I hope that if alien cultures are monitoring our entertainment they take a pass on the film Planet 51. It may reverse the human/alien traditional roles by having the human astronaut be the fish out of water on an alien planet but xenophobia stopped being a funny or useful plot device by the mid-'80s. Any mildly cognizant alien intelligences would take one look at this movie and decide to check back on the human race in another hundred years.
Justin Long plays Lem just another awkward teenager a role Long is too long-in-the-tooth to play in person anymore but shortly he could (and very well may) make a career out of doing it in voice work. Lem wants to be an astronomer and is vying for a job at the local observatory. He wants to score with neighborhood hottie Neera (Jessica Biel) but he can never quite muster up the confidence to make his move. His friends obsessed with comics and science fiction movies of the googly-eyed alien invasion ilk aren’t helping either. The catch is that these are all green-skinned tentacle-haired no-genitaled aliens on a distant planet who without a hint of explanation are living their lives parallel to Earth’s 1950s.
Lem is finally starting to get his game on when his life is turned upside down by the inconvenient entry of Captain Charles “Chuck” Baker (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson). Chuck is a human being and an astronaut who has landed his ship on the titular planet expecting something more barren only to find himself on the run from a culture living in fear of invasion because of a popular series of alien invasion films. His only help to get back to his module and dock with his mother ship in orbit before his countdown runs out (?) is Lem and his group of nerdy friends. Adventure ostensibly ensues and lessons are eventually learned by all: The cowardly Lem learns self-confidence the arrogant Chuck learns humility and we’re all supposed to learn tolerance towards those different from us. Unfortunately the only lesson actually imparted here is to be more careful when choosing an animated sci-fi film on which to spend your money.
While the premise here -- turning a cliché on its head -- shows promise Planet 51 has only switched the players. Every dumb alien joke since E.T. flew in front of the moon (and of course that’s here too) is included in the unimaginative script penned by the presumably sleep-writing Joe Stillman (Shrek Beavis and Butt-Head Do America). There’s not even anything fun and fast-paced here to take advantage of the animated CG format and make up for the crushing boredom. Why even do this sort of thing without an eye-candy chase scene or two?
The cast members as talented as they may be fare no better with the nothing they’re given. Johnson sounds as if he was reading a children’s book out loud to kindergarteners and it’s exhausting listening to him pander. Long is going through the same ol’ motions that have made up the majority of his career thus far and Biel is ridiculously unnecessary since she is given practically nothing to say or do. You’d think appearances by John Cleese as an alien scientist or Gary Oldman as the general leading the search for Chuck would bring some creative juices or some (sadly lacking) clever humor to the affair but they never manage to get past the tedious nature of the material written for them.
If there was ever an animated film that needed a clever punch-up team it’s this one. Planet 51 lacks both style AND substance which is surprising given the wealth of opportunities you’d think would be presented here. Perhaps first-time Spanish director Jorge Blanco and new Madrid-based studio Ilion Animation were overconfident about making a children’s film. All I can think is that they must have assumed this was going straight to DVD anyway and no one would notice. Planet 51 deserves to be packed up in a dusty crate in a corner of the Area 51 warehouse never to be seen again.
Today’s club-goers may not know that Miami with its decadent skyline was once America’s most violent city built up by the Carter and Reagan-era cocaine street wars. This Billy Corben-helmed documentary explains that with the volatile influx of Colombian cocaine and imprisoned Cuban refugees (fictionalized infamously in Al Pacino’s Scarface) in the ‘70s and ‘80s billion of dollars were laundered through local banks--and thousands of people were left dead. Time magazine tagged it “Paradise Lost.” Corben compares these “cocaine cowboys” to the Old West cowboys or 1930’s Chicago Prohibitionist-era thugs. In Cocaine Cowboys key criminal underworld players--the killers fugitives cops and kooks—talk about the experience. Each has an eye glimmer of hardened reality frozen by the bloodied heads splayed apart by gunfire--images shown unmercifully in photographs. For example a two-year-old boy killed in a shootout is pictured in his casket. The tales are chilling as kingpins give instructions to butcher troublemakers lending grim humanity to this recent chapter in American history beyond “Say hello to my li’l friend.” In this docu everyone is telling his/her own real crazy tale and each story is fascinating in tragic ways. An imprisoned contract killer Jorge “Rivi” Ayala illuminates the psychopathic killing of his boss Godmother Griselda Blanco Miami’s most notorious cocaine kingpin of that era who is thought to have killed more than 200 people. A skilled backwoods troublemaker Micky Munday recounts escaping into the Everglades and living as a fugitive for six years to evade the Feds. The main storyteller Jon Roberts has $2 billion in drug trafficking to his credit and a Dennis Farina-like mustache. Roberts’ stories take us inside his world despite the fact he doesn’t have the most moral of compasses. Peripheral characters such as Miami Herald reporter Edna Buchanan lend sober credibility to the excesses. All characters are typically seedy with aged faces bad skin and grizzled voices which bespeak their real-life drama. Cocaine Cowboys unfortunately runs a little long and is a bit underdeveloped in its thesis of how cocaine built Miami. We see the bloodshed and violence but we don’t see the direct link of cocaine-laundered money buying the city’s wealth. And the story could have been told in 100 minutes or less. Nonetheless Cocaine is an engaging docu even if not completely mature in its convictions. Kudos to 28-year-old director (and Miami native) Billy Corben for rounding up the movie’s rascals and getting them to talk. Corben also digs up mounds of archival footage and culls hours of interviews which is Cocaine’s selling point and creates a signature jumpy visual style similar to reality TV.Miami Vice composer Jan Hammer is also enlisted for Cocaine’s score giving it a post-modern authentic feel. Thanks to Scarface and Miami Vice’s ubiquity we all know the story of South Florida cocaine. Cocaine Cowboys gives the lore some localized lived-in humanity.