Sci-Fi

Deep Blue Sea (1999, Renny Harlin)

Deep Blue Sea is ten years too late. I knew the movie was about genetically modified sharks gone wild but the people are also stranded at the bottom of the ocean in a habitat thing. Deep Blue Sea isn’t just an amped-up Jaws movie with terrible CGI and a lousy cast, it’s a postscript in the great Leviathan, The Abyss, DeepStar Six sea monster cohort—wait, I just read there are actually even more 1989 sea monster movies. Three more. Wow.

I wonder if any of them are better than Deep Blue Sea, which lacks distinction and is rather predictably bad. The lousy shark attacks necking Abercrombie models opener sets the stage. It even establishes there are going to be composition issues throughout, as director Harlin and cinematographer Stephen F. Windon went Super 35 (which just means the shots are cropped from 4:3 to 2.35:1); I’m not sure if every single close-up in the movie is a bad shot but at least–on the conservative side… ninety-two percent of them are bad shots. Harlin doesn’t do a lot of close-ups, just like when it seems like Jaws would use a close-up. Deep Blue Sea is very much a poorly written, low budgeted Jaws and Jurassic Park mash-up not directed by Steven Spielberg but a very Spielberg-influenced Harlin. To give Harlin some benefit of the doubt. Because besides the sound design, which is awesome and significantly better than the lousy CGI explosions it accompanies, and maybe how impressively Trevor Rabin mimics John Williams and Danny Elfman, there’s nothing good about Deep Blue Sea. There are more worse things and less worse things. There are also sad things. Lots and lots of sad, bad things. And like one good practical shark model. Deep Blue Sea is a failing postscript to that 1989 sea monster club too; it doesn’t even try with its sharks. It’s always CGI. Deep Blue Sea is from that era of CGI where everyone thought it’d be cool to have a crappy CGI helicopter flying around. Usually the same CGI helicopter model too.

All the CGI-assisted shark attacks and structural disasters aside, the movie’s a fail simply because it’s not camp. First act lead, Saffron Burrows approaches the part like an audition for a daytime soap bitchy British lady part, which has some camp potential but no one goes for it. Burrows can’t because she’s godawful, but Harlin either doesn’t see it or wants to avoid it. The script avoids camp too, it wouldn’t work well with the Crichton-sized self-delusion. Burrows eventually just becomes a prop—there’s a really creepy Ripley underwear homage, which kind of sums up the film perfectly—as she’s revealed to have violated the “Harvard Compact,” which doesn’t even sound real in the movie, to genetically modify the sharks, something none of her colleagues know about but is utterly obvious because anytime Burrows talks about her father dying from Alzheimer’s and shark brains being the only solution, she’s really intense and really, really bad. Harlin tends to go to close-up, which is too bad because it’s kind of funny seeing the actors standing around perplexed as they shift from side to side during someone else’s exposition dump. Samuel L. Jackson does it best. Him or Stellan Skarsgård. Jackson’s not good because he’s like two caricatures put together; one’s the intrusive rich investor guy, the other’s the mountaineer who killed people who didn’t follow his orders. But he’s the most likable character in the movie because he’s not giving a peculiarly terrible performance. Jackson’s just not good because the part’s terrible, ditto Skarsgård. Burrows, Thomas Jane, Michael Rapaport, Jacqueline McKenzie, on the other hand… they’re not good because of their parts, sure, but they’re also each bad in some specific ways, as I mentioned above and will not repeat with Burrows.

Jane.

Thomas Jane is the Harrison Ford-type shark wrangler. He’s got a literal swimming with the sharks scene; you can tell some of the casting is because other actors said no to being in the water so much. Jane’s in the water a lot; underwater a lot. His performance is unformed clay. With very blond hair. He’s bad but you don’t get exasperated with him like some of the other cast. Well, actually everyone else except Jackson, Skarsgård, and Aida Turturro (as the sassy radio operator topside). Michael Rapaport gets tiring fast not because he’s so bad but because he’s trying so hard; he’s really enthusiastic about playing a smart engineer guy here. It’s awkward to watch. Harlin’s really bad at directing the actors. He wants to focus on the explosions—not even the sharks—and the script wants to focus on the characters in dramatic situations, which Harlin’s got no interest in or apparent ability to direct.

And then Jacqueline McKenzie; the whole reason I’ve wanted to see the movie. She’s got such a bland Americanized accent (she’s Australian) it has lost all affect.

Oh, and LL Cool J. He’s not bad. He’s not good, it’s not a good showcase of his acting, even though he’s got all these actorly moments in his part, an ex-preacher turned undersea chef. His solo adventure through the crisis pads the movie, which doesn’t have anywhere near enough story for a hundred and five minutes.

But then the end credits are like eight blissful minutes you get back.

Returned to life.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Renny Harlin; written by Duncan Kennedy, Donna Powers, and Wayne Powers; director of photography, Stephen F. Windon; edited by Derek Brechin, Dallas Puett, and Frank J. Urioste; music by Trevor Rabin; production designers, Joseph Bennett and William Sandell; costume designer, Mark Bridges; produced by Akiva Goldsman, Tony Ludwig, Don MacBain, and Alan Riche; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Thomas Jane (Carter Blake), Saffron Burrows (Dr. Susan McAlester), Samuel L. Jackson (Russell Franklin), Jacqueline McKenzie (Janice Higgins), Michael Rapaport (Tom Scoggins), Stellan Skarsgård (Jim Whitlock), LL Cool J (Preacher), Aida Turturro (Brenda Kerns), and Ronny Cox (The Old Man).


Fast Color (2018, Julia Hart)

Fast Color spends most its runtime saying it’s not a superhero movie—it’s just about people who happen to have superpowers—only for the third act to play like a low budget X-Men outing. And it’s not just the not-battle-in-the-streets battle-in-the-street resolution, it’s also how lead Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s character arc becomes all about her superpowers and not her returning to her abandoned home, abandoned mother (Lorraine Toussaint), and abandoned tween daughter (Saniyya Sidney). It’s also not about how Mbatha-Raw’s gotten sober—drugs help keep her out-of-control powers in check—or how the world hasn’t had rain in the last seven or eight years. There’s a lot going on in the world of Fast Color and director Hart does a great job showing its more mundane side—utilizing the limited budget well—but engaging with the superhero movie tropes after promising to avoid them… it doesn’t undue the work of the film through most of its runtime, but it does leave the potential unrealized.

