Friday, August 08, 2014

“Quivering Venusian blubber cups!”


Star Wars immediately exploded into a big cultural phenomenon, yielding an actual slew of space opera imitators, mostly lower budget imitations that tend toward cheese or ineptness or both. Something like Space Mutiny is an example of lazy ineptness leading to a really funny trainwreck. Then there's low budget sci-fi comedy, where the ineptness leads to something stale and unfunny, like 1980's Galaxina.

Plot
So after an opening title crawl (Star Wars reference) explaining that its the year 3008, and the police cruiser Infinity of the United Intergalactic Federation is finishing up a patrol mission and en route to a new assignment. On the way they get into an argument and then firefight with a ship that looks like an actual bird of prey (Star Trek reference). The Infinity is damaged, the captain eats an egg and coughs up an alien (Alien reference) and almost halfway through the movie the actual plot kicks in: The crew are assigned to recover an item called the Blue Star (Ahhhhhhhh) from prison planet Altair One on a journey that will take 27 years to complete, so before jumping into cryosleep, the crew jump into a space whorehouse for some shore leave.

They finally reach the planet, the sexy robot volunteers to look for the macguffin, gets captured by a cult of bikers, gets rescued, and then an anticlimactic fight with the metal-faced guy from the bird ship, and it kind of ends.

Cast
Galaxina: Dorothy R. Stratten was a beautiful woman with a depressing story of rising to fame as a Playboy Playmate and then being murdered-suicided by her insane, jealous husband shortly before this movie was released. That's the 800lb gorilla in the room for this movie. That said, she was very attractive and filled out a slinky jumpsuit very well. With regards to acting? Well, she was a model, and playing a robot, and her character doesn't speak for most of the movie, so...not that great.

Sgt. Thor: Stephen Macht (the dad from Monster Squad) plays the grizzled, stogie smoking 2nd in command of the ship. He gets metal fever falls in love with Galaxina and tries to touch and kiss her, leading to painful electric shocks. She eventually reciprocates, reprogramming herself to be able to speak and to not electrify everyone that touches her.

Buzz: James David Hinton play who I think is the communications guy. Its not very clear what his role is. What is clear is his southern drawl, cowboy hat, and Dodgers jersey with the sleeves cut off. Ha ha. Isn't it funny that Dodgers jerseys still exist a thousand years in the future? Comedy!

Captain Cornelius Butt: Funnyman Avery Schreiber plays the blustering, bumbling captain of the Infinity, occasionally narrating some captain's logs. The schtick is at times funny and at times grating, and he's arguably the funniest member of the cast. Though he does take an sadistic glee in “feeding” a prisoner called Rock Biter by throwing styrofoam rocks at him through his prison bars in a painfully unfunny scene. Also, his last name is Butt. Comedy!

Maurice: Lionel Mark Smith plays the winged, ambiguously alien black mechanic who's fake ears don't match the rest of his skin tone.

Sam Wo: Tad Horino plays the weed smoking, Confuscian-esque nonsense spewing guy who hangs out with Maurice in the engine room. Doesn't actually do anything else.

Ordric from Morderick: Played by Ronald Knight and voiced by Percy Rodrigues, this is our villain. A metal faced guy in a robe reminiscent of Darth Vader, but with a silly reverb effect on his voice and a rude attitude.

Chopper: The leader of a cult of bikers that worship Harley David-Son. I’m really only mentioning him because the actor’s name Aesop Aquarian (or Stephen Morrell), which is kind of awesome.

Visuals
Directed by William Sachs, who's done a number of low budget movies. The movie looks fine. The sets and lighting are serviceable to good, the costumes aren't too terrible (except for Maurice's ears), and the model ships look all right. Hell, even the laser effects of the “space battle” look pretty good with the rotoscoping effect of lasers dissipating against shields. The fight is boring since its two ships sitting still and going pew pew pew, but it looks okay. One thing that doesn't look great is the orange filter...thing employed for exterior daylight scenes on Altair One. It hurts the eyes after a while watching Galaxina walking around a Wild West set populated by fair-to-middling alien costumes. Yes there's a wild west town set. Probably because it was cheap to film on.

Pacing though? That's rough. There are long stretches where not a lot happens.

Oh yes, and at one point Ordric is watching First Spaceship onVenus.

Writing
Written by William Sachs, the script is where the movie falls. So much of the movie is filled with 5th grade jokes (Cornelius Butt), cheap references to other movies (there's an alien bartender named Mr. Spot who looks almost exactly like someone else, oh, who is it? Oh. Right. Barbarella), Avery Schreiber (probably) improving with mixed results, and a few actual good comedic bits. Captain Butt's narration is in turns exasperated and pompous.

Whenever someone says “Blue Star” an angelic chorus plays, causing everyone in the scene to look around in confusion for the source of the sound. That's actually the best bit in the movie, since it starts out random, gets annoying, and then comes back around to being actually kind of funny since they commit to the joke as hard as possible, even going so far as to change it to an almost Doo-wop version when Chopper says it. The god the bikers worship is an actual Harley Davidson, which isn't that funny, but the heroes escape the bikers on it, which leads to a chase scene where a bunch of bikers on horses are chasing after a spaceman and robot lady on a motorcycle. That's a moment of zen right there.

