Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Justice League -- a review

It’s not as terrible as some will have you think. It’s not great, either; far from it. Justice League is one of those films with a troubled production where the behind the scenes story is far more interesting than what happens onscreen. Justice League, as originally directed by Zack Snyder was to be the third installment in a superhero film series that began with Man Of Steel and continued onward with Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice.

But when Snyder left JL (for reasons I don’t wish to dredge up here), Joss Whedon, the writer/director of such TV series as Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly, as well as the first two Avengers movies for Marvel, stepped in to do reshoots on JL. The edict from the studio was to make the tone of the film lighter than the darker take that Snyder had instilled in BvS. And the result is uneven, at best. Granted, Snyder’s take on Superman might have been too dark, and his Batman in BvS was portrayed as being an outright psychopath, but he did know how to direct action sequences (the scene with Batman taking on the Russian gangsters in BvS is outstanding). Plus, Snyder is a genius at handling extensive CGI and making it look spectacular.

But while the cobbled together Frankenstein version of Justice League still has Snyder’s impressive action scenes on display, the CGI is just plain terrible in some places. Most notably in the main villain, Steppenwolf--a world-conquering, god-like deity who has come to claim Earth as his next prize. The CG-ed Steppenwolf looks so fake that he appears as if he had stepped right out of a video game. Aside from their CG look, the villains overall seem very bland and uninteresting; their attempt to subjugate the Earth feels very weak and unimaginative, their motivations unclear. And having the main climatic battle take place in a Chernobyl-like ghost town that’s mostly abandoned gives the proceedings a very lackluster feel overall.

However, there are moments when the film really sings. One of which is when Henry Cavill’s Superman is back from his dirt nap and--apparently confused at having been brought back to life--starts fighting the members of the Justice League. While Superman battles the other Leaguers, the Flash decides to speed around in an attempt to outflank the Man of Steel. But Superman, in the midst of fighting, slowly turns his head to look right at the Scarlet Speedster in a moment of sheer comic book cinema majesty.

The heroes are really among the brightest spots in the film, with Ezra Miller bringing a younger, rougher-around-the-edges Flash to life with plenty of welcome humor, and Ray Fisher is very good as Cyborg, instilling in his character a much-needed sturdy presence. Gal Godot, fresh off of her triumphant turn as Wonder Woman in her own movie, livens up every scene she’s in, as can be expected. And Ben Affleck is even pretty good as Batman (he’s growing on me). Jason Momoa does what he can with Aquaman, who’s re-imagined here as a cool surfer dude. It works; Momoa’s forceful charisma makes you like Aquaman, but--like most of the characters in the film--he’s not given much development. Still, Momoa’s performance makes me look forward to seeing Aquaman’s standalone movie.

Henry Cavill’s Superman is lighter (even his costume is brighter), and he smiles more. Yet his return didn’t feel like it was earned, thanks to the rushed feeling to the story. This is a shame, because a movie like this should be epic. A story that brings together Earth’s mightiest heroes in its darkest hour needs time to flesh out the characters, to properly set up the situation. But thanks to another edict from Warner Brothers, which was that the film must be only two hours, Justice League severely suffers from its too-short run time.

There are people petitioning Warner Brothers to release Zack Snyder’s version of Justice League. I’ve got mixed feelings about this. As much as I didn’t care for his dour version of the DC superheroes, I have to admit that, after having seen the mess that was eventually rushed out to theaters, I wouldn’t mind seeing Snyder’s version now, just to see his take on it. Say what you want about the tone of his DC films, Snyder still managed to make both Man of Steel and BvS feel like these epic stories that gave the viewer the sensation they were a witness to history in the making (which is what Justice League should have felt like, but didn’t).

