Saturday, October 14, 2017

Saturday the 14th -- a review

Way back in 1981, when dinosaurs still walked the earth and only the birds tweeted, my father and I went to the movies as sort of a father and son type of bonding experience. The film we saw was Saturday the 14th, starring the husband and wife acting team of Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss, who play a couple with kids who inherit a creepy old mansion that just happens to be cursed. In short, the movie was awful--it was an ineptly made film that tried to be a spoof of the horror movie genre that had just exploded at that time, with Friday the 13th (from which Saturday got its title) being chief among them.

Recently we observed a Friday the 13th, and it was while viewing all of the customary Friday the 13th memes online that I was reminded of this film, and decided to watch it the next day. While there’s an inspired moment, when Prentiss is attacked by bats in the same manner as the classic scene that took place in Hitchcock’s The Birds, watching Saturday the 14th on Saturday the 14th offered no real thrills for me, other than reinforcing the fact that this movie really sucks hard, and that it sucks in a bad way, not in the ’it’s-so-bad-it’s-good’ way. I mean, I understand that it was actually meant to be a comedy. But Saturday the 14th isn’t any more funny than it was supposed to be scary. Saturday the 14th just lays there in its sheer lameness of being a really rotten movie.

The only pleasant takeaway that I have, viewing the film thirty six years later, is the cast. Severn Darden co-stars as Van Helsing, an exterminator who also fights the children of the night on the side. Darden is fondly known to me for his role as Kolp in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes, as well as for his part of Apploy on the memorable The Return of Bigfoot crossover on The Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman.

Jeffery Tambor also starred in Saturday as a goofy vampire who tries to steal the house out from under the family. Tambor is best known today for his role on Amazon’s Transparent, as well as for The Larry Sanders Show, Arrested Development, Archer, and a host of other series and movies.

Paula Prentiss has always been a busy actor, starring in a slew of comedies in the 1960s, as well as the Parallax View and the The Stepford Wives in the 1970s. She most recently appeared in 2016’s I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House.

Richard Benjamin will always be Quark to me. Not the alien bartender on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but as the intergalactic garbage man on the short-lived series of the same name from the late 1970s. He was also very memorable to me as a kid from his role in the original Westworld. One year after Saturday the 14th would see the release of My Favorite Year, which was Benjamin’s directorial debut (and was a far better movie than Saturday). He would be an actor/director (and very good at both jobs) from this point on.

In doing research for this film, I came across many reviews for it where the reviewer (many who are younger than me) gives a gushing appraisal for Saturday the 14th strictly for nostalgic reasons. They also realize the film isn’t great, but having seen it first at a young age, it still offers sentimental value for them. I first saw this film with my father at the age of 16, and do not share their nostalgic love for it--however, I remember my dad and I having a good laugh over how bad the movie was during our dinner out afterwards, so in that sense I have Saturday the 14th to thank for creating a fond memory of me with my father. --SF

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Life -- A Review (of the movie)

Despite a title that reminds me of Oscar-bait movies (you know, those earnest, “serious” dramas that nobody remembers or gives a damn about a year after they win their awards), I wanted to see Life because it was a science fiction/horror hybrid, much like how the Alien films are, and they’re among my favorite in that sub genre. Life deals with the crew of the International Space Station, which is a real thing, floating up there yonder right above your head now. Life is going by routinely for the six astronauts stationed on the ISS, until they are called to capture a wayward probe.

The automated probe, sent to collect dirt specimens from Mars, has suffered some damage on its way back to Earth and has gone haywire, and it’s up to Jake Gyllenhaal to “catch” it using the station’s mechanical arm. He does so, and when the probe’s contents are examined and experimented on by Ariyon Bakare, playing one of the station’s scientists, he manages to revive the long-dormant cells, proving that there once was life on Mars. But there’s soon very vibrant life on the station, too, as the cells merge together to form an organism that’s playful and cute as it hugs Bakare’s gloved fingers.

But soon it grows into a lethal monster that goes from shaking Bakare’s hand to almost ripping it off. The “monster” here has an interesting look--its design is sort of like an angry plant as it deftly dives around the station through its vents and even outside in space. In addition to Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, who stole Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation right out from her co-stars, also appears here as the station’s chief medical officer. Ryan Reynolds is also onboard, cracking bad jokes as the “janitor”, which is interesting, because the script for Life was done by the same writers who also wrote the first Deadpool movie.

