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Comic Tales: Superman IV - The Quest for Peace May 16, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Science Fiction, Comic Book , 3 comments

Christopher Reeve’s reign as The Man of Steel comes to a rather ignominious end with this, his fourth outing. Not that Reeve is bad, in fact he clearly still had a lot of affection for the character, and the basic idea is a good one - Superman taking on an almost godlike role in order to save mankind from itself – it’s the execution that lets it down.

Sidney J. Furie was once a director with talent, producing, amongst others, The Ipcress File, here though he displays none of the flare he once showed. The Quest for Peace is the work of a talentless hack, the Superhero equivalent of Plan 9 from Outer Space but without that films charm. Superman decides to rid the world of nuclear weapons and the world governments (and I mean ALL of them) say “gee thanks Mr Superman, without you to throw the nasty bombs into the sun we’d never have thought of getting rid of them”.

Rather than pit Superman against the world’s leaders, the filmmakers give us, once again, Gene Hackman as comedy villain, Lex Luthor. The problem is he’s just not funny anymore. Batman, Spider-Man, and The X-Men all get new villains in each new outing but it’s like Superman has only got one bad guy. Someone should really buy the producers of the Superman films some comics, after all Bryan Singer continued this preoccupation with the bald headed master of menace in Superman Returns.

Luthor isn’t the only villain though, but the less said about  Nuclear Man the better. Played by Yorkshireman Mark Pillow (with voice provided by Hackman) he looks like he’d be more at home in Spinal Tap. He does provided the funniest scene in the film though, flying off into space with Mariel Hemingway. Even little kids know there’s no air in space but apparently Hollywood filmmakers don’t.

It’s little wonder the franchise stalled for almost twenty years after this travesty, with Superman finding success on the small screen in the intervening years with Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Smallville. Maybe Last Son of Krypton isn’t cut-out for the bog screen.

Comic Tales: Fantastic Four April 17, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Science Fiction, Comic Book , 3 comments

Anyone expecting the serious minded superheroics of X-Men, or the angst-ridden thrills of Spider-Man would perhaps have been a bit disappointed by Fantastic Four, but for me it does a decent job of capturing the fun tone of the original comic. The X-Men are outcasts from humanity, Spider-Man is a masked vigilante who does what he does out of guilt over the death of his Uncle Ben, the FF on the other hand are public figures, they don’t hide their identities behind masks, they’re celebrities and the film portrays them as such, or rather there evolution to celebrity status following the accident that gives them their powers.

The film’s heart may be in the right place, but its casting is a hit and miss affair. First the misses - Ioan Gruffudd as Reed Richards/Mr Fantastic and Jessica Alba as Sue Storm/Invisible Woman. Gruffudd lacks the presence for Reed Richards, the part calls for someone who can command the screen, whereas when Gruffudd’s with the other three he’s the last one you look at.

I like Jessica Alba, she’s undeniably beautiful and a capable enough actress given a part that plays to her strengths, said strengths not including playing a technobabbleing scientist. The film tries to get around this by that old standby when depicting intelligent characters – have her wear specs. Sadly this ruse doesn’t work, and Alba only gets to make an impression in the scene where she suddenly becomes visible in her undies. That she and Gruffudd have little onscreen chemistry doesn’t help matters.

Still, if half of the four miss the mark, the others makes up for it. Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm/The Thing is the grumpy old man of the team, tortured by his disfigured appearance and the fact that, unlike the others, he can’t turn his power on and off at will. Yet for all his soul searching Grimm is the source of much of the films (and comics) humour, and Chiklis gets the balance right between tortured monster and comedy ogre.

It’s Chris Evans though who steals the film, could there be a more perfect actor to play Johnny Storm/Human Torch? The Torch is the one member of the team who relishes his new powers right from the start and Evans shows us that youthful exuberance and recklessness. He’s the member of the team the audience can best identify with; after all wouldn’t it be cool to have superpowers? Evans and Chiklis work well together, far better than Gruffudd and Alba, and do a credible job of bringing one of comics great double acts to the screen, in fact it’s their relationship that captures the essence of the source material best.

