Tuesday, August 31, 2010

'Superman: The Animated Series' Vol. 2

Starring Tim Daly, Dana Delaney and Clancy Brown
Developed by Bruce Timm

This second batch of fun, colorful "Superman" episodes ups the ante in a number of ways.  More sequels to earlier episodes pop up, with villains like Metallo (Malcolm McDowell), Livewire (Lori Petty) and Brainiac (Corey Burton) returning to cause more trouble for Superman (Tim Daly) and Lois Lane (Dana Delaney).

The centerpiece of this collection, however, is the three-part "World's Finest" crossover, wherein the Joker (Mark Hammill) comes to Metropolis, armed with a huge chunk of Kryptonite.  He enters into a devil's bargain with Lex Luthor to kill the Man of Steel.  Meanwhile, Batman (Kevin Conroy) appears in Metropolis as well, hot on the Joker's trail.  Though they dislike each other, Batman and Superman team up to defeat the Joker and expose Luthor's involvement.

Monday, August 30, 2010

'Superman: The Animated Series' Vol. 1 (1996)

Starring Tim Daly, Dana Delaney and Clancy Brown
Developed by Bruce Timm

Following the success of the excellent "Batman: The Animated Series" (which, for my money, is the best incarnation of that character, including the recent Christopher Nolan films and even the comics), Warner Bros. commissioned a companion Superman series in the same style.

The series is much more in the vein of the John Byrne, post-Crisis interpretation of the character, but mixed with an artistic style heavily influenced by the 1940s.  Clark Kent (Tim Daly) is less goofy, more confident and competent, often beating out Lois Lane (Dana Delaney) for by-lines in the Daily Planet.  Jimmy Olsen is updated into a more 90s-style teenager, a copy boy with aspirations of becoming a photographer.  Lex Luthor (Clancy Brown) is a suave businessman hiding his vast, evil criminal empire beneath a massive network of legitimate businesses.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

"Brick" (2005)

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Nora Zehetner and Matt O'Leary
Written and directed by Rian Johnson

"Brick" is a fascinating experiment in filmmaking - to take the style and tropes of a hard-boiled detective story and transplant them into a suburban high school setting.  It's actually quite interesting how well this all works, even if it starts to fall apart a bit towards the end.  "Brick" constructs a world where world-weary detectives, shady informants, femme fatales, and thug enforcers all exist as teenagers, substituting dangerous cityscapes for the halls, parking lots and sports fields of high school.

Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, looking for all the world like my college roommate) is a loner, living in a self-imposed exile several months after he and his girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin of "LOST") split.  One day, Emily calls him, frantic, asking for help.  She mentions something about a bad brick, and then hangs up.  Soon after, Emily ends up dead, and Brendan vows to find the truth about who killed her and why.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

"Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (1991)

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong
Written by William Wisher Jr. and James Cameron
Directed by James Cameron

Unlike "Aliens," James Cameron's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" is not wildly different from its predecessor.  In fact, it follows essentially the same plot structure, even down to setting its climax in an industrial setting like the first one.  The differences are in the details, however.  At the time, "Terminator 2" (abbreviated to "T2" in promotional materials) was the biggest and most expensive movie of all time.  This is easy to see, as the wild and intense action sequences here are pretty huge.  Whole buildings are demolished, chase sequences are lengthy and destructive, and lots of incredible digital and makeup effects are littered throughout.

T2 picks up about a decade after the original.  Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) has been arrested and forced into an insane asylum for her beliefs that robots from the future tried to kill her.  Her son, John (Edward Furlong) is being raised by two foster parents he describes as "dicks."  John is a troubled boy, the product of having such a bizarre and destructive childhood.  He believes his mother to be a complete looney, and resents her even while crediting her with his many impressive survival and computer skills.

"Aliens" (1986)

Starring Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn and Paul Reiser
Written and directed by James Cameron

I often waffle back and forth on whether "Aliens" or "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" is James Cameron's best film.  Tonight, I'm watching them back-to-back and I'm still not sure I can decide.  Perhaps they're equally as good?

"Aliens" is one of those rare sequels that manages to take the universe and characters of the original and do something new and interesting with them instead of simply trying to repeat and recapture the magic of the first.  Set some 60 years after the first film, "Aliens" finds Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley revived from cryogenic sleep and brought back to Earth.  There, she finds that the entire world has changed without her, including the death of her only daughter several years before.  Now alone, in a strange world, Ripley also finds that the company that employed her is not so happy that she destroyed an expensive starship, seemingly without cause.  They don't believe her story about vicious alien creatures with acid for blood, and she's quickly drummed out.

