Tuesday 30 September 2014

Sci-Fi September: Jodorowsky's Dune (2014)

Alejandro Jodorowsky's movie adaptation of Dune is a gorgeous film, full of big names, big ideas, and some of the best visuals that you've ever seen in cinema. It is also unmade, more's the pity. But that hasn't stopped it from being hugely influential, and almost mythic in status, as is shown in this documentary, directed by Frank Pavich.

Focusing on Jodorowsky himself, naturally, this fascinating feature also gains input from Nicolas Winding Refn, Richard Stanley, Michel Seydoux, H. R. Giger, Dan O'Bannon and many others, either in talking head format or thanks to snippets taken from archive material. Some people are discussing their own view on the movie that never was, while many discuss how the pieces were put in place to get the creative talent involved that Jodorowsky felt he needed for his vision.

As bittersweet an experience as any film fan could have, Jodorowsky's Dune is partially about a great movie that studios were too wary of dealing with, partially about the impact it made on the sci-fi genre, despite never being completed, and partially about Jodorowsky's enduring passion for stories and art. Whether he's describing the way in which he wanted every main planet to be scored by a different band, discussing a meeting with Salvador Dali, or showing the book, full of storyboards and designs, that was created to show how the film would be made, he's a man who doesn't seem to have been brought low by the whole experience. There's regret there, of course, but there's also a deserved love of all that stemmed from this one project.

Using the aforementioned book of storyboards and designs, this doc really brings Jodorowsky's vision to life in a way that also highlights the hard work and skill brought to the table by all of the major talent assembled by the director; H. R. Giger, Moebius and Chris Foss being the main artists.

Even if you don't think you're that interested in an unmade version of Dune, even if you're unfamiliar with Jodorowsky (although you SHOULD be), then I still recommend this to all lovers of film. Hearing the man talk of how he wooed Orson Welles, hearing of the training that he put his son (Brontis Jodorowsky) through, and hearing his love for art and artists in almost everything he says makes this a worthwhile viewing. In fact, it's worthwhile simply to hear him say: "I was raping Frank Herbert! But with love.”

And, for anyone still doubting the legacy of this unmade movie by the time the documentary is almost finished, there's a selection of clips from major blockbusters, showing a clear timeline from this one "failure" to a huge number of cinematic successes throughout the years. Help celebrate that fact by allowing this title to share shelf space with the other movies that owe it so much.


Feel free to check out the main website for the film here - http://jodorowskysdune.com/index.html


Monday 29 September 2014

Sci-Fi September: Dune (1984)

I was taken to see Dune when it was first released in cinemas. I was about 8 or 9. My mother and her partner, I assume, thought that this was going to be the next Star Wars. I can't remember every minute of the experience, but I can sum it all up in one word. Boredom.

Revisiting it now, about 30 years later, I can sum it up in two words. Interesting failure. It's still boring in places, but the visual style does keep it worth at least one viewing and there's something enjoyable about watching something so gloriously messy.

I'd attempt to explain the dense plot if I thought I could. Let's face it, the film itself has an opening narration from a young Virginia Madsen that tries to explain a hell of a lot to viewers in the space of a few minutes so I don't think a few sentences here will do any better. Let me just say that the whole movie is a bit like Dallas in space, with a magical spice replacing oil, Kyle MacLachlan as a Bobby Ewing figure (albeit one with the potential to become much more powerful than anyone else around him), and Gordon Sumner (AKA Sting) appears in a metal codpiece at one point, just to haunt your nightmares for years.

I really couldn't begin to run through the entire cast of characters and their relationships to one another. This is one dense film. MacLachlan is the lead, he's the character you get to stick closest to throughout the entire movie. His parents, played by Jurgen Prochnow and Francesca Annis, also play a large part in the proceedings. And then there's a love interest in the shape of Sean Young. The main villain is a boil-covered, rancid Baron, played by Kenneth McMillan (it's worth checking around for other articles that make the case for Dune being one of the most homophobic movies of the decade, based on that character alone).

Adapting the mammoth novel by Frank Herbert would have been no easy task, but David Lynch seemed to think he was up to it. Sadly, he wasn't. He does much better in the role of director, mainly thanks to the impressive visuals of the movie that he allows to take centre stage, but that clunky screenplay is the wobbly foundation that sets this sci-fi house of cards tumbling.

The performances often don't help either, with MacLachlan just not impressive enough in the lead role. He's an actor with a very particular style, one that works in the right roles (Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks spring to mind) and really doesn't in the wrong ones, as we see here. Sting is another weak link, and the least said about Alicia Witt's turn the better, although I don't hold that against her (she was only 9, it was her first movie role, and Lynch seems to have helped in creating the performance he required). McMillan is a lot of fun as the repellent Baron, and there's fun to be had in the performances from great names such as Patrick Stewart, Jose Ferrer, Dean Stockwell, Max Von Sydow, Siân Phillips, and Everett McGill.

There's an enjoyable soundtrack from Toto, with a decent contribution from Brian Eno, some impressive creatures from the great Carlo Rambaldi, and a few darker sequences that hint at a very different approach to the material that Lynch may have been more comfortable with. None of these things, sadly, can make up for the many problems that drag the movie down.

But at least it inspired Fatboy Slim to sample the line: "walk without rhythm, and we won't attract the worm" - allowing me to end with THIS music video



Sunday 28 September 2014

Sci-Fi September: Things To Come (1936)

Directed by William Cameron Menzies, Things To Come is a sci-fi movie that's often forgotten when the major touchstone movies of the genre are discussed, despite being arguably just as important and influential as any other title that you could mention.

Written by H. G. Wells, who adapted his own novel into screenplay form, this is a compressed history of an imagined future. Things to come, of course. It's a film that shows the impact of a long, devastating, world war before going on to show society being rebuilt. People are, however, mistrustful in the aftermath of the war, which makes progress slower than it could be. And there's always the worry that the advancement of the human race will lead to the potential for another war.

Things To Come is a film that I first saw while in my early twenties. My love of film was already established, but not quite to the point that it is now. I would try to watch a variety of genres, try to sample some world cinema, and also try to watch movies from different ages of cinema. But I had to do so with films that would help make the journey as smooth as possible (as opposed to now, when I can happily sit down and watch anything and everything). This was a film that had a reputation for being ahead of its time, for holding up as an interesting piece of work with impressive visual style and design throughout.  That reputation was/is well deserved.

Raymond Massey does well in the nominal lead role, and there are similarly solid performances from Edward Chapman, Ralph Richardson (who plays a character that I guess you could equate with The Governor from The Walking Dead . . . . . . . . sort of), Margaretta Scott, and Cedric Hardwicke, among others.

But, while the performances are all well and good, this isn't a film that you watch mainly for the acting. Made and released in the '30s, this is a movie that seemed to eerily prefigure a few 21st century problems, such as another major war and a powerful individual motivating people to conquer others in possession of valuable fuel. Even the first few minutes of the movie, showing Massey shrugging off talk of an upcoming war as he enjoys time with friends and family, serves as a timely reminder to those watching current world events (from here in the UK we currently watch trouble unfolding in Syria, Russia, Iraq, and the constant tensions that seem to arise from North Korea). Don't forget how far things can go, and just how powerful the technology is nowadays.