The rest of the jokes don't really work, either because of timing, editing, or delivery. They just feel randomly thrown together.

Sounds
The music seems like a bunch of stock audio mixed with public domain classical music, like Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Strauss, and Liszt. It works. I guess.

Conclusion

Galaxina would probably have been funnier if it had an actual plotline instead of throwing a bunch of jokes at the wall only for most of them to fall short. Or if it had been a serious space opera. Or if the jokes were better. In the end, it feels like people went “Star Wars! That's popular, but everyone's making Star Wars imitations. I know! A parody movie!” It's a shame because the end result is below average and plodding. Watch Spaceballs instead. 


Monday, July 14, 2014

“This nobility business is not the cloth we're cut from.”


Hey! Remember Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time? No, not the critically acclaimed (and damn hard) PlayStation 2 platformer, that came out in 2003 (which itself was a sort of reboot of a series going back to 1989). I'm talking about the attempted blockbuster epic adventure that was released in 2010. You don't remember it? But it had Sir Ben Kingsley in it and stuff. (Be warned, I'm going to abuse a lot parentheses today.)

Plot
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time features a bunch of tanned Caucasian “Persians” (and Ben Kingsley) conquering the holy city of Alamut and in the process of sort of looting it, one of the Princes in command of the army happens upon a magic dagger, then gets framed for his father's death and goes on the run with the Princess of Alamut. The two have a bickering will-they-won't-they (of course they will) series of mishaps and adventures, while also trying to clear the Prince's name and figuring out how to refill a time travel dagger with magic sand. (that last part is actually from the game, and not nearly as stupid as it sounds.)

A quick note about the Hollywood penchant for casting. Yes, it would be nice if actors of appropriate ethnicities would be cast for those ethnicities, but the nebulous “studio execs” are probably more interested in using familiar names and faces to ensure people go “Oh, that new Jake Gyllenhaal movie?” instead of “Oh, that weird fantasy movie with a bunch of foreigners?” It's a tale as old as cinema, and one probably based more on economic estimates than racism.

Characters
Prince Dastan: Jake Gyllenhaal is our titular Prince, only not really. In the beginning of the movie, he's a homeless streetrat with great climbing skills and a heart of gold. So basically Disney's Aladdin. Except this time his moxie is noticed by the King of Persia, who takes him in and adopts him as a third son, making his origins as a low class schlub effectively meaningless outside of a few conversations. That part of his character could have been cut without any consequence to the movie. As for the character himself, he's a decent enough guy, who has the loyalty of his men, but he's also dense as rocks, which propels the plot but gets a bunch of people killed along the way. As for Gyllenhaal himself, he looks the part, can move around well, but doesn't infuse the character with nearly enough rogueish swagger to make him memorable.

Tamina: Gemma Arterton is the princess of Alamut and charged with keeping the sacred sands (and the dagger) safe, lest very bad things happen. Then Dastan sneaks into her city, opens the gates, which leads to them being conquered and her being taken prisoner. She's understandably pissed, and gets stuck with Dastan. At first her constant paranoia and betrayals of Dastan make sense, but after a certain point, it gets old and lingers longer than her mistrust of him should. The two don't really have great chemistry together.

King Sharaman: Ronald Pickup plays Dastan's adoptive dad. Apparently a benevolent and standup guy, he's not happy that his sons went out of their way to attack Alamut when that wasn't part of the original plan. Dastan is given a robe to give to his father as a gift, and then said robe turns out to be poisoned and painfully burns Sharaman to death, which is something more out of Greek myth than Persian, but hey, you don't see it often so I'll let it slide. His death sets in motion the real plot of the film.

Nizam: Ben Kingsley plays the King's brother and the princes' uncle. He's a royal vizier and Ben Kingsley, so, uh, spoiler alert: he's the bad guy. Shocking, I know. Anyway, he's always fun to watch.

Tus: Richard Coyle (Jeff from Coupling) plays the eldest Prince and heir to the throne. A responsible, conscientious leader, he's kind of a standup guy. But still, he's Jeff from Coupling, so I sat there the whole time thinking about the giggle loop and the Melty Man. Bit of a dissonance.

Garsiv: Toby Kebbell plays Tus' hotheaded younger brother and head of the military. Kind of an arrogant jerk for most of the movie, but not really that bad of a guy.

Sheik Amar: Alfred Molina in glorious ham mode as a shady merchant who runs “the Valley of the Slaves” a horrible place with a deadly reputation that he cooked up so he can avoid paying taxes and run his own fantasy Persian Las Vegas, with ostrich races and hookers. The character is a collage of anachronisms and weirdness, but it doesn't matter because Molina going to town on the scenery is the best thing in the whole movie.

Seso: Steve Toussaint plays Sheik Amar's soft-spoken henchman. A member of the Ngbaka tribe famed for knife-throwing skills, he first comes off as dumb muscle but turns into Amar's conscience and a capable ally for the Prince. Actually, the friendship between Amar and Seso has more chemistry and is more convincing than Dastan and Tamina's relationship. So much so that Sheik Amar's often flippant boast “Have I told you about the Ngbaka?” speech eventually becomes the most poignant and moving line in the entire movie at a certain point.

