SURROGATES (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 29 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence, Disturbing Images, Language, Sexuality and a Drug-Related Scene

Directed by: Jonathan Mostow

Written by: John Brancato & Michael Ferris

(based on the graphic novel THE SURROGATES by Robert Venditti)

Starring: Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, Jack Noseworthy, James Cromwell, Ving Rhames, Boris Kodjoe & Devin Ratray

SURROGATES is a sci-fi-action thriller that sounds really cool in theory and had a solid marketing campaign behind it. I remember being excited for back in Fall 2009 and then leaving the theater underwhelmed. Where does this high-concept, so-so delivery sci-fi flick go wrong? Well, it’s due to a variety of factors that I’ll be looking at. SURROGATES is not a bad movie, not at all. There are some cool qualities and decent entertainment value to be had, but not much else.

In the far distant future of 2025, society has embraced the usage of mind-operated androids, known as “surrogates.” These machines allow you to live your life without ever leaving your home. You change your appearance to suit your needs (regardless of age, race, gender or body type). You can never worry about disease again and avoid danger on a daily basis. Crime rates have plummeted an astounding 99% since the implementation of surrogates, but that changes when FBI agent Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) and his partner Jennifer Peters (Radha Mitchell) are called in to investigate the first homicide in years. Someone has built a weapon that can liquefy the brains of a user through their surrogate. Through a twist of fate, Tom survives an attack and must hunt the killer in a world where the only human on the streets is him.

SURROGATES has a concept that’s brimming with potential and seems incredibly relevant in the social media age. When people are more comfortable chatting as cartoon avatars or vicariously living through a celebrity’s live feed, then this film holds some truth. The social commentary sprinkled throughout SURROGATES is far from subtle, but it does remain interesting. This includes Tom’s wife, Maggie (Rosamund Pike), being all-out addicted to her surrogate to avoid a tragic reality. However, ideas of military use, surrogates as tools, murder being involved in surrogates and anti-surrogate protesters are all briefly glanced over in a shallow way. Even Maggie’s sad storyline seems a bit sidelined in the later proceedings.

The more interesting pieces of SURROGATE’s plot are placed in the backseat to make way for a rather clichéd murder-conspiracy thriller. The problem with this is that it’s predictable and feels formulaic. The 89-minute running also makes it seem like this movie wants to end as fast as it possibly can, character development and deeper meanings be damned. Taken as it is, SURROGATES is serviceable enough entertainment. However, there’s never any time for the viewer to adjust to a new plot twist or ponder a new clue that Greer discovers. This lazy script immediately spoonfeeds the audience everything. This is especially mind-boggling because the very premise of SURROGATES seems like it would provide food for thought.

As Tom Greer, Bruce Willis looks very bored. It’s almost like he realized how much of a missed opportunity this entire endeavor was and then proceeded to phone it in. Bored Willis is entertaining in a few ways, but it doesn’t feel like he’s putting much effort into his performance at all. Radha Mitchell is okay enough as Agent Peters, but it feels like some of her character’s scenes were deleted. At least, this is the impression I got from the inclusion of her non-surrogate moments that seem to have no rhyme or reason to exist. Rosamund Pike is solid as Greer’s grief-stricken, surrogate-addicted wife and easily gives the best performance of the cast.

James Cromwell makes a welcomed presence as the inventor of surrogates, but his screen time is limited to say the least. It’s almost like they brought Cromwell on for a single day of shooting and then quickly ushered him away from the set. Ving Rhames is entertaining in just about every film he’s starred in and that remains the case here. As anti-surrogate leader The Prophet, Rhames is allowed some room to ham it up and be menacing. Much like Cromwell’s scientist though, it feels like there’s just too little of him.

SURROGATES is like the feature-length version of an okay TWILIGHT ZONE episode. The effects and production values look good, as they should with an 80-million-dollar price tag attached to them. Intricacies in this android-filled world are briefly touched upon and then fast forgotten, while there is one decent deeper subplot in this film. The action is fun and the half-assed thriller script is entertaining for what it is. If this is on cable or you’re out of film choices, then I’d say give SURROGATES a watch. It’s an 89-minute time killer that will keep your attention, but leave you wondering how much better this might have been with a smarter screenplay behind it. Overall, SURROGATES is okay…when it could have been great.

