SF & Fantasy films


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE BOOK OF ELI. Warner Brothers, 2010. Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals. Directors: Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes.

   I’ve become increasingly convinced that Denzel Washington is the auteur of the films that he appears in. That’s not to say that he doesn’t work with talented directors or that his co-stars aren’t often talented actors themselves. It’s just that Washington is able to portray so many different types of characters who find themselves in nearly impossible situations. In that sense, there is a common thread that runs through a lot of Washington movies. He often portrays a loner, a solitary man whose thoughts run deeper than one might expect.

   And you know what? That’s definitely true for his role as the titular character in The Book of Eli. Washington portrays Eli, a man living in post-apocalyptical America. He’s been spending his years walking through the wastelands that were once vital cities and towns, making his way to the West Coast. He’s carrying with him an extremely precious object. One that the audience learns is the last remaining copy of the King James Bible.

   As you might expect from what I just mentioned, the Christian symbolism and allegory is overt in this overall gritty feature. Eli is on a mission. One that he thinks is divinely inspired. And that mission involves his traveling on foot, through tough terrain and in the face of violent marauders, all the way to the West Coast so that he can hand over the Bible to people who will make proper use of it.

   The greatest obstacle to his completing his mission comes in the form of a would-be tyrant by the name of Carnegie (an over the top Gary Oldman) who wants the Bible in order to consolidate his control over a desperate, illiterate populace.

   Fortunately, Eli – a loner at heart – finally allows for companionship in his life, albeit of the platonic variety. Solara (Mila Kunis) is a girl held captive by Carnegie who decides she wants a better life and decides to join Eli on his quest. The two of them face down not only Carnegie and his henchmen, but also a husband and wife whose hospitality toward them may have less to do with kindness than with cannibalism.

   While I thoroughly enjoyed watching Washington’s portrayal of Eli, I ended up feeling that the story, while compelling, was just a little too straightforward. The Christian allegory was strong, and the message that the Bible could be used for good or for evil was loud and clear. But it just wasn’t enough to make me feel as though the movie would not have benefited from a greater degree of moral complexity.

   One final note: the movie, set as it is in a post-nuclear war America, is filmed in earth tones, almost sepia. Sometimes it works well. Other times, the unique color scheme only serves to draw attention away from the action on hand.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


PASSENGERS. Columbia Pictures, 2016. Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia, Vince Foster. Director: Morten Tyldum.

   Is Passengers a romance set in outer space or a science fiction movie with a strong romantic theme throughout? I tend to support the latter interpretation. Directed by Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, this extraordinarily well acted film is predominantly a thinking person’s science fiction film, albeit one with a romance unmistakably at its core.

   Many viewers will likely recognize similar themes from the 1972 film Silent Running (reviewed on this blog here ): the terrifying experience of being completely alone in space, the ingenuity needed to adapt to mechanical challenges plaguing a space ship, and the notion of creating an Earth like ecosystem aboard a vessel in outer space.

   Chris Pratt portrays Jim Preston, a mechanic who is thrust into a situation well beyond his control. He, like some 5,000 other passengers, is in a deep hibernation aboard the starship Avalon as it makes its way to Homestead II. These colonists, as well as the crew, were put into a hibernation pods for the long journey. And I do mean long. 120 years in fact.

   But when an asteroid collides with the Avalon, Jim awakes from his deep sleep. Soon enough he finds out that his revival was an accident and that he’s totally alone on the ship. But he’s not alone really, is he? There are close to 5,000 other passengers aboard, all of whom are continuing their deep sleep until they reach Homestead II. Much like Adam in the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden, Jim doesn’t want to be alone. So against his better judgment and his moral understanding of what he is doing is wrong, he decides to use his technical skills to awaken another passenger, the beautiful Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence).

   Soon enough the two of them are romantically involved and settling into their strange new life together on the Avalon. As you might imagine, however, Aurora eventually learns that Jim woke her up. And let’s put it this way: She’s not happy about it. Not in the least. Romance gives way to conflict and unbearable tension as the two people awake on the ship end up completely emotionally isolated from each other. Then things take a turn for the worse. The Avalon begins to break down.