For instance, just when Mbatha-Raw and Sidney could be really connecting, the film concentrates on the superpowers. And it doesn’t even go all the way with the superpowers. It doesn’t just not show them, it doesn’t show their effect on anyone, so it’s like they’re not even there. Sorry, Fast Color’s finish is about the only disappointing thing in the film (as it compounds the problems with Toussaint’s part). Hence the harping.

The film opens with Mbatha-Raw on the run. She’s got some kind of earthquake power, which she can’t control at all but she at least tries to mitigate the damage. Water is an expensive item because of the lack of rain fall, but there’s still booze, eggs, electricity, all sorts of things just no smartphones. The whole no more rain subplot is fine but doesn’t add anything to the film. It mostly ends up serving as a budget limiter; so fine. But just fine.

Pretty soon we discover nerdy government scientist Christopher Denham is after Mbatha-Raw but also she’s gotten to her hometown, which he doesn’t realize. So she goes to mom Toussaint’s farm, even though Mbatha-Raw’s never met Sidney and Sidney doesn’t have any expectation of ever meeting Mbatha-Raw and then Toussaint makes Mbatha-Raw sleep out in the barn because her powers are so out-of-control. The film never directly addresses how Mbatha-Raw’s terrible life, on the run but also before, instead focusing on what she can do to improve her footprint, which is fine because it centers itself around Sidney’s well-being. Mbatha-Raw’s motivations and thoughts play out in her expressions versus actions or dialogue. She’s haunted by flashback sequences too. Mbatha-Raw gives an excellent lead performance but her part isn’t really enough the lead as far as the plot goes.

Most of the film is about what’s going to happen without raising much expectation. David Strathairn plays the local sheriff who’s also on Mbatha-Raw’s trail, trying not to let Denham and the feds take his case. Given how much the film ends up leveraging Strathairn, at the expense of other characters (and their actors), it’d have been nice if Strathairn weren’t involved in one of Fast Colors big secrets. The film has a lot of big secrets—well, either secrets or lies, because Toussaint wants to keep Sidney sheltered. See, Toussaint and Sidney also have powers, but they’re not as potentially damaging or affecting as Mbatha-Raw’s. When Mbatha-Raw bonds with Sidney, it’s over the powers, which is weird but the acting’s good—Sidney’s phenomenal—so Color can do whatever it wants as long as it stays focused on the characters.

The end abandons that focus and… the film suffers.

Technically, the film’s outstanding. Save the occasionally too DV night time photography. Many of photographer Michael Fimognari’s night time shots are fantastic, but when there’s a lot of movement on the screen… it looks off. Martin Pensa’s editing is good, Rob Simonsen’s music is good, Hart’s direction is good… Fast Color’s got all the pieces—well, okay, not Denham (who’s way too eh)—the script just doesn’t quite get them assembled right at the end.

The film gives Mbatha-Raw a solid lead, Sidney an okay supporting showcase (Sidney could handle more), and Toussaint a disappointing one. The film utilizes her but doesn’t showcase her, which really hurts in the third act.

Fast Color’s successful without exactly being a success.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Julia Hart; written by Hart and Jordan Horowitz; director of photography, Michael Fimognari; edited by Martin Pensa; music by Rob Simonsen; production designer, Gae S. Buckley; produced by Horowitz, Mickey Liddell, and Pete Shilaimon; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Ruth), Lorraine Toussaint (Bo), Saniyya Sidney (Lila), Christopher Denham (Bill), and David Strathairn (Ellis).


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Logan’s Run (1976, Michael Anderson)

I wouldn’t say everyone does their best in Logan’s Run, but everyone does try. Farrah Fawcett does try in her scenes. You can see she’s trying. And for some reason director Anderson wants to make it painfully clear no matter how hard she tries, Fawcett’s going to be terrible. But at least Fawcett’s big moment comes right before Run finally gets interesting. Only takes it an hour.

In the 23rd century, the world is an irradiated wasteland. Within it lies a domed mega-city. Outside the dome, a cursed earth. Inside the dome, a paradise; every need is met, every desire granted; the only catch? No one lives past thirty. A master computer controls the civilization with population control and eugenics. It is not called execution, it is called renewal. Most people submit to this fate willingly, those who do not run a place called Sanctuary. Only one thing trying to keep them to fulfill their civic duty: the Sandmen.

Hopefully you enjoyed that paragraph because it’s basically better than everything in Logan’s Run except Peter Ustinov. Just mentioning Peter Ustinov in Logan’s Run ought to be a spoiler, but it’s not because he’s in the opening credits with an “as Old Man” character description too. Movie about no one living past thirty and we know “Old Man” Ustinov is going to play a part. We also think Roscoe Lee Browne is going to play a part, which is strange since he too is over thirty but he’s not actually in the movie because he’s Black and there aren’t any Black people who get lines in Logan’s Run. They don’t even show up until the last shot. It’s all White people. And they’re all idiots—it’s a shock when they can read; Run does a terrible job making the future seem possible for the kept humans. Everything’s perfect, but no one’s running it. Like the orgy place in the mall, who’s in charge of cleaning up the orgy place and hiring the custodial staff. Far more interesting story potential.

But one thing the future people understand pretty well is consent; it’s a big plot point when lead (and Sandman) Michael York orders up a booty call on “The Circuit” and gets Jenny Agutter, who was looking to hook up but not with a Sandman because a Sandman killed one of her friends early that night. It was, of course, York. But that detail doesn’t trouble Agutter for long because she’s kind of dumb. Just like everyone, even York and his best pal (and fellow Sandman), Richard Jordan. Until Ustinov shows up, Jordan gives the film’s best performance. He’s at least able to acknowledge his character. York can never acknowledge he’s playing a sadist. Jordan and York torture Agutter’s friend. They terrorize him and then murder him. And they have a great time doing it—Jordan’s a great sadist and York’s smiles are a lot more genuine than when he’s making kissy-face with Agutter.

