Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Net (1995)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (5.6).

I... I'm not sure what happened.  I used to kind of like this techno-thriller, or at least find it watchable.  When I was in college, my friends and I saw this back-to-back with Hackers and Sneakers, and we agreed then that, while Sneakers was vastly superior to the others, The Net beat out Hackers.  Since then, somehow Hackers has become more entertaining as it ages, while The Net has soured into a travesty of a film.  I think it's because The Net takes itself so seriously: the portrayal of technology in both films was wildly inaccurate, even at the time, but the seriousness means that The Net offends where Hackers entertains.  It also doesn't help that the techno-thriller aspects of The Net are themselves pretty mediocre.  At times, the writing becomes perceptibly formulaic, and it feels like the suffering of Sandra Bullock's character ratchets up when it does, as many times as it does, as implausibly as it does, only because the act structure demands it.  Score: 1 star out of 4.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (7.8).

It's this need to make a statement through a forced symbolic metaphor that really drives home the feeling that Oshii is a really pretentious director... but for some reason, this doesn't bother me as much as I think it should.
Ghost in the Shell review by Bennett the Sage

The driving plot of this sci-fi anime is about government agents trying to track down a criminal who conducts political assassinations by hacking into people's cyborg-enhanced brains.  But not far below the surface, it's really about examining what makes us human: do our unique identities and personalities (our "ghosts") come from the physical lump of flesh they happen to be housed in (our "shells")?  Are they instead a deterministic result of our accumulated experiences?  Or is there some third option?  The film is very obviously inspired by Blade Runner; like Blade Runner, it suffers from some pacing issues, but they're much milder here, and this film delves deeper into the questions raised than Blade Runner ever does.  In turn, this film was the direct inspiration for The Matrix, both in philosophical outlook and in a number of action scenes; basically, if you liked The Matrix but thought it needed longer philosophical monologues with more cyborgs and less virtual reality, this may be your dream film come true.  Score: 4 stars out of 4.

PS: generally avoid Ghost in the Shell 2.0 if you can (it's a poorly done special effects do-over for a film that didn't need one), and definitely avoid the terrible English dub AT ALL COSTS (most of the English voice actors are fine, but the Major's voice actress does an astoundingly bad job: it's the sort of thing you might describe to your grandchildren in a dark room with a flashlight pointed at your face).

Saturday, October 22, 2011

TRON: Legacy (2010)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (7.0).

This sci-fi film, much more fast-paced and action-oriented than the original TRON, is an audiovisual treat that almost deserves (in good ways and bad ways) to be called SHINY THINGS: THE MOVIE.  And yet the plot is actually pretty decent, especially by Hollywood standards, despite having a few holes and other issues.  In some ways, the movie is a dark mirror of the original movie: the programs' changed religious views, the updated virtual world being heavily informed by cyberpunk, and Daft Punk's high-energy thumping action soundtrack are all a sharp contrast with TRON.  Which is kind of a shame at times: the sequel is so focused on being dark and sleek that it manages to feel shallower than the simple-but-earnest predecessor, even though this film clearly received a more careful analysis of the meaning and symbolism going into it.  In particular, the final resolution of TRON feels much more powerful than anything this film accomplishes; this film talks a bigger talk than TRON, but it doesn't bother showing us why the events matter because it wouldn't look stylish.  That said... while the first film was better storytelling, if nothing else you should watch the sequel right away for the visuals and the music, which are approaching the low end of Matrix territory and will probably grace the audiovisual vocabulary of future films.  Score: 4 stars out of 4, but one start is just for the shinies and another star is for the expected cultural importance.

TRON (1982)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (6.7).

TRON is a soft sci-fi adventure film that spends most of its time in a fantastic virtual world representing the inside of a computer ruled by a fascist operating system.  (It dates from an era before GUIs had shaped the public's ideas about computers, so it actually has a good excuse for its naïveté... unlike, say, Hackers.)  The film was a commercial flop and a disappointment for Disney (known in that era as "that theme park company that sometimes releases mediocre movies"); it also got snubbed at the awards for using CGI (even though most of the effects are rotoscoped or hand-drawn).  Despite all the negativity, the movie had pacing issues but was actually pretty enjoyable, and its cult following kept it bubbling on the cultural back burner for the next 3 decades, eventually spawning a successful sequel.  The film's pace sometimes drags, and it's shockingly earnest in a way that wouldn't work in a modern film, but it's a fun romp through the most un-gritty, un-cyberpunk depiction you've ever seen of a virtual world.  Score: 3 stars out of 4.

