science fiction

REVIEW: Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds (1978, 2009 CD)

JEFF WAYNE – Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds (1978, 2009 Sony CD reissue)

Simply put, it’s one of the greatest rock musicals ever: Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds.  Not as well known as, say Jesus Christ Superstar, but it is essential ownership for fans of:

  • both science fiction and rock musicals
  • concept albums
  • H.G. Wells
  • Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues
  • Phil Lynott

That’s a lot of niche.  Composer Jeff Wayne wrote a musical that spans multiple genres.  Progressive rock, Disco beats, space rock, spoken word, symphonic rock…there is a foot on all those bases.  A theremin-like synth hook recurs through the album, increasing the tension.  Richard Burton is featured as the narrating Journalist, speaking the words of Wells, creating the necessary serious tone.  Meanwhile Justin Hayward is featured as the main lead vocalist, singing as the Journalist in a shared role.  It is he that delivers the catchiest of refrains on the album:

“The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, he said.  But still they come.” 

The story has of course been streamlined down from the original 287 page novel.  The plot remains the same, as do the major setpiece scenes.  The opening of the first Martian capsule in “Horsell Common and the Heat Ray” is impeccably narrated by Burton.  This also introduces a guitar theme that pops up again and again on the album.  And now it is clear the visitors from Mars have hostile intent, and weapons beyond those known to human science.

David Essex joins Burton on “The Artilleryman and the Fighting Machine”.  He plays a young soldier, survivor of the first Martian attack.  “They wiped us out.  Hundreds dead, maybe thousands.”  Guitars and synthesizers mingle in haunting fashion.  Dramatic strings emphasise the danger, as it quickly becomes an action piece.  Another recurring musical theme is introduced:  the terrifying Martian cry of “Ulla!  Ulla!”

Hayward resumes his role as the Journalist on “Forever Autumn”, a ballad memorable for its lamenting chorus of “Now you’re not here.”  But the destruction also resumes with the refrain of “Ulla!  Ulla!”  Then “Thunder Child”, featuring vocalist Chris Thompson, describes a counter attack by the ironclad ship Thunder Child.  She puts up a valiant struggle, managing to damage one of the Martian fighting machines, but succumbs to the heat ray.  Collapse is imminent, and Earth now belongs to Mars.

The second disc, subtitled The Earth Under the Martians, continues the story with Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott as Parson Nathaniel.  A foul red weed has claimed the land.  The mad Parson barely survived a Martian attack and is discovered by his wife Beth (Julie Covington) and the Journalist.  Lynott portrays the character with manic delight, as the Parson is convinced the Martians are the devil.  His feature lead vocal is “The Spirit of Man”, where the Parson blames the death and destruction on the sins of all mankind.  They witness a new Martian machine that pursues, captures and harvests humans for their blood.  The Parson thinks he can destroy the Martian demons with prayer, but fails.  The Journalist survives, and meets the Artilleryman down the road.

The Journalist is delighted to see a familiar face again.  The Artilleryman is the polar opposite of the Parson.  He believes mankind can survive underground.  “Brave New World” is a dramatic Floyd-like ballad in tribute to the new life the Artilleryman sees for himself.  The chorus of “We’ll start over again!” is infectious like all the others on this album.  “We’ll even build a railway and tunnel to the coast!  Go there for our holidays!”  He makes the future underground sound like a paradise, but the Journalist doesn’t believe such grand plans can be accomplished by just the survivors.  Instead, he returns to London.

The city is blackened, looted and abandoned.  Darker music accompanies the narrator/Journalist on his journey through on “Dead London, Pt. 1”.  Then he notices two massive fighting machines, making sounds but unmoving.  Then the machines goes silent, and the string section from the opening track “The Eve of the War” returns to dramatic effect.  This is when he discovers that simple Earthen bacteria and germs have killed the Martians.  They had no immunity to our diseases, and so the Martian invasion was stopped not by man, but by the smallest living things.  “Dead London, Pt. 2” is a triumphant refrain symbolising the victory at hand.

Life eventually returns back to normal, and the Journalist is reunited with his love.  There remains a question of a future threat from Mars.  The epilogue conclusively answers that question….

The highly recommended 2009 CD reissue has an unlisted bonus, a medley of two of the big Justin Hayward pieces, “Forever Autumn” and “The Eve of the War”.  There is also a 2009 re-recording of “The Spirit of Man”.  This set comes recommended mainly for its lavish booklet, with full colour illustrations and pages of art.  It also has full credits and lyrics for every track, including dialogue.  The remastering is full and clear, without any obvious sonic flaws.  You can buy this album in a number of editions, with loads of remixes and outtakes, but this simpler 2 CD remaster is the ideal entry point.

Though the musical chapters are long, War of the Worlds flows by rather quickly.  Sometimes it bears sonic similarity to Alice Cooper’s elaborate Welcome to My Nightmare.  But it is far weightier and more expansive than that.  You can finish the album in a single sitting quite easily.  In fact, you probably should.

5/5 stars

Advertisements

Blu-ray REVIEW: Dune (1984) by Holen MaGroin

Guest review by Holen MaGroin


DUNE (1984 Universal)

Directed by David Lynch

Frank Herbert’s seminal Dune is one of the most beloved and influential works of science fiction ever committed to paper. Despite its convoluted plot, world specific dialogue, and the presence of enough supporting characters to fill a football arena, readers have been captivated by the tale of lost humanity and political turmoil for over half a century.* The book’s epic length gave it the time it needed to develop compelling three-dimensional characters. Adapting such a complex story into a feature film proved to be so challenging that Arthur P. Jacobs, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Ridley Scott all tried and failed to bring the book to the big screen. After three misfires, American surrealist director David Lynch was hired to helm the project in 1981. The film took three challenging years to produce, and upon completion, was a substantial critical and commercial failure.

