Saturday, 30 April 2011

Poster: Altered States

Friday, 29 April 2011

Review: X the Unknown

X the Unknown (1956)

Riding high on the success of The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), Hammer Films realised that it had struck gold in science fiction horror and were keen to keep the momentum going. So, they approached novice screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and asked him to bang out a script along the lines of Quatermass.  The recult was the first in a sub-genre of Quatermassesque stories that would later find a cosy home on Doctor Who during the John Pertwee years.

X the Unknown opens with a group of National Service soldiers in a Scottish quarry reluctantly carrying out a boring exercise in how to use a Geiger counter to locate radioactive material.  Suddenly, the ground explodes and a fissure burst open; killing one man and badly burning another.  In short order, the Army calls in Dr Adam Royston (Dean Jagger) from the local atomic research centre, who concludes that there was something radioactive behind the explosion.  His suspicions become terrifying reality as he and Atomic Ministry investigator Inspector McGill (Leo McKern) follow a trail of radioactive corpses running in an ever shortening line between the fissure and the Centre reactor.  Something alive has come out of the Earth that feeds of radioactivity and is hunting for the largest food source in the vicinity.  If it reaches the reactor, it will leave the local countryside an atomic wasteland.

X the Unknown is very much a film of the early atomic age.  However, unlike other sci fi films where radiation is just the starting off point that creates a more conventional monster, the fear of radiation is front and centre here as people suffer from mysterious radiation burns. Small incidents that grow in frequency and destructiveness and the local people increasing blame Dr Royston and the other scientists for what is  happening.  The father of one child victim lays into our hero for being a scientist and you can't really blame him.  At times, the film does descend into gratuitous ghastliness, such as when a lecherous radiologist at the hospital gets between "X" and the radioactive cobalt vault, but most of the time director Leslie Norman relies more heavily on a mounting sense of dread as the unseen monster grows in size and power. 

Dean Jagger gives a solid performance as Dr Royston.  In his hands, he portrays Royston as an eccentric boffin with a taste for cobbling laboratory equipment out of Meccano sets, yet conducts himself with an interesting air of authority and compassion.  Leo McKern makes the most out of his role of what is essentially Dr Watson/Inspector Lestrade to Jagger's Sherlock Holmes and William Lucas carries up the rear as Peter Elliott, the Centre admin bod who secretly longs to be a scientist and ends up getting all the dirty jobs like getting lowered into the fissure on a line.  Character conflict is low key with the arguments between Royston and the authorities feeling more like professional disagreements rather than reason versus stupidity and there are nice moments such as when the local vicar as a small moment of personal heroism as he defends his flock against "X".  Everyone, even the comic relief, play their roles with dead seriousness, which adds to the verisimilitude.

The monster turns out to be not a cunning killer, but rather a blind, unthinking thing that is even more harrowing because its mindlessness makes it utterly relentless and our heroes can no more outwit it than they can a flood.  Though the ending seems a bit abrupt, it comes after a climax of suitable suspense as they use a plug of atomic fuel to lure "X" to its doom. 

It's said that the director hated the project and that this resulted in considerable friction on the set–so much so that Norman never worked with Hammer again, but at least this one collaboration produced a neat little gem of a thriller.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Review: The Thing

The Thing (1982)

A sled dog races into an American science station in Antarctica.  In hot pursuit is a Norwegian helicopter with the crew blasting away at the animal with a rifle.  On landing, the helicopter explodes when a live grenade is mishandled by the pilot and the Norwegian with the rifle is killed by the American base commander.  Too late the Americans learn that the Norwegian science team had discovered an alien spaceship buried in the ice and that the dog is, in fact, a shape-shifting monster from beyond intent on consuming and imitating all life on Earth.

The Thing is a remake of the 1951 classic The Thing From Another World (1951).  However, where the 1951 version was about an Arctic base besieged by a plant monster in need of blood to propagate itself, The Thing takes advantage of thirty years of technological advance to produce a version much closer to the source material, John W Campbell Jr's novella "Who Goes There?"