Hackers (1995)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (5.9).

Let's get the obvious out of the way: this film is bad.  I think the film is trying to be a comedic thriller à la Sneakers, but can't be bothered to take itself seriously enough for the "thriller" part to work.  And the hacking is at best loosely based on things that were already obsolete in the 1980's, never mind by the time this film came out.  That said, the film's badness is an enjoyably campy love letter to the old BBS era of the 1980's.  If you went through a teenage phase where you thumbed through BBS text files like the Anarchist Cookbook, perused 2600 and Phrack, collected a virus zoo on floppy disks, or read the Hacker Manifesto and ever took it seriously... well, the 80s called and they want their acoustic-coupled modems back.  Score: 2 stars out of 4, plus one star if you have friends to help you mock the movie.

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (8.0).

Jokingly called a "romantic comedy with zombies", or "rom-zom-com", this film is a highly self-aware take on the zombie genre with a large dose of British humour.  The most obvious interpretation of the film is as a commentary on George Romero's "X of the Dead" films: those films had a strong message that when humans lose their compassion for each other, they become no better than the savage zombies that are trying to eat them; but here in Shaun of the Dead, the humans who live in daily rituals, selfishness, and mindless consumerism are just like the zombies... and that's OK (says the film's very tongue-in-cheek "message").  Score: an easy 4 stars out of 4.

Scream (1996)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (7.2).

Add this to the list of films that I somehow never saw until years after they were relevant.  Long after the 80's slasher films had burned out any credibility for the horror genre, this film (directed by Wes Craven, naturally) revitalized the genre, and its opening piece set a new bar for realistic gore... thus, sadly, making this film indirectly responsible for the Saw series.  Sigh.  Anyway, the film itself is actually pretty good until it reaches the end, at which point the killer's identity is revealed and it becomes painfully dumb.  Notable for having a soundtrack that is at least two notches better than the film itself; it sounds like the soundtrack to the most awesome post-apocalyptic zombie film ever, but somehow transplanted into a merely passable (and very non-post-apocalyptic) slasher film.  Score: 3 stars out of 4, but one of those stars is due to the cultural context.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Black Sheep (2006)

Links: Wikipedia, IMDB (5.9).

This film is a horror comedy from New Zealand about flesh-eating were-sheep.  As you might expect from the silly premise, it's more comedy than horror, albeit with some gross-out gore and the rare moment of legitimate tension.  In general, the film consciously copies the comedy/gore "splatstick" style of the other noteworthy New Zealand horror comedy, Peter Jackson's 1992 Braindead/Dead Alive.  I thought there were some minor problems with the film telegraphing its intentions too clearly, and the sudden tone shifts for just one scene at a time were unpleasantly jarring, but overall it was fun, which is ultimately what counts.  Score: 3 stars out of 4.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Akira (1988)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (7.9).

#5. Why change the location of a movie whose central theme is how fucked up it is to be Japanese?
I know that sounds disrespectful, but you have to admit that it is, indeed, a pretty fucked up thing to be Japanese. You're confined to an isolated island for the vast majority of your cultural development - an island regularly beset by massive earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and typhoons - and when you eventually do emerge from your isolation, you become the only society to ever have nuclear weaponry deployed against them. Consider all of those factors, and then watch one of those tsunami videos; it's easy to see why so many of their movies seem to think of cities as "those things that just go away sometimes." Akira's imagery relies heavily on this concept of civilization as an impermanent thing: Cities are fragile beings in the movie. They can, and frequently do, dissolve away into nothing right before the character's eyes.
— Cracked.com, "5 Urgent Questions About the Live Action 'Akira' Remake" by Robert Brockway

I finally watched Akira for the first time and, honestly, it seemed overhyped.  Thanks to its art quality, Akira was widely regarded as the film that put anime on the map and helped pave the way for the Western animation renaissance of the 1990s.  That said, the art in Akira is nothing special to someone raised on 1990s animation, which for me leaves the movie to stand on its own.  You can tell that there's a deeper story that's been abridged to condense the manga into a film, but even so the plot is kinda meh, the setting is kinda meh, the characters are rather flat... not a lot here to commend.  There are clearly some allegories here that are lost in cultural translation — see the Cracked quote above — but mostly it boiled down two hours of characters dramatically shouting each others' names.  In short, I'm glad I finally saw it, but I don't think I'll ever get the urge to watch it again.  Score: 2 stars out of 4.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Hobgoblins (1988)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (1.7).

