Midnight Special — a review

Don't worry, kid. I'm good friends with Spider-Man. We'll see what he can do.

Don’t worry, kid. I’m good friends with Spider-Man. We’ll see what he can do.

Midnight Special is one of those great movies that hits the ground running–literally, since the main characters Roy, played by Michael Shannon and Lucas, played by Joel Edgerton, find themselves on the news during an Amber alert, which accuses them of having abducted a young boy. It turns out that they did take a boy, but he’s Roy’s son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) and he was actually taken from a cult that’s led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard). Calvin had taken Alton from Roy (who was a member of the cult) and raised the kid as his own son–the reason being is that Alton has developed some very particular powers at a very young age, powers that make the cult worship Alton as if he were a prophet.

Abducting his child from the cult compound, Roy goes on the run, with his childhood friend Lucas helping in any way he can. Calvin, not wanting to let the golden goose slip out of his grasp, begins organizing some men to go after Roy–until his plans are thwarted by the arrival of hundreds of armed FBI agents that seize his compound and place everybody under arrest. It turns out that the US Government has also taken notice of Alton’s extraordinary powers, and they are hell-bent on finding the boy, with an unassuming NSA agent (Adam Driver) helping to lead the charge.

Wow, neat trick! The Sith could really use you!

Wow, neat trick! The Sith could really use you!

The fantastic actor, Michael Shannon–who’s probably best known by mainstream movie fans for his role as General Zod in Man Of Steel–teams up again with Jeff Nichols, his director on the equally marvelous Take Shelter, to knock another one out of the park with Midnight Special. Eschewing the bullshit flashback trope that many films and TV shows use (where the story starts in mid-action, only to flashback several hours or days to explain everything), Midnight Special explains everything on the go, in dibs and drabs, all while it races through its chase sequences while building its story and creating some truly sympathetic characters at the same time. Shannon is great as always; he portrays a man who’s way out of his element who is just trying to do right by his son. Edgerton, an Australian, effectively creates a regular guy from Texas who’s just trying to help out his buddy and his kid.

Hey, everybody...group hug!

Hey, everybody…group hug!

Kirsten Dunst is also very good as Sarah, Alton’s mother, who gets caught up in protecting her son from both the cult and the government. Adam Driver gives a good performance as a character who should be a card-board cut out–the “evil” government agent–but he manages to instill within his NSA man a quiet nobility. Jeff Nichols’ script and direction is taunt and exciting, right up to the end of the chase, where the movie takes an incredible leap into SF territory that still makes sense while also being amazing at the same time. Midnight Special achieves the kind of wonderment and overall satisfaction that Disney’s Tomorrowland film strove for, but fell short of grasping. This is a gripping thriller that’s also a very emotional human drama wrapped in an astonishing science fiction story–and it all works spectacularly. Don’t miss it. –SF

Star Trek Beyond — a review

It appears that Comic Con didn't go as well as they had hoped.

It appears that Comic Con didn’t go as well as they had hoped.

Imagine my surprise, when watching Star Trek Beyond, that it wound up being an extremely well-made, enjoyable movie. That probably doesn’t sound very fair, as if I went into the movie with very low expectations, but consider the evidence. The previous Star Trek film, Into Darkness, just wasn’t very good on so many levels. Aside from being a very badly done remake of the far superior Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, Into Darkness just didn’t “get it” when it came to the Star Trek characters, particularly Kirk, played here by Chris Pine.

There was a scene in Into Darkness where Kirk found himself completely flummoxed by an enemy ship that wiped out the Enterprise’s engines and weapons systems. As the Enterprise sat there, helpless, while the enemy charged up its main guns to wipe them out, Kirk turned to the bridge crew and said that he was sorry for letting them down.

The Captain Kirk that I grew up with on the original Star Trek series, played by the charismatic William Shatner, was a fighter. I don’t mean that he was a soldier, or a warrior (which Kirk himself once freely admitted to being), but a fighter in the sense that when the chips were down, Kirk just kept right on going. When it looked like the entire universe was out to get him, James T. Kirk could be counted on to damn the torpedoes and keep sailing right onward. He would never just give up, and that was why I found the quick and easy surrender of Chris Pine’s Kirk so disheartening.