So Run sets up its “hero” as this sadist himbo who accidentally gets assigned the most important case in the history of the Sandmen. It’s top secret—he’s got to try to run. And, wouldn’t you know it, Agutter knows all about the secret underground running network. She wants to help York because she thinks he’s swell, but will she ever want to hook up with him? And how would anyone tell when she made the decision one way or the other because Agutter and York have no chemistry. York’s okay playing the future executioner cop, but once he gets challenged with all Agutter’s hippie stuff, he dumbs down a lot, which makes no sense because the movie introduces all the hippie stuff when York’s talking to Jordan about it and Jordan tell’s York to shut up and stop thinking. Apparently York’s not really interested in the hippie stuff and gets scared and upset when Agutter talks about it.

Until his big assignment. Then it’s his job to know the hippie stuff. Logan’s Run has a really overly complicated first act for what just ends up being a chase movie. Jordan after the fugitives. All the future stuff is completely unimportant to the plot, even though director Anderson and screenwriter David Zelag Goodman pretend it’s going to factor into the plot. It doesn’t. Nothing figures into the plot. Except, eventually, Ustinov.

Ustinov’s awesome. He ought to make Logan’s Run worth watching. But not even he can manage that task.

Because even though everyone is trying, it’s not working. Anderson’s terrible with the special effects, which are sometimes less competent than other times. Ernest Laszlo’s bad at shooting the effects. Bob Wyman’s bad at editing them. York’s got this silly “future” gun, but it’s a crappy flare gun. Dale Hennesy’s production design is… wanting. But the sets are kind of great. They’re impressively rendered, anyway. Only the matte paintings are all godawful. Because Anderson doesn’t know how important they are. Or how to shoot them.

Then there’s Jerry Goldsmith’s “future groovy” score. It’s fairly godawful too.

But he’s trying something with it. Failing, but trying.

More than anything else, the movie hinges on York and Agutter and they’re terrible together. He’s mediocre, she’s bad, together they’re terrible. Kills the movie’s chances, awesome Ustinov or not, enthusiastic Jordan or not. Plus the third act is terrible.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Anderson; screenplay by David Zelag Goodman, based on the novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson; director of photography, Ernest Laszlo; edited by Bob Wyman; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Dale Hennesy; produced by Saul David; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Michael York (Logan), Jenny Agutter (Jessica), Richard Jordan (Francis), Roscoe Lee Browne (Box), Farrah Fawcett (Holly), Michael Anderson Jr. (Doc), and Peter Ustinov (Old Man).


Zone Troopers (1985, Danny Bilson)

The saddest thing about Zone Troopers is Biff Manard gives a fantastic performance and there’s no reason to see it. Nothing Manard could do would make Troopers worthwhile; it’s got so many problems—cast, direction, photography, editing, music, budget (though some of the effects are outstanding)—the thing is a wreck. With a few good ideas, a great performance, and a lot of derivative nonsense.

I got ahead of myself. I was being positive—the second saddest thing about Zone Troopers. When it has those good ideas, it can’t figure out how to execute them. You watch it, getting hopeful, then it fails and you don’t just get disappointed, you feel bad for the movie; you can tell what director Bilson (who co-wrote with producer Paul De Meo) and he just couldn’t figure out how to do it. Zone Troopers, visually, needs a lot of things—it needs cinematographer Mac Ahlberg to light sets better, it needs Bilson to figure out how to shoot his actors, and they need a crane. They really, really, really need a crane. The movie takes place in an Italian forest during WWII and there’s not a single good establishing shot in it. Not even when a crane would have helped. Bilson just can’t do it. He’s got maybe three creative shots and they’re not so much good or even better than the standard bland composition, but they’re creative. Someone thought about them. No one thinks about much in Zone Troopers.

If anyone did, Timothy Van Patten wouldn’t happen. Van Patten is the young guy in the movie. He’s the private, Art LaFleur is the corporal, “top-billed but should’ve had an the ‘and’ credit” Tim Thomerson is the sergeant, an atrocious John Leamer is the inept greenhorn lieutenant, and Manard is the wartime correspondent. LaFleur and Manard are definitely in the forties, Thomerson looks a little too old too, so for the battle scenes before the aliens show up, Zone Troopers basically looks like WWII reenactment with middle-aged men. Bilson’s direction doesn’t help with that feeling either.

Anyway, Van Patten is the young Italian kid who reads sci-fi magazines and talks all the time, especially in dangerous situations, and ignores Thomerson’s orders and almost gets everyone killed over and over again. Until the movie evens out a bit in the second act, the only thing Troopers has to keep one occupied is the hope Thomerson will just shoot Van Patten in the head for insubordination.

And Van Patten is objectively terrible. No one could watch what he was doing and think it was a good idea, not even in a movie where the script has commercial breaks in the second half, like Bilson and DeMeo were plotting a three or four-part cartoon… though it’d be a lot better as a three or four-part cartoon. Van Patten wouldn’t be in it.

The effects work is bad when it comes to the lasers and the humanoid aliens are silly, but the bug-monkey alien is at least a good suit and the script handles that character surprisingly well. Again, Bilson and DeMeo have some decent ideas, they’re just in the muck of bad performances and lifts from E.T., The Thing, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and… something else no doubt. They don’t have any lifts from Empire Strikes Back, which is weird because composer Richard Band rips off its score mercilessly. It and Raiders. Clearly likes his John Williams.

And if it’s not going to be a four-part cartoon pilot, Zone Troopers does seem much more like a Spielberg movie. Just an amateur one. A poorly directed and acted amateur one. With WWII re-enactors.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Danny Bilson; written by Bilson and Paul De Meo; director of photography, Mac Ahlberg; edited by Ted Nicolaou; music by Richard Band; production designer, Philip Dean Foreman; produced by De Meo; released by Empire Pictures.