I recently watched the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of this.  It certainly wasn't a good film by any stretch of the imagination — it's pretty much a blatant me-too of Gremlins, except with a crap plot, shoddy acting, and a very visible small budget.  And yet... at worst it was mediocre or affably bad, not quite bad enough to fall into So Bad It's Good territory.  Most MST3K-treatment movies are so intolerably bad that they can only be enjoyed by wallowing in schadenfreude and watching someone else suffer their awfulness, but watching Mike and the Bots squirm at this seemed contrived.  That said: the film is crap, you wouldn't want to watch it for its own sake.  On the other hand, if you want to watch someone squirm at an actual bad movie, go watch the MST3K of Manos, or Nostalgia Critic's review of The Star Wars Holiday Special.  Score: 1 star out of 4.

Dark City (1998)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (7.8).

Dark City was the first in the series of "reality is a lie" mindscrew movies that all came out around the same time in the late '90s.  The premise is a bit silly (in a comic book-ish sort of way), but the visuals are very powerful, and that helps to suspend disbelief and bring the fictional world to life.  I have a hard time pinning down exactly why I like this movie as much as I do, especially since it clearly worships the Film Noir I dislike so much, but it's just a well-told, well-directed story.  The director's cut (2008) improves the film even more, and if you've seen the original but not the director's cut I recommend you check it out.  Score: 4 stars out of 4.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Links: TVTropes (entire series), Wikipedia, IMDB (8.7).

This classic 80's action movie became the first in the Indiana Jones trilogy, the other George Lucas trilogy that Harrison Ford starred in. The premise is "Hey, 1930s pulp action comics were fun, weren't they? Let's have an adventurous tomb-raiding thief archaeologist fight the Nazis!" When I rewatched the film recently, I found out that I'd been mistaken about something: this one actually was a bit better than Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I'd remembered correctly that the film drags from the ship leaving Egypt to the climax of the movie, but that section was shorter than I thought, and the rest of the movie is actually very well paced and fun. If you haven't seen this movie, climb out from under your rock and go see it. Score: 4 stars out of 4.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Blade Runner (1982)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (8.3).

Each time I watch this film, I find myself torn between loving it and mildly disliking it. On one hand: the concept is great, Ridley Scott's visuals are great, Vangelis's score is great, and Rutger Hauer (!) completely steals the show and delivers a knock-down performance. On the other hand: Harrison Ford's Deckard is a generic cardboard cutout (no fault of Ford's, just lazy writing), Sean Young seems to have been told that her character is made of wood, and the borrowings from Film Noir result in a yawn-worthy, slow-moving 2 hour film that's about half an hour too long. (Cutting Deckard's off-the-job character "development" could recover most of that and the movie wouldn't be hurt by its removal. Really, we know the genre, of course he's an alcoholic hard-boiled detective who can't resist a bird with a broken wing.) The opening visuals are infamously gorgeous, and the last half hour is superb, but... be ready to be bored in between those two. That said, it has its reputation as a sci-fi film masterpiece for a reason.  Score: 4 stars out of 4.

Note: Avoid the 1982 theatrical release at all costs, with its infamously bad voiceover by Harrison Ford, because it's noticeably inferior to later versions of the film.  In contrast, there isn't much of a difference between the 1992 Director's Cut vs the 2007 Final Cut: added violence, a few audio improvements and dialogue patch-ups, and an improved unicorn dream sequence.  Watch the Final Cut over the Director's Cut if you have a choice between them, but you're not missing much if you've only seen the 1992 version.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Run Lola Run (1998)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (8.0).

