Home Alone (Night of the Comet, 1984)

night-of-the-comet-posterThe world is abuzz over the arrival of a comet that will come unusually close to the earth.  High schoolers Regina and Samantha are not into it and miss the show.  They awake the next morning to discover that the world has changed.

Apparently, the comet came a little to close…people outside were reduced to dust, while most people indoors are simply disintegrating a bit more slowly, resulting in scary mutants.  Only people, Such as Regina and Samantha, who were protected by certain environments were unaffected.  After meeting up with a guy named Hector, the girls make contact with people who claim they can be of help…hint, they are not decent people.

Night of the Comet is a very teenage take on the whole “Last Person on Earth” concept.  At first, there is little drama, as the girls were miserable putting up with their stepmother.  So they celebrate, raiding a shopping mall.  Of course, this does not last long and soon Regina, Samantha and Hector find themselves trying to escape a dark cabal of scientists.  And it works pretty well.  Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney are engaging leads and the film has several great b-movie favorites.

If you start to heavily scrutinize “how stuff breaks down” if there is nobody around to run it, the films tidy ending probably falls apart…but it is a fantasy and it is a fun one.

Beat Cops (Alien Nation, 1988)

Alien_Nation_PosterIt is the near future of 1991…three years prior, an alien ship appeared above Los Angeles.  It was full of an alien race we nicknamed the Newcomers.  Genetically bred for adaption, they adapt quickly to life on earth, forming communities, entering our schools and workforce.

In this world, we meet Detective Matt Sykes.  It is quickly established he does not like the Newcomers in any way.  He refers to them by the slur Slags and expresses only disdain for their presence.  Sykes and his partner Bill interfere with a robbery resulting in Bill’s death.  Angry and determined to get back at those responsible, Sykes volunteers to work with the first Newcomer Detective Sam Francisco (Sykes resents the “gag” name and renames Sam as George).  What follows is both a personal journey for Sykes and a professional journey for the two detectives as they uncover a dark conspiracy to exploit the weaknesses of Newcomers for great profit.

Science Fiction has always been a vehicle for exploring the human condition and our moral failings.  Alien Nation tackles bigotry and xenophobia which can be a rather treacherous territory.  Mainly, this is because the aliens are stand ins for…well, not white people.  It has been pointed out that one of the problems with the X-Men as the metaphor for bigotry school of thought is that…well…shooting lasers from your eyes is a legit dangerous and deadly power… having black skin is not.

Alien Nation avoids this by an extremely careful world building.  The Newcomers are, in many ways, no different from humans, both in virtues and vices.  They have some physical differences (two hearts, get drunk on sour milk, cannot process cooked meats and so on) and look different (Newcomers are bald with spotting on the back of their heads)…yet seek to have a better life than the one they left behind.

A lot of what makes the film work beyond the well thought out Newcomer earth based culture is the performances by James Caan and Mandy Patinkin.  Using the “Mismatched Buddy Cop” formula allows the story to move at a quick pace.  This also can make it easier to ignore certain weaknesses in the metaphor.  Sykes overcomes his bigotry in a matter of days, though even at the end, apologizes to George for how awful he will be towards him in the years to come (a moment played for laughs).  Truthfully, this is a shortcoming of the film medium, everything needs to occur quickly, so a nuanced journey from bigotry to goodness is not generally in the cards.

Alien Nation is ambitious and largely hits its mark with thoughtful performances, a well thought out world, and good special effects.  It feels, in some ways, more timely now than it did in 1988.

Lost in Space (Enemy Mine, 1985)

Enemy_Mine_PosterIn the future, mankind has colonized space, but this has brought fresh dangers.  Mankind is at war with a reptilian race called the Draks.   During a firefight Earthling pilot, Willis and Drak pilot Jeriba find themselves stranded together on a hostile planet.

The two mortal enemies find themselves in a situation that requires cooperation to survive. Willis and Jeriba (who Willis refers to as Jerry) slowly build a bond, and as the years pass, their relationship becomes more like family.

Enemy Mine is a very simple story from Director Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot and the NeverEnding Story).  But this is because it really is more of a science fiction fairy tale. with the moral more important than the specifics of the story.  And the moral here is that we are all more alike than we think.  Or as Sting once philosophized…the Russians love their children too.

The film keeps from getting bogged down by any truly elaborate cultural details for the Draks.  Their religion is relegated to a book that Jerry reads.  He teaches the ideas to Willis, who finds that the religious beliefs are scarcely different from the ideas found within Christianity.

