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Doctor Who: Orphan 55 (2020)
Trendy-preachy and generally nonsensical
The doctor and her groupies conveniently end up at a simulated resort on a near-dead planet only to find out an inconvenient truth. The plot is simply an excuse to string together some monster footage (reasonably well done) and to set-up a heavy-handed 'message' typical of the show's increasing self-righteousness. The script is silly, plot-holes and coincidences abound, and the cast is showing no signs of improving (although at least Jodie Whittaker cuts back a bit on the 'lovably goofy' shtick). The Doctors increasingly convenient 'psychic powers' (last week it was memory erasure, this week it's mind reading) is going to make future stories difficult to construct. Ironically, the plot's disregard for basic science is worse than that of the people that it's chiding.
Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018)
Juvenile monster-mecha mashup
Heroic giant mecha fight rogue giant mecha and giant monsters in this lackluster, by-the-numbers, sequel to 'Pacific Rim' (2013). The film is made for kids, necessitating ridiculous premises such as a 15 year old constructing a fully functioning mecha-suit out of scrap, undetected, and on her own. Any moment of tension or drama (including characters' deaths) is immediately undercut by a quip or a cutaway to the essentially 'comic-relief' villain, presumably to avoid distressing the audience. The derivative script is full of strained banter, predictable 'sassy-talkback', and deadening clichés and, at times, the imagery is not much better, with the mechas striking heroic poses and flailing around with their various 'melee' weapons as they fight the same craggy, poorly defined monsters that they scrapped with in the original (although I agree with comments that the sfx team deserves credit for generating many scenes in bright light rather than in the dark, underwater, or in pouring rain as was often the case in the original). The acting is on par with the material, with no one going much beyond a hackneyed plug-in genre character. I am decades past the film's target audience but, as a lifelong fan of kaiju films, I'd be fully prepared to enjoy it if it was any good, but it's not, so I'll check it off my life-list and forget about it.
World Without End (1956)
He-men and the flight to tomorrow
Due to relativistic time dilation, the crew of a rocket ship that inexplicably accelerated to a tremendous velocity find themselves on a post-apocalyptic Earth in the year 2508, a world divided into effete and brutal societies. The film is highly sexualised, with the virile and 'manly' astronauts finding themselves in an underground society of timorous, weak-willed and physically unimpressive 'girly-men' (the leader is 'Timmek", a name evoking Dicken's famous little crippled boy) wearing outfits that look like elf-costumes, and lusty, full-bodied women, many of which are wearing halter tops or short skirts (designs were by the pin-up artist Alberto Vargas) and high-heels. The women are immediately attracted to the 'real' men from the past (this is not subtle, you could almost see the drool when one of them (Elain, Shirley Patterson) spots a buff and shirtless Herbert Ellis (Rod Taylor)). Outside the underground sanctuary, the world is ruled by 'mutates' - the grotesque results of radiation exposure. In contrast to the social selection in the city, in which generations of caution have resulted in spindly, enervated men, the 'mutates' have selectively bred themselves for brutal ugliness by killing 'normal' children (or keeping them as slaves, which allows an escapee (Deena, Lisa Montell) from the mutate society to be both a translator and a gorgeous love interest for the muscular Ellis). The whole premise is pretty loopy and there is not much to the story as the newcomers try to convince the weedy councillors to assist, and or at least allow, them to attempt to establish a beachhead on the mutate-infested surface. There is also a time-killing side story about one of the impotentates who promptly loses his girlfriend (?) to one of the time-travelling alpha-dogs, and his attempts to frame the temporal interlopers for murder. Despite being a Technicolor/Cinemascope production, the film's special effects are limited: the rocket ship is recycled footage from 'Flight to Mars' (1951), early-on the astronauts are attacked by a couple of very unconvincing giant spiders, and little is seen of the future city beyond some oft-repeated corridor footage. The cast is pretty good for a genre-picture but the script, especially Rod Taylor's lines, is not. The 'climatic battle' with the mutates is underwhelming, especially the classic "you only have to defeat the leader' cop-out. One of a number of time-travel movies from the late '50s and early 60s (the best known being 1961's 'The Time Machine', which also starred Rod Taylor), 'World Without End' film suffers from trying to address a complex 'social science-fiction' premise on a limited budget and with a '50s B-movie adventure aesthetic.