I normally don't make a habit of playing favorites or ranking things by preference, but if I were forced to, Run Lola Run would be on my list of top 10 favorite movies.  The plot is minimal: protagonist Lola needs to come up with 100,000 DM / $56,000 USD in 20 minutes or her boyfriend's gangster employers will kill him.  Oh, and she has to run across town on foot to do it.  (It's better than it sounds.)  The frantic pacing and jump-cutting does a solid job of adding to the tension, the visuals are great, the music is outrageously good, and lead Franka Potente does a really great job in making Lola herself come to life.  There are elements of magical realism in places, but they're pretty low-key and the core of the movie isn't really about them.  Score: 4 stars out of 4.

Friday, July 22, 2011

PCU (1994)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (6.1).

This college comedy screams mid-90's and is actually rather dated at this point.  At its core it's about a slacker frat house provoking satires of various left- and right-wing college groups (animal-rights vegans, second-wave feminists, and young Republicans) for the sake of their own frat's antisocial amusement.  Overall it's pretty firmly "meh"... although George Clinton puts in a surprise appearance and plays some great funk music at the movie's climax.  Score: 2 stars out of 4 (although George Clinton almost earns a bonus star all by himself).

Exte: Hair Extensions (2007)

Links: Wikipedia, IMDB (6.4).

For a horror comedy about killer hair extensions, this movie takes itself surprisingly seriously.  I'm... not saying it's bad, but... I was expecting more time laughing and less time squirming at fairly legit attempts at body horror.  There are some genuinely amusing humor bits scattered through the movie, but they're mostly squished to the beginning and end of the film to make room for the horror, as the hairstylist protagonist protects her niece from child abuse and watches her salon coworkers get picked off one by one by a vengeful ghost's ever-growing hair.  Score: 2 stars out of 4, but add a star if you like Japanese horror films.

Sneakers (1992)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (7.0).

A rare beast, the comedic thriller, about a tiger team of former hackers who get caught up in espionage and intrigue while keeping their sense of humor.  It's one of the most gracefully aged "hacker" movies out there, mostly because it doesn't show actual computers on-screen all that often.  The movie manages to strike a good balance of lighthearted versus serious, as well as realistic versus entertaining, with good segues that avoid mood whiplash.  (Worth noting: Leonard Adleman, the "A" in RSA, consulted on this movie's cryptography plot points.)  I consider this one of my favorite movies, and I readily recommend it.  Score: 4 stars out of 4.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Black Dynamite (2009)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (7.4).

This over-the-top spoof/homage of 1970's B-movie blaxploitation films is an enjoyable ride from beginning to end, a nice blend of parody and nostalgia.  The characters are non-stop fun, the plots are enjoyably over-the-top, and the deliberate use of continuity errors, filming mistakes, and bad stock footage adds to the charm.  Essentially, this film is to the blaxploitation genre what the Austin Powers series is to the 60s James Bond films.  Score: 4 stars out of 4.

The Shining (1980)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (8.5).

I somehow managed to reach adulthood without having seen The Shining, but after having absorbed most of it through pop-culture osmosis, I finally sat down to watch it.  I... well, I'm not sure what I was expecting, but what I saw wasn't it.  In particular, the movie was much more of an explicitly supernatural horror story than I'd been led to believe, over and above the "shining" ability itself.  I was considerably less impressed with the film when I found out it was basically a haunted house story, and not a psychological thriller about a man driven to hallucinations and homicide by cabin fever.  I guess as far as Stephen King stories about haunted locations go (another one?), this was pretty decent, though.  Score: 3 stars out of 4.

Agora (2009)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (7.2).

Nrrrgh.  I really wanted to like this historical drama about Hypatia of Alexandria, a real-life teacher in Roman Egypt who was famous for (a) being an early example of a well-respected female mathematician/geometer, and (b) dying gruesomely at the hands of a mob for crossing the wrong Christian religio-political faction.  However, the story takes serious liberties with Hypatia herself: it makes her an atheist instead of a Hellenistic pagan; it makes her care about empiricism, when Neo-Platonists like her rejected the idea that the material universe could teach us anything; and it put her on the verge of discovering Galilean Relativity and Keplerian Planetary Motion 1200 years early, despite no evidence that any Hellenic mind came close to considering elliptical planetary orbits (although they had the facts available to prove it if they'd ever given the idea serious consideration).  To add injury to insult, the film is also trying too hard to be an Important FilmTM, so it ends up being boring instead of riveting, even as a historical drama.  Score: 2 stars out of 4.