"Wonder Woman" (2009)

Starring Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion and Alfred Molina
Written by Michael Jelenic
Directed by Lauren Montgomery

When an animated feature turns out to be this good, I get confused as to what makes it so difficult for DC and Warner Bros. to get their live-action "Wonder Woman" feature off the ground.  Based on the post-"Crisis" reboot of the character by George Perez, "Wonder Woman" begins with a massive battle sequence between the Amazons, fierce female warriors led by Queen Hyppolyta (Virginia Madsen) and the forces of Ares (Alfred Molina), the God of War.  After Hyppolyta defeats Ares' son in battle, Zeus intervenes and puts a stop to the war. 

Enraged that Zeus would allow Ares to slaughter so many of her Amazons, Hippolyta curses him out.  Hera (Marg Helgenberger) begs Hippolyta's forgiveness, constructing for her the hidden island paradise of Themyscira where the Amazons can live in peace and harmony without interference from the outside world.  She also makes Ares Hippolyta's prisoner, cutting off his godly abilities with a pair of magical bracelets.

Friday, August 27, 2010

"Zodiac" (2007)

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr.
Written by James Vanderbilt
Directed by David Fincher

I think David Fincher is one of the most talented film directors working today.  He's got a wildly varied filmography of movies ranging from sci-fi ("Alien 3") to dark comedy ("Fight Club") to mystery thriller ("Seven"), and will next tackle, believe it or not, the story of Facebook of all things with "The Social Network."  In 2007 he directed "Zodiac," the true story of a serial killer in the late 1960s and 1970s who terrorized northern California by claiming to be responsible for multiple vicious murders in the media.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who enjoys solving puzzles.  When a letter taking responsibility for a grizzly murder arrives at the Chronicle offices, he decides to take a shot at solving the mysterious cipher that accompanies it.  Investigating the letters and the crimes are also the Chronicle's star crime reporter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), San Francisco detectives David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), as well as officers from other police departments such as Sergeant Mulanax (Elias Koteas) and Captain Ken Narlow (Donal Logue). 

'Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman' (1996)

Starring Dean Cain, Teri Hatcher and Lane Smith
Developed by Deborah Joy LeVine

After the third season went completely off the rails, I have to admit I wasn't entirely excited to start on the fourth season. I was worried that it would be more of the same kind of godawful storytelling that dominated the second half of the third year.  Fortunately, despite a few hiccups, the fourth season is actually quite a bit better than that.

This is not to say that the show is anywhere near the top of its game like it was the first two seasons, but it certainly isn't throwing around the kind of laughably bad "twists" it was in Season Three.  This year begins where the previous one left off, with Clark leaving Earth to rule over a lost colony of Kryptonians in order to save them from an evil tyrant named Lord Nor.  Unfortunately, once Nor learns that on Earth, he and his followers would have incredible powers, he makes his way there and captures the town of Smallville, enslaving its residents.  Clark returns to Earth to defeat Lord Nor and finds himself on trial by the Kryptonians for treason and sentenced to death.  Of course, there wouldn't be much of a show if Superman were dead, so Clark is given a chance to redeem himself and fight Nor to the death.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

"After.Life" (2009)

Starring Christina Ricci, Liam Neeson and Justin Long
Written by Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo, Paul Vosloo and Jakub Korolczuk
Directed by Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo

Christina Ricci stars as Anna Taylor, a school teacher who, after a fight with her boyfriend Paul (Justin Long), gets into a vicious car accident.  She awakens the next day, immobile, on a table in a funeral home owned by Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson).  Deacon tells her that she's dead, and shows her a death certificate to prove it.  Anna can't move, she can't even feel anything.  Is she really dead?  Does Deacon have the ability to converse with the recently deceased?  Or is he just a dangerous killer, intent on burying Anna alive?

These are the questions posed by the premise of "After.Life".  Paul attempts to see Anna's body, but is held at bay by Deacon, who won't allow anyone but family to view her corpse.  Anna, meanwhile, is locked in a room, trying to convince Deacon that she's still alive, or to find a way out.  Deacon attempts to convince Anna that she's dead, and that she must leave her life behind and move on before she's buried - where no one will be able to hear her or talk with her.  

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

"MASH" (1970)

Starring Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould and Tom Skerritt
Written by Ring Lardner Jr.
Directed by Robert Altman

Richard Hooker's satirical novel "MASH" gets the feature film treatment, skillfully adapted into this classic comedy film that would spawn a long-running and much-loved TV series of the same name.  The film chronicles the exploits of the doctors of the 4077th MASH (Mobil Army Surgical Hospital) during the height of the Korean War.

Donald Sutherland stars as Captain 'Hawkeye' Pierce, who finds himself bunking with two other surgeons, 'Duke' Forrest (Tom Skerritt) and 'Trapper John' McIntyre (Elliot Gould) of the 4077th.  As the men are faced with the horrific consequences of war carted before them day in and day out, they find unique and colorful ways to deal with the stress.  Whether its teaching Korean boys to make martinis or stealing away to play golf without permission, these men leverage their skills as surgeons to try and get away with more and more ridiculous escapades.