Though it tries to remain more faithful to Campbell, The Thing is not science fiction.  It is horror first, last and always.  Whereas Campbell went to great pains to sell the premise of his story, the film makes no such attempt.  The creature simply "is" and the explanation of "why?" is summed up by it's being from outer space.  However, director Scott Carpenter must be given credit for the look of the film.  He pushed effects designer Rob Bottin literally beyond the limit to produce monsters that are nothing short of ghastly.  If I ever need someone to choreograph my nightmares, Carpenter is the first person I'll call.  The things that the Thing turns into are pure nightmare fuel that are as disturbing as they are chaotic.

The actors are well used in the film, though they're far more dysfunctional than they need to be.  Regrettably, given the nature of modern Antarctic crews, they're probably quite realistic.  Kurt Russell anchors the cast well and Donald Moffat is under recognised for the weight that he brings to the character of the base commander.  One unfortunate part of the script is that we get very little idea of what the men of the base actually do, so the viewer may do some head scratching over a roller skating urban black character on a science base.

Overall, Carpenter does a good job, though the need to indulge in the grotesque visuals undermines the paranoia of the story, so the tension never gets a chance to build properly.  Also, when Carpenter strays from the source material his grasp of logic becomes more and more feeble until it falls right through the growing plot holes.  In the end, when they run out of novella, the film descends into haunted house mode with the characters doing profoundly stupid things for no discernible reason.

Finally, there is the one question that I've been scratching my head over since 1982:  What the blazes was an Antarctic science station doing with not one, but two flame throwers?

Flame throwers?

Monday, 25 April 2011

Review: Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

Mars Gravity Probe One is completing a successful orbital survey of the Red Planet when an encounter with a meteor forces  the crew, Col. Dan "Mac" McReady & Cmdr. Christopher 'Kit' Draper, to abandon ship in a pair of landing capsules.  Kit's vehicle is destroyed on landing and now, separated from his friend, he must find a way to survive on a planet so hostile that the very air is unbreathable.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars may be one of the worst titles in science fiction cinema, but it does neatly encompass the plot, which is an outer space adaptation of Daniel Defoe's classic novel.  Containing all the elements right down to an interstellar Man Friday, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a reasonably "hard" science fiction story set on a Mars that was still credible before the Mariner 4 space probe revealed in 1965 just how dead Mars really is.  The Mars of the film is a deadly desert of a place of freezing cold, volcanic activity that is lacking both water and oxygen.  Equipt with what he can salvage from the wreckage of his ship, Kit and Mona, a wooly monkey who is the only other survivor of the crash, sets out in a desperate race against time to find the basics of life before the air tanks in his space suit run dry.  He shows remarkable ingenuity as he unlocks the alien resources of his new home; finding rocks that burn like a submariner's oxygen candle, subterranean pockets of water, Martian food,  and other necessities.  Along the way he also learns to deal with the knowledge that he is utterly alone. 

Robinson Crusoe on Mars is remarkable in that it is writer/director Ib Melchior's (Angry Red Planet, Reptilicus) one decent film.  It's even more remarkable when you consider that the original screenplay had Kit fighting all sorts of weird monsters and adopting a Martian armadillo as a pet.  Under Byron Haskin's (The War of the Worlds) direction, Robinson Crusoe on Mars becomes a proper adventure story with well-thought out props such as Kit's all-in-one portable computer/media centre that today would be replaced with an off the shelf cell phone, sand-powered alarm clock, and Friday's oxygen pills.  Paul Mantee does a solid job of carrying the film for most of the running time with no one to act against except a monkey and Victor Lundin brings a certain pathos to his role as Friday.  21st century viewers may be put off by an alien with a completely human appearance, but I would argue that making Friday a fantastic would merely throw up a barrier between the actor and the audience.  Rounding out the cast is future Batman Adam West who puts in a decent days work with his dozen or so lines.

Unavailable for many years, Criterion has wisely issued the film on DVD with a host of extras including Lundin singing.  Whether this was a good idea or not, we leave to the reader.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Review: The Illustrated Man

The Illustrated Man (1969)

This  is a serious film.  You can tell it's serious because it has serious Rod Stieger starring in it at the height of his serious Rod Stieger being serious in a Rod Stieger being serious sort of way.  Also, having to go through makeup for ten hours a day must have made him a bit peevish.  Based on Ray Bradbury's 1951 anthology disguised as a novel, The Illustrated Man takes three of the book's 18 short stories and tries to turn them into a feature film with mixed results.  The framing device used is of a young man in the countryside of Great Depression America meeting a man named carl with his 90 percent of his body tattooed with "skin illustrations" put there by a mysterious woman from the future.  Carl is hunting for the woman in order to kill her in revenge for the tattoos, which have made him an outcast because they have the power to tell stories and reveal an ugly future to those who look at them.  It's sort of an anthropomorphic version of Night Gallery.