Aye, I see the problem now. And you say his name is King Kong?

Aye, I see the problem now. And you say his name is King Kong?

Apparently, the writers and the director of Star Trek Beyond “got it”, because the Kirk that’s presented here in their film is far more the fighter who’s willing to take ballsy risks, just like Shatner’s Kirk did. It’s no spoiler that the Enterprise goes down (and in spectacular fashion, in a scene that’s thrilling to watch), leaving the crew stranded on an alien planet where they’re kept caged by Krall (Idris Elba), a warlord who seeks to pick a fight with the Federation. The crew members who are still on the loose, like Scotty (Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the script) are being ruthlessly hunted down–but in Scotty’s case, he comes across Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) an alien woman who gives him shelter in a very unlikely place.

Star Trek Beyond is easily the best of the JJ Abrams-produced Trek films, which began with the Star Trek film reboot back in 2009. While the first two films were directed by Abrams, Beyond is directed by Justin Lin, who makes this Trek voyage an assured, confident ride that is just as comfortable dealing in character issues as it is in the broad action scenes. Lin is a confirmed Star Trek fan, and it shows in his lovingly staged shots of the Enterprise in motion, some of which are almost works of art in their own right. It’s rare to see CGI being used so well in movies, and Beyond is one of those films where the effects shine very brightly without overpowering the story.

The cast is also very good, with the stand-outs being Karl Urban as the ever grumpy Dr. McCoy, who’s partnered on the planet with Zachary Quinto’s injured Spock. Their chemistry is superb. And Sofia Boutella is a welcome addition as the engagingly feisty Jaylah. It’s also very bittersweet seeing the late Anton Yelchin here, doing his customary splendid job as the affable Chekov. Star Trek Beyond is a fitting film to be released during the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek, not just because of its adoring tributes to the original cast that are sprinkled throughout its story, but also for reviving the essence that made Star Trek work so well that it lasted for half a century and hopefully beyond. –SF

Independence Day: Resurgence — a review

Um, the alien is humming. Why is he humming? Is that a good thing?

Um, the alien is humming. Why is he humming? Is that a good thing?

The original Independence Day was a silly but fun popcorn movie that retold the classic ‘aliens invade Earth’ story with a massive budget and eye-popping special effects. It became a monster hit, riding mainly on the charms of its strong cast, which included Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum. Twenty years later, the sequel is finally released, where those pesky aliens return, looking for a rematch. And they get one. Once again directed by Roland Emmerich, the German-born master of disaster (replacing the late, great Irwin Allen, who produced cinematic catastrophes like the Towering Inferno and the Poseidon Adventure, along with memorable TV series such as Lost In Space), Independence Day: Resurgence is also a lot fun, despite some major stumbling blocks.

Also taking place twenty years later, the sequel smartly has the people of Earth living in high style and comfort, thanks to the advanced alien tech that they blended in with their own. As a result we have a far more sophisticated society that has already built a moon base that serves as a forward operating center that’s armed with a huge freaking laser. When an alien ship arrives at the moon base, the nervous humans, fearing the beginning of another assault on mother earth, blow it to bits. The president then orders Jeff Goldblum’s character to attend the twentieth anniversary celebration of the end of the ’96 war, overriding his strong desire to check out the wreckage to see who or what they shot down.

Looks like more aliens are in the forecast for today. We'd better get back to port!

Looks like more aliens are in the forecast for today. We’d better get back to port!

Right off the bat, this behavior doesn’t make any sense, as the first thing the military would want to do is scour the wreckage of a potential enemy combatant in order to gather intelligence about them, regardless of whatever the holiday was. But, rest assured, our heroes manage to find a way to ignore official orders and get up to the moon to investigate the crashed ship–just as the second alien invasion against earth has begun. The original film had a marvelous, epic feel in how it slowly unfolded its story, but the sequel, with a shorter running time, feels very rushed. Thus, Resurgence lacks the gravitas that the original had, with the sequel on the whole feeling like it’s nothing more than an afterthought.

