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Sci Fi Day: Transformers

Prior to Transformers I’d say I’ve probably got more entertainment from Paul W.S. Anderson’s films than Michael Bay’s, so it’s fair to say I’m not a fan. It’s not that Bay is a bad director, when it comes to action he can orchestrate mayhem like few others. My problem with Bay is that, when you take out the gunfire and explosions, you’re left with clichéd stories, paper thin characters and not much else.

So why did I enjoy Transformers so much? Is it cleverly plotted? Not really it’s about two factions of big robots looking for a cube. Does it have three dimensional characters who give us a deeper understanding of what it’s like to be in life or death situations? Nope, it’s full of beautiful people shouting, running and firing guns. No the reason Transformers works is because it doesn’t need those things, it’s as cartoon brought to life and its charm is simply this – robots are cool, big robots are even cooler and big robots fighting other big robots is uber-cool. As a bonus the film also has a charismatic lead whose star is very much on the rise in Shia LaBeouf, a smokin’ hot action heroine in Megan Fox (she’s probably got more balls than LaBeouf) and a script with a good level of humour that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The only downer is Jon Voight and John Turturro overdoing it a little on the ham and cheese.

Forget Pearl Harbour, Armageddon and the rest, with Transformers Bay has found his ideal subject matter. Roll on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen! Now if only someone could find a way to stop him producing all those pointless horror remakes I could almost start to like the guy.

Dipa’s review can be found here.

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Sci Fi Day: Donnie Darko – The Director’s Cut

Is Donnie Darko SF? Yes, but it’s much more than that, it’s a drama about family relationships, a mystery that will have your brain working overtime, it even flirts with horror at times. For me though it’s a love story more than anything else. Would you commit the ultimate sacrifice to save someone you love, knowing that in doing so they’d no longer even remember you – that is the essence of Donnie Darko and what makes the final half hour such an emotional experience second time around, when you know what’s going to happen. It’s a film that can not only be enjoyed on repeat viewing but actually improves with them.

Jake Gyllenhaal is outstanding as Donnie, but there isn’t a duff performance in the entire film. Richard Kelly directs with an abundance of style, an ear for music, and a deft touch when it comes to the family scenes. Even if he never makes another film of this calibre again, which from what I’ve heard of Southland Tales may be the case, at least we have this gem to treasure.

“Donnie Darko? What the hell kind of name is that? It’s like some sort of superhero or something.”

“What makes you think I’m not?”

What indeed.

You can read Dipa’s first impression of the film here.

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Sci Fi Day: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

This is really Sci Fi Day Part 2, picking up where we left off last weekend.

Spielberg’s classic family film is essentially Lassie meets Close Encounters, of course the ‘dog’ in this boy and his dog tale is far more intelligent than any of the human protagonists, although, come to think of it, that’s true of most Lassie films.

Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore give excellent performances, particularly given their age and lack of experience at the time. While most child actors don’t make the transition to adult roles (co-star Robert MacNaughton being a perfect example) both Thomas and Barrymore have gone on to successful careers, particularly Drew who we’ll see again shortly in Donnie Darko.

The film still pushes all the right emotional buttons and has a timeless quality which will ensure it remains one of the all-time great family films, despite Spielberg ‘doing a Lucas’ and making unnecessary changes. Just for the record we watched the original version.

You’ll find Dipa’s thoughts on revisiting this childhood favourite here.

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Sci Fi Day: Aliens vs Predator – Requiem

I’m one of the few who liked Paul W.S. Anderson’s Alien Vs Predator, so maybe I’ve got a higher than normal tolerance for crap films but this follow-up makes Anderson’s film look like a classic. It takes the slasher film mentality, i.e. spend the first half of the film introducing the victims and the second half killing them off, the only difference here is the bogeyman is extraterrestrial in origin. Whereas the first film had the Predator as (sort of) the good guy, here it’s a free for all with the humans caught in the middle, so think Freddy Vs Jason without the humour.

Full of stereotypical characters who follow predictable story arcs anyone who’s seen Friday the 13th or any of its ilk will be able to predict who’s going to die. In fact we had more fun predicting who would be next to croak than we did watching the film. A lot more.

The Strause Brothers direction generates no tension or suspense, the action is poorly choreographed and it doesn’t even deliver on the gore front (even in this Unrated Cut). It’s sad to see just how far these once mighty monsters have fallen, let’s hope they leave them in peace now.