Monday, August 23, 2010

'Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman' Season Three (1995)

Starring Dean Cain, Teri Hatcher and Lane Smith
Developed by Deborah Joy LeVine

I suppose the fun had to end sometime, right?  Season Two ended with a shocker: Clark Kent, down on one knee, asking Lois Lane to marry him.  The cliffhanger was in the air for months until Season Three premiered, and Lois answers Clark with a question of her own: "Who's asking?  Clark Kent... or Superman?" and she pulls off his glasses. Dun-dun-dunnnn.

The first half of season three follows as the two characters deal with the fallout of this revelation as it threatens to tear their relationship apart.  Lois resents Clark for lying to her for the past two years and Clark is worried that having a relationship with Lois will put her in unnecessary danger.  Ultimately, they both get over these feelings and begin preparations for their wedding.

"The Men Who Stare at Goats" (2009)

Starring Ewan McGregor, George Clooney and Jeff Bridges
Written by Peter Straughan
Directed by Grant Heslov

Somewhere hidden inside "The Men Who Stare at Goats" is a hilarious satire of war, and the lengths we will go to in order to win them.  It's too bad, then, that this fine idea is wrapped up in two hours of mediocre sitcom antics from a cast capable of so much more.

Ewan McGregor stars as Bob Wilton, a journalist who, after his wife leaves him, heads for Iraq to prove himself to her.  There he finds not the greatness in combat that he had envisioned, but instead spends his time hanging around in Kuwait, unable to make his way into Iraq, the laughing stock of embedded journalists.  One day, he meets Lyn Cassidy (George Clooney), a man who supposedly works for a company that produces trash barrels.  Lyn knows how to get into Iraq and offers to take Bob with him.

Friday, August 20, 2010

"Demolition Man" (1993)

Starring Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes and Sandra Bullock
Written by Daniel Waters, Robert Reneau and Peter Lenkov
Directed by Marco Brambilla

Sure, Sylvester Stallone has made better movies, but has he ever made one that's more pure fun than 1993's "Demolition Man"?  Probably not.

Stallone stars as John Spartan, a Los Angeles detective in the near future of 1996 (heh) on the trail of a vicious killer named Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) who has kidnapped a commuter bus full of passengers.  Spartan corners Phoenix at his abandoned warehouse lair, and a fight ensues.  Phoenix burns the warehouse to the ground, and when the bodies of the commuter passengers are discovered in the wreckage, Spartan himself is brought up on manslaughter charges and sentenced to decades in a new "cryo-prison" - a system where a person is frozen for a length of time and rehabilitated through hypnotic suggestion.

"Bronson" (2008)

Starring Tom Hardy, Matt King and Kelly Adams
Written by Brock Norman Brock and Nicholas Winding Refn
Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn

Tom Hardy ("Inception", "Star Trek: Nemesis") stars as Charlie Bronson, "Britain's Most Expensive Prisoner."  Bronson was born Michael Peterson to a nice, middle-class family.  His stated goal?  To become famous.  His problem is his incredible temper.  He tries to live according to society's rules, but he simply can't.  Life in the "real world" doesn't appeal to him, not in the slightest - a life of "not bad," quiet anonymity is not for Michael Peterson.

After knocking over a post office, Peterson is sentenced to seven years behind bars, where he finally finds something to interest him: He loves being in prison.  His outrageous behavior nets him a reputation, and once he becomes known by the prisoners, he realizes that this is the fame he was searching for.  His outbursts become larger, more serious, eventually getting him shuttled from prison to prison in a vain attempt to find a place where he can be controlled.  After causing a massive riot, he's eventually sent to an asylum where his outbursts are controlled via strong sedatives that leave him a drooling fool.  Eventually, even this isn't good enough, when he attempts to murder a fellow inmate.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

"Fetching Cody" (2005)

Starring Jary Baruchel, Sarah Lind and Jim Byrnes
Written and Directed by David Ray

Jay Baruchel ("She's Out of My League") stars as Art, a small-time dope dealer living on the streets with his girlfriend, Cody (Sarah Lind).  Cody and Art talk a lot about simply getting on the bus and moving on to a better life where neither of them sells drugs or turns tricks for small cash.  One evening, Art enters Cody's crappy apartment to find her ODing in her bed.  Suddenly, paramedics rush in even though he never called them, and Cody is taken to the hospital.

Kicked out of the hospital after nearly assaulting a social worker, Art runs into his friend Harvey (Jim Byrnes) who claims to have found a time machine in a dumpster.  Art doesn't believe him at first because the supposed time machine looks more like a dirty recliner covered in Christmas tree lights.  But when Art sits in the chair, he finds that it does allow him to travel through both time and space merely by stating where it is he'd like to go, and when.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" (2009)

Starring Bill Hader, Ana Faris and James Caan
Written and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

I've never read the children's book this movie is based on, so I can't comment on it as an adaptation.  But I was surprisingly entertained by this inventive and charming movie. 

