Science Fiction Movies 2016 – Worst to First

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Here’s a look back at the major science fiction movies from 2016.  There has been a resurgence of late of quality science fiction films, but that being said, 2016 didn’t have a lot to offer audiences in the sci-fi genre.  In fact, of the more than 50 films I saw in 2016, only five were science fiction.

Here’s a break down of how they fared, from worst to first:

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5. PASSENGERS – this big budget pairing of superstars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt was my least favorite science fiction film from 2016.  That being said, it’s really not that bad a movie.  I would rate it slightly less than average.  Probably not worth a trip to the theater, but something you might consider catching at home on a streaming service or on DVD or Blu-ray.

The biggest culprit is a story that just didn’t work.  It’s about a massive spaceship carrying thousands of passengers in sleep stasis to a new colony planet where they hope to begin a new life.  When there’s a malfunction, and a man Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is accidentally awoken, he finds himself alone and realizes with 90 years still left to the voyage, he won’t get off the ship alive.  His decision to awake fellow passenger Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence)— in effect giving her a death sentence— and the subsequent love story  which follows sets up the burning question:  what will happen if Aurora finds out that unlike Jim she didn’t awake by accident?

The resolution to this question is both unsatisfying and unbelievable.  PASSENGERS is a good-looking science fiction movie hindered by a muddled storyline.  Plus Lawrence and Pratt share very little chemistry as desperate space lovers.

 

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4. ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY –  while legions of fans call this the best STAR WARS movie ever! I simply found it to be a decent stand alone film in the series.  It starts off slow but gets better with an exciting ending that is one of the best endings of the entire series.

ROGUE ONE is a stand alone film in the series, meaning it’s the first film in the STAR WARS franchise not to be part of a trilogy.  It tells the intriguing story of the daring mission to steal those Death Star plans which would ultimately give Luke Skywalker the ability to destroy the evil Empire’s ultimate weapon way back in the very first STAR WARS (1977).  It’s a good story, but the film struggles to tell it at first, as we are introduced to a bunch of new characters early on with a minimum of character development.  As such, during the film’s first half, I didn’t care for any of these new characters.

Things eventually get better, and the ending is superb.  I really liked Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, but the rest of the cast didn’t really wow me.  Nor did the much hyped CGI-motion capture hybrid of Grand Moff Tarkin, which tried to recreate the late great Peter Cushing in one of his later roles.  Mixed results here, as this Tarkin looks just like Cushing if you imagine him as a cartoon.  I enjoyed STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) better.

 

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3. MORGAN – Little seen and critically panned sci-fi actioner, but I really liked this one.  It’s the story of an artificially intelligent being named Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) who kills one of the scientists working with her.  As a result, the company which financed the project to create Morgan sends in an agent Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) to investigate whether or not Morgan needs to be terminated.

The scientists who created and now care for Morgan argue in her favor, even though she killed one of their own.  They believe she has attained life and as such cannot be terminated at the whim of a company.  While the film does explore what it means to be an artificial life form, the story is not on the same level as the deeper and better written EX MACHINA (2015).

But where MORGAN does succeed is as an action thriller.  As such, MORGAN features two strong performances, one by Kate Mara as the driven investigator who will stop at nothing to reach her conclusions, and the other by Anya Taylor-Joy as the introspective and potentially dangerous Morgan.  The climactic fight scene between agent Lee Weathers and Morgan is expertly edited, as intense and violent a fight as you’ll see in an action movie, especially between two women.

 

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2.STAR TREK BEYOND- As a lifelong STAR TREK fan, I’ve enjoyed this rebooted movie series a lot, as it explores an alternate timeline involving the characters from the original STAR TREK series.

This third film in this rebooted series is as enjoyable as the two films which came before it. By far, the best part of these movies is its cast, which continue to do a bang up job at capturing the personas of the original cast from the first STAR TREK TV show.  Chris Pine shines as Captain Kirk, and I thought he played the role a bit more like William Shatner here in this third film than he did in the previous two.