Julian McMahon, as the villainous Victor von Doom, doesn’t feel quite right. The character is far removed from the tyrannical despot of the comics, being instead a superpowered executive with a strop on, while the scorned lover subplot between him and Alba does nothing to strengthen either character. Plus I’ve always though of Doom as having a European accent but McMahon goes for an American accent (at least I think it’s meant to be American, although there are times he may be trying for English).

The film has a couple of decent action sequences but never really sets the screen alight. Even the climax is a little underwhelming, just when you think we’re going to get a real superhero/villain donnybrook its game over.  Of course this is partially down to budget, with the film costing half what Spider-Man 2 did, but I think it’s also due to the lack of experience and talent of the director, Tim Story. He may be an enthusiastic comic fan but he’s not a great action director.

For all it’s faults Fantastic Four is an entertaining film, one that occupies that middle ground of comic book movies – between classics like Spider-Man 2 and X2 and stinkers like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

I Spy: The Spy with My Face April 15, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, TV Reviews, Action, Thriller, Science Fiction , 3 comments

Evil organisation THRUSH (the series never explained what the acronym stands for) attempts to infiltrate UNCLE (that one stands for “United Network Command for Law and Enforcement”) by replacing their top agent, Napoleon Solo, with a doppelganger. There aim is to crack an operation codenamed “The August Affair”, and get their hands on Project Earthsave, a top secret energy source.

Unlike Flint and Helm, The Man from UNCLE series played it (relatively) straight, at least it did until its third season. This “movie” is really a couple of first season episodes cobbled together, along with some extra footage that was a bit too risqué for television at the time. The film holds together relatively well considering, although it does plod a little in the middle. The series and these spin-off films would get better as the series found its feet. The villains improved as well, with some big name guest stars making an appearance. Here all we get is Senta Berger, who, while certainly not unpleasant to look at, isn’t particularly threatening.

Still at least Mr Smooth, Robert Vaughn, is on hand. Snappy dresser, seducer of beautiful women and no slouch when it comes to mixing it up with the bad guys, Napoleon Solo is America’s answer to James Bond and Vaughn is the perfect choice to play him. Here he also gets to play his double but doesn’t really get to have much fun being evil as he’s just pretending to be the real Solo.

David McCallum’s Illya Kuryakin also seemed the more professional of the two, less inclined to let his libido lead him into trouble. Kuryakin must have felt a little inferior next to Solo but McCallum makes him the more likable of the two. You might want to be Solo but you’d rather have Kuryakin for a buddy.

Rounding out the regulars is Leo G. Carroll as Mr Waverly, UNCLE’s answer to M. He doesn’t really have much to do here, other than send Solo on his way but then that’s pretty much the nature of the role, just as it is with M in the Bond films.

With no sign of the complete series being released on DVD in the UK, and only available from Time Life in the USA (who won’t ship outside American) the only choice for UNCLE fans wanting a super-spy fix is the Region 2 box set containing five of the eight feature film versions. The film of the pilot, To Trap a Spy, isn’t included in the set, with things kicking off with this, the second movie, instead. It’s not vintage Man from UNCLE but it has some entertaining moments, with Vaughn and McCallum getting to grips with their characters. They’d become a better double act later on though.

SF & Fantasy Sunday: Battlefield Earth April 13, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Science Fiction , add a comment

It’s one thing to read how bad a film is but until you actually experience it first hand it’s hard to appreciate just how truly awful it can be. Case in point Battlefield Earth, a film that scores a measly 2.3 and ranks at number 89 in the IMDb Bottom 100 films and gets just 3% on Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer. Yet those figures don’t prepare you for just how bad this is, it’s a galactic sized turkey, the sort of film even Alan Smithee wouldn’t want his name on.

It starts out innocently enough; humanity’s last few survivors have reverted to little more than barbarism, a bit like one of those cheap ‘80s Italian Mad Max knockoffs. Everyone has scruffy clothes, dreadlocked hair and perfectly made-up faces (particularly Sabine Karsenti). It’s all a bit silly but no worse than many other films I’ve seen. Thinks reach a whole other level of crap though with the arrival of John Travolta and the other eight feet tall Psychloians, an alien race that has taken over the earth in order to steal its natural resources, primarily gold. Quite why these intergalactic thieves have such a need for gold is never really explained, but that’s just one of the many holes in the story and doesn’t come close to our intrepid survivors being able to learn how to fly jets after a go in a flight simulator.