   If the plot sounds simplistic or cliché, trust me when I tell you that it isn’t saccharine or melodramatic in the slightest. The movie raises important themes about technology and about space colonization. Visually stunning, Passengers also benefits from great sound design and a soundtrack that isn’t overbearing in the slightest. For those skeptical of newer science fiction films, it’s worth putting your skepticism aside for this film. It is definitely a film that deserves at least one viewing.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


STUDENT OF PRAGUE. German, 1935, as Der Student von Prag. Anton Walbrook (as Adolf Wohlbrück), Theodor Loos, Dorothea Wieck, Erich Fiedler, Edna Greyff. Adapted by Hans Kyser and Arthur Robison from the original story and screenplay by Hanns Heinz Ewers and Henrick Galeen. Directed by Arthur Robison.

   The two earlier versions of this story loom large in the history of German Silent Film — and therefore the history of film itself — but this one has been largely ignored or dismissed, a puzzle to me, since it’s a lovely little film, and perhaps a bit more enjoyable than its predecessors.

   Anton Walbrook stars as the impoverished (and rather superannuated) college boy, popular with the girls and handy with a sword but woefully underfunded when he falls under the spell of a visiting diva. The lady herself seems kindly disposed towards him, but she has a retinue that includes a wealthy baron and a sinister stranger who has some sort of mystical power over her.

   If you’re familiar with the story, you know that the stranger buys Walbrook’s soul, expressed by his reflection in a mirror. But this version executes a twist on the tale I found intriguing, and the result is an emotional impact not to be found in the earlier films. There’s a marvelous moment late in the movie where our student, now rich, with his life in shambles, keeps pulling big handfuls of money from his pockets and flinging it down in disgust, perfectly played by Walbrook and directed by Robison.

   Arthur Robison was American-born, German-raised, and a filmmaker in Germany since those halcyon silent days, best known for the expressionist Warning Shadows (1923). He directs here with a soft-focus splendor, bathing Prague in romantic candlelight and gentle shadows that somehow point up the sinister aspects of the tale more effectively than expressionism ever could. Moreover, for me at least, the overt romanticism lends a melancholy aspect to the spookiness that seems unique and enchanting.

   This Student wouldn’t scare a nervous cat, but it’s not a movie I’ll soon forget.


WARNING: This next clip is of the movie’s finale:

TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY. TriStar Pictures, 1991. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong. Director and co-screenwriter: James Cameron.

   OK, I agree, The special effects are everything everyone has said they were. But I didn’t see the first film, and I still don’t have much of an idea of what the story is about. (Two killer cyborg robots come from the future, one to protect a young boy, Linda Hamilton’s son, the other to destroy him.)

   There’s lots of shooting for the juvenile gun-freaks in the crowd, but since both Schwartzennegger and his nemesis are essentially indestructible, most of the shooting pretty pointless. If you like to see trucks smashing into everything in sight, and buildings being blown up, and people being shot, stabbed, dismembered and thrown away, this is certainly the movie for you.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993.


[UPDATE.]   Within the past year I’ve seen the first movie of the series, and while I now understand the story, I don’t think I’d change anything else in what I said about this second one.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


THE SHIP OF MONSTERS. Producciones Sotomayor, Mexico, 1960. Columbia Pictures, US, 1961. Originally released as La Nave de los Monstruos. Eulailio González, Ana Bertha Lepe, Lorena Velázquez, Manuel Alvarado. Directed by Rogelio A. González.

   From the land of robot-fighting Aztec Mummies, and monster-battling masked wrestlers, comes their strangest contribution to cinema yet, Ship of Monsters, a UFO, alien monster invasion, Western, singing and dancing cowboy and alien, Mariachi-singing robot and computer console, kid and his robot pal, science fiction adventure.

   Let’s just say if it didn’t exist, Mystery Science Theatre 3000 would have had to invent it. There used to be a Science Fiction Western comic book from Charlton, but it was never this weird.

   It all starts when Gamma (Ana Bertha Lepe) and Beta (Lorena Velázquez) land on Earth with a ship load of monsters who escape and have to be rounded up with the help of their robot Tor. Unknown to them they are observed by Lauranio (Eulailio González) a singing and dancing, fast on the draw cowboy who no one in the local cantina will listen to about his UFO sighting. Well, he does drink a little, so they can be excused.

   So of course Lauranio goes back out and runs into Gamma and Beta, gorgeous flimsily clad redhead and blonde, and agrees to help them round up the escaped monsters, enlisting the young Rupert who soon becomes pals with Tor.