Bill Hader stars as Flint Lockwood, a young genius feeling trapped by the circumstances of his life.  His love of science and invention leaves him living on the fringes of a town that's already something of a podunk burg - an island community known only for its sardine packing plant.  When the world realizes that sardines are, well, gross, the town takes a turn for the worse.  Mayor Shelburne (Bruce Campbell) sinks the entire town's budget into a wild idea to turn the island's sardine fixation into a tourist destination.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

'Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman' Season Two (1994)

Starring Dean Cain, Teri Hatcher and Lane Smith
Developed by Deborah Joy LeVine

Season Two of "Lois and Clark" picks up shortly after Season One; Lex Luthor (John Shea) is dead, Lois and Clark (Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain) have gone back to working together at the Daily Planet, having repaired their relationship following the revelations of Lex's true character.  However, things are not all rosy: It seems there is a growing backlash against Superman in Metropolis.  A chunk of the population blames him for the death of Lex Luthor, who was seen by many as a benevolent philanthropist.

Of course, it turns out that though Lex Luthor may be dead, but he is not gone.  His legacy and criminal network are hard at work trying to get revenge not only on Superman, but on Lois for betraying Lex.  Luthor will cast a shadow over much of Season Two, though he will be mostly replaced by the end by Intergang.

Friday, August 13, 2010

"2012" (2009)

Starring John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Amanda Peet
Written by Roland Emmerich and Harold Kloser
Directed by Roland Emmerich

No one destroys the world like Roland Emmerich.  The man has made a career out of big budget destruction, essentially throwing the same plot over and over again at the audience, but with ever more impressive sequences of carnage and chaos.  Emmerich's first major splash (not to belittle the successes of "Universal Soldier" and "Stargate", though) was with "Independence Day," possibly the greatest popcorn alien invasion movie yet created.  Since then, he's given the world "Godzilla," "The Patriot," "The Day After Tomorrow" and "10,000 B.C."

"2012" is easily Emmerich's biggest film to date.  While "Independence Day" limited its destruction to mankind's major cities, "The Day After Tomorrow" decimated the northern hemisphere with the onset of a new Ice Age.  Here, Emmerich tackles worldwide destruction on a new kind of scale, physically rewriting the entire face of the planet.  Entire parts of the Earth's crust collapse.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

'Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman' Season One (1993)

Starring Dean Cain, Teri Hatcher and Lane Smith
Executive Producer Deborah Joy LeVine

Ah, Superman.  In 1993, the Man of Steel returned to television in this series starring Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher.  As a kid, I was excited when the series premiered, but that excitement soon fell off after the pilot.  As the title implies, the focus here is heavily on Lois Lane and Clark Kent, rather than on the superheroic feats of Superman.  As a 12-year-old boy, the last thing I was interested in from a Superman series was hour after hour of Lois and Clark flirting with each other.

Needless to say, I quickly lost interest in favor of rewatching the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve version (and, really, let's face it - that's the best one).

Still, all these years later, I can finally see the appeal of "Lois and Clark."  The show doesn't take itself terribly seriously, and provides a sense of fun that's undeniably charming.  It mostly follows the John Byrne update of the characters, presenting Clark Kent less as a bumbling buffoon and more as a confident man, and competent reporter.  Lex Luthor isn't a crazed mad scientist, but a wealthy businessman consumed with lust for power.  These ideas seem old hat by now, since those have been the status quo for decades, but at the time, they were still fairly new.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

"District 9" (2009)

Starring Sharlto Copley, Vanessa Haywood and Robert Hobbs
Written by Neil Blomkamp and Terry Tatchell
Directed by Neil Blomkamp

As much fun as "Star Trek" is, and as impressive a technological feat as "Avatar" may be, "District 9" is the best sci-fi flick of 2009.  Based on an earlier short film by director Neil Blomkamp, "District 9" expands that premise into a full-blown narrative examining themes of racism and intolerance, building an Apartheid analogy in a sci-fi setting peppered with lively characters, excellent visual effects and badass action sequences.

Nearly 30 years ago, a massive alien vessel appeared over the planet Earth.  Instead of settling over New York or Los Angeles as Hollywood would often have us believe, the ship comes to rest over Johannesburg, South Africa.  The aliens aboard are sick, malnourished and unorganized.  Soon after, they're ferried down to Earth and set up in camps.  Those camps, after years of crime and unrest, are eventually consolidated in a walled slum referred to as District 9.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

"Contact" (1997)

Starring Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey and Tom Skerrit
Written by James Hart and Michael Goldenberg
Directed by Robert Zemeckis

This will likely be something of an exhaustive review, so bear with me, please.

