Sunday, September 30, 2012

E.T. Roundtable - Episode Two: "These Are Some Of Our Favorite Things"

"Heavens, that young man used profanity!"

By way of introduction, four-fifths of the E.T. crew yammer on about their favorite movies, television shows, comics, novels and albums!

Bonus update!  E.T. charter member Mike talks about his favorite movie, book, album and T.V. show!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Movie Review: "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" by David Pretty

After playing a game of Star Trek: Fleet Captains recently, I felt compelled to revisit the venerable sci-fi franchise's motion picture debut.  Prior to 1979, re-runs of the original series became a tremendous hit in syndication and towards the end of the decade a new Phase II television show featuring most of the original cast was in development.

But when Star Wars exploded on the big screen in 1977, Paramount decided to parley it's very own "spacey" property into a big-budgeted movie.  The final product seems to betray this disjointed genesis since it often feels like an hour-long concept dragged out over a hundred and forty-five minutes.

Here's the film's groovy, vintage trailer:

This time I made a point of watching the "Director's Edition" and it did come off as slightly improved.  Although the original theatrical release is often referred to as Star Trek: The (Slo-)Motion Picture, this re-edit seems to hang together a lot better.

Veteran genre director Robert Wise, who helmed the 1951 sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, seems a bit tentative in his treatment of these famous characters.  It's as if their ten year hiatus has made them somewhat precious and above any rough treatment.

On the rare occasion in which the actors are actually granted a line of dialogue, the performances are actually quite decent.  Stephen Collins is a great new addition, despite having only a few fleeting moments to make his character three-dimensional.  And although the late Persis Khambatta was certainly one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the Star Trek universe, she also gets short shift before the script downgrades her to "automaton" status.

Realizing that the dynamic between Kirk, Spock and McCoy was the bread and butter of the original series, this "Director's Edition" mercifully re-instates additional scenes featuring the iconic trio.  Unfortunately, when they aren't on screen together we're subjected to endless reaction shots and protracted clips of special effects porn.

Leisure wear...IN SPAAAAACE!!!

From a design standpoint, the film is also mixed bag.  The refurbished Enterprise is definitely my favorite iteration of the classic vessel, the new Klingons look absolutely awesome, the effects are reasonably good for a thirty (!) year old film and Jerry Goldsmith's classic, robust score is rousing and unforgettable.

Unfortunately the same thing can be said about the costumes, but not in a good way.  Indeed, those woefully dated Starfleet uniforms make the film look like some sort of bizarre interstellar slumber party.  A really priceless moment of Seventies kitch occurs when McCoy, replete with Unibomber beard, pimp necklace, leisure suit and a belt buckle big enough to degrade the ship's orbit, beams back onboard in his characteristically cranky fashion.

Having said that, the film is true to the spirit of the original series, especially after V'Ger's origin is revealed in a clever twist.  As a viewer, however, it's hard not to think that the concept would have been much better served in half the run time.

"Blue screen...the Final Frontier!"

Although it's certainly flawed, Star Trek: The Motion Picture holds a lot of retro fascination for me, probably because it's one of the first films I remember seeing in the theater by myself.  I know it sounds kinda kooky, but with every subsequent viewing I find myself liking this film more and more and liking the recent "space operatic" Abrams re-boot less and less.  

             Tilt: up.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Movie Review: "Grabbers" by David Pretty

*** Special Sneak Peak Advanced Review ***

Although some folks might argue that there's no such thing as an original idea anymore, sometimes all it takes is a different perspective.  For example, Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost set a horde of criminally overused zombies on weaponless, suburban London and the result was transcendental.  Some talented Swedes refashioned a bunch of hoary old vampire tropes into the wildly inventive Let the Right One In.  And now we get Grabbers, which takes a stereotypical bug-eyed monster from space and drops it smack-dab into the middle of a sleepy Irish town on a remote island.

The film's opening shot tracks what appears to be a meteor as it shears into Earth's atmosphere and splashes down just off the coast of Northern Ireland.  This is witnessed by a local fishing trawler which makes the ill-conceived decision to investigate.  As it turns out, the projectile contains something alive, mean-spirited and decidedly...grabby and it soon makes short work of the ship's crew.

Soon an entire pod of pilot whales washes up dead on a nearby beach.  These odd occurrences draw the attention of habitually intoxicated local Garda Ciarán O'Shea (Richard Coyle), his new by-the-book partner Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley) and marine biologist Dr. Smith (played by Being Human alum Russell Tovey).  When a local fisherman and professional barfly named Paddy (Lalor Roddy) is inexplicably spared by the creature, our heroes speculate that their otherworldly opponent is deathly allergic to the the taste of pickled villager.