Starring Tim Thomerson (The Sarge), Timothy Van Patten (Joey), Art LaFleur (Mittens), Biff Manard (Dolan), William Paulson (The Alien), Max Turilli (SS Sgt. Zeller), and John Leamer (The Lieutenant),


The Dark Tower (2017, Nikolaj Arcel)

The Dark Tower is the story of unremarkable white kid Tom Taylor–wait, he’s supposed to be eleven? No way. Anyway, it’s the story of unremarkable white teenager Tom Taylor who discovers, no, his visions are real and he is a wizard and he’s going to travel to another dimension and bring a legendary hero back to modern New York City. Once back they will battle to save the universe itself, thanks to the hero’s gunfighting abilities and the kid’s vague magical magicking.

Okay, well, it’s not actually vague magicking. Taylor’s got the Shining. You know, like in The Shining. When they tell him he’s got the Shining, you have to wonder how he got to be fifteen without seeing The Shining. Maybe because he’s supposed to be eleven.

Taylor’s dad died at some point before the movie starts so mom Katheryn Winnick has remarried. She went with astounding tool Nicholas Pauling, who wants Taylor out of there because papa lion? Maybe it’s because Taylor’s got problems–he draws visions of a mythic fantasy world, Idris Elba’s gunfighting hero, and Matthew McConaughey’s creepy man in black. Maybe they sent Taylor to the shrink for drawing pictures of Christopher Walken. At the start, it seems like McConaughey’s going to just do a Christopher Walken impression, which would be a lot better than what he ends up doing. The Walken impression would at least be amusing. Dark Tower is short on amusing.

Because Dark Tower is serious. Director Arcel plays it straight. The screenplay plays it straight. Taylor lives in a New York City infested with disguised demons but it’s still safe enough gun shops have zero security. And no one has cell phones. If Arcel had any personality in his direction, there’d be a possibility for this New York City. The sad thing about Dark Tower is all the missed opportunities. Because, even if it’s short on amusing and McConaughey isn’t as amusing as if he were aping Christopher Walken, none of the principal cast half-asses it. They’re just in an under-budgeted production. They hold together admirably.

Though it gets depressing watching Elba try to do acting while the film’s got no need for him to do any. The script’s got no need for him to do any. All the characters exist entirely through exposition, usually exposing about themselves to others. It’s a weak script. As pragmatic and unenthusiastic as Arcel’s direction gets, it’s nothing compared to the script. Junkie XL’s score does most of the heavy dramatic lifting, just because the script doesn’t have time for it. Of course, the script doesn’t have time for anything while it ought to be doing character development either. Sure, once Taylor gets to Fantasia, he immediately becomes fetching to the opposite sex and finds out he’s a wizard, but it’s not character development. It’s just setup for the finale. Sure, the film’s uninspired and disappointing, but it’s pragmatic as heck.

Taylor’s fine as the Boy Who Lived-lite. Elba’s… potentially good. He’s never near bad, but the part’s crap and Arcel’s got no time for acting. Arcel doesn’t even have time for McConaughey’s ostensible excesses as his evil, magical, maybe Satanic character. It might help if Elba and McConaughey–who have been nemeses for untold ages–had some chemistry. Elba can do lack of enthusiasm, but McConaughey phones it in during their handful of scenes together. Spellbinding acting it ain’t.

Dennis Haysbert and Jackie Earle Haley have glorified cameos. Haysbert is overly portentous but not embarrassing. Haley’s is embarrassing.

Technically, there’s nothing terrible. Rasmus Videbæk’s photography is fine. The special effects are all right. There’s not enough of them–either the budget limitations held back establishing shots or Arcel just doesn’t like them. Given his bland competence as a director, it seems more likely they’re budgetary omissions. There are a lot of budgetary omissions. They’re kind of Dark Tower’s thing–frequent, unexplained, inexcusable absences.

Because with what they had, the filmmakers should’ve been able to turn out a much better ninety-five minutes. The script’s the big problem. And Arcel does nothing to transcend it.

The worst thing about Tower is it actually does end up disappointing. The first half is riddled with problems and always seems absurdly unaware of itself in terms of being a knock-off Neverending Story, Princess Bride, and, I don’t know, Star Wars, but Taylor is sympathetic and compelling. Elba always seems like he’s eventually going to get some great scene. It’s just around the corner.

Only it’s not. A perfunctory ending is around the corner. Because the script, despite being low on ideas from the start, manages to run out of them as things move along.

It’s also–almost–too technically competent to be such narrative slop. Competencies aside, The Dark Tower is poorly written and badly produced. Those lacking qualities sink the picture further than it ought to sink.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Nikolaj Arcel; screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and Arcel, based on characters created by Stephen King; director of photography, Rasmus Videbæk; edited by Alan Edward Bell and Dan Zimmerman; music by Junkie XL; production designers, Christopher Glass and Oliver Scholl; produced by Goldsman, Ron Howard, and Erica Huggins; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tom Taylor (Jake), Idris Elba (Roland), Matthew McConaughey (Walter), Katheryn Winnick (Laurie), Nicholas Pauling (Lon), Claudia Kim (Arra), Dennis Haysbert (Steven), Jackie Earle Haley (Sayre), Fran Kranz (Pimli), Abbey Lee (Tirana), and José Zúñiga (Dr. Hotchkiss).


Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017, Rian Johnson)

The Last Jedi is a long two and a half hours. It’s an uneven split between Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, and John Boyega. Ridley’s off with Mark Hamill–but really having a FaceTime via the Force arc with Adam River–while Isaac is doing his damndest to get everyone killed because he doesn’t want to listen to women. Boyega starts with Isaac, then has a quest with Kelly Marie Tran. Boyega and Tran have the closest thing to character arcs. Isaac learns his lesson way too late and only because Carrie Fisher is so patient with him.