Although it doesn't seem as influential today as many other sci-fi movies from the earlier years of cinema, Things To Come certainly remains an experience that should be enjoyed by cinephiles. It shows that science fiction sometimes bleeds into science fact, which is slightly unnerving when you think of how many of these movies show things going horribly wrong for us meddling humans. Of course, that's still not dissuaded the many of us who are impatiently awaiting the day when we can all travel around by either jetpacks or hoverboards.



Saturday 27 September 2014

Sci-Fi September: It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958)

It! The Terror From Beyond Space is a film that I'm often surprised isn't known by more people. Because it is, essentially, the 1950s version for Alien. Seriously, it pretty much provides a template that Dan O'Bannon and Ridley Scott tweaked to perfection to create their seminal sci-fi horror movie.

A spaceship has been sent to Mars, to find out what happened to the crew of a previous spaceship that landed there some time ago. Nine people are dead, and the only survivor (Col. Edward Carruthers, played by Marshall Thompson) immediately becomes the main suspect. He proclaims his innocence, of course, but nobody is willing to believe that some dangerous alien lifeform managed to get on board and kill everyone. Which is unfortunate, because that dangerous alien lifeform has managed to get on board their ship and is once again aiming to kill everyone.

I'm sure that nobody watched this back in 1958 and realised just how influential it would end up becoming, but that's not to say that the film isn't a little gem. I love it, thanks to the great pace and lean plotting, and think that many other fans of sci-fi horror will also find the whole thing immensely entertaining. It is, however, nothing special when you look at the component parts.

Director Edward L. Cahn has an extensive filmography of over 100 films, yet none of them stand out as classics. This one comes the closest, although I am saying that without having seen eany of his other movies, so there's a chance that he's an overlooked talent responsible for many other great movies. Writer Jerome Bixby may be a name more familiar to fans of this fare (having also written some for The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, the story that served as the basis for Fantastic Voyage, and also The Man From Earth), but I doubt he would be a major selling point either.

The cast are all capable enough, with Thompson managing to play his role without overdoing the nerves that his character would be suffering from, and Shirley Patterson, Kim Spalding, Ann Doran, Dabbs Greer, Paul Langton and others onscreen do just fine, despite one or two being underserved by the script.

But this is a creature feature, first and foremost. The main beastie may not be up there with the xenomorph from the film it would influence most, but it's an enjoyably mean, scary suit being worn by performer Ray Corrigan. Not the kind of thing to impress modern cinema audiences, it nonetheless retains a charm and presence that so many computer-generated creations tend to lack in this day and age.

Taken for what it is, this is just a delight. Taken as the film that led to the Alien franchise, it's downright essential viewing, in my opinion.



You know what you can do if you liked this review, or any of the other reviews here at For It Is Man's Number? If you share and share then every additional reader helps. Connect through Google or Blogger or any way you can, and rest easy in the knowledge that you've made little ol' me a very happy man.

And/or you could also buy my e-book, that has almost every review I've written over the past 5 years. It's very reasonably priced for the sheer amount of content.

The UK version can be bought here - http://www.amazon.co.uk/TJs-Ramshackle-Movie-Guide-Reviews-ebook/dp/B00J9PLT6Q/ref=sr_1_3?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1395945647&sr=1-3&keywords=movie+guide

And American folks can buy it here - http://www.amazon.com/TJs-Ramshackle-Movie-Guide-Reviews-ebook/dp/B00J9PLT6Q/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1395945752&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=TJs+ramshackle+mov

As much as I love the rest of the world, I can't keep up with all of the different links in different territories, but trust me when I say that it should be there on your local Amazon.

Friday 26 September 2014

Sci-Fi September: Metropolis (1927)

Metropolis is one of many movies that you can show to someone who doesn't believe that cinema from the early 20th century is worth spending time on. It's black and white, it's a silent film, and it's from Germany. It's also one of the greatest sci-fi movies ever made, and easily remains essential viewing for anyone interested in either the genre, or just cinema in general.

The plot concerns a world in which the fancy lives of those living in brightly-lit tower blocks is made possible by a mass of overworked, tired workers who sweat and toil through shifts that require them to grapple with the machinery keeping everything in order. One young man (Gustav Fröhlich) defies his father (Alfred Abel) and ventures down into the depths to see just what is happening with his own eyes. He witnesses the hardship, and experiences no small amount of physical pain, but he also finds his heart swelling at the sight of a young woman (Maria, played by Brigitte Helm). It soon becomes clear that Maria is a dangerous woman, inspiring many to think of a life other than the one they have become so used to. A plan is hatched to replace her with a robot, a creation that will give the working masses bad advice until they grow to despise her, possibly causing themselves some damage in the process. But will the plan succeed?

Directed by Fritz Lang, who created at least two absolute masterpieces of cinema when he made this and M, I can't stress just how magnificent this movie is. Highly influential, as many of the movies from the German expressionism movement were, and as vital and outright entertaining today as it was when first released, almost 90 years ago. Thea von Harbou (Lang's wife) did the bulk of the work on the script, adapting a novel she wrote expressly to see it made into a film. To make the first feature-length science fiction film may have seemed like a major task, but you wouldn't think that when seeing just how much Lang and Harbou decided to pack into every scene.

It's hard to compare the performances to those that we're used to nowadays. Remember that everything had to be exaggerated in the early days of cinema. The lack of any speech, apart from the written title cards, required everyone to be much more expressive. Yet, although it's a very different style to the natural performances that occupy so many modern movies, everyone deserves praise for a job well done. Helm, in particular, has moments of eye-rolling lunacy, but she has many other times when she conveys a sweetness and purity that makes her position among the workers an easy one to believe in. Fröhlich is a likable lead, Abel does solid work as the father who makes plans that he knows his son would hate, and Rudolf Klein-Rogge is a lot of fun as a stereotypical "mad scientist". Theodor Loos, Fritz Rasp and Erwin Biswanger offer some good support, playing three very different characters who help or hinder Fröhlich in his underground adventure.

Oh well, I'm almost at the end of this review and I look back at what I've just written, only to wince at how futile those paragraphs seem. Read up on the movie elsewhere, and find out from better minds than my own about the history and importance of this movie. Run through a checklist of films that it has influenced, or has been referenced in. Check out various editions of the film, including the version with a soundtrack selection overseen by Giorgio Moroder. I'll be happy if this review has inspired you to give the movie a viewing. But I'll be equally happy if I've simply inspired you to read a bit more about it, browsing until you read something by a better writer who subsequently inspires you to give the movie a viewing.

Ultimately, you owe it to yourself to see this movie.



Thursday 25 September 2014

Sci-Fi September: Silent Running (1972)

One of a handful of movies directed by special effects whizz Doug Trumbull, Silent Running is an impressive, influential sci-fi movie that gives viewers an unlikely eco-friendly message in the outer space setting.

Bruce Dern plays Freeman Lowell, an astronaut who has made it his personal mission to look after the botanical areas on the large spaceship that he's living on. The other crew members don't really care for, or respect, his lifestyle choice, but they leave him to it. Well, that all looks set to change when orders are received to destroy the greenery and head back home. It's an order, unsurprisingly, that Lowell doesn't want to obey. But how far will he go to preserve a small patch of nature?