Another problem is that while Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman have returned for the sequel, Will Smith is absent. And since the original film rode high on Smith’s charisma, the sequel falters when it has to make do with a replacement cast of bland twenty-somethings who all feel interchangeable. Still, despite the flaws, the sequel to Independence Day is far from being a terrible film; it’s fun eye candy, promising a third chapter that will take the fight against the aliens to the stars, which is something I’m looking forward to. I just hope they don’t wait another twenty years to do the next one. –SF

Westworld — a review

You hear what he called us? Are these robots programmed to say stuff like that?

You hear what he called us? Are these robots programmed to say stuff like that?

These days the late Michael Crichton is best known for Jurassic Park, having written the original bestselling novel before Steven Spielberg turned it into a monster movie hit in the summer of 1993. But twenty years earlier, Crichton was the writer and director of Westworld, a science fiction movie that had the same basic theme as JP, that of a high-tech amusement park that goes awry. I first saw Westworld as a kid on TV, where it was heavily edited and had its image cropped to fit the square screens of the TVs of that era. The only thing that I vividly remember from this viewing was being impressed at how one of the Westworld techs could order breakfast while sitting right at his console.

What with Westworld coming back as a TV series (???) in 2016, I figured it was time to re-watch this film. Richard Benjamin stars as a tourist who goes with his friend John (James Brolin) to Westworld, which is a theme park that presents the experience of living in an 1880s old west town. Guests at this resort can go full cowboy by shooting up whoever and whatever they want without facing any consequences. The secret is that the inhabitants of the town are extremely sophisticated robots. If they get shot up, it’s no big deal because they’re fixed up and sent back out the next day.

Did you ever see this guy in the King and I? He's great. So be careful with his voice when you put him back together.

Did you ever see this guy in the King and I? He’s great. So be careful with his voice when you put him back together.

Yul Brenner gives a nicely understated performance as a robot gunslinger that’s modeled heavily after his part in the Magnificent Seven. When Benjamin’s character guns him down, Brenner goes looking for revenge the following day–only to be gunned down again. It’s all in good fun, until everything goes haywire and the robots start hunting down and killing the guests. Earlier in the film, Alan Oppenheimer, best known as Rudy from the Six Million Dollar Man, plays a scientific supervisor who tries to track down a strange glitch that seems to bounce from robot to robot.

But when he brings this up at a meeting, Oppenheimer’s colleagues laugh off the concept of a robot disease. But knowing what we now know about computer viruses, I can’t help but wonder if Crichton was being prescient here. It should be noted that there’s also a Medieval World, as well as a Roman World, but the bulk of the action takes place in Westworld. Dick Van Patten also stars as the newly minted sheriff of Westworld. Majel Barret, the wife of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, also has a small part as the madam of a brothel.

I'm really supposed to be in Westworld, you know. But I really don't mind helping you out.

I’m really supposed to be in Westworld, you know. But I really don’t mind helping you out.

Watching Yul Brenner’s unrelenting pursuit of Benjamin at the climax reminds me very much of the same merciless quality of the Terminator robots, the first film in that series would premiere some eleven years later. While Westworld has some plot holes (why would they upgrade Brenner’s robot with heat vision? Granted, he later used it to pursue Benjamin, but what was the in-world reasoning behind making a gunslinger robot used at an amusement park even more lethal than it already is?), it’s surprising how well the film holds up, even with its outdated concepts. It just goes to show that some ideas still stand the test of time, and it’s heartening to see that, eight years after his death, Michael Crichton’s vision is still entertaining people. –SF

Star Wars: The Force Awakens — a review

Who's the leader of the club that's made for you and me? M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E.

Who’s the leader of the club that’s made for you and me? M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E.

Warning: spoilers ahead!

