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Solar Crisis (1990)
Lame duck sci-fi movie should have spent more on the script.
There are already a lot of spot-on reviews here about this failed attempt at big-budget space adventure from the 90's. I won't bother adding to commentary about the performances, but I would like to point out the absurdity of one of the plot points covered elsewhere.
The bad guy, Teague (somnambulantly played by the usually exceptional Peter Boyle), doesn't just have a STUPID motivation for his evil plan - to cause the failure of the spaceship Helios' mission to the sun, so that he can sell lots of stockpiled foodstuffs and make a fortune - he has a NONEXISTENT motivation! Because the Helios' mission, whether it succeeds or fails, DOESN'T AFFECT HIS PLAN. He doesn't believe that the 'mega-flare' (ha ha) will happen; he's just exploiting the current parched conditions of Earth's biosphere. Even if the Helios succeeds in dropping the antimatter bomb into Section 17 (ha ha) of the sun and thereby prompts a megaflare in the opposite direction - away from the Earth - it wouldn't change conditions on Earth. So it literally doesn't matter to him whether the Helios mission takes place or not.
As this storyline is based on a Japanese novel, I wonder if the author thought about this, or if it was strictly an invention of the two screenwriters, Joe Gannon and Tedi Sarafian (the director's son, working under a pseudonym). Either way, it's idiotic.
Don't waste your time on this movie. The competent model work and VFX by Richard Edlund's company are not sufficient compensation.
John Carter (2012)
Opulent but dull.
OK, somewhere between the gushers' and the haters' comments is the reality that this isn't a bad movie. Just not a good one.
Clearly the filmmakers loved their source material and tried their best to do it justice. There's plenty of stunning design work, superbly-rendered CGI and overall high production values. Disney might have spent a dismaying quarter of a billion dollars on this hoped-for 'tentpole' entertainment, but at least the money is on the screen.
The actors are decent too, within the confines of the trite dialogue and genre conventions that don't really clarify the plot. As the titular hero, Taylor Kitsch is especially effective as a man of action with a troubled past and not a lot of excess body fat.
The problem is that it's all been done and seen before. When Edgar Rice Burroughs first dreamed of Barsoom, his notions of flying machines held aloft by sunlight, warring tribes fighting with swords and rayguns, and beautiful princesses with combat skills were innovative and helped establish the nascent genre of science fiction and 'planetary romance.' But that was back in 1912, and there's been a lot of plundering of his ideas over the decades since. People like George Lucas and James Cameron readily acknowledge their creative debts to Burroughs and his contemporaries.
The result is that there's absolutely nothing new in this elaborate cinematic construct. All the gorgeous detail and VFX gloss are mere window dressing to a tired tale of swashbuckling, monsters, and battling hordes.
And come on -- not only do modern schoolchildren know that Mars is an arid world with virtually no atmosphere, but a good number probably also are aware that its gravity is about 40% of Earth's. So why is John Carter able to leap HUNDREDS of feet into the air, or swing a giant boulder and chain like a yo-yo? The filmmakers provide no explanation for this idiocy.
I will let them off for the truncated and ridiculous title, though. That smacks of a gutless studio marketing decision.
Competent but underwhelming sci-fi actioner.
Good example of squeezing every cent of value out of found locations and minimal but well-executed special effects. Peter Weller doesn't do much more than act tough as the beleaguered commander of a down-to-the-dregs military outpost on a ruined planet, but he's good enough to keep interest in the narrative.
Mechanical effects of the 'screamers' -- autonomous killer robots which mainly burrow through the ground -- are well-done, and there's some nifty stop-motion work by the Chiodo brothers showcasing a small reptilian version that stalks some of the heroes inside a building.
The science is disappointing for a film set in 2078 on a planet ('Sirius 6B') in another solar system. As the level of technology would demand faster-than-light spaceship drives, as well as robotics that allow machines to self-replicate and even evolve into perfectly counterfeit human forms, there's little evidence of it. No doubt that's due to budgetary limitations. But what's more risible is the made-up mineral being mined there, something called 'berynium', that's supposed to be 'the solution to Earth's energy problem' but has become terribly radioactive(?). Why wasn't it radioactive when they first started digging it up? And what kind of preventative treatment could be contained in the reddish cigarettes everyone smokes? How could its ingredients possibly protect every cell in the human body from the constant bombardment of ionizing radiation? That's just dumb.
The film's not a time-waster, and it's certainly not just a time-killer. Its plot moves well, and there's some bleakly effective cinematography of the wastelands and bombed out industrial structures. Unfortunately a romance between Weller and a female soldier seems trite as well as unlikely, and the story's ending is anticlimactic and dragged out for too long. Many questions about the war and the Screamers remain unanswered.
Mutant Chronicles (2008)
Grim and pointless.
The only reason I can think of for this film being made is that apparently it's based on some obscure video game, so the producers must have figured there was some kind of built-in audience out there somewhere. Although it delivers the requisite splatter for an R-rated sci-fi/horror flick, and the visual effects are competent, there is absolutely no characterization, no humor, and the action is numbingly repetitive. But I suppose if you're up for a 90-minute slog through darkness and gore and minimal dialogue, you might enjoy it.