Ray Bradbury isn't an easy author to translate to the screen.  It's probably because he's the sort of author that school librarians like rather than what boys do.  At least his books were always easy to find at my school. They were the ones with the intact dust jackets and uncut pages.  His plots, when he wasn't doing flat-out horror, tended toward American Midwestern nostalgia and conveyed in an over-polished purple prose that some people find poetic, but is really more florid.  As long as you bear in mind that he's writing fantasy rather than science fiction, his stories are tolerable, but on the screen the nostalgia becomes cloying and the prose descends into the precious.

This is the problem with Illustrated.  The individual stories aren't bad.  They just aren't very good and trying to cram three of them plus a framing device plus a flashback into 103 minutes of running time gives it a rushed feeling that Stieger's histrionics can't cover.  "The Veldt" is the first and strongest of the stories and if Rod Serling or Alfred Hitchcock had adapted it, it would have made a nice episode on one of their shows.  "The Long Rain" tries hard at drama, but has trouble holding the audience's attention as the crew of a crashed spaceship on a rainy Venus slog endlessly around what is obviously a very small studio set.  It's also mystifying because we're supposed to hate Stieger's bellowing Colonel, but his companions are such a collection of crybabies who want to lay down and die that we can't.  "The Last Night of the World" is completely unengaging and it's puzzling why the screenwriter chose it instead of one of the stronger stories like "Zero Hour" or "Kaleidoscope".

The framing stories don't really work well at all.  They're far too amped up and Clair Bloom is seriously underused in what should have been a meatier role.  Robert Drivas manages to hold his own against Stieger even when the later has eaten most of the scenery and has started to work on the props, but he doesn't have the range to cover the varied roles that the anthology format demands.

Not a particularly good film, but when compared with Bradbury misfires like 1980's adaption of The Martian Chronicles, it could have been a lot worse.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Review: The King's Speech

The King's Speech (2010)

Having a pronounced stammer can be a problem, but when you're second in line to the throne of England during the first decade of wireless, it's a nightmare.

In The King's Speech, we're introduced to Prince Albert "Bertie", the Duke of York and future King George VI, who has a stammer so bad that public speaking is almost impossible for him.  It's the mid 1930s.  King George V is nearing the end of his life, the Prince of Wales puts his love life before his duty, and Hitler is on the march.  Bertie, regarded by most people, including himself, as unfit for the throne, tries to fulfill his duty as a member of the Royal family. Unfortunately, this involves public speaking both in person and over the new medium of radio, but his stammer is so severe that he's unintelligible.  In order to rectify this "mechanical" problem, Bertie employs the services of an unorthodox speech therapist Lionel Logue, whose methods require Bertie to get to the psychological root of the problem and open himself up in a way the he's never allowed himself to do before.  The two men's often combative relationship grows into a tumultuous friendship as Bertie must deal with the death of his father, his brother's abdication, and his own unwanted ascension to the throne.  Though there is some progress made in controlling his speech impediment, will it be enough  when the newly crowned King George VI must go on the wireless to rally his people at the outbreak of the Second World War?

Based on the true story of George VI, The King's Speech is well deserving of the Oscars that it snatched up.  Colin Firth looks and sounds nothing at all like George VI, but he still manages to come across in an utterly convincing manner as the dutiful, yet insecure Prince.  Geoffrey Rush as Logue is a perfect match in casting and the two of them have a powerful chemistry that makes one wish that this had been produced as a two-man play.  Even Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth wins praise for her first performance in over a decade when she doesn't come across as bat-**** crazy.  The screenplay by David Seidler manages to tie together the events of the day with Bertie's own growing role, yet keeps the whole thing anchored by the friendship between the ruler of history's greatest empire and a "nobody" speech therapist.  He also sets the stakes for the titular speech that is the climax of the film, though British audiences over the age of forty may have the best appreciation for this.