À la conquête de l'air (1906)
The first magnificent man in a flying machine
A well-dressed gentleman pilots a strange, pedal-powered, flying machine (a 'Fend-l'air') over the rooftops of Paris. The short silent film, made by early French auteur Ferdinand Zecca, maybe be the first to depict a flying machine and to use a split-screen to achieve a special effect. The pilot (Zecca?), was suspended from the ceiling of the studio and the image captured on a segment of film with the bottom-half masked off. The masking was reversed, the film rewound and the lower half of the image (a Paris scene) was filmed. The combined image, a man flying over the city, must have been a marvel to contemporary viewers. Oddly, the machine's propeller and steering wheel are parallel to the direction of motion, likely to allow viewers to understand how the strange contraption could 'fly'. Also odd: the pilot is using only one pedal to propel the machine (the left side pedal is seen rotating but there is no foot on it). A unique and historic short from the earliest days of film-making.
An Over-Incubated Baby (1901)
Silly but venerable proto-science fiction
A mother brings her baby to "Pro Bakem's Baby Incubator", which is advertised to age a baby one year in only one hour. Left alone to tend the machine, the professors' clumsy assistant overturns the lamp being used to warm the incubator resulting in a minor conflagration and a shocking change far beyond the mother's expectations. Portraying a 'novel scientific technology' and pre-dating Méliès' 'Voyage to the Moon' (1903) by two years, Walter R. Booth's short, silent comedy is a candidate for the first science fiction film. Other candidates would include various takes on automatic sausage making machines, films featuring X-rays (an extant technology), and Zecca's contemporary 'À la Conquête de l'Air' (which also featured a novel technology, a somewhat fanciful flying machine, and included cutting-edge special effects, a split-screen to show the device flying over Paris). I don't know how the aging baby effect was done in Booth's film: there is an obvious jump in the film just after the baby is put in the incubator, which could be due a 'stop-trick' optical effect (the camera was stopped, the babies switched, the camera restarted) but it is also possible that the incubator simply had an off-camera rear hatch. As part of the joke involves a fire burning under the incubator - worrisome if the machine actually contained a child - the latter explanation is a bit more palatable. The film is essentially a one joke short but is worth the investment of a minute for anyone interested in the history of cinema, especially the science fiction genre. The film is also hard to rate - it's not that good but it is almost 120 years old, imaginative, and at the time may have been 'A-material' from one of Britain's top directors.
Beyond the Time Barrier (1960)
OK, bargain-basement time-travel yarn
Major Allison, a test-pilot (Robert Clarke) in an experimental jet lands only to find himself far in the future (2024) on a ruined Earth inhabited by mutants and a handful of other time travellers. The film is an earnest attempt at presenting thoughtful, 'hard' science fiction on a limited budget and succeeds in a modest way. The triangle-themed sets (and complementary optical wipes) are reasonably effective and the detailed story s spelled out in numerous exposition scenes (unfortunately at the expense of action). The plot doesn't make much sense and the 'science' explaining Allison's time travel is ridiculous and not even internally consistent (flying the in opposite direction would only reverse the tiny contribution the jet made to the velocity that propelled him 'beyond the time barrier'). Other than the sets, the special effects are pretty dire, with a simple double exposure depicting the time travel event (an image that doesn't really match the explanation Allison is later given) and a destroyed cityscape greeting the time-travelling Major when he first arrives that is an obvious drawing (and in which no attempt was made to match the image to the live action setting). The cast is sufficient for the material and Darlene Tompkins makes for a cute deaf-mute 'hope for the future'. The 'surprise' ending doesn't make any sense but the make-up (by Jack Pierce) is quite good. One of a number of time-travel films from the period, 'Beyond the Time Barrier' is far from a great film but worth watching for fans of the 50's science fiction films and is a welcome diversion from the big bugs, monsters, and nasty aliens that dominated the genre at the time.