Zachary Quinto continues to nail Mr. Spock by delivering a performance that Leonard Nimoy would no doubt be proud of.  But most impressive is Karl Urban as Doctor McCoy.  He has gotten better with each successive movie, and he was excellent to begin with.  He truly captures what DeForest Kelly did with the character in the original series.  Urban’s performance is uncanny.

 

And now we’ve reached my pick for the best science fiction movie from 2016.  We started with PASSENGERS, which I found slightly less than average, and the next three movies were all solid, flirting with average to better than average.

But my pick for the #1 science fiction movie of the year is the only science fiction film from 2016 that I considered excellent.  It’s a far superior science fiction movie than the other four films in this list.

And that movie is:

 

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1. ARRIVAL – the one true science fiction movie from 2016.  When mysterious space ships suddenly appear all over the Earth, suspended silently above ground like enormous storm clouds, the governments from around the world scramble to decipher what these aliens want.

The U.S. government sends in linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to communicate with the aliens.  Banks not only has to try to learn the aliens’ language, but she also has to figure out a way to teach them ours.

What she, along with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) ultimately learn changes the way we think about time and space.

ARRIVAL is fun science fiction movie with a thought-provoking script by Eric Heisserer.  It’s not perfect. I found the ending not quite as satisfying or mind-blowing as the ending to INTERSTELLAR (2014).  But Amy Adams is excellent in the lead role, and the film really belongs to her.

Without much serious competition, ARRIVAL is easily the best science fiction movie I saw in 2016.

Until next time, thanks for reading!

— Michael

 

 

 

 

 

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ARRIVAL (2016) – Thought-Provoking Science Fiction Tale

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ARRIVAL (2016) is a thought-provoking science fiction film that joins the ranks of other recent science fiction hits, films like INTERSTELLAR (2014), THE MARTIAN (2015), GRAVITY (2013), and DISTRICT 9 (2009).  That being said, it doesn’t quite reach the same impressive blow-your-mind heights of Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR, but it does come close.

Alien ships have suddenly descended upon Earth, but these aren’t the war-like machines from H.G. Wells’ WAR OF THE WORLDS.  On the contrary, these humongous ships simply hover peacefully above ground with no sign of activity inside or out.  At first authorities all over the world aren’t even sure they are occupied.

But occupied they are, as a door to each ship opens every few hours, allowing authorities around the world access to them, and everyone has the same question:  what are they doing here?

The militaries of the world especially want to know because they’re fearful the aliens might be planning an invasion.  And so in the U.S., the military surrounds the ship, and lead officer Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) assembles a team to make contact with the aliens led by linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).

And this really is Amy Adam’s movie, because the film revolves around her character, Louise Banks.  It’s Louise who faces the daunting task of trying to communicate with the aliens, of trying both to teach the aliens our language and learn theirs.  By far, these scenes are the best in the movie, very thought-provoking, and highly captivating.

Banks also has been dealing with a personal crisis, as she had recently lost her teenage daughter to cancer.  Throughout the film, Banks sees flashes of moments with her daughter, as there seems to be some connection between their past and the aliens she’s now communicating with, but what it is, she has no idea.  Moreover, she’s exhausted and knows that these episodes could simply be the result of too little sleep.

ARRIVAL was directed by Denis Villeneuve, who directed SICARIO (2016), which was my favorite movie last year.  One of the main reasons I wanted to see ARRIVAL was because Villeneuve was directing it.  And he doesn’t disappoint.

There are some very memorable scenes in this movie.  The image of the huge ships hovering just above land are very cinematic, although not entirely original.  DISTRICT 9 used similar images to great effect as well.

But the scene where the aliens first appear to Louise and Ian is a good one, very creepy and suspenseful.  And the ensuing scenes where Louise and Ian work to communicate with the aliens are fascinating to watch.

The film does try to generate suspense in other areas, as some of the other countries, specifically China and Russia, are less patient with the aliens than the United States and threaten to blow up the alien ships before sufficient contact is made, making Louise’s job a race against time, but the best scenes in this film are the the thought-provoking science fiction ones.

The screenplay by Eric Heisserer is decent.  Heisserer wrote the scripts for a bunch of recent horror movies, including the reboot of  A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (2009), the reimagining/prequel THE THING (2011), and LIGHTS OUT (2016).  I wasn’t crazy about any of these movies, but I liked ARRIVAL a lot, so this is easily Heisserer’s best screenplay to date.