And the ‘twist’ ending was complete bollocks and made no sense at all.

For Dipa’s equally negative review click here.

That’s the end of Sci Fi Day for now. Like an all-you-can-eat buffet we attempted to devour more than we could possibly cram in in one sitting but we will do the remainder of the films (E.T., Transformers and Donnie Darko), probably next weekend.

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Sci Fi Day: Phase IV

This is the 2001 of ant movies! Part alien invasion part Animal Planet it has Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy out in the desert trying to understand recent changes in ant behaviour and, in the end, find some way to communicate with them.

Director Saul Bass is best known for his revolutionary credit sequences, particularly for some of the Bond films, but here he crafts an intelligent SF film, with some amazing footage of the ants. In fact the ants are almost like characters themselves, and this is the only film I can think of where one cast member literally eats another.

 Davenport steals the acting honours, going a tad bonkers after one of the ants gives him a bite on the hand while Murphy is too emotionless, perhaps unsure what the hell it’s all about. Just what it is all about is open to interpretation but I’d love to see Bass’ original version with its trippy 2001 style ending. As it is though I’m just glad I’ve had to chance to see this again.

For a bugphobe’s perspectve read Dipa’s review here.

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Sci Fi Day: Godzilla

This original Godzilla film will come as a shock to anyone who’s only seen later entries in the long running series. The main difference is that the Big G we see here is very much the villain rather than the reluctant hero he would become. It’s also a much more serious film, with Godzilla an analogy for the American atomic bomb. It also asks how responsible a scientist is for his creation, coming down in favour of culpability.

There’s some good old-fashioned Godzilla mayhem too but it’s not as much fun as later films, we get to see the affect it has on people rather than just wholesale mass destruction. A worthy film but not one I’d consider a true masterpiece.  

You’ll find Dipa’s less enthusiastic opinion here.

Sci Fi Day: The Incredible Shrinking Man

Richard Matheson’s Tom Thumb for the atomic age is part character study, part action movie. The first half of the film focuses on Scott Carey’s gradual disintegration, both mental and physical and gets the audience to empathise with Carey, thanks to a terrific performance from Grant Williams. Then we’re thrown down the cellar with him, into a primal world where food must be won and life is threatened by a creature as fearsome as any horror movie monster, before ultimately reaching a philosophical climax that leaves the film with a note of optimism.

The set design is amazing, Matheson’s script, from his own novel, is literate and moving and Jack Arnold’s direction fuses them together to create a true science fiction masterpiece. This is probably my favourite ‘50s SF movies and one I never get tired of watching. Given how good he is here I’ve never understood why Grant Williams got stuck in B Movies and TV.

I think this is also the film that’s responsible for my fear of spiders.

You’ll find Dipa’s view here.

Sci Fi Day: Forbidden Planet

The day kicks off with a real classic. Groundbreaking special effects that still look good today, a unique score that’s more electronic bleeps than music but fits the film perfectly, and a cool monster – what more could you ask for? How about Leslie Nielsen as a proto-Kirk, he’s even got James T’s eye for the ladies, or Walter Pidgeon as mad scientist Doctor Edward Morbius, or one of cinemas most memorable robots in Robby? The only bum note is Anne Francis who lacks the innocence to make the Altaira character believable, coming across as a bit of a flirt.

You’ll find Dipa’s thoughts here.

Burning Rubber

Fast cars (and bikes) are the subject of this weeks viewing journal.

Torque
A film so over the top that it feels more like a spoof than a genuine attempt to do for motorbikes what The Fast and the Furious did for cars. Problem is it’s silly but not funny and ends up just being tedious.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
Am I alone in thinking Lucas Black is cool? Maybe I am but he’s definitely the best thing in this second sequel to the 2001 hit, although it’s a sequel in name only, having no ties to the other films in the series (save for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo right at the end from Vin Diesel). Aimed at a younger audience, with a cast of twentysomethings playing high school kids, it’s The O.C. on wheels on holiday in Japan. If you’re under twenty you might love it, for anyone older it has little to offer but it’s still far better than John Singleton’s deadly dull 2 Fast 2 Furious.

The Diver
This is a great thriller from Walter Hill. Yes it could have been better, the part of The Driver has Steve McQueen written all over it, but it’s got some cracking car chases and a gripping game of cat and mouse between The Driver and The Detective. Ryan O’Neal, while lacking the McQueen cool does a good job in a part that’s a world away from the romantic dramas and light comedies that made his name. Bruce Dern, for a change on the right side of the law, is great as the cop who’ll stop at nothing to get his man. It may not be big on character but this is one of the best car movies ever made.