Teeth (2007)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (5.7).

It's a horror comedy about a woman with a vagina dentata (teeth down there).  It sounds like a fun premise, but the reality is lackluster: the movie spends too much time with the main character focusing on premarital abstinence and purity rings, and then spends too much time with her being a victim of both sexual assault and her own body's homicidal urges.  (TVTropes astutely calls it "a Lifetime Movie of the Week with a carnivorous vagina thrown in".)  There are some fun bits scattered through the movie, but overall the film doesn't gel together and was more of a disappointment than a comedy.  Score: 1 star out of 4 (but aaalmost 2 stars).

Taxi Driver (1976)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (8.6).

I'm probably going to take some flak for this, but... I actively disliked this movie.  This Martin Scorsese film is set in the grimiest portrayal of New York City you're likely to encounter, and the film is two hours of focused character study directed at Robert De Niro's title character: an unlikable, socially awkward protagonist who's visibly descending into homicidal, stalkeriffic madness.  The film is very unpleasant to watch, especially the stalking scenes which hewed so sharply to reality that they nicked it, but I felt there was no good payoff for that unpleasantness.  In fact, the end makes more sense as a fantasy or dream ending than it does at face value.  It doesn't help that, while it isn't quite Film Noir, it draws enough of its inspiration from that well of lingering, jazz-infested night shots that my dislike of Film Noir as a style kicks in.  Score: 1 star out of 4, unless you like Film Noir and dark character studies (in which case this is a classic).

Aside: if you're not aware, this is the movie that inspired John Hinckley Jr. to shoot Ronald Reagan in 1981, which he believed would impress Jodie Foster (who plays a child prostitute in this film).  Part of what frustrates me about the film is that it presents the crazy without judging it; would Hinckley have been so inspired if the movie had ended on a sour note instead?

Monday, July 18, 2011

1776 (1972)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (7.3).

This period-piece musical presents the dramatized debates of the American colonial congress that ultimately voted for independence from the British Empire in 1776.  A lot of people, critics especially, have been rather unhappy with the resulting film... but, honestly, I rather liked it.  It's a caricature, as you might expect from a period-piece musical, but it hits the important notes with surprising attention to accuracy given the genre, and it manages to be rather entertaining while it does so.  The film does have a mood switch from a lighthearted beginning, to the politicking over the call to end slavery ("Molasses to Rum"), to an increasingly somber assessment of the terrible cost of war and the odds of winning ("Look Sharp", "Is Anybody There?", the final dispatch) but it actually pulls this off with a surprisingly deft hand as the slow but steady pace piles on the growing tension.  The restored director's cut footage includes a song that was nixed by Richard Nixon's request ("Cool, Considerate Men"), but the restored segments aren't necessarily worth the extra 20 minutes.  Score: 3 stars out of 4.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Titan A.E. (2000)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (6.4).

This animated film was directed by Don Bluth (All Dogs Go To Heaven) and the writers included Joss Whedon (Buffy) and Ben Edlund (The Tick), but it's more problematic than that sounds: at times it's trying desperately to be a kid's movie, and at others it wants to be a serious movie that merely happens to be animated. The film suffers from Development Hell: the plot and characters sometimes change out of nowhere, seams where older drafts were glued together to make the final script. The soundtrack is also rather badly mismatched. But despite the problems, it's the most adult-targeted film Don Bluth has ever done, and it's enjoyable: it has a generally legit and intelligent story, the setting is great, the visuals are great, and it trends toward relatively hard sci-fi. I liked it. Score: 3 stars out of 4.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Zardoz (1974)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (5.6).

Get ready for Zardoz, the only movie that manages to be both unbearably tedious and completely fucking insane all at the same time!
Albert Walker

Zardoz is... very much a product of its time. Created in the barely post-Woodstock era when people could still talk about infinite crystals and psychic meditation while keeping a straight face, it's clearly what results when you start with early 70s zeitgeist, blend it with Philosophy 101, and season with pot and LSD to taste. Hell, even director John Boorman isn't sure what's happening half the time. Sean Connery starred in this movie to avoid being typecast as James Bond, and clad in an orange diaper, he succeeded beyond all expectations. I... can't honestly promise anyone that they'll enjoy this movie, but I definitely consider it a movie that should be seen. Taking it for what it is, my only complaint is that it's a bit slow and plodding. Score: 3 stars out of 4.