I first saw "Contact" sometime in 1998 or 1999, on home video instead of during its theatrical run.  At the time of its release, I wasn't terrifically interested in the kind of story that it had to tell.  Eventually, I watched it more out of boredom than curiosity, renting it from the local library (and feeling pretty good about not having to pay to watch it).  At the time, it didn't particularly blow me away, but I came away with a positive impression of it.

Over time, I would catch bits and pieces of it on TV and always at least stop to watch a few minutes of it.  When I came across the blu-ray release on Netflix, I added it, but kept it at the bottom of the queue until I noticed that, thanks to Starz (god bless the agreement between Starz and Netflix, really) it was available online for streaming and tonight I decided to sit down and give it a full viewing once more.

This time, undeniably, I am blown away by this film.  Just as I wrote in my review for "Back to the Future," I'm amazed at the level of detail gone into the construction of the world of "Contact."  Through casting, script, production design and direction, "Contact" creates a viable facsimile of our own world, circa 1997, and posits the idea that humanity has received a signal from the stars.

Jodie Foster stars as Dr. Ellie Arroway, an astronomer/physicist working with the SETI program (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence).  Ellie is a woman who, despite her brilliance, is rather unable to form lasting relationships with people.  Her mother died in childbirth, and her father died when she was only about ten years old.  Ellie grows up driving herself to look for answers, answers with proof, after a priest fails to console her over her father's death.  Eventually she ends up at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, where she meets the intriguing Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a religious man researching a book on the effects of technology on third-world countries.  The two share a brief fling, and are quite drawn to each other, but Ellie can't commit to him like she can to her work.

Soon thereafter, her funding is cut by raging egomaniac Dr. David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) who believes that science should always be put to practical or profitable use.  Ellie and her team manage to scrounge up funding to lease time on the Very Large Array in New Mexico from the US Government, thanks to wealthy and mysterious industrialist Mr. Hadden (an almost unrecognizable John Hurt).  After years of unremarkable searching, Ellie finally finds it: her team receives a signal from intelligent life in another star system; specifically, Vega, a system some 26 light years from Earth.

Immediately, the ramifications of this discovery come into play.  The government clamps down on what had been a private, civilian operation.  National Security Adviser Michael Kitz (a typically douchey James Woods) arrives on the scene and demands answers.  Soon the discovery deepens, as Ellie and her team discover more layers to the signal, which include massive amounts of data - instructions on how to build a device, a machine beyond anything humanity has ever constructed before.  They discover the device is likely a manner of transportation, a way to go to Vega and meet these aliens face to face.  The decision is made to construct the device, and to select a person to go on the mission to meet extra-terrestrials for the first time.

Now, this is just the most basic description of the plot that I can give for "Contact."  The reality is that this film is much more complicated than any simple story about humanity building a ship to go meet aliens.  "Contact" is one of the few sci-fi films out there that dedicates itself to exploring the spiritual and religious and philosophical and political ramifications of receiving a signal from outer space.  It is here that the extraordinary detail that I spoke of earlier comes into play.

The film becomes about the battle between science and religion, pitting people of reason against people of faith.  There are people who want to push forward, boldly, believing that a new era of great adventure is upon the human race.  There are those who are fearful, who wonder if this is just some ploy the aliens are playing to somehow bring about our destruction or subjugation.  There are those who wonder if those aliens believe in god.  And there are those who see the whole thing as a blasphemy, a blight upon the great work of creation by God, a temptation of false idols.

Jake Busey plays a small, but critical role as a radical preacher turned terrorist.  He's one of those scripture-spouting, wrath of god evangelists, and the most dangerous kind of those: the kind that is willing to kill and to destroy in order to make a point.  He pops up several times in the film, and Zemeckis gravitates toward him, but Busey is just one small piece of this massive puzzle.  Elsewhere, Rob Lowe has a small cameo as a conservative politician who can't dream of wanting to meet an alien race that doesn't share his religious views.

Lowe's and Busey's viewpoints are tempered by McConaughey's Palmer Joss, who acts as both a foil and romantic interest for Ellie.  This is one of the few roles where I haven't felt that McConaughey comes across like a smarmy tool.  He delivers his lines with conviction, and gives a performance that feels real through its understatement.  Ultimately, though, it's what he has to say that is most interesting about him.  Palmer is a man of great intellect, perhaps not matching Ellie's in terms of scientific knowledge, but in understanding.  While Ellie is a woman of science, Palmer is a man of faith.  The script smartly uses these two characters to illuminate one idea: that science and religion are not mutually exclusive. 

Like the script for "Back to the Future," nothing that happens in this movie simply happens and is then forgotten about.  Every piece of dialogue and the appearance of every character has an ultimate purpose (I suppose that might make Zemeckis god in some sense, here, and his divine plan is on display).  Palmer speaks of an emotional experience he once had, the moment when he first realized that there was a god.  Ellie is skeptical, as is her nature, and challenges him to prove it.  The journey that Ellie undergoes throughout the film leads her to a place where she has a similar experience.  Things Ellie's father said to her as a child come back around during her time meeting with the aliens to have greater meaning. 