I enjoyed the story and the characterizations, but what I didn’t like as much was the ending.  For its big payoff, the moment audiences eagerly await throughout the film, which is the answer to the all important question:  just what are the aliens doing here?  I thought was less than satisfying.

I totally get it from Louise’s perspective.  I understand what she learns and why it’s so mind-blowing.  From her point of view, it’s really cool.  But from the aliens’ point of view, it’s less so. I couldn’t help but wonder after learning the reason for the aliens’ visit if their actions made complete sense. I’m not so sure.  The ending to Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR worked better for me.

The acting here is first-rate.  I’m a huge fan of Amy Adams, and once again she delivers a terrific performance.  Dr. Louise Banks is the central character in the movie, and Adams is more than up to the task of carrying this film on her shoulders.  She’s believable as the brilliant linguist and as the grieving mother, haunted by images of her deceased daughter’s childhood.

Jeremy Renner is equally as good as scientist Ian Donnelly, although his character is secondary to Adams’ Banks.  The two also work well together and share some sexual chemistry which keeps the progression of the story believable.

The supporting cast is decent as well.  I thought Michael Stuhlbarg was particularly good as CIA agent Halpern.

There’s been a resurgence of quality science fiction movies in recent years, and this is a good thing.  You can go ahead and add ARRIVAL to that list.  While not quite the grand slam that was Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR, it’s still an above average science fiction movie.

All in all, ARRIVAL is a satisfying science fiction tale about an encounter with an alien race that may or may not be trying to teach us something.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

Memorable Movie Quotes: THE THING (1982)

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Welcome to another edition of MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES, the column where we look at fun quotes from some pretty cool movies.

Up today a movie that makes the short list on almost every horror fan’s “Best of” lists.  In fact, this gem— which was  a flop upon its initial release— is often listed as the number 1 all-time favorite horror movie by horror fans.  I’m talking about John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982).

A remake of the classic THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) starring James Arness as one of the creepiest scariest alien monsters from outer space ever, this John Carpenter version was truer to the original source material, the short story “Who Goes There?” by  John W. Campbell, Jr.  Yet that didn’t seem to matter back in 1982.  Critics slammed the film because of its excessive gore and outlandish special effects.  The complaint was the film didn’t contain the same creative directing Carpenter displayed on his break-out hit, HALLOWEEN (1978).

But fans felt otherwise.  The year 1982 was the dawn of the VHS/VCR age, and I remember when this movie was released on video, it suddenly started gaining momentum and word of mouth spread rapidly.  And like I said, today John Carpenter’s THE THING is heralded as a horror movie classic, and rightly so.

The screenplay by Bill Lancaster contains lots of memorable lines.  Let’s have a look:

Even though the film is loaded with gory special effects, it still generates a sense of mystery and creepiness early on, like here when Blair (Wilford Brimley) explains his findings after his autopsy on the slaughtered dogs:

BLAIR:  You see, what we’re talking about here is an organism that imitates other life forms, and it imitates them perfectly. When this thing attacked our dogs it tried to digest them… absorb them, and in the process shape its own cells to imitate them. This for instance. That’s not dog. It’s imitation. We got to it before it had time to finish.

NORRIS:  Finish what?

BLAIR:  Finish imitating these dogs.

 

And again, later when Fuchs asks to speak with MacReady (Kurt Russell) privately to read him Blair’s notes and to tell him his fears about what’s really going on inside the camp.  At this point in the movie, neither the characters nor the audience knows yet what the Thing is, and so these scenes of dialogue set the groundwork for introducing the horror which is yet to come.

FUCHS:  There’s something wrong with Blair. He’s locked himself in his room and he won’t answer the door, so I took one of his notebooks from the lab.

MACREADY:   Yeah?

FUCHS: Listen: (Reading from Blair’s notes)  “It could have imitated a million life forms on a million planets. It could change into any one of them at any time. Now, it wants life forms on Earth.”

MACREADY:  It’s getting cold in here, Fuchs, and I haven’t slept for two days.