Grade: B-

PHONE BOOTH (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Language and some Violence

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Directed by: Joel Schumacher

Written by: Larry Cohen

Starring: Colin Farrell, Kiefer Sutherland, Forest Whitaker, Katie Holmes, Radha Mitchell & Paula Jai Parker

After creating two of the worst Batman movies ever (BATMAN FOREVER, BATMAN & ROBIN), Joel Schumacher went on to direct two of the most underrated thrillers of the last 20 years. The first being 1999’s creepy 8MM and the second being 2002’s PHONE BOOTH. The aptly named PHONE BOOTH takes place mostly in, appropriately enough, a phone booth and just might be one of the most Hitchcockian thrillers to come out during the 2000s. With superb acting, a breathless pace that moves in real time, an ingeniously simple premise and excellently crafted suspense, PHONE BOOTH is one hell of thriller!

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Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) is a scumbag PR agent who prides himself on expensive suits, a stellar reputation, and his celebrity connections around the Bronx. Stu is also the kind of married guy who imagines sleeping with up-and-coming actress Pamela McFadden (Katie Holmes). His fantasies are real enough that Stu visits a phone booth every day to call and woo her, but that turns out to be a possible death sentence today. Someone (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland) has been watching Stu and intends to make him pay for every single sin he’s committed in his life. This someone has a high-powered sniper rifle and begins to hold Stu hostage over the course of one very intense phone call. Stu soon finds himself stuck in a nightmare.

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PHONE BOOTH is a special kind of thriller in that it has a one sentence premise (a guy is cornered in a phone booth by a sniper) and milks the maximum amount of suspense out of that simple idea. This is the kind of story that makes everyday happenings into matters of life or death. Angry people (including scantily clad hookers and a chatty pimp) also want to make a call in the phone booth, which generates some rather intense scenes. The pay-off to one of these moments ratchets the suspense up tenfold as the scenario escalates, but it never leaves the realm of plausibility. PHONE BOOTH maintains a sense of believability the whole way through. This premise could really happen and that keeps the viewer so far on the edge of their seat that they threaten to tumble off it at any second.

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However, this thrilling film is not without a few faults. An opening piece of narration seems a bit cheesy and like it exists purely to spoon-feed an introduction to the viewer. I cannot help but feel that this film would have benefitted by immediately jumping to the phone booth and then panning two blocks away to Stu walking on the sidewalk, instead of verbally explaining everything to us. These opening minutes violate the cinematic rule of “show me, don’t tell me.” Still, the film’s overall style is slick and these visuals seem to accurately represent the dirty streets of New York City. The soundtrack adds extra layers of suspense to the proceeds, by using an echo effect to intense pieces of dialogue.

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Colin Farrell has been occasionally been derided for unconvincing movie accents, but he utterly nails a convincing Bronx accent in Stu. It bears mentioning that this character and his development are stellar. Farrell’s Stu starts off as a totally unlikable douchebag. He’s arrogant, rude, foul-mouthed and acts like he’s always on top of things. This also introduces a cruel sense of irony when this pompous jerk is thrown into a situation where he’s likely going to be the victim, no matter what happens. Farrell’s dialogue-fueled battle of wits with the unseen sniper is every bit as intense as a bullet-ridden shootout or a bloody fight scene. One deeply emotional speech near the end causes to viewer to realize just how much they actually care about Stu, which is an impressive accomplishment considering how much of an despicable dickhead he was at the start of these perfectly-paced 81 minutes.

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Adding a sense of humor and a hidden threat to the intense proceedings, Kiefer Sutherland is a blast as the unseen sniper who has Stu pinned under his scope. Purely through his sexy, deep voice, Sutherland maintains a sense of menace and a joking nature that is likely to get more than a few laughs out of the viewer. This character’s motivations seem unclear other than he simply wants to punish scumbags and plenty of theories are thrown out to his background, but it’s just him toying with Stu. This makes this villain even more dangerous, because we know next to nothing about him. I cannot stress how funny Kiefer is in this role though. He gets lots of laughs, while also being intimidating as hell.