Written by Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino and Steven Bochco, Silent Running is a very optimistic, almost naive, film for the time in which it was made. That's what makes it such a pleasure to watch, yet also such a chore at times. The motivation of the lead character is a bit hard to stay on board with, but you have to admire the fact that everyone involved with the movie keeps the focus on the perceived purity and nobility of his thinking.

Dern is fantastic as Lowell. He's a sweet, frustrated man, best in the company of silent plants and vegetation than the company of his human colleagues. While Cliff Potts, Jesse Vint and Ron Rifkin all share the screen with him for a while, and give solid performances, the other main characters aren't human at all. They are the robots that Lowell uses to help him in his daily duties - Huey, Louie and Dewey. Okay, people were inside the costumes (casings?) but you'll be thinking of them just as robots for every moment that they're onscreen. They feel like real creations, with just enough personality to make you also care for them.

Trumbull directs capably enough, but there are flaws that you can't help thinking may have been minimised/removed by a more experienced hand on the tiller. Despite running for just under 90 minutes it feels overlong in places. Then there are the soundtrack choices, with a couple of songs performed by Joan Baez taking away from the effectiveness of the visuals by making everything feel ever so hippy dippy in a way far too easily mocked (for those so inclined).

This is sci-fi at its sweetest. It's a film that uses the sterile, cold setting of space to remind people of how valuable the natural resources so abundant on Earth really are. Exploring space is all well and good, but let's also look after our home planet in the meantime. That's the main lesson here. Well, apart from the reminder that Bruce Dern is always well worth watching.


THIS is the disc to get, if you can play it - http://www.amazon.co.uk/Silent-Running-Masters-Cinema-Blu-ray/dp/B005DE1G2Y/ref=sr_1_2?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1411306864&sr=1-2&keywords=silent+running

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Sci-Fi September: 12:01 (1993)

Lazy movie reviewing 101 (not for the first time either) - 12:01 is, essentially, Groundhog Day given a thriller makeover. It also adds an actual explanation for the time loop that the lead character finds himself in, which is one of the plus points in a movie that has a lot of good and bad elements for viewers to deal with.

Jonathan Silverman is Barry Thomas, a fairly insignificant young man who works in an office. He admires the beautiful Lisa Fredericks (Helen Slater) from afar, and does his best to get closer to her throughout the course of one fateful day. That day doesn't end well for Lisa. In fact, it ends really, REALLY badly. Which isn't actually too bad because it turns out that Barry will wake up the next morning and find that it's the previous day all over again. That gives him a chance to get close to Lisa again, figure out what's going on, and stop her day ending so badly. IF he can convince anyone that he's not going completely mad.

Directed by Jack Sholder (you may not recognise his name, but if you're a genre fan then you've probably seen at least one of his movies), this is a potential gem of a movie dragged down by a mixed cast and the fact that it was made for TV. I'm not being unfairly down on TV movies, don't misunderstand me. I'm just pointing out that some TV movies FEEL like TV movies, and this is one of those.

Based on a short story by Richard Lupoff, the script was crafted into its final form by Jonathan Heap and Philip Morton, and it does a decent enough job of quickly setting up the many touchstones that Barry will use to keep track of his time loop. It's just a shame that a number of moments feel, necessarily, a bit rushed and hard to believe. I'm not on about the general premise, but more the way in which Barry engineers his day to get closer to Lisa on a number of occasions.

It doesn't help that Silverman just isn't all that good in the lead role. He's not exactly useless, it's just that he's not that special. His attempts at charm and humour never feel all that charming or amusing, leading to that disbelief I mentioned whenever he gets closer to the woman he's taken such a shine to. Slater has never been that great an actress, from my limited exposure to her work, and continues to stay at a level of decidedly average here. Martin Landau and Jeremy Piven, however, are both on hand to help save the day. They may be playing vastly different characters, but both men help lift up the movie whenever they're onscreen. Nicolas Surovy, Robin Bartlett and Glenn Morshower also do pretty well, although they have much less screentime.

While the film is full of little touches that drag it down, the central premise is enough to keep it above-average. The science, despite being pure hokum (from what I can tell), is sketched out well enough, the pacing is brisk enough, and the third act should please all but the grouchiest of viewers.


Ouch, a bit pricey but here it is - http://www.amazon.com/12-01-Helen-Slater/dp/B000BZN1NM/ref=sr_1_1?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1411246772&sr=1-1&keywords=12+01

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Sci-Fi September: Electric Dreams (1984)

Ahhhhhhhhhh, Electric Dreams, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

If this movie was any more '80s then it would be delivered to every household with a set of deelyboppers, a SodaStream machine, and some legwarmers. The focus of the story is that technological wonder, a household PC, there's a small role for Maxwell Caulfield, the soundtrack features Culture Club and Phil Oakey, and Virginia Madsen has that whole '80s look working against her - as everyone else in the '80s did.

The plot is quite simple, and also quite beautiful once you get past all of the cheesy trappings. A young man (Lenny von Dohlen) gets a home PC and starts setting it up to improve his life. He does this by becoming a technical whizz in mere moments, despite knowing very little about the latest technology at the start of the movie, and then manages to balls it all up by spilling some liquid all over his new toy. The PC isn't destroyed, but it is changed. It's now different from other computers. It's more advanced, and also more curious about emotions, and even love. The fact that the new neighbour (Madsen) is an attractive young woman who plays the cello, resulting in a fantastic musical moment mixing the classical sound with a synthesised accompaniment, results in the computer getting some ideas way above its station. Well, you don't always act rationally when you're in love.

Written by the brilliantly-named Rusty Lemorande and directed by Steve Barron, this is a film that sacrifices any sense of reality in favour of movie magic. The fact that it makes this clear from almost the very beginning, probably at the time when the lead character becomes a PC expert in seconds, means that viewers can decide whether to go along with it or not. I went along with it, and am glad I did. There's plenty I could pick apart here, but it's a film that I've always had a soft spot for. Perhaps it's because I saw it back when it was first released, and will therefore always have some nostalgic affection for it, but there's enough fun to be had for those in the mood for light entertainment.

Von Dohlen isn't an ideal leading man, but he has moments when his bumbling schtick works well enough. Madsen, on the other hand, shows that she always had that star quality. She's very easy to like, and even manages to keep viewers onside as things get more and more unbelievable. Caulfield puts in another wonderful little turn, despite the fact that he's underused, and fans of Miriam Margolyes will not want to blink if they want to see her in the role of "Ticket Girl". And the main voice of the computer? It's Bud Cort. Bonus points.

As well as those artists already mentioned in the paragraph above, fans of electronic music will be delighted to hear that Giorgio Moroder contributes a few pieces to the soundtrack. The highlight is a scene that I've already mentioned, but there are other moments to tickle the eardrums of his many fans.

Think of it as a time capsule from the decade that taste forgot. Or think of it as an oft-forgotten forerunner to Her. But do think of it when deciding upon what to watch some time, even if it's just the once.