At the center of the film is not Ridley learning the ways of the Force from Hamill. Director Johnson avoids tackling that relationship, giving Hamill all his character development away from Ridley. It’s a waste of Hamill. There’s some effective homage with him, but nothing particularly sincere. Johnson–who wrote the script–seems to want nothing to do with the character.

As a result, most of Ridley’s time in the film is utterly wasted. Most meaning more than ninety-five percent. Her subplot with Driver doesn’t add up to anything. Especially since it gets resolved somewhere in the first of the film’s third acts. It basically has three of them.

Unlike the previous entry in Disney Star Wars, which repurposed the original Star Wars’s story beats, Last Jedi is a mix of Empire and Return of the Jedi, just reorganized. There’s enough content they could’ve split the movie in two and gotten more dramatic oompf out of it.

The stuff with Boyega and Tran completely lacks any subtlety and still ends up being the most effective of the film’s plot lines. Even though Johnson has a really hard time establishing Boyega at the start of the film, eventually the chemistry between the actors overcomes the rocky opening. Benicio Del Toro is the name cameo in that plot line and he’s fun. He’s painfully obvious, but he’s fun.

Meanwhile Isaac goes from ignoring Fisher’s orders to ignoring Laura Dern’s. The movie shafts Dern, redeeming her in a reveal and then it’s pretty much time for her to go. Fisher’s back. Johnson sidelines Fisher after giving her the film’s best “Force” sequence. There’s some visually interesting Dark Side stuff with Ridley–a throwback to Empire–but it ends up narratively inert like everything else Johnson does with Ridley. For all the film’s talk of heroes and legends, Johnson’s incredibly uncomfortable spending any time with them. You can only deconstruct Star Wars so much. In Last Jedi, Johnson wastes a bunch of time trying to do so.

Besides just being long and meandering because Johnson’s verbose, the film also severely lacks danger. Most of the film has the Rebel fleet running from the Empire–sorry, First Order, but damn do the interiors of the Star Destroyers look amazing just like in the seventies. The Rebels are almost out of fuel and can’t warp so the Empire is just shooting at them. The good guys’ shields can take it but not forever and they can’t actually escape.

If Johnson were able to direct for tension, it could be great. Instead, it’s just a way to winnow down the cast. Pointlessly so. Johnson does all right making the frequent death scenes momentarily tragic, but they don’t have any resonance. Last Jedi doesn’t want to have anything to do with resonating.

None of the acting is bad except Domhnall Gleeson. He and Driver bicker as they try to out-suck-up to their boss, the CGI “big bad” (voiced by Andy Serkis). Gleeson’s wholly incompetent at his job and whiny. Driver’s at least got the Dark Side and broody beats whiny. And Driver acts like Johnson’s giving him an actual character arc. Besides Ridley and Hamill, Johnson fails Driver most.

Great music from John Williams this outing. Excellent, entirely unexciting special effects. The battle scenes are similarly competent but uninspired; despite all his dawdling and dwelling, Johnson’s hasty with his action direction. Steve Yedlin’s photography is crisp but somehow bland. Editor Bob Ducsay and Johnson try to maintain the original trilogy’s wipes but without looking as dated. It’s not successful. The scenes are all a little too long, even if it’s by a few frames. Johnson is anti-brevity.

Making it’s even worse he shafts the entire cast on character arcs. The movie’s two and a half hours long. There ought to be more than enough time for the seven principal characters….

At least The Last Jedi isn’t a vanity project, though maybe it’d be better if it were. It’d mean Johnson had some personality. And he doesn’t.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Rian Johnson; screenplay by Rian Johnson, based on characters created by George Lucas; director of photography, Steve Yedlin; edited by Bob Ducsay; music by John Williams; production designer, Rick Heinrichs; produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Ram Bergman; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Daisy Ridley (Rey), Mark Hamill (Luke), Adam Driver (Kylo), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), Kelly Marie Tran (Rose), Carrie Fisher (Leia), Laura Dern (Holdo), Andy Serkis (Snoke), Domhnall Gleeson (Hux), and Benicio Del Toro (DJ).


Soylent Green (1973, Richard Fleischer)

If you leave the twist–which isn’t even a twist, just a justification for conspiracy–ending off Soylent Green, it’s a detective story. The case–the murder of a wealthy businessman–isn’t as important as how that case affects lead Charlton Heston. He starts carrying on with the victim’s “widow,” Leigh Taylor-Young. The case also has some unexpected consequences for Heston’s friendship and work relationship with partner Edward G. Robinson.

Robinson is the best thing in Soylent Green, both in terms of performance and narrative impact. Heston doesn’t have the most affect, even when he’s trying to have affect, but Robinson humanizes him. And that lack of affect, which in turn helps with the Taylor-Young subplot.

It also helps Chuck Connors–as the victim’s suspicious bodyguard–is terrible. He gives the kind of bad Charlton Heston performance Heston is now obviously not giving. The more the film gives Taylor-Young to do, the better her performance. The more it gives Connors, the worse. Luckily, Connors isn’t around a lot.

It’s also a future dystopia movie–sorry, I meant to mention that part earlier. Heston’s a cop, Robinson is his assistant (a “book” who does research, which shouldn’t matter for police investigations but whatever), Taylor-Young is “furniture” (a live-in combination maid and sex slave for rich men–there are no rich women). Heston’s boss is Brock Peters. Heston and Peters are great together. The murder involves the a friend of the governor (an occasionally appearing Whit Bissell–he’s in lots of posters, but rarely in scene).

The Earth is dying due to greenhouse effect; high temperatures, no food. Unemployment is at fifty-percent. Manhattan has 40,000,000 residents. Everything outside during the day looks a grimy green thanks to a filter. Everything at night looks like it was shot on an empty backlot (there’s a curfew to explain the lack of extras).

More than anything else, the limited budget is Soylent Green’s greatest problem. The film does all right showing the misery of future living through Heston and Robinson (they live together and are adorable, curmudgeon roommates) and their daily life. You ride the bike for electricity, you have limited water (not much showering, the future must smell something awful), you get food rations.

