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Archive for February, 2011

Trailer: X-Men: First Class



I don’t know about the rest of you guys, but I’m looking forward to this one.

Aliens (1986)


It has been decades since Ripley last tangled with the ultimate killing machine. She never wanted to go back to LV-426, but in the time that she was in cryosleep, somebody had a great idea: establish a colony there and terraform the dead planet to make it habitable for human life.

No, wait. That’s not a great idea. That’s a bad idea.

So now Ripley has to go back to the place of her nightmares, just because Weyland-Yutani decided to be an idiot…

Aliens is a science fiction action movie and the first sequel to Alien. It was written and directed by James Cameron, and stars Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, William Hope, and Bill Paxton, plus the creature effects of Stan Winston.

When Ellen Ripley, sole survivor of the massacre and subsequent destruction of the Nostromo is rescued and revived from hypersleep, she discovers that 57 years have passed since her harrowing ordeal. Called to task for the Nostromo‘s destruction by a panel of Weyland-Yutani executives, her account of a hostile alien life form accidentally picked up on LV-426 is met with skepticism, because she blew the thing out an airlock to save herself rather than capturing the specimen for study, and because, to her horror, there has been a terraforming colony living there for the past 20 years, and they haven’t griped about any hostile wildlife. Her judgment is called into question, and she loses her piloting license. Not long after, W-Y loses contact with the terraforming colony (surprise!), and she is called in as a consultant on how to handle these monsters that don’t exist, but which haunt her nightmares every night. Reluctantly she agrees to go, hoping that facing her fears with help her get a good night’s sleep, and she is sent with a squadron of Space Marines aboard the Sulaco to check out the conspicuous absence of communications. The Marines are confident that they will be able to handle whatever is wrong, because they’re Space Marines, dammit, but Ripley has seen one of these things plow through six of her seven-man crew on the Nostromo, and has her doubts, made worse by the inclusion of android artificial person Bishop, who fortunately is a newer model that is Three Laws compliant. When they arrive, they find the colony almost completely abandoned save for a traumatized young girl named Rebecca Newt, who saw her entire family slaughtered by the things. Hilarity ensues when xenomorphs attack, wiping out most of the Space Marines and taking out the dropship that would have taken the survivors out of there. Now Ripley and the others will have to draw upon all available resources and their own ingenuity to survive…

I was impressed when I saw this movie for the first time. Building on the plotline established by Alien, this is a sequel that doesn’t feel like a sequel so much as a natural extension of the first – something that is apparently really hard to do, to judge by 95% of the sequels I’ve seen. Ripley is actually realistically affected by the horrors of the first movie, suffering from nightmares and flashbacks consistent with PTSD, and who could blame her? Then W-Y throws her under the bus regarding her actions aboard the Nostromo (kind of a dick move on their part, but a logical reaction to an apparently unbelieveable story), only to make it clear later that, yeah, we knew about them the whole time, and we didn’t want you jeopardizing access to possibly the coolest living weapon of our generation. Even here their motives make sense in a dystopic sort of way.

The acting here is also very well-done. Sigourney Weaver, reprising her role as Ripley, demonstrated that Alien wasn’t just a fluke (as she has continued to prove in the decades since), and Paul Reiser is affably slimy as Carter Burke, the guy who manages to wrangle Ripley back to LV-426 with the promise that W-Y will do everything he can to ensure the Xenomorph colony is destroyed (*cough*liar*cough*). And if creature effects can be considered actors, then Stan Winston’s Alien Queen rig, the most detailed single monster he had ever built to date, is still one of the most impressive animatronic puppets I have ever seen, alongside, er… much of Winston’s other work. The establishment of a hive society with a central breeding Queen takes its cue from the social insects of Earth, but ups the ante from fighting a single individual to outmaneuvering hundreds of Xenos, all coordinated with a single, thoroughly badass matriarch.