But the problem with Life is that it never really feels like it’s taken off. There’s always that moment in the Alien films when you know that the proverbial shit has hit the fan, and that’s usually when the film becomes supercharged with fear and tension from that point to the very end. I never felt that here. In fact, it felt as if I was kept waiting for an intense third act that never came. The astronauts play their usual cat and mouse games with the alien with no third act surprises--or even any build up of suspense--until the whole thing just meekly draws to a close with the hope of an Earth-bound sequel. But it doesn’t look as if this Life will be that tenacious. -- SF

Monday, September 25, 2017

Star Trek:Discovery -- a review of the first two eps

After one postponement after another, Star Trek: Discovery finally premiered on September 24, with the first episode showing on the CBS broadcast network, and the second episode on CBS All-Access, the struggling streaming service that CBS owns. But I guess it’s safe to say that CBS All-Access struggles are now over, thanks to the multitude of people signing up just to see the second half of the saga that began on broadcast TV.

And speaking of that saga, Star Trek: Discovery takes place ten years before Captain Kirk takes off on his legendary journey. Yep, like Star Trek: Enterprise before it, Discovery is yet another prequel, another lame attempt to latch onto a popular version of Star Trek--the Kirk era--instead of taking off with a completely different version of it, like what Gene Roddenberry did with Star Trek: The Next Generation.

But I have to admit that, five minutes into the first episode, “The Vulcan Hello”, I was engrossed with the goings on. That’s mainly because of its lead actress, Sonequa Martin-Green, who plays the first officer of the starship Shenzhou. Despite a weak script that has her character, Michael Burham, behaving erratically, Martin-Green plays her part with such sympathy that it’s easy to ally yourself with her. The Shenzhou’s peaceful mission of exploration and fixing plumbing problems for aliens is interrupted when they are called to see why a relay station has mysteriously gone silent on the edge of Federation space.

When Burham suits up in astronaut gear, she discovers the presence of Klingons—and manages to kill one of them. As can be expected, the Klingons—usually not known for being the most mellowest and laid-back of Star Trek's aliens—don’t take too kindly to this situation, and tensions begin to rise to a boiling point. Soon, at the end of the first episode, Yeoh’s lone starship finds itself staring at a fleet of Klingon vessels, most of which don’t look anything like the Klingon ship design that we’ve seen in the original Star Trek series.

While I’m not happy with the bizarre new look of the Klingons (along with the redesign of their distinctive ships), I liked the storyline of how one Klingon commander seeks to unite the 24 warring factions into a cohesive empire--despite the fact that this completely ignores all previous storylines set up in ST: Enterprise. Unfortunately this great build up for a potential recurring series villain is ultimately wasted in the second episode, “Battle at the Binary Stars”.

But what a battle it is, though. The Shenzhou is joined by a fleet of Federation starships, and we’re treated to a spectacular display of combat. I have a bit of a nitpick here. In one shot they had Federation capital ships zooming around like one-man fighters, shooting lasers everywhere, and I almost started going “pew-pew-pew!” because it looked as if the CGI animators had forgotten this was Star Trek, not Star Wars. For really good Star Trek space battles, you can’t go wrong with the Dominion War battle scenes in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. They had many fantastic scenes of combat between large capital battleships that made them look and feel like the huge, deadly monsters they should be.

When Burham is sentenced to prison for life for her actions at the end of the second episode, it becomes clear that the first two shows of Discovery are the “back story” for what looks to be a redemption arc for the character. Star Trek: Discovery really doesn’t begin in earnest until the third episode, when we finally meet Jason Issacs as the captain of the Discovery, a ship that looks way too advanced than Kirk’s Enterprise. Burham is brought on board by specific request of Issac’s captain, and she’s treated as a pariah by the crew for what she did on the Shenzhou.