Thankfully Travolta provides a few (unintentional) laughs, with his greedy Terl played with the sort of evil menace usually reserved for pantomime dames. Travolta has always been an actor for whom the word restraint holds little interest and in this, his vanity project based on Scientology guru L. Ron Hubbard’s novel, he’s given free rain to be as over the top as he wants. Forest Whitaker, by comparison, just looks embarrassed, I doubt he ever thought he’d win an Oscar after this, in fact he was probably worried he’d ever work again.

Travolta is only funny for so long though and, at two hours, the film goes way beyond that point. With a budget exceeding $70 million you expect to see some decent special effects but there’s nothing here that suggests that kind of moola, perhaps it was siphoned off to build a new Scientology temple. What we do get is a few ships zipping about, some explosions and the alien’s dome being destroyed, none of which is very awe inspiring.

This is a BAD film that all concerned should be embarrassed by, particularly John “rat brain” Travolta.

Comic Tales: Superman III April 10, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Comedy, Action, Science Fiction, Comic Book , 1 comment so far

With Superman II we got a blend of two visions - Richards Donner and Lester - and while the finished article wasn’t perfect it was certainly an entertaining ride. With Superman III we got the full undiluted Richard Lester and oh boy, was it bad.

Lester must have misunderstood when Ilya Salkind asked him to make a comic movie and made a comedy movie instead. How else do you explain Richard Pryor as one of the films villains? Or a credit sequence that’s akin to Benny Hill (and even features Bob Todd!)? The juvenile comedy runs throughout the film but the laughs are few and far between.

Of course Lester isn’t completely to blame, he was after all hired by Ilya Salkind, and it’s Salkind who’s responsible for the lower budget which doesn’t just mean special effects that are a lot less special, but a cut price cast as well. Why pay Gene Hackman a small fortune when you can get Robert Vaughn to play virtually the same part for a fraction of the cost? And while you’re at it why not do away with Valerie Perrine in favour of Pamela Stephenson? Margot Kidder not happy as Lois? Cut her part down to a cameo and introduce Annette O’Toole as Lana Lang to provide another love interest for Clark Kent, that’ll show Kidder she’s not indispensible. In every sense this is a budget Superman, an attempt to milk a little more money out of the Superman cash-cow.

Richard Pryor is painfully unfunny throughout the film; he’s so bad I almost wanted to stop watching to save him further embarrassment. Pryor was always a bit hit and miss though, so it’s perhaps not too surprising how bad he is here. Robert Vaughn does Luthor-lite, accentuating the silliness and cutting back on the menace (which is a shame as he could have made a good villain). Stephenson may as well have been grown from Perrine’s cells and any hint that there may be more to her character stays undeveloped.

Still there is one bright spot in the shape of Annette O’Toole. Her Lana Lang is a breath of fresh air after the bossy, rude and self-centred Lois. Here we have someone we can believe Clark could fall for. If the film had focused a little more on them and less on Pryor it would have been a better movie (not a good one, but better).

Instead we have Superman facing off against a super-computer for a tension free exercise in cheap special effects and panto-villany. Could things get any worse for The Man of Steel?  Well Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was only a few years away.

SF & Fantasy Sunday: THX 1138 March 31, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Science Fiction , 4 comments

George Lucas tries to fool the viewer into thinking this is art but art usually has heart behind it and this is a fairly shallow exercise that dresses up old ideas in new clothes, it’s Orwell’s 1984 bleached white. The idea of Lucas railing against a society that programs its citizens to be consumers is, these days, pretty ironic, this is the guy who makes Gordon Gekko look like a charity worker. Add a little to one line in the film and you pretty much get Lucas’ ideal world –

“Let us be thankful we have commerce. Buy more. Buy more Star Wars DVDs now. Buy. And be happy.”

You can guess what I added I think. And he may well have said this one to Spielberg about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

“Remember, thrifty thinkers are always under budget.”