In the years since its release in 1984, the film has developed a cult following, and for good reason. While it’s not everything a fan of the book would hope for, it’s certainly not as bad as it was made out to be upon its release. For people new to the series, the sheer amount of characters, alliances, and jargon can be overwhelming. Especially when Lynch was only given two hours with which to tell a five-hundred page novel. This is easily the weakest aspect of the movie. Much of the exposition is crammed in at the beginning of the film, and its delivery can best be described as clunky. The scene in which Emperor Shaddam IV explains his plan to destroy House Atreides to the Spacing Guild is so poorly written that it calls to mind a moment from Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs in which the evil Lord Helmet turns to the camera after excessive exposition and asks the audience if they caught it all.

The sloppy exposition is exacerbated by the literal interpretation of Frank Herbert’s use of internal dialogue. Lynch’s decision to literally adapt the book’s internal dialogue by having the actors narrate each character’s thoughts and motivations is belligerent and awkward. The film too often relies on this internal dialogue that robs the movie of surprise and subtlety for the sake of clarity that it ironically fails to bring. Much of the dialogue is used to further the plot, as opposed to developing the characters. Certain characters are simplified out of necessity due to the relatively brief runtime, such as the formidable Harkonnens of the novel being turned into the disgusting cartoonish characters seen in this film. However, at only one-hundred thirty-seven minutes, the story could have been much more incoherent and disjointed than it ultimately was, but that doesn’t excuse it from being an underdeveloped mess.

While the story falters somewhat in comparison to the novel, it works surprisingly well taken on its own. Many of the theological questions of the book remain unexplored in the film adaptation, but the complex themes of political strife, globalism, and corruption are all addressed in the conflicts between the many groups gifted with power.  Each entity mistrusts the other, but must form uneasy alliances to stay afloat or to destroy common enemies covertly. The film balances these relationships remarkably well. Every group’s selfish motivation is made abundantly clear, yet each motivation prompts thought over their individual plans within plans.

Another area that the movie excels at is its tone. The novel had a very regal atmosphere, which the film captures in strides. It does a remarkable job at humanizing the bombast of the occasion. In a society where humans are trained more and more to act and perform like machines, the protagonist Paul Atreides triumphs with his innate sense of human morality and communal bonds with the Fremen. Kyle MacLachlan perfectly captures the innocence, the exuberance, and the pride of the character in the novel. Dune has a rich supporting cast including Max von Sydow, Patrick Stewart, and José Ferrer that help to elevate the material and capture its humanity.

Part of the film’s emotional success can be credited to the excellent score, contributed by Toto with one beautiful piece by Brian Eno. Toto fused orchestral arrangements with their instrumental rock prowess to create a hybrid score that is surprisingly exciting. It frames the most overblown scenes in a way that seems triumphant instead of pompous, and prevents the quiet emotional moments from buckling under the weight of the jargon. At the heart of all this technical jargon and political strife is a story about human characters, filled with human virtue, human emotions, and human desires. This score pulsates with humanity, and is something that Toto and Brian Eno should look at with pride.

The film also succeeds in its unique visual aesthetic that perfectly brings the spiritual and transcendental aspects of the novel to the screen with style. Thanks to the surrealistic tendencies of its director, this film is full of striking visual moments, particularly those that depict Paul’s prescient visions. The scene in which Paul takes the water of life in the desert and unlocks his full mental potential is especially breathtaking. It lacks the narrative depth of the novel, but makes up for it by explaining visually what the film’s clunky dialogue often failed to clarify on its own.

Dune is by no means a great film, and it doesn’t live up to the timeless reputation of the novel it’s based on. It is a cult classic from a decade known for producing its fair share of cult cinema. While many fans of the book and members of the general public look at this movie with disdain, I always walk away from it having been entertained, if left yearning for a better adaptation. We may get this adaptation now that Dennis Villeneuve is directing a new version of the film set to release in 2020. This 1984 version is flawed, and even its director calls it his worst film (I disagree; I think 1990’s Wild at Heart would take that position). The fact that I originally sought out the Dune novel because I was such a big David Lynch fan and wanted to read the book before seeing the film may paint me as a biased source, but I consider the positive attributes of the film Dune to (just barely) counteract the many negatives.

3/5 Sandworms

Author’s Note: Get the Blu-Ray if you’re going to watch it. It is a substantial improvement over any other version of the film. Dune was always a bit of an ugly duckling, but this Blu-Ray edition has gone the distance to clean up the visuals to present what is by far the best looking version of this film ever released. And whatever you do stay away from the 3 hour extended/T.V. cut that is so bad the director removed his name from the credits. It’s a butchered mess that mixes up the musical cues and needlessly edits material back in from the cutting room floor. The theatrical cut is the only version available on Blu-Ray, so it shouldn’t be too hard to avoid the bastardized extended version.

 

* Because of its generous detail and epic world-buildingLeBrain

 

 

DVD REVIEW: The Orville – The Complete First Season (2018)

THE ORVILLE – The Complete First Season (2018 20th Century Fox 2 DVD set)

We like Star Trek: Discovery, we really do.  At the same time, we wonder, “Why do studios insist the only way to do Star Trek today is to modernise it into a gritty action drama?”  Does it have to be so?  Is Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future somehow outdated?

Though CBS Paramount seem terrified of anything “too Trekky”, others have not been timid.  Sensing the wide-open void for something styled in the old spirit of Trek, Seth MacFarlane (of all people) made his move with The Orville.

Before you scoff, let’s not forget that MacFarlane clearly knows his Star Trek.  1) Patrick Stewart regularly appears on his shows.  2) He reunited the entire Next Generation cast for the first time on an episode of Family Guy.  3) He cast Michael Dorn in Ted 2 and dressed him up as Worf.  It should surprise no one that The Orville is closest in spirit to Star Trek:  The Next Generation.  In fact, not even Deep Space Nine or Voyager are this close.  From the gentle pastel sets including conference rooms, hallways and holodecks, to the techno-babble, to the minimal use of violence, The Orville is the NEXT Next Generation.  It is the Enterprise D, but if Captain Picard allowed the crew to crack wise when opportunity knocked.