If you enjoyed the original Alien, I highly recommend Aliens. While it’s more action than horror, it’s a satisfying continuation of Ripley’s story, and capably expands on the cold insectile ways of the Xenomorphs to make them seem more like an organic species, intelligent, deadly, and brutally efficient. Every sci fi fan should have this in their collection.

Ghost Ship (2002)


In 1962, the cruise liner Antonia Graza was lost at sea, with all its passengers and crew presumed perished. Twenty years later, it has returned, just as mysteriously. And something is still aboard…

Ghost Ship is a horror film directed by Steve Beck and produced by Dark Castle Entertainment, responsible for the recent remakes of Thirteen Ghosts, The House on Haunted Hill, and House of Wax. It stars Julianna Marguiles, Gabriel Byrne, Ron Eldard, Karl Urban, Desmond Harrington, Isiah Washington, and Desmond Washington, plus a bunch of very angry ghosts.

Everyone has heard of the Antonia Graza – she’s like the Holy Grail of ship salvages. So when the crew of the Arctic Warrior is approached about a salvage in the Bering Sea and it turns out to be the vanished cruise liner, everyone is excited about not only the reward for salvaging it but also the bragging rights. However, when they board the ship to prepare to tow it to shore, strange things start happening that suggest that not everything is at rest aboard the derilict. Maureen Epps (Marguiles) sees the spectre of a little girl wandering the decks. Greer (Washington) hears the voice of an unseen songstress crooning a ghostly melody. Epps and their employer, Ferriman (Harrington), find the corpses of previous salvage crews… and a quantity of gold bars in the hold, with the identifying markings filed down. Estimating that the gold by itself is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, they decide to take the gold and leave the ship, but the Arctic Warrior explodes as it is started up, killing a crewman and leaving the rest of them stranded on the Antonia Graza. With no other choice, the salvage crew try to repair the ship, but as more of them are killed by the ghostly forces on the ship, Epps is about to learn some terrifying things about the ship’s history and their helpful employer…

I basically picked up Ghost Ship on a whim. I enjoy ghost stories, almost as much as I enjoy finding hidden treasures (as I had with Pitch Black). I’d previously seen how Gabriel Byrne did supernatural horror in End of Days, and Julianna Marguiles had proven her acting chops in her stint in ER. The rest were unknowns at the time, and I thought they did well. This spooky little horror tale did a lot with a little, offering glimpses and hints rather than beating the viewer over the head with OMG GHOSTS, and on the whole the spooks are not obvious or in your face about it. The sequence where Greer witnesses the ruined ballroon reconstituting itself around him was impressive, as well as the fact that most of the special effects had been done practically, favoring models and prosthetics over CGI.

In addition, while the setup appeared to be a standard haunting, the writers took it and made it their own, offering an explanation for why the ghosts are trapped there instead of saying “just because”, while also giving the otherwise marooned salvagers (well, one of them) a possible solution. The story was engaging as it unfolded, with the ghostly Katie guiding Epps to the answers she would need to survive the darker forces at work on the wreck, and the explanation for why that ghost alone, out of the hundreds bound to the vessel, was able to help was satisfying and made sense within the context of the story. While the rest of Dark Castle’s movies have been largely hit or miss (mainly miss), this one was enjoyable and spooky.

If you like ghost stories and you’re looking for a movie that’s slightly off the beaten path, try Ghost Ship. It’s not flashy, just a beautiful, atmospheric tale of a tragic haunting, and the outsiders who find themselves drawn into the darkness of a decades-old tragedy.

The Happening (2008)


M. Night Shyamalan is capable of making good movies. For example:

The Sixth Sense: Good movie.

Unbreakable: Good movie.

Signs: Decent movie.

While some might deride him as a Small Name Big Ego director, he is capable of taking simple things and making them spooky as hell… which makes me wonder what happened with The Happening.

The Happening focuses on an unexplained phenomenon that causes people to spontaneously commit suicide in strange and improbable ways, like an entry of Final Destination turned inside out. It stars Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, and a whole bunch of other people that you won’t really care about.