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Katie Holmes is okay enough as the up-and-coming actress, while Radha Mitchell is convincing as Stu’s desperate wife. Both characters add even more to the high stakes when they show up near the phone booth for obvious reasons. The only actor who seems a bit distracting is Forest Whitaker as a cop/hostage negotiator. Some background info is given by other cops and his clichéd subplot about a failed hostage negotiator trying to find redemption in this standoff occasionally distracts from the tense plot at hand. Still, it’s far from bad and doesn’t ruin a majority of this film’s carefully calculated suspense.

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Working off Joel Schumacher’s assured direction and Larry Cohen’s tense script (which was originally pitched to Alfred Hitchcock in the 60’s and then revised in the 90’s), PHONE BOOTH is an intense, highly entertaining thriller! This underrated mini-masterpiece feels like something that Hitchcock would have made in his heyday, but it just happened to be released in 2002. The acting is great. The film’s style is slick and engaging. The writing constantly raises suspense in believable ways and the whole film is a blast to watch. Though there are a couple of problems that hold it back from perfection (opening narration, Katie Holmes, and Forest Whitaker’s clichéd subplot), PHONE BOOTH is easily one of the most underrated thrillers of the 2000s!

Grade: A-

MAN ON FIRE (2004)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hour 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and Strong Violence

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Directed by: Tony Scott

Written by: Brian Helgeland

(based on the novel MAN ON FIRE by A. J. Quinnell)

Starring: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Radha Mitchell, Marc Anthony, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Giannini, Rachel Ticotin, Jesus Ochoa, Mickey Rourke & Roberto Sosa

The second adaptation of A.J. Quinnell’s novel of the same name, MAN ON FIRE is a movie that sounds like your average action flick on paper. You’d be mistaken though, because the film is actually an intense thriller with a heavy dose of humanity injected into it. Directed in flashy style by Tony Scott and maintaining a somber tone throughout, MAN ON FIRE is a special kind of revenge thriller that came out during a time when revenge thrillers were Hollywood’s latest fad (THE PUNISHER, WALKING TALL, both KILL BILL films, and a ton of low-rent action flicks). MAN ON FIRE may be far from perfect or amazing, but it’s a solid thriller and contains one of Denzel Washington’s best performances.

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John Creasy (Denzel Washington) is a washed-up former CIA officer and Marine. Deeply depressed by his dark past, Creasy spends his days drinking himself to death and waiting for the sweet embrace of death to arrive. His life changes in Mexico City, when he’s hired by a rich family as a discount bodyguard. His charge is their nine-year-old daughter, Pita (Dakota Fanning). Though rough-around-the-edges Creasy is not looking to make friends, he soon develops a strong bond with Pita. The two get along famously as he helps her with school and competitive swimming, while she gives him a reason to live again. Their friendship comes to an abrupt end when Pita is kidnapped and Creasy is shot multiple times. Instead of taking time to heal, the rage-filled Creasy executes a chaotic revenge against all those who were remotely involved in Pita’s kidnapping…which takes him into some very dark places.

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Instead of shooting in a traditional, steady format, director Tony Scott opts for frenetic cinematography in MAN ON FIRE (which also springs up in the Tony Scott’s later work). While the quick editing and flashes occasionally become detrimental and hinder a few potentially great scenes, this stylish approach is more effective than I initially expected it to be. MAN ON FIRE could have easily been a cheap, low-rent 80’s action flick (and actually was exactly that in 1987) in other hands. Scott’s style, Denzel Washington’s performance, and Brian Helgeland’s screenplay all add deeper layers to the film. Creasy isn’t simply getting revenge for the sake of showing intense on-screen violence. Instead, we frequently see Pita in the background and flash across his mind as a constant reminder for his motivations. As a result, we support his grisly mission whole-heartedly. These touches add an appropriately somber tone to a film that contains lots of gruesome torture, firefights, and explosions.

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Washington plays the sullen Creasy in a way where I felt that I instantly knew this character…even before some exposition is delivered about his violent past. Washington’s body language and subdued line delivery clue us into the idea that Creasy is a severely damaged individual who’s worthy of sympathy…especially when his sole reason for living is stolen. Dakota Fanning plays Pita as a precocious, but likable, kid who has more knowledge about how corrupt her surroundings are than most other nine-year-olds. The convincing chemistry between Fanning and Washington is undeniable as their emerging friendship develops naturally…and makes the last 90 minutes of the film into an almost cathartic experience as Creasy inflicts brutal retribution upon everyone involved in Pita’s kidnapping.