Once Ellie undertakes her incredible journey into space, via the machine planned by aliens and constructed by man (the alien signal and its subsequent deluge of data might be analogous to the word of god coming to prophets and written in the bible) the revelation to her is extraordinary.  She speaks about suddenly awakening and being part of something larger than herself, not feeling alone, and having hope.  These, she realizes, are the same things Palmer has been speaking about, and her experience mirrors his in a very profound and fundamental way.  The only difference is that one is god and one is aliens, but the experience is interchangeable. 

Perception and reflection are not only key to the themes of the film, but also to its visual language.  Director Zemeckis uses a lot of video monitors and mirrors to frame his characters.  In one particularly noteworthy shot, young Ellie runs up the stairs and down the hall to get medicine for her dying father, and we track with her until she suddenly enters the frame from the other side and we see we're looking into a bathroom mirror.  It's hard to describe, but visually striking.  Zemeckis is not a flashy director; he's not whipping the camera about like Michael Bay.  Instead, he's meticulous, constructing his narrative slowly, moving logically from A to B to C.  There are a number of news broadcasts littered throughout the film, as well, which help create that detailed wold I was talking about.  President Bill Clinton appears via special effects, real video footage of him, composited into shots of the cast on CNN, while much of the actual on-air staff of CNN at the time appears in the movie in shot footage.

 He elicits solid performances from his excellent, expansive cast as well.  Foster does a good job making Ellie somewhat socially awkward, borne of her frustration over people who can't seem to see the same logic she can.  Her enthusiasm for science is palpable, and her awe during her galactic journey is spot-on.  Tom Skerrit's Drumlin is a total douche, and you kind of wonder why Ellie doesn't just pop him one after all the stunts he pulls stealing her thunder.  James Woods does his usual paranoid asshole, and while it's not outside his particular range, he does a great job with it.  The movie is not only populated by real life figures such as Larry King and Jay Leno, as the aforementioned Jake Busey and Rob Lowe are joined by Angela Bassett as an adviser to the president.  Character actors like Tucker Smallwood and the always excellent William Fichtner also appear.  John Hurt appears as industrialist Hadden, balding and dying of cancer, and delivers a creepy and yet somehow genuine performance. 

The film's visual effects are quite excellent.  The opening shot, which begins at planet Earth and then tracks through the solar system, across the galaxy, and then out into the universe is excellent, and overlaid TV and radio broadcasts getting older the farther we go is stunning.  Ellie's journey through a series of wormholes in her small craft is a thrilling sort of update on Kubrick's "2001," with stops along the way to let us awe at the wonders of the universe.

"Contact" is a fascinating exploration of the ramifications of making first contact with aliens.  The varied responses from different facets of society are explored, but the focus is squarely on science vs religion.  As McConaughey's character states, the two may have different methods but the goal is the same: the search for truth.  The truth about "Contact" is that it's a meticulously constructed sci-fi drama exploring the arguments of both sides, and realizing that they're not as diametrically opposed as we may have originally thought, framing its thesis around emotional events for its characters.  It's thought-provoking sci-fi, with an intelligent script and a wonderfully detailed view of the world.

The sci-fi nerd in me cries out for a sequel, to see Ellie's journey validated, to learn more about the aliens and their intergalactic transit system, and the other worlds populating this particular fictional universe.  But the rest of me knows that a sequel could never approach these themes again.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (2009)

Starring Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace and Sven-Bertil Taube
Written by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg
Directed by Niels Arden Oplev

Based on the novel by late author Stieg Larrson, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (also known as "Men Who Hate Women") is a twisty, sick mystery thriller.  At two and a half hours, it can run a little long; this might be an artifact of attempting to retain as much of the original novel's material as possible, but I haven't read it, so I can't comment on that - or on how faithful this adaptation is, in general.

All I can say is that it is a good movie, even if it goes on a bit too long.  It's not for the faint of heart, either; the film covers a number of dark topics like Nazis, racism, rape and incest.  The story concerns Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a famous investigative reporter who has just been sentenced to jail for libel after accusing a wealthy businessman of being involved in the drug and guns trade.  Before his jail sentence is carried out, Blomkvist is hired by another wealthy businessman, Henrik Vanger, to investigate the 40-year-old murder of his niece, Harriet.  It seems that every year on his birthday, Henrik receives a preserved flower, the same kind of gift he used to receive from Harriet before her disappearance.  Henrik believes Harriet has been murdered, and that her killer has been taunting him all these years.

