Archive for the ‘sci-fi’ Category

‘Stranger Things’ random thoughts: Of burgers and quibbles

September 23, 2016

stranger things titles.jpg

Having just finished screening Season 1 of Netflix’s Stranger Things, I’ve got some random thoughts on the ’80s-set saga of a Goonies-style gang of young nerds, a mysteriously powered small girl and a determined mom and sheriff tackling a scary other-dimensional threat in an Indiana town after a boy disappears.

Yes, the reviews are gushy (pushovers), but honest carping counts too, and someone’s gotta play devil’s advocate.

To wit:

Natalia Dyer, as the allegedly alluring (how’s that for alliteration — again!) teen lusted after by a big-haired dude at school, is too thin — make that emaciated — make that nearly skeletal — for the story’s time setting. Her stick-figure form is 2016 talking, and it undercuts the series’ 1980s period-piece veracity. If I’d been the casting director, I’d have told her she’s a fine actress and has the part — provided she eats some burgers.

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Blu-ray Review ‘Hackers’: The mouse that roared

August 30, 2015

Hackers-CastMy most vivid memory of 1995’s Hackers (just out from Shout! Factory) wasn’t watching the early computer-geek flick, but interviewing stars Angelina Jolie and Jonny Lee Miller when they visited Houston to promote its release.

How young were these then-relative unknowns! And how in love! (They married in ’96, then divorced in ’99.) And how high on life — or something.

This was a one-on-two. We did the interview jointly at Houston’s Ritz Hotel (now the St. Regis), and the two stars were about as happy and agreeable as any actors I’d ever met.

Yes, their romance fizzled — as did the film, which grossed a paltry $7 million for a budget of $20 million. But I’ll be damned if Hackers didn’t turn out to be surprisingly prescient and on-target about the computer-driven world in which we now live. And its teen characters played by 20-something actors at least rollerbladed, went to school, partied and got entangled in adventures, meaning they did more than zone out all day in front of a computer monitor or an iPhone. (Today’s cell phone zombiefication would have ruined Hackers.)

The film also gets some respectfully elaborate extras for its Blu-ray debut, notably three series of interviews with the likes of director Iain Softley and actors Matthew Lillard and Fisher Stevens (but not Angelina or Jonny — I feel so special).

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Blu-ray/DVD Reviews: ‘Swamp Thing,’ ‘A Boy And His Dog’

August 4, 2013

Swamp Thing

How qualified am I to review writer-director Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing, new on Blu-ray/DVD in a combo pack from Shout! Factory on Tuesday, Aug. 6? Well, how’s this: My familiarity with the character extends to buying DC’s first Swamp Thing comic book off the newsstand racks in 1972.

A decade later, Craven made his low-budget but affectionately campy film.  And I must say, today, it has aged well. Sure, it’s grinding to keep seeing men hurled into water as alleged violent action, and the Beauty and the Beast plot is as hoary as any. But Craven still makes it work as an action-fantasy, and he truly gets bang for his buck (reportedly, a budget of $3 million after frequent belt-tightening during production in South Carolina). (more…)

Blu-ray/DVD Review ‘Rise of Planet of the Apes’: No boos for reboots

December 13, 2011

From Star Trek to Batman to, now, Planet of the Apes, reboots have proven their mettle. Reboots are good. In fact, as in such simian cinema, reboots can be fantastic.

Yes, let’s get to the superlatives for this reboot of the 1968-born Apes series, rather than the unsatisfying “re-imagining” of the first two films by Tim Burton in 2001. It was time — and this time, they got it right by entwining the tale with an Outer Limits-style story of a scientist who dares to do great things but, in his bold reach, unleashes twisted results in the process.

These involve an Alzheimer’s cure turning into a monkey brain steroid, leading to a revolt of the San Francisco Bay Area’s simians, and I don’t mean bikers. From testing labs to the zoo, apes erupt onto SF’s scenic settings in a scary yet applaudable attack on human repression. And if that means facing down SF SWATs on the GGB, then it’s more than an anachronym. It’s anarchy — and deliriously entertaining.