But thanks to the lazy writing, Burham’s actions on the Shenzhou seemed very bizarre and out of character for a human woman who was raised with the serene logic of Vulcans (she was raised by Spock’s father, no less, in another bit of storytelling that’s a bit too on the nose for me). It’s almost as if the writers decided just to gloss over the motivation concerning what Burham did just to set her up to be the hated underdog of the Discovery crew.

OK, whatever.

There’s a lot of explaining that’s needed to be done in the upcoming episodes. For instance, thanks to the annoying lens flare, I’m tempted to assume that this is a prequel series to the JJ Abrams series of Star Trek films (Abrams used lens flare in the first two films to literally blinding effect). That would explain why the technology looks so much more advanced than anything that TOS era Kirk had, like people communicating via life-sized holograms. But we’ve been reminded by the Trek powers that be that this series is taking place in the TOS timeline. So there really should be one hell of an explanation coming up.

Despite my problems with Discovery, I still enjoyed it. The series looks gorgeous, thanks to its high end production values and effects. And any series that has the remarkable Doug Jones (he played Abe Sapien in the first two Hellboy movies and will star in the upcoming The Shape of Water) in its cast is worth giving a shot. Besides, thanks to Martin-Green’s sturdy performance in spite of the wobbly scripts, I still want to see what happens next to our Ms. Burham. --SF

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Mummy 2017 -- a review

The Mummy, the 2017 version of the classic Universal monster, crashed and burned at the box office this past summer (although it did extremely well at the overseas box office). It strived to be a far more vibrant and exciting version of the Boris Karloff version of the Mummy that was released in 1932, to which this film was often compared to in its promotional and publicity materials. And yeah, the Karloff Mummy is very dated and creaky--with the exception of a still-chilling sequence of an expedition member going insane with horror at the (off-screen) sight of the Mummy making its way out of its tomb.

Yet Universal seems to have forgotten its other Mummy remake, the superb film that was released in 1999 with Brendan Fraiser and Rachel Weitz that--unlike the Tom Cruise version--was such a hit that it spawned two sequels. The Fraiser version had a sense of fun and high adventure that effortlessly blended humor and horror into an extremely enjoyable package that stands up to repeated viewings even to this day. But the Tom Cruise version has none of this. So what happened with the brand spanking new version with Tom Cruise? Part of the problem was with Cruise himself.

While Tom Cruise may well be a world-wide superstar, I never really thought he was a very strong actor. When you see him in films like Valkyrie, where he’s surrounded by an impeccable cast of actors, he’s usually the weakest link. That’s because Cruise basically plays himself in each and every film--which works very well in the Mission Impossible films, but it doesn’t here. In The Mummy Cruise is playing a U.S. soldier who’s supposed to be one of these likeable scoundrels that’s always out for himself in a humorous vein.

But I don’t even believe Cruise as a soldier here, much less a lovable rascal. He’s badly miscast in The Mummy, in the part of an adventurous rogue that Harrison Ford played to perfection in the Indiana Jones films. Even Brendan Fraiser was very good and completely believable as ’shoot-first-ask-questions-later’ Rick O’Connell in his Mummy films. As a result of Cruise’s miscasting, his very presence drags down the film overall, which feels more like just another one of his action films, instead of a horror thriller. This is a shame, because Sofia Boutella, who was very good in Star Trek Beyond, manages to shine whenever she’s allowed to here as the Mummy.

The other problem with the new Mummy is that it is the first film in the new Dark Universe saga, and we are reminded of this by the presence of Russell Crowe as Henry Jekyll (yep, the same dude who turns into Mr. Hyde), who runs a special monster squad that captures monsters and keeps their body parts in specimen jars after presumably performing horrific experiments on them (wait, who are really the monsters, here?). Valuable screen time that could have been devoted to battling the Mummy (remember her?), is instead wasted on twitchy Dr. Jekyll and his group of minions--who feel more like an intrusion on the story that I actually wanted to see.

