just ask Sandra Bullock how uncomfortable that is). “You have to have your whole body completely tensed up so you’re not completely flopped over and suspended by the waist,” Asa told Hollywood.com. “Meanwhile, you have to move smoothly. Meanwhile, you have to say your lines in an American accent!” It all pays off. Asa manages to hold our attention and hold his own opposite the likes of Ford and Kingsley.

Not so hot: from what I understand, the movie doesn’t butcher Orson Scott Card’s original story (like so many book-to-film adaptations) as much as it relies too heavily on the book for backstory. Top that off with the failure to add some much-needed pathos that Card himself left out, and we’ve got a movie a lot like Ender Wiggin himself: brainy, coolheaded, and calculating with precious few flare-ups and moments of heart.

HarrisonIt’s just a little flat and crammed–especially at the end where (spoiler!) Ender commits genocide, suffers a mild panic attack, has a telepathic, teary-eyed, and more than a little weird chat with a mammoth ant, and sets off across the universe with, oh, just a baby queen, the new rank of admiral, and a plan to start his own insect project…all in a scant ten minutes. Everything gets turned on its head and gears up for a sequel in about the time for a bathroom break and a popcorn refill.

But now for the best part. EW says the movie “contains an anti-bullying theme of tolerance,” but that’s like saying all Harry Potter does is promote tighter wand control. The point of the Ender’s Game isn’t tolerance, it’s not tolerating (in other words, fighting) true evil—everything from insecure Nietzsche-sized bullies to paranoid, shortsighted warmongers.

The at first seemingly off-the-point tension between Ender and 90% of his classmates/competitors felt so spot on, I almost didn’t notice that it was taking up the whole movie—and then I realized it was setting up the biggest point: “The way we win matters.” I haven’t seen many movies slice so finely or so deeply between virtue and vice, between mercy and Machiavellianism, between faith and fear. Tolerance? More like bellum iustumchivalry, and Godlikeness all together.

Screen Shot 2013-11-03 at 3.27.38 PM

In the end, I liked the film because it surprised me. And because, like all the other countless kids-in-battle stories (from the Pevensie children to Harry Potter to Katniss), it struck a chord. The line between good and evil was drawn in a garden thousands of years ago, and built into the mythos of mankind is the knowledge that we are all raising our children to fight—for either good or bad. When the front lines of the current generation have fallen, our kids will be the ones who step up and fill the gaps in the shield wall—or run over to the enemy. And when Christian warriors take their calling as seriously as Ender Wiggin, we’ll have a stronger battering ram against the gates of hell.

End of Watch (2012)

4 stars

Director: David Ayer 2012-09-21-jak1

Writers: David Ayer

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña

Viewed: September 30, 2012

Review: I simultaneously love this movie and find it super tough to recommend to anyone. End of Watch has some gems, but they’re stuck way down a nasty drain and you’ll want some rubber gloves and the world’s toughest gag reflex to recover them. See more about F-bombs and amazing brotherly love over here.

Enemy at the Gates (2001)

3 stars

Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud  sniper

Writers: Jean-Jacques Annaud, Alain Godard

Stars: Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, Ed Harris, Rachel Weisz

Viewed: February 25, 2005

Review: I love snipers. Always have. So huge chunks of this cat-and-mouse story made me positively giddy. But how I do hate it when girls mess up the story, even if they are Rachel Weisz. I’m not against gals in movies (heck, I want to be the girl in many of my favorite movies), but I am against a plot that hobbles because of the estrogen pill in its shoe.

Enemy of the State (1998)


4.5 stars

Director: Tony Scott

Writer: David Marconi

Stars: Will Smith, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight,

Viewed: September 22, 2012

Review: Seconds into this, I was checking IMDB to see who wrote the story because I was convinced it was either Tom Clancy or John Grisham. Turned out to be neither, but that’s how well David Marconi (who also storied up Die Hard) crafted this smart, solid thriller that boasts as many serious (and sobering) arguments and 3-D characters as it does clever action and slick thrills.