FUCHS:  Wait a minute, Mac, wait a minute.  “It needs to be alone and in close proximity with the life form to be absorbed. The chameleon strikes in the dark.”

MACREADY:  So is Blair cracking up or what?

FUCHS:  Damn it, MacReady!  “There is still cellular activity in these burned remains. They’re not dead yet!

 

Kurt Russell’s MacReady gets a lot of the good lines in the movie, especially later on as his character emerges as the natural leader among the camp and the most promising opponent of the Thing.  But first he has to deal with his own men, as they suspect him of being the Thing.  In this scene, he holds off his men with some dynamite, something that Childs (Keith David) scoffs at:

CHILDS:   You’re gonna have to sleep sometime, MacReady.

MACREADY:  I’m a real light sleeper, Childs.

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“I’m a real light sleeper, Childs.”

Later, Macready devises a test to reveal the identity of the Thing, in one of the movie’s best scenes.  Let’s listen:

MACREADY:  I know I’m human. And if you were all these things, then you’d just attack me right now, so some of you are still human. This thing doesn’t want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It’ll fight if it has to, but it’s vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it’s won.

We’re gonna draw a little bit of everybody’s blood… ’cause we’re gonna find out who’s The Thing. Watching Norris in there gave me the idea that… maybe every part of him was a whole, every little piece was an individual animal with a built-in desire to protect its own life. You see, when a man bleeds, it’s just tissue, but blood from one of you Things won’t obey when it’s attacked. It’ll try and survive… crawl away from a hot needle, say.

 

Later, when they try to restore power to their camp, Garry (Donald Moffat)  makes a grim discovery and in this scene tells MacReady the bad news:

GARRY: The generator’s gone.

MACREADY:  Any way we can we fix it?

GARRY:  It’s gone, MacReady.

Meaning it is no longer physically there.  Yikes!

 

Two of the best lines from THE THING come from two of the supporting characters.  Donald Moffat’s Garry has one of them.  In the scene where MacReady performs his test to learn the Thing’s identity, Garry is one of the men he trusts the least at the time, and so he had Garry tied to a couch along with two other men.  One of the men turns out to be the Thing in one of the movie’s most exciting sequences.  After it’s done, and both the characters and audience breathe a sigh of relief, Garry still finds himself tied to the couch.  And after a moment’s pause, he says:

GARRY:  I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of this winter TIED TO THIS F—-ING COUCH!

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Get me off this couch, please.

But hands down, the best line in the movie and certainly the most memorable line in the movie, belongs to Palmer (David Clennon).  After an intense battle with the Thing, the severed head of one of its victims sprouts legs and crawls away like a giant spider.  Palmer, wide-eyed and incredulous, sees this spectacle and says,

PALMER:  You gotta be f—in’ kidding.

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Well, I hope  you enjoyed this look at memorable quotes from John Carpenter’s THE THING, screenplay by Bill Lancaster, a true masterpiece of horror movie cinema.

That’s it for now.  Join me again next time when we look at more memorable quotes from another cool movie.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) Is NOT the Sequel CLOVERFIELD Fans Have Been Waiting For

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Let’s get this out of the way right now:  10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) is not a sequel to CLOVERFIELD (2008), arguably one of the best giant monster movies ever made.  For this reason alone, this well-written, acted, and directed thriller is flawed.

It’s flawed because producer J.J. Abrams resurrected the CLOVERFIELD name, resurrected the anticipation and excitement of fans the world over of the original movie, only to put out a film with as much in common with CLOVERFIELD as THE MARTIAN (2015) has with GODZILLA.  Yeah, but if you pay close attention, you’ll see that the astronaut in THE MARTIAN had a cousin who worked for the company responsible for resurrecting Godzilla.  Isn’t that cool?  Isn’t that a wild connection?

No, it’s not.

It’s geeky and annoying.  Now, obviously, there is no connection between GODZILLA and THE MARTIAN, but the example shows the level of connection we’re talking about between CLOVERFIELD and 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE.  It’s minuscule.