Wahlberg plays high school science teacher Elliot Moore, who improbably subscribes to the school that accepts “hell if I know” as a valid and complete answer to questions. After hearing about a mass suicide of random people in Central Park, he decides to leave Philadelphia with his wife Alma (Deschanel) and escape to Harrisburg, accompanied by Elliot’s friend and fellow teacher Julian (Leguizamo) and Julian’s eight-year-old daughter Jess. Julian’s wife is stuck in Philadelphia but expected to join them later. Complicating matters is the fact that Elliot and Alma seem to be having marital difficulties. I say seem because aside from Alma getting e-stalked by some guy named Joey – which Elliot doesn’t know about for two-thirds of the movie – there seems to be no real reason for this. At all.

Of course, when the train loses radio contact with the other stations, it stops off in a small town to drop of the passengers, leaving Our Intrepid Heroes to try to find their own way to Harrisburg, only to find that Harrisburg has been afflicted with mass suicides as well. A random botanist suggests that perhaps the plants are releasing a chemical that turns off the human survival instinct (though in practice it seems more like whatever it is throws the switch all the way into reverse), and as time passes it appears that the phenomenon is affecting smaller and smaller groups of people, driving people to seek out unpopulated areas (instead of scattering, because a whole bunch of people flocking to an unpopulated area is going to very quickly make it not unpopulated), while avoiding routes and areas already strewn with dead bodies. Meanwhile, Elliot is trying to remain scientific about this whole thing, even though ultimately the phenomenon is exactly following the Shit Happens That We Can’t Understand line of thinking he demonstrated at the beginning.

While Shyamalan (maybe) tried to evoke the same feelings of suspense that Alfred Hitchcock did with The Birds, presenting a strange occurance that we can neither comprehend nor stop, ultimately the clunky writing and half-assed acting took away from any promise the plot had. The dialogue was awkward. The expository scenes were shoehorned in. Of the core cast, John Leguizamo was the best-established actor, and the most wasted. Zooey Deschanel mainly acted with her huge soulful eyes, and Mark Wahlberg frequently looked constipated. Shyamalan’s later assertion that this was supposed to be a post-modern B-movie seemed like he was just trying to save face, especially in the wake of his critical flop Lady in the Water. While the concept of a toxin that makes us commit suicide seemed like a perfectly terrifying idea, ultimately this movie falls flat.

Now, I freely admit that I have seen some bad movies. Most bad movies I’ve seen are entertaining in spite or because of their badness. This one just struck me as an awkward bashing together of things that individually can be found in entertaining B Movies but together in this combination do not happen to make an entertaining B Movie. Give this one a miss.

Jurassic Park (1993)


“You did it. You crazy son of a bitch, you did it.”

When Steven Spielberg announced that he was going to make a movie called Jurassic Park, about a theme park populated by dinosaurs, every nerd in the world perked up their collective ears. Spielberg had already established himself as an influential director that doesn’t make a habit of settling for half-measures, and every human being is hard-wired to get excited about dinosaurs. Put the two together, and it sounded like a match made in heaven.

Guess what? It was.

Jurassic Park is a science fiction thriller based on the novel of the same name by Michael Crichton. It stars Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, and lots of really awesone-looking dinosaurs.

It sounds like a great idea: use revolutionary genetic analysis techniques to clone dinosaurs from blood samples gained from mosquitoes preserved in amber. Billionaire eccentric John Hammond thinks so, anyway, and he has decided to build a dinosaur theme park of Isla Nublar, a small island 87 miles off the coast of Costa Rica, populating the exhibits with his cloned dinos. However, after one of the dino handlers gets shredded to hell by a velociraptor a minor incident with one of the dinosaurs, Hammond’s investors get spooked and send in their lawyer, Gennaro, to check things out. Hammond agrees to send two experts on a tour of the park. He invites paleontologist Alan Grant and his wife/fiancee, paleobotanist Ellie Sattler, for the privilege, offering to fund their research for the next three years in exchange; they agree and join the tour group, along with chaotician Ian Malcolm, Gennaro, and two of Hammond’s grandchildren, dino enthusiast Timmy and computer nerd hacker Lexi. Hammond hopes to prove to Gennaro once and for all that the park is absolutely safe. After all, he spared no expense.