Blomkvist begins to look into Harriet's disappearance/murder, going through forty-year-old police files and attempting to piece together a picture of how and why a teen girl belonging to a powerful family would just disappear like that.  What Blomkvist doesn't know is that he is under surveillance by Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a hacker working for a security company.  When Blomkvist hits a wall in his investigation, Salander manages to crack the clue that's holding him up, and reveals herself to him.  The two then team up to take on the rest of the mystery together, and soon uncover a decades-long murder spree that will shed light on all the dark corners of the powerful Vanger family empire.

As a mystery, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" functions quite well, with the viewer never discovering something long before the characters.  The script is quite adept at slowly uncovering the next piece of the puzzle, allowing the audience to put it all together along with the characters.  Constructing a good mystery is a difficult thing to do; if the audience figures it out too much earlier than the characters in the story, tension and intrigue are lost, and you're left with a bored audience.  "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" doesn't suffer from this problem; it's mystery is both intriguing and well-constructed. 

The characters are well-drawn, as well.  We have a good sense of who Blomkvist is, and his talents as a reporter.  Lisbeth is a bit of a different story, as her subplot involving her state-appointed guardian is bizarre, and a bit sick.  Lisbeth is someone who's led a hard life, and the reasons for this are revealed slowly throughout the film.  As such, she's a bit harder to get a grasp of, and sometimes I wondered exactly why she does some of the things she does.  Ultimately, though, both Blomkvist and Lisbeth are likable, and the two work well together so that we can root for them as a team.

There's a big-budget American remake of this one coming up with Daniel Craig in the lead role.  I have to admit that after seeing this one, I'm not sure if I really want to check out an Americanized remake (those don't often come out quite as well), but Daniel Craig has me sold.  I think he's an excellent choice for the role of Blomkvist, and it's easy to see why they chose him after watching this film. 

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" can be a bit hard to watch at times, but its mystery is enthralling.  This is a well-made, entertaining whodunit.  Let's hope the sequels keep it up.

'V: The Final Battle' (1984)

Starring Marc Singer, Faye Grant and Michael Ironside
Written by Craig Buck and Diane Frolov
Directed by Richard T. Heffron

While the first "V" miniseries was an entertaining, if obvious, Nazi Europe analogy in the guise of a sci-fi alien invasion, this sequel, "V: The Final Battle" ditches pretty much everything that made that first show interesting and worthwhile.

Here, the alien Visitors rule the Earth with an iron fist, and people still somehow believe that they're "free" or that the Visitors aren't there to do horrific things.  Mike Donovan (Marc Singer) and Julie Parish (Faye Grant) lead the Los Angeles rebels, striking from their hidden base.  They manage to pull off a few small victories here and there.  After a devastating failure to rescue people being packaged up as food for the Visitors, the group concocts a plan to expose the true, reptilian nature of the Visitors in front of a worldwide, live TV audience.  Though their plan is a success, the Visitors are able to spin it as a hoax (somehow).

Soon after, the Visitors learn of the location of the rebel base, forcing the rebels to flee.  They're soon joined by Ham Tyler (Michael Ironside) who tells them that there is a worldwide network of rebels, and that they should join up instead of remaining independent.  They accept the invitation, while young Robin reveals that her pregnancy (hinted at in the ending of the original miniseries) is special, that the father of the child is in fact a Visitor.  Attempts to abort the child nearly lead to her death.

Then a bunch of random stuff happens for about two hours before the rebels manage to discover a bacterial toxin from the blood of the hybrid child, and a plan is set in motion to rid the Earth of the Visitors forever.

"V: The Final Battle" ditches the intelligence and analogy of the original miniseries in favor of a more episodic action series.  Though each episode is 90 minutes, it could easily have been split into smaller pieces, considering how often the action shifts to new locales.  The rebels move their base about a half-dozen times in three episodes, and people are captured and freed by the Visitors on a regular basis.  That the same scenario of capture and freedom is repeated over and over again with different characters.  Other characters that are obviously spies are ignored by the other characters, and a critical defection by one of the rebels in the final episode is given all the emotional and dramatic weight as a Jim Carrey fart joke.  The ultimate ending of the series also devolves into random silliness when the hybrid child suddenly displays magical superpowers.

Some of the creature effects are pretty rotten.  The reptilian alien baby is laughably bad, as is a large creature that chases Julie down a corridor in a hallucination.  The alien ship effects are worse off than the original series, as well; I suspect a lower effects budget.  There are far more laser battles in this one, so that's probably where most of the money went.  There are also considerably more locations, and it can be expensive trucking production from one place to another like that.