I have been a fan of the DC comics superheroes since I was a kid, and I have wanted to see a Justice League movie since then. But after seeing this misbegotten attempt, I’m ready to move on. Besides, the CW Superhero shows--The Flash, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl--had their second crossover event last fall, where they fought their alter-egos from a Nazi planet, and it contained all of the excitement and fun that I was looking for in Justice League. Maybe the movie division of Warner Brothers might want to seek advice from their TV brethren on how to do superhero stories properly. --SF

Friday, March 16, 2018

Annihilation -- A Review

Annihilation is based on the book of the same name by Jeff VanderMere, and it concerns a strange occurrence that takes place after a meteor strikes the Earth (in a coastal region of Florida). The area immediately surrounding the meteor strike zone starts changing in a weird way. The very landscape is mutating in an indescribable manner, and this new ground is covered by a large bubble-like dome that the scientists investigating it refer to as the Shimmer. Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biology professor at Johns Hopkins, and a former Army soldier, who lost her husband in a covert operation a year prior. When her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), abruptly returns to their house without explanation, and then falls ill, a bewildered Lena calls an ambulance.

However, the ambulance carrying Kane to the hospital is diverted by a government SWAT team, and Lena awakens to find herself at Area X, the government research site set up on the border of the Shimmer. Driven to solve the mystery of what happened to her husband, Lena joins a special team that ventures into the Shimmer on foot to study what this strange anomaly really is. This investigative team is all female, led by the mysterious Doctor Ventress (the always great Jennifer Jason Leigh), who has an agenda of her own. Tessa Thompson, who played the hard-charging sidekick in Thor: Ragnarok, is completely unrecognizable here as the timid yet inquisitive Radek. Gina Rodriguez is also superb as the gruff Thorensen, and Tuva Novotny rounds out the main cast of investigators as the empathetic Sheppard.

Written and directed by Alex Garland, who gave us the extraordinary Ex Machina, Annihilation is a fantastic science fiction film that is more in the league of such mind-bending SF films as 2001, Phase IV, and Interstellar. It’s also more of a horror film, with nightmarish scenes of terror that still managed to get under the skin of this long-time horror buff. Yet there are also scenes of wonder and beauty that can only be really enjoyed on Blu-Ray (assuming you can’t see this in the theater--if you can, go for it). Garland doesn’t completely faithfully follow the first book in VanderMere’s trilogy, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, seeing how the characters in the book weren’t even given names (Portman’s character in the book was known only as The Biologist).

Garland not only gives the investigators names, but he ably fleshes out their characters, and these outstanding actresses run with it, creating extremely sympathetic people whom you care about, which in turn makes the film that much more suspenseful and riveting. The presence of Portman and Isaacs, two veterans of the cinematic Star Wars saga, was a pleasant reminder to me that not all great science fiction films need to be all ’pew-pew-pew’ with countless explosions. While there’s nothing wrong with space opera--there’s room for all kinds of storytelling in this genre--science fiction is really at its best when it’s making us consider questions about our very existence, about life itself. And ultimately that’s what Annihilation does so well--sending us on a mind-boggling trip that has us questioning the very nature of the universe. It’s a great film; don’t miss it. --SF

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Lost In Space (1998) -- a review

I’m re-reviewing the Lost In Space reboot movie for two reasons: the first and main reason is that this year marks the twentieth anniversary of its release in theaters. The second reason is the upcoming premiere of the rebooted reboot of LIS on Netflix, which has got me thinking about this much maligned version. Based on the popular 1960s TV series by producer Irwin Allen (who also gave us Land of the Giants, Time Tunnel, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, among other flights of TV fancy), Lost in Space was--as its name implied--about a family getting lost in the vastness of space while on a mission to settle a far off planet.

It’s based somewhat on Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann David Wyss, which was first published in 1812. That book has been turned into several films and a 1970s TV show over the years, but the original 1960s Lost In Space is the only project that gave the story an SF spin. The Robinsons in the 1960s series were portrayed as a warm and loving family unit, with the patriarch, John Robinson (played by Guy Williams) and his sidekick Major Don West (played by Mark Goddard) coming off as being supremely calm and confident heroes. When the you-know-what hit the fan, John and Don would quickly work out a solution, or a plan of action, that would resolve the problem and keep the family safe and alive to get lost another day.