Fearful of an island-wide panic, O'Shea, Nolan and Smith propose a simple and amicable defense: gather everyone together at the local pub for a good bit of crack.  No, not that kind of crack, I'm talking about craic: a rip-roaring communal drunk which will keep everyone blissfully preoccupied whilst rendering them completely unpalatable to the aliens.

Director Jon Wright does an admirable job balancing the humor with the horror.  An extended alien POV curb stomp sequence is riotously funny as is a scene in which our heroes try to get the jump on a creepy-crawly while armed with some spectacularly inept weapons.  This is nicely contrasted with a harrowing and claustrophobic squeeze though a maze of low-tide sea caves and the genuinely loathsome sight of a massive, roiling ball of tentacles bearing down on its slow-moving victim.

Wright also has the luxury of capturing some truly fantastic scenery.  Shot in County Donegal in Northern Ireland, the film is rife with beautiful pastel skies, gorgeous beaches, cool rock formations, majestic cliffs and serpentine roads snaking through treeless hills.  The interiors are also stellar, with Smith's lab, Paddy's hovel and Maher's Pub all looking gloriously practical and lived-in.  All of these unpretentious settings really helps to offset the sometimes-surreal nature of the alien threat.

Speak of the (Denebian Slime) Devil, I really loved the pulpy, slimy, Lovecraftian design of the Grabbers themselves.  Although some of the CGI is a bit creaky at times, the crew does a phenomenal job integrating their creations into cinematic "reality".  For example, when a horde of larval-stage beasties infiltrates the pub, the effects team use a series of in-camera set gags to show the ravages of their digital infestation.  It's so gloriously cartoonish that it conjures up shades of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Gremlins.

Although the film's set up is a tad "color by numbers", the natural performances and salty dialogue really kept me entertained before the main event.  By the time the entire cast is shit-faced, the movie's entertainment value blasts into hyperspace.  This wildly original premise comes pre-loaded with so much comedic potential that you have to wonder why no-one's thought of it before.

Although some people might bellyache about "pointless" story diversions, but I really didn't detect anything particularly egregious.  Although I'd concur that the relationship between Ciarán and Lisa flirts dangerously with convention, I also appreciate that screenwriter Kevin Lehane went through the trouble of giving them backstories and fleshing their characters out a bit.  Most films of this ilk wouldn't even have bothered.

Despite a litany of conventions, the script gets a lot more right then wrong.  I really loved how the character's well-laid plans always seemed to implode.  A makeshift flame thrower completely fizzles.  Lisa's drunken attempt to retrieve the car keys from the bar results in even more peril.  Even the final scheme to destroy the Big Bad goes straight down the tubes.  Anytime a film makes a concerted effort to defy audience expectations you can be sure that I'll be there to recognize.  

A lot of the dialogue sounds completely natural and there are plenty of lines which reflect a uniquely  Irish sense of humor.  I love the scene where Ciarán finally manages to communicate to the pub's owner Brian (David Pearse) just how much booze they're going to need to repel the aliens.  "We're gonna hafta tear ther arse out of her then," the bar-keep begrudgingly admits.

Regardless of how goofy things get, the cast is always there to hold things together.  Despite his character's bout with the bottle, Richard Coyle's performance as Ciarán is actually quite sober and substantial.  He's the sort of protagonist that most audience member can relate to: standing his ground when there's little alternative and making a "strategic withdrawal" whenever possible.  His sly line deliveries and casual asides command your attention while making a compelling case for repeat viewing.

Like a winsome combination of Anna Paquin, Kate Winslet and Dolores O'Riordan, Ruth Bradley has a charmingly unique presence that's all her own.  She plays buckled down and uptight so well that her booze-fueled turn in the second half is downright revelatory.  She seems so genuinely blitzed that I suspect she pulled a fast one and just took belts from a whiskey bottle between takes.  She's also fun to watch in a heroic capacity, nail-gunning a critter's gob shut and spouting lines that would make Ellen Ripley beam with pride.

Sometimes Russell Tovey can be a tad shrill and over-wrought, and this tendency creeps into her performance, especially when he's called upon to be plastered or terrified (or sometimes both!).  He's really at his best when he plays Smith as a pompous know-it-all who flirts awkwardly with Lisa.  In this capacity, Tovey makes for an effective wince-inducing goofball who's still charming enough to make the audience root for his survival.