The most dispiriting aspect of the film is its sheer ugliness. There's not much of interest to look at other than the regular splashes of blood. Most scenes are just too dark to make out any detail. Costumes and weapons are generic. All of the mutants look the same: bald, scarred, each with a big pointed bony spike in place of one arm. They're savage and quick but not really scary.
And worst of all: this is another in the seemingly endless modern canon of inexplicably monochrome films that look to have been digitally photographed against green screen, with CG sets and backgrounds added in post production. I hate to have to point out the obvious to these modern filmmakers but THE HUMAN EYE DOESN'T SEE THINGS THIS WAY. We're not dogs. We have color vision, and in reasonable lighting we can see the actual colors of everything around us. The world does not appear grey/brown like in the latest HARRY POTTER installment; nor blue like in the UNDERWORLD series, nor sepia like the new BOOK OF ELI. Please, can somebody besides James Cameron buck this trend?. The sad thing is that cinematographers shoot movies in beautiful rich color, then watch as the director or producers or whoever drain the imagery of color in post production. It's a waste, and makes absolutely zero sense.
Slow but intermittently fascinating.
Forgive the mundane US title, a poor substitute for the original but problematic DOPPELGANGER. This 1969 British science-fiction drama finds producers Gerry and Sylvia Anderson striving to rise above the kiddie-oriented marionette spectaculars ('Fireball XL-5', 'Thunderbirds') with which they'd achieved TV success. Though based upon a scientifically ludicrous premise, its solid acting and imaginative effects make it well worth a look for fans of cinematic sci-fi.
Okay, most school kids who've learned something about space and astronomy know that the orbits of the planets are not circular but elliptical, which renders the notion of a hidden planet on the opposite side of the sun pretty silly. But once we're over that, the storyline does provide some good old-fashioned space adventure, nifty hardware, and not a little 'Twilight Zone'-type eeriness.
When it first came out, my younger brother and I saw this as part of a sci-fi double bill, most likely paired with a Japanese monster movie. The latter was quickly forgotten, but this one made an impression. I especially remember the poetic spaceflight sequence, with its psychedelic visuals and dreamlike music. And we both loved the excellent miniatures by Derek Meddings (famous for his James Bond work), particularly the giant, Saturn 5-like multistage rocket and launching pad, and the futuristic hoverjet that brings American astronaut Roy Thinnes to the Eurosec space facility in Portugal.
Other cool gadgets (an Anderson staple): fake eyeball camera used by spy Herbert Lom; heart-lung-kidney machine that enables the astronauts' hibernation on their trip beyond the sun; ultra-streamlined motor vehicles of the year 2069; and so on. Anderson may not have had a Kubrick '2001' budget, but he squeezed every penny's worth of value out of meticulous production design, costumes, and model work.
Get past the slow first half-hour, and the narrative gains momentum and emotional weight on its way to a sobering and thought-provoking conclusion.
Some nice visuals but a muddled plot.
Danny Boyle's film aspires to '2001'-like transcendence but ultimately disappoints with a confusing final third and some too-gimmicky direction.
It's not just that the fairly linear, science-driven plot abruptly shifts into a horror flick scenario -- this might've still provided an appropriately tense, countdown-to-zero finale. But Boyle unwisely overlays the action with such blurry cinematography and choppy editing that it becomes virtually impossible to follow.
The cast is fine, doing their best with underwritten roles, but it would also have been helpful if screenwriter Alex Garland had provided a bit more back story, e.g., why is the sun expiring, how were the two solar expeditions put together, what has life become like back on earth, etc.
Also -- and this may seem like a minor complaint to some -- if you're taking pains to be scientifically accurate, and indeed, deliberately following in the footsteps of Kubrick and Clarke, it would behoove you to give an explanation for the ship's artificial gravity. I've read that earlier concepts included a centrifuge section, or alternately, that the bomb's payload was so massive it provided adequate gravitational pull, but neither is mentioned. Disappointingly, then, 40 years of advancing space technology and knowledge have not led to better VFX or increased verisimilitude.
The filmmakers' efforts here are appreciated, but it's a shame they fall short of the mark.
It Runs in the Family (1994)
Very unsuccessful sequel.
Jean Shepherd, Bob Clark, and the entire cast and crew seem to be trying really hard with this latecomer sequel to "A Christmas Story" but it just doesn't work.
Now granted, it would be tough for anyone to follow in the footsteps of the beloved characters portrayed so memorably by Darren McGavin (as The Old Man) and Peter Billingsley (as Ralphie) in the original, but the efforts here by Charles Grodin and Kieran Culkin, respectively, are disappointingly feeble. Culkin can be dismissed as merely bland; he's just not much of an actor. Grodin, however, is more problematic. Never the warmest of actors, his skill at playing low-key supporting characters who specialize in dryly delivered asides is unparalleled. But here he's simultaneously trying to pay a tribute to McGavin and convincingly portray a bigger-than-life 'man's man'; in both cases he's not only unconvincing, but actually looks uncomfortable.