It’s also embarrassingly clear that J.J. Abrams threw in the Cloverfield name simply as a marketing ploy to attract viewers.  Shame on him.  Sure, you can argue otherwise, but you might just sound like Donald Trump doing it.

Other than this though, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is a pretty nifty thriller.

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is leaving her boyfriend.  He calls her (that’s Bradley Cooper’s voice on the phone.) asking her to come back, but she’s not interested.  She no sooner turns off her cell when she’s involved in a nasty car accident which leaves her unconscious.

When she awakes, she finds herself imprisoned in an underground bunker, and she assumes she’s been kidnapped.  When the peculiar Howard (John Goodman) shows up and tells her that he hasn’t abducted her but rather has saved her life after the car accident, she doesn’t believe him; and when he tells her she can’t leave because outside the bunker the world she once knew doesn’t exist anymore as some unknown apocalyptic event has poisoned the air killing everyone on the surface, she thinks he’s crazy.

Even when she meets the third tenant in the bunker, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who confirms Howard’s story, she’s still not convinced.  But later, when Michelle tries to escape and sees a woman outside the door whose skin seems to be peeling from her face and acting crazy, it appears as if Howard has been telling the truth.

The three then set their sights on surviving, and life is good, until certain things come to light that confirm Michelle’s worst fears.

The story told in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is tight and well-written.  It’s an excellent screenplay by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle.  There’s an uncomfortable feeling permeating throughout this film, as you’re never quite able to feel at ease around John Goodman’s Howard.

John Goodman delivers a phenomenal performance as Howard.  He’s the best part of 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE.  Goodman is almost always good, but his performance here in this movie is extra special.  He’s just “off” enough where you’re pretty sure you don’t trust him but you’re not quite convinced because the crazy things he says all seem to be true.    He’s a difficult character to read, which is one of the reasons the story works so well. Should Michelle trust him?  Or should she try to kill him?

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is equally as good as Michelle.  She is not a helpless victim at all. At first, she’s constantly trying to escape, and even later, when she more or less believes Howard, she still keeps her eyes wide open.  No one is going to pull  a fast one on her.

And John Gallagher, Jr. rounds out the phenomenal trio with a decent performance of his own as Emmett.  At first, you’re not sure how much Emmett knows or what his intentions are, but as the story goes on, he becomes Michelle’s biggest ally.

Director Dan Trachtenberg, in his feature film directorial debut, does a nice job at the helm.  He gives this film a claustrophobic feel as he puts the audience right in the middle of the action with the characters in the underground bunker.

There are plenty of suspenseful scenes as well.  There’s one scene in particular where they are playing a game, and it goes from funny, to suspenseful, to back to funny again all in a matter of seconds.

Strangely, the weakest part of this movie is its ending, and it’s strange because it should have been the best part.  This is where the film should have tied in with the original CLOVERFIELD, but alas, that’s not how things play out.

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is a tight little thriller, a stand-alone movie that would work on its own merits even without the CLOVERFIELD name in the title.  Unfortunately, however, the name is in the title and the fact that is so loosely connected is a shame.  It’s pretty much not connected to the earlier movie at all.  Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS (2012) was more connected to the ALIEN series.

Why does this matter?  Let me use another movie to make my point.  Take JAWS (1975) for example.  And let’s say instead of JAWS 2 (1978) the next movie in the series was called 10 JAWS LANE, and in this movie, there’s no shark, there’s no Brody, no Matt Hooper, it doesn’t take place on Amity Island, and heck it’s not even about a shark!  It’s about an unknown threat that may or may not be lurking in the ocean while our characters are holed up in an underground bunker.  It’s a well-made movie, but without even one reference to the events in the previous film, I think audiences would have been miffed, and they probably would have felt cheated.  That’s how I felt towards 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE.

All this being said, I still enjoyed 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, although it’s nowhere near as good a movie as CLOVERFIELD.

It is suspenseful, though, as it plays more like an Alfred Hitchcock movie than a horror movie.  Is this bad?  Not at all, but again, it works against the expectations generated by the CLOVERFIELD name.

