Posted in Movie Blog, tagged Argo, Avatar, Barbarella, Battle Beyond the Stars, David Lynch, Dino De Laurentiis, Dune, Firefly, Flash Gordon, Frank Herbert, High Noon, James Cameron, James Horner, John Carter, John Sayles, Magnificent Seven, Outland, Queen, Return of the Jedi, Ridley Scott, Roger Corman, Sean Connery, Serenity, Seven Samurai, Space Cowboys, Star Trek, Star Trek First Contact, Star Wars, Star Wars Episode VII, Starcrash, The Black Hole, The Last Starfighter, The Undiscovered Country, The Wrath of Khan on December 25, 2012 |
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As I work on my inevitable list of best films of 2012 I started thinking about Argo. Not the Ben Affleck film that we saw, but the un-filmed Star Wars rip-off Sci-Fi movie that featured in it. For as long as I can remember Star Wars has been essential Christmas viewing, but why? Probably because as an action adventure fantasy film it is yet to be surpassed. It is often stated that Star Wars changed films for ever, it certainly built on the idea of the summer blockbuster that began with Jaws two years before. All this is most probably true, but surprisingly Star Wars has never inspired a successful and credible action adventure set within a alien universe. The greatest failing of most of them is an unnecessary attempt to ground the plot in the reality or to earth, this is true from The Last Starfighter (1984) through to Avatar (2009). It worked for Star Trek as the idea of humanity exploring space was central to the premise. After its cancellation in 1969, it gained cult status, around the time of Star Wars a plan to resurrect the television series as Star Trek: Phase II. It was a planned and quickly abandoned, ideas from the pilot were however saved and became Star Trek (1979). The highlights of the film series that followed are: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), Star Trek: First Contact (1996) and the reboot Star Trek (2009).
The latest failed attempt of the genre was John Carter (2012) based on A Princess of Mars by (Tarzan author) Edgar Rice Burroughs. So uncomfortable in its own skin the producers dropped the Sci-Fi “of Mars” title from the movie shortly before it hit cinema screens. Telling the story of a civil war era gent who is transported to Mars that is going through its own Civil War. A lot of the story involves the fish out of water scenarios as Carter adapts to the culture of the society and then imports his own sensibility. Going back to the time of Star Wars, the biggest of the early attempts to cash in on the Star Wars was unsurprisingly by Disney. The Black Hole (1979) had a budget of around $20million, around double that of Star Wars but only grossed around the same as Star Wars took in its first weekend. There is a good reason, for all its technical accomplishments, the movie is just plain dull. I have seen it at least twice and remember very little about it. With a budget of around $4million Starcrash (1978) is certainly low budget but isn’t quite the Z Movie it is often claimed to be. Poorly acted with terrible effects and unintentionally funny moments it isn’t very good. However it does deserve a certain amount of praise as a low budget movie that has grander ambitions than many of its contempt competitors, it is also good silly fun at times.
The one success of the genre (artistically if not financially) was Flash Gordon (1980). The plot is a rehash of the original thirteen part film serial starring Buster Crabbe from 1936. One of the reasons the movie looks so good and worked so well is the retro design including long shiny almost phallic spaceships that were inspired by the original 1930’s comic books. The result is utter camp, the characters and the performances are totally bonkers and over the top in the vein of Barbarella (1968). All this was held together by a an equally camp and over the top score by Queen.
The story goes that David Lynch turned down Return of the Jedi instead opting to replace Ridley Scott as the director of Dune (1984). Unlike most people, I am glad he did. I first saw Dune on video in 1985 and loved it. A few years later I read the first three or four of Frank Herbert’s novels. It was the first David Lynch film I saw, I have seen and loved everything he has made since. The movie shares producer Dino De Laurentiis with Flash Gordon, that is where the similarity ends. While Flash Gordon is fun and camp, Dune is sombre serious but when you strip away all the religious symbolism, mythology and the ideas of loyalty and betrayal it is simply a story of trade and politics, possibly an allegory for the fight for the control of the worlds supply. The TV mini series is heralded as a superior adaptation, it may be but it is painfully dull, something the movie can not be accused of even in its three hour cut.
Star Wars often plays like a western set in space. This is where the genre has found the most sucess. A film that took this idea a stage further was the Roger Corman produced Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) that took its plot from Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai. It has a certain degree of pedigree with a screenplay by John Sayles, a score composed by James Horner, and the special effects directed by a young James Cameron. A similar idea had been attempted in the “High Noon in space” Outland (1981) with Sean Connery in the Gary Cooper role. Not a classic, but far better than its reputation. The best space western is probably Serenity (2005) based on the too short-lived TV show Firefly (2002-2003). It is still rooted in the reality of humanity but unlike the movies that suffer for this, Serenity plays its hand perfectly.
The Star Wars prequels failed to live up to their billing, will the new Disney produced movies be more successful or will we have to wait for someone else to create a new Space Opera in a believable alien universe? Star Wars: Episode VII is expected in 2015.
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Posted in Auteurs, Movie Blog, tagged 30% light loss, 3D, Alice in Wonderland, Beowulf, Drive Angry, Hugo, James Cameron, Life of Pi, Martin Scorsese, Real D, Resident Evil on December 12, 2012 |
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In the past I have been vocal about my hatred of 3D, but I may have come to accept its place in cinema. The reason I have seen it working twice in recent years.