If the screenplay is a little misshapen, you’ll hardly notice. It goes by that fast. Tony Scott is good at that. (Getting ready for Unstoppable, it seems.) The dialogue between everyone, everywhere, is just great, which might have something to do with the fact that Aaron Sorkin’s name appeared on one of the early drafts. Like Jack Ryan, the movie’s hero is an upstanding American guy who loves his wife and his country enough to fight for both — without sinking into insufferable, implausible goody-goodism. And you can thank the schedule conflicts that kept Tom Cruise away from stealing away the lead. Will Smith owns this wisecracker. (He ad lipped his funniest line. Said he couldn’t help it.)

But better than all that, the movie (released 1998) is flat spookishly prophetic. Its premise compellingly justifies just about every paranoiac’s fears of an over-watchful Big Brother — proving that our government’s efforts to protect our “safety” are driving freedom out of this land of the not-so-free (and definitely-not-to-be-trusted). 8c12dff23f91b2ce6a8ec8253c0“Privacy’s been dead for years because we can’t risk it,” says NSA official Thomas Reynolds (Jon Voight). “The only privacy that’s left is the inside of your head.” And this was before the Towers came down, before we were fighting the touchy TSA, before the latest kerfuffle over super-spy drones. Watching Enemy of the State now, you can literally hear the “told you so.”

It’s a lot more than a fun movie. It’s a good one, swelling with all the patriotic zeal that should make Person of Interest ashamed of itself. “I’m not gonna sit in congress and pass a law that lets the government point a camera and a microphone at anything they damn well please,” growls a congressman within the first two minutes. Two hours later, the last words of the movie are these, spoken by Larry King: “How do we draw the line between protection of national security, obviously the government’s need to obtain intelligence data, and the protection of civil liberties, particularly the sanctity of my home? You’ve got no right to come into my home.”

Epic (2013)

3 stars

Director: Chris Wedge  Ronin

Writers: James V. Hart, et al.

Stars: Amanda Seyfried, Josh Hutcherson, Beyoncé Knowles, Colin Farrel

Viewed: September 20, 2013

Review: Nothing terribly wrong or terribly good about Epic. I did not hate it. I did not love it. The biggest problem with Epic is simply that it isn’t. If you’re going to be skim milk, don’t advertise as rich cream.

Equilibrium (2002)

3.5 stars

Director: Kurt Wimmer  equilibrium still

Writer: Kurt Wimmer

Stars: Christian Bale, Sean Bean, Emily Watson, Dominic Purcell, William Fichtner

Viewed: April 24, 2010

Review: At the time, it felt like every futuristic film chewed up and spat back out, but I’d be willing to give it another go and make sure the fight scenes aren’t just Matrixy enough to make me wish I were watching The Matrix.

Eragon (2006)

1.5 stars

Director: Stefen Fangmeier  61361

Writers: Peter Buchman, Christopher Paolini

Stars: Ed Speleers, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Guillory, Robert Carlyle, John Malkovich, Rachel Weisz

Viewed: January 1, 2007

Review: This one’s just about at the bottom of my metaphorical trash bag of movies. It should be expunged from Jeremy Irons’ and Rachel Weisz’s records — just get rid of it completely. I think of the dialogue and I want to cry. I think of everything else and I want to shoot the entire fantasy genre.

Ever After (1998)

2 stars

Director: Andy Tennant  Ever After

Writers: Susannah Grant, Andy Tennant, et al.

Stars: Drew Barrymore, Angelica Huston, Dougray Scott, Patrick Godfrey

Viewed: January 29, 2004

Review: A humanistic, feministic, anachronistic retelling of Cinderella. I didn’t care for the heroine, I didn’t buy her predicament, and I wouldn’t touch this Prince Charming except maybe with a rocket launcher.

Everything is Illuminated (2005)

3 stars

Director: Liev Schreiber  EverythingIsIlluminated-1

Writers: Jonathan Safran Foer, Liev Schreiber

Stars: Elijah Wood, Eugene Hutz, Boris Leskin

Viewed: December 5, 2010

Review: This was too slow and too quirky without enough real warmth to connect to the audience. It mostly felt like an excuse for Elijah Wood to break out of the adorable hobbit mold. (The guy just can’t win for losing. If he isn’t trapped by Frodo, he’s trapped by forever being labeled as trying to escape him. The only time I’ve seen him do this effectively is Green Street Hooligans.)