Dark Star (1974)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (6.6).

I was deeply disappointed by this film by John Carpenter (The Thing) and Dan O'Bannon (original screenplay for Alien). Before seeing it I'd heard about "that John Carpenter movie with the solipsist talking bomb". Sounds like a great comedy à la Strangelove, right? But as it turns out, the scenes with the solipsist bomb are the only good ones in the movie AND both are found at the very end. In the meantime I was forced to put up with a slow, unfunny "comedy" about people being bored on a spaceship and chasing a beachball-playing-an-alien in what was very obviously a college student short film that had been padded in length to create a low-budget feature film. I've heard the padding-free director's cut is better, and I'm sure it is: it couldn't possibly be any worse. Save yourself and watch ANYTHING ELSE written or directed by these two. Score: 0 stars out of 4.

Night of the Comet (1984)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (6.2).

I loved this film, but my friends beg to differ. It's an apocalyptic sci-fi movie from the early 80's that's far better than you'd have any right to expect. The premise is silly, of course — sort of a mashup of The Day of the Triffids with The Andromeda Strain — but the execution is actually quite skilled, with just enough self-awareness to make it fun without being a parody or dead-serious deconstruction. The setup portion of the movie is a bit slow, but it picks up before you suffer boredom. There's a point where the movie drops a new set of characters into the story, and it seems that the movie is failing to properly sketch the personality and motivations of one of them... but it turns out there's a good reason why you just have to wait for the explanation. Score: 4 stars out of 4, although your mileage may vary.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Amélie (2001)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (8.6).
a.k.a. "Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain" ("The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain")

I'm divided. On one hand, this movie is trying way too damn hard to be the saccharine-sweet romantic comedy that will become enshrined as the ultimate example of "cute" and "quirky" comedic French cinéma. On the other hand, underneath the syrup there's actually a fun and amusing story about two quasi-functional Asperger's syndrome adults gradually overcoming their social awkwardness as they make a valiant attempt to fall in love without actually meeting each other in person. There are parts of the film where I feel like I'm about to go into a diabetic coma, or occasionally fly into a "hey, that's illegal" rage at the title character's hijinks, but the rest of the time I find myself enjoying it. Score: 3 stars out of 4.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Alien: Resurrection (1997)

Links: TVTropes (entire series), Wikipedia, IMDB (6.2).

Hrmph. This is... not a good film by any stretch of the imagination, but if you can ignore some facepalmingly-bad science exposition and overlook the fact that it's supposedly a member of the Alien series, you may find you enjoy it (I did). Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly) wrote the screenplay, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie) directed it as a dark comedy; the result is actually a pretty fun, and sometimes campy, violent sci-fi action movie. Well, it gets weirder and less enjoyable in the last act (the alien nest and almost everything after that)... clearly Jeunet went overboard and had a Zardoz moment. Score: 3 stars out of 4.

Galaxy Quest (1999)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (7.2).

The best Star Trek movie ever made. This comedic parody borrows a lot from classic Star Trek and Next Generation but creates its own unique, yet distinctly "Star Trek"-flavored story that ribs the silly and embarrassing moments of Star Trek without being even slightly mean-spirited about it. The casting choices are inspired, the pacing is tight, the lines are great, the delivery is great, and the script strikes an excellent balance between snark and affection... it's hard to imagine that any change to this movie could possibly have improved it. Score: 4 stars out of 4.

The Toxic Avenger (1984)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (5.9)

The infamous B-movie horror-comedy that put Troma Entertainment on the map. The Twenty Minutes With Jerks section at the beginning of the movie is at best dull and unfunny, up until Melvin is transformed into the title character, at which point it becomes an amusing but ultimately forgettable Troma splatterfest. Oh, and the movie gives off seriously weird and conflicting pro-gay/anti-gay vibes at times: among the town's upright citizens is a gay couple, but a fair number of the criminals beaten up by Toxie are Sissy Villains. Score: 2 stars out of 4.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Hidden (1987)

Links: Wikipedia, IMDB (6.9).