Visuals
Directed by Mike Newell (who directed one of the better Harry Potter films along with Donnie Brasco and Four Weddings and a Funeral), the film features lots of brown and gold. And sand, obviously. Some of this is a product of post-processing and digital coloring and filters and CGI and stuff, which is understandable, but it doesn't make the color palette any less drab. This is disappointing, since the special “making-of” featurette shows more greenery and color when discussing location scouting. That made me sad.

As for the visual effects that go with this kind of movie, they're kind of forgettable. The first (and second) time Dastan uses the dagger, its an interesting effect of rewinding time that echoes how the game did it a little. There is nothing outright bad about the special effects (though the somewhat silly Hassansin squad gets pretty close with their gimmicks), but nothing I'd consider memorable. The same goes for the art direction: competent yet forgettable. There are no monster designs to speak of (disappointing considering the high fantasy tone) and the fight scenes are adequate without standing out.

Stuff happens, it looks all right, and then more all right looking stuff happens. This is a shame, considering that ancient Persia is not something usually touched upon in big Hollywood movies.

Writing
Based on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, scree story by Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner, and screenplay by Boaz Yakin and Doug Miro & Carlo Bernard. The most interesting plot bits are the ones taken from the video game. A magical dagger that can turn back time is a really neat concept, both in terms of game mechanics and narrative touches. Everything else feels like generic fantasy ADVENTURE elements. Everyman rises to a position of privileged authority, goes on ADVENTURE to clear his name and stop a coup and along the way gets to bicker with a hot princess that knows where the magic sand is that can refill the time dagger. Even so, something more could be made out of those plot elements and this movie doesn't. Instead I spent a lot of time thinking about how it was jarring that slavery was mentioned several times despite Persia being considerably less interested in keeping slaves than its neighbors like, oh, let's say Greece (Don't believe me? Read up on the helots. That's some depressing stuff.).

The rest of the movie was spent wondering why the movie went out of its way to establish Dastan as a street rat orphan with great parkour skills and a heart of gold, except instead of a monkey in a fez and a flying carpet he gets adopted by the king and elevated to the status of a prince. This serves no true narrative purpose beyond a few references here and there. It could have been cut from the movie without affecting anything except shaving off about ten minutes of runtime. Just have him be the youngest son who's a black sheep because he's a bit of wild rebel who doesn't take his position as seriously as his older brothers so he gets restless and does something stupid and then has to clean up his mess. That's motivation enough for most fairy tales, and all of those elements are in the movie. Hell, the motivation for the assassination of the king is actually quite elegant (and petty, but hey, its regicide) in its simplicity.

Instead we get some bullshit about him being some everyman commoner, except he's not. He's an orphan with exceptional climbing ability and a reckless courage. Yes, this kind of exceptionalism does show up in folklore a lot, but its perfectly fine for your protagonist to be an exceptional individual with a simple or undefined backstory. IndianaJones is a pulp archeologist who's great with a whip and a mean right hook. John McLane is an overworked, cynical cop estranged from his family but succeeds due to cunning and stubborness. Robin Hood is an altruistic nobleman and marksman who becomes outraged by injustice and decides to do something about it. These are great characters because of their exceptional deeds and outsized personalities. Dastan only gets a few chances to really be a character, like when he's trying to lie to Sheik Amar about his real identity, realizes that its not working, laughs sheepishly and then makes a run for it. If the movie was more like that scene it would have been much better.

Oh, and one more thing, in a movie where the major plot device can magically turn back time, it kind of telegraphs how the ending's going to go.

Sounds
Music by Harry Gregson-Williams. He's done much better work. Like so much else in the movie, it is serviceable but ultimately forgettable.

Verdict
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a functional piece of movie that does what it intends to. It looks fine and holds together reasonably well, much like a solid chair. Also like a solid chair, you don't really think about it unless you are making a deliberate effort to analyze it for its strengths and weaknesses and so you can judge it by its merits, but only lunatics do that sort of thing.


...ahem...

What I mean to say is that Prince of Persia feels like it was made with a checklist in hand and then a bunch of competent people were told to go make what was on the checklist. That makes it merely average and forgettable, which is a miracle for video game based movies.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

“Books! That's what started this whole apocalypse!”


Oh Italy. Italy, Italy, Italy. Home of so many low-budget B-movie knock-offs of popular genre films. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior came out in 1981, and I nuovi barari AKA The New Barbarians AKA Warriors of the Wasteland followed soon after in 1983.

Plot
So there's this murderous gang of dudes driving around in dune buggies and bikes rampaging across the wasteland. They have big hair, even bigger shoulder pads, and follow a madman who blames humanity for bringing about the apocalypse. For that, their leader, the unimaginatively named One (George Eastman), has decided that Mankind must die. He's assisted by Shadow (Ennio Giorlami as “Thomas Moore”) who has a silly blonde mohawk wig, and Mako (Massimo Vanni), who has an even larger black mohawk wig. And the whole death cult wear white jumpsuits with HUGE shoulder pads.