With amazing special features like, ummmm, interactive menu and scene access, Region 2 is your only option at the moment - http://www.amazon.co.uk/Electric-Dreams-DVD-Virginia-Madsen/dp/B001QXZ81G/ref=sr_1_1?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1411246123&sr=1-1&keywords=electric+dreams

Monday 22 September 2014

Sci-Fi September: RoboCop (2014)

Despite my love for the original movie, and my worry at the sanitisation of the material in an attempt to reach a wider audience, I was willing to give this new version of RoboCop a shot, I really was. Let's be honest, despite the intense violence of the original movie, the main character was eventually watered down and repackaged for kids anyway, in everything from TV shows to action figures to computer games. Yes, I have fond memories of that side-scrolling shooter that I played on my chunky little ZX Spectrum, and I'm sure many others of my generation have similar recollections.

Anyway, here's the thing, RoboCop starts off quite well. It's taking a different tack from the original movie, deciding to focus more on the idea of free will than the struggle between man and machine parts, although that also plays a big part in the film. Joel Kinnaman is the main character, Officer Murphy. He is seriously injured when he gets too close to some major criminals, and OCP gain permission from his wife (Abbie Cornish) to give him a second chance to live, albeit in a robotic shell that will house the small remains of his organic body. Gary Oldman is the doctor in charge of the project, Michael Keaton is the man looking for a return on his invested money, and Jackie Earle Haley simply seems intent on appearing in as many piss-poor remakes as possible.

Jose Padilha is a great director, he has some titles that are well worth checking out, but I won't list his filmography here. Unfortunately, you wouldn't know that from his work here. He's saddled with a lame script by Joshua Zetumer, Edward Neumeier, and Michael Miner, but that's not really an excuse for how badly he starts to fumble and drop the ball after the first 20-30 minutes. A sequence showing RoboCop going through an evaluation test, accompanied by a Focus song, Hocus Pocus, holds up as the first major low. It's bloodless, unexciting, messy, and far too similar to just watching a videogame, albeit one far more advanced than my ZX Spectrum games. And most of the scenes that come along afterwards just stick to that level.

Kinnaman is far too bland in the lead role, unfortunately, and Cornish is stuck with the same motivation for 80% of the movie - to get near her husband and feel that he's still the man she knew and loved for so long. Thankfully, there are other performances that help to make the whole thing bearable. Samuel L. Jackson is a lot of fun as an opinionated TV presenter, Jay Baruchel is enjoyable in a small role, and Haley actually does his best with the character he's given. But it's Keaton and Oldman who are the undoubted highlights, with the former able to rise above shallow characterisation simply thanks to his natural charisma, and the latter benefitting from the fact that he has the best character in the whole film. He may do what he's told by Keaton, but it's always clear that he struggles with his own urge to help his fellow man.

As everything meanders to an unexciting, and entirely predictable, finale it's all too easy to start agreeing with the many people who cursed the movie before it was even released. Many expected the worst, due to the rating and redesign of the central character. They got it. We all got it. This is a stinker. So bad that I wouldn't even recommend buying it for a dollar.



Sunday 21 September 2014

Sci-Fi September: Blade Runner (1982)

It's maybe not best for me to start my review of Blade Runner by declaring that I don't think it's a perfect movie, and don't rate it as the best sci-fi movie of all time. It's probably worse to declare that it MIGHT not even make my personal Top 10 Sci-Fi Movie list. It might, but it might not. Yet that doesn't stop me from praising the film as an amazing piece of cinema. It immerses viewers in a world that feels so realistic you can almost feel the near-constant rain dripping on your head.

Harrison Ford stars as Rick Deckard, a blade runner who must find and execute four runaway replicants. Replicants are humanoid robots, with some of the latest models being so advanced that they're getting harder and harder to differentiate from real people. The nominal leader of these runaways is Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), a replicant who has spent a lot of time considering his life and what he has been privileged to see throughout the universe. The movie focuses on Deckard as he does his detective work, yet it also allows plenty of time for all of the main characters to ponder just what makes humans so unique in their efforts to live a long, fruitful life.

Based on a novel by Philip K. Dick (entitled "Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?"), this is sci-fi used in a way to look at our own humanity. In a world in which humans can, essentially, be built, it looks at what, if any, differences there are between life and artificial life. The script, written mainly by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, spends as much time piecing together the motivations and fears of the various central characters as it does on the standard detective aspect of the tale.

The fact that all of these ideas and moments are set in a world so detailed and realistic is due, in no small part, to director Ridley Scott, who seemed intent on delivering a cerebral, beautiful, modern classic to cinema audiences. The visuals are often sublime, the soundtrack (famously created by Vangelis) is a delight for the ears, and the central performances don't ever give any sign of the famous troubles that plagued the production; let's just say that it was a baptism by fire for Scott working on his first major American operation.

Ford is great in yet another iconic role, and he must look back on his career as one amazing stroke of good luck after another, considering how many movies that he starred in didn't seem destined for greatness. He's suitably world-weary, cynical, and also able to empathise with anyone who just wants left alone to live their life in peace. Hauer may have a lot less screentime, but he makes a lasting impression, mainly thanks to his last scene opposite Ford. Sean Young also makes a lasting impression, playing Rachael, a young woman who doesn't realise exactly what her background is. Brion James, Joanna Cassidy, and Daryl Hannah all do well as the other replicants on the loose, M. Emmet Walsh has an enjoyable small role, and Edward James Olmos breathes down Harrison Ford's neck at the most inconvenient moments. There's also a superb, moving performance from William Sanderson (the second-best in the movie, behind Hauer), playing a "toymaker" who seems to empathise more than most with the creations that he's had a very small role in helping to build.

Books have been written about Blade Runner. Well, if they haven't then they should be (but I'm pretty sure they have). It's layered, it's full of many wonderful little touches, the tech on display feels very grounded in reality, it ruminates on science and the possibility of human souls by finely mixing the two, and much more. My main problem with it, the only reason that I don't rate it as the perfect sci-fi movie so many others see, is that there are scenes that bring the whole thing grinding to a halt. Scenes that feel unnecessary in the grand scheme of things, especially when they get in the way of the momentum that is being built by the strong central strand. Of course, the fact that there are (at least) five different versions of the movie to choose from nowadays probably serves as a reminder of just how many options Scott made available to himself as he tried to capture what he'd envisioned in his mind.

Despite not quite rating it as highly as other fans, I still recommend that everyone gives this a viewing at least once. It's iconic, it's cool, and it's almost fully deserving of the reputation it has.



You know what you can do if you liked this review, or any of the other reviews here at For It Is Man's Number? If you share and share then every additional reader helps. Connect through Google or Blogger or any way you can, and rest easy in the knowledge that you've made little ol' me a very happy man.

And/or you could also buy my e-book, that has almost every review I've written over the past 5 years. It's very reasonably priced for the sheer amount of content.

The UK version can be bought here - http://www.amazon.co.uk/TJs-Ramshackle-Movie-Guide-Reviews-ebook/dp/B00J9PLT6Q/ref=sr_1_3?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1395945647&sr=1-3&keywords=movie+guide

And American folks can buy it here - http://www.amazon.com/TJs-Ramshackle-Movie-Guide-Reviews-ebook/dp/B00J9PLT6Q/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1395945752&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=TJs+ramshackle+mov

As much as I love the rest of the world, I can't keep up with all of the different links in different territories, but trust me when I say that it should be there on your local Amazon.

