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Science Fiction

Blu-ray: Deluge

Deluge (1933) (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), the original end-of-the-world thriller, is a curious and often fascinating artifact. Produced in 1933, before the production code came down on Hollywood, on a relatively modest budget, it imagines not just the destruction of civilization in (unexplained) earthquakes and cataclysmic storms but life after the flood, so to speak. It’s based on a popular 1920s science fiction novel by the now forgotten Sydney Fowler Wright and can claim the title as the first disaster movie.

Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Scientists are in a panic as barometers plunge and reports of cities flooded in tidal waves and hurricanes are breathlessly reported in radio broadcasts. In these opening scenes, however, the only destruction we witness is the lavish house in the woods of Martin and Helen (Sidney Blackmer and Lois Wilson), crushed under trees blown over by high winds while Martin carries them off to safety. Then the real spectacle begins: New York collapses in primitive yet evocative miniatures that are more expressionistic than realistic, like an avant-garde short dropped into a science fiction thriller. Crude travelling mattes put people amidst the destruction, fleeing collapsing buildings or getting crushed by the debris, and a magnificent miniature gives us a God’s eye view of New York City swamped in a tsunami. By modern standards it’s not all “realistic” but it’s mesmerizing in part because it’s a cinematic imagining of something no filmmaker had attempted on screen before. It’s a first pass at the kind of disaster spectacle we now take for granted and these technicians create it all from scratch, not just the technical matter of the physical special effects but the very visualization of the end of the world.

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Review: Soylent Green

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

Richard Fleischer’s new film is a science-fiction-horror-mystery. The horrors are ecological: pollution, overpopulation, welfare as a national way of life, objectification of human beings. The mystery is the murder of Simonson (Joseph Cotten), head of the Soylent Corporation (from “soy” and “lentil”), producer of the world’s food supply: wafers that come in red, yellow and green. Charlton Heston is Thorn, police detective assigned to investigate the murder. Technically and dramatically much weaker than most slick science-fiction films, Soylent Green is still more realistic on one terrifying point: the ecology will deteriorate, through misuse and overuse of plant and animal life as well as overpopulation, much sooner than human technology and architecture will advance to accommodate it and create the oppressive-but-neat world of domes, interplanetary travel and multi-leveled cities that characterize most movies of the s.f. genre. The world of Soylent Green is a fetid, overcrowded, overheated mass of sweaty bodies, clothed in rags, living in abandoned cars and tenement stairwells, shuffled about by steam shovels when they become uncontrollable. Only the rich and those employed or owned by the rich have room to live in comfort, real food to eat, clean clothing and running water.

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Review: Logan

Listen, if your bones were fused with adamantium, if you’d already outlived a normal lifespan, and if your mutant healing factor had weakened lately, you’d be tired, too. Melancholy, even. Such is the state of the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) as we meet him in the latest Marvel movie offering, Logan. Wolverine’s place in the comic-book universe had already been tapped for X-Men spinoffs, and frankly nothing could have sounded less enthralling then another turn with this particular hairy-handed gent. So, anyway: Logan turns out to be not only the best Marvel film since Guardians of the Galaxy, but a gratifying piece of movie storytelling in its own right.

I throw the word “storytelling” in there because so many comic-book films have followed a ramshackle outline of destruction and wisecracks, all squeezed through the straightjacket of fulfilling some larger canvas—pity the poor screenwriter who must make certain an Ant-Man quip doesn’t contradict a past Avengers film or a future Spider-Man installment. Logan is actual storytelling.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Blu-ray/DVD: Roger Corman’s ‘Death Race 2050’

Death Race 2050 (2016) – After Paul W.S. Anderson’s humorless Death Race, his 2008 remake/reworking of the Roger Corman-produced cult movie Death Race 2000 (1975), there’s something oddly satisfying in getting a genuine remake produced by Corman himself in the impudent spirit of the original.