The King's Speech is an altogether satisfying drama, though it is also somewhat bittersweet in that it is a marvelous portrait of England before the claws of Socialism, political correctness, multiculturalism, and the 1960s had a chance to sink into the nation.  It is a world of patriotism, duty, deference, and tradition melded with the fruits and hazards of progress.  It is a time when gravitas was prized, when there were statesmen as well as politicians, and despite the harrowing menaces of Fascism and Communism, the civilised world still had confidence in itself.  It is an England that seems to have faded to an ember in the 21st century, but perhaps one that has not died out yet.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 1

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)

Or, Harry Potter Goes Camping and Has a Really Miserable Time.  Think of it as a remake of Nuts in May with wands.  I kept expecting Roger Sloman to show up and to tell Harry that he couldn't build a fire there.

I've never been a fan of the Harry Potter series–neither book nor film versions.  I've always regarded the books as very poorly written and over-hyped rubbish whose popularity is only explainable as one of those self-reinforcing pop culture phenomena that also kept the Beatles from sinking into a well-deserved obscurity.  Of the two, I've been more forgiving toward the film series–partly because the directors of most of the films had the sense to trim down the stories into something acceptable, but mainly because they are rich Rifftrax feeding grounds.

The latest installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is easily the worst of a bad lot.  This is called "part 1" because the seventh and (please, God!) final book in the Potter series was split into two for the screen.  Why, I have no idea except for the obvious possibility of pure greed.  Mind you, if there is any justice, audiences will be so put off by Hallows that they'll give Part 2 a wide berth.

It's the climax of the series and Harry and friends are on the run from Lord Voldemort and in order to keep Harry from being killed to death we're whisked along on an elaborate chase scene involving ray guns and speeder bikes.  Sorry, wands and broomsticks.   Having reached a double-super-secret safe house, Harry et al then do what anyone on the lam would do:  They go to a wedding.

Then they act all surprised when the baddies attack.

Then things get silly.  For reasons that make sense only in Rowling's contrived little world, Harry, Hermione and Ron set off on a quest to destroy the Ring.  Sorry, to find the horcruxes that contain the fragments of Voldemort's soul.  They do this by sitting in a damp tent for ninety minutes of screen time, fuming with frustration over ludicrous clues left by the late Professor Dumbledore, and getting on each other's nerves.

This is a classic example of bad writing.  Rowling (who also produced this film, so she's no excuse) doesn't convey a sense of boredom, frustration, and annoyance; this plot is boring, frustrating, and annoying.  Remember, I'm not talking about a scene or a segment of the story.  This is the main plot.  Our heroes sit around being bored and bickering.  Every now and again they go look for something, get into trouble, teleport somewhere else, and the whole dreadful cycle starts all over.  In the end, our heroes are captured with pathetic ease, escape with even greater ease, we have a completely pointless and utterly ineffective scene of Harry sobbing over the corpse of a latex elf, Lord Voldemort finds A Really Powerful Wand, and Ron is still ginger.

It is also unrelentingly grim, humourless, unnecessarily bloody, and violent with scenes of torture, partial nudity, and bad acting, so this is not appropriate for anyone who thought this was still a kids series.  As for adults, unless you sit down to watch Harry Potter while clad in your Hogwarts robe and clutching your Official Limited Edition Harry PotterTM Wand With Light-Up Tip, I'd give this a berth.

In fact, I'd run down side streets to avoid it.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Review: Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre (2011)

If you're going to produce a new adaptation of Jane Eyre, it is a good idea to first ask the director if he actually wants to do Jane Eyre.  This small truth is one that escaped BBC Films when they hired American director Cary Fukunaga.   There have been almost a dozen cinematic adaptations of Charlotte Bronte's 1847 novel and this is by far the worst of the lot.  With the Gothic elements emphasised by a director who has no grasp of how to handle Gothic, Jane Eyre is like some awful Dickens story directed by someone who has never read a word of Dickens. It is a travesty from the very first frame where Fukunaga uses a pointless flashback technique that only irritates and we learn another valuable lesson:  Extreme close ups or shaky cam; choose one. 