Am I being a bit hard on Lucas? Probably but I’ve given this film a try twice now, once when I was much younger and now in its shiny new Director’s Cut form (actually the DVD cover proclaims it The George Lucas Director’s Cut as if we were expecting someone else’s). That first time I could put my dislike down to the fact it lacked the bells and whistles I wanted from my science fiction back when I was in my teens, this time though I’m older and more open to an intelligent piece of SF, but spending ninety minutes watching Lucas do the directorial equivalent of navel gazing while wasting the talents of two fine actors is not my idea of fun.

If you’ve never seen THX 1138 my advise is pick up 1984 instead, the Peter Cushing TV version if you can find it but failing that the film. You’ll find just as much thought and much less pretension.

Comic Tales: Superman II February 1, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Science Fiction, Comic Book , 2 comments

The problem with Superman is that he’s Superman. He’s almost omniscient and it’s hard to find a worthy challenge for him. Superman II manages it by pitting him against three Kryptonian villains, each with powers equal to his own.

When I first saw Superman II at the cinema I thought it a better film than the original. As a fifteen year old comic geek it had what the first film lacked, namely super villains. For the first time we got to see a real Superhero vs. Supervillain knock-down-drag-out fight. There were faults – the romance with Margot Kidder never really worked for me (and still doesn’t) and Superman’s mum lying to him that, after choosing to become human, he can never go back, was always a pretty big plot hole.

The forty-three year old comic geek who just watched the film still loves the fight scenes (although some of the effects seem a little less special than they used to) and Terence Stamp and Sarah Douglas are still excellent bad guys (even if General Zod does go a bit Cockney at times, particularly the TV broadcast from the White House).

Now though I can also see the faults – sllly comedy moments and some ropy dubbing (how many characters does Shane Rimmer voice?), Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor completely superfluous to the plot, too little Ned Beatty, E.G. Marshall’s atrocious wig. Plus the whole Superman becoming human (for all of about five minutes) subplot isn’t really needed. The film runs over two hours, not as long as the first film, but then that had to tell the origin story, with Superman not making an appearance until an hour into the film. Superman II could have been trimmed by about thirty minutes and not lost anything of importance.

I’ve yet to see the Richard Donner cut of the film, I’ve got it lined up for a future “Comic Tales”, but I’ll be interested to see if it improves on Richard Lester’s version. Hopefully it excises come of the more overt comedy elements.

SF & Fantasy Sunday: The Big Empty January 28, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Drama, Science Fiction , add a comment

Aiming for the cool indie weirdness of Repo Man, The Big Empty comes up way short. Its title is half right though, the film isn’t big but it certainly is empty.

To go into the details of the plot would be pointless, it’s both convoluted and at the same time vacuous. It feels like writer/director Steve Anderson woke up one morning and decided to write the most outlandish tale he could just for the sake of it. The film is populated by oddball characters from an FBI agent/frustrated actor to a cowboy clad serial killer but none of it has any real point.

Some of the performances aren’t bad, Kelsey Grammer has fun playing it straight as the FBI man and Sean Bean gets a dry run for The Hitcher as an English cowboy nutjob. But it’s all just wasted effort in a film as pointless as this.

The best thing about the film (by a long, long way) is the soundtrack, with both the songs (from Lazy Lester and John Lee Hooker amongst others) and Brian Tyler’s score providing more pleasure than anything in the film. This is one DVD that should have had a music only track.

SF & Fantasy Sunday: The Quiet Earth January 6, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Science Fiction , add a comment

You wake up and find that everyone has disappeared, that’s the premise of this New Zealand science fiction classic. Bruno Lawrence is Zac Hobson, the man who finds himself seemingly alone, is he the only man on the planet and is the Project Flashlight he was working on somehow responsible?

The answer to the first part of that question is no, as he finds first a woman, played by Alison Routledge, and then a Maori man, portrayed by Pete Smith. The answer to the rest of the question depends on your interpretation of the film. One thing is abundantly clear and that’s the moral of the film. This is a parable for the dangers of nuclear war, of playing god with nature and of the individual’s responsibility for his actions. It’s also interesting to note that it’s the American’s, the country really behind project Flashlight, who are the bad guys, withholding information on the nature of the experiment. You almost expect the USA to be the bogeyman in modern movies (particularly foreign ones) due to there questionable foreign policy but to see them as the bad guys in a film that’s over twenty years old, at a time when the Soviet Union were still the villains of choice, is a tad surprising.

