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Gamer no thrill

By Lady Liberty
web posted September 14, 2009


Rated: R
Running time: 95 minutes

* out of *****

Okay, before we begin, allow me to confess to some bias here: I love Gerard Butler. I would pay to watch him eat cookies. And you all likely already know that I'm something of a sci fi geek. Put Gerard Butler into a science fiction film, and I'm in heaven. That's why it pains me so deeply to say that Gamer is so bad.

Gamer takes place sometime in the relatively near future. Technology has evolved, and video games have grown along with it. Some games have reached the point where players are actually very much immersed in the playing field as they control avatars that are also real human beings.

The man who invented the technology permitting people to be controlled as avatars is Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall). As a result, he's both unthinkably rich and has an ego to match. His new game, entitled Slayer, is a phenomenon. That's why television reporter Gina Parker Smith (Kyra Sedgwick) is so thrilled to get an interview with Castle.

During the course of the interview, we learn that Slayer features death row inmates as avatars. The inmates volunteer to play because they'll be set free if they can win 30 battles. The players gain fame and perhaps fortune. And the government goes along with it all because the money generated by Slayer foots the bill for the entire overcrowded federal prison system.

At the moment, the best Slayer player in the world is a 17 year-old named Simon (Logan Lerman). His avatar is a prisoner called Kable (Gerard Butler). The fact that the two have managed to win 27 bloody battles to date makes Slayer a massive audience draw, and it gives Kable a degree of fame he can't imagine. Simon, as might be expected, enjoys the notoriety immensely. Kable only wants to get back to his wife (Amber Valeletta) and child.

As might be expected, there's more to both the game and the technology than meets the eye. A group of computer hackers known only as Humanz led by a man calling himself Brother (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) is determined to not only manipulate the game itself, but to tell the world what's really going on.

Gamer was written and directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (the same two men who brought you Crank and Crank: High Voltage). I loved the story's premise, but I hated the script. It was disjointed and far too stylized to present any kind of a coherent story. And while I'm as much a fan of handheld cameras as anybody, I really didn't like the jerky motions here as combined with what amounted to a strobe effect as the screen flashed split seconds of disparate scenes. While these things can be very effective and provide unique perspectives, too much of a good thing is, well, just too much.

The actors weren't bad by any stretch, but they were given little to work with. Butler was extraordinarily limited with few lines; I know he's capable of more emotion than he showed here, so even his most poignant scenes were apparently stripped of almost all feeling by the directors. Sedgwick was so exaggerated as a character that she was cartoonish. It's not that she did a bad acting job if that was the aim, but rather that her character didn't mesh well with the grit of so much else. Can Valeletta act? I have no idea because she really didn't act at all here nor did it appear that she was supposed to.

The only person who really came off well from an acting standpoint is Michael C. Hall. He gave Ken Castle just the right amount of creepy, and more than enough narcissism to showcase a man I suspect none of us would really want to know no matter how much fame or fortune he accrued.

Thanks to the frenetic edits, I can't even say how good the cinematography might otherwise have been. The battle scenes had real potential—the sets were very much similar to our existing knowledge of shoot 'em up video games, only far dirtier and frankly more believable—but the edits were so quick and disjointed that I didn't get a chance to appreciate the view. The same is true for some very gruesome special effects. Were they bloody? Yeah, I think so, because the camera was splashed a few times. But I had so little vested in so many characters, and saw so little of their fates, that I had a hard time caring.

BOTTOM LINE: That last phrase pretty much sums up my opinion of Gamer: I didn't care. Under normal circumstances, I walk out of the theatre and like to think about the movie. What did I like? What didn't I like? What will I write about? This weekend, I walked out of the theatre and, as usual, headed for a late night grocery shopping trip. I was at the store and halfway through with my shopping list before I realized I hadn't thought about Gamer once. That, my friends, is not good.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Gamer is rated R for "frenetic sequences of strong brutal violence throughout, sexual content, nudity and language." The R rating is warranted, but even if it weren't, Gamer is so difficult at times to follow that younger kids won't get it anyway. As for older kids, I was so turned off by the movie myself that I actually asked a few young men who were in this movie's target demographic what they thought. Apparently, I think like a 20 year-old guy because they were significantly less than impressed as well.

POLITICAL NOTES: Those people who want to see more and more control from the government might be surprised to learn just how far such a government will go when it finds itself in need of funding, or when it learns it's overwhelmed in one facet of control or another. While the plot of Gamer can't be entirely attributed to government intervention at an earlier place or time, it's easy enough to see what might have happened to bring society to that point. Certainly it's made obvious that some salient parts of the story line owe themselves to the government as well as the unvarnished desire for control. My own take on stories of this nature is that we need to consider how technologies might be abused before we jump wholesale into how they might be used.

Sunshine Cleaning

Rated R
Runtime: 91 minutes

*** out of *****

I adored the indie hit, Little Miss Sunshine. For some reason (maybe because Alan Arkin stars in both, or maybe just because of the movie titles), I thought Sunshine Cleaning would be similar. I'd always intended to see it in the theatre, but never quite got there. Now that it's out on DVD, it seemed the perfect choice for a weekend that didn't offer any theatrical releases of interest to me.

Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) is an extraordinarily hard-working and responsible single mom. Her sister, Norah (Emily Blunt) is her polar opposite. When Rose finds herself in need of added income to pay private school tuition for her son, her married boyfriend Mac (Steve Zahn) suggests she specialize in her cleaning services. He's a cop who's seen more than a few trauma scenes, and he knows full well that those who clean up after such drama make plenty of money. Rose is convinced, and since Norah needs a job, she joins with her sister in establishing Sunshine Cleaning.

As the two women move from job to job, learning their craft as they go, they find that there's more to their service than the work. A kind janitorial supply store owner (Clifton Collins, Jr.) offers free advice. The girls' eccentric father (Alan Arkin) both cares for Rose's son, Oscar (Jason Spevack) and goes off on money-making ventures of his own. And Norah's surprising empathy for a dead woman leads her to make a new friend (Mary Lynn Rajskub). All in all, Sunshine Cleaning seems set up for success. But not everything is as it seems, either professionally or personally, as the sisters just joyfully or painfully learn.

I'm constantly amazed at the range of Amy Adams. I haven't seen anywhere near everything she's done, but in those things I have seen, she's a standout. From the lead in Junebug to Amelia Earhart in the latest Night at the Museum movie, from a neophyte nun in Doubt to a failing New York writer in Julie and Julia, she somehow manages to become the woman she plays so thoroughly that the movie itself becomes the better for it. Emily Blunt, too, is a terrific actress and frankly steals every scene she's in no matter her co-stars. Alan Arkin is, as always, a delight though he doesn't enjoy a lot of screen time here. In fairly limited roles, Steve Zahn didn't make much of an impression but Clifton Collins, Jr. did.

The direction is just fine, but I must admit I wasn't overly impressed by the script. The story was terrific, but the rendering was just a little flat. Sunshine Cleaning is billed as a comedy and a drama, and I saw much too little of the former to pretend otherwise. The sets, though, were wonderful, especially those serving as settings for the trauma needing clean-up. I almost felt as though I knew the people who lived there, and that's saying something given that we never get to see any of them alive.

BOTTOM LINE: Quirky and touching, Sunshine Cleaning may not be Little Miss Sunshine, but it's still well worth a look.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Sunshine Cleaning is rated R for "language, disturbing images, some sexuality and drug use." Obviously, a movie that focuses on the clean-up needed after particularly messy deaths is in no way suitable for young children or the squeamish. I'd limit this one to those of 15 or 16 and up.


Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.





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