So the new Mummy winds up being a faulty action/adventure/comedy that forgot it was a horror movie that spends the better part of its running time advertising an upcoming series of Dark Universe films which may or may not even be happening now that this incarnation of the Mummy has bombed (at least in the US). Excuse me while I go watch the Mummy again--you know, the good one with Brendan Frasier and Rachel Weitz. And I’m even going to re-watch the original Mummy with Karloff, because--creaky or not--it’s got Karloff, a sturdy actor and a class act who was never, ever miscast in his entire career. --SF

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Orville -- a review of the first episode

I have to admit to never being a big fan of Seth McFarlane’s. I’ve never watched Family Guy, and I don’t really care for his sense of humor, which often boarders on being extremely childish and way too on the nose for my taste. So when I heard that he was doing The Orville, a science fiction series for Fox, I figured that I would avoid it like the plague, just like I’ve avoided Family Guy and his film projects. What convinced me that The Orville would be bad was the trailer for the series, which made it out to be another laugh-riot spoof, this time on science fiction shows (and I’m not adverse to a good SF spoof--I loved Galaxy Quest--I just didn’t want to see one done by McFarlane).

But then I discovered something interesting. Shortly before the pilot for The Orville was to air, I found out that the series was not a spoof, and that it wasn’t even a comedy. Intrigued by this turn of events I watched the pilot, which was written by McFarlane and directed by Jon Favreau (who also directed the first two Iron Man films, and the remake of Disney’s The Jungle Book). And, lo and behold, I enjoyed it very much.

The Orville is the name of an exploratory-class starship that McFarlane’s character, Ed Mercer, takes command of after he suffers through a rough year when he divorces his wife after he catches her cheating on him (with a blue alien). His personal confidence shattered, Mercer’s career as an officer with the Union (an interstellar exploratory group not unlike the Federation from Star Trek) takes a sharp nosedive and his receiving command of the Orville is seen as his last chance.

Of course the kicker here is that his ex-wife, well-played by Adrianne Palicki, joins Mercer aboard the Orville as his XO, or executive officer. But that’s really the only major comedic twist in the pilot, and it’s later rationally explained within the story how it really came to be. Other cast members include Scott Grimes (from McFarlane’s American Dad--but who I recall from 1986's Critters) as the helmsman and Penny Johnson Jerald (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Castle) as the ship’s doctor.

The Orville is really more of a loving homage to Star Trek, particularly to Star Trek: The Next Generation. Instead of a knee-slapping comedy, The Orville is actually McFarlane’s shot at creating a legitimate science fiction series, and the universe-building that he devotes to this project is impressive. Like Next Generation, the Orville flies in a utopian future that’s set several hundred years in the future, but unlike Next Gen the characters are not as perfect--they’re more like regular, everyday people who screw up on occasion. They also gossip about each other, drink sodas on the bridge, and have an overall laid back attitude that I found refreshing.

What’s also refreshing is how the series embraces a bright, cheery future for the human race. While I’m a huge fan of the dystopian SF stuff--the Mad Max and The Hunger Games series are among my favorite films--I still need to see an SF project with an overall positive feel every now and then. The Star Trek TV series (especially the Trek sequel series in the 1990s) used to fill that need for me; they were a weekly reminder that, despite the problems of the present day, we will still be here to see better days as a race in the times to come.

It was this strong message of optimism that McFarlane projects so strongly in The Orville that gravitated me to it. Of course, this review was based only on the first episode, which managed to evoke all the best feelings of Next Gen and DS9 for this old Trek fan, and because of that I’m willing to give it a shot. The Orville is trying to be the ST: The Next Generation for a new generation, and that's not a bad thing. For that lofty goal, it deserves to be viewed with an open mind--much like how in this same fashion the best Star Trek episodes could be enjoyed. -- SF

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

When Ghost in the Shell, the live-action version of the 1995 Japanese anime film of the same name announced that its lead character would be played by Scarlett Johansson, there was some concern in the social media and regular entertainment media circles about having a white woman play what was traditionally a part played (or voiced) by a Japanese actress--which is where the term ’white-casting’ comes into play. And I could certainly understand the feeling, since there are plenty of superb Asian actresses (both in Hollywood and aboard) who could easily have played this part.

But the new Ghost in the Shell, directed by Rupert Sanders (who directed Snow White and the Huntsman), had chosen its actress. And Johansson is very good in the part of a dying woman who gains a second chance at life when her brain is placed within a sophisticated android body. But the corporation that performed the procedure is not working for free; they expect Johansson’s character to use her newfangled android body for them as a cop/assassin within a special police force. As if dealing with regular crime wasn’t enough, Johansson and her comrades come up against a terrifying hacker/terrorist who seems to know intimate details about her.