Little does he know that his head computer programmer, Dennis Nedry, is an under-the-radar employee of BioSyn, a corporate rival of Hammond’s company InGen that has paid Nedry a king’s ransom to acquire some of Hammond’s dinosaur embryos. As the tour starts, Nedry sets his plan in motion, using a program he wrote to disable the entire park’s security systems – after all, he designed them. By the time anyone realizes what Nedry has done, the automated Range Rovers carrying the happy tourists through the park have been halted in their tracks, leaving their passengers stranded near the T-Rex paddock. What was going to be a nice outing in a theme park full of cloned dinosaurs is rapidly turning into a terrifying fight to survive in a theme park full of cloned dinosaurs, as Our Intrepid Heroes try to get to safety and get the security systems back online…

I saw this movie in the theater the summer it came out, and I was left with the impression that Steven Spielberg + Stan Winston = GOOD THINGS. The dinosaurs were a seamless combination of animatronics and CGI, and even the CG dinosaurs seemed to have real weight to them, especially the skyscraper-sized Brachiosaur that served as the viewer’s first look at OMG DINOSAURS. The velociraptors showed a chilling level of cunning, particularly as they chased Timmy and Lex through the visitors’ center, that matched up well with game warden Muldoon’s apparently genuine admiration and fear of them. And the T-rex, the first major predatory dino the visitors encounter, looks like he really wanted to chase you down and eat you. There were difficulties, of course: scenes with the animatronic rex in the simulated rain had to be stopped again and again, as water soaking into the rex’s rubber skin gave it the shakes. And a few liberties had to be taken with some of the “star” dinos for the sake of pure awesome (and because this was what we knew of them at the time): the velociraptors were built on a scale closer to that of the much larger Deinonychus to make them more scary, but that was made okay with the discovery of Utahraptor. The dilophosaur probably didn’t have a frill, but Nedry really needed to have that final OH CRAP moment. Dozens of animal sounds were mixed together to creature unique calls for all the dinosaurs, and all the elements mixed together extremely well, helping the audience believe that the dinosaurs were real.

The human cast also did very well, here, both in discussing the potential problems of the dinosaur park (only Malcolm descended into the filibustering that would become Crichtons unfortunate trademark in later books) and in acting and reacting against the dinosaur effects. Neill and Dern as Grant and Sattler convinced me that they knew their respective fields well, while Jeff Goldblum, as always, plays the deadpan twitchy genius Ian Malcom. Richard Attenborough plays Hammond as more of a child-friendly Walt Disney expy than the greedy bastard he was in the book, only wanting a nice diversion for the kiddies (and therefore he is spared the book’s death-by-zerg-rush). Bob Peck as Muldoon was pretty much the great white hunter, knowing full well how dangerous the raptors were, while Wayne Knight is every character he has ever played, making me want to give him a swift kick in the face regardless of his intended corporate espionage. The actors really made the dinosaurs work, though, and without them and the tight plot this movie would have just been a crapton of flashy effects without any real substance to them.

In conclusion, while the special effects are easy to take for granted nowadays and certain dinosaur portrayals are now out-of-date, Jurassic Park remains a fun, eye-popping roller-coaster ride through the dreams of a wealthy entrepreneur, forced to watch his vision turn into a nightmare. This movie will be one of my favorites for a long time.