Vanishing Point
And while we’re on the subject of best car movies ever, this one gets my vote. The late ‘60s/early ‘70s were the golden years for cinematic vehicular mayhem and this film gives us one of the most iconic movie automobiles ever in the white 1970 Dodge Challenger driven by Kowalski (Barry Newman). Kowalski is in a hurry to get to San Francisco from Denver (we never find out why) and takes a job delivering said Dodge Challenger. In between outrunning the police and encountering oddball characters (like Dean Jagger’s desert dwelling snake hunter) we get snapshots of his past – as racing driver, cop, lover – none of which explain his need to get to Frisco, but then the why isn’t really important. Newman is cool, not McQueen cool but still pretty damn cool, and you’re routing for him right up to the films nihilistic yet oddly exhilerating climax.

‘I’m a soldier of the apocalypse, man!’

Mr Bale’s been in the news a bit recently (you’ve probably noticed) and he’s also been making regular appearances on my DVD player this week as a warm up to seeing The Dark Knight at the IMAX cinema in Birmingham this coming Saturday

Equilibrium
This Orwellian tale is a better film that it probably has a right to be. Essentially 1984 done as an action movie, it benefits from a great cast, particularly Christian Bale, and some good action sequences. The Gun Fu idea manages to be both silly and incredibly cool at the same time and is about the films only original idea. To see what Equilibrium would have been like without Bale check out director Kurt Wimmer’s follow-up Ultraviolet.

The Machinist
How far should an actor go in pursuit of authentisity? Christian Bale goes above and beyond the call of duty in Brad Anderson’s film about an insomniac machine operator, to the point where you start to worry about his health. Bale, all skin and bones, gives a typically intense performance in this surreal story that avoids categorisation, being part drama, part thriller, part horror. It’s an excellent film that feels like something David Cronenberg might have dreamed up, which is high praise indeed.

Harsh Times
The military takes young men, trains them how to kill, puts them through things that leave them traumatised and unable to deal with life in the ‘real’ world and the lets them loose on that world – that’s the premise behind David Ayer’s directorial debut. The ex-Army Ranger is played by Christian Bale and he gives another first rate performance, showing the inner turmoil of a character who misses the order of military existence and finds himself pulled into a life of drugs and violence when his application is turned down by the LAPD . Playing his best friend, Freddy Rodríguez is an excellent foil for Bale, adding a touch of humour and likability to an otherwise pretty bleak film. Desperate Housewife Eva Longoria Parker isn’t required to do much more than look pretty and gripe at Rodríguez for not getting a job but she’s more than capable of both tasks.

The New World
Terrence Malick’s take on the Pocahontas story is certainly sumptuous to look at but it failed to grip me as it should. This may be sacrilegious but I’ve never been a big Malick fan, I’ve always felt his reputation was far greater than his body of work warranted, it’s almost like his lack of output is what convinces people he must be a great filmmaker. But my main gripe with The New World isn’t Malick’s direction, although the lethargic pace doesn’t help the film, no it’s with the film’s star Colin Farrell. Now I’ve enjoyed more than a few of Farrell’s films but his mumbling performance here was so irritating I developed an instant dislike to the character (not that he’s particularly likable anyway). As he’s one of the few people that are really developed in the film (that lack of characters being another of the films problems, and an inexcusable one given its length) it’s no wonder the film failed to engage me. Q’orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas is remarkably good for such an inexperienced actress and Christian Bale does a good job given the small amount of screen time he gets, making John Rolfe far more endearing than Farrell’s Captain Smith, to the extent that it’s hard to accept the attraction of the mumbling Irishman.

The Prestige
I actually found The Prestige far more enjoyable second time around, without the weight of Christopher Nolan’s cinematic slight of hand to divert my attention. It’s got three (or should that be five?) first rate performances from Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale and Michael Caine, it’s got humour, it’s got tragedy and it’s got a gorgeous period setting. It’s also got David Bowie doing a funny accent but even that odd bit of casting doesn’t spoil the film. Hopefully Nolan will continue to make films like this in-between Batman movies, it would be a shame to see his talent tied too closely to the Dark Knight as Sam Raimi has been with Spider-Man.