The 1998 film makes the major mistake of making the Robinsons a dysfunctional family, with constant squabbling between the kids and even with John and Don threatening to duke it out when they don’t see eye to eye. By having the original Robinson family be a solid family unit that always looked out for each other no matter what, they became very appealing characters for a viewer to hang out with--as opposed to the ’98 versions, which has young Will asking his mother if they could dial down the oxygen in Penny’s sleep chamber, and Penny asking the befuddled Maureen if they really needed to have Will to wake up at all.

It would be different if the ’98 Robinsons grew to become a loving, caring family unit at the end of the film, but there’s no real evidence of that happening. Oddly enough, the film overall has a very dark soul, constantly veering off into nightmarish scenarios--filled with death and destruction--that only further serve as a turn off for the viewer. It’s probably no surprise that the writer of this film is Akiva Goldsman, who famously (or infamously) helped to briefly end the Batman cinematic saga in the 1990s with his ridiculous scripts for Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. Goldsman also served as an executive producer on Star Trek: Discovery, another recent SF reboot that suffered from stilted, scatter-shot writing in its first season.

While the script for Lost In Space ’98 wasn’t much to write home about, the casting was a different matter. Getting renown character actor Gary Oldman (who recently won an Oscar for best performance in a fat suit) to play the villainous Dr. Smith was a great idea. Despite the cringe worthy lines he’s given to deliver (“Trust me, Major; evil knows evil!”) Oldman makes the most of his part with just a look or an expression. He fills his Dr. Smith with a strong sense of menace that not even Jonathan Harris, the original Dr. Smith, could achieve (although he came close in the first season, which was much more serious than the over the top campy flavor of the second and third seasons).

One would think having Oldman in the cast would make others like Matt LeBlanc look bad. But, well, I thought LeBlanc actually gave a solid performance as the jut-jawed Don West, here. But what’s interesting is that Mark Goddard, the original Don West, was given the glorified cameo role of the unnamed General who’s LeBlanc’s commanding officer, and Goddard is so good here that I almost wish they’d recast him back in his original part as Don West. Marta Kristen (Judy in the original series) and Angela Cartwright (Penny in the original series) are given smaller parts as reporters, while June Lockhart (the original mama Maureen) plays Will’s school principal. Dick Tufeld, who did the voice of the original LIS Robot, also does the voice for the new version of the robot here.

I actually liked the new version of the Robot, which was a big blue machine that looked pretty badass--until he was destroyed and replaced by a more dopey-looking version that tried to emulate the original’s design and failed. William Hurt and Mimi Rogers are very bland as John and Maureen Robinson, while young Jack Johnson is very good as their son Will (one nice touch this version has is making Will a science prodigy). Lacey Chabert and Heather Graham, as Penny and Judy Robinson, respectively, make the most of what the script offers them, which isn’t much. Goldsman’s script sidelines the female characters for most of the climatic action, reducing them to either reacting to stuff in fear, or cheering on the men.

After twenty years the effects, which are mainly CGI, don’t look very good--particularly painful is the little “space monkey” that Penny adopts as a pet. This creature looks like an unfinished figure used in the pre-visualization footage when they needed an unrendered blank figure to stand in for something; it looks that bad. Not much of this film really holds up, other than it provides a part for Lennie James, who would go on to be famous for his role as Morgan in The Walking Dead. Jared Harris, who played the older Will, would be better known for his roles in Mad Men and The Expanse, among others. He is the son of legendary actor Richard Harris. This version of Lost In Space doesn't have much to offer, especially given that people have the choice of watching the classic series (as well as the new one on Netflix), other than being an obscure oddity that can serve as a warning of how not to revive a popular TV show. --SF

Friday, February 16, 2018

IT (2017) -- a review

I have to admit I wasn’t looking forward to seeing the new It. I enjoyed the book, having bought It back when it was first published, thirty years ago this year. But I never considered It to be the best of Stephen King’s works (that would be ’Salem’s Lot, with The Shining a close second; a more recent favorite would be Mister Mercedes, followed closely by Doctor Sleep). I thought that It, the book, felt a little too long-winded to me back then, and the concept of an evil being taking the shape of a clown felt more silly to me than scary.