It is the makeup and Louis Gossett Jr.’s performance that sell the Draks as a completely non-human race.  Gossett gives movements that are more like a lizard.  And even after Jerry has learned English, he affects an accent of one who is not used to the language.  Considering how cumbersome the makeup must have been, it is a real testament to Gossett Jr.’s talent to make it all come together so well.

Enemy Mine is at times thrilling, funny and ultimately heart warming.

Over Achiever (the Last Starfighter, 1984)

the_last_starfighter_posterAlex Rogan is stuck in a dead end life.  He, his mom and little brother live in a run down trailer park.  He wants to take his girl friend Maggie and get out…but the options seem to be dwindling.  His main outlet for his frustrations is a video game called Starfighter.

This leads to the most excitement the park has seen when Alex beats the game…but then it is back to real life.  Until that night when Alex is visited by the video game maker.  Calling himself Centauri, he invites Alex to join him on a short trip.  Alex does not realize this will change his life forever.

The video game was actually a simulator that was meant to test potential pilots in an intergalactic war.  Reluctant at first, Alex finds himself forced to put himself aside to help in something much larger than he.

The Last Starfighter is imaginative and fun, with a great cast of characters.  Alex (Played by Lance Guest) is a likable dreamer, which is important as such characters can also come off as painfully whiny.  Instead, you genuinely feel for him when his college goals seem crushed.  Catherine Mary Stewart (Night of the Comet) is Maggie, who is more down to earth, not as worried about escaping the potential future of their small town life.

Centauri is one of those big idea pitchmen who is certain Alex is just what the Star League needs.  He is brought to life by the great Robert Preston (Harold Hill in the 1962 version of the Music Man).  Dan O’Herilihy is Grig, a jovial and kind reptilian co-pilot for Alex in their Gunstar.

Probably the biggest knock against the film is that it was made in the infancy of digital effects.  Unlike Tron two years earlier, everything is not meant to look like a video game.  Now, mind you, it looks like a late 90’s video game…so it was advanced for its time…but the purely digital spaceships look very low tech.

The Last Starfighter is certainly not the first story about a dreamer getting their wishes, but it is very successful at making it a fun ride.  It is the humor and heart that allows it to overcome limitations such as severely outdated digital effects.  The Last Starfighter is a minor science fiction classic.

Curses (Logan Lucky, 2017)

Logan_Lucky_PosterSteven Soderbergh retired from directing in 2013.  He directed multiple episodes of the Knick after that.  He has three more films in the pipeline after this years Logan Lucky.  The guy sucks at retirement.

But that is okay for me.  Logan Lucky is about Jimmy Logan…should have been football star who hurt his knee and went on to live the blue-collar life in West Virginia.  His brother, a one armed bar tender and vet Clyde, believes the Logan family is cursed.  Tragedy follows the family everywhere.  When he loses his job, Jimmy is desperate to find money to improve his situation.  His ex wife plans to move with her husband and take their daughter with them.  And this leads us to the heist at a race track on race day.

Like a blue-collar Ocean’s 11, Jimmy (along with Clyde and their sister Mellie) recruits Jimmy Bang (who in turn has them recruit his brothers) an explosives expert.  The plan is elaborate, and you almost wonder if the kind but somewhat simple Jimmy can manage it.  And here is the weird rub of heist films, for me.

I do not endorse robbing people.  I do not believe it is okay to come up with big heists.  But I sure do love a heist movie…watching the plan come together, watching the plan get executed…and the inevitable reveals of the stuff I missed.

And Logan Lucky does not disappoint there.  It is charming and funny.  Part of this is in the cast.  Channing Tatum has been one of those guys who I under-estimated.  As Jimmy Logan, he is soft spoken and gentle, but not afraid of a fight.  And Adam Driver’s Clyde is somewhat heart breaking yet endearing.  Riley Keough is the fast driving Mellie…and then there is Joe Bang…played to great comic effect by Daniel Craig.  Oh yeah… Farrah McKenzie as Sadie Logan?  Adorable little kid.

For the most part, the film loves these characters…the only characters that feel a little to over the top and cartoonish?  Fish and Sam Bang…but even they have their moments.  Logan Lucky was a lot of fun and even had a few moments  that made me tear up.  It plays out very in a very satisfying fashion.

The New York Post claims this film does not “get Trumpland”…but frankly?  Why should a person who just enjoys a fun movie care about that?