Standing (well, driving) in their way is Scorpion (Giancarlo Prete as “Timothy Brent”), a wanderer and scavenger, he's also not interested in killing all of humanity. He is interested in killing One's Templars, so he's our hero. He's got a tricked out car with a giant plastic bubble installed on the roof. I don't know why. He rescues Alma (Anna Kanakis) a random wastelander, from the Templars, and looks for medical attention to her. They're rescued from Templars by Nadir, who is easily the best character in the movie. Nadir is ex-football star and B-movie star extraordinaire Fred Williamson, armed with a bow, gold armor, a gold circlet, and a shit-eating grin. He's not a great actor, but he's an enthusiastic one, and seems to be aware of exactly the kind of movie he's in and is happy to cash the paycheck.

The three find a community of peaceful not-Quakers who are led by Father Moses (Nenantino Venantini) and believe in something called god. They also believe in the Signal, which is some kind of radio transmission coming from somewhere in the wasteland and indicates hope that there might be someplace in the world that isn't a rocky quarry.

Visuals
Directed by Enzo G. Castellari, the movie is obviously a low budget cheapie. Filmed primarily in a gravel pit and a country road. There is one car, a handful of motorcycles and a couple dune buggies with ridiculous metal plates bolted on. A lot of mannequins get shot and blown up. Scorpion and Alma make love in a transparent inflatable tent. As I mentioned, the Templars have absurd costumes with giant shoulder pads and giant hair. For the final battle, Scorpion wears an articulated, transparent plastic cuirasse over his bare torso because...its bulletproof? And yet the movie moves at a rapid clip and doesn't bog down much in exposition before heading to the next ridiculous scene. That makes it noteworthy.

What's more noteworthy, but for different reasons, is the incredibly awkward scene where, oh yeah....

SPOILERS BELOW



NO REALLY, AWKWARD SPOILERS INVOLVING BUTTS BELOW

After capturing Scorpion, One sodomizes him before the rest of the Templars. Now, you don't see any penetration, but it happens. Its weird, uncomfortable, and comes out of nowhere. What's stranger is that its also the scene that makes the most out of actual direction and cinematography to create an unpleasant atmosphere. There's multiple colored lights in the background, heavy use of shadows, and rapid cuts to extreme close ups of various people. Its the one scene of the film that artistically “goes for it,” and its the sodomizing scene. That is bizarre.

END SPOILERS

Writing
Written by Tito Carpi (of several Sartana movies and various other Spaghetti-Exploitation films), Enzo G. Castellari and Antonio Visone. The plot is lazy but functional, aping standard post-apocalyptic struggle-to-survive stories and conventions.

Then there's the whole “the Templars are genocidal, homosexual atheists” thing. I will say that's not something I've ever really seen before in a movie, so, uh, points for originality. They contrast with the peaceful, god-fearing, heterosexual settlers, but I'm not really sure there's an actual message to that. The caravan people are a stock element fresh out of Westerns, and their faith is alien to Scorpion and Nadir, who side with them because they're not murderous maniacs like the Templars. I honestly think the Templars' “mission statement” was something quickly slapped together to provide them with easy villainous motivation and that's it.

Sounds
Music by Claudio Simonetti. Its the standard low-budget 80s fare. Synths, guitars, the usual. The guns (which are regular guns) have pew pew noises. Everyone is dubbed over. All of the cars have this phony engine drone dubbed over them, because THE FUTURE.

The Verdict

Warriors of the Wasteland is an awful movie, yet a bizarrely watchable one. It moves quickly, is full of (idiotic) action scenes and car chases, and it lends itself to mockery so well. I wouldn't say its incompetently made, more lazy and cheap. A simple cash in that aspires to little more. Come for the giant shoulder pads, but stay for Fred Williamson, who appears to be the only actor having fun in the film. Oh, but what fun he has. 







Why? No reason.

Monday, June 16, 2014

“I'm your home now, kid.”



I had heard about 1980's Battle Beyond the Stars for some time as one of many, many 80s Star Wars imitators. Which is fine, that's a legitimate genre as far as I'm concerned, and one I can approve of. What sold me on this movie as something worth seeing was that it was the movie that got James Cameron (and a number of other talented film people) a start in Hollywood. He did this by designing a spaceship that looks like a set of Fallopian tubes with a pair of boobs attached.

Because this is a Roger Corman production and Cameron accurately guessed that it was a design that Corman would give a green light to. That's why.

Story
It's The Magnificent Seven/The Seven Samurai in space. Literally, figuratively, and actually. Evil empire comes to peaceful farming planet (named Akir, no less, as a nod to Akira Kurosawa), demands they surrender and bullies them. Naive farm boy heads off in search for help to fend off the bad guys. That's pretty much it, except instead of Steve McQueen, it's got a talking spaceship with boobs.

Characters
Shad: Richard Thomas (most notably John-Boy on The Waltons) is our hero. A Wide-eyed, naïve idealist, he's still got the stones to volunteer to venture off into space without a plan of action to desperately seek help. Despite this, he can't really shake off his people's peaceful nature, so he's kind of a weenie and I'm not really sold on Thomas' performance.

Nanelia: Darlanne Fluegel lives on a space station that Shad reaches. She's a talented engineer and the station is populated by robots and her crazy old dad, Dr. Hephaestus (Sam Jaffe) who's a head in a jar and wants Shad to settle down with his daughter and populate the space station. Shad's like “You're really pretty but I've gotta go do this thing for my planet,” so he leaves and she follows him in her own spaceship and eventually meets up with him and becomes his love interest.