The things they do to survive weighs on them. There’s only so much anyone can take (i.e. Robinson’s fits of guilt when Heston, as a standard–if off the books–police procedure, robs the victim of soap and groceries). It turns out to be one of the themes of the film, the despondence of living in the future.

Almost all of the film is interiors. The crappy apartment for Heston and Robinson, the great one for Taylor-Young and her “boss,” Lincoln Kilpatrick’s church, the police station. The film’s great about packing people into the interiors. The exteriors not so much. There are a couple set pieces where the crowds are big enough. Director Fleischer doesn’t do much with them, of course, because the budget is still limited. During a riot scene, there’s some great editing from Samuel E. Beetley; it almost makes up for Fleischer’s too-tight composition.

The end falls apart a little. It’s got a rushed finish, where the film hangs it all on the “twist” revelation instead of the characters. Maybe if the film had emphasized the investigation a little more, but it didn’t. It emphasized Taylor-Young and Heston’s canoodling.

But it’s pretty good. There are some great small performances to make the future function. Paula Kelly, Celia Lovsky, Kilpatrick. Not so much Leonard Stone, who gets to be way too much way too fast.

And it’s got Robinson. He’s fantastic. He acts circles around Heston without ever looking like he’s doing it because he’s too concerned in making the scene work for both of them. It’s a patient, giving performance. And Heston steps up. And their relationship is this beautiful thing in Soylent Green. It’s not hopeful, because hopeful isn’t a real thing in Green, but it is beautiful.

Money would’ve made the difference. Slimy green filters don’t a future New York make. So either it needed money or a different directorial approach. Fleischer does a lot of things, none of them badly, none of them well. Fleischer’s direction lacks personality. The film lacks personality.

So thank goodness for Robinson, who exudes enough to cover it until the end.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Fleischer; screenplay by Stanley R. Greenberg, based on a novel by Harry Harrison; director of photography, Edward H. Kline; edited by Samuel E. Beetley; music by Fred Myrow; produced by Walter Seltzer and Russell Thacher; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Charlton Heston (Thorn), Edward G. Robinson (Sol), Leigh Taylor-Young (Shirl), Brock Peters (Hatcher), Chuck Connors (Fielding), Paula Kelly (Martha), Celia Lovsky (Exchange Leader), Whit Bissell (Santini), Leonard Stone (Charles), Lincoln Kilpatrick (Priest), Joseph Cotten (Simonson).


2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)

2001: A Space Odyssey has five distinct parts–the “Dawn of Man” sequence, then the space station and moon visit, then the main action before the intermission, then the main action after the intermission, then the “Jupiter” sequence. The prehistoric sequence, where an advanced alien device puts the vegetarian, prey-to-carnivores missing links on track to become carnivorous and murderous human beings. Given the setting and characters, it’s no surprise Kubrick changes style a bit when he gets to the future. 2001 starts with a shot of the planets aligning, then goes to the missing links. Kubrick visibly changes the film’s presumable trajectory. The prehistoric stop-off.

That sequence is done in vignettes, the first time editor Ray Lovejoy gets to astound. Kubrick characterizes the apes, but never anthropomorphizes them. The film establishes their regular lives–bickering with boars for plants, bickering with other tribes for water, getting killed off by hungry big cats. Kubrick and Lovejoy hold each shot just long enough. Kubrick establishes mood, then reveals the narrative. But he never gets overenthusiastic for big events; even with 2001’s always magnificent sometimes dramatic choice of music, the visual pacing of the film never changes. The music accompanies, never dictates (which leads to some interesting effects in the second section).

That second section follows scientist, bureaucrat, and questionably dedicated father William Sylvester to the moon. Lots of beautiful filmmaking here, the music against the exquisite, ageless, and all around perfect special effects sequences. Spaceships, space stations, the Earth, the moon. It’s magnificent. It’s also where Kubrick lets himself have a laugh or two. If not a laugh, then at least a smile. Because despite 2001 being a literal travelogue of the future in the Sylvester section, Kubrick’s got no interest in exposition. Except when it develops Sylvester’s character and reveals the strangeness of future folk. But Kubrick is interested in doing the travelogue–so there are lots of things with instructions, lots of placards. Lingering shots, giving the viewer long enough to consider the possibilities. And the ten steps to the zero g toilet.

And through most of the second section, 2001 feels very epical. Sure, the first part of the movie was doing a serious ape-man prologue, but there’s rising action in the second part. There’s mystery. There’s Sylvester maybe forgetting about his daughter’s birthday. There are Russians. There’s bureaucracy. The Sylvester as bureaucrat scenes are so weird, in such a good way. Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s script saves the best dialogue for the main action and for someone in particular, but the future decorum in the Sylvester section is peculiar, intriguing, and wonderful.

Shame it doesn’t turn out to be the main plot. When 2001 cuts from ape-men to space men, it does so with a lot of grace. When it cuts from space bureaucrats to space explorers, it’s done so with metal machine music.

Besides having a single setting–the Discovery spaceship–and a set cast (bland leading man types Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood and then the red eyed computer, voiced by Douglas Rain), the third section also has an entirely different feel, visually and aurally. The tone of the music has changed. It’s still lush, but it’s not magnificent. Because space is empty in the third and fourth sections of the film. It’s empty, it’s quiet, and it’s lonely.

Kubrick and Clarke quickly establish the setting and characters, doing so as part of a lengthy summary montage. Kubrick’s expository interest is a little different now. The second section was the commercial for space travel, the third section is the lonely reality for Lockwood and Dullea. It’s also the section where Kubrick shows off the most with the interior special effects. There’s a lot of exterior stuff in the second part, but the third and fourth parts just have the one or two spacecraft. It’s otherwise empty space. So the future gawking is on the interiors, with all sorts of gravity-related design choices. And it’s all just functional. Dullea and Lockwood just getting through another day.

But, really, Kubrick is just setting up the computer to be a full character. That omnipresent red eye. Rain’s soothing, dulcet voice. Kubrick and Lovejoy cut Rain’s scenes–and Dullea and Lockwood’s interactions with him–deliberately, with a lot of time for deliberation, as Dullea and Lockwood (and the cast) wonder what Rain is really thinking. Except it’s just that voice and that red eye.