There are plenty of memorable minor performances in the film as well.  Lalor Roddy is wonderful as the eternally-soused grizzled contrarian Paddy.  David Pearse as Brian the bar owner is amusingly skeptical at first, but becomes downright gung-ho after he's convinced that the threat is real.  Also making the most out of her screen time is the always-sassy Bronagh Gallagher (of Commitments fame), who plays Brian's wife Una.  Between her impish efforts to play matchmaker for Lisa and Ciarán and her borderline chronic skepticism, Bronagh is a real delight to watch.

One of the highest compliments that I can give to a film is that I want to see it again.  Between missing out on a joke because I was laughing so hard at the previous one, trying to pick up on a throw-away line of dialogue or sifting through the occasional brogue-heavy delivery, I would love to see Grabbers again.  I'm willing to wager that the tiny scraps that got by me here are more entertaining then what's  served up in your average creatively destitute Hollywood horror flick.

 Tilt: up.

P.S. Grabbers is set for a wide release in the latter half of 2012.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Movie Review: "Tron" by David Pretty

Personal computers came of age in the 1980's and with these wondrous, new-fangled devices infiltrating our homes it was just a matter of time before we began to speculate about what was going on amidst those micro-chip-studded motherboard landscapes.  

Since Tron, at face value, appeared to be the geekiest movie ever made, I felt compelled to see it in the theater as a twelve-year-old kid.  Unfortunately it was also one the first times I can distinctly remember saying "M'eh" when someone asked me what I thought of it.  After re-visiting Tron again recently, I've come to realize that the film feels half-baked mainly because the technology of the time just couldn't do justice to its ambitious premise.

Jeff Bridges is Flynn, a brilliant computer programmer who's ideas have been pilfered by the unscrupulous tech czar Ed Dillinger (David Warner).  This blatant thievery has allowed Dillinger to climb to the highest rung of ENCOM's corporate ladder and have Flynn purged from the payroll.  To vindicate himself, Flynn hacks into the company's mainframe and tries to dig up some evidence of Dillinger's duplicity but his avatar is captured and de-rezzed by the now-sentient Master Control Program.

The resulting security lockdown effects two other ENCOM employees: Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) and Dr. Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan).  They conspire with Flynn to activate "TRON", Alan's security program in an effort to destroy the MCP's stranglehold on their virtual world.  In doing so, Flynn is digitized and electronically transplanted onto the grid where he's forced to participate in various gladiatorial-style video games.  With the aid of Alan's Tron and Lora's virtual identity Yori, they break free of the game world and trek across the electronic landscape to confront the MCP and Dillinger's codified doppelganger Sark.  

If all of this sounds dense, impenetrable and, to a certain extent, pointless, I'm afraid you've stumbled upon Tron's greatest weakness.  With only a few "blink and you'll miss it" scenes with the MCP asking Dillinger for real-world financial data (with the inference that it has it's eye on global domination), the threat is low and the stakes feel minimal.  And let's face it, movies like this are only as good as its villain.  

Jeff Bridges is a delight to watch.  Even when his face is rendered into a monochromatic haze, he's still animated and charismatic.  Bruce Boxleitner's Alan is meant to be a bit staid, but there's a huge difference between reserved and wooden.  It's also inconceivable to me that Cindy Morgan didn't become the penultimate 80's geek pinup girl, since her brainy beauty as Lora/Yori rivals that of Jan Smithers' Bailey Quarters or Erin Gray's Wilma Deering.  Regrettably she doesn't get a lot to do here except look fetching, which she easily accomplishes.  Finally, the always-awesome David Warner is coolly threatening, or as threatening as a heel can be while wearing day-glo red pajamas.

Large stretches of the film look pitifully dated.  The computer imagery is often well-designed but rendered based on the obvious limitations of the day.  Often it feels as if you're watching someone else play a bad video game and you're not allowed to push any of the buttons.  To top it off, the music is a major liability.  It's obvious that director Steven Lisberger wanted an electronic soundtrack to jibe with the film's mise-en-scene but to me it sounds like a keyboard stuck on "DEMO".

I'm actually looking forward to seeing Tron: Legacy sometime soon, mainly because contemporary visual effects and computer animation technology have finally caught up to the concept.  In theory, the 2010 sequel is a perfect film for today's tech-savvy audiences.  The original Tron, however, is mainly a cinematic oddity with an overly-ambitious concept hanging around its neck like an albatross.  It's  another film that often gets a free pass due to the sanguine effects of nostalgia.

   Tilt: down.