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is a decent thriller, but it’s not CLOVERFIELD, nor is it related to it in any way shape or form.  And when your namesake is one of the finest giant monster movies ever made, the fact that you share no connection to it, is definitely not something worth celebrating.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: ALIEN VS. PREDATOR (2004)

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This IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column on ALIEN VS. PREDATOR (2004) originally appeared in the HWA NEWSLETTER in March 2008.  It’s being reprinted this month in the March 2016 edition of the HORROR WRITERS ASSOCIATION NEWSLETTER.

Enjoy!

—Michael

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In the tradition of FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943) and KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1963), we have ALIEN VS. PREDATOR (2004).

I hate to admit it, but I like ALIEN VS. PREDATOR.  Here’s why.

The number one reason? It’s the monsters, stupid.  For those of us who love our movie monsters, it’s hard not to like a film like ALIEN VS. PREDATOR.  That’s not to say the film doesn’t have flaws.  It does.

The story is simple.  A group of experts make an expedition to the Antarctic in search of a strange underground pyramid.  While there,  they discover a breeding ground and learn that the predators are breeding the aliens for hunting practice.  Of course, to breed the aliens, the predators need humans to serve as hosts.  Nice vacation spot.

By far, this plot point of the relationship between the predators and the aliens is the worst part of the movie.  The first time these creatures meet it should have been something special.  We the audience should have been privy to it, but we’re not.  Imagine if in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1963) the filmmakers revealed that these two behemoths had already met, frequently, and that Godzilla uses King Kong for target practice on a regular basis.  Would you still want to watch the movie?  It just wouldn’t be the same.

It’s a major blemish on the screenplay by Paul W.S. Anderson, who also directed.

Still, it doesn’t ruin the entire movie, and to his credit, director Anderson does craft a neat first meeting between a predator and an alien in this movie.  It’s just that we know through the story that these creatures have met before, and so, much of the zing of what is to follow is lost.

Even so, the battle sequences are still entertaining, but oh what could have been.  Director Paul W.S. Anderson does a good job for the most part helming these cinematic monster battles, which at the very least are not boring.

And the film looks good.  The shots in the icy Antarctic bring to mind John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982), and the special effects aren’t that bad either.

Absent from the film however is the gripping suspense from the earlier ALIEN movies, though this isn’t a complete surprise because the suspense was also absent from the previous two ALIEN installments, ALIEN 3 (1992) and ALIEN RESURRECTION (1997).

The cast is pretty good though.  I enjoyed the lead character (Sanaa Lathan).  Nathan turns in a strong performance, in keeping with the ALIEN tradition of having a strong female lead, taking over the job from Sigourney Weaver.  She gets to say such tough gal lines as “When I lead my team, I don’t ever leave my team,” and “We’re in the middle of a war.  It’s time to pick a side.”  And did I mention she looks good?

The rest of the cast is OK, even though Lance Henriksen, a fine actor who appeared in ALIENS (1986) and ALIEN 3 (1992) is somewhat of a disappointment.  Compare Henriksen’s performance in this film to his performance in ALIENS as the android Bishop, and you’ll find that Henriksen showed more range as the android than as a human.

But who are we kidding?  ALIEN VS. PREDATOR is about the monsters, not the people, and there are plenty of monsters in this movie.  For this reason alone, it’s fun.

All in all, ALIEN VS. PREDATOR is a well-produced and well-acted film that in spite of its flaws, satisfies that hunger which those of us  who love movie monsters all share, a hunger for monsters.

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And remember, if you enjoyed this column, you can read 150 of my IN THE SPOOKLIGHT columns in my book, IN THE SPOOKLIGHT.  It’s available as an Ebook at http://www.neconebooks.com, and if you’d like a print edition, just visit the “About” section of this blog for ordering details.

Thanks!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE HORROR JAR: JOHN CARPENTER/KURT RUSSELL MOVIES

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Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we look at lists about horror movies.  Up today:  John Carpenter/Kurt Russell movies.  Yup, a look at the movies in which horror master John Carpenter directed former child star turned action hero Kurt Russell.