The 1990 TV miniseries that was adapted from the book was good, up to a point. Tim Curry gave an enthusiastic and enjoyable performance as Pennywise the clown, and the first half, with the child actors, was superb, but the scares in the miniseries wound up being pretty lame, thanks in no small part to the fact that the 1990 version of It aired on broadcast TV, and was severely restricted in what horrors it could show by the standards and practices of the day.

But two things about the new It that I noticed right off the bat that filled me with hope: the first was that it was rated R, and that the film would only cover the childhood portion of the story. The ‘R’ rating would free the filmmakers from any restrictions in how they would show the scares (and the fact that they were allowed to curse like sailors gives the story a much added realism), and devoting the entire first film to the childhood portion of the story meant we would have more time to spend with these characters.

The new Pennywise is well-played by Bill Skarsgård--at least whenever he’s actually on screen. In many scenes, Pennywise’s presence is conveyed through marvelous special effects that work to amp up the creep factor however possible. And it's very effective, because Pennywise becomes even more formidable as a result. Skarsgård’s take Pennywise is a truly frightening force of nature with his unnaturally glowing eyes and a faint whispering voice that can turn as loud and vicious as the fangs that abruptly sprout within his mouth without warning.

Director Andy Muschietti (Mama) is relentless and imaginative with the scares. And he clearly makes the most of the freedom that the R rating has given him, creating a villain in Pennywise that is spectacularly awesome as well as unnerving. The child actors, led by Jaeden Lieberher as Bill and Sophia Lillis as Beverly are all fantastic. They perfectly embody the camaraderie that’s needed to battle a seemingly overwhelming monster that feeds on their fear.

The town of Derry also becomes a character of sorts in the story when its revealed that the place always has been a little off, acting like a magnet that attracts evil. The citizens of Derry drive or walk right past outrageous acts being perpetrated on children, and it’s clear that their apathy makes them part of the problem, if not actually complicit in Pennywise’s horrendous deeds. Thanks to its everyday banality of evil, Derry wound up being the perfect place for Pennywise to lurk, and the fact that the film manages to make this point is all the more impressive.

Even if you’ve read the book and seen the earlier TV version of It--like I have--this new version is still chilling and gripping right to the very end. That’s because it embraces the story, as well as the fact that it is a horror film and runs with it in great style. And, I have to admit, thanks to this bold, fantastic new version of It, I’ve recently been looking at clowns in a (scary) new light. --SF

Monday, February 12, 2018

Timeline -- a review

Fifteen years ago Timeline hit the movie screens. Based on the novel of the same name by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, Timeline dealt with a group of archeologists working a castle ruin site in present day France where the French overthrew the English occupying force back in the 1300s. When the leader of the expedition (Billy Connoly) starts getting suspicious about his backers--who keep giving them amazing tips on where to find things that nobody could know the location of--he goes back to the US to speak with them. After his father has been gone without a trace for several days, the expedition leader’s son Chris (Paul Walker) calls the backers to demand to know the whereabouts of his father.

Chris travels to the headquarters of the expedition’s backers, which is a tech company that has managed to invent a time machine. This was how they were able to give the expedition in France such good tips, because they traveled back in time to the actual battle in the 1300s. It’s explained that they didn’t so much invent a time machine but rather they discovered a fixed wormhole that stretches back to only this specific time and place. The company had sent teams back in time, dressed in the period clothing, to explore the era. The problem for Chris is that his father demanded to travel back in time, and wound up getting lost there.

And so Chris, Kate (Frances O’Connor), Marek (Gerard Butler), François (Rossif Sutherland), and Frank (Neal McDonough) form a rescue team to go back in the past to medieval France to bring back Billy Connoly. What could possibly go wrong?