Still, the series manages to pull off some effective action sequences, and the actors have settled comfortably into their roles.  It's just too bad they were handed a crap script, since the original miniseries held so much potential for a sequel.  But series creator Kenneth Johnson appears to not have had much, if any, involvement in this sequel.  That's unfortunate, since "The Final Battle" seems to prove that he was the one who know what he was doing here.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

"Transformers: The Movie" (1986)

Starring Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy and Orson Welles
Written by Ron Friedman
Directed by Nelson Shin

I'll be honest, the only reason I love this movie nearly as much as I do is out of a sheer sense of nostalgia.  I don't recall the first time I ever saw it, though my father tells me I wept like a baby (I was four) when witnessing the death of Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen).  This is not surprising, as the Transformers were a huge part of my childhood, and the greatest hero of them all was Optimus.  But watching the movie now as an adult, it's those hazy childhood feelings and memories that keep this movie alive.

As the film begins, we're told the year is 2005 (heh) and the evil Decepticons, led by Megatron (Frank Welker) have conquered the Transformers' home world of Cybertron.  Optimus Prime and his heroic army of Autobots have retreated to secret bases on Cybertron's moons, where they prepare for an assault to retake their planet.  Optimus Prime sends his lieutenant, Ironhide, to Earth to secure a shipment of Energon cubes that will power the assualt.  Unfortunately, Megatron learns of Prime's plans, and intercepts Ironhide's shuttle en route.

On Earth, Hot Rod (Judd Nelson) and Spike Witwiki's son Daniel are fishing.  When the shuttle approaches, Daniel, excited at the prospect of seeing his father once again, rushes to view it.  He notices the battle damage, and Hot Rod opens fire, signaling to the Autobots that something is amiss.  Ultra Magnus (Robert Stack) orders a distress signal sent to Optimus Prime.  The battle does not go well for the Autobots, as they fight the Decepticons through the night and into the next morning.  Optimus Prime finally arrives, and manages to turn the tide of battle pretty much by himself.  This leads to a final confrontation between Prime and Megatron, and when all is said and done, Prime lays on his deathbed, and Megatron has been carried off in retreat.

While all this is happening, a massive, planet-sized Transformer known as Unicron (film legend Orson Welles, in one of his final roles) is making its way toward Cybertron, eating other planets in its path.  Unicron knows that the only power in the universe capable of stopping it is the Autobot Matrix of Leadership, which, with the death of Optimus Prime, has now passed to Ultra Magnus.  After Starscream jettisons Megatron into space to usurp control of the Decepticons, Unicron transforms Megatron into Galvatron (Leonard Nimoy) and sends him on a mission to destroy the Matrix.

Frankly, there's not much in the way of a plot to this movie.  It moves from battle to battle, with little time to breathe in between.  The story, such as it is, spans several planets and includes a lot of random characters.  Characters seem to know things they can't possibly know just so that the "plot" can be moved along.  Probably the most offensive part of it all is the wholesale slaughter of the original TV show cast - y'know, the characters that were beloved to children everywhere, myself included.  Characters that had survived massive battles and dangerous adventures in the TV show are disposed of within the opening moments of the movie, including favorites like Ratchet and Ironhide.

The movie's purpose, therefore, is obvious: to introduce a new series of characters, and therefore, a new line of toys to replacing the aging existing product lines.  Why this had to be done by outright killing everyone, often in circumstances that are far too simple or easy, is beyond me.  It seems almost like the writers thought to themselves, "Well, we gotta do this.  So, fuck you, kids."  It's sort of weird to say that Michael Bay's 2007 live-action adaptation, "Transformers," holds up far better as a film than this one does.

Another huge problem with the movie is the shoddy animation.  Sure, the animation in the original TV series was pretty damn awful (which you never notice as a kid) but with the movie there was a chance to really knock it out of the park.  Some scenes really look great, with fluid movement and lots of detail.  Unfortunately, for every good moment, there are two or three crappy ones.  Characters are painted the wrong color, shots have ultra-low framerates, and certain parts are just poorly drawn in general.

The voice cast really is quite an impressive gathering of stars.  Orson Welles has a great, creepy voice for Unicron, and Leonard Nimoy brings a lot of menace to Galvatron.  Peter Cullen, in his sadly small role as Optimus Prime, is a legend. Monty Python legend Eric Idle, on the other hand, as Wreck-Gar the Junkion, is pretty obnoxious, with dialogue comprised of obnoxious TV commercial catchphrases.

But the best part of the movie, by far, is its incredibly cheesy 80s soundtrack, with songs from Stan Bush like "Dare" and "The Touch" which are just full-on pop ridiculousness.  There's also a pretty hilarious hard-rock rendition of the Transformers Theme, and even a song by Weird Al Yankovic.  I got this soundtrack on CD years ago, and I still listen to it when I'm in the mood for something a bit ridiculous. 

It's these songs that give a lot of the movie's sequences what little heft they've got going for them.  Watching Optimus Prime slag Decepticons while 'The Touch' is rockin' the speakers always brings a grin to my face.  It's just too unfortunate that a terrible script and shoddy animation can't make "Transformers: The Movie" anything more than a curious bit of nostalgic fun.