I’ve lived in San Francisco, and there’s no more scenic city — and no better setting for a movie, especially one with warped weirdness.   From Vertigo to 1978’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, there’s a strange symbiosis between sinister doings and a city where a chilly fog drifts across steep hills in the dead of night. And Apes, while also ranging beyond SF, taps that element.

OK, I’m not the biggest James Franco fan, but he does the job here with gravity and sincerity as the scientist whose “cure” turns tables on human-ape dominance. The tale also recalls Flowers For Algernon (Charly, to movie fans) as well as The Outer Limits’ The Sixth Finger, an accelerated evolution story with perhaps the greatest character arc in screen history.

So yes, Apes is damn interesting and intriguing, apart form all the action and flash. And the CG is as good as it gets. Go Ape. You’ll be glad you did.

— Bruce Westbrook

 

DVD review ‘Trailers From Hell Volume 2!’: Not so hellish

July 4, 2011

I didn’t see the first volume of Trailers From Hell, so I can’t comment from that perspective, but I can say that seeing the second volume makes me wonder: How in hell did they come up with this title? I realize these little featurette commentaries first were made for a Web-based series, but that doesn’t change my perplexity.

First, the trailers, when shown, aren’t that bad, so why are they “from hell”? Second, the movies themselves aren’t necessarily bad, either. In fact, some are glowingly extolled by the guest commentators, who include such luminaries as Joe Dante and Guillermo Del Toro.

The 20 trailer commentaries zero in on such hoary horror, sci fi, monster and exploitation features as Gorgo and Premature Burial — cheap but fun stuff. And as noted, the filmmakers who comment are on board with gusto. Though critical when needed, they don’t see anything about these movies or their trailers which makes them slag-heap-worthy or “from hell.”

Oh well — it’s only a title. Just as these are only trailers. If you liked the first batch, chances are you’ll enjoy this one, as I did.

And by some chance if you can’t get enough of Roger Corman’s original Little Shop of Horrors (Nicholson or no Nicholson, gimme the musical any day), know that it’s presented here in “anamorphic widescreen!”

Come to think of it, maybe that “from hell” monicker fits after all.

Worthy Roger Corman B movies ‘Galaxy of Terror,’ ‘Forbidden World’ get lavish treatment on DVD

July 19, 2010

B-movie magnate Roger Corman may tend to get a bit too much credit for fashioning respectable exploitation fare — after all, how big of an achievement is that? But we can’t give him enough credit for the boldness, audacity and astuteness that enabled him to spot so many up-and-comers and give them first shots which led to bigger things.

In the case of Galaxy of Terror, new on DVD this week, that includes the director of the top two box office movies of all time (Titanic and Avatar), one James Cameron, who was second unit director and production designer on the Alien-wannabe starring Edward Albert (Butterflies Are Free), Ray Walston (My Favorite Martian, The Sting), Robert Englund (A Nightmare on Elm Street), Grace Zabriskie (Twin Peaks) and Sid Haig (House of 1,000 Corpses), among others.

I recall seeing the film originally at a seedy theater on lower Market Street in downtown San Francisco, which was the perfect setting — outside of a drive-in. Galaxy of Terror is violent, flashy, lurid entertainment with gratuitous nudity and big slimy monsters. One is a giant caterpiller who subjects one of the film’s females to a notorious ravaging. Any more questions?

Yet the film did have a semblance of a plot, with a crew of space enforcers sent to a strange and remote planet to seek crew members of a missing ship, and in the process being forced to face their own innermost fears. Think Forbidden Planet meets Alien and you get the picture.

Not only is this 1981 potboiler new on DVD, but so is companion film of sorts 1982’s Forbidden World (aka Mutant), which offers much the same in terms of a horror/sci-fi hybrid featuring ample exploitation (sex, violence, space hardware, monsters) and a fine, game cast including Jesse Vint (Macon County Line, Silent Running) and still more compliant actresses who are willing to disrobe for a steam bath even though terror lurks around the corner.