Saturday 20 September 2014

Sci-Fi September: Runaway (1984)

Michael Crichton was, from my limited exposure to his work, quite a brilliant mind. As a writer, he developed stories around core ideas that would predate their implementation and/or development in our real world. In the world of sci-fi, I'd mark him out as being just as prescient as any other leading name that you could throw in to the hat. He may have been simply competent as a director, but I think that was more a case of the tech never really being up to the speed of his visionary imagination. As is the case with Runaway.

Tom Selleck is a cop in the near future who specialises in dealing with runaway robots. It's such a big problem, for example, that he's flown by helicopter just to deal with a runaway farming robot that is not doing anyone any immediate harm. Selleck inhabits a world in which his priorities are his son (Joey Cramer), his job, and the need to mention his vertigo in a way that allows viewers to figure out where the finale might head. He's just been given a new partner (Cynthia Rhodes) in time to deal with a disturbing case - there's a bad man (Gene Simmons) trying to fit all robots with implants that would allow them to break their programming and kill lots of people.

Slightly hampered by the special effects available at the time, and also the fact that it's often hard to get all excited about, Runaway remains a lot of fun, despite the obvious flaws. It has robo-spiders, bullets that can trace individual targets, and Tom Selleck being his usual, charming self.

A number of scenes feel a bit flat, with Crichton highlighting the fact that he's a solid, not great, director. He can't do enough to liven up the moments that surround the few set-pieces, with domestic situations and the standard police procedural stuff making up the majority of the runtime.

The cast do their best with their characters. Selleck gets by simply by being his usual Selleck-ness, which has been good enough in pretty much anything he's ever done. Rhodes is a decent partner for him, Cramer is an acceptable cinematic moppet, and Stan Shaw and G. W. Bailey lend decent support in the police station environment. Kirstie Alley also makes a good impression, as a potential victim that the police (well, Selleck and Rhodes) are trying to keep alive. Simmons, on the other hand, is pretty awful, but he's awful in such an entertaining, over the top, way that it works for a villainous performance.

Very much a product of its time, I'll always have a soft spot for Runaway because I saw it at a young age, an age when I thought tracker bullets and robo-spiders were the coolest things ever. Admittedly, I've not matured much beyond that stage, so that may explain my enduring affection for the film. Or it might just remain an enjoyable slice of robo-hokum. Watch and decide for yourself.



Friday 19 September 2014

Sci-Fi September: Alien Abduction (2014)

A found footage, sci-fi horror movie about, funnily enough, alien abduction, this is a film with one or two decent touches, marred by poor execution and a reliance on jump scares. It's also another one of those found footage movies that just uses the real names of most of the cast, allowing them all to avoid actually remembering the character that they're playing. The fact that it pales in comparison to Alien Abduction: Incident In Lake County, a movie released over 15 years before this one, speaks volumes.

Riley Polanski plays young Riley, a boy who keeps a videocamera running at all times. He's autistic, with the constant recording helping him to deal with the world around him. And that's why he keeps recording throughout their vacation, even when his family (father, mother, older brother and sister) has a frighteningly close encounter with some aliens. The aliens pursue the family, and continue to do so for the rest of the movie.

Directed by Matty Beckerman, Alien Abduction had potential to be something impressively scary. The first encounter with the aliens is unnerving and disorientating, but every major encounter after that just becomes reliant on the same mix of loud noises and bright lights, with further disorientation caused by the jittery camerawork, as opposed to the craziness of the situation. Those who dislike shaky-cam should probably stay away from this.

The script, by Robert Lewis, is pretty weak. Characterisations are poor, the second half of the movie is far too repetitive, and some moments will make viewers roll their eyes so hard that they'll end up looking at the back of their own skull (yes, there's even a horrible scene that's reminiscent of the most famous moment in The Blair Witch Project).

If the direction and writing are both weak, at least both are consistent. The central performances are all over the place. Jeff Bowser is at least a fun addition to the cast when he appears, playing a local resident who ends up helping the family, and Jillian Clare does a decent enough job as Riley's older sister, but the performances from Katherine Sigismund and Corey Eid are pretty poor. Peter Holden, who plays the father, isn't that great either, although anyone seems better when placed in a scene beside the godawful Riley. I'm not going to go on and on about his awfulness, he's young and has time to get better if he wishes to continue a career in acting, but it's bad enough to bring the movie down a further notch or two.

This isn't a film I can recommend. The stupidity and irritations start to build up within the first few scenes, and continue to pile up until the end credits roll. You'd be better off watching the night sky for strange lights.



Thursday 18 September 2014

Sci-Fi September: The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

One of my favourite sci-fi movies of all time, The Day The Earth Stood Still is a film that I have loved ever since discovering it when I was still a young boy. Watching it as an adult, it seems strange to me that I liked it so much in my youth. Not because the film is bad, oh no, but because it doesn't have the usual mix of easy distractions that would have appealed to the younger me. This is a film paced perfectly for people thinking about how they would react to the situation being depicted, yet it still manages to entertain while providing plenty of food for thought.

Michael Rennie plays Klaatu, a spaceman who pays a visit to Earth one day. Not a sneaky, undercover visit, but one that's hard to miss. He lands his spaceship, walks out with his trusty robot (Gort) beside him, and announces his plans to meet with the major leaders of the world. After some initial nervousness from the main people that he speaks to, Klaatu decides to go incognito for a while, getting himself lodgings while he sets out to find one of the more intelligent human beings on the planet (Professor Jacob Barnhardt, played by Sam Jaffe). And he also has to figure out how to make a statement to the world that will display some awesome power without being viewed as an act of aggression.

Directed by Robert Wise, a man responsible for a number of classic movies in a number of different genres, this remains both a prime example of standard sci-fi from the 1950s and also something quite unique. It has a flying saucer, a big robot, and even the essential "take me to your leader" request from the main alien. Yet it also has a main alien who is completely humanoid in appearance, and also coming to see us in peace, and there's a lack of any tension and/or sheer terror that would appear in so many other outings from this decade.

Michael Rennie may not be the most charismatic leading man, but he's pretty perfect for this role. Slightly cold, just a little bit stiff in his delivery, but completely non-threatening to anyone he encounters, he really anchors the whole movie. Patricia Neal is a pleasant female lead, and Billy Gray is lively and entertaining (in the role of her son, a young boy who helps Klaatu find his way around). Jaffe plays Professor Barnhardt exactly as a professor should be played, and is another highlight in a film packed full of them.

Based on a story by Harry Bates, the script by Edmund H. North allows everything to move along briskly without ever feeling as if it omits anything for the sake of patronising viewers. Of course, Gort has become a bit of an icon, a favoured creation among lovers of the genre, but he doesn't feel as if he's there JUST to widen the appeal of the material (although maybe that's exactly why he was there - I've not read the original short story so can't say).

Last, I just have to mention the great score by Bernard Herrmann (especially as I was guilty of forgetting to compliment the fantastic, electronic score in Forbidden Planet - by Louis and Bebe Barron). Herrmann makes some great use of theremins in his wonderful score, a unique instrument that seems designed particularly for use in sci-fi movies, and the whole thing is a treat for fans of great soundtracks.

All of these words written about one of my favourite movies when all I really should have said was: absolute classic.



Wednesday 17 September 2014

Sci-Fi September: Riddick (2013)

Mixing the expanded ideas of the second movie with the smaller focus of the first movie, Riddick is a bit of a muddle film that doesn't seem to know exactly what it wants, leaving it as the weakest of the Riddick films so far.