Dead Man (1995)
Offbeat, sepulchral neo-western
Inoffensive accountant William Blake (an understated Johnny Depp) shoots the nephew of hard-case John Dickinson (Robert Mitcham, in his last role) in self-defence. With a bullet lodged close to his heart, and maybe dying, Blake ends up on the run in the forests of the Pacific Northwest accompanied by 'Nobody' (Gary Farmer), a Native American who believes the wounded man is the spirit of the eponymous poet returned to Earth, all the while pursued by a murderous, cannibalistic bounty hunter (Lance Henriksen). Directed by Jim Jarmusch and featuring an eccentric cast including Billy Bob Thornton, Iggy Pop, Crispin Glover, and John Hurt, the film is a beautifully lensed, quirky post-modern western with a cryptic story that unfolds at a languid pace. Looking constantly bemused in his John Bull topper and contrasting 'war paint', Depp is excellent as the Eastern nebbish who becomes an expert frontier killer, as is Farmer as his sometimes guide "Nobody' (or 'Xebeche' "He who talks loud, saying nothing"), who delivers most of his lines in a knowing monotone. The script is full of literary references and the story a classic spiritual journey. Not to all tastes but imaginative and well-made.
Doctor Who: Spyfall: Part Two (2020)
Spyfall parts 1 and 2: overly-long, flat, and ultimately unsatisfying
Someone or something is disposing of Earth's secret agents, leading the Doctor and her three companions to investigate a mysterious high-tech entrepreneur, only to discover that nothing is as it seems thanks to the nefarious machinations of an old nemesis. Cross-over parodies can be a lot of fun, but this Dr. Who: 007 hybrid is pretty lame, especially the chase scene (featuring the Who and crew wearing silly looking helmets and unconvincingly riding motorcycles that seem bulletproof). The resolution of the part-one cliff-hanger is painfully contrived and a good example of the current show-runner's reluctance to have any sort of tension or drama without inserting some (usually forced) levity. The actual story could easily have been done in a single episode and there is a lot of filler involving the companions' side-stories and the Doctor's bouncing around time meeting people who are superfluous to the plot but must have appealed to the writer's sense of 'inclusion'. The two main historical characters might have made interesting characters in a more nuanced story (and the actresses playing them were quite good) but in Spyfall they are just throwaways. I still dislike Jodie Whittaker's take on the venerable Timelord character. Her 'Mork from Ork' 'flood pants and suspenders' ensemble is both silly and ugly (silly has precedence in Time Lord fashion but ugly doesn't) and her delivery rushed and 'scripty' but the worst is the constant grimacing - there were a couple of moments in Spyfall where she managed to look 'Timelordly', but for the most part she looks like an amateur trying too hard to look like they are acting. Since I've not liked the current cast from the beginning, I need a good story, which this wasn't despite the third act 'twist', or interesting imagery (also lacking, the CGI of the damaged plane was terrible), to keep me involved. I wish that the show-runners would trim the cast and stop trying to show how 'progressive' they are, a lightweight science fiction adventure series is really not the place for endless sophomoric attempts at social engineering. I am not optimistic about the upcoming season, despite that being better than last season isn't that much of a challenge.