For all it’s moralising though this is a small scale drama with an epic background. At its heart is a love triangle between these three survivors with the film building up the characters gradually. For the first third we have Lawrence going off his head as he not only thinks he’s alone, but that he’s partly responsible for the end of the human race. It’s this one man show section that’s the strongest part of the film, Lawrence giving a powerful performance that’s at times very funny but also deeply moving.

The second act deals with his relationship with Joanne (Routledge) and their search for other survivors. The film loses some of its power here, with the sense of isolation, so strong in the first part, now far less prominent. There’s a big difference between being completely alone and being alone with an attractive woman. Things hot up in the final third with the introduction of Api (Smith) with the two men in competition for the lone woman’s affections. Will she choose the intellectual Zac or the physical Api?

The film’s conclusion solves that problem and leaves the viewer with more questions than answers, but then the best science fiction usually does. It’s the kind of film that rewards repeat viewings and it’s “don’t fuck with nature” message is as relevant today as it’s ever been.

Deserving special mention is John Charles, who’s score really helps add an epic quality to the film, never more evident than in the final scene.

The Friday Night Fright: The Last Man on Earth January 5, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Horror, Science Fiction , add a comment

With I Am Legend currently in cinemas and, inexplicably, breaking box office records, now seemed like a good time to revisit the first, and still the best, version of Richard Matheson’s classic novel.

With a budget that was probably less than a third of what the dog in I Am Legend got paid (inflation adjusted of course) this American financed and Italian shot film manages to create more tension, more suspense and more emotion than the mega budget Will Smith starrer could even dream of. For example it’s far more effective to have Neville, or Morgan as he’s renamed here, confront his dead wife when she returns from the grave than have her die in some unnecessary CGI explosion. The big bang may look more impressive but that’s just superficial gloss. The Last Man on Earth isn’t glossy, for one thing it couldn’t afford to be, but it works on a gut level that’s far truer to the original story.

I have to admit I was a bit surprised by Will Smith’s performance, he does surprisingly well (with the exception of the Bob Marley scene) even if he is miscast. I had feared we were in for a performance like I, Robot or, heaven forbid, Independence Day, instead he’s surprisingly restrained. He can’t hold a candle to Vincent Price though.

Price was a great actor but often given to hammy performances, almost always entertaining ones, but hammy nonetheless. Think of Corman’s Poe films, his two appearances as Dr. Phibes or Theatre of Death, they’re all over the top characterisations but Price was capable of much more. As Robert Morgan he gets to show the subtlety and an emotional depth that’s essential for the film to work. He’s onscreen for virtually the full running time and for much of it he’s alone yet he easily holds our attention. There’s a naturalness to him that’s a world away from the horror theatrics he’s famous for, whether scruffily tucking his shirt in or breaking down while watching home movies of his lost family he’s utterly convincing. I’d guess he relished the chance this film gave him to really act, something by this point in his career he was getting to do less and less.

The action scenes with the zombie-like vampires (or should that be vampire-lie zombies?) are nicely done. The night time siege scenes put me in mind of Night of the Living Dead, which this predates by four years, and I’d be surprised if George Romero hadn’t seen Last Man before making that zombie cinema milestone. But it’s Price’s visits to the mass funeral pyre that are the creepiest moments in the film.

Richard Matheson was part responsible for the script, hiding behind the name Logan Swanson as he was unhappy with changes that were made to it. Still it’s a more faithful adaptation than either I Am Legend or The Omega Man, so were he asked today perhaps Matheson wouldn’t be as dissatisfied with the film.

Now a question – who directed the film? Was it Sidney Salkow who gets credited on the DVD or was it Ubaldo Ragona who apparently appears on the credits of Italian prints? Or was it a bit of both? What’s the story behind the film’s production that resulted in two directors getting credited in different territories? Hopefully someone out there knows the answer.

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