Vin Diesel returns to play the main character, this time left for dead on a hostile planet after a series of events that are eventually explained in flashback. He needs to shake off the cloak of civility that he allowed himself to wear for too long, he needs to heal, and he needs to figure out a way off the planet. Inviting some bounty hunters along seems like a good idea. They'll want the price still on his head, affording him the opportunity to steal a ship and make good his escape.

Written and directed by David Twohy, who has worked closely with Diesel to keep this franchise on the right track from the very beginning, there are a lot of moments here that are fun for fans of the character. Seeing him wait for the bounty hunters to arrive, and watching his plan unfold, provides plenty of potential, but it's a shame that the movie then starts to seemingly wind down when it should be building towards some kind of impressive finale.

Diesel is great, once again, in the lead role. He loves the character, and always does well by him. Matt Nable does well with the most interesting supporting character, Jordi Molla is stuck with one cliche piled on top of another, Katee Sackhoff is in the mix to please her fans, Dave Bautista and Bokeem Woodbine both do solid work, and Karl Urban returns in a cameo role that allows the series to maintain a nice line of continuity.

The main problem lies with the script, which is repetitive, unmemorable, and overlong. It takes almost half an hour just to get to the more entertaining aspect of the plot, with the first quarter of the movie proving to be quite a chore to get through.

Then there are the special effects, which are a step down from the second movie. In fact, they also feel like a step down from the first movie. That's due to the fact that some of the insert shots are as unnecessary as they are unrealistic. It feels like a child showing off his new toy while everyone around him realises that Santa gave him the cheap, knock-off version of a popular brand.

Last, but not least, is the general issue with the pacing. I mentioned the first quarter being a chore, but the rest of the film also feels less entertaining than it could be, simply because so many moments are dragged out, or wedged in between other scenes that feel as if they should have been edited out completely.

We'll have to wait and see what lies in store next for Riddick, but I'll be very surprised if the next movie (if there IS a next movie) isn't an improvement on this one.



Tuesday 16 September 2014

Sci-Fi September: Battle Beyond The Stars (1980)

It's hard to view Richard Thomas as anything other than the nice lad from The Waltons. He's had some other good roles, including a goodie in the beloved IT, but he's often simply noted for his niceness, which quickly becomes quite bland and ever-so-slightly irritating.

In this movie he's yet another nice guy, a young man sent out by his planet to recruit help after they have been threatened with destruction by big, bad Sador (John Saxon). Thomas picks up some allies, including a space cowboy (George Peppard), a cool loner (Robert Vaughn), and a bonkers Sybil Danning kinda gal (Sybil Danning), and then takes them home. There are seven ships altogether, ready to take on a much bigger selection of enemies.

Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami, and written by John Sayles, Battle Beyond The Stars is a sci-fi riff on Seven Samurai, the classic movie that inspired films as varied as The Magnificent Seven and A Bug's Life. Unfortunately, it misses out on the main element that all of those movies have. Despite a few plus points, Battle Beyond The Stars isn't ever as much fun as it should be. This is probably due to a disappointingly flat script by Sayles, and direction from Murakami that's workmanlike, at best. Some lively performances, and a good score by James Horner, help.

The first paragraph covers my thoughts of Thomas this time around. He's just not a great lead, especially when compared to the supporting cast. Vaughn is enjoyably cool, Peppard is a blast, and Danning puts in another wild performance that has made her a firm fan favourite through the years. Saxon hams it up as the villain, while Darlanne Fluegel is stuck with a character as bland and nice as the one played by Thomas. There are others onscreen, but they either barely register or are covered in prosthetics (Morgan Woodward) to make them pretty unrecognisable.

The pacing isn't too bad, and the special effects are okay for the time and budget (but don't expect them to have held up well over the years), so it manages to avoid being a bad movie. It's just a shame that it also manages to avoid being a very good one. During the many moments without Peppard, Vaughn or Danning, the whole thing just starts to sink when it should be easily soaring from one set-piece to the next.

I'm sure that people who saw this back in the early '80s will always have fond memories of it. We've all got films like that. But even those who have great affection for it will, I think, struggle to overlook all of the flaws when revisiting it today. They'll like it more than I did, but I doubt it will appear on any Top 10 lists.



Monday 15 September 2014

Sci-Fi September: The Running Man (1987)

Based on a novella written by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman at the time), The Running Man may be a few sidesteps too far from the original material for literary purists, but it's a whole heap of fun, thanks to the fact that the premise was retooled into a star vehicle for action icon Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Directed by Paul Michael Glaser (who will, for many of us, always be Starsky from Starsky & Hutch), the plot concerns a wrongly-convicted Arnie (playing Ben Richards) being given the chance to appear on hit TV show, The Running Man. Of course, he's not really got any say in the matter. The host of the show (Damon Killian, played by Richard Dawson) will do anything for even higher ratings, and it soon becomes clear that the show has no winners, thanks to the way that footage is manipulated, contestants are smeared, and lies upon lies are spoonfed to the ever-hungry audience. Oh, and the aim of the show? Avoid death by avoiding the armed stalkers who are sent in after the contestants.

It may be lesser fare when compared to the other big sci-fi movies starring Arnie, but The Running Man has a lot to recommend it. The script, by Steven E. de. Souza, focuses on media manipulation and how it can be used to control society, but it's equally just about Arnie fighting big meanies and then throwing out his usual one-liners.

The direction from Glaser is fine, with the visuals accompanied by another great soundtrack by Harold Faltermeyer (the man best known for creating the Axel F theme for Beverly Hills Cop). He sets up everything briskly, and the visuals reflect the featured game show, with everything shiny and new on the surface, yet slightly grubby and cheap when the main characters see behind the scenes.

Arnie is still in his Arnold Prime phase here, and absolutely brilliant. Dawson, well-known as a popular TV host in America, does an excellent job of subverting his polished, showbiz persona. Maria Conchita Alonso is fine as a young woman who doesn't believe in the innocence of Ben Richards, until some things just don't add up, and there are supporting roles for names as varied as Yaphet Kotto, Kurt Fuller, Jesse Ventura, Marvin J. McIntyre, Jim Brown, Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa. Yes, you read those last two names correctly. They both have minor roles in this movie.

It feels slightly dated nowadays, and was never really built to hold up over the years as an enduring classic, but The Running Man also manages to overcome that aspect, thanks to both the sheer entertainment factor and the fact that the look at media manipulation is even more relevant than it was back in the late '80s. In a world stuffed full of Big Brother, Britain's Got Talent, and so many other "reality" shows, it's good to remember that it's all done with editing.



Sunday 14 September 2014

Sci-Fi September: Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978)

There are lots of people who love Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. They will tell you that it's one of the best remakes ever. I am not one of those people, although I DO really like the film.

Taking the classic plot, adapted from the book by Jack Finney, this interpretation of the material stars Brooke Adams and Donald Sutherland as the two main humans who stumble upon a subtle alien invasion. People are being copied, with bodies born and developed while the original human being sleeps, and the only indication that anything is majorly different comes from a lack of emotion. Can these two people, accompanied by some scared friends, inform the general public and put a stop to everything before it's too late? Or will they witness the development of a very different kind of i-Pod generation?