Mia Wasikowska is hopelessly miscast as Jane; one of literature's strongest heroines who is here played by an actress who comes across more as an over-caffeinated terrier trying desperately not to explode.  Instead of the story of a strong yet kind-hearted woman who seeks some measure of happiness in a hard world, this Jane is an eternal victim subjected to an unending series of sadistic tortures that make no sense of her character development.  Despite being the central charcter, Miss Wasikowska under Fukunaga's lazy direction is a mewing cipher who never engages the audience.  Worse, Fukunaga's pacing is so glacial that it feels like one is watching a rock formation deform under its own weight as scenes go on for far too long.

The latter is unforgivable, given how much of the plot is left out.  Granted, no film can provide more than the highlights of a book, but Fukunaga has dumped the highlights and tried to make a film out of the copyright notice and end papers. The result is a tepid and overlong contrivance that clocks in at two hours–the last half hour of which is pure torture.  It's so bad that even Fukunaga can't seem to take it anymore and instead of giving the story a proper ending, he throws it all to the wind and gives us a pointless and infuriating blackout.

The appearance of Michael Fassbender breathes some life into this sorry mess, but it is too little too late.  His Mr Rochester is compelling, but Fukunaga gives him too little to work with and he lacks the sense of anguish and elemental passion kept barely in check that the role demands and that Orson Welles captured so well in 1943.  Even worse, there is no sexual tension whatsoever between him and Miss Waikowska.  Far from setting the screen afire, whenever she shares a scene with Fassbender, Miss Waikowska looks as if she's going to burst into tears at any moment–and those are the happy ones!

A mirthless,. turgid, abomination of a waste of celluloid with a muddy colour pallet, Fukunaga's Jane Eyre is this year's greatest waste of money so far.   If you're a Bronte fan (and even if you're not), don't waste you money on this; it will only encourage them.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Ice Station Zebra remake?

Inexplicably, Warner Bros. may do a remake of the classic Ice Station Zebra–with a script by the man who made Your Highness.

They hate us.  They really hate us.

Via Libertas.

Review: Four Sided Triangle

Four Sided Triangle (1953)

What would you do if you had a machine that could duplicate anything?  And I mean anything?  How would it alter our world?  What would the implications be for the economy?  The arts?  Defence?  Daily life?   What if it opened up some very unpleasant possibilities–like duplicating people?

Hammer Films's first science fiction film before it took the plunge with The Quatermass Xperiment in 1955, Four Sided Triangle is a foreshadowing of  greater things to come.  Directed by the legendary terrance Fisher and based on William F. Temple's popular novella by the same name, the film revolves around Lena, Bill, and Robin (Barbara Payton, Stephen Murray, John Van Eyssen); childhood friends who are drawn back together in adulthood by Bill and Robin's new invention, which turns out to be a matter duplicator.  During the intense, inward-looking work of perfecting their machine, the trio's success is marred when they discover that both men have fallen in love with Lena.  Normally, this is the cue for some powerful jealousy and impossible frustrations, but when you've got a matter duplicator on hand, certain alternatives begin to present themselves.  In this case, its a matter of, if two men love one woman, then why not duplicate said woman?  It seems like a reasonable solution and Lena is willing to go along with it, but they overlook one detail that causes the arrangement to rapidly disintegrate as the duplicate Lena discovers that she still loves the man the original has married and that she's as cut off from her desires, too.

This isn't your usual science fiction epic.  There's neither the antiseptic laboratory nor the Frankensteinian ruins.  Instead, the plot in Four Sided Triangle takes place in an idyllic little village where the laboratory is an old barn while the action is underscored by the musical direction of Muir Matheson.  The film is even introduced by our narrator, the village doctor (James Hayter), leaning against a five-bar fence and delivering his lines in a way that makes the audience expect him to start selling them loaves of bread.  It's a clumsy structure and gives the film the feel of a bad documentary blended with a magazine short story.  However, you can see the beginnings of Fisher's talent that shines through his lack of confidence in his story telling abilities.  He feels too much of a need to show back story in painful detail, but his visual style is already strong and when he lets the camera do its job, it does it well.  This is especially true in the laboratory scenes where Fisher actually exploits the minimal budget by giving the place a ramshackle, jerry rigged appearance that is both dramatic and suspenseful–mostly because you expect it all to blow up at any second.  As the matter duplicator is built, Fisher shows the exuberance of industry and invention as well as the developing romantic triangle.  If Fisher trusted his own talents, these scenes would have been classic.