Michael Crichton’s novel was rich in both history as well as scientific theory. When you went back in time with the crew in the book, Crichton really made you feel like you were in 1300s France. And it wasn’t a romanticized version, either, but rather a gritty, down to earth look at life in the mud--which was what most people back then had to deal with. Tyranny was everywhere, mainly in the form of English troops barking orders to the downtrodden. Through his sharp description of realistic medieval times and people, Crichton excelled at making the reader extremely grateful to be living in these modern times.

Director Richard Donner (the 1978 Superman, the Lethal Weapon films) does a good job at compressing most of the book’s sprawling narrative, while still keeping important exposition. The problem is that the story comes off as being a little rushed at times, with people shouting much-needed exposition at each other just before running for their lives from knights on horseback who are trying to run them through. Donner was required to recut his film several times to please the studio, so that may explain the rushed pacing, especially in the first half.

Still, despite its flaws, I enjoy Timeline very much. It remains a fun romp; a good popcorn film, if nothing else. And the film still holds up very well in spite of it now being fifteen years old. It should have broad appeal for fans of science fiction and historical stories--as well as frequent visitors to renaissance fairs (both the film and renaissance fairs share the same aspect: they have the theme of modern day people mingling with those in the medieval past). Timeline would be the penultimate movie in Richard Donner’s long and storied career with 16 Blocks being the last film he directed thus far.

Paul Walker went on to greater fame as the star of the Fast and the Furious films, until his untimely death in a car crash in 2013. Gerard Butler would also go on to bigger things, like 300, Olympus Has Fallen, and London Has Fallen. Frances O’Connor has also kept busy, starring in Mr. Selfridge, The Conjuring 2, and Cleverman over the years. Billy Connoly has also kept working, starring in X-Files: I Want To Believe, Brave, and The Hobbitt: The Battle of the Five Armies. And the villainous Lord Oliver in this film was played by Michael Sheen, who went on to star in Underworld (released the same year as Timeline), Frost/Nixon, along with the recent Passengers.

Some interesting tidbits: although they had no scenes together in the film, David Thewlis (who played Doniger) and Anna Friel (the Lady Claire) fell in love during the shooting and have remained together ever since. And the late Michael Crichton reportedly hated the movie version of Timeline so much that he stopped offering his books for sale to the studios. --SF

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Cloverfield 1, 2, & 3 -- a review

Netflix gave us a special surprise right after the Superbowl ended when they premiered Cloverfield: Paradox, the third in the SF/Horror anthology film series that got started ten years ago with the original Cloverfield. I’ve recently read that there’s now a fourth Cloverfield film on the horizon. Can’t wait to see that one, but lets take a look at the first three:

Cloverfield: Paradox takes place aboard a space station in the somewhat distant future. Humanity is on the brink of an all-out war over the last dwindling reserves of oil, with people waiting on lines that stretch for blocks just to gas up (much like the gas lines of the 1970s). The Cloverfield space station is testing a gizmo that will supposedly end the energy crisis, but once they get it running, the device transports the station to another universe, where they find the Earth is missing and an extra crew member (played by Elizabeth Debicki) in the wall of their space station. Awkward!

Even weirder stuff starts happening, like when Chris O’Dowd’s arm gets cut off, but he barely notices it until it’s pointed out to him. And then the film just gets very silly when the severed arm--which is still alive and well, thanks very much--starts writing notes on where the crew can find stuff. O’Dowd even says, straight-faced: “Hey guys, check out my arm. I think my arm is trying to write something.” And that was pretty much when the movie turned into a flat-out comedy for me.

The scuttlebutt is that Paramount, which produced Cloverfield: Paradox, sold the film to Netflix because they thought it had problems and wanted to avoid a costly theatrical run for what would likely be a box office bomb. Paramount was very smart. Cloverfield: Paradox, isn’t. You don’t introduce a concept as far out as a still-living severed arm (that winds up being smarter than any of the characters) that offers helpful tips and then just dump it once its serves its purpose as a deus ex machina. The movie is filled with big ideas that either have no payoff, or are not further explored properly. And in spite of having a great cast, the characterizations fall short. Also, the shoe-horned attempts to link this film to the first Cloverfield just feels tacked on (reportedly there was some reshooting involved here).