The fourth section has the same setting, same cast, no music, completely different editing pace. It’s got the action, it’s got the drama; it’s got the Frankenstein. And it’s also got completely different needs of the cast. Well, Dullea and Lockwood anyway. When things go wrong, Kubrick and Clarke don’t offer any expository outbursts. The quiet of the fourth section extends to the characters–they work intensely and silently.

The third and fourth parts have their own epical build too. Yes, the style changes after intermission, but not the narrative drive. Except it turns out Kubrick’s not really interested in that narrative drive. He’s had action in exterior prehistoric, exterior future, and interior future. For part five, most of it, the film is a point-of-view shot as the explorer encounters the unimaginable. Kubrick starts with special effects shots, then moves on to photographic process ones. For ten minutes, the film mesmerizes, free of time, free of plot. But with music again. Music comes back for part five.

Rain’s performance is a startling creation. Rain, Kubrick, Lovejoy, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, whoever came up with the red eye. It’s an achievement and probably the film’s finest. Maybe the finest. There are quite a few achievements happening in 2001; big ones, little ones. Technical ones (so many technical ones), narrative ones (many less of these, but significant ones). But Rain and the red eye, it’s where Kubrick excels. Kubrick shows off a lot in 2001, but never with HAL.

Dullea and Lockwood are good. Dullea’s a little better. Sylvester’s good. Lead ape-man Daniel Richter is good. Technically it’s fabulous. Lovejoy’s editing keeps getting better; the fifth section needs a lot of cutting and Lovejoy’s always got the right one. Unsworth’s photography is great. Production design is great. 2001 is a phenomenal film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick; screenplay by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, based on a short story by Clarke; director of photography, Geoffrey Unsworth; edited by Ray Lovejoy; production designers, Ernest Archer, Harry Lange, and Anthony Masters; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Keir Dullea (Dr. Dave Bowman), Gary Lockwood (Dr. Frank Poole), William Sylvester (Dr. Haywood R. Floyd), Daniel Richter (Moon-Watcher), Leonard Rossiter (Dr. Andrei Smyslov), Margaret Tyzack (Elena), Robert Beatty (Dr. Ralph Halvorsen), Sean Sullivan (Dr. Bill Michaels), and Douglas Rain (HAL 9000).


This post is part of the Outer Space on Film Blogathon hosted by Debbie of Moon in Gemini.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017, Denis Villeneuve)

Whatever its faults, Blade Runner 2049 is breathtaking. Director Villeneuve’s composition, Roger Deakins’s photography, Dennis Gassner’s production design, all the CGI–the film is constantly gorgeous. It’s got nothing beautiful to show–the world of 2049 is a wasteland, all plant life is dead, the endless L.A. skyline is (while awesome) nasty, San Diego is a huge, inhabited dump. I mean, Jared Leto is a biochem industrialist who saves the world; like that world is going to be nice.

2049 spends a lot of time showcasing the achievements of that exterior setting. Interiors are sparer. Villeneuve’s direction is always good (or better), but the interior scenes lack something visually. Joe Walker’s editing can usually cover for it. Most of the interiors have lead Ryan Gosling wishing he was a real boy instead of a pretend one. He’s even got a pretend girlfriend (Ana de Armas as a holographic companion) who wishes she was a real one.

For a while, 2049 seems like it might be about Gosling and de Armas. But it’s not. Because even though Gosling is a Blade Runner, he’s not the blade runner 2049 cares about. Once Harrison Ford shows up, even when the movie’s from Gosling’s perspective, it’s not Gosling’s movie anymore. Maybe if the film had some great part for Ford, it would matter. But it doesn’t. It gives him a few minutes to get established, in a completely different context than his previous turn in the role, and then it keeps him around. Walker’s editing doesn’t cover for Ford like it does Gosling. Gosling sits around despondent in his affectless. Ford looks surprisingly genial and well-adjusted for a person who’s supposedly lived in complete isolation for the last thirty years.

Bringing me to talking about 2049 as a sequel to the original. Because there’s really nothing to it otherwise. There are a handful of sequel setups in 2049, but the way screenwriters Hampton Fancher (returning from the first film) and Michael Green find a story from the first movie? They just retcon obtusely, trusting Villeneuve to be able to pull it off. And he does. He’s able to keep 2049’s narrative detached from the screenplay’s minutiae (for most of the film); Gosling helps, until the movie stops wanting him to help. de Armas helps. Robin Wright (as Gosling’s boss, in an underwritten, underutilized role) helps. Ford’s likable, which really isn’t enough (and might be completely inappropriate, actually). Villain Sylvia Hoeks doesn’t help. She’s shockingly underdeveloped. And Villeneuve’s direction of the genetically enhanced replicant fight scenes is wanting. He can do it when it’s inconsequential, but he’s not able to make the fights dangerous for the characters.

Possibly because of Gosling’s complete detachment in the third act of the film, which is when there’s all the “first movie” revelations (but not, rather events soon following the first movie revelations) and sequel setup. Gosling starts on a hero’s quest, then finds himself just an observer of one. The prologue to one. Villeneuve and company cover as best they can–making the narrative events as unimportant an aspect to the film as possible–but they can’t. Villeneuve can’t share the movie between Ford and Gosling, neither can the script. Everyone just throws up their hands.

Probably because Ford doesn’t need to be there. But if Ford doesn’t need to be there, maybe the direct ties to the first movie don’t need to be there; take those two things away and there’s nothing to 2049 except the gorgeous dystopia. Gosling and de Armas’s subplot, which the film ends up using mostly pragmatically, is red herring.

The music, from Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, is lacking. But maybe because the film uses it so sparing. 2049 is bold where it can excel–the visuals–and cowardly where it needs to create. The villains are exceptionally thin. Gosling loses his movie. Ford gets to retread a part made different to allow for a way too careful sequel.