And not only are both films making DVD debuts on Shout! Factory discs, but each gets a lavish presentation, with lots of extras and a handsome illustrated booklet. Terror gets commentary, interviews, making-of materials, trailers, photo galleries, product designs, a PDF of the screenplay and more. The even cheaper World gets even more, with an unrated director’s cut running five minutes longer (Corman cut much of the humor after a test screening), a 34-minute making-of featurette, interviews with the cast and crew, including a now gray-haired Vint, a six-minute Corman interview, trailers, stills and more.

That’s the kind of thing you normally don’t associate with B movies, but these are special — first because they get the job done. I can’t recall how many times I’ve impatiently watched a horror or sci-fi film which clearly is in the exploitation genre yet doesn’t get busy and exploit. Hey, movie — we’re out here! Rolling, rolling, rolling — keep those monsters rolling.  Heeyahh!

Corman gets it. Corman delivers. And his films, notably these two, are ambitious little cinematic creatures which, for all their budgetary limitations (and now hopelessly dated computer screens and spaceship technology) make a valiant effort to spruce things up and entertain. You could do far worst than these flicks in today’s movie marketplace. In fact, I’d venture to say their plots are as good as Avatar’s (though that’s not much of a compliment).

So thank you, Roger. You’ve done the movie business proud in your own way. One needn’t be allegedly artsy and high-brow to entertain, and entertainment — each year’s Oscar night pretentiousness aside — is what movies are all about, or should be.

‘Avatar’ DVD review: Warmed-over story doesn’t do justice to dazzling visuals

April 26, 2010

Avatar director James Cameron and star Sam Worthington

Let me first say I have nothing against James Cameron as a filmmaker. I greatly admired Titanic, The Abyss, Aliens, True Lies and his Terminator movies. But as with T1 and T2, which wound up owing Harlan Ellison a credit for similar Outer Limits scripts, I’m also keenly aware of derivative elements when it comes to Avatar.

Let me also say I think CG is the most overused thing in Hollywood today. CG is a grand tool and toy, but when employed too often in an otherwise live-action film as a substitute for in-camera work, it inevitably pales.

Throughout Avatar’s hefty running time, I felt as if I were watching two movies melded into one: a live-action movie with actors working on sets, and an animated movie where nothing on camera is any more real than in a Chuck Jones short. (What about CG via actors in motion-capture suits, you may howl. Well, what about it? It’s still animation, and it disconnects a film from its purportedly live-action essence.)

That doesn’t mean you can’t create astonishing imagery with CG, as Avatar does. Its world of Pandora is as wondrous as it gets in sci-fi. But in the end, it’s a cartoon world embedded in an initially (and ostensibly) live-action movie.

The Lord of the Rings, at least, relied heavily on live, in-camera actors, settings and sets, while also laced with loads of fanciful CG showmanship. Avatar doesn’t seem to care that its CG world, while amazingly detailed, is entirely CG and ceaselessly looks and feels solely like CG animation.

As for derivations, didn’t we see a tough Latina military type in Aliens, and now (via Michelle Rodriguez) in Avatar? And weren’t Alien and Aliens also about big bad corporations or governments wanting to strip-mine the galaxy for resources until confronted with an indigenous “problem”?

And isn’t the mind-transferral used to put humans in alien “avatars” just a Second Life virtual world computer game transposed to cinema (a game whose participants, in my book, need the Shatner-esque exhortation to “get a life)? And aren’t Pandora’s blue people just metaphors for Native Americans being muscled off their land by colonialist encroachers? And isn’t their spears-and-arrows defiance of snazzy bad-guy hardware straight out of the Ewoks’ playbook?

In short, isn’t all this overly familiar?

I say yes, which perhaps is why, even after setting the all-time box office record, Avatar was not named Oscar’s best picture. Its story and characters simply weren’t strong enough — and original enough — to merit that.

Look, I’m not challenging the film’s commercial clout. I accept it and fully acknowledge it, and if I were running Hollywood, I wouldn’t sue a James Cameron film for plagiarism (as Harlan Ellison once did — and won) but would pin a medal on Cameron. Even so, box office popularity and intrinsic artistry are not synonymous.

Yes, Avatar is a grand — if preachy and overlong — adventure film, dazzling to the eye with its vivid otherworldliness. But all the tricks Cameron has up his sleeve do not distract me, at least, from what ultimately seems like a routine and rehashed story.