Death Race 2050 is a modern B movie, produced directly for the home video market (Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) on a minimal budget, and director / co-writer G.J. Echternkamp has no illusions of what he’s making. In the best Corman tradition, he delivers the grunge action movie goods and a little more. It’s not necessarily a “good” movie—it’s ragged and choppy and scattershot, with broad, cartoonish gags and easy jabs over pointed satire—but it’s also fun, unpretentious, cheeky, energetic, gleefully trashy, and filled with junky spectacle.

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Godzilla Evolution

Shin Godzilla, the first new Japanese Godzilla film in twelve years, stomped into the record books as Japan’s top moneymaking live-action film of 2016, and the highest grossing Godzilla film ever, but it practically snuck into American theaters last week, staking out one or two showings a day in urban multiplexes with practically no advertising and no advance screenings. American audiences sought it out and sold out showings nonetheless, inspiring stateside distributor Funimation to expand its release to more screens and showtimes.

What makes this all the more surprising is that it’s counter to everything we associate with a classic Godzilla movie. And I don’t mean the inevitable shift from suitmation (the man in a suit stomping through elaborate miniature cityscapes) to motion capture and CGI. The third Japanese reboot of the series opens with an echo of the original 1954 Godzilla, on the mystery of an abandoned boat in open water, but otherwise it wipes the slate clean and treats this as the first ever encounter with a giant creature on a tear through Tokyo. Not what you expect from a film whose title translates roughly to New Godzilla—according to the film’s executive producer Akihiro Yamauchi, “Shin” can stand for “new,” “true,” and “god”—and alternately has been called Godzilla Resurgence by Toho. As far as this film is concerned, it isn’t a return. This is first contact.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Review: Westworld

[Originally published in Movietone News 28, December 1973]

Stanley Kubrick has staked out as his special territory the study of the diverse and frequently perverse liaisons between man and machine. In films like Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey Kubrick obsessively examines all the accoutrements of a technological environment in which sophisticated hardware continually threatens to become autonomous, even humanized, while man is recreated in the image not of an anthropomorphic deity but of deus ex machina. Michael Crichton (author of The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man, director of Extreme Closeup) is equally preoccupied with scientific paraphernalia and what it portends for the future of mankind. But whereas Kubrick is an artist who makes the machinery serve the myth, Crichton displays only a facile cleverness, a slick talent for coming up with a grabby idea upon which to hang the full weight of a novel or a film. The best contemporary sci-fi writers have turned true novelists in their concern with characterization and style, as well as the need to present in-depth analyses of the ethical, moral, even metaphysical fallout resulting from current technological advances. Crichton’s work has more in common with the oldfashioned sci-fi adventure/suspense thriller genre. For instance, The Terminal Man begins as potentially “modern” science fiction: a man given to extreme violence during epileptic seizures is “cured” by the implantation of a miniature computer in his brain; this cybernetic therapy is complicated by his increasingly psychotic belief that machines are taking control of humans. But Crichton dodges the rich possibilities of this material and ultimately settles for mere chase melodrama. Still, The Terminal Man is as close as he’s come to real achievement in the genre of serious sci-fi.

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Review: Morgan

Morgan
Morgan

As we slide into the late-summer multiplex doldrums, movies with neurons to spare are especially welcome. The clinical cautionary tale Morgan happily fits into the latter category, moving past some early familiarity to become a smart, sneakily ambitious thriller.

Set in the not too distant future, the story follows a no-nonsense corporate troubleshooter (Kate Mara) sent to a secluded forest compound to assess the status of a rapidly developing artificial humanoid (The Witch’s terrifically spooky Anya Taylor-Joy). As she and the swiftly dwindling team of scientists—including Toby Jones, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and a perfectly assholish Paul Giamatti—soon discover, the experiment has some significant gray areas.