When Uncle George handed over the keys to the Star Wars universe to JJ Abrams, I actually had some hope. Despite the fact that Abrams had just directed Star Trek: Into Darkness, a flaming turd of a movie if there ever was one, I realized that he would be a much better choice to direct a Star Wars film because, like me, he was raised on the original trilogy back in the 1970s/early 80s. Abrams is a Star Wars kid who had a genuine affection for the series–unlike Star Trek, which he stated in interviews that he thought was “too philosophical”. (!!!) And, having now seen the latest Star Wars film (which was something I thought would not be possible for the longest time), I have to say that my initial hope in Abrams was well founded.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens takes place some thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi–and it’s the exact type of Star Wars story, a sequel, that I’ve wanted to see ever since walking out of the theater after seeing Jedi. The prequels, directed by Uncle George, were an interesting failure in that they tried to expand upon on the Star Wars universe by filling in the back story, but Uncle George chose the wrong things to explain about. The scene in The Phantom Menace where Liam Neeson explains how the Force works to baby Darth Vader (“it’s actually made up of little germs”) was soul-deadening to watch. Instead of expanding upon his universe, Uncle George seemed hell-bent on deconstructing it.

I trust this guy with my life, but take this, just in case....

I trust this guy with my life, but take this, just in case….

Uncle George also appeared to have forgotten something very important when making the prequels: that Star Wars is an epic myth, and when telling these stories, they should be treated as such. JJ Abrams gets this, which is why his The Force Awakens is so much better than any of the prequels. In creating young Rey (who’s very well played by the charming Daisy Ridley), we have a new archetype of the hero from the fabled myths that Joseph Campbell told of. Rey lives a humble existence on the desert planet of Jakku, where she earns a living scavenging from wrecked Star Destroyers left behind from a long-ago battle. But she meets up with BB-8, an impossibly cute droid that contains a map showing the location of the missing Luke Skywalker.

And we’re off! After meeting with Fin (John Boyega in another good performance), a Stormtrooper who’s gone AWOL, the trio take off from Jakku using an old freighter they find on the surface…a freighter that just happens to be the Millennium Falcon. What follows is basically a remake of A New Hope, with our heroes tangling with the First Order, the new group of baddies that arose from the ashes of the Empire, revealing some spiffy new Star Destroyers in their arsenal, along with another Death Star.


A death star…why’d it have to be another death star?

What'd I tell you about talking to strangers? You see what happens?

What’d I tell you about talking to strangers? You see what happens?

The death star this time is known as Starkiller Base, and it’s a hundred times larger than its brethren, with the surface covered with natural landscapes, which is a nice change of pace–but it’s still a frigging death star with a death ray, and its very presence gives The Force Awakens a heavy derivative feel. In what is an otherwise fun and enjoyable film, one that’s joyously pushing the series forward, the presence of the super duper death star feels like a step backward as it forces the plot in the latter half of the film to mimic A New Hope, straight down to scenes of General Leia anxiously awaiting the outcome of the battle back at the resistance base.

Still, despite the remake of A New Hope sprouting up right in the middle of the movie, Abrams keeps aiming high and manages to deliver a rollicking film for the fans and non-fans. He loads the film with many super cool moments that will resonate with the more hardcore fans of the Star Wars series. The humor is also exceptional–I laughed out loud several times during some funny bits–and the characters, both new and old, are sympathetic enough that you care what happens to them. And for once, the main character in a Star Wars film is finally a woman (thanks, JJ)!

Aside from a massive misstep thanks to reviving a plot device that really needed to stay dead, I still tremendously enjoyed The Force Awakens. It vividly recalls the dashing fun of the original trilogy while laying the foundation for another two films to come, both of which I can’t wait to see (just so long as there are no more death stars, please…pretty please?). –SF

Ex Machina — a review

I swear, if you ask me if I'm dreaming about electric sheep, I will punch you.

I swear, if you ask me if I’m dreaming about electric sheep, I will punch you.

If you’ve seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens this weekend, then you’ve seen actors Domhnall Gleeson as the hissable General Hux and Oscar Isaac as the dashing Poe Dameron. But before Star Wars these two actors worked together in another science fiction film, one of an entirely different stripe, Ex Machina. Gleeson stars as Caleb, an office drone who won a special contest that his company was running. The grand prize is to spend a week with the company’s mysterious founder, played by Isaac as a sort of Steve Jobs-type of visionary in his field.

Instead of a piece of my mind, I'm giving you a piece of the robot's mind.....