PS–The DVD and Blu-ray debut of Avatar are remarkably bereft of any extra features. No trailers. No deleted scenes. No making-of materials. Those will come with a home market reissue of the film later this year. For now, you just get the movie — and there’s no 3D.

For special features and extra footage, look for an “Ultimate Edition” in November. And for a 3-D version of the film, wait till next year.

DVD review: 3-hour Watchmen is old and new

July 21, 2009

Having Watchmen arrive on DVD means having an extra 24 minutes added to the theatrical cut, so the entire movie (with end credits) now runs 186 minutes. That’s a long time to tell a tale, but given the fact that Watchmen is based on a solitary graphic novel that’s set apart from the well-traveled superhero universes of Marvel or DC,  uninformed viewers have a lot of catching up to do.

They get that and more in this superb expanded cut, which introduces the multi-generational heroes who were forced to drop out of sight by a furor akin to the mutant-hunting scares in X-Men. And then, of course, they’re needed again.

The characters are both familiar types (strongmen–what a concept) and kooky-new (Rorschach, with his ever-shifting masked face). But the most intriguing, in a way, is the godlike Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), who was transformed by an agonizing scientific accident into a near-omnipotent (if not omniscient, as he reminds us) bald and blue creature. He can get real big, too–real fast.

What makes Dr. Manhattan such a kick is that he faces much the same dilemma as one of the greatest characters ever created for a single network TV episode. And by that, I’m referring to the classic 1960s Outer Limits episode titled The Sixth Finger.

In it, David McCallum played an illiterate coal miner who agreed to be the test subject in a scientist’s experiment to advance human evolution via a machine. McCallum became advanced, all right — and kept going. Soon he was devouring books in seconds and playing piano like a master. Then he got even smarter — and more detached from human reality, seeing us as mere ants.

Similarly, Dr. Manhattan has trouble connecting with the human experience. He’s simply too godlike to relate, much as he might try.

In either case, it’s an incredible character “arc,” which is what many actors live for. You don’t want to go from A to B. You want to go from A to L to X to Z and then — who knows?

At any rate, Watchmen fans are urged to check out McCallum’s extraordinary performance and how his alarming human evolutionary imperatives are resolved. And speaking of ’60s TV sci fi, also keep in mind what Bill Shatner’s Captain Kirk told a similarly godlike being (played by Gary Lockwood) in the classic Star Trek episode Where No Man Has Gone Before: “A god must have compassion.” For humanity, if we truly can transcend our wretched existence, perhaps such compassion, beauty and love are where our greatest character arc — and evolutionary path — lies.

DVD Review: MST XV is a KTMA treat, has-been horror

July 6, 2009

Sure, I’d love to see more Sci-Fi Channel shows, especially from the beloved Season Eight. But at this point, why quibble over which Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes make their DVD debuts in Shout! Factory’s fine four-disc sets, the latest of which, volume XV, is due Tuesday?

The fact is, many fans love all MST; available episodes are finite (even more so when rights are tangled); and with dozens of shows already on DVD, getting four more is (1) gravy (2) icing on the cake or (3) a gravy-covered cake. (Yech!)

No, the real treats and variables of each new MST DVD aren’t the choice of episodes so much as the addition of special features. And this latest one has extras on each disc.

The best involve rare looks at the show’s original incarnation on Minnesota UHF station KTMA — TV23 — in 1988 and ’89. An at-first shaggy Joel Hodgson has at-first awkward sidekick ‘bots who evolve into our beloved Tom Servo, Gypsy and Crow (Cybernetic Remotely Operated Woman?), and it’s fun to see how quickly the show morphs and gains its footing.

I even dig the yellow jumpsuits and cluttered look of the initial Satellite of Love (whose bare-bones approach on the Comedy Channel was less than what viewers got on el cheapo TV). And it’s nice to see the oft-overlooked J. (Josh) Elvis Weinstein team with Trace Beaulieu in Deep 13, before TV’s Frank took over.