Directed by Philip Kaufman, there's no denying that this version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers mixes the familiar elements of the plot with a number of touches that cement it firmly in the time it was made, the late '70s. Paranoia and cynicism were both running rife at this point. It was, in many ways, similar to the atmosphere of the '50s, which is probably why both versions work so well as two movies that are the same but different (if you know what I mean).

The screenplay by W. D. Richter doesn't waste much time, and builds everything beautifully towards a tense finale. Details are sprinkled liberally throughout every major scene that shows just how the invasion is supposed to move forward, and the science of the process feels much more scarily realistic, and visceral, than it did in the original movie. It's just a shame, however, that a lot seems to happen in such a short space of time, making the third act something of a foregone conclusion once viewers see the rapid exponential growth of the problem.

Adams and Sutherland are both excellent in their lead roles, with both offering believable performances as they stumble upon one oddity after another and eventually piece everything together. They're joined, for part of the movie, by Veronica Cartwright and Jeff Goldblum, who also do some great work. And then there's Leonard Nimoy, a suitable inclusion for two main reasons. One, he's a sci-fi icon. Two, he's best known for playing a character who doesn't show any emotion, making his role both ironic and nicely ambiguous (because it's hard to watch Nimoy onscreen and not still think of him as Spock, a character he will always be so thoroughly intertwined with). Art Hindle plays Adams' husband, and does solid work with his relatively small role.

While the special effects may not be up there with the likes of The Thing, The Fly and other great sci-fi horrors that would appear in the next decade, they're quite impressive. Used sparingly, the practical work is as life-like as it needs to be, without ever being given too much time in the spotlight. This isn't an FX showcase - they serve the story, and that's all (although, for those who have already seen it, there's one detail in the final half hour that remains one of the most enjoyably bizarre ever included in any version of the material).

There's so much to like here that I feel slightly guilty for not liking it quite as much as most sci-fi horror fans. Hell, the Kevin McCarthy cameo alone gives it a bonus point. Yet I just can't help yearning for the simpler, more streamlined execution of the story that we got with the original version. This film doesn't necessarily feel bloated, but the layering added throughout detracts slightly from the beautiful simplicity of the core premise.

Already enjoyed by so many, be sure to give this one a watch if you've missed it up until now. Or people may point at you and make strange noises.



Although anyone with multi-region capabilities should really go with the Arrow Bluray release.

You know what you can do if you liked this review, or any of the other reviews here at For It Is Man's Number? Yes, you can buy my e-book, that has almost every review I've written over the past 5 years. It's packed full of gems (the movies, not the actual writing - hey, I know my limits) and very reasonably priced for the sheer amount of content.

The UK version can be bought here - http://www.amazon.co.uk/TJs-Ramshackle-Movie-Guide-Reviews-ebook/dp/B00J9PLT6Q/ref=sr_1_3?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1395945647&sr=1-3&keywords=movie+guide

And American folks can buy it here - http://www.amazon.com/TJs-Ramshackle-Movie-Guide-Reviews-ebook/dp/B00J9PLT6Q/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1395945752&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=TJs+ramshackle+mov

As much as I love the rest of the world, I can't keep up with all of the different links in different territories, but trust me when I say that it should be there on your local Amazon.

Saturday 13 September 2014

Sci-Fi September: Enemy Mine (1985)

Some movies have production problems that lead to them never being completed. Some movies have production problems that lead to them being completed, leading to audiences often wishing that they hadn't been completed. And some, although it's a very small amount, have production problems and come out the other end as a great film that more people should have some fondness for. Enemy Mine falls into the last category.

Dennis Quaid and, a pretty unrecognisable, Louis Gosset Jr. star as, respectively, a human named Willis Davidge and an alien named Jeriba. The two crash land on a planet after chasing one another through space in a dogfight. Because they're enemies, you see. Hence the name.

Using the sci-fi trappings to tell a story steeped in familiarity - adversaries having to work together to survive - Enemy Mine could have easily been transformed into a Western, a crime movie, or any other number of genre choices. There's certainly enough here to make it a great movie, but I'm not sure if those wanting more tech and shiny sci-fi gubbins will come away without at least a small amount of disappointment.

Wolfgang Petersen is the man who ended up in the director's chair, after Richard Loncraine was fired, and he does his usual good work. The film may move at a rather sedate pace, after the narration setting up the universe, and the opening scenes, there's about an hour just focusing on Davidge and Jeriba, but that's no bad thing when the characterisations are so good.

The rapport between Quaid and Gossett Jr. is fantastic, lifting the film to much greater heights than expected. The film is a two-hander, for the most part, and both men make it work perfectly. When others do pop up, even the mighty Brion James, they don't make much of an impression, simply because viewers want to enjoy more time with either of the two leads.

Based on a story by Barry Longyear, the script by Edward Khmara does what needs to be done before revelling in the fun stuff - the bickering between the two main characters. There isn't THAT much depth to either character, yet that's an easy flaw to overlook while enjoying the rest of the film.

Unsurprisingly, considering the troubled production that sent the budget up and up, and the fact that it was deemed "a hard sell", Enemy Mine didn't fare well at the box office when it was released. On the one hand, that's a great shame because it deserved to find a receptive audience. On the other hand, that's not the worst thing to happen because it's now one of those films that people who really like can claim for themselves. I know that's how I view it now, and I'm happy whenever I find other fans of the film praising it (either online or off).



Friday 12 September 2014

Sci-Fi September: Transcendence (2014)

Most people will tell you that Transcendence stinks like a sweaty gym bag that has been dumped in a closet and not cleaned out for months. It's drawn comparisons to The Lawnmower Man (okay, I made that comparison, but I think others also did it) and Max Headroom, and most of those comparisons haven't been too kind. But I enjoyed it. I didn't love it, but it was certainly better than I was expecting.

The plot is pretty simple. Johnny Depp plays master computer egghead Will Caster. When Will is hospitalised, and diagnosed to be dying, he decides that the time has come to overcome the problem of developing computers with self-awareness by inputting himself into the system. When his body dies, he will live on. His wife (Evelyn, played by Rebecca Hall) is very happy with this, but a couple of colleagues (Morgan Freeman and Paul Bettany) are highly disturbed. And perhaps they should be. Because Will in computer form may not actually be Will, but rather a facsimile of him to cover for a computer that can take over the world.

A first time in the director's seat for Wally Pfister (probably best known for his cinematography in the movies of Christopher Nolan) and a first time getting script to screen for Jack Paglen, it would be easy to put the failings of Transcendence down to the fact that the two men didn't have the right experience in their relevant fields. Yet, that just doesn't seem to be the case. The script is far from the best, but it tries to keep things on point while weaving through the plot developments. This is not a film about cool sci-fi stuff and supercomputers. Well, it IS that, but it's more concerned with the moral responsibility that comes with that potential ability to access anywhere, and anything, in the entire world. Pfister may let down anyone who comes looking for a decent set-piece of two, although he doesn't do too badly at all in the big chair.

Depp is okay in the main role, I guess, even if he seems to be phoning it in (no pun intended). It's the rest of the cast who carry the film, which is probably as it should be. Hall is very good as a loving wife adjusting to a new way of life, Freeman does the same kind of thing that he's been doing for a good few years now, and Bettany is able to remind viewers that he's always worth watching, even when not voicing robo-butlers in Marvel movies. Clifton Collins Jr. does well in a relatively small role, Kate Mara is alright as a main player in a group opposed to the growth of modern technology, Cillian Murphy is sadly underused as a cop, and Cole Hauser pops in during the final third to be his usual bundle of awesomeness.