Twister (1996)


Tornadoes are funny things. Borne from the most violent of inland weather conditions, they can strike without warning or pattern, touching down just long enough to erase one or two (not necessarily consecutive) houses before vanishing like ninjas into the sky, only to drop on your head a block later on. This is why it’s been so hard to come up with an effective early-warning system, but storm-chasers continue to brave hostile weather to try to figure out what makes a tornado tick, knowing that if they don’t, tornadoes will hunt us all down and murder us in our beds. At least, that’s what disaster movies would have us believe.

Twister is a disaster film based on a script by Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin, and directed by Jan de Bont. It stars Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, Cary Elwes, Jami Gertz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Alan Ruck.

After witnessing her father’s death during a tornado that hit her farm when she was young, Jo (Hunt) has grown up to be a storm-chaser, swearing to hunt down as many tornadoes as possible and prevent her childhood tragedy from happening to anyone else. Her son-to-be-ex-husband Bill Harding (Paxton) and his fiancee Dr. Melissa Reeves meet Jo and her quirky team of storm chasers out in the field in order to get the final divorce papers back from Jo. As Bill was once a member of that same team before retiring to become a meteorologist who hates being called a weatherman, he and Melissa are greeted warmly, but he resists the idea that he is returning to the field. Jo, of course, is still madly in love with Bill, and stalls his attempts to get the divorce papers from her, instead inviting him along for the field testing of a tornado analysis device that Bill co-designed, named Dorothy. With a record number of tornadoes predicted that season, they should have plenty of chances to try out the four prototypes.

However, they are competing against a rival group of storm-chasers led by Jonas Miller (Elwes), whom Bill disdains because Jonas relies on instruments rather than his own instincts (as he apparently has none), and is only in it for the money. Jonas, of course, has his own version of the same tornado analysis device, which he has dubbed D.O.T.; Bill accuses Jonas of stealing his idea, but Jonas makes it clear that the credit for the device will only go to the first team to successfully test it. Bill’s pride wins out, and he agrees to join the team for one more day in order to beat Jonas, incidentally dragging Melissa along for the ride, much to her initial excitement and later terror. The first tornado of the movie is sighted, and the race is on – and along the way, special effects happen.

Really, the whole plot is the curtain rod on which the tornado effects are hung. While it does give a valid reason for these two groups of (probably insane) tornado chasers to be out in horrifying weather, Melissa is only there so the seasoned tornado experts have someone to whom they can explain all the stuff that they already know by heart as part of their job, and Jonas & Co. are only there to give us someone to hate, because it’s stupid to hate tornadoes. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with using instruments to track storms – that’s why they’re there, and Jo’s team uses instruments as well as their eyes and years of experience to try to predict when and where the tornadoes will show up.

That said, the tornadoes are really damn impressive-looking. While the previous standard for movie tornadoes was set by The Wizard of Oz, the twisters here are CGI, using complex particle-rendering software developed by ILM for the film in order to create and control soft-shaded particles within each storm, resulting in the most realistic movie tornadoes to date. In order to get the rotation of each funnel just so, the animators studied actual tornado footage, adjusting the settings on their simulated storms accordingly. Unfortunately, the debris looked fake at times, and while it was still impressively animated it broke the immersion a bit. One funny moment that I enjoyed was the airborne cow caught in the waterspouts, an image that has since gone on to inspire the Flying Cow Cafe in the National Weather Center at the University of Oklahoma. Incidentally, the “Dorothy” analysis device featured in the movie was inspired by a similar tool used by the National Weather Service, dubbed T.O.T.O., further proving that real-world storm chasers have a sense of humor.

If you want a flashy foul-weather movie with impressive special effects and don’t care about the plot, I recommend Twister. The plot is thin, but it’s still a neat little disaster flick.

The Incredibles (2004)


“WHERE. IS. MY. SUPER. SUIT?”

Being a superhero is tough. You need to be everywhere, to do everything for everybody, and you need to maintain a civilian identity in order to protect yourself and your loved ones. Sometimes you make mistakes – unforgiveable ones.