Algol - Tragödie der Macht (1920)
Simplistic 'power corrupts' fable with slight science-fiction overtone
An alien (or perhaps a demon) from the star Algol offers rebellious coalminer Robert Herne (Emil Jennings) a machine that taps the energy of the distant star and generates unlimited electricity on Earth. Seduced by the promise of power and wealth, Herne rejects his devoted friend Maria (Hanna Ralph) and, as only he knows the secret of the alien machine, becomes the most powerful man in an increasingly mechanistic and decadent world. First Maria's son, then Maria herself, tries to convince Herne to reveal the secret so all mankind would benefit equally from the machine, an idea that worries his capitalist colleagues as well as his wastrel son and the son's grasping lover Yella Ward (Erna Morena), who decide to take the secret by force. The story is a simplistic 'power corrupts' cautionary tale, and the running comparison between Herne's cold, capitalistic domain and Maria's bucolic paradise is facile and heavy-handed. The acting is typical of the silent era, with a lot of melodramatic gesturing, and although there are a number deco or cubist images (which are repeated a number of times) and a striking climatic orgy scene (featuring expressionist exotic dancer Sebastian Droste), the film is visually uninteresting. Similar to 'A Message from Mars' (1913), there is only a veneer science fiction on the story. The opening discussions of the star Algol focus more on mysticism than on astronomy, and the character Algol, who tempts Herne, could be just as easily be a supernatural creature as an extraterrestrial. Herne's unlimited electricity comes from a machine that transfers power from the star Algol but it is only glimpsed and the 'technology' is never addressed. The film is essentially a retelling of Faust and the machine is a simply a material stand-in for the magical riches and power offered by the devil in the original tale. Algol is interesting as an example of German expressionist film-making during the Weimer Republic or as example of a very early proto-sci-fi film... interesting, but not very entertaining.
A long, long time ago in a Disneyland far, far away
A legendary villain resurfaces commanding a massive fleet of planet-destroying Star Destroyers, forcing the various franchise semi-Jedis, anti-heroes, and comic relief to embark on a quest to find the legendary home planet of the Sith. While better than the last entry into the canon ('The Last Jedi'), the film retreads what we've all seen before: self-agonising self-realization, last-minute heroics, quippy dialogue, overblown pseudo-mythology, predictable surprises, and an all-powerful enemy who, once again, leaves a womp-rat sized hole in his nefarious plans (this time it's a giant fleet but only one starter's pistol). On the plus side, the imagery is awesome, there are lot of entertaining nods to the earlier films, and less Rose than the last movie (and this time she's not stuck in a really stupid, pointless, side-story). Possibly salting the mine of collectables, the film introduces lots of new characters, all 2D and uninteresting, to accompany the generally bland cast (Daisy Ridley is OK as Rey). The dialogue is clunky and artificial, and the humour often forced, but the worst thing about the film (IMHO) is the endless preaching about how we all need friends... with friends we can succeed... we all need to work together, etc. That message was made in the original film with a few well placed lines, but now we have to put up with a sermony pre-climatic battle 'heroic' speech and a huge, cloying, post-climatic group-hug. The films (and maybe the fans) started taking the whole 'Star Wars' shtick too seriously, so I guess that this is a fitting end to the series. All that said, I'll continue watching the spin-offs, if only for the great design and visuals.
The Airship Destroyer (1909)
The first 'future wars' film
An inventor is working on a novel weapon when a fleet of enemy airships are sighted. An armoured car equipped with an anti-aircraft gun is dispatched but is destroyed, as is the biplane that attempts to shoot down one of the marauding airships. After the home of the inventor's girlfriend is bombed and the local cathedral goes up in flames, the inventor finally launches his 'aerial torpedo', a rocket-assisted, propeller-driven, surface-to-air UAV that damages the gas bag of the enemy ship, causing it to crash in pieces into a lake. For a short, the film has a strong narrative flow and a lot happens in seven minutes. The first science fiction film made in England, 'The Airship Destroyer' is also the first film in the 'military science-fiction' sub-genre and is remarkably prescient. Although military use of airships had been predicted by H.G. Wells (among others), Booth's film predates the first actual aerial attack by two years (a bomb was dropped on Turkish troops from an Italian airplane in Libya on November 1, 1911). Although surface-to-air missiles came much later and were dramatically different from Booth's contraption, the basic concept was correct and ahead of its time. The film's special effects, a mix of models, full-size props, cut-outs, and background paintings, are quite novel and effective for the era. There were few intertitles on the version I watched (on-line) but the story was not difficult to follow, and the score, although clearly not original, was fine. Typical of silent films, the acting is overly-dramatic and stagy, but the film is still entertaining and well-worth watching. The following year Booth directed another 'future weapon' story 'The Aerial Submarine', then returned to the future of strategic bombing in 'The Aerial Anarchists' (1911), which sadly has been lost.