Cowboy: George Peppard (The original Hannibal Smith from The A-Team) is a literal space trucker from Earth. Shad finds him under attack by space pirates, bails him out, and cuts a deal with him. Cowboy will deliver his shipment of weapons to Akir to help them out (It helps that the planet he was originally delivering them to got blown up by the bad guys). Cowboy is a droll, easygoing, swaggering cowboy, and definitely stands out from the rest of the cast.

Gelt: Robert Vaughn (from The Magnificen Seven) plays a ruthless gunslinger assassin who's so deadly and infamous that he's wanted across the galaxy and has to hole up in a run-down, abandoned Space Vegas. Shad recruits him by offering him a meal and a place to hide. Gelt's odd because Vaughn is essentially playing the same character he did in The Magnificent Seven, but it feels a bit phoned in.

Cayman: Morgan Woodward plays a reptilian alien from the Lambda Zone. He's a slaver and mercenary, and he captures Nanelia with the intention of selling her for food. Until he learns that she's gathering people to taken on Sador, who exterminated the rest of his race. Cayman wants revenge, and has a running crew that includes two short aliens called Kelvin. They communicate in waves of heat and don't have ears. Cayman keeps them around because he's cold-blooded.

Nestor: Nestor is a hive mind, and is portrayed by several actors. Most notably Earl “The Zombie Pirate LeChuck” Boen is the lead Nestor. Nestor signs up for the mission because its bored.

St. Exmin: The extremely well-endowed Sybil Danning plays a Valkyrie warrior who lusts for battle and has a tight-fitting costume, I mean ship. She tracks down Shad and wants to join up with him because she longs for glorious battle. He mostly ignores her, despite her being a good fighter, and she obsessively follows him back to Akir and he finally relents and lets her join the group. She's the only one Shad treats like garbage, so obviously she wants to bang him and make a real man out of him, and he's completely not interested in her and repulsed by her violent ways. He does eventually give her some respect at least.

Nell: Lynn Carlin voices the sentient spaceship that takes Shad on his journey of recruitment. She's a gung-ho gal eager to be taken out of mothballs for an adventure. She also provides Shad with motherly advice and is constantly cajoling him to grow a pair and fight back against the villains. Nell's fun.

Emperor Sador of the Malmori: John Saxon is no stranger to hamming in B movies, and he's in full swing here. Sador is a cruel tyrant with an obsession with conquering anything he can and living forever. He does the first by flying his bigass spaceship around and telling planets they belong to him now and shooting lasers at the populace just to prove he can. He does the second by replacing his old body parts with new ones. A subordinate does something wrong? Sador's got a new foot. That sort of thing. He's a cartoonish villain, but that's what this kind of movie needs, and Saxon's fun to watch in it. Oh yeah, and he's got a weird mark/scar/tattoo over one eye, sort of like Sub-Zero had in Mortal Kombat 3.

Visuals
Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami, who worked a lot in animation as an animator and director (he was co-director of The Snowman Christmas short. You know, the famous one, with the kid and the snowman flying around and stuff?) Anyway, Battle Beyond the Stars feels like the most lavish Corman production I've ever seen, which almost might be damning it with faint praise. It cost $2 million to make, so there's A LOT rough around the edges in terms of costumes and visual effects, but that was a lot of money for a Corman film.

While the effects are clearly a step down from what was being done in Star Wars, there are a lot of them: alien costumes, sets, models, lasers, explosions, rear projection stuff. It was all done on the cheap, but involved a lot of young talent (like James Cameron) that was out to prove itself, and it shows. The filmmakers managed to pull off a lot of with not a lot of resources, and it looks okay. Not great, certainly, but competent, where it would have been easy for it to look terrible.

Writing
Story by John Sayles & Anne Dyer, screenplay by John Sayles (who is still a working screenwriter whose credits include The Howling). The plot is beyond derivative in this, directly lifting its main beats from The Magnificent Seven. Character work is also a little iffy. Shad is a putz, but he's not a tremendously likable one. He's a nice kid who's trying to do right, but he passes naïve and goes straight into dense. Nell is kind of the only character with real three dimensionality, and she's a spaceship with boobs.

Shallow characters and plot aside, the script features a lot of interesting Sci-Fi ideas that haven't been done to death in space opera. The Kelvin are a fantastic concept. They can't speak or hear, but communicate in heatwaves. That's weird. That's alien. And it leads to a fun visual gag where the two of them are being used as a campfire. The hyper intelligent, hyper advanced Nestor is is this weird, benevolent thing and oddly enough a source of a lot of humor.

Whenever the movie lets the weirdness through, it benefits, because those touches are what set it aside from just being The Magnificent Seven in space (Though like its inspiration, it does end on a melancholy note which really doesn't sit with the whimsical adventure themes of ADVENTURE! earlier in the film).

Sound
This was James Horner's first real soundtrack gig, and like the production crew, he was out to prove something. The score is raucous, sweeping, bombastic, and perfect space opera fare. Yes, Horner has a reputation for recycling a lot of his own material, but the Battle Beyond the Stars music just oozes fun, and its hard not to like his work.