Future Love Pt 2 (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, 2017)

Valerian_PosterDirector of the Fifth Element, Luc Besson, returns to Science Fiction with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.  Based on the french comics Valerian and Laureline, this is a visual science fiction feast.  An early sequence indulges in a beautiful ocean planet that seems to be just ocean and beaches.  The alien species are tall slender humanoids of grace and beauty. But it is disrupted by falling ships, which incinerate the planet.  We are then introduced to Major Valarian and Sergeant Laureline, who seem to be enjoying a pleasant day at the beach.  This is revealed to be a hologram, and they are actually on their way to a special covert mission.  And so begins the continuous roller coaster of a story.

Valerian is a playboy special agent, a space James Bond if you will.  He is trying to pursue romance with Laureline, who repeatedly shoots down his attempts…mainly on the grounds of his apparent commitment issues.  As they go from adventure to adventure, taking risk upon risk, they eventually find themselves uncovering a deep governmental cover-up.

The action scenes are many and exciting.  The film is vibrant and colorful, filled with exotic creatures and life forms.  Besson indulges fanciful aliens and hungry beasts.  But at the core, what matters to this story is love.  Love plays a huge part of the resolution.  Not just romantic love, but a larger love based in trust and faith.

And yet?  The film is a bit of a disappointment.  The story comes second to the amazing visuals, the barest of plots to justify the beauty of a distant future filled with wonder and threat.

While the film desires to feel like it is about something exciting and big, the characters are light and barely caricatures.  Valerian is the rakish rogue with a good heart.  Laureline the smart and capable better half.  This leads to characters filling in by the numbers stereotypes. The Commander seeking to hide a dark secret.  The unknowing Defense Minister who must help uncover the secret, unaware of the danger this puts him in.  And so on and so on.  There are no surprises to the story.

Valarian and the City of a Thousand Planets is satisfying only in it’s visual aesthetic, not it’s story.

Future Love Pt 1 (The Fifth Element, 1997)

Fifth_Element_PosterWelcome to the Future.  It is run down and grimy.  And Bruce Willis lives there. And a mysterious object is hurtling towards Earth…a planet…an evil planet.  The Government is trying to destroy it, but a religious order is pushing for an alternate plan…

Using the DNA from an alien life form that is said to be the greatest warrior in the universe, military scientists end up with a beautiful young woman.  She escapes and finds herself in the flying cab of Korben Dallas.  He does not want any trouble, but when the woman (named Leeloo) begs for his help, he finds he cannot just turn a blind eye.  This of course, forces Dallas into helping Leeloo along with Priest Cornelius. Hot on their trail are alien creatures working for a deviant business man named Zorg.  They must find a set of stones that were stolen and use them in conjunction with Leeloo to stop the evil planet.

Luc Besson’s the Fifth Element is a richly beautiful action film.  It is filled with colorful costumes, vibrant lifeforms and entertaining characters set against an a crazy backdrop of tall buildings, exotic spaceships and flying cars. The costume design is almost amusing in it’s weird fashion sense and impracticality.  McDonald’s workers have sexy uniforms for goodness sakes.  But Besson has a real eye for detail, with the designs being important.

The characters are, largely, archetypes…and Dallas is basically that “Bruce Willis Guy” that we saw throughout the 80’s and 90’s.  World weary, tough and sarcastic.  But Besson puts that to good use.  Milla Jovovich’s Leeloo falls into that “Child-Like Super Hero Girl” Trope.  You know, can barely speak, innocent and super powerful.  This is, admittedly a painfully over used trope…but Jovovich gives one of her stronger performances here, making Leeloo like an exuberant child as she is absorbing knowledge and working through the mission.

Gary Oldman’s Zorg is a strange duck, but Oldman is very entertaining.  Surprisingly, the real standout though?  Chris Tucker’s Ruby Rhod. Rhod is a flamboyant television host who is clearly modeled after Prince.  Tucker pretty obviously had a lot of fun with this role.

The Fifth Element is a fun Sci-Fi amusement park ride.  The plot is very simple, overall.  The evil planet is evil because…well, it is (and it can make phone calls).  And Leeloo is good, because…well, she is.  And yet, the film is an entertaining visual rush.

Of All the… (Nerve, 2016)

Nerve_PosterVee is a young woman who lives life safely.  Her friend Sydney pushes her to take a risk.  And so she joins an online game called Nerve.  In Nerve, there are people who pay to watch, people who pay to play…and the unknown overseers.  In the game, participants are given dares and they must complete each one to make it to the end and make a lot of money.  At the start, the dares seem to simply push people out of their comfort zones.  As you complete a task, money is added to your bank account.  If you fail or chicken out, you are dropped from the game.

Vee soon finds herself paired up with another player, Ian.  But as the game progresses, the dares get riskier and more deadly.  Ultimately, Vee finds herself trying to survive the game and save her family.