The cast is also strong and help to sell the story in a way that the basic special effects couldn't hope to.  Susan Payton, as an English girl who's been living in America to explain her uneven accent, is a competent actress who manages to make us forget that her career and personal life were already in a terminal dive while Murray and Van Eyssen manage to make enough contrast between their roles that we believe them as friends both divided and united by their love of the same woman.

In the end, Four Sided Triangle is a story of good intentions of well-meaning people leading to tragedy.  The film version lacks the plot twist and irony of the novella, and the ending is clumsier than it should be, but
it's still a bit Hammer history worth the effort of tracking down.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Review: Despicable Me

Despicable Me (2010)

It's hard to believe that there was a time when family films were thought box office poison, animation was virtually a lost art, and doing a voice-over was a sign of terminal career decline.  Today, family films are cranked out by the dozen every year, studios push the envelope of 3D CGI animation technology, and A-list actors lend their voices for eight-figure pay cheques.  Not to mention that the screenwriting and direction are often tauter and better executed than their "adult" counterparts.

I'm more than happy with this renaissance because being the father of an elementary school daughter means that I see a lot of these films; always more than once and often at least 874,965 times.  If it weren't for offerings like Despicable Me, I'd be standing stark naked on the roundabout by now hurling dead squirrels at passing cars.

One of the first modern 3D films to be produced with the technique in mind, Despicable Me is a fairly simple story that fleshes out its straightforward plot with fully formed characters, genuine wit, and nicely framed sight gags.  Felonious Gru is the "despicable me" of the title and despicable he is, though his villainy is generally confined to popping children's balloons, queue cutting at the coffee shop with a freeze ray, and refusing to water his lawn.  He's also a master thief–provided you're as impressed as his strange little "minions" are by his half-inching the Jumbotron from Times Square and the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower... from Las Vegas.  Now Gru has his sights on his greatest prize: the Moon.  Unfortunately, before he can steal it he needs a loan from the bank to build a rocket and to get that he needs to steal back the shrink ray stolen from him by rival villain Vector.  Everyone up to speed?  Good.  To retrieve the shrink ray, Gru hits on the idea of adopting three cute little orphan girls and use them to slip by Vector's defences.   Gru is, of course, a curmudgeon who can't wait to get shot of the kids and the girls are an adorable handful, so you see where this is going.

The script is witty; tight enough to keep things moving, but loose enough to exploit improvisational talents such as Steve Carrell and Russell Brand.  The directors keep things moving along and they also make the clever choice of making Gru a Cold War stainless steel sort of a villain versus Vector, who is pretty much what everyone suspects Bill Gates is like on the weekends.  Despicable Me isn't a demanding film.  There isn't any tear-jerking, musical numbers are mercifully absent, and there aren't any huge set pieces, but it is a nicely contained little story that sews everything up neatly and dramatically at the end.

Hopefully, the producers will go the Pixar route and take this as a sign that no sequel is needed.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Review: Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers; Paul Verhoeven’s semi-satirical take on Robert A. Heinlein’s novel about a future militaristic Earth engaged in a ruthless war with a race of giant homicidal bugs that come under the heading of “icky.”

I remember disliking this film when it came out in 1997. What I didn’t realise was just how much I disliked it and how since 9/11, when real soldiers are fighting real battles, it leaves an even worse taste after revisiting it. I certainly didn’t expect a faithful treatment from Hollywood for Heinlein's book. Hollywood was not going to make a straight pro-war film in the 1990s (or today), so Verhoeven tried to lighten things with some fairly heavy-handed satire and by pointlessly, and unfairly, conflating Heinlein’s militarism with Fascism. He also followed his first instincts as a director and made it an incredibly violent piece. There are times in watching Troopers that you say to yourself “I’ve seen every way a giant bug can kill a man… Oh, there’s another.”