It would take only the slightest nudge to turn The Orville into Trek canon.  Change some names and terminology, tone down the humour slightly, and you’re there.  Humour on a starship?  Yes, of course, but The Orville is not a comedy.  It is first and foremost science fiction, and indeed some of the best science fiction on television since Star Trek: Enterprise was cancelled.  The episodes are generally commentary on modern society, much like Star Trek has always been.  Change the setting to outer space and suddenly it’s parable.  Topics covered include the “court of public opinion” seen in social media today, gender reassignment, underachievers, religion in society, and making the most difficult decisions.  The biggest difference between the voyages of the Orville and the Enterprise isn’t even that big:  on the Orville, there are no transporter beams.

The crew of The Orville is obsessed with Earth culture circa 1980-present, but that is to be expected given Seth MacFarlane’s own interests.  References to movies and TV shows of today are rampant.  Jokes are toned down from the usual modern fare, but the pilot episode sets up a comedic premise.  Captain Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) catches his wife, Commander Kelly Grayson, in bed with a blue alien (Rob Lowe).  When Grayson is assigned as his first officer on the Union ship the Orville, the entire crew learns of their marriage issues.  Captain Mercer’s best friend (and best pilot in the fleet) is Lt. Gordon Malloy played by Scott Grimes of American Dad.  Seth’s buddy Norm MacDonald also shows up as Lt. Yaphit, a gelatinous yellow blob based on Odo from Deep Space Nine, but played for comedy relief.

Too much science fiction today has flimsy barely-there characters.  The Orville’s crew are more fully formed than the usual, with a few receiving interesting story arcs.  They are all new versions of classic archetypes.  The robot Isaac (Mark Jackson) is the twist on Data.  He is still immensely curious about humans, but knows he is vastly superior and considers everyone on the Orville his inferior.  Bortus (Peter Macon) is your “Worf”, a deep voiced, strong alien species with head ridges.  His unique trait is that his race is single-gendered, and much of his character development is in tandem with his partner Klyden (Chad L. Coleman).  Halston Sage plays the inexperienced security chief Alara Kitan, a young alien from a planet with such high gravity, that their species have evolved tremendous physical strength.  Though small she can easily throw a punch to send Bortus flying, or re-shape a cube of titanium with her hands!  Yet she lacks the confidence that her crewmates have in her.

More casting genius:  Penny Johnson Jerald, Deep Space Nine‘s Kassidy Yates, as ship’s doctor Claire Finn.  In cameos or recurring roles are Ron Canada (Next Generation), Charlize Theron and Liam Neeson (A Million Ways to Die in the West), Victor Garber (Titanic), Mike Henry (Family Guy), Robert Picardo (Voyager‘s Doctor), and Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development).  One has to respect both the sheer talent involved, and the willingness of Star Trek actors to participate.

As the show grows during its first season, comedy takes a back seat to science fiction.  In the bonus features, MacFarlane states that he paid attention to fan feedback, and he noted that fans were discussing the legitimate characters and science fiction tales.  Episodes feature a new twist on classic sci-fi (and even Star Trek) themes:  living in a simulation, a space zoo, Flatland, a civilisation living in a generation ship without its own knowledge, interference with space-time and developing cultures, and many planets with Earth-like societies that act as a mirror for us to view our own.  Ray guns are rarely used, and monsters are usually misunderstood.

It’s remarkable but not untrue to say that The Orville is Star Trek, but without infringing any copyrights.  Dig a little further in the credits and you’ll have a better understanding of how they managed to play The Orville so close to classic Trek.  In the director’s chair:  Jonathan Frakes, AKA Riker, and director of Trek on both TV and in cinemas.  Also directing:  Robert Duncan McNeill, AKA Tom Paris and also director of many Voyager episodes.  Behind the scenes is Brannon Braga, a producer on The Next Generation, Voyager, Enterprise, Cosmos…and The Orville.  Jon Favreau even directed the pilot episode.  With a team like this in place, MacFarlane and friends were more than capable of making a show truly within the optimistic Roddenberry philosophy.  Guys like Braga, Frakes and McNeill spent years living in that universe.

The DVD includes your traditional special features, the best of which is a Q&A session with the cast and creators of the show.  Another interesting featurette is about the physical model of the Orville spaceship, used for those slow “beauty shots”.

The Orville is the show that Trek fans have wanted for years now, at least since JJ Abrams brought it back to movie screens.  The true Trek on TV is not Discovery.  It’s not Short Treks.  It is The Orville.  If that pisses off CBS Paramount, then too bad.  If they won’t make the Trek that fans want, then someone else will — and did.

5/5 stars

MOVIE REVIEW: Solo – A Star Wars Story [MINOR SPOILERS]

It is a lawless time.

CRIME SYNDICATES compete for resources – food, medicine, and HYPERFUEL.

On the shipbuilding planet of CORELLIA, the foul LADY PROXIMA forces runaways into a life of crime in exchange for shelter and protection.

On these mean streets, a young man fights for survival, but yearns to fly among the stars….

SOLO: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Directed by Ron Howard

We are dangerously close to Star Wars overkill.  With the announcement of:

  1. A new trilogy helmed by so-so director Rian Johnson.
  2. A new trilogy brought to you by the folks who gave us Game of Thrones.
  3. A live action TV series from Jon Favreau.
  4. And not to mention more Star Wars Story spinoffs (Obi-Wan? Boba?) and the only movie that really matters: the final chapter of the Skywalker Saga, Episode IX.

We are very close to oversaturation indeed.  Remember when you had to wait three years between movies and much longer between trilogies?

Fortunately, Solo is a welcome addition to the crowded Star Wars family.

Solo was one of the spinoffs conceived by George Lucas before he abandoned ship.  He’d been trying to do “young Han” since at least Revenge of the Sith, when he was pictured in concept art as an orphan raised by Wookiees.  Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back) and son Jon wrote Solo, so you can be assured there is a level of authenticity here.  Who better to write that space scoundrel?  Nobody.