I'd never heard of this low budget sci-fi / buddy cop movie before, but it has its own cult following (according to the friend who suggested it) and I can kind of see why. It came out 6 years before X-Files hit the airwaves, yet it manages to capture something very similar to the X-Files feel. Those familiar with the David Lynch film of Dune may have the urge to shout "the sleeper has awakened" at Kyle MacLachlan when his Mulder-like character first appears on screen, but I found that the urge goes away within a minute or two. Overall, it's not going to win any awards or anything, but I thought it was pretty good for what it was trying to be. Score: 3 stars out of 4.

Edit: Crap! How could I forget to mention the unintentionally comedic stripper played by Claudia Christian (Susan Ivanova on Babylon 5)? That was great!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Saw 3D (2010)

Links: TVTropes (series), Wikipedia, IMDB (5.6).

Ugh. Relentless torture- and gore-porn backed by an elaborate yet inept plot and dreadful dialogue. The 3D was pretty unexceptional as well: mostly flat, except for a few gore shots when they amped it up to theme-park proportions. Better than an Uwe Boll film, but only just. Score: 1 star out of 4.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (6.6).

This film was a childhood favorite of mine, and I was pleased to say that it holds up quite well when re-watching it as an adult. (My friends were slightly less enthusiastic, but I think that's because I kept singing along and I can't carry a tune.) It's a black comedy film musical, set in Manhattan in the early 1960s, about a giant talking plant that offers a Faustian bargain — money and fame in exchange for just a little bit of murder. The film is well known for having a focus-group happy ending, where the main character survives and gets the girl, but I felt the happy ending works well enough and that the planned ending (filmed but never released) was needlessly vicious to the love interest, Audrey. Anyway, the songs are fun, the story is fun, the acting is great... I have a hard time thinking of any real negatives to the story. Score: 4 stars out of 4.

Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl (2009)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (6.1).

This Japanese horror comedy is a visibly low-budget B-movie cut from the same cloth as a Troma film. The plot, acting, and effects aim for (and hit) So Bad It's Good territory: the plot is a high school Valentine's Day romantic drama that erupts into a love triangle showdown over a boy, fought between a mysterious transfer student who's secretly a vampire and the spoiled daughter of the vice principal who dies and comes back as a Frankenstein-style creation (resurrected by her father, secretly a Kabuki-clad Mad Scientist). The film ruthlessly parodies some common Japanese high school subcultures: the "13th Nationwide High School Student Wrist Cut Rally" is hilarious... although it must be said that the ganguro parody comes across as cringe-inducingly racist, even knowing it's trying to parody the racism of it rather than join in. Overall, though, I had a fun time. Score: 3 stars out of 4.

PS: Ganguro, literally "black face", is a Japanese fashion subculture composed of teenage girls who over-tan and try to associate themselves with American blacks and American rap/hip-hop music because they're "cool". It's well intentioned but it's frankly a little bit racist itself, even before you parody it. ("Japan" and "racial sensitivity" don't generally mix well together, which is perhaps not surprising given how racially uniform Japan is.)

Slither (2006)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (6.6).

Slither is a horror comedy that's two parts alien invasion to one part zombie apocalypse, with gross-out body horror inspired by David Cronenberg and frequent shout-outs to other films in the genre. It's pretty fun — Elizabeth Banks does quite nicely side-by-side with Nathan Fillion of Firefly fame — but I thought it didn't quite gel together like it should've, even though I can't quite put my finger on why. Because of this, my friends and I agreed that Piranha 3D was a more enjoyable watch. Score: tough call, but 3 stars out of 4.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Machete (2010)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (7.2).

Machete is a loving parody of the 1970's B-movie exploitation film genre, this one centered on the Mexican drug war and illegal immigration in Texas. The movie is a continuous exercise in Rule of Cool and Refuge in Audacity, complete with a motorcycle-mounted gatling gun, dual-wielded machetes, and a completely over-the-top bit involving the length of the small intestine. A bit gory, but in a dark comedy way. There are some earnest political undertones, pro-immigration and anti-drug-war, but they're presented in a way that welcomes the audience to laugh and disagree. Overall I enjoyed the film quite a bit. Score: 4 stars out of 4.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Alien 3 (1992)

Links: TVTropes (entire series), Wikipedia, IMDB (6.3).