A Message from Mars (1913)
Of historical interest only
Ramiel (E. Holman Clark), a Martian law-breaker, is sentenced to travel to Earth where he is to "redeem the most selfish of mortals" (Horace Parker, played by Sir Charles Hawtrey). He does so by forcing Parker to experience life as a tramp, during which the wealthy but thoughtless man realizes the value of friendship and kindness. While often cited as Britain's first full-length science-fiction film, 'The Message from Mars' is only nominally science fiction. The 'Martians' could have just as easily been a group of angels (they refer to Earthlings as 'mortals' and "Ramiel" is the name of an archangel in the apocryphal Book of Enoch) and there is no Martian 'technology' contributing to the story (Ramiel simply appears and disappears at will). The film is very slow moving and stagy (not surprising considering its provenance). The acting is typical of the era: lots of exaggerated gestures and posturing (po-faced Ramiel spends most of his time on Earth crossing his arms and frowning in disapproval). The film does mix indoor and outdoor filming and the recently released BFI edition includes the original colour tinting. There are a number of routine substitution splices but the only really interesting 'special effect' is the 'shaking' that Ramiel gives an initially belligerent Parker. The film is often compared to "A Christmas Carol" but unlike Dickens' complex story, Parker needs only to briefly experience life as indigent person to find enlightenment. Hawtrey, who had played Parker in the 1899 stage play is too old for the role of the suitor who thoughtlessly jilts his girlfriend Minnie (he is 55 years old to ingénue Crissie Bell's 23 years). The restored BBC version was scored by Matthew Herbert, and the minimalist machine-music is often out of place and dull. At about 60 minutes in length, 'The Message from Mars' is watchable but will likely only be on any real interest to film historians or to fans of the genre.
One Million B.C. (1940)
Classic caveman-dinosaur mashup featuring a pig in a triceratops costume
Caveman Tumak (Victor Mature) of the Rock Tribe meets cave-babe Loana (Carol Landis) of the Shell Tribe, and the two face dangers and find love in a primeval world inhabited by pseudo-prehistoric animals. Helmed by early Hollywood mainstay Hal Roach (and his son), many people now find the film is full of 'déjà vu' moments because the footage of the volcano and the antediluvian beasts (including dinosaurs (usually cosmetically-modified lizards and crocodilians), mammoths (costumed elephants), and assorted prehistoric-looking mammals (often armadillos or coatis)) was recycled in numerous bargain-basement sci-fi/adventure films (including the dire Robot Monster (1953) and King Dinosaur (1955)) and on TV (e.g. 'Jungle Jim' (1955) ep. 1.2: 'Land of Terror'). Treatment of the animals used in these sequences was controversial and the film was banned or edited in a number of markets. Despite the obvious phoniness of the 'dinosaurs', the special effects are quite good for the era and the film has a dreamy, almost surreal look, especially the scenes in the misty, primordial jungle. Other than a few caveman words, there is no script and the acting consists mostly of growling, grunting, and mime (despite these limitations, Mature manages to make Tumak into a bit of a lovable goof). The film is a genre-defining classic and was a huge hit when it came out. The dinosaur scenes are very dated and tainted by their association with schlock like Robot Monster, but if the film is viewed through '1940 eyes', it is well-made, imaginative, and quite entertaining. The 1966 remake starring Raquel Welch as a famously scantily-clad Loana follows almost exactly the same story but most of the dinosaurs are stop-motion creatures animated by the great Ray Harryhausan.