Such bits emerge in a 15-minute Glimpses of KTMA — MST3K Scrapbook on the Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy disc. An eight-minute Scraps II on the Girl in Lover’s Lane DVD jumps to the early network days, with enticing looks at Joel and company writing their riffs, in effect, as they spout off while sitting on couches at Best Brains studios in Eden Prairie, Minn., watching bad movies on a TV in the corner while a typist scarfs up their comments on a keyboard. (I once visited this room — the honor still stays with me.) We also get a backstage look at the guys shooting the show while director Jim Mallon (who’s never ID’d, I believe) looks on. Thanks, Shout! Factory — love this stuff!

The Racket Girls disc has the oddest extra: a five-minute sneak peek from Hamlet ADD, whatever that is. (Satellite News guys, can you help me?) Yes, it’s intriguing, but a bit more explanation would benefit the average consumer. Suffice it to say it’s as trippy as those new commercials where seas of trees and flowers have human arms and faces. It also has an audience within the presentation, and reacting to it. (Now, where have I seen that before . . . ?) It’s also oddly haunting, bizarre, jolting and filled with deliberately cheesy and, thus, lovable robots. (Robot Monster, how I miss thee!) Voice actors include Trace, Kevin Murphy and the widow of the Great Bird of the Galaxy herself, Majel Barrett Roddenberry.

There’s also a bad ad (orignal trailer) for the lousy and almost unwatchable Racket Girls, first titled Blonde Pickup, but easily worth the name Cheap, Drab Sleaze. This was from an era when seeing a woman in a slip was the ultimate in raciness — and anything beyond that — well, as the MST guys would marvel, “Sayyyyyy . . . ”

Speaking of bad movies (aren’t they all, though it’s relative), that brings us to the last disc, for Zombie Nightmare, a film whose title is aptly descriptive. Indeed, this ’80s tripe with a cameo by good ol’ Adam West is like a bad dream for anyone who values fine– or even halfway competent — filmmaking.

Of course, that utter ineptitude means some will adore it, which is why it’s considered to have “stars,” two of whom appear here in recent interviews: Frank Dietz and John Mikl Thor.

These go pretty much like most such interviews with aging film folks whose big claim to fame was a movie worth savaging on a cowtown puppet show. They cringe momentarily, paying lip-service to shame, but mostly take delight that anyone would showcase their little movie at all, and how this, in a weird way, turns their nothing of a movie into something.

Each man also seems to have an inflated sense of worth, especially Mr. Thor, who rants and rambles (while hiding behind dark glasses) about his endless array of irons in the show biz fire, none of which are familiar to me, but hey, I haven’t circulated in the same crowd as a Thor since I stopped reading Journey Into Mystery and The Avengers.

Just once, I’d love it if one of these guys readily acknowledged how bad their film was and agreed that it deserved every MST3K-hurled zinger it got. Instead, they try to spin it into being a lost or underrated classic with which many people are obsessed — as long as they don’t charge too much for autographs at fan cons hosting has-beens.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I covered entertainment as a professional journalist for many years, I know a lot of actors, and I have a natural fondness for those intrepid souls who make a true go at it. It’s a tough business, and far more talented people that these two (Dan O’Bannon, anyone?) also fail to carve out lasting, successful careers, so there’s no shame in not being another John Carpenter, Tom Savini, Bruce Campbell or Sam Raimi.

But along with this soft spot in my heart is a hard-nosed attitude in my head toward keeping it real. I get enough lies — er, spin — from politicians and publicists, not to mention virtually any entertainment “news” show on TV. Just once, I’d love to hear a faded star of a tiny film admit that there wasn’t much “there” there, but hey, we’re still talking about it, so at least there’s that, and, hey, whatev, but yeah — it sucked.

If you disagree and would rather enable such delusions, then imagine if someone launched a cheap TV show on a little-seen UHF station and, after one episode, it folded its tents, yet many years later, they still rhapsodized about the great job they did and the fun time they had and what a lost classic it is.