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ELVIS (1979)

Directed:  John Carpenter

Screenplay:  Anthony Lawrence

Elvis Presley:  Kurt Russell

Gladys Presley:  Shelley Winters

Vernon Presley:  Bing Russell

Priscilla Presley:  Season Hubley

Music:  Joe Renzetti

Running Time:  150 minutes

Yup, the first time Carpenter and Russell worked together was on the made-for-TV movie about the life of Elvis Presley.  Pretty good bio pic, and Russell makes for a very good Elvis.  Interestingly, Elvis’ father Vernon Presley is played by Russell’s real life dad Bing Russell, and Elvis’ wife Priscilla Presley was played by Russell’s real life wife at the time, Season Hubley.  All in the family, I guess.

 

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981)

Director:  John Carpenter

Screenplay:  John Carpenter and Nick Castle

Snake Plissken: Kurt Russell

Hauk:  Lee Van Cleef

Cabbie:  Ernest Borgnine

Maggie:  Adrienne Barbeau

Brain:  Harry Dean Stanton

The Duke:  Isaac Hayes

President: Donald Pleasence

Music:  John Carpenter and Alan Howarth

Running Time:  99 minutes

snake plissken

Carpenter’s next movie after his horror hits HALLOWEEN (1978) and THE FOG (1980).  Not really well received upon its initial release, this dark action thriller has nonetheless aged well.  Actually, looking back, Carpenter clearly was a victim of his own success.  After his megahit and masterpiece HALLOWEEN, Carpenter made three straight quality films:  THE FOG (1980), ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) and THE THING (1982).  All three were panned by critics at the time, yet today they are regarded as some of the finest genre films of the past 40 years. In fact, for some, his version of THE THING is the best horror movie ever.

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK was a milestone film for Kurt Russell, pretty much the movie that broke him out of his previous persona as being a teen actor in Disney movies.  Carpenter wrote the role of Snake Plissken for Clint Eastwood, and when Russell got the part, he played the role with Eastwood in mind.

Fun film, with yet another quality music score by director Carpenter.  It’s nearly as good as his HALLOWEEN score.

 

THE THING (1982)

Director:  John Carpenter

Screenplay:  Bill Lancaster, based on the story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr.

Macready:  Kurt Russell

Blair:  Wilford Brimley

Childs:  Keith David

Nauls:  T.K. Carter

Palmer:  David Clennon

Dr. Copper:  Richard Dysart

Garry:  Donald Moffat

Music:  Ennio Morricone

Running Time:  109 minutes

Critically panned when it first came out in 1982, Carpenter’s THE THING is now regarded as a horror/science fiction classic.  For many horror film buffs it’s their favorite horror movie of all time.  A flop at the box office, it left my local theater within a week and I was not able to see it.  I caught it several months later when it appeared on something called a”VHS cassette.”  Yes, it was 1983 and the VHS age was just beginning.  I wasn’t the only one who saw it on home video.  Suddenly everyone I knew was talking about THE THING, and it’s a film that since then has never looked back.

Kurt_Russell_and_1982_The_Thing

Kurt Russell is excellent as Macready, in effect reprising his Snake Plissken tough guy persona, this time going up against a deadly alien monster from outer space.  Very scary flick, with gross-out special effects that were considered unspeakably over-the-top and tasteless back in 1982.  Now they’re regarded as some of the best effects of their time.

Curious, Carpenter did not provide the music for this one, as that honor went to composer Ennio Morricone, who’s responsible for the chilling score for this shocker.

 

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

Director:  John Carpenter

Screenplay:  Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein

Jack Burton:  Kurt Russell

Gracie Law:  Kim Cattrall

Music:  John Carpenter and Alan Howarth

Running Time:  99 minutes

Silly action adventure has its fans.  I’m not one of them.  Kurt Russell and Kim Cattrall run afoul of Chinese gangs, martial arts, and the supernatural.  Mostly played for laughs.

 

ESCAPE FROM L.A. (1996)

Director:  John Carpenter

Screenplay:  John Carpenter, Debra Hill, and Kurt Russell

Snake Plissken:  Kurt Russell

Map To The Stars Eddie:  Steve Buscemi

Pipeline:  Peter Fonda

President:  Cliff Robertson

Cmmdr. Malloy:  Stacy Keach

Music:  John Carpenter and Shirley Walker

Running Time:  101 minutes

Forgettable sequel to ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK finds Snake Plissken this time getting into trouble in L.A. in an effort to once again help the U.S. government which once more seems to be the last thing Plissken really wants to be doing.