Instead of a piece of my mind, I’m giving you a piece of the robot’s mind…..

Yet when Caleb winds up at Nathan’s remote mountain hideaway, instead of helping his boss work on computer code, he discovers that Nathan has something much more advanced in mind. Nathan has been building and perfecting a series of human-looking robots, and his latest prototype, Ava, is waiting to hear from Caleb. Nathan wants Caleb to test Ava to see if she truly is an artificial life form with a mind of her own, or if she’s just mimicking what they want to see and hear.

Caleb, realizing that he’s on the verge of making scientific history, is more than happy to dive into the interviews with Ava. Alicia Vikander, who was so good in The Man From Uncle remake, stars here as Ava. Only her face is recognizable here, since her body is just about the single major special effect in the film. Nathan doesn’t hide the fact that Ava’s a robot, leaving her torso literally exposed as a see through glass partition that shows her glowing innards. Despite the SF trappings that she’s literally draped in, Vikander does a superb job at making her character seem very sympathetic.

This could have been my face? It could have been worse, I suppose.

This could have been my face? It could have been worse, I suppose.

Ex Machina was written by first time director Alex Garland, who wrote The fantastic 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd (all worthy movies you should also check out). He does as good job at building up a steady rise of paranoia that’s still smartly done; he doesn’t have his characters do stupid things just to serve the script, and despite the intimate setting, he still manages to get a good plot twist out of the story here and there. If you’re expecting more Star Wars, you’ll be disappointed; but if you’re looking to see two of your favorite Star Wars actors in something different, you might want to give Ex Machina a shot; it’s highly recommended. –SF

Terminator Genisys — a review

Hello, and welcome to my Uber car! Where can I take you tonight?

Hello, and welcome to my Uber car! Where can I take you tonight?

It’s got to be a pretty bad movie that makes Terminator: Salvation look halfway decent in comparison. After all, Salvation, that misbegotten wannabe Terminator film that desperately tried to restart the time-traveling-killer-robot franchise, was directed by McG, for crying out loud! But the new film, Terminator Genisys–yet another misbegotten attempt to revive the Terminator series–is just a waste of film (assuming they even used film to shoot this).

Oh well, the body’s been prepped on the table, so let’s start the autopsy, shall we?

The first fifteen minutes or so of Terminator: Genisys is basically a remake of the classic 1984 film written and directed by James Cameron. We see Kyle Reese (a really bland Jai Courtney) get recruited into the human resistance by John Connor (an even blander Jason Clarke), who then leads the resistance to victory over the killer robots in a final battle–only to have the robots send the original T-800 Terminator back trough time.

Alas, poor hand...I knew it well....

Alas, poor hand…I knew it well….

As expected, Reese volunteers to go back to save Sarah Connor, but when he gets back there, he runs into the T-1000 liquid metal guy (played here by Byung-hun Lee), who tries to kill him. Oh wait, what’s this? Yes, the Genisys filmmakers try to be cute by altering the timeline by having Kyle encounter a Sarah Connor who’s already a kick ass super warrior back in 1984, thanks to a T-800 that’s been sent back even further to protect Sarah when she was a child. Nice idea, but the stupidity shows through even here.

Case in point is the scene where Sarah and Old Arnie take out the original Terminator (New Arnie) who shows up at the observatory and steals the punks’ clothes (“Nice night for a walk, huh?”). Old Arnie shows up before the New Arnie can even kill the punks and they have a knock down, drag out fight where New Arnie very nearly destroys Old Arnie until Sarah takes him out with a large caliber rifle.

Looks like we missed the bus!

Looks like we missed the bus!

Why is this stupid? Well, Sarah later tells Kyle that she and Old Arnie had been preparing for the arrival of the time travelers for the last ten years. If this is true, then why should Sarah even bother sending Old Arnie to fight New Arnie at the observatory at all? She had a high powered cannon with which she could take out the bad Arnie with from afar. If she simply shot him from long range the moment he shows up and then swiftly moved onto her next objective, it would have been cooler, as well as smarter.