   As if that wasn’t enough, Beta becomes jealous of Gamma and Lauranio and turns evil, sending the monsters out to capture or kill Gamma and Rupert. Lauranio then has to seduce Beta, singing and dancing seductively with her in the monster’s cave, while Rupert sneaks on the ship and saves Gamma. It is easily the most awkward dance scene in the history of film with Beta resembling nothing so much as a cheap Burlesque Queen and Lauranio looking more like he is fighting a bull than seducing a beautiful blonde alien.

   Beta discovers, as all must, monsters can’t be controlled, leaving Lauranio, Gamma, and Rupert to stop the monsters, and the film comes to a romantic end as Gamma decides to stay on Earth with Lauranio and Rupert while Tor pilots the monsters back home singing a Mariachi duet with a mobile female computer console he has a crush on.

   I kid you not.

   You can watch it in Spanish on YouTube if you want. In its own insane way it is entertaining, however strange, but you have to wonder at the mind that came up with it and try not to boggle your mind wondering what Roy Rogers and Gene Autry would have done with this one. Compared to it Gene’s Phantom Empire serial is downright tame: none of his robots even hummed.

BOUNTY KILLER. Just Chorizo Productions-Kickstart Productions-ARC Entertainment,2013. Matthew Marsden, Kristanna Loken, Christian Pitre, Barak Hardley, Abraham Benrubi, Gary Busey,Beverly D’Angelo, Eve. Screenwriters: Jason Dodson, Colin Ebeling & Henry Saine. Director: Henry Saine.

   I’ll sum this movie as best I can right here at the beginning by calling it a “post-apocalyptic action comedy,” a phrase which I stole from Wikipedia, but what they hey, the shoe fits.

   And truth be told, I liked this one a heck of a lot more than I expected to. As long as I’m quoting or paraphrasing from Wikipedia, I’ll right ahead and tell you that movie was born as a cartoon, then adapted into a graphic novel and a short film, then after the Enron scandal and the financial crisis of 2007-2008, a full-length feature film.

   The premise: White collar corporations has forced the collapse of the United States, and bounty killers have taken it upon themselves to right the wrongs the people behind these companies have done. Two of the most famous of these killers are Drifter (Matthew Marsden) and Mary Death (Christian Pitre), she of the glamorous jumpsuit, high boots, and very deadly weaponry.

   It turns out — it is gradually revealed that — the two main characters have a past. He was her mentor; they were at one time also lovers. Now they are fierce, competitors, even to the death. The executive class aren’t going away easily, however, and thereby lies the story.

   Nor do you need to know more than that. There is a lot of gunfire in this movie, and a lot of very gory deaths. If either of the above bother you, you’d best stay away. But it’s also a comedy, very well choreographed and photographed, and even better, the people in it act like they’re having a very good time, down to the most menial stunt doubles. I didn’t expect to, but I did, too. Have a good time, that is.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


  INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES. American International Pictures, 1962. Robert Ball, Frankie Ray, Gloria Victor, Delores Reed, Trustin Howard and Mark Ferris. And who the hell are they, anyway? Written by Jonathan Haze, from his original story “Monster from Nicholson Mesa.” Directed by Bruno VeSota.

   I’m of two minds about this film. First, it’s lousy. But on the other hand, it’s cheap, witless and banal.

   So why (I kept asking myself at the time) did I watch it all the way through? Well I guess it had enough redeeming features to keep me going. Not enough to actually redeem it, you understand, but enough to keep me going.

   For those of you who never heard of this bizarre classic, it’s a low-budget farce masquerading as a 1950s monster movie, written and directed by two iconic actors in the genre who don’t act in it. Stars Ball and Ray play a couple of sub-normal Army Privates on an expedition (Led by “Colonel Rank;” that’s the level of wit here.) into a nuclear blast site (The “Nicholson Mesa” of the original title — in those days James H. Nicholson was head of AIP, the chief purveyor of this schlock) to check out a mysterious cave uncovered by the blast.

   The scene shifts to Bronson Canyon, the familiar locale of countless B-westerns, where everyone but our heroes gets captured by aliens, and only these two goofballs are left to save the world. Our trepid heroes soon come up against alien monsters that look eerily like guys wrapped in burlap, commanded by two tall, statuesque beauties (Professor Puna and Doctor Tanga, another Noel Coward touch) who knock the boys about a bit before falling madly in love with them. Ooops! I gave away the ending there, didn’t I? Sorry folks.