This is one of those sci-fi films that don’t pass the reverse engineering test. That is, if you take out the sci-fi elements, does it still work as a story? The answer is a resounding “no” as the mixture of what passes for a plot feels like a very poor quality ‘50s B-grade war film with every cliché thrown in, the military tactics make Paschendale look like a stroke of genius, and there is a romantic subplot too painful to follow as a cast of too-pretty actors from the depths of the 90210 era go through their paces. You have the feeling that recruits in this army of the future had to submit their head shots along with their medical records and that the first qualification of being a pilot was to look good in riding pants. Worse, for such a stunningly beautiful woman, Denise Richards comes off looking like she’s made out of plasticine every time she smiles. Whenever she flashes that wall of ivory, it’s as if her brain has suddenly disengaged.

"I like potatoes!"
I can’t decide what irritates me most about the film. Sometimes I opted for the satire in the “propaganda” breaks, which are supposed to be funny, but, since it’s a retread of a gimmick already used by Verhoeven in Robocop falls flatter than a day-old waffle. Other times I reserved my ire for a military whose only apparent tactic is to run about in disorganised hordes while trying to hold off swarms of giant killer insects with assault rifles. Then there is the cameo of a general brought on for a moment of cowardly snivelling and plot exposition before being greased by a crashing bug. But then I recall the scene where a character says after a battle, "There aren't any casualties," despite the fact that he's standing in a room jammed to the rafters with bloody men and women missing assorted limbs and overacting for all they're worth. And of course, I have a special place for the action movie logic that demands that sex must be followed quickly by the death of at least one person involved.

Embarrassing precedes disgusting
But I’ve determined that what leaves the worst taste in my mouth is Verhoeven’s attitude toward women in this film, which I find nothing short of sickening. Bowing to modern prejudices, Verhoeven takes women in combat for granted, but given the complications they cause in the story, he makes a good, albeit unintentional, case against the practice. In Verhoeven’s world, future women will be men with breasts who still take time off to be hot-sex machines. Yup, that’s a really likely combination. And watch the eyes roll heavenward as Verhoeven explains with a straight face that the co-ed shower scene wasn’t exploitative. Worse the violence—the casual violence, mind— meted out to women in this film is nothing short of sadistic. When raw recruit Dina Meyers decides that the way to impress her drill sergeant Clancy Brown (a man twice her size!) is to challenge him to single combat, the scene is both butt-clenchingly embarrassing and more than a little disgusting. What sort of Neanderthal would even accept such a challenge; much less jam his knee into the girl’s throat until she passes out? What sort of a director would film such a scene?  That's right: Verhoeven.

Perhaps this is excusable on the grounds that women of the future are made of sterner stuff. Miss Richards certainly demonstrates this, as in the last ten minutes of the film when she has a bug drive a claw the size of a kitchen chair through her shoulder, yet she not only can stay conscious, she can also stand, walk, run, fire an assault rifle, and saunter to a waiting transport while having a casual conversation with her friends. Things like shock and blood loss are apparently a male prerogative.

Is he in this film?
Oh, and our hero's name is Johnny Rico, but he's pretty much an afterthought, so let's get back to the sex and death.

And to think that Verhoeven left out the Power Suits, the only really cool thing in the book, for all that.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Review: Tron Legacy

Tron: Legacy   (2010)

Why do people go to see films that they know they're not going to like?  Why do they go to ones that they know will be loud, overlong, inane, and flat-out boring?  More important, why do they do so by shelling out a premium price for a 3D Imax show just so they can pay for the privilege of wearing silly glasses and getting sick headaches? The only greater mystery is why studios insist on dropping a fortune on overblown remakes to films that were fairly dreadful the first time around.

Such is the case of Tron: Legacy, which I saw the other night.  In my defence, I must point out that I didn't go voluntarily.  I wasn't kidnapped at gunpoint, dumped into the boot of a large American sedan and forced into the cinema.  No, I was there because it was the centrepiece of a Christmas party with some friends and I got voted down on my idea of popping in a DVD of Die Hard.  Instead, I found myself not just at a screening of Tron: Legacy, not only a 3D screening, but a 3D Imax screening, which I presumed would involve a man in the corner throwing oranges at me.

 The original Tron in 1982 wasn't that great a movie.  In fact, it was pretty dreadful.  I was in postgraduate school then where I spent some of my time learning such stone age programming languages as BASIC and FORTRAN.  Tron with its story about a man trapped inside a computer was hard enough for a layman to understand, but if you had any knowledge about how computers actually operate, it was downright confusing.  Granted, it did boast some cutting-edge computer animation, but it hardly made up for the appalling dialogue, the Star Wars-derived plot, and the late-disco colour scheme.  On the plus side, it took its fantasy world seriously enough to remain consistent, but it never took the whole enterprise at all seriously, so I never felt like taking a critical hammer to it. It was '80s fluff and that was that.