Another example of the raging dopiness in this movie are the scenes where the villain shows up and everybody–who are all armed–just stands there and stare at him like idiots while he either morphs into something deadlier or just babbles on about his grand scheme to change the world. There’s no sense of urgency in this film that the two Cameron-directed Terminators had, nor is there any real hard driving suspense.

This movie is just another committee-approved product that doesn’t tell a story so much as it just goes by the numbers, dutifully hitting all of the beats (action scene; exposition scene; CGI scene; more action scenes; another exposition scene, etc) that they think will thrill the viewers. But the movie winds up being a dull and lifeless waste of time that’s obviously a cash grab from a franchise that would probably be better off left dormant at this point.

Hey, where'd that dragon come from?

Hey, where’d that dragon come from?

And while I tried very hard to like Emilia Clarke (I love her as Daenerys on Game of Thrones), she falls short here as Sarah Connor. She lacks the screen presence that Linda Hamilton had in the first two films. Hamilton wasn’t just tough in T2, she was an outright badass; I don’t get that vibe at all from Clarke. But Hamilton was also working from much better scripts in those two movies that gave her a character arc to work with. While Clarke is stuck with such a lackluster and idiotic script that I suspect it must have been written in crayon.

All you really need to see is Terminator, Terminator 2, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (yes, I thought even that was better than Genisys) and the TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the last having done a fantastic job of taking the basic premise of Terminator and running with it. Interestingly enough TSCC starred Lena Headey, Clarke’s castmate from Game of Thrones, who did an admirable job of playing Sarah Connor with a confident war-weariness. Terminator Genisys joins Terminator: Salvation in the list of Terminator films to avoid. Here’s hoping that list of bad Terminator flicks doesn’t get any longer. –SF

Jurassic World — a review

I get the sinking feeling this isn't the ladies room....

I get the sinking feeling this isn’t the ladies room….

You’d think they would learn, wouldn’t you? After three previous films featuring dinosaurs snacking on people–the first two having been directed by Steven Spielberg–the infamous Jurassic Park opens its doors once again, welcoming a new generation of lunch…um, I mean visitors. Now called Jurassic World, the park is operated by Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) a super efficient manager who kicks a garbage can under her co-worker’s desk, catching the drink he’s spilled just in time. But she’s now dealing with something even more scary than a park filled with dinos: her nephews are coming for a visit.

Whoa, dudes, whoa! I'm just looking for a talking raccoon, that's all. Have you guys seen him?

Whoa, dudes, whoa! I’m just looking for a talking raccoon, that’s all. Have you guys seen him?

Whoa, bad timing, kids! It turns out that attendance to Jurassic World has been slipping these past few years, which makes those whacky dinosaur scientists create a really cool new dinosaur, a huge and scary predator that has never walked the earth at all until now, the Indominus Rex. The corporate suits hope that the IR will bring back the crowds, but the cunning and sneaky Indominus Rex has other plans for today, thank you very much.

Watching the early parts of Jurassic World, before the you-know-what hit the fan, I was reminded of Jeff Goldblum’s great line in The Lost World: Jurassic Park: “Oh, yeah. Oooh, ahhh…that’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and um, screaming.” That’s pretty much how Jurassic World goes, treating its subject matter straight, without any irony, and I was loving every minute of it. Jurassic World is John Hammond’s vision finally come to life, a major theme park with dinosaurs that even has a petting zoo (and the sight of toddlers interacting with baby dinos is just too damn adorable for words).

We need bigger guns. We need bigger guns! HOLY CHRIST WE REALLY NEED BIGGER F**KING GUNS!

We need bigger guns. We need bigger guns! HOLY CHRIST WE REALLY NEED BIGGER F**KING GUNS!

One thing that I really liked about this latest entry in the Jurassic Park series is that its not a remake but a continuation from the first three films. Out of the original characters from the first film, only B.D. Wong as Dr. Henry Wu returns, and he’s given a far larger part this time. There’s plenty of memories from the first movie that are evoked–such as when Masrani (Irrfan Khan), the new owner of the park, directly quotes John Hammond’s oft-used “spared no expense” phrase at one point. And even that annoying “Mr. DNA” cartoon makes a very brief appearance.