Despite the ploddingly episodic script and casting weaknesses, praise should go, once again, to the production design and costuming, nostalgically evoking a bygone era. For some people that may be enough. But overall this a depressing example of filmmakers going to the well once too often.
A Guide for the Married Man (1967)
Let me start off by giving credit where it's due: Gene Kelly and company put a lot of lovely female pulchritude in this one. Not a skinny babe in the bunch. That's a big plus for us dirty old men.
However, the script itself is not only misogynistic -- every female character is treated as an object, not a person -- but mostly unfunny. Part of the problem is miscasting. The two male roles should've been reversed: Matthau as the cynical smoothie, and Morse as the naif. Neither actor here is showcased to his best advantage.
The cameos are pretty lame too, with comedy greats like Lucille Ball and Jack Benny largely wasted. The best one has Carl Reiner, who's funny as always in a mainly physical comedy role, but the ending of the sketch is weak.
The dumbest aspect of the whole enterprise is the central notion of Matthau wanting to cheat on his incredibly gorgeous, hot-to-trot wife, played by knockout Inger Stevens. After an eyeful of her I spent the whole rest of the movie muttering to myself about what an idiot he was.
As a time capsule of the 'Swinging Sixties' this might provide some nostalgic amusement. But there are much better sex comedies from the period. Check out Jack Lemmon in HOW TO MURDER YOUR WIFE.
Jane in her sex-kitten phase.
This is a very silly movie, less science fiction than cheesy fantasy erotica. A youthful and lovely Jane Fonda (long before her Anti-War Activist and Oscar-Winning Actress phases) stars as the title heroine, dispatched by the President of Earth to find a renegade scientist in the distant star system of Tau Ceti.
It's an enjoyably campy romp if you're into that sort of thing. The new DVD release features a pristine print of vivid primary colors that showcases the imaginatively bizarre sets and costumes. Unfortunately there are also some poor opticals and inferior mattework and rear-projection, particularly in the unconvincing depiction of an 'Angel' (played by John Phillip Law of GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD) in flight.
But even as a movie you can laugh at, there are some undeniable pleasures. Fonda is quite fetching in a somewhat exploitative role, Milo O'Shea is properly deranged as the scientist turned evil, and Law stays dignified despite wearing a sort of floppy diaper.
The score is typical 1960's pop, with some catchy brass lines and dopey lyrics sung by Bob Crewe and his singers. Best of all is the opening scene, when Fonda does a zero-g striptease while removing her spacesuit. It's technically beautifully done, with no visible wires, Fonda gyrating slowly while she peels off the suit, her hair floating around her face as she smiles beatifically. I watched it four times in a row. That scene, not the whole movie; once was enough.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Once more unto the breach.
Following upon such previous works as PATHS OF GLORY and DR. STRANGELOVE, Stanley Kubrick again turned his scrutiny to the follies of war in FULL METAL JACKET, based on Gustav Hasford's autobiographical Vietnam War novel "The Short Timers". This 1987 drama, featuring a talented non-star cast headed by Matthew Modine, did lukewarm box office in the wake of more grandiose and/or traditional entertainments like APOCALYPSE NOW and PLATOON. But time has been kind to Kubrick's second-to-last film, and to my mind at least, it shines more icily brilliant with each viewing.
The film consists of two parts: Marine Corps basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina, where we meet our hero, Private 'Joker' (Modine) and his fellow recruits; and the second, longer section set in Vietnam, chiefly involving the 1968 Tet Offensive.
The early scenes are both harrowing and blackly humorous, with a riveting performance by neophyte Lee Ermey (an actual former Marine drill instructor who was originally hired as a technical adviser) as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, who focuses most of his object lessons on the unfortunate Private 'Pyle.' The latter is played by a young Vincent D'Onofrio (of "Law and Order").
Kubrick's trademark clinical eye is in evidence here, with deep focus compositions that reveal in unflinching detail the dehumanization process of basic training, ostensibly designed to mold from these callow youths the killers desired by the military brass. That the sequence of incidents escalates to a blackly ironic but inevitable conclusion does not diminish its horrific fascination.
The story then leaps forward in time to Joker's adventures as a reporter for "Stars and Stripes" in Vietnam. Most of the action follows Joker and wet-behind-the-ears colleague 'Rafterman'(Kevyn Major Howard), as they travel "in country" with the former's buddy 'Cowboy' (played by Arliss Howard from the opening sequence) and his squad on a reconnaissance mission into the bombed-out city of Hue. There death again rears its head, more randomly this time, and Joker and the other Marines must do what they have to to stay alive.
The ending has Joker and his comrades, M-16's at the ready, singing the "Mickey Mouse Club" song while marching into the dark and uncertain future. They are alive. They are not afraid.
It's a disquieting tale, but its truths seem simple and clear. Kubrick may have had a jaundiced view of the human condition, but there's no doubt he believed in man's ability to survive in dire straits.