Valley of the Dragons (1961)
Recycled footage is only thing of value in this lackluster 'dinosaur' film
A duel in Algiers is interrupted by a mysterious celestial event that deposits the two duelists (played by Cesare Danova and Sean McClory) on a comet inhabited by prehistoric life, including mammoths, dinosaurs, and cave men. The story is ostensibly based on Verne's novel "Off On a Comet" but there is no similarity to the book beyond the concept of a passing comet drawing up people and the ominous name of one of the duelists ("Servadac"). The film was simply an opportunity to cheaply piece together a "voyage extraordinaire" (Verne adaptions being popular at the time) using clips from 1940's "One Million Years B.C." The result is a dull budget film that feels more like a 1960's TV show than a feature film. The only saving grace are the nicely done, but very dated, special effects sequences from the old Hal Roach Studios film. Unfortunately, by the time "Valley of the Dragons" was released, the vintage 'dinosaur' footage was overly familiar, having been recycled in numerous films including the legendarily bad 'Robot Monster' (1953) and 'King Dinosaur' (1955), and even shown up on TV (e.g. in the 'Jungle Jim' series (1955)). The two leads are OK, considering what they have to work with, but to get the most from the old footage, they conveniently change out of their period costumes into ridiculous 'cave man' furs to match the original players (watch Cesare Danova occasionally change into Victor Mature). In addition to resurrecting the 1940 film's pseudo-dinosaurs, the film retreads the dueling cave-clan storyline, ending in a sappy 'why can't we all get along' group-hug, and just in case Roach's cosmetically-modified organisms aren't threat enough, the rubbery giant spider from 'World Without End' (1956) shows up, as does Toho Studios classic kaiju 'Rodan'. Since any merit in 'Valley of the Dragons' comes from the clever (but now very dated) recycled special effects, you might as well watch the original film instead of this patch-work cheapie.
Deadpool 2 (2018)
Perfect for people who like tongue-in-cheek blood-baths
Marvel anti-superhero (super anti-hero?) Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) deals with a potentially rogue mutant, a cyborg assassin from the future, and guilt feelings about his recently deceased girlfriend, all while managing to keep up a never-ending stream of one-liners, insults and wise-cracks. A sequels go, this one isn't too bad and, since it doesn't differ much from the first entry in the series, if you liked that one, you'll probably like this one too (although the novelty of a foul-mouthed pseudo-X-Man mutant-hero has worn off somewhat). To some viewers (such as me), the constant jokes and meta-humour gets a bit old after a while but, as the film is far from narrative driven, I guess it delivers on what is promised, and expected.
Big Meat Eater (1982)
Silly, low-budget farce
Aliens locate a rare radioactive element under the butcher shop in a quirky Canadian town being stalked by a mysterious, fez-wearing, singing, murderous meat-cutter of unusual size. The film is a Canadian entry into 'internationally bad' genre: camp films angling for cult status that were usually marked by poor special effects, amateur acting, excessiveness, and meta-humour - all deliberate. Since the intention is to subvert most of the criteria by which films are judged, all that remains is whether the move is a witty/clever satire ('Big Meat Eater' is not) and/or whether it's entertaining/enjoyable (personal taste). 'Big Meat Eater' has a couple of interesting song and dance numbers, and blues-musician Clarence 'Big' Miller is amusing in the title role; otherwise, it's a silly time-waster that will only appeal to fans of the genre (of which I am not).