More a mix of Eagle Eye and Lucy than either of the two films mentioned in the opening paragraph, Transcendence may not be to everyone's liking but it at least sticks to its main remit for the duration - which is about two hours. It's serious fare handled with a lightness of touch, although it's also a pretty humour-free experience, and should find one or two extra fans now that it's away from the cinemas and in the home entertainment market.

Never a film for those seeking big thrills or explosions, this focuses on one or two big ideas. Not anything new or perfect, by any means, but I'd tentatively recommend it as something worth watching once. You may hate it. You may end up liking it more than I did.



Thursday 11 September 2014

Sci-Fi September: The Chronicles Of Riddick (2004)

After the small acorn that was Pitch Black, this sequel, in what would become the Riddick franchise, quickly lets viewers see that they're being given a mighty oak this time around. The first few scenes are grandiose, in terms of both visual style and the setting up of a premise that will allow people to learn more about the universe that vicious anti-hero Riddick (Vin Diesel) inhabits, and writer-director David Twohy clearly wants to go in a different direction from the enjoyably down 'n' dirty first film.

Starting off with narration that explains the Necromongers, a ruthless race who have been moving throughout the universe, killing or converting everyone on the planets that they conquer. We then move on to a man being chased by bounty hunters. That man is Riddick, and the bounty has been placed on his head to get him back to Helion Prime, the world next to be targeted by the Necromongers. It's not Riddick's fight, so he wants no part of the whole thing, but details eventually surface that make him reconsider. Details that also reveal more about his background and his feral nature.

With everything being so much bigger this time around, it was almost inevitable that The Chronicles Of Riddick would disappoint many people. It didn't set alight the box office, and it probably knocked a few people sideways who hoped for something more in line with the first film. Thankfully, people eventually warmed to the film, and the whole franchise idea, when they had the luxury of viewing the movie in their own home, and with a better idea of what they were getting into.

Diesel is, once again, the rock at the centre of the whole thing. He's effortlessly cool and intimidating as Riddick, embodying one of the great anti-heroes in modern cinema and loving every minute of it. Keith David reprises his role from Pitch Black, while Alexa Davalos takes over the role of another survivor from the first film, now going by the name Kyra. David is okay, mainly used for exposition and to set wheels in motion, but Davalos has the better role, and does well with it. Dame Judi Dench is an unexpected, though pleasing, addition to the cast, playing an ethereal character named Aereon, and the main villains are portrayed by Colm Feore, Karl Urban, Linus Roache and Thandie Newton. Urban and Roache both do good work, with the former being an actor who I've never seen give a bad performance, but Newton is sadly flat in a role that many actresses would have really had fun with. Feore, however, proves even more disappointing. He's the Lord Marshal, the big bad, and should be able to emanate power and menace whenever he's onscreen. He doesn't, which affects the film on a number of different occasions.

The script and direction from Twohy is solid, if sprinkled liberally with minor failings, such as the relatively weak villains. The special effects and visual design elements are impressive, despite a few key creations already showing their age compared to what can be done now, one decade on. The action set-pieces are sometimes fumbled, with some unfortunate over-editing making it hard to keep track of who is where onscreen, but the film continues to impress whenever the camera moves back, taking in grand landscapes, star systems, and giant spaceships. The fact that the focus remains on the expansive, as opposed to intimate, moments is what saves the film and makes it such an enjoyable sci-fi viewing.

The director and leading man may make mistakes on the way to getting their movie finished, but they always do right by Riddick and his universe. And that, for me, makes up for a hell of a lot.



Wednesday 10 September 2014

Sci-Fi September: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)

If you've already seen Close Encounters Of The Third Kind then you may think that it's not a film worth revisiting every few years. I'd argue that it is. The sound and light show that makes up the final half hour will remind you of how great cinema can be when providing spectacle that comes after a steady build-up. If you haven't already seen it then do yourself a favour and get to it ASAP.

Bashing Steven Spielberg is pretty popular among many film fans nowadays, and has probably been popular for some time. Looking at even some of his best movies, and this is one of them, it's easy to see why people can pick apart his style, his flaws, that schmaltziness that he's so fond of. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind has all of his usual tricks, but it also has such a fantastic ambiguity to the whole thing, and such a big heart, that it's still able to sit astride the sci-fi genre like, well, a giant mothership overlooking many other shining lights.

Richard Dreyfuss, Cary Guffey, and a few other people all find their lives greatly changed when they witness some UFO activity. It is, unbeknownst to them, only a small sample of something that has been happening in a number of different locations. The increased activity seems to be building up to something big, something that the U.S. government needs to keep hidden from most of the public. But many of those who have already observed the extra-terrestrial visitors have an obsessive need to see them again. Where will that need take them? And are the aliens coming in peace?

Yes, you get a lot of times when the camera starts off close to a character and then pulls away as they look somewhere offscreen in amazement. You also get plenty of the lens flares that one day collided together and gave birth to J. J. Abrams. And the cinematography, by Vilmos Zsigmond, often places people in the way of extremely bright lights - either spotlights, UFO lights, or just dazzling sunlight. All of these things are Spielberg 101. There's also a rousing score by John Williams, a cute kid (Guffey) in the middle of the action, and plenty of reverence for cinematic classics of the past.

None of these things take away from how great the movie is. With so many to choose from, saying this score is one of the best from Williams is high praise indeed, and I stand by that compliment (mainly for that brilliant 5-note motif and the audio experience of the grand finale). It's also worth noting that the subject matter lends itself perfectly to all of these Spielbergian tricks.

The performances are pretty perfect from everyone involved. Guffey doesn't say much, but he's a great child actor and reacts well to what's supposed to be happening around him. Dreyfuss is brilliant, making the most of yet another great role handed to him by Spielberg. Whether he's sculpting mashed potatoes or struggling to communicate to his wife (Teri Garr) just what he's going through, his display of conflicting emotions conveys so much more than the majority of the script. Melinda Dillon goes through a similar range, as the mother of Guffey, and her few scenes with Dreyfuss make for some of the best scenes in the film. Well, the best scenes not featuring UFOs. Francois Truffaut moves from his usual directorial role to act as Claude Lacombe, an expert in UFO activity who hopes to soon be able to prove that one or two of his theories are correct. He's a great presence whenever onscreen, quiet, graceful and intelligent, and it's easy to see why Spielberg persuaded him to take on the role. Last, but not least, Bob Balaban rounds out the core group of main players, spending a lot of time alongside Truffaut, playing a translator. He may not have as much to do, but he's a worthy addition to the cast.

If this had been made today then I think it would be a perfect film. There are hints of darkness here and there, but nowhere near the darkness that Spielberg would be able to handle so expertly in the 21st century. The special effects hold up well, for the most part, but it's hard to not see the crudity of some moments, especially in the first half of the film. And there's just too much lens flare. Yet it remains an effective, moving piece of work. It's a cinematic experience unrivalled by 95% of films released in the past three decades, and that's why I still rank it as highly as I do. As do many others.