And who better to direct than Ron Howard?  He came in under difficult circumstances after the firing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, re-shot 70% of the movie, and pretty much nailed it too.  Howard also brought in some of his regulars (brother Clint Howard and Paul Bettany) and threw in a literal ton of Star Wars references and crossovers.  Solo is Easter Egg heaven.

Finally, composer John Powell created a soundtrack that is different yet founded in the Star Wars universe.  Powell hybridized new and old themes together into a memorable score.  He too included Easter Eggs, in his music.  Listen closely when [SPOILER] the marauder Enfys Nest and her gang arrives.  Powell utilised a children’s choir, as a clue foreshadowing Enfys’ young age under the mask.

Everybody was worried about lead actor Alden Ehrenreich as Solo.  Admit it, you were too.  Fear not, for young Ehrenreich (who is signed on for three films) nailed the role.  His higher voice is the only niggle that consistently reminds you that he’s not the Han you remember.  Similarly, Donald Glover fits into Lando Calrissian’s capes comfortably, including the suave talkin’.  Billy Dee Williams should be very happy with the new Lando.

The concept of Han as an orphan is retained, but instead of being raised by Wookiees, his backstory is more aligned with the old Star Wars novels.  He is a thief on planet Corellia, where he and girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) try to stay under the Empire’s nose.  Corellia is a shipbuilding world with huge, expansive scenes of Star Destroyers under construction.  When Han and Qi’ra are separated, he joins the Empire, as he did in the comics.

Han wanted to be a pilot, but got stationed in the muddy trenches to quell an uprising on planet Mimban.  Han, you see, isn’t the best at taking orders.  While enlisted on Mimban, he meets Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his best friend to be, Chewbacca (now played by Joonas Suotamo).  Solo is swept into the seedy world of organised crime where he is delighted to catch up to Qi’ra, and is introduced to her boss played by Paul Bettany.  They both work for the dark, shadowy crime syndicate Crimson Dawn.

From an exciting pulse-pounding train heist to the Millenium Falcon, Solo keeps things moving.  It’s one big set piece after another, including the Kessel Run.  And yes, they used the novels as the source material.  The Falcon does indeed make the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, getting a little beat up in the process.  By the end of the film, she’ll look a little more like the ship you remember.

The plot has its twists but you can foresee that some backs are going to get stabbed.  Han’s backstory is over-explained a bit too much for a single film, but there is still enough left to explore should Solo 2 be somewhere in pipe.  The truth is, the first viewing of Solo is less paying attention to the plot, and more looking for cameos.  Speaking of which, characters tie Solo into movies as diverse as Rogue One and The Phantom Menace.  You’ll see some stirrings of the early Rebellion, and Han’s intrinsic sense of right and wrong.  You might even see a giant “fuck you” to the Star Wars special editions.  [SPOILER] Han is definitely a “shoot first” kind of guy.

Things get a little muddled with a side character (Lando’s droid L3-37 played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) with a passion for droid’s rights.  Perhaps a droid-based Star Wars movie would be interesting for the future, but it was extraneous here.  Solo is best when it’s giving you a tour of the Star Wars universe, from crime lords to the trenches on the front lines of the Empire.  Trench warfare on Mimban is directly inspired by the muddy fields of World War 1, and it’s far better than any of the Clone Wars stuff in Revenge of the Sith.

Unlike The Last Jedi, a spinoff movie doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel.  In many measures, the pressure was off.  Solo aims to be a fun movie that requires no connections to the Force or Skywalker family.  It’s a shame that it has not performed well, but that is not a reflection on its quality.

3.75/5 stars

WTF Comments: Discovery of the Lemming edition

Star Trek: Discovery is a controversial series.  Reviews have been very mixed, and fans are split.

Before reviewing, I watched every Discovery episode twice.  Even three times for some.  My review is rather positive3.5/5 stars — and hopeful for the future of the show.  Discovery is not perfect.  Not only is there room for improvement, but things that simply must improve.  But Star Trek has a history of poor first seasons.  Remember The Next Generation in 1987?  Nobody liked Next Generation best in 1987.  It had a rough, rough start.

My review received lots of great comments.  Nobody agreed with my full assessment, just bits and pieces here and there, but comments were helpful and completely relevant.

All but one!  Enjoy this WTF Comment from Dick Dirk.  

He blocked me shortly after.

In the words of William Shatner, “It’s just a TV show!  Get a life!”

MOVIE REVIEW: Runaway (1984 – The KISS Re-Review Series)

The KISS RE-REVIEW SERIES Part 27:  Bonus movie review!

RUNAWAY (1984 Tristar)

Directed by Michael Crichton and featuring Gene Simmons

Being in  was never enough for Gene Simmons.  Dating Cher and Diana Ross gave him a taste of Hollywood stardom.  He saw movies as his next mountain to climb.  Gene secured an audition with novelist and sometimes director Michael Crichton.  Crichton asked Gene to communicate, without saying any words, his desire to kill him.  Whatever Gene did worked, and he scored the role without even having to read for it.

Crichton’s next film Runaway was a Tom Selleck sci-fi vehicle and Gene played the villain Dr. Charles Luther.  Turning his back on Kiss and leaving Paul Stanley to do all the heavy lifting, Simmons cut his hair and got filming.

Set in the “near future”, Runaway depicts an America in which robots are commonplace.  Every household has some, and they have failsafes built in to protect humans.  Selleck played Jack Ramsay, a veteran cop now on the “runaway squad”, a quiet department dedicated to capturing errant robots.  His latest case is a shocker.  A robot has committed the first ‘bot-human homicide in history.  What caused it to malfunction and deliberately kill its owners?  Ramsay discovers a strange chip inside designed not only to override its safety protocols, but also to order the robot to kill.  But who would do such a thing?

