Archive for the ‘sci-fi’ Category

DVD Review of MST3K The Singles Collection: It Lives!

May 15, 2018

MST3K Singlesx

Egad! With Eegah and others back, it’s not the end of the line for new DVD box sets of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Shout! Factory’s May 22 debut of The Singles Collection brings back six out-of-print titles first issued only as single discs during Rhino’s run releasing the show.

And not only that, but the discs sport lots of juicy new extras, including the mini-documentaries we’ve grown to love with great thanks to writer-director Daniel Griffith and his Ballyhoo productions.

No theme? No problem. The six titles are: The Crawling Hand (1963, Episode 106); The Hellcats (1968, Episode 209); Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964, Episode 321); Eegah (1962, Episode 506); I Accuse My Parents (1944, Episode 507); and Shorts Volume 3 (collecting seven shorts from various MST episodes — two with Joel, five with Mike). (Remarkably, all six discs are neatly packaged in a plastic case the same size as the single-disc cases in which they first came individually.)

As for those extras, besides trailers they include some real goodies:


‘Chasing New Horizons’ Book Review: Go for Launch

April 24, 2018

New Horizons

Like many who conceived, designed, created, launched and tracked the magnificent bound-for-Pluto spacecraft called New Horizons, I grew up a space geek.

I loved the enticing mysteries of our universe. I devoured science and sci-fi books about it. I even launched my own model rockets, courtesy of Estes Industries.

So it was only fitting that my journalistic career took me to Houston, where I’ve lived since the early ’80s, proud of being a citizen of Space City, whose neighbors reach for the stars.

But those are manned missions. The first closeup looks at our planetary neighbors must come from robotic scouts — and spacecraft such as New Horizons, which made humanity’s first historic flyby of  Pluto in July 2015 after a journey of nine years and three billion miles.

Not that this robotic machine was soulless — not when so many humans’ efforts, hopes and dreams went into it, and traveled with it in spirit.

From such dreams to mission-accomplished reality is the compelling tale of Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon, due May 1 from Picador.


‘Liquid Sky’ Blu-ray/DVD Review”: Strange Trip

April 24, 2018


Liquid Sky is one of those movies I can recommend, but with trepidation. That’s because it’s not for everyone — not by a long shot — and I don’t want to encourage the wrong audience, who will hate it. But for those who can handle the film’s perverse pleasures — namely, its twisted beauty offset by an ugly, corpse-filled, drug-drenched sci-fi plot amid New York’s early ’80s club scene — then this strange trip is for you.

I say this with deference to qualifying remarks because I recall showing another gritty, edgy New York indie to a couple who once visited my wife and me — with emphasis on the word “once,” since we never saw them again. That film was Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which I found to be an inspired rock odyssey of raw yet oddly tender sexual passions. Yet if you’ve seen it, you know that Hedwig isn’t for everyone, either.

So for Liquid Sky (slang for heroin), you’re both warned and encouraged. As a Rocky Horror sign would say, enter at your own risk.

Due April 24 in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from Vinegar Syndrome, this 1982 film is as strange as they come. How strange?


‘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.


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).


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.