But Jurassic World stands pretty tall on its own, thanks to some solid performances by the engaging Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt, who’s got another hit film series here besides Guardians of the Galaxy. The always great Vincent D’Onofrio is given the thankless job of playing the corporate bad guy (he might as well wear a neon sign stating ’I will eventually betray you’), but despite some mild stumbling here and there, Jurassic World is another extremely enjoyable entry in a series that just keeps getting better with each new film. –SF

Jupiter Ascending — a review

Hey, am I late for Burning Man?

Hey, am I late for Burning Man?

Jupiter Ascending, the latest SF epic from the Wachowski Siblings (who gave us The Matrix saga, along with Bound, Cloud Atlas, and Speed Racer) was supposed to have been the big popcorn movie summer blockbuster of 2014. But then it’s release was postponed to early winter of 2015, which is basically the studio saying that it had no faith in the film and thus condemned it to the phantom zone. Never a good sign for a movie! When it was released in theaters I didn’t bother seeing it, because I heard such awful things about it. And even when it was released on video I only rented it…for the same reason: the constant whispers about it being really, really bad.

But when I finally saw it, to my surprise I liked it.

Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is a young woman who’s struggling to pay the bills by working as a cleaning lady for Chicago’s upper crust. She’s so hard up for cash that when her cousin suggests that she sell her eggs, Jupe is game. But when she’s at the doctor’s, they restrain Jupiter with weird hovering straps and run tests on her of a completely different kind. Discovering that she’s ‘the one‘, the doctor orders her to be killed. But that’s when Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a human/wolf hybrid, barges in, kills the medical staff, and saves Jupiter’s life.

Go on, make the stupid joke about That 70s Show, go ahead, I dare you!

Go on, make the stupid joke about That 70s Show, go ahead, I dare you!

Upon hearing that she’s been marked for death by the rulers of an intergalactic empire who think she may be the reincarnated version of their late ruler, Jupiter winds up being on the run on both Earth as well as in outer space. But that’s OK, because wolf boy is protecting her. If your eyes haven’t glazed over by now while reading this, then you may well be the target audience for this movie. It’s another space opera with eye-popping visuals that’s not exactly one of the best of the Wachowski films. But who cares? It’s a lot of fun.

LONG LIVE THE FIGHTERS! Oh, wait, um, sorry...wrong SF movie...please don't mind me....

LONG LIVE THE FIGHTERS! Oh, wait, um, sorry…wrong SF movie…please don’t mind me….

While watching Tatum’s Caine taking down a group of imperial guards in an off world palace, the realization occurred to me that the Wachowski siblings have basically remade Flash Gordon here, and that’s a good thing. But it’s a far more serious take on the material than the goofy 1980 remake starring Sam Jones (who shares a last name with Kunis’ main character). Kunis plays the Flash Gordon character, the fish out of water who’s dropped into these weird proceedings, while Eddie Redmayne is basically playing Ming The Merciless (although he’s a little on the screechy side–but he is more of a spoiled brat than Ming was) who’s mining Earth for its humans (a derivative plot device that reminds one of The Matrix).

And, you know what? I was down with the whole thing. Jupiter Ascending is far from being the major turd that some reports have made it out to be. Kunis makes for a very sympathetic and engaging heroine, and as stated before, the movie is visually stunning. If you’re an SF fan who’s looking for something different and fun, you can’t go wrong with checking this one out. –SF

Mad Max Fury Road — a review

Man, rush hour is really bad today....

Man, rush hour is really bad today….

When I first heard about the new Mad Max film, I was saddened. Not because it was another remake of one of my favorite science fiction properties–no, nothing as mundane as that. The Mad Max series was a favorite of my dearly departed father. We watched the original trilogy so many times I thought we would wear out the DVDs. And as much of a fan as my Dad was of the bright and cheery Star Trek, deep down, he always felt that Mad Max would be more like what our eventual future would be. He always felt that humans were just too greedy and vicious–regardless of how often I would point out that the Max films, despite showing a desolate future, also had their share of hope.