Then think about your high regard for Joel, Mike Nelson and company, who really DID achieve something lasting. Then imagine yourself, in Bentsen-speak, saying, “Sir, I know fringe TV trailblazers like Mike Nelson, and you sir, are no Mike Nelson.”  That’s all I’m doing here–trying to keep it real in honor of those who truly deserve our ongoing respect if not our adulation. Forcing such regard on the undeserving only cheapens it, and we live in an era of too many cheap “celebrities” already.

Hey, if you made a movie — any movie — that got lambasted on MST3K, that’s worth something, and you’ve got it. But let’s not liken Zombie Nightmare or Soultaker to unsung exploitation classics that really do deserve salutes and flame fannings. (Dark Star or Tourist Trap, anyone?) Instead, let’s keep our heads on straight while laughing with our merry SOL crew, and let’s thank them, more than anyone, for bringing a little extra light into our day.

DVD review: ‘Star Trek: Season 3 Remastered’ shows where ‘Boston Legal’ bent began

November 18, 2008

And so, Paramount’s splendid refitting of Classic Trek comes to a close with this week’s release of Star Trek: The Original Series — Season 3 Remastered from Paramount. Again, the new effects and enhanced picture and sound are a fan’s dream, provided you’re not the kind of purist who balked at similar spiffing up of Star Trek: The Motion Picture or the original Star Wars trilogy.

Me? I love progress, and if you can improve a show without losing its basic integrity, I’m there. Bottom line: If they’d had the resources to produce this level of effects when making this show in the 1960s, they’d have loved to do so. Now Paramount can — and it does a fantastic job. ‘Nuff said.

Sure, Trek‘s third and final original season was nowhere near as good as the first two, but it still had some worthy winners, including the going-native-while-an-asteroid-looms love story of The Paradise Syndrome. (I’m a sucker for idyllic-looking shore leave shows — and that asteroiod gets a great makeover.) The DVD extras here also are welcome, from the original pilot version of The Cage to a tribute to Trek producer Bob Justman, a man I’ve admired dating back to his pre-Trek time on The Outer Limits.

In fact, there are so many elements of The Outer Limits in Star Trek that you almost could argue the first spawned the second, from Trek‘s direct steal of its Arena episode (which makes a cameo in Tropic Thunder, BTW) via OL‘s Fun and Games episode to the fact that some big Trek actors appeared first on the sci-fi anthology show (William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, James Doohan, etc.). And Harlan Ellison, author of Trek‘s beloved City on the Edge of Forever episode, first wrote two of the best Outer Limits episodes in Soldier and Demon With a Glass Hand.

But back to The Paradise Syndrome. In it, as in so many Classic Trek episodes, we see the seeds of Shatner’s late-career renaissance. No, we’re not talking his amusingly in-your-face guy on TV commercials, but Shatner’s Denny Crane on Boston Legal, a role which won him an Emmy, which Kirk never did. In short, in Kirk we see a man who, like Denny Crane these days, can’t keep his hands off women — even when he’s in a mind-zapped daze (The Paradise Syndrome) or suffering from “mad cow” (Boston Legal).

Are James Kirk and Denny Crane truly cut from the same cloth? To answer one rhetorical question with another, in an astronomical context: Is there a constant far side (as opposed to “dark side”) of the moon? Yes and yes, of course.

Each character is an alpha male who’s king of his castle, whether it’s a spaceship or a law firm. Each is drawn to women like a meteoroid pulled into a giant planet’s gravitational hold. And each gives good speeches, whether it’s Kirk’s moralistic rallying-the-troops sermonettes or Crane’s sly, shrewd strategies offered to BFF Alan Shore (James Spader) in their balcony chats.

And there, of course, lies the biggest link between Kirk and Crane: Both celebrate male-bonding to the Nth degree. Kirk had Spock, and to a slightly lesser extent McCoy. And Crane has Shore. And those relationships are the thread, the theme, the backbone and the heart of their respective series.

Classic Trek never would have been classic without the intense brotherhood of Kirk, Spock and McCoy, and Boston Legal is basically a platonic love story about political opposites but similarly rebellious legal eagles who end each episode with a drink, a cigar, a heart-to-heart talk and another declaration of their “bromance” love.

I ask you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury: Kirk and Crane — separated at birth? Again, it’s a rhetorical question.

In fact, I rest my case.