But I have to admit that, despite its problems, I still enjoyed Cloverfield: Paradox--just probably not in the way its creators had intended. If I saw this in a theater I probably would have hated it, but seeing it on Netflix, warts and all, made me forgive its faults. So having it premiere there was probably a good idea after all. And I think that Netflix showing more big-budget genre films is a trend that should continue.

Speaking of the original Cloverfield, I re-watched this right after seeing Paradox. And while it’s ten years old and shot in the shaky-camera style of the found-footage trend, Cloverfield still stands the test of time admirably. Its director, Matt Reeves, who would go onto bigger and even better things, helms this movie with a sure hand as we follow a group of sympathetic twenty-somethings through a horrifying night of watching New York City being attacked by a giant monster.

Yes, it’s a big-monster movie that’s inspired by the Godzilla films, something which the filmmakers freely admit to in the special features on the DVD. But the found-footage format re-invents this genre by showing the monster invasion from the ground-level view of a group of friends who are all just trying to escape--and this point of view gives the proceedings a far more intimate, and terrifying, feel. Cloverfield is one of the better big-monster movies that should be seen by fans (and even non-fans) of that genre.

10 Cloverfield Lane is my favorite of all three Cloverfield films. Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead in a superbly claustrophobic thriller as a woman named Michele who wakes up after a car crash to find herself in an underground bunker. The always great John Goodman co-stars as Howard, who built the bunker, as well as having rescued Michelle--and who tells her that she can’t leave because humanity has come under attack by an unknown force and the very air outside is poison.

Director David Trachtenberg does a marvelous job at turning this into a great cat and mouse suspense film as Michelle struggles to find out if Howard is telling the truth, or if she’s the captive of a psychopath. Winstead is the standout here as her initially mousey character rises to the occasion to stand up for herself. Winstead's is a strong performance within a well-drawn out character arc in an edge-of-your-seat film that’s highly recommended. Be sure to bring a copy of 10 Cloverfield Lane with you into your bunker. --SF

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Snowman -- a review

Harry Hole? Seriously? That’s the name of the lead character played by Michael Fassbender in The Snowman, a police thriller that’s set in the snowy landscape of Norway. It’s famously become one of the worst--if not the worst--movies of 2017, thanks in part to its own director, Tomas Alfredson, admitting that they were unable to film about ten to fifteen percent of the script, which led to large chunks of story that were missing when it came time to edit everything together. But even with some reshooting having been done after main production wrapped, The Snowman is still a mess.

Harry Hole is a slovenly drunk cop who wakes up in children’s playground areas, among other places (and given the bitterly cold Norwegian winters, one wonders how he even manages to wake up at all), when he’s not pestering his ex-girlfriend. A series of disappearances begins in Norway, with the victims being young women who have children. The killer telegraphs his intentions by creating snowmen outside the houses of his victims before they’re even taken. In one case, the killer even calls the police before he kills his victim, and then comes back later and kills her after they had left.

Why is he doing this? The opening scene tries to show some backstory regarding the killer’s motives. Yet the biggest problem with The Snowman is how dull and plodding it is. The pacing is as slow as a snail, and there nary any suspense at all in a movie that’s supposed to be a thriller. The editing itself feels very stilted and disjointed. There are way too many exposition scenes with people riding in cars, and all you see is the car traveling through the wintry Norwegian settings with the actors speaking in voice over. This is usually a desperate trick to fix a film’s narrative without having the proper scenes available.

This is obvious in how The Snowman is missing a lot of pick up shots, where you abruptly see a hand reaching for a gun--not having a clue who’s grabbing the gun, or for what reason. It’s a shame, because this film has a great cast and good production values, and somewhere in this jumbled mess it feels like there’s a halfway decent detective story. But The Snowman is just too screwed up to be worth anybody’s time. You might be better off reading the Jo Nesbø book instead. --SF