And so in remembrance of dear old Dad, when Mad Max: Fury Road came out, I had to see it in the theater. After all, I saw The Road Warrior (a classic) and Beyond Thunderdome (not so much) in the theater with Dad. I eschewed the super duper 3-D IMAX Orgasmic Theater Experience for a regular 2-D viewing. Not only was it cheaper, but 3-D is nothing more than bullshit trimmings that do nothing to enhance a good film, or save a bad one. And, I have to say, once the movie started, I didn’t just like Mad Max: Fury Road, I freaking loved it.

HEAVY METAL FOREVER...and it's on the go, apparently.

HEAVY METAL FOREVER…and it’s on the go, apparently.

Tom Hardy does a superb job with the title role of Max. And despite all the whining and hand-wringing from certain quarters about Max being a sidekick in his own movie, they’re all wrong. Max is indeed the main protagonist here. He’s portrayed as a road warrior who’s burnt out from his bleak existence in the wasteland, as well as the overwhelming guilt he feels for the deaths of all the people whom he couldn’t protect when the apocalypse came, including that of his own child.

When he gets captured by the War Boys serving under the gloriously religious rule of Immortan Joe (played by the first Mad Max’s Hugh Keays-Byrne with a really cool breathing mask), one might not be wrong to think Max has finally come to the end of the road, despite his struggles to escape. He literally gets strung up and used as a blood bag for Nux (Nicholas Hoult) one of the War Boys who’s all too eager to throw his life away for his great leader.

I don't care if you're the star of this movie, that's the last frigging time you cut me off, you hear me?!

I don’t care if you’re the star of this movie, that’s the last frigging time you cut me off, you hear me?!

But there’s a monkey wrench that gets thrown into the works, and her name is Imperator Furiosa (the divine Charlize Theron), a lieutenant of Joe’s who’s trusted to drive the War Rig–a tricked out armored tanker–to Gastown. But Furiosa, a one-armed woman who blacks out the upper half of her head with motor oil as her own personal war paint, isn’t going to Gastown today. She’s taking the five brides of Immortan Joe to sanctuary deep in the desert. Furiosa wants to free these young women from a lifetime of being used as brood mares, and nothing’s going to stop her. Max, tied to the front of a car, winds up just being along for the ride when Nux happily heeds the call to arms raised by Joe. But soon Max will be in the thick of things, whether he wants to be or not.

Director George Miller was 70 years old when he shot this and that fact alone is pretty amazing. Mad Max: Fury Road is one of these fiercely visual films that grabs you by the throat from the first frame and never lets go until the final frame. Using the chase of Furiosa by Joe and his troops as the main narrative drive, the film literally races along, offering a flurry of real-life stunt work with the CGI kept to a minimum. The result is a truly epic cinematic masterpiece that’s not three hours long (thankfully!) and offers you one incredible “holy Christ, what the hell am I looking at?” moment after another. And just when you think you’ve seen something pretty spectacular, the ante gets upped just a few minutes later.

And just like that...no more asshole tailgating us!

And just like that…no more asshole tailgating us!

But as great as the stunt work is, you really start caring more for the characters, because George Miller never lets you forget about them. The characterizations are the true driving force of MM:FR, and once Max teams up with Furiosa, she helps to rekindle the spark within him, as he begins to realize that it’s not enough to just survive, you’ve got to live, and a major part of living is caring for and protecting other people. Charlize Theron is a force to be reckoned with here, she does a magnificent job at playing Furiosa, and once she and Max start working together, you get the same excitement level of a meeting of two titans.

Most people would just look at MM:FR and say it’s just an action film, nothing more. And they would be missing the point (like those who think Max isn’t the main character here). Just like how The Dark Knight raised the bar for superhero films, MM:FR does the same not only for action films, but films in general. Through telling most of its story mainly through some very impressive visuals, as well as showcasing some extraordinary actors at the top of their craft, Mad Max: Fury Road not only raises the bar for cinematic storytelling, it even manages to suggest, amidst all of its dystopian decor, that–in the end–not all human beings are that bad. All in all, this is a fantastic movie that should not be missed.

And I think dear old Dad would have loved it. 😀 –SF