Sigh. I recently suffered through the Special Edition cut of Alien³, and it sucked even more than the original cut. The original had not-enough-movie smeared across too-much-buildup, a contrived plot, generally poor characterization, and a crap opening that invalidates any emotional investment in the previous film. The SE adds mammoth pacing problems, removes a few reasonably clever bits of direction, adds a few wallbanger scenes, and compensates only by making the planet slightly more three-dimensional (showing the shoreline in the opening scene, the only exterior shot in a claustrophobic movie that could just as well have been set on a space station). Score: 2 stars out of 4.

PS: Disregard every bit of hokum this movie tries to tell you about men with two Y chromosomes. By the early 1980s, long before this movie's script was written, the earlier myths from the 1960s had been disproven and it was quite clear that 47,XYY syndrome does NOT lead to aggression, violence, or sociopathy. There are some statistical differences in height (taller) and IQ (dumber), but they're tiny compared to normal human variation.

Aliens (1986)

Links: TVTropes (entire series), Wikipedia, IMDB (8.5).

One of those rare moments when a sequel equals or exceeds the already-esteemed original. Compared to Alien, this film shifts genres toward more of a sci-fi action/thriller. The plot is gently interwoven with a subtext drawn from the Vietnam War, layered on top of the first movie's established fabric of Joseph Conrad, but even so it stands up well enough on its own without awareness of this. Also, the characters — while a bit stereotypical — gel together in a way that the first film never quite developed, and the pacing is surprisingly good when you consider how long the film is. Score: 4 stars out of 4.

Alien (1979)

Links: TVTropes (entire series), Wikipedia, IMDB (8.5).

A now-classic sci-fi horror film that rewrote the genre. The direction and editing is notable for slowly building tension without hurting the pacing of the movie, H. R. Giger's artwork manages to provoke the audience in ways that you'd never think a human in a rubber suit could do, and of course the film introduced the world to Sigourney Weaver's acting talents. Even in the finished product, there are some places where the pacing bogs down a bit, and the growth rate of the alien results in some forehead-slapping among scientifically-minded viewers, but the overall result is quite good. Score: 4 stars out of 4.

Pandorum (2009)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (6.8).

Meh. A sci-fi psychological horror/thriller film that mistakenly believes it's the forbidden love child of Event Horizon and Memento. I thought the use of hand-cranked power was cute, albeit unrealistic for the quantities of electricity involved. The end has some twists somewhat reminiscent of The Village or Fight Club... but by the time the twists appeared, the movie had still failed to make me care. Oh, and cue a ton of whiny teenage nihilist philosophy coming out of adult mouths. Overall, I liked it better than I expected to, and I don't regret seeing it, but I wouldn't have missed a thing by skipping it. Score: 2 stars out of 4.

Piranha 3D (2010)

Links: TVTropes (mostly about the 1978 original), Wikipedia, IMDB (6.1).

It's a horror comedy, with all the emphasis on the comedy, and deliberately done as a B-movie. The 3D gets some abusive camerawork at the start of the film, but it's generally used with more grace than most 3D B-movies bother with. The plot is dumb, but it's a remake of a cheesy knockoff of Jaws (complete with Richard Dreyfuss in this remake), so you knew that. Considerable T&A for the heterosexual male demographic, and gore that's one part gruesome to three parts silly fun. Score: 3 stars out of 4.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Blindsight (book, 2008)

Links: Author's website (includes the full novel online), Wikipedia, Amazon, Google Books

Blindsight is a very provocative hard sci-fi novel by Peter Watts. On the surface it's about first contact with an alien species, but just beneath it's about the workings of the human mind. The novel asks two deep questions about the human mind — and about minds in general, the space containing minds that we could have had but don't — with the questions presented in the form of devil's advocate answers that undermine the traditional assumptions, removing the blinders so that the questions can be asked honestly. The novel's love affair with real-life neurological disorders might make for a challenging read, but I found it a rewarding one. Score: 4 stars out of 4.