Conclusion
Battle Beyond the Stars is a competently and enthusiastically made B-level Sci-Fi space opera. Not earthshaking, profound, or deeply intelligent, it is charming as hell, and an interesting starting point for a lot of people who would go on to do bigger and better things. It's got lasers and space battles and explosions and aliens and Sybil Danning's boobs trying to pop out of her costumes. It's a lot of fun and totally recommended, even if the ending is kind of a downer because the source material demands it.


Saturday, June 07, 2014

“What exactly is an interocitor?”


1955's This Island Earth is famous/infamous for being the subject of MST3K: The Movie. Which is fair. It is a dated 50's Sci-Fi movie, after all. It was also a hit in its day, and one of the better regarded Sci-Fi movies from that era. Let's pretend that I haven't seen MST3K: The Movie umpteen times and look at this for its own merits.

Plot
American scientist assembles a mysterious piece of technology. A mysterious man Skype calls him through said device and recruits him into a mysterious science think tank project, he is transported by a mysterious automated plane to mysterious Georgia, where everyone acts mysteriously. Surprise! His benefactor is an alien scientist who's outsourcing nuclear research in the hope of saving his planet from destruction. Then they go to space.

Characters
Dr. Cal Meacham: The awesomely named Rex Reason is our manly-voiced, square-jawed 50's Science Hero. Handsome, a leading physiscist in the field of atomic energy, and able to own and operate a Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star/F-94 Starfire (not sure if its the trainer or fighter) for his own private use. Aside from building the interocitor and piecing together that its no ordinary think tank that he joins, he doesn't really DO much besides bear witness to strange events and then get all grumpy and uncooperative on Metaluna. Maybe its because he got third billing?

Dr. Ruth Adams: Faith Domergue is the pretty young physicist who is second best at atomic research (behind Meacham). She and Cal have some history together and their romance rekindles as they get drawn into the web of mystery. Unfortunately, once they get to space, she turns into a standard 50's leading lady, where most of what she does is scream, fearfully grab onto Cal for support, and get chased around by alien monsters. Such were the times.

Exeter: Jeff Morrow plays the actual hero of the movie because he actually does proactive things. Exeter is a brilliant scientist from the planet Metaluna (a world of big foreheads and white hair). In charge of researching ways to create atomic energy, he sends instructions and parts for an interocitor to prospective scientists as a test. If they can assemble it, he calls them up and recruits them. He does this because Metaluna is under attack by a hostile alien race called the Zagons (we never see any actual Zagons) who are bombarding Metaluna's planetary shields. Exeter is benevolent, charming, and a solid guy. Only problem is the rest of the Metalunans (including his assistant Brack and his boss the Monitor) aren't, and are happy to use mind control to ensure cooperation. He's a man torn beteween his duty to his planet, and his fondness for humans, and is by far the most interesting character.

The Metaluna MuTant: God I love this guy. A giant bug monster, the product of selective breeding and genetic engineering by Metalunans to create a servitor creature out of insects. “He” only shows up near the end of the movie as an obstacle to our heroes as they flee Metaluna. He's blue, he's red, he's got crab claws, and he's got a big ol' noggin. It's a fantastic design, hampered only by limitations of the costume, such as giving him baggy pants, and that giant head probably didn't do the actor's center of gravity any favors.

And according to Wikipedia, that bastion of accurate information, there's Coleman Francis in a small role in the film. Francis is infamous for directing a trilogy of incompetent films that include The Beast of Yucca Flats, but that's a tale for another time.

Visuals
Directed by Joseph M. Newman and Jack Arnold (for reshoots). The first thing that pops out is the Technicolor. It's vibrant and beautiful. The second thing that pops out is the special effects. Those are, generally speaking, less beautiful. Rear projection stuff, flying saucer models, the rubber forehead Metalunans, the MuTant, that sort of thing. It all works, but its also got “1950's Special Effects with a modest budget” written all over it. It all never *quite* looks as good as the visual design wants it to look. The technology, Metaluna's alien landscape, all of these are pretty great, actually. Still, the effects are serviceable, and to laugh them off outright is blaming the past for being the past. For 2014, the effects are hokey. For 1955, they're one of the better examples.

Writing
Screenplay by Franklin Coen and Edward G. O'Callaghan, and based on “The Alien Machine” by Raymond F. Jones. The dialogue can be frequently hokey, but its serviceable. The first part of the movie feels more like a thriller with the constant air of mystery that is only spoiled by the knowledge that this is a sci-fi movie, and by Exeter and company's giant inhuman foreheads.

What's more interesting (from a Sci-Fi standpoint) are the ideas. The interocitor is a goofy piece of technology, but nowadays we can literally make video calls over a computer and webcam anywhere in the world (and into orbit). We all have interocitors. It is an everyday thing now. We. All. Have. Interocitors. They just can't shoot deadly beams of energy yet, but its my understanding that Google is working on that problem. There's other neat stuff too, like how Metaluna uses atomic energy to power its planetary shield, and so on. Some really out there concepts. Questionable scientifically, but leading to fun ideas in a visual medium. Also, then ending's a downer.