Jump to 2010 and we have a belated sequel that is so predictable that five minutes in I knew the entire plot.  It was also so padded and ran so long that the boredom of knowing what was going to happen five minutes ahead of time was now 20 minutes ahead.

The plot?  It hardly bears relating.  Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), our hero from the first film, mysteriously disappears in 1989, leaving his company to his seven-year old son Sam.  Twenty years later, Sam is a poor rich kid who fills his evening dramatically breaking into his own company headquarters and stealing the firm's new operating system so he can post it on the Internet instead of letting his evil executives evilly sell it for evil profits.  Why he doesn't just walk in and ask them to hand over the file instead of base jumping off of his own skyscraper is never explained.

Anyway, the elder Flynn's best friend played by Bruce Boxleitner gets a page from the abandoned video arcade that Flynn used to run.  In a secret office in the arcade Flynn secondus finds a computer that when he boots it up shoots a dirty big laser at his back and blasts a hole in his chest.  I wish.  No, it transports him to the Grid, a virtual computer world that looked as if Flynn primus spent too much time watching Bladerunner on HBO.  There young Flynn discovers that the Grid is ruled by a computer avatar of his father that is bent on world conquest and so Flynn must find his father with the aid of a mysterious beautiful girl who... I can't  go on.  It's a plot that I'd call boilerplate except that's an insult to the creativity of boilerplate writing.

The special effects are very impressive, yes.  They are, however, utterly ineffective.  Scenes that impress for thirty seconds go on for ten minutes and the fact that all of them are just bigger, louder versions of scenes from the first film doesn't help.  Disc battle with glowing rings becomes disc battle with jangly fragments.  Light cycle races become jumping light cycle races. Flying gossamer thingies become flying gossamer thingies.  Big U-shaped things become big U-shaped things with jets.  Wow.

As to characters, I have rarely seen such a waste of space.  Our hero played by Garrett Hedlund is so flat, so lacking in any real motivation that you forget he's there even when he's the only one on screen.  Olivia Wilde is very pretty to look at, but her Chosen One/apprentice/love interest character is so muddled that she comes across as a Goth Princess Leia.  And poor Jeff Bridges, who plays both a surfer Obi Wan and a CGI Darth Vader, is lumbered with a raft of exposition so large that one of our party went to the gents, came back, and hadn't noticed he'd missed a second of the film.  I won't even go into the details of the "Stare in awe at my 'pull my finger!'" moment.

The only bright spot was Michael Sheen playing Joel Gray playing Sidney Greenstreet.  He at least injects some fun into his performance, but it goes on for far too long and in the end he's left with shameless scenery gnawing to kill time.

But the greatest sympathy is for Bruce Boxleitner as the voice of the title character Tron, who has been corrupted into becoming the villain's baddie enforcer in a jumpsuit and racing helmet that made me think, "All we know is, he's not the Stig, but he is the Stig's digital cousin!"  He has almost no lines, jumps about a lot, and has unexplained changes of character that only occur because "it's in the script."

In the end, it's too long, too loud, too slow, and pays too much solemn "homage" (gads, I loathe that world) to a fluffy film from a previous generation that neither asked for nor deserves such a dark, self-concious effort.

The sixpence version:  When a cameo by Daft Punk upstages everyone else, you're in real trouble.

Reposted from Ephemeral Isle.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Green Lantern

I must confess that I've been a big Green Lantern fan since the Gardner Fox days and have been champing at the bit to see if the cinematic version of Hal Jordan (the most misused character in the history of fantasy) will get a decent turn.  If this is anything to go by, I'm hopeful.

According to my daughter's kinetic reaction, it has the eight-year old vote at least.

The Lost World

Sunday, 3 April 2011


Hello, good day, and welcome to the first post of Reel Ranting.  We're just starting, so the style and content are going to take some time to settle down, but if you enjoy cinema (especially the geekier variety), screen writing, MST3K, and eviscerating reviews, then this is the place for you.

So, let's get started.