Who else?  The evil Dr. Charles Luther played by the God of Thunder himself.

Dr. Luther developed new templates that allow robots to identify and assassinate specific humans.  They are worth a fortune on the black market, and so Luther killed his partners and went rogue.  However his ladyfriend Jackie (Kirstie Alley) doublecrossed him and stole the chips.  When Ramsay and his cop partner Karen find Jackie, they narrowly escape Luther who was tracking her.  Not only does he have killer robots, but also a huge-ass handgun that has homing bullets that can even turn corners.  They try to set up him by having Jackie return the stolen chips, but in one of his best scenes, Gene Simmons stabs her in the back in the middle of a kiss.

Jackie didn’t turn over all the chips.  Ramsay still has some.  Being the evil genius that he is, Luther hacks the police computers and finds out where Ramsay lives.  This leads to a very typical final confrontation, in which Luther kidnaps Ramsay’s son and brings him to an under-construction skyscraper.  Of course he would.  It’s a standard movie cliche involving elevators and heights.  Conveniently, the movie establishes early that Ramsay has a fear of heights.  Of course he does!

Luther does have one neat gadget for this long and fairly boring ending.  He has robotic spiders that spit acid, programmed to kill anything that comes down from the building.  Tom Selleck eventually bests Gene Simmons as you knew he would, but Gene also gets one of the cheesiest movie after-deaths you will ever see.  You know those scenes when you think the villain is dead, but he’s not?  Gene gets to make a funny face and go “RAAAAHHHHH!” before dropping down dead for real this time.

Michael Crichton was certainly a fine science fiction writer, with titles like Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain to his credits.  As a movie director, he was less successful.  The Great Train Robbery (1979) starring Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland, and based on his own novel, was his best work.  Others point to Westworld (1973) as his best work as a director.   The main point is, nobody looks to Runaway for movie gold.  It’s sluggish, clunky and at times pretty goofy.  As a science fiction film, it utilized intelligent concepts and envisioned a future that was very different for the cinema in 1984.  Runaway had a story idea.  Jack Ramsay was a complicated character, with a cliche but workable back story.  It was just poorly executed.  One redeeming value is its Jerry Goldsmith score, which was his first all-electronic soundtrack.

While Runaway isn’t considered Michael Crichton’s best film, it might be Gene’s.  His next roles were less flattering.  He played a transvestite villain in Never Too Young to Die with John Stamos.  There was a cameo in the horror cult classic Trick Or Treat.  Opposite Rutger Hauer, he played a stereotypical terrorist in Wanted: Dead or Alive.  His last film before returning to Kiss full-time was an early George Clooney film called Red Surf.  Gene was a friendly weapons dealer.

Meanwhile in Kiss, Paul Stanley had clearly taken over leadership.  All the singles were his.  Since Gene had short hair, he wore a pretty silly wig on stage with Kiss.  None of this helped his image in the eyes of fans.  He did earn a good review for Runaway from Roger Ebert, but otherwise the movie was a dud.

2/5 stars

To be continued…

 

MOVIE REVIEW: Star Wars – Rogue One [spoiler-free]

“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy….”

jyn-erso-rogue-one-posterSTAR WARS:  ROGUE ONE (2016)

Directed by Gareth Edwards

If you are familiar with the opening crawl from Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), then you are already familiar with the last third of Star Wars: Rogue One.  With Disney now in control, we will see Star Wars movies to fill every nook and cranny in the mythos.  Rogue One is just the beginning, and it’s a logical place to start.  A New Hope began mid-action.  Princess Leia is under attack and captured by Darth Vader, but R2D2 and C3P0 have escaped his clutches with the plans to the Death Star.  Did we need an entire movie to see how they got there?

Of course we didn’t.  That’s why George settled for an opening crawl.  The story of how the Death Star plans got into Leia’s hands has gone through many iterations over the years.  The original Star Wars radio drama was one variation.  In another, the video game Dark Forces, you steal the plans yourself as a character named Kyle Katarn.  Now we have the official story featuring a new band of rebels:  Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), K2S0 (Alan Tudyk), Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) and the charismatic pair of Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen).  They are assisted by the forces of Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), an extremist character originally from the Clone Wars television series.  Together they must get those Death Star schematics into the hands of the Rebel Alliance.

If only it didn’t take so long to do it.

Rogue One is a long running movie, with a final battle that is stunning eye candy but too slow.  As X-Wings, Tie Fighters, Y-Wings and new ships such as Tie Strikers and U-Wings do battle over the planet Scarif where the Death Star plans are stored, you get to watch…someone trying to flip a master control switch.  Someone describing the location of the switch.  Someone trying to locate a file in an archive.   Someone trying to align an antenna and send a file.  Almost sounds like another day at the office, and it takes forever to get from A to B.

Fortunately, Rogue One delivers in other respects.  Planets new and old (you’re gonna shit your pants when you see which old) are to be seen.  One strength of the original trilogy was the variety of planets.  We visited five different worlds:  desert, ice, cloud, swamp and forest.  The prequel movies brought fire and water planets.  Rogue One debuts the exotic Jedha, a spiritual home of the Jedi religion and a source of the Kyber crystals that power their lightsabers.  There is also a tropical paradise planet, torn up and exploited by the evil Empire.

img_20161223_212600There are also cool new ships and stormtroopers to feast your eyes on.  The coolest of these are the black Death Troopers, the personal force of Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn).  Krennic is the prime villain of the film, an ambitious yet bumbling higher-up in the Empire who finds himself on the wrong side of Governor Tarkin (a CG Peter Cushing) and Lord Darth Vader himself.  And as you shall see in the climax of the film, being on the wrong side of Darth Vader is not a place you want to find yourself.  Mendelsohn shines in the role, especially in any scene in which he is paired with Mads Mikkelsen who portrays Jyn’s father Galen Erso.  The character of Galen Erso is revealed to have made a major covert move in the war, that changes A New Hope in one significant way.