There you have it, the list of movies pairing director John Carpenter and actor Kurt Russell.  My two favorites are clearly ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) and THE THING (1982).

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

UNDER THE SKIN (2013) Will Get Under Yours

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Blu-ray Review:  UNDER THE SKIN (2013)undertheskin poster

by

Michael Arruda

If you enjoy weird artistically-driven movies filled to the brim with neat visuals and creative camerawork, you’ll love UNDER THE SKIN (2013) a thought-provoking science fiction film by writer-director Jonathan Glazer. On the other hand, if you prefer mainstream movies with straightforward storylines and traditional story-telling techniques, you might find yourself reaching for the remote.

UNDER THE SKIN is not the kind of movie you’ll find playing at your mainstream multiplex. This is a good thing, and if you’re patient and willing to go the distance, you’ll be rewarded with a satisfying movie experience that is more intellectually challenging than most.

UNDER THE SKIN stars Scarlett Johansson as a mysterious woman stalking the streets of Scotland in search of men and leading them to an unfortunate fate. She drives around Scotland in a van picking up these young men, and she brings them back to a rather unusual house where—well, to avoid giving anything away, let’s just say that these men don’t return.

Who is this strange woman?  Is she an alien?  A robot?  A serial killer? The film never really says, although since this movie is based on a novel about an alien, it’s a safe bet that she’s not from this planet.

As she continues abducting young men, she becomes cognizant of what she is doing, and she experiences an emotional epiphany which alters her actions and ultimately changes her fate.

UNDER THE SKIN is beautifully photographed by director Jonathan Glazer.  He uses the contrast between light and dark brilliantly.  Rather than rely on traditional dialogue to move the narrative along, Glazer prefers the use of images and camera techniques to tell his story. It all works.  While things might not always be clear at first, everything in this movie eventually makes sense.

UNDER THE SKIN also has a phenomenal music score by Mica Levi.  It’s weird and very horror movie-like, yet it complements the film wonderfully.

The screenplay by director Glazer and Walter Campbell based on a novel by Michel Faber succeeds in telling a story without relying solely on words.  In fact, there is very little dialogue in this movie.

One of the best sequences in the film is when the woman picks up a man suffering from neurofibromatosis, and it’s in this scene where we see her really begin to evolve as a thinking being.

When she seduces the men, she places them in a sort of hypnotic state, which is so effective she nearly hypnotizes the viewer as well.  Watching her seduce these men is truly a hypnotic experience, and the way it occurs on screen, it’s pretty cool.

Scarlett Johansson is to be applauded for playing a role that is far from traditional.  She speaks very little dialogue, and like the rest of the movie, a lot of what she is doing and what she is all about has to be inferred, but it’s all there.  You just have to pay attention.

I really liked UNDER THE SKIN.  I completely bought into its artistic vision of storytelling, for the simple reason that director Jonathan Glazer covers all bases and makes sure that in spite of the obscure scenes and nontraditional way of filming, that everything you need to know for it all to make sense is there.

This is a tale of some sort of alien race preying on humans for some form of sustenance, and how one alien, the one played by Johansson, develops an awareness of what she is doing and seems to make the connection that the beings she is devouring are not cattle but highly developed creatures.  She seems to almost want to become human at one point, to share in the human experience, and it’s this desire which ultimately puts her at odds with her superiors

Does everything about it work?  No.  As a writer, I would have enjoyed a bit more dialogue, but that being said, I am not complaining.  And as much as I loved the visual style of this movie, I found that at 108 minutes it was a bit long for a movie with this kind of pacing.  I did get a bit restless during the final 30 minutes or so.

But these are small matters.

As a whole I liked UNDER THE SKIN a lot.

In the mood for a science fiction film that will not insult your intelligence, but on the contrary will make you think long after it’s over, and that tells its tale not so much with words but with images, camera angles, uses of light and dark, and music?

Then check out UNDER THE SKIN.

Its title is true.  It’ll get under your skin.

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