   Okay, so it ain’t funny. Nor is it original. Or very well done. But Invasion has a certain off-the-cuff energy to it that the general ineptitude can’t quite smother. Robert Ball and Frankie Ray put a lot of work into their parts; a little talent would have been nice, but I admired their efforts anyway. Gloria Victor and Delores Reed are easy to look at, and their acting is good enough not to distract from their beauty.

   As far as direction goes, Bruno VeSota wisely makes fun of his budget shortfalls, playing around with papier-mâché boulders and the clunkiest monsters ever to blot the screen. There’s a bit with the characters fleeing back and forth across the same set that gets repeated so often (literally a “running gag”) it actually becomes funny. And if Ve Sota and Haze let some scenes run on too long… (Well actually just about every scene runs on too long; I thought they’d never get rid of those Indians!) …well I could forgive it all in the spirit of good fun. Which is about the best way to look at this one.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS. Columbia Pictures, 1956. Hugh Marlowe, Joan Taylor, Donald Curtis, Morris Ankrum. Screen story by Curt Siodmak, based on the book Flying Saucers from Outer Space, by Major Donald E. Keyhoe. Director: Fred F. Sears.

   What would humanity do if UFOs waged war on Earth? Would a scientist invent a means of stopping those rascally aliens and then allow the U.S. military to utilize that technology? If you think that’s the most likely scenario, then Earth vs. the Flying Saucers will offer few surprises.

   The plot follows rocket scientist Dr. Russell A. Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) and his new bride Carol (Joan Taylor) as they contend with an imminent alien invasion. Complicating matters is the fact that Carol’s father, Brig. Gen. John Hanley (Morris Ankrum), has been kidnapped by the interstellar humanoids and turned into a zombie! This leads Dr. Marvin to take the lead in discovering a way of repelling the forthcoming alien invasion. Upon learning how the UFOs operate, Marvin creates a sonic weapon that proves useful to the U.S. Army as they wage war on alien vessels attempting to conquer Washington.

   If you think the plot sounds mildly intriguing – and I admit writing it made me realize how much potential the film had – you should realize that this particular science fiction movie is rather flat, both in terms of style and substance.

   Indeed, if Earth vs. the Flying Saucers has an auteur, it is most certainly special effects guru Ray Harryhausen. Responsible for the film’s stellar stop-motion animation, Harryhausen’s skill in unleashing movie magic is evident throughout what is otherwise a rather dull, plodding 1950s science fiction feature.

   Neither the direction nor the acting, save the welcome presence of character actor Morris Ankrum, is particularly memorable; in fact, much of it is truly forgettable. All of which serves to make Harryhausen’s contribution to the movie even more valuable, for without it, there’d honestly be no compelling reason to seek out this one out.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


HEAVEN ONLY KNOWS. United Artists, 1947. Re-released as Montana Mike. Robert Cummings, Brian Donlevy, Marjorie Reynolds, Jorja Curtwright (debut), John Litel, Bill Goodwin, Stuart Irwin, Gerald Mohr, Edgar Kennedy, Lurlene Tuttle, Peter Miles, Glenn Strange. Screenplay: Art Arthur & Rowland Leigh. Adaptation by Ernest Haycox from a story by Aubrey Wisberg. Directed by Alfred S. Rogell.

   Heavenly fantasy dates back a while, but it took a foothold in Hollywood with Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and by the late forties was a genre unto itself with such heavenly(and diabolical) helpers as Claude Rains, Laird Cregar, Henry Travers, Cary Grant, Clifton Webb, and Cecil Kellaway taking a hand in human affairs.

   This time out the angel in question is Robert Cummings, as Michael, who discovers as the film opens that a mistake has been made in the heavenly bookkeeping: Adam “Duke” Byron (Brian Donlevy) has been born without a soul, and thus won’t fulfill his destiny. In fact, he is already two years behind time in marrying Drusilla (Jorja Curtwright), the daughter of a reverend (John Litel), and that union looks unlikely since Duke Byron runs a saloon and gambling hall and is embroiled in a deadly power struggle with his partner in the Glacier, Montana mine, Bill Plummer (Bill Goodwin).

   With that in mind, Michael is dispatched to Earth to correct the problem, and a bigger babe in the woods there never was, save for the fact he is an archangel though without his cloak of immortality and forbidden to use his powers.