In trying to please Star Wars fans who weren’t into The Force Awakens or the prequel trilogy, perhaps Rogue One went too far.   A film with Tarkin as a major villain is a Star Wars fan’s dream, but CG isn’t at the stage yet where he looks perfect.  The uncanny valley strikes again, and somewhere between your eyes and brain, you can tell something is “off” about the character.  The same can be said about another surprise cameo from the past.  Other characters seem shoehorned into the film without a good reason.  (Was there any logical reason to see Pignose and his friend, Scott?)  On the other hand, there is some very clever use of original, unused footage from 1977 to bring other characters back who absolutely should be there.  You’ll know the shots when you see them.  Best, and most significant of the nods to the past are appearances by Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) and Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly), two senior leaders of the Rebel Alliance.

Felicity Jones and Diego Luna are as fantastic as Mendelsohn is.  Jones can do more acting with her face than most can do with 10 lines of dialogue, but her character isn’t fleshed out.  We know a little bit about who she is, but not about what makes her tick and what she feels.  Luna’s Cassian Andor seems to have more depth.  He seems to have some more skin the game.  Jyn Erso is just along for the ride until she changes her mind mid-way and does a complete 180.  Too many times, characters don’t take actions that are consistent or logical.

The biggest flaw with Rogue One is you already know how it ends.  And if you don’t, you will be able to predict death scenes well in advance, so obviously are they telegraphed.

What makes Rogue One special despite its flaws are the ways it brings childhood dreams to the big screen.  For decades, kids have been flying their X-wings through the back yard, strafing their stormtroopers on invented planets.  Others lucky enough to have an AT-AT in their collection enjoyed target practice with a group of Rebel soldiers.  Younger fans brought up on Star Wars video games will enjoy settings and action right out of the Jedi Knight series.  Rogue One also lifts the veil on the Empire a little bit, an organization we actually see little of in the original trilogy.  Think about it.  Most of the time, you were following around Luke and his friends, on the run from the Empire and doing their own thing.  You didn’t see much of what life under the Empire is like.  Now you do.  Mass electronic surveillance, police state tactics, punishment and coverups are the order of the day.

img_20161223_212639

The last issue to discuss is the score by Michael Giacchino, which is intentionally different from a John Williams soundtrack. It is different and good, but lacks the standout themes that the saga films are known for.  That was the right direction to take, as Rogue One should and does feel like a different kind of Star Wars movie.  It should not be confused with the concurrent saga films, which follow the story of the Skywalker family.

It’s not Giacchino’s fault that Rogue One doesn’t deliver the same kind of awe-inspiring story of the other films.  While it does venture into the mythos of the Force via the blind guardian Chirrut Îmwe, it is not intended to unveil the same kind of chilling revelations.  There is no “I am your father” moment.  There is no self-discovery of inner power as we saw in the past with Anakin, Luke and Rey.  Instead Rogue One travels the road of the soldiers, the grunts on the ground fighting the Empire both openly and secretly.  There are no Jedi to save them, no chosen ones.  Only luck, if you believe in that sort of thing.

The most encouraging thing about Rogue One is how “right” it was done.  Its heart is in the right place at all times.  When the prequels came out to fill in the blanks, they left us more puzzled than anything.  Wait…Darth Vader built C3P0?  Obi-Wan was actually trained by Liam Neeson?  Princess Leia’s mother died in childbirth even though Leia remembered her as being “beautiful, but sad?”  Rogue One doesn’t trample on the continuity at all, it only enhances it.  And that’s all we really needed.

3.5/5 stars

Blu-ray REVIEW: Transformers (2007)

Old review from the archives dug up for your enjoyment. With all apologies to the regular music readers, I decided to post my reviews of the first three Transformers movies, in reverse order.  That’s the only way I could have saved the best for last!

Click here for Dark of the Moon.
And here for Revenge of the Fallen.


TRANSFORMERS (2007 Paramount)

Directed by Michael Bay

J. from Resurrection Songs requested quite some time ago that I post this review.  I decided that the only way to post my review of this movie, the first of the loathed “Bayverse” Transformers film, was to do it legit.  I wrote up a review for my journal almost 10 years ago that has never been seen by anybody.  Back then, I actually liked the movie, and the first is still the best of the series.  Let’s look at this thing from the perspective of “then”.  Things seemed wide open!  Whatever was wrong with the movie could be fixed in the next one, right?

How wrong we were.  Read on!


PRIME

Date: 2007/07/23

TRANSFORMERS: Not actually much more than meets the eye!

I hate Michael Bay. Period. I hated him when I saw Armageddon, easily the worst excuse for science fiction I’d ever seen. I maintain that anyone seeing that movie is dumber for doing so. It kills brain cells like a shot of Absinthe, straight up. I was predisposed to hating Transformers since Michael Bay directed it, but surprisingly I didn’t hate it. I didn’t love it either; it was infinitely flawed. But what I liked in the film, the stuff that they nailed perfectly, was killer.

So what did they mess up so badly that I was cringing? What did they get right? Where did they surprise me?

I am with most people who hated the robots speaking and acting “contemporary”. These are aliens after all, so why Optimus would say “My bad!” when stepping in a flower bed, or why Jazz would talk like Bill Cosby acting hip-hop, I have no idea. Bumblebee “peeing” on John Turturro irked me too. For the record, “peeing” occured twice in this masterpiece of film: Once when Bumblebee unloaded on Turturro’s Agent Simmons, and once when a puppy dog urinated on Ironhide’s foot. (I did like it when he said, “That’s going to rust!” though.) This kind of thing was stupid, juvenile, and out of place even as comedy relief. Granted we’re talking about a movie based on a toy line, but the kids who played with those toys are grown up and have kids of their own now. I would like to think that piss jokes in a science fiction movie are a little passe now. (Although I do own Jackass 1 and Number 2, so call me a hypocrite.)