The Sounds
Music by uncredited Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter, and Herman Stein. That is a solid pedigree of Sci-Fi music, and it shows. Well, not “shows,” you can't see the soundtrack, but you know what I mean. Its not JUST Theremin. Bombastic orchestral tracks accompany the Theremin, though its hard not to go NORMAL VIEW! NORMAL VIEW! NORMAL VIEEEEEWWWWWWWWW!! at the right moment.

The Verdict

This Island Earth is not an outright bad movie, which is a shame, since MST3K gives it that rap. Within the context of its time, it is considerably better than many of its contemporaries. It moves at a sharp clip, is competently shot, has a good visual style, and its not just people in lab coats sitting around a set and talking for 40 minutes.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

“I'll file a report tomorrow.”



The archetype of the buddy cop action flick and Eddie Murphy's big screen debut and from the director of The Warriors. Yeah, sure, I'll watch 1982's 48 Hrs.

Plot
San Francisco Detective Jack Cates (Nick Nolte) is having a bad day. Violent criminal Albert Ganz (James Remar, Ajax from The Warriors) escapes from a chain gang with the help of Billy Bear (Sonny Landham, Billy from Predator) and the two go on a crime spree, killing a few cops with Cates' own gun, oh, and he had an argument with his girlfriend Elaine (Anette O'Toole). More than just being two crooks on a tear, Ganz and Bear are finding their old gang members, and killing them, except Luther (David Patrick Kelly, a different Luther from The Warriors), whom they bully into helping them look for something. Cates wants to get revenge for the dead cops and one of Ganz' former buddies, Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy), is the only real lead he has left. Problem is, Hammond's in jail. So Cates secures a temporary parole for Hammond, leaving the two with only 48 Hours (DUN DUN DUN!) to stop Ganz.

Visuals
Directed by Walter Hill, a man who is no stranger to action movies. He made The Warriors, and the Warriors is fantastic. He even reused several actors from The Warriors (Remar, Landham and Kelly). Anyway, this is a well constructed action movie. Grittier than I expected, regarding the tone. The gritty streets of San Francisco and the early 80s neon nights is a part of that, but the action goes for a more brutal realism (not Verhoeven-level squibs) and the two main characters (Cates in particular) get beaten up quite a lot and get outwitted at numerous points. Lots of great physical effects, lots of fisticuffs, and not a whole lot of humor. 

Considering this was Eddie Murphy's breakout movie, I expected more yuks. Most of the comic relief comes from Murphy himself, and he does a fine job because he's not just a comic relief character. As a screen debut, its quite good because it shows the ability to do the comedy he's well known for while also reaching into more serious territory.

It does have an angry police captain though, so there's some comedy there too.

Story
Written by Roger Spottiswoode and Walter Hill & Larry Gross and Steven E. de Souza. While the movie goes for a gritty tone for the setting and events, the villains end up being...cartoonish. Ganz is a psycopath who would rather watch cartoons than bang a hooker. Billy Bear is little more than a henchman who happens to be Native American. The real character work comes with the interactions between Cates and Hammond. The two can't be more different. Cates is a grizzled, gruff, trainwreck of a human being who is still an honest cop. Hammond is a slick, fast-talking, stylish conman who's always trying to keep secrets and play an angle. Naturally the two hate each other, but learn to grudgingly respect each other. Considering the year (1982), its amazing how fertile the Buddy-Cop movie becomes down the road (Lethal Weapon, Die Hard with a Vengeance, most things Shane Black is involved in), but it kind of originated here.

Sounds
Music by James Horner. Steel drums, just like in Commando! Okay, not to the same extent as Commando, but they do show up. The James Horner score is quite good, but doesn't quite reach iconic status.

Conclusion

48 Hrs. is good. The action scenes are well done, the pace moves brusquely, and the solid character work between Nolte and Murphy really invests you in what's going on. I now understand the reason why its the archetype of buddy cop movies. Recommended.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

"Let them fight."


Now, I'm no Godzilla expert, but I do appreciate giant monsters wrecking cities, so obviously I had to see the new Godzilla movie opening weekend. I tried to avoid spoilers as much as possible, but in trying to look at it meaningfully, I probably drew close. The short version is this: The 2014 Godzilla is TOTALLY a Godzilla movie, and if you're into a giant monster rampage, it is well worth your time. 

So there you go. You've been warned of any potential spoilers.

Story
Something terrible happened in 1999. No, not Roland Emmerich's Godzilla, that was 1998. Here some...thing attacks a nuclear power plant in a Japanese city following strange, focused earthquakes, forcing its evacuation. Fifteen years later, a disgraced former engineer at that plant-turned conspiracy nut and his estranged Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician of a son discover that it was a giant atomic monster that destroyed the plant, just in time for it to come out of dormancy and feeding off of radioactive materials...

Characters
Joe Brody: Bryan Cranston (the dad from Malcolm in the Middle and some apparently critically acclaimed crime show). He was pretty high-up at the Janjira power plant and tried his best to contain the disaster. It didn't end well, and he lost his wife Sandra (Juliet Binoche) in the process. Now he's almost a crackpot obsessed with the mystery of whatever it was that destroyed the power plant. Except instead of those Chemtrails guys, he's actually right. His scenery chewing/screentime ratio could have been higher.