It’s too bad, but–deep down–no one should’ve thought a Blade Runner sequel would work. Especially not with Ford forced back into it. It’s like they got the money for a sequel but no one with a real idea for one. Villeneuve’s direction is visually stunning, his direction of actors is usually strong, but he’s got no handle on the story. 2049 is about avoidance.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to avoid a future where Jared Leto saved humanity.

CREDITS

Directed by Denis Villeneuve; screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, based on a story by Fancher, and characters created by Philip K. Dick, Fancher, and David Webb Peoples; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Joe Walker; music by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer; production designer, Dennis Gassner; produced by Bud Yorkin, Broderick Johnson, Cynthia Sikes, and Andrew A. Kosgrove; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ryan Gosling (K), Harrison Ford (Rick Deckard), Jared Leto (Niander Wallace), Ana de Armas (Joi), Sylvia Hoeks (Luv), Robin Wright (Madame), Dave Bautista (Sapper Morton), Mackenzie Davis (Mariette), and Carla Juri (Dr. Ana Stelline).


Superman (1978, Richard Donner), the extended cut

The extended version of Superman runs three hours and eight minutes, approximately forty-five minutes longer than the theatrical version (Richard Donner’s director’s cut only runs eight minutes longer than the theatrical). The extended version opens with a disclaimer: the producers prepared this version of the film for television broadcasts (three hours plus means two nights). The director was not involved.

Neither, one must assume, was original editor Stuart Baird because I’m not sure anyone could stand to see their work so butchered. Superman’s already had one somewhat inglorious revision–the director’s cut–and this extended version takes it one step further. Scenes will now drag on and on as actors try one more line. The subtly of the cuts, which enhance the performances, is either gone or severely hampered. The John Williams music is rearranged to fit the lengthened scenes and sequences, with no attention paid to how the music fits the scenes.

Worse, padding the film out changes the emphases. Margot Kidder is far less relevant (Christopher Reeve’s Superman as well) because most of the added footage is Gene Hackman and company. In addition to introducing Lex Luthor (Hackman) as a piano-playing crooner, the extended edition has all sorts of physical humor and lame jokes for Hackman’s sidekicks, Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine. Perrine gets a little more character–in fact, she’s the only actor who benefits from the extended material–while Beatty gets a lot less. The constant jokes make his presence drag, especially since he and Hackman aren’t funny with the physical humor.

The extended edition does explain a few things, like why Larry Hagman isn’t with the missile on Hackman and company’s second attempt at it. And Chief Tug Smith gets a whole subplot. In the other versions of Superman, he gets maybe a line or two in an interview with Kidder.

And there’s more at the beginning on Krypton. With everyone except Brando and Susannah York–though, wow, you forget how amazing they are together in their one scene. So good.

Actually, the extended version starts just fine. Terence Stamp’s microexpressions are preserved as well as Baird’s exquisite cuts between them. Then there’s a little more dialogue, here and there, with Brando and the other council members. The scene starts to drag and instead of the drag being corrected, it just gets worse. All the added lines are superfluous (as the two successful versions of the film attest).

Then the flying guard out to bust Brando for using too much power shows up. It’s a pointless addition–I assume it got cut because they couldn’t get the special effects to work or just decided it was a waste of time. But the producers want to waste some time with this cut. Well, executive producers. Original producer Pierre Spengler apparently didn’t have anything to do with bloating the film out. Ilya and Alexander Salkind, however, wanted to get it to those two nights for television.

Most of the added material–after the three major additions (Krypton, Hackman and company, Smith and the Native Americans)–is surplus dialogue. Lines no one would’ve kept. Including the actors. Besides Hackman seeming lost in the slapstick, Glenn Ford’s got a real awkward added line and can’t get any traction out of it. Though the extended scenes of the Daily Planet are interesting. They’re still too long.

After the surplus dialogue, the Salkinds threw in a lot of establishing shots. Lots of second unit. Lots of unfinished special effects–like during the way too long destruction of Krypton. Or special effects director Donner wisely cut just because they didn’t look any good even when finished. There’s some great helicopter footage of New York City though. Sorry, Metropolis. And, actually, Smallville too. It just doesn’t do anything.

Except add time. As scenes play long, even unpadded scenes start to drag–the mono soundtrack with the rearranged score doesn’t help–and subplots stop developing. Kidder disappears for way too long. Reeve gets some added material, which starts the character in a mildly new direction, but then there’s nothing else. The extended material is dead weight. Even when it’s good for character development, like with Perrine. And, to a lesser extent, Marc McClure.

Superman: The Movie: The Extended Cut is a swell curiosity, but nothing more. Maybe it really should be seen in two parts. Except, of course, it’s not like the Salkinds tried to do anything to make it feel like a two-part story either. Because their additive editing is disastrous and an ignoble diss to the film, its cast, and its crew. Not to mention the screenwriters, who clearly wrote some rather wordy, rather unnecessary lines.

However, if you’re a Fawlty Towers fan… Bruce Boa (from “Waldorf Salad”) does show up for a second and gets very angry. There’s also more John Ratzenberger, if you’re an avid Cliff fan.

Anyway. Editing is important. So is not purposely bloating out a film. The extra forty-five minutes are kryptonite to Superman.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Donner; screenplay by Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman and Robert Benton, story by Puzo, from characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; creative consultant, Tom Mankiewicz; director of photography, Geoffrey Unsworth; edited by Stuart Baird and Michael Ellis; music by John Williams; production designer, John Barry; produced by Alexander Salkind and Pierre Spengler; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Marlon Brando (Jor-El), Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor), Christopher Reeve (Superman/Clark Kent), Ned Beatty (Otis), Jackie Cooper (Perry White), Glenn Ford (Pa Kent), Trevor Howard (First Elder), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Jack O’Halloran (Non), Valerie Perrine (Eve Teschmacher), Maria Schell (Vond-ah), Terence Stamp (General Zod), Phyllis Thaxter (Ma Kent), Susannah York (Lara), Jeff East (Young Clark Kent), Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen), Sarah Douglas (Ursa) and Harry Andrews (Second Elder).


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