   Glacier proves no paradise. The feud between Duke and Plummer means the mines have been shut down for two months and the desperate miners and townsfolk, led by Drusilla, are ready for vigilante justice. Laconic Sheriff Bodine (Stuart Irwin) talks them into waiting as he hopes to play Byron and Plummer off each other until only one of them is left, and things get quickly more complicated when Plummer makes sure Duke thinks Michael is the Kansas City Kid hired to kill him.

   Then there is Duke’s gunslinger, Treason (Gerald Mohr), who doesn’t like the look of Michael one bit, and with good reason, as there is more than a hint of sulfur and brimstone about him. Heaven isn’t the only one interested in Duke Byron (a good running joke has Treason’s match going out whenever Michael is near him).Michael saves Duke from the real Kansas City Kid, and becomes his friend, but his job is only starting.

    Heaven Only Knows is a curious mix of fantasy, religion, comedy, romance, sentimentalism, and traditional Western elements, the latter no doubt given a boost in the screen treatment by veteran Western writer Ernest Haycox (“Last Stage to Lordsburg,” Canyon Passage, The Adventurers). Brian Donlevy plays the familiar role of good bad man (we know he is good because an ill little boy, Skitch, played by Peter Miles, and drunk storytelling Judd, played by Edgar Kennedy, are loyal to him).

   Cummings angel steals the show, by turns naïve, otherworldly, strong, and scheming, finding himself a bit tempted by saloon girl Ginger (Margorie Reynolds) who begins to fall for him.

   Along the way there are ambushes, two rescues from burning buildings, a showdown “Montana” style between Duke and Plummer, a few sermons, a lynching where Duke finally finds his soul, and a three hanky ending designed to leave no eye in the house dry.

   At times a bit preachy, and sometimes corny, I don’t imagine too many of today’s audiences will care for it, but if you like this genre well done, and would like to see Cummings stretch his wings a bit (sorry) Heaven Only Knows is an odd semi-lost film well worth finding, and easily the most unusual of a genre that still pops up on big and small screens today.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


THE HYPERBOLOID OF ENGINEER GARIN. Russia, 1965. Original title: Giperboloid inzhenera Garina. Evgeniy Evstigeev, Iosif Manovich, Mikhail Astangov, Natalya Kilimova. Screenplay by Iosif Manovich, based on the novel The Garin Death Ray by Aleksei Tolstoy. Directed by Alexander Gintsberg.

   A modicum of propaganda, a cunning visual recreation of German Expressionist cinema, and a sense of fun and the absurd inform this 1965 science fiction film from the former Soviet Union set in France in 1925.

   It opens moodily as two men, one Safonov (Isoif Manovich), explore a deserted house on a lonely island on a lake. It is there they find Engineer Petrovich Garin (Evigniy Evstegeev) and his invention, the hyperboloid, a deadly heat ray.

   From that point on, the film seems as if it will devolve into a game of hide-and-seek, with Garin pursued by all sides wanting the weapon, but instead it changes mood and, while keeping the look and feel of a German serial of the silent era, replete with stylized sets and costumes, it instead becomes a fairly subtle debate about the rights of one man to sell such a deadly weapon to the highest bidder, while never forgetting the action, comedy, and mad scientist elements of the story.

   You can guess where a Soviet era films comes down on the film’s philosophical question, but it does so with a soft, not iron, heel. The result is such that the viewer can sit back and enjoy the wonderful look of the film that makes as many nods to Fritz Lang, Joe May, Murnau, or French serial director Louis Feuillade as to Sergei Eisenstein or early Soviet science fiction like Aleita.

   Shot in atmospheric monochrome, the film features gorgeous sets and science fictional set pieces, action, comedy, and a playful sense of fun. Alas the only version I know of is in Russian without subtitles, but it is still worth a look. Hopefully there is a subtitled version available. It is surprising just how well the look of a big production science fiction film from an earlier era is captured. You have to keep reminding yourself this was released in 1965.

   The ironic comedic finale, similar to the fate of Lex Luthor in Superman Returns, is just an added bonus after scene after scene that are a visual feast. While it is different in look and style, it compares favorably with films like Dinner with Adele (aka Nick Carter in Prague) or Karel Zeman’s The Fantastic World of Jules Verne that it shares a similar anachronistic nostalgia with.

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