The storyline was a little weak. The “Allspark” that the Transformers are seeking is nothing more than a McGuffin to drive the plot. Apparently in the hands of Megatron it can do infinite harm, in the hands of the Autobots, it can heal their homeworld of Cybertron. However, in the end, it’s just a box that robots chase each other around for, like a colossal game of Cybertron Football.

The human character of Sam Witwicky as played by Speilberg’s new protege Shia LaBouf was really funny. I don’t know if he had much more dimension than that, though. He’s an awkward teen who wants to get the girl, any girl, but Megan Fox just happens to be available at the right time. When Shia is ready to protect the Allspark with his life (“No sacrifice, no victory!”) it comes a little bit out of left field considering that he rarely showed any motivation beyond getting the girl and staying alive. However, his honest, humourous delivery will make him a star one day. This kid has yet to show what he can do. I am sure he will under Speilberg in Indy 4*. As for Megan “the” Fox, she did little other than live up to her name. She did that very well. However, she didn’t really generate any other feelings in the audience. Lots of gratuitous skin shots.

Bernie Mac had some funny lines, totally over the top. But that’s why they hired a guy like Bernie Mac to play a used car salesman. John Turturro was OK, but you can tell he just phoned in his performance. John Voight, give the man some credit, looked like he was trying. Shame his part was so generic. All the soldiers in the film were pretty much just Michael Bay Soldiers…the same, every film, every time.

The robots had no characters, aside from Optimus and Bumblebee. They could have been fleshed out a lot more, but at least they felt like characters. Megatron was completely wasted, just a really big, mean, bad guy. You couldn’t even tell it was Hugo Weaving voicing him. Peter Cullen did a great job as Optimus, of course. I’m glad about that casting choice.

There were many nods to the past. Most of the characters still transformed into similar forms. Optimus looked amazing. Bumblebee was pefect as a Camaro. Frenzy was no longer a cassette tape, but the basic gist of the robot was the same. Brawl (misnamed “Devastator” in the subtitles…will this be fixed on the DVD version?**) was still a tank. Starscream was no longer an F-15 Eagle, but now a F-22 Raptor…killer update! Scorponok looked amazing in scorpion mode, but had no character to speak of and wasn’t seen in robot mode at all. Shame, that. He was once one of the deepest characters of the old Marvel series.

There was even some dialogue from the past: Optimus says, “One shall live, and one shall fall!”, the same words he said before Megatron killed him in the 1986 Transformers movie. However, twice the words “more than meets the eye” were uttered, making everyone in the audience groan. (It was just as bad as James Cromwell saying, “And you guys are astronauts, on some kind of star trek?” in Star Trek: First Contact.)

There were many nods to the creators. “This is way better than Armageddon!” one character says, with Michael Bay’s penis firmly in mouth. Someone mentioned E.T. in honour of Señor Spielbergo. There were also a small number of original series Star Trek soundbites, since the same dudes who wrote this are also working on Star Trek XI, an original series-era movie.*** (Interestingly, Michael Bay’s cousin Susan is married to Leonard Nimoy.)  Some of these things were cool, some were not.

Michael Bay’s directing, as always, was suck-ass. Just for fun I watched Team America a few days before going to see Transformers. All that stuff that is made fun of in that film was in Transformers, in spades! As soon as we hit the desert in Qatar, there’s a piece of “Arabic” music that sounded right out of Team America. All the slow-mo shots interspersed with high-speed action, all the cheesy dialogue, all those over-dramatic camera angles and lighting effects…Michael Bay threw in the kitchen sink, every trick he knew.

I think the coolest thing about Transformers was that it opens up wide what can happen in 2 and 3 (Peter Cullen, Megan Fox, and Shia LaBouf have signed on for two more). Michael Bay isn’t necessarily doing the sequels, so maybe someone with a lighter hand can take over. Slow things down a bit. Let us actually see the robots. The action was mostly so fast and white-washed with explosions and debris that you couldn’t see the robots.

Speaking of the robots, much has been made of their look: People whine that Optimus shouldn’t have flames, the Megatron should transform into a gun, that Bumblebee should have been a VW Beetle. I say, stop whining. These robots look amazing. I’m sure Megatron will look different in the next film anyway.**^

Speaking of the next film: Storywise, it’s already been said that the Dinobots, Constructicons and Soundwave are potential characters for the sequel, opening up story possibilities big time. I’d like to see Grimlock and Optimus clash over leadership direction a little bit like in the old Marvel series. Megatron and Starscream too…their conflict was hinted at. The ending was left wide open for sequels. (Why did the stupid humans believe that Megatron could be disposed of in such an easy way? Foolhardy!)

So there you go. Go get a Coke and a huge tub of popcorn. Enjoy and most importantly, enjoy discussing afterwards with all your geek and nerd friends like I am.

3/5 stars

Scan_20160424 (5)

*He did not.  

**It was not. Even though Bay introduced the actual character of Devastator in the next film.

***2009’s Star Trek.

**^He did look different, but not any better.

Blu-ray REVIEW: Transformers – Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Old review from the archives dug up for your enjoyment.  Apologies to the regular music readers, I’ve decided to post my reviews for the first three Transformers movies…but in reverse order.  Because fuck these movies.

Click here for Dark of the Moon.


Scan_20160423TRANSFORMERS – Revenge of the Fallen (2009 Paramount)

Directed by Michael Bay

This is a movie to make you say “wow”!  Not because it’s great, or the because the CGI effects are any good (they’re not) — just because Transformers 2 mucks things up even more than the first one did.

For example, the robot dialogue is geared towards kiddies, just like the old cartoon was. Then, mixed in the middle of all that kiddie dialogue, is Megan Fox wearing a tank top, then Megan Fox wearing leather chaps, then Megan Fox stripping off those chaps…just who is this movie for? It’s either geared for kids with no consideration at all for throwing all this sexual imagery at you, or it’s geared for adults (males) and really dumbed down.