The film has one of those “You are all Complicit” story-lines, chastising the viewer’s online voyeurism.  And there is nothing wrong with that…but the execution here is just clumsy, and Roberts does not really sell this.

The film uses the popular visual of pop-up windows mimicking social media news feeds.  This is somewhat tired, but I understand why movies themed around the internet use them.

The visual style of the film is garish colors, blues and greens especially.  The film ultimately comes apart because it simply because the concept feels implausible.  The idea that this internet game show that can result in regular deaths is super popular and well known, but allowed to function is hard to buy.  Not because the masses cannot be cruel…but it just feels hard to buy this is a game that has the blessing of the authorities.

Nerve has some lofty ambitions as a thriller, but it never is able to make you really care about these characters.  It generates, ironically enough, the very complacency it condemns.

Round and Round (The Circle, 2017)

Circle_PosterThe Circle asks the question: What if Google Were an Evil All Seeing Corporation?

(And somebody responds… “IF??”)

Emma Watson is Mae, a young woman who dreams of being more than another faceless customer service rep.  Her friend gets her an interview with the Tech Company “The Circle”.  She is overwhelmed at first, they seem to know things about her life that she had not informed them of.  But as her star rises, she becomes drawn in by the very likeable and charismatic Bailey.  Bailey is the “ideal” CEO.  Personable, treats everyone as equally important, regardless of status in the company…he charms Mae into overlooking her concerns as the Circle’s influence grows.

It cannot last, of course.  There are people, even within the company, who believe there is a darker and seedier underside (unsurprisingly, they are correct).  After a tragedy, Mae finds herself at a crossroads.

The Circle is established very well early on as “This could be the coolest place to work!”  But it early on starts to drop hints of creepiness.  Mae’s transition from sweet but overwhelmed to complicit in the organization’s overreach is well handled.  And Hanks just turns on his “I Am Tom Hanks” charm to make Bailey someone you cannot help but like.

The problem for the film is that it spends so much time on build up, it feels like it gets resolved in about six minutes.  They beat the corruption in a sentence.  It feels like the final act should have been developed a bit more.


Daytripper (The Dark Tower, 2017)

Dark_Tower_PosterThe Dark Tower has had a long trek to the silver screen.  There have been attempts for many years…at one point, there was an announced plan that included A movie and television series, so the story would keep going between films.  Very ambitious, but questionable how to make it work.  The Dark Tower series by Stephen King is a sprawling epic. There are eight books in the series at this time.

Roland Deschain is a Gunslinger.  They were similar to an order of Knights, though are modeled closely on the old west.  Roland is the last of the order, and he seeks a dark sorcerer The Man in Black to take revenge.  Roland has lost his way, no longer focused on protecting the Dark Tower.  The Dark Tower, by the way is the center of the universe and protects the Universe from “What is Outside”.  Meanwhile, in our world, Jake Chambers has nightmares about the man in black and Roland.  He ends up finding a house from his dream and there finds a portal to another dimension and…

Sound complex?  That is because it is.  For one?  This film is not so much an adaption as a sequel, even though it borrows elements from the first novel, the Gunslinger, such as meeting Jake Chambers.  The movie is set up as a sequel to the seventh book.  And so the film rushes to fill in as much information as possible, explaining stuff that probably makes more sense if you have read all the books.

In the books, King liked to tie in parts of his other novels, characters pop up, terms…in this film, you will maybe recognize the reference to Jake’s “Shine”.  And so the film spends a lot of time and dialog trying to catch the audience up…and the end result is that everything feels like cliff notes.  The film never truly gets to breathe, so big “moments” in the film never resonate quite like they could.  Even “lighter” moments feel like they deliver no payoff or relief.  When Roland asks if bullets are hard to come by in “our” world…Jake tells him he will really like our world.  This should be a moment that delivers at least a chuckle…and the audience I was with simply sat silent.

This is not to say there is nothing I liked.  Both Elba and McConaughey turn in good performances, which is to be expected.  McConaughey portrays the Man in Black with a calm menace.  He never seems to panic or lose his cool…even when doing evil, he maintains a gentle and assured tone.  Elba plays the Gunslinger in the mold of the embittered and broken Western Hero.  He also finds himself becoming a new father figure to Jake, progressing towards the restoration of his role as Gunslinger.

Visually, the film is pretty good, though a bit overdone in the de-saturation of color.  But the visuals of Roland loading his guns, shooting his guns…the monsters look good…but in the end, the immensity of the source material kind of over runs the film.  Those who have read the books are likely to be frustrated by the liberties, those unfamiliar with the books left confounded by all of the information they have to unpack.


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