Being a retired ex-superhero can also be tough. You need to be everywhere, to do everything for everybody, and you need to maintain a full-time civilian job to keep a roof over your head and to support your wife and 2.3 kids. And sometimes mistakes come back to haunt you…

The Incredibles is a computer-animated superhero comedy produced by Pixar and directed by Brad Bird. It features the voices of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Spencer Fox, Jason Lee, Elizabeth Peña, and Samuel L. Jackson.

In a world where people called “supers” possess metahuman abilities, Mr. Incredible (Nelson) used to have a good thing going. Using his super-strength, he would save lives in his old stomping grounds of Municiberg, with enough time left over afterwards to court and eventually wed a fellow super named Elastigirl (Hunter), who can stretch her body into any shape. (I think there’s a fetish for that in Japan.) Mr. Incredible also has fans, among them a high-Intelligence low-Wisdom fanboy calling himself Incrediboy (Lee), who has no innate superpowers but builds James-Bond-like gadgets in the hopes of becoming Mr. Incredible’s sidekick. Mr. Incredible rejects his attempts, however, stating that he works alone. Eventually, though, frivolous lawsuits from injured bystanders make the world hostile for superheroes, forcing all of them to retire and take up civilian lives.

Fifteen years later, Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl live unhappily in suburbia as Bob and Helen Parr. Of their children, Violet (Vowell) can produce forcefields and turn herself invisible, and Dash (Fox) can run faster than the eye can see, but the newest addition, baby Jack-Jack, appears to be an average child. They are all forced to hide their abilities and masquerade as normal humans, a restriction that is starting to chafe on all of them, particularly Bob, who rankles at his desk job at an insurance company, has gained weight, and must sneak out with his best friend Frozone (Jackson, as himself), likewise forcibly retired and married to a woman only identified as “Honey”, to fight crime on the sly. When Bob’s boss refuses to let him aid a pedestrian getting mugged right outside their building, Bob loses his temper, causing him to get fired from what appears to be only the latest in a long series of civilian jobs. Before he can tell his wife that they will have to move again, he is contacted by a mysterious woman named Mirage (Peña), who offers him a chance to return to his old life as a superhero. He jumps at the chance, never suspecting that this decision will send him hurtling into a collision course with the fallen Incrediboy…

This affectionate deconstruction/reconstruction of the superhero movie was quite enjoyable, exploring the difficulties of being a superhuman in a mundane world, trying to live a normal family-oriented life when forced to turn your back on something you enjoyed. The respective powers of the Parr family make sense for their family roles: Bob is superstrong, allowing him to protect his family; Helen’s elasticity allows herself to stretch across the respective roles of homemaker, wife, and mom, as well as keeping up with her kids; superspeedy Dash is your typical hyperactive kid turned up to eleven, and the initially shy and insecure Violet uses her invisibility powers to hide from a male classmate on whom she has a massive crush. And Jack-Jack… boy howdy. When his powers finally manifest every mom watching the movie will be smiling and nodding.

The plot is also darker than Pixar’s previous films, coming right out and telling the viewer that being a superhero can really, really suck. It doesn’t shy away from the possibility of death; rather, Helen Parr comes right out and tells her kids that Syndrome’s minions will not hesitate to kill them, even though they’re just kids. Add to this the number of supers either killed on-screen or whose deaths are mentioned, and you’ve got what amounts to Watchmen, with a brighter palette. Syndrome is utterly psychotic, better filed with villains like the Joker than, say, Megavolt from Darkwing Duck, and his plan to make the supers obsolete, while smacking of disproportionate restribution, does have a genuine foundation in his past rather than being, “Hey, I’m a villain – I’m supposed to act like this!” Fans of DC and Marvel comics will find a lot of oblique references sprinkled throughout this movie as well, not least of which is a correlation between the Parr family and the Fantastic Four.

If you like self-referential, deconstructive superhero movies but don’t have enough anti-depressants for Watchmen (or if you have kids), try The Incredibles. It’s fun and serious in turns, but ultimately satisfies any superhero fan.