All that could be forgivable if this movie had a plot, or characters, or even decent visuals. The effects were so bad; clearly the crew only had so much time and budget to finish. So when you see a robot called “The Doctor” manipulate Sam’s (Shia Labouf) face, it looks like something out of Roger Rabbit, or Star Wars Episode I. When robots are getting blown apart, you see little pieces of junk flying off them, but they don’t look real at all — it looks like little cartoon pieces of junk. Everything looks completely fake, except the explosions. Those look real (because they were real) and there are a lot of them, because BOOM Michael Bay BOOM!

So many opportunities here are squandered. The death of a beloved character has no emotion to it; even the pathetic 1986 cartoon movie had more emotion to the scene in question. The Fallen — one of the all time great Transformers villains — is just another bad guy, not the awe inspiring menace he should be. And don’t get me started on the hip-hop-bots. Why does Devastator have genitalia again? Was that really necessary?  Like the prior film, the humour was awfully juvenile — Sam’s parents are more annoying than ever, especially his mother (who gets high accidentally) and his roommate is one character that either should never have been written, or killed off in Act 2.

There are some minor shining lights in this movie. John Turturro, as Simmons, is better and funnier than before. There are also lots more robots — dozens. I couldn’t keep them straight!

However that is part of Michael Bay’s problem. His design team makes the robots essentially all look the same, particularly the Decepticons. There are a group of “protoform” Decepticons who arrive on Earth. Since they are “protoforms”, they are actually all identical with the exact same design. Budget wise, you can see how using the same animation model for a whole bunch of ‘Cons makes sense.  Visually, it reduced the film to an onscreen mess of flying shit.  Oh sure, there were Constructicons, and Insecticons…so what?   They didn’t do anything important.  The humans, in fact, do all the thinking, talking, leading, and everything else in this movie. The plot only moves forward when the puny humans decide to do something.  That isn’t what the original Marvel series envisioned by Bob Budianski and Simon Furman was about. That isn’t even what the cartoon was about. Transformers is about the robots, and yes, they should have some characterization! If the comic book did, surely they can do it in a multi-million dollar movie. But no; either nobody thought to write interesting characters for classic robots like Sideswipe, Arcee, and Ratchet, or they just didn’t have the time to do them properly. Sad.

Plot holes big enough to drive a Peterbilt truck through:

1. A bunch of mini-bots attack Sam in his kitchen, requiring Bumblebee to barely save him. Two minutes later, Sam is telling Bee that he’s all grown up and doesn’t need his protection anymore. Then, just 20 minutes later, Sam does need protection and Bee comes to save Sam from a Decepticon Pretender…but doesn’t actually do anything! He lets the Pretender into the car, and then he just plays annoying songs on his radio and sprays the Pretender with lubricant instead of…I dunno…driving off? Seriously.

2. The tomb of the Primes! Woah!  But…as Jetfire explains it, the original Primes sacrificed themselves to create a tomb out of their bodies. Then he continues to exposit, “Only a Prime can defeat the Fallen.” Well, maybe they shouldn’t have sacrificed themselves?

3. The tomb that they sacrificed their bodies to create doesn’t actually do anything. It’s opened with one simple blast.

4. And yes, “Only a Prime can defeat the Fallen,” according to Jetfire.  We are not sure why.  When the two finally clash they just have a normal-type robot brawl. Nothing special here that any other ‘bot couldn’t do, and Prime needed all of Jetfire’s parts (seriously!) to help him do it!

Since people are going to buy this movie no matter what I say, I’ll draw this review to a close.  I have only scratched the surface of the issues with Revenge of the Fallen.  Proceed at your own risk.  This is a turd.

2/5 energon cubes

 

Blu-ray REVIEW: Transformers – Dark of the Moon (2011)

Old review from the archives dug up for your enjoyment.  Apologies to the regular music readers, but I’ve decided to post my reviews for the first three Transformers movies…but in reverse order.  Because fuck these movies.


Scan_20160421TRANSFORMERS – Dark of the Moon (2011 Paramount)

Directed by Michael Bay

As I sat there finishing the third Transformers movie, I thought to myself, “Does Michael Bay ever take himself seriously?” I mean, the dialogue here is so juvenile and stupid, the characters are more one-dimensional than ever (how is that even possible?), and every inch of film is so stupidly overblown, it’s beyond ridiculous. It’s like giving very expensive movie making equipment to a child with a Bart Simpson streak.  Welcome to the Bay-verse, where one can walk away from a flaming car wreck with no injuries, and no idea what the hell the story is!

The plot, such as it is, revolves around the discovery of Sentinel Prime (voice of Leonard Nimoy and Autobot mentor to Optimus) on our moon by Neil Armstrong and the crew of the Apollo 11. Sentinel has something (yet another “McGuffin” in this series – a generic object that the protagonists and antagonists seek) that can save Cybertron (again). But there’s more than meets the eye and things are not always what they seem! Funny though how Earth always seems to be the epicentre of all Transformers plots and schemes.  Are we a magnet for alien assholes?

Though it is the worst of the first three in the series, Dark of the Moon was a marginal improvement in some minor ways.  Many of the most annoying characters (Sam’s annoying parents, the hip-hop-bots) are toned down in movie #3.  The plot is still a confounding mess in a universe that defies all logic and physics.  It’s all there to support a massive end battle that takes up almost half of the movie. Is that battle spectacular to watch? Oh, sure, I guess so.  Can it hold your attention? No. After about half of the end battle had transpired, I was begging for this movie to please just fucking end.

I have to say though, Rosie Huntington-Whitely is an upgrade over Megan Fox. Something about British accents. Bad British acting always trumps bad American acting.  The cast is rounding out by Frances McDormand (also wasted here), John Malkovich (criminally wasted), Patrick Dempsey (meh) and of course John Turturro who always should have more screen time.

A thudding end to a disappointing trilogy.

1.5/5 stars

Oh, and by the by — no special features!  On the Blu-ray!  You suck, Bay!