Ford Brody: Aaron Taylor-Johnson from Kick-Ass is our standard hero type of guy. Forthright and honest, he mostly just wants to go home and spend time with his wife and son. But his dad's antics in Japan drag him into this mess, and his Navy bomb disposal skills come in handy a few times, but not nearly as handy as his exceptional luck at surviving Kaiju attacks. Seriously, put this man in a Jaeger. This also means he has the horrible luck of being present for Kaiju attacks. Not a lot to the character, unfortunately, but he does some, er, kickass things.

Elle Brody: Elizabeth Olsen is Ford's wife back in San Francisco. She works in a hospital. She cares for her son. She misses her husband. She doesn't like when monsters attack her city. That's...about it. (Amusingly/unsettlingly, Olson is set to play the Scarlet Witch in Avengers 2 and Johnson is going to be Quicksilver. So they're brother and sister in that film, and married here.)

Dr. Ichiro Serizawa: Ken Watanabe (Hollywood's go-to “Japanese Man with Gravitas”) plays a scientist working with the high-clearance/low profile organization Monarch. He studies Kaiju events and tries to work out ways to prevent and/or stop them. His main strategy is “Let Godzilla deal with it.” He is a wise man.

The MUTOs: Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms. Except the smaller male of the species has wings and can fly. The, uh, military gave it that name before they knew it could fly (hooray for sexual dimorphism in monsters!). Anyway, the female is much larger and land-bound, but both can emit powerful EMP blasts, and they literally eat atomic bombs for breakfast. Giant prehistoric parasites, they are a big, big problem.

Godzilla: Sadly, not a man in a rubber costume, but still incredibly well-realized. He's freaking huge in this movie (well over 300 feet tall) and is described as a primordial alpha predator. Discovered/awakened in 1954, most (if not all) Pacific atomic “tests” during the Cold War were aimed at trying to kill or stop him. Obviously they didn't work or we wouldn't have a movie. Oh, and if you're wondering, he definitely has his Atomic Breath.

Visuals
Directed by Gareth Edwards and with effects work involving John Dykstra, the movie is visually very impressive. Most impressive is the Kaiju slobberknocker in San Francisco, but even before that there's plenty of rampaging and destruction. The monster designs are great. Godzilla's update is beefy and monstrous, while still maintaining all of his signature elements. The MUTOs are wonderfully bizarre insectoid creatures.

Interestingly, the movie has a gigantic Spielberg vibe going on, and not just because of the many, many shots of people staring up in wonder at something off-screen. Jaws comes to mind. Much of Godzilla's presence in the film is implied and teased before we see the full deal, and it works well (now true, the original movie did that too). The hero's last name is Brody for crying out loud. Nor is it a boating accident. There's also a great deal of Jurassic Park thrown in, and even one bit near the end that calls to Saving Private Ryan. A curious thing, and maybe I'm imagining it, but if you're going to throw stylistic nods to another director, you can do far worse than Steven Spielberg.

Writing
Story by Dave Callaham and Screenplay by Max Borenstein. The dialogue and human characters aren't amazing, nor is the plot particularly deep, and yet it still works very well because it “gets” Godzilla, who in turn becomes the most fleshed out and complex character (largely through inference). At first, he's thought of nothing more than a predator, a gigantic force of nature, a walking god that can destroy us with a mere step. Then, he's an ally by default, hunting something that hunts us. The enemy of our enemy. Then...Well. I don't want to spoil anything, but the Godzilla movies have a deserved reputation for going in some pretty crazy directions over the years, with all sorts of weird monster relationships. This movie doesn't go into those sorts of things, but as it progresses, more and more hints of that heritage seep into the story. At the end of the day, Godzilla is a good guy, after all (of sorts).

Sound
The music by Alexandre Desplat isn't very noticeable. Only a few major scenes have it swelling to powerful heights. Mostly it goes unnoticed in the background, adding to feelings of unease and dread. Which works perfectly fine. There are quite a few moments of earth-shaking WHHHHHHHHMMMMMM that show we still haven't gotten past Inception, but its not that bad. The signature Godzilla roar is present and reworked a bit to sound meatier and more animalistic.

Conclusion

This year's Godzilla had to prove that the West could make a good Godzilla movie. Legendary pictures succeeded by playing it with a straight face. Yet in doing so, it allows the absurd elements of the series (a bipedal, somewhat clumsy dinosaur thing with atomic breath) to stand proud. Hell, there is a scene where the United States Navy is literally running escort for Godzilla as he swims towards the mainland, and the overhead shot of Godzilla's back surrounded by a fleet of much smaller, friendly warships is probably my favorite shot in the whole movie. If the 90's version was a deconstruction (let's try to take Godzilla seriously and completely redesign him so its not a dude in a silly suit), this version is a reconstruction, which says let's make Godzilla look and act like Godzilla, and have the world react to it and go from there. As someone who opposes rampant deconstructionist narratives, I can give it no higher praise than calling it a legitimate Godzilla movie.




That trailer lies. The Statue of Liberty is nowhere near the Pacific Ocean.

 

Huh. The Asian trailer is way better.