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On the supporting side of things, Christopher Walken shows up as Creasy’s former colleague turned friend. Though his character only exists to occasionally spout exposition, Walken does the most he can with the part. Another character who serves as a one-note plot device is Lisa Ramos (Pita’s mother), played Radha Mitchell. Ironically, two seemingly minor characters who are initially set up as obvious plot devices evolve into something more as Rachel Ticotin (playing a journalist with connections) and Giancarlo Giannini (playing an honest AFI agent) receive their own subplot that weaves in and out of Creasy’s main storyline. I won’t say much about the villains as their performances are brief, but they do receive satisfying comeuppances as Washington’s Creasy begins to catch and punish them. One interrogation scene involving a creative use of C-4 is especially cringe-inducing.

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Narratively speaking, MAN ON FIRE feels far more like an adrenaline-filled mystery than a simple action flick. Creasy might be all about revenge, but he has to discover what happened in order to get that revenge. I have a big problem with the film though as a major plot twist is given away in the first ten minutes. Though some could argue that this early reveal adds extra suspense, I felt it compromised an otherwise effective surprise. For all my complaints (bland side characters, flashy quick editing, and a twist spoiled early on), MAN ON FIRE still gripped me from beginning to end. Denzel Washington is undeniably great as the somber, reserved Creasy. MAN ON FIRE puts a refreshingly emotional and believable human spin on an action formula that’s been used hundreds of times.

Grade: B

SILENT HILL (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Horror Violence and Gore, Disturbing Images, and some Language

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Directed by: Christophe Gans

Written by: Roger Avary

Starring: Radha Mitchell, Laurie Holden, Sean Bean, Deborah Kara Unger, Alice Krige & Jodelle Ferland

Turning a video game into a movie is usually a death sentence for both the game in question and the film adaptation. Leave it to Christophe Gans (director of the adult fairy tale BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF) to do it properly. Originally Konami didn’t want anybody to even attempt to do a feature film of their hit horror franchise. Gans eventually convinced them into giving him permission after completing a short version financed on his own budget that impressed the company greatly. They gave him the rights and he created the best video game film to date, not a huge compliment but it still stands for something.

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Rose is a mother struggling to make sense of the emotional distress that Sharon, her adopted daughter, is going through. Sharon keeps waking up in the middle of the night, sleepwalking into dangerous places and muttering something about a town called Silent Hill. In order to try and cure her daughter’s mental problems, Rose makes a trip to Silent Hill with Sharon, against her husband’s wishes. Her husband was very right to be worried, because Silent Hill is an abandoned ghost town and Rose crashes on the side of the road.

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She wakes up to find that her daughter is missing and the town is somehow cut off from the rest of the world. A mist engulfs Silent Hill and ash seems to be constantly falling. Things get even stranger as Rose discovers that a mysterious darkness takes over at seemingly random periods of time. This darkness invites twisted beings and disturbing monsters to come out. Rose must brave the heat of a literal hell and a nightmarish dimension to save her daughter.

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SILENT HILL nails many things down perfectly. These include the atmosphere of dread and an emotionally depressing final note. Elements from different games are combined and used to create a film that stands on its own as much as it does justice to the video games that served as an inspiration for the movie. In some aspects, things are a little corny. This is mainly in some really bad dialogue, but these moments are few and far between.

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The monsters that would seem impossible to bring to life without a studio using cheesy CGI are brought on-screen using some downright cool methods of practical effects and make-up techniques. Though this movie isn’t all about the creatures, because there is actual emotion and underlying themes injected in it as well. The backstory is given in bits of exposition and pays off in spades in the finale, which simply has to be seen to be believed. What’s truly astounding is the little details that Gans includes, from the grimy soot on a barefooted woman’s feet as she walks through piles of guts to the impressively constructed industrial wasteland that a school transforms into. It feels like the game has come to a hellish reality and one can appreciate the film for that alone.

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With a running time that exceeds just over two hours, I can see some people easily being bored by SILENT HILL and only enjoying it when the mayhem and monsters come into play. Personally, I loved the build up. I thought the atmosphere was suffocating and great. The horrifically beautiful and twisted imagery makes for more than just a standard video game film (cough, RESIDENT EVIL, cough). Give SILENT HILL a watch this Halloween season!

Grade: B+

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