Sanders does a spectacular job at making this movie as visually stunning as possible, with large, 3-D advertising hovering over the city day and night, giving us plenty of eye candy that’s somewhat depressing when you realize that this type of in-your-face ads may well be in our future (look at New York’s Times Square, and downtown Tokyo, and it’s obvious that the age of intrusive advertising is practically here). And as I’ve noted before, in addition to the sharp visuals, Johansson’s performance is excellent, managing to create intricate layers of her character as she tries to peel back the layers of the mystery behind the film’s villain.

But where the new Ghost stumbles is in how it’s directed. The story is presented in a straight on, bloodless style that seems devoid of any emotion whatsoever. There’s no steady build up of suspense, there’s no real sense of fear during scenes that are supposed to be frightening--nor is there the sense of being caught up in the story. The new Ghost in the Shell isn’t a terrible movie, not by any means. It’s directed in a good, workman-like fashion by Sanders, and the visuals are pretty. But it lacks the spark and the sheer passion that a director like James Cameron or Peter Jackson would have brought to it. Scarlett Johansson’s good performance centers an otherwise off-kilter film, but the live action version is really a mere ghost compared to the far superior anime. --SF

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Fleshburn -- a review

The recent death of Sonny Landham has got me thinking about the tough guy actor’s film career, and the various films he had done. He was probably best known as Billy, one of the commandos who gets hunted by an alien in the original Predator, a film that was top-heavy with super-charged testosterone-laced actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, and former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura. Landham, like other hard working actors, also did many other films, such as 48 Hours, Southern Comfort, and Action Jackson. But the movie that I remember Sonny best from was a cheapie independent film known as Fleshburn.

Based on the novel Fear In A Handful of Dust, by Brian Garfield--who also wrote the original Death Wish novel that the first Charles Bronson film was based on--Fleshburn deals with a native-American Vietnam veteran named Calvin Duggai who escapes the mental institution he has been committed to so he can exact revenge on four psychiatrists who testified against him in court. It seems that when he was in the military, Calvin got into an argument with several of his fellow soldiers, and as a result, he left them to die in the middle of the desert. It does appear that our boy Calvin has some issues.

And Calvin is not done expressing himself. The first twenty minutes of the film is spent showing Calvin relentlessly abducting all of the psychiatrists who testified against him, including Earl Dana (Macon McCalman), the husband and wife team of Jay and Shirley Pinter (Robert Chimento and Karen Carlson) and former shrink and now park ranger Sam McKenzie (Steve Kanaly). Calvin stashes the shrinks, all bound and gagged, in the enclosed cargo section of his pickup truck until he gets them out to the middle of the desert, where--barefoot and underdressed--they don’t have much hope of surviving. The shrinks wind up having to fight nature, as well as Calvin, in their quest to survive. Much hijinks ensue.

Fleshburn was originally released in 1984, but I first saw it on a rental VHS tape sometime in the 1980s. Much later, I picked it up on DVD in one of those bargain bins for a cheap price. Doing some research I discovered that it was first released on DVD back in 2001 by Rhino Home Video. The DVD, now out of print, is very bare bones, with no extras nor even closed captions. The film is presented in a full screen, ‘pan and scan’ style, and is much clearer than I remember the VHS being.

As far as the film itself…well, it’s not very good. The pacing is as slow as molasses. And the film suffers from a split personality, as if director/co-writer George Gage didn’t know if he wanted to make a straight-up thriller/revenge flick, or a drama that deals with serious “issues” and the movie ultimately winds up pleasing nobody. It lacks the relentless, always-charging-forward energy of better action films like Rolling Thunder or Death Wish, and whatever drama there is comes off as sappy and soap opera-ish, offering nothing to advance the story. Sonny Landham, while clearly playing the villain here, still manages to be as intense as his character should be. But even his presence is not enough to elevate Fleshburn, which should probably be avoided much like a real life flesh burn. Thankfully there are much better films in Sonny’s career that a viewer can enjoy. --SF