Continue reading at The Stranger

Blu-ray: ‘Batman v Superman’ – Dawn of the DCU

BatmanvSuperThe smartest thing about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition (Warner, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, Ultra HD Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, VOD) is its revisionist take on the destruction that concluded Man of Steel, Zach Snyder’s reboot of Superman as a harder, more troubled hero in a darker big screen superhero universe than previous incarnations. After an unnecessary (but at least relatively brief) recap of the origin of Batman laid under the opening credits, we are plunged back into the battle and this time Superman (Henry Cavill) is not the protagonist. This perspective comes from the ground. He’s simply an agent of destruction in the sky as Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck with a hint of stubble and gray in the temples) roars through the street in what is surely, at least under the hood, the civilian answer to the Batmobile. Man of Steel quite rightly was slammed for its insensitive portrait of epic destruction in an urban center without a thought for the victims below and Snyder, in all his heavyhanded Olympian grandeur, seemed just as oblivious as Superman. Both were so caught up in the personal fight with the demons of Krypton that neither could be bothered to notice civilians crushed like ants in a battle of the titans.

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Blu-ray / DVD: ‘Deadpool’ and ‘The Witch’

DeadpoolBDDeadpool (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, 4K UltraHD, VOD) – Irreverent, outrageous, and strewn with self-aware commentary and dark humor, Deadpool is the polar opposite of the self-serious Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It is raunchy and gory and features a hero with no compunctions about killing the henchmen sent after him. In fact, he relishes it.

It’s based on a Marvel comics character but it’s not a Marvel movie per se. Technically an offshoot of the X-Menmovies developed by 20th Century Fox, it both embraces and spoofs the Marvel movie formula. The opening faux credits set the whole tone, trashing the entire superhero industry and the film’s own star, Ryan Reynolds. His first superhero outing, Green Lantern, was one of the biggest disasters of the genre. Deadpool isn’t about to let him live it down and Reynolds plays along with it, making him perfect casting. He has the attitude necessary to pull off the balance of self-aware joking, sardonic commentary, and tormented anti-hero hiding behind humor.

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Blu-ray: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

StarWarsForceStar Wars: The Force Awakens (Walt Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) – J.J. Abrams takes over the reins of the Star Wars franchise with what is technically a sequel (“Chapter VII: The Force Awakens”) but is just as much a course correction, a reboot, and a return to the source. It’s been called a shameless remake of the original Star Wars and refreshing return to the innocence and energy and pulpy fun that first entranced a generation of fans. I lean toward the latter, but even for those who find it rehash, I would point out that The Force Awakens is not aimed at the adult fans who grew up on the original trilogy all those decades ago. I’m one of those who saw the film on its first run and was thrilled by it. I think that Abrams is trying to recreate that experience for a whole new generation eager to be captured by the charge and action and exotic Amazing Stories covers come to life in a fairy tale space fantasy that takes place long ago and a galaxy far, far away…

To that end, this installment (set 30 years after Return of the Jedi) picks up with another scrappy kid from a desert planet who finds a runaway robot with secret plans and escapes from the resurgence of the Republic with a hunk of junk ship that just happens to be the Millennium Falcon, teams up with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who are still smuggling and scamming through way through the galaxy well past retirement age, and joins the resistance under the command of Leia (Carrie Fisher). This time, however, the kid with the essence of the force within is a spunky, inventive young woman named Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her running buddy is a former Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) who goes AWOL after his first mission, which turns into a pitiless massacre of innocents.

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Review: Midnight Special (1)

Jaeden Lieberher in ‘Midnight Special’

We need to talk about Alton. Nice boy, bright, well-behaved. But it seems strange that his eyes sometimes shine like the demon kids’ peepers in Village of the Damned, and that he occasionally speaks in unison with the deejay on the Spanish-language radio station—even when the radio isn’t turned on. Little things like that.