When I was a kid 3D meant red and green lensed glasses with cardboard frames. My first experience of what was then branded Real D was in 2007 with the motion capture Beowulf. To the best of my memory I didn’t see another 3D movie until the end of 2009, that was James Cameron’s giant Smurfs epic Avatar, this again was a largely animated movie. From there things went downhill fast. The biggest problem comes when movies are retrofitted with 3D purely for profit. Apologists for 3D will tell you it is immersive and gives depth to the image and that it has moved a long way from the pointy gimmick of 3D horror movies. The truth the gimmicks are what worked and 3D movies have no depth, just foreground, background and a void in the middle. The low points came with movies like Alice in Wonderland (2010) where the best thing I can say about them is that I forgot they were in 3D. Or Drive Angry (2011) and the last two Resident Evil movies (2010 and 2012) that did not have a 2D option. The odd example of 3D being effective involved a hatched, bucket and a bolt flying out of the screen towards the audience.
After boycotting 3D for a year, this time last year I went to see Hugo. Fully intending to go for the 2D option I had a last minute change of heart. I’m not sure exactly what my thought process was at the time but remember thinking that if Martin Scorsese had made a movie in 3D he had earned the right for me to see it in 3D. One of very few directors who have earned the right to do whatever the fuck they like, I’m glad I went on the journey with Scorsese. Not only was Hugo my favourite film of 2011 but also demonstrated that 3D can work. Many 3D movies, especially retrofitted ones have foreground and background split by a gaping void. Hugo has real depth.
Since seeing Hugo I have seen a few more 3D movies, they have renewed my prejudice towards the medium. Until now! Life of Pi is not only stunning to look at but like Hugo it has real depth in its 3D images. It is also so bright and vibrant that I never thought about 30% light loss. I have come to accept 3D but not to love it. I accept that in exception circumstances in the hands of true artists and auteurs it can work and can add to the cinema experience. It doesn’t mean I will be rushing to see the next 3D movie but I will be less likely to dismiss it as a pointless gimmick.
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Posted in Film Reviews, Groovers Video Vault, tagged Agatha Christie, Alien, And Then There Were None, Assault on Precinct 13, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, DVD, H.R. Giger, Halloween, Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm, James Cameron, John Hurt, Nostromo, Prometheus, Ridley Scott, Sigourney Weaver, space jockey, Star Wars, Ten Little Indians, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, VHS, Yaphet Kotto on June 17, 2012 |
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“In space no-one can hear you scream.”
In preparation/anticipation of the release of Prometheus a few weeks ago I watched the first two Alien movies again. I have the directors cut of Aliens, the first sequel directed by James Cameron on DVD however I only have an old VHS copy of Ridley Scott’s original film.
Commercial towing spaceship Nostromo is on route from Thedus to Earth with a cargo of twenty million tons of mineral ore and a refinery. Its crew of seven are in stasis until they are awoken when they pick up what they believe to be a distress beacon.
Looking back at Alien, aside from the grainy image of my old VHS copy, the most notable thing about the movie after all this time is not the suspense or the horror, it’s the characters. They are different characters with their own ideas, personality, prospective and their own agenda as you would expect of a the crew of a ship (in space or a regular ship in the real world). In many ways the most significant of these are Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) who give the movie a more relevant and political edge. Kane (John Hurt) has one of the most memorable scenes in film history but within the plot it is the only important thing he does. Ash (Ian Holm) comes to represent “the corporation” this is a defining element of the movie and one that has continued through all the sequels spiff offs and the new prequel Prometheus, it is also like Parker and Brett the thing that gives the movie edge and relevance beyond the genre. As captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) is an interesting character, he is more a company man than the rest of the crew but is still his own man never forgetting how far from home he is. Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) could have been there to just make up the numbers, but she does more than that, she helps give the movie balance and prospective. And finally the star, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). It seems hard to believe now but aside from a couple of bit parts Alien was her first movie. The casting was perfect, not only did it define her future career, but it helped elevate the movie beyond its genre origins.
On the surface it is a sci-fi movie but owing far more to the horror and thriller genres. Contemporary space movies of the day like Star Wars (1977) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) have a bright an hopeful outlook, Alien has more in common with John Carpenter movies Halloween (1978) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). The basic concept owes a debt to Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel “And Then There Were None” (originally published with a less politically correct title), itself being inspired by the nursery rhyme, Ten Little Indians. In comparison to the later films (including the Predator crossovers and the prequel Prometheus) it has a much smaller story and scope, this far from being a problem, it is actually a benefit. Its not that we don’t care where the “space jockey” or the Alien come from, it is that they are not relevant to the survival of the crew. We are focussed in on a very small part of a larger greater universe and know no more, or less than the characters in the film. It is this simplicity and intimacy that helps create a bond between character and viewer making us care what happens to them.
The effects should stand out in a film that is more than thirty years old, but they don’t. The models used to recreate the exteriors and the H.R. Giger designed “space jockey” are fantastic and a relief in this over CGI age. The interiors of the Nostromo look dated just like they do in Discovery One in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and many Star Trek movies. The important thing though is the Alien also designed by Gieger, I have heard “man in rubber suit criticism”. This really isn’t fair, sticking with the first rule of monster movies, the alien spends most of its time in the shadows, when we do see it, it really stands up. The planet is a dark rain soaked inhospitable place that exists largely in shadow and half-light, the Nostromo is made up of dim corridors, this lends itself perfectly to the movie. The style of the lighter brighter Prometheus would not work in Alien.
Like no other sci-fi or horror movie before Alien redefined two genres and possibly invented there own genre. It has aged surprisingly well and could teach the makers of a few flabby overcomplicated movies a thing or two about suspense and atmosphere. The grainy VHS version seems somehow appropriate for a movie that I first saw on late night television in the 1980’s.
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