Alton’s peculiarity is at the heart of Midnight Special, the fourth feature written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud). As the film begins, we are mysteriously in the middle of the action: Eight-year-old Alton (played by Jaeden Lieberher, the boy from The Confirmation) is being transported across Texas by his father, Roy (Michael Shannon), and Roy’s state-trooper buddy Lucas (Joel Edgerton). The authorities are after them, but we don’t know why. Meanwhile, a religious patriarch (Sam Shepard), who seems to be the leader of some sort of apocalyptic cult, orders his deputy (Bill Camp) to find the kid at all costs.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Review: Midnight Special (2)

Michael Shannon and Jaeden Lieberher in ‘Midnight Special’

Jeff Nichols is in the zone. With just a handful of films, the Little Rock, Arkansas, native has crafted his own busy little pocket of Southern Gothic, spilling over with feuding families (2007’s Shotgun Stories), ordinary people touched with terrible prophecy (2011’s Take Shelter), and the painful limits of self-aware mythologizing (2012’s Mud). Whatever the subject, the writer/director’s movies are all marked by unobtrusive camerawork, unsparing yet respectful looks at blue-collar living, and a few touches of downright weirdness somehow specific to his region. (Shotgun Stories features a father who names his offspring Son, Boy, and Kid, which is something that you can imagine Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee enthusiastically high-fiving about in the afterlife.) He’s got chops, is what I’m saying.

Midnight Special, Nichols’ latest, continues the director’s winning streak. While on its surface an affectionate throwback to the kid-friendly sci-fi adventures of yesteryear (as the critic Matt Zoller Seitz said on Twitter, if this had been made in the ’80s, it’d never stop playing on HBO), its underlying themes of families under pressure make it very much of a piece with the filmmaker’s other work.

Continue reading at The Portland Mercury

Review: Deadpool

‘Deadpool’

Deadpool, Ryan Reynolds’ second crack at Marvel’s most in-your-face character (following a forgotten appearance in the misbegotten X-Men Origins: Wolverine) is a terrifically faithful adaptation of some awfully obnoxious source material. If you’re a pre-existing devotee, the film’s nonstop assortment of cartoony assholes and elbows to the ribs might very well make your head pop off in a paroxysm of joy. (Seriously, the employees at the crammed preview screening I attended probably wished they had put down plastic beforehand.)

Continue reading at The Portland Mercury

Blu-ray/DVD: The strange Japanese worlds of ‘Tokyo Tribe’ and ‘Jellyfish Eyes’

JellyfishJellyfish Eyes (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the debut feature from visual artist Takashi Murakami, is a fantasy of childhood innocence and fantastical creatures come to life as Pokemon-like playmates. It’s also a strange conspiracy involving a cult of young researchers in a post-Fukushima world applying an alchemy of science and magic to a transporter device linked to an alternate reality.

Masashi (Takuto Sueoka), the young son of a widowed mother (still trapped in her mourning), moves to the idyllic little town next to an ominous, secretive research lab. He’s practically adopted by a flying creature that looks like a mushroom crossed with a jellyfish and turned into a rubber doll you might win from a carnival game, right around the time he starts having nightmares of his father, the tsunami that took his life, and jellyfish. Then Masashi discovers that every kid in town has their own creature, which they explain are called F.R.I.E.N.D.s and controled with the help of a handheld device. The boys send their F.R.I.E.N.D.s into battle in arena-like matches, much to the outrage of a shy girl (Himeka Asami) with giant sheepdog of a F.R.I.E.N.D. who hates the bullying culture that this violence inspires.

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Review: Zardoz

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

In the opening sequence of John Boorman’s new film, a huge stone head resembling a Greek tragic mask drifts in the air above the Irish countryside, like the floating spirit of Astaroth; it spits forth a spray of rifles and exhorts a congregation of horsemen to go forth and kill. This is the god Zardoz, who decrees that the rapidly reproducing populace must be exterminated, that the gun is good and the penis evil. Here, “deep in a possible future,” the Year 2293, we thus discover John Boorman, in his first film since Deliverance, dealing once again with the conflicts between nature’s way and humanity’s way.

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