American Made (2017)
Fitfully-amusing but overly-long, star-driven docu-dramedy
In this largely imaginary semicomedy-biopic, Tom Cruise plays drug trafficker/gunrunner/DEA informant Barry Seal. Cruise plays his usual lovable-rogue shtick (although without the over-the-top stunts and fights) and the rest of the cast, most of whom are playing 2D fictional or composite characters, are OK (although as Barry's wife Lucy, Sarah Wright looks like she parachuted in from the 2000s). The story is pretty farfetched and the movie is somewhat repetitious and too long for the material on-hand. Director Doug Liman summed up the historical accuracy of the film by describing it as "a fun lie based on a true story", so anyone expecting anything other than a light-weight Tom Cruise comedy-adventure-fantasy, caveat emptor.
The Irishman (2019)
Lengthy but well-made mob-biopic
Epic wiseguy drama from director Martin Scorsese follows Irish teamster and hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) from his introduction to mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci,) to his waning days in a nursing home, including the years he worked with legendary Teamster Union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The film is layed out in a multi-layered flashback format, with the story being told by an elderly, wheel-chair bound Sheeran reminiscing in a nursing home in the early 2000s, and 'flash-backed' by a middle-aged Sheenan on the road to a meeting in Detroit with Bufalino and their wives in 1975. The 'reverse aging' is pretty good although De Nero looks more than 30 years old when he first hooks up with the mob in 1950. Peschi is unusually understated and quite good as Bufalino, and DeNiro is fine playing his standard mobbed-up tough guy role, but Pacino is a bit over-the-top as a gripey Hoffa and seems to deliver most of his lines at least twice (perhaps the intent was to make Hoffa an irritating guy). Scorsese perennial Harvey Keitel shows up as ill-fated Philly boss Angelo Bruno and the rest of the cast, especially those playing Sheeran's family, are quite good. The story is interesting and the script, while typical of the genre (lots of swearing and tough-guy posturing), is fine. The film does a nice job evoking the decades over which it takes place, both in visual cues and by Scorsese's trademark pop-music soundtrack, and overall, makes for a entertaining mob-based history lesson. The 209 minute run-time seems a bit long for the story and there are a number of scenes that could have been shortened or deleted (IMO, but I may have missed their significance). One contrast to most of Scorsese's films (and the genre in general): the story of 'The Irishman' plays through to the very end, with top mob-bosses finally side-lined, and ultimately 'whacked', by infirmity and old age. There's a great scene towards the end of the film in which an exasperated FBI agent tries to convince the elderly Sheeran 'to talk' by pointing out that there is no one left to protect.
Logan Lucky (2017)
OK tongue-in-cheek caper comedy
A couple of brothers, one of whom thinks the family's hexed, set up an elaborate heist at the local speedway. The film follows the standard 'heist trajectory': identify the target, assemble the team, make the plan, do the job, deal with unexpected events, reveal the 'twist' ending. The entire premise is pretty far-fetched and there are more coincidences than a tightly written caper story would need but the story is entertaining, the cast great and the script and characters amusing. Best enjoyed without taking your brain out of park.
Paris, Texas (1984)
Languorous but interesting drama
A seemingly mute drifter who wanders out of the south Texas desert is reunited with his family and takes his young son on a search for his estranged wife. Directed by German auteur Wim Wenders (who also helmed the excellent 'Wings of Desire' (1987)), the slow-moving film is mesmerizing at times, especially the scenes in the starkly beautiful Mojave Desert. The cast is off-beat but excellent, with Harry Dean Stanton (one of the all-time great understated character actors) as Travis the laconic drifter, former child star Dean Stockwell and gorgeous French actress Aurore Clément as his concerned brother and sister in law, Nastassja Kinski as Travis' wife Jane and Hunter Carson, who is outstanding as Travis eight-year old son. The film is much about identity, misperception and dichotomy (the title comes from people confusing Paris, France with Paris, Texas, which is only seen as a photo of a small parcel of desert wasteland and seems to be Travis' 'alpha and omega'). The final scene, in which Travis tells his story in the third-person to Jane in a uniquely intimate yet remote way, is a bit long, but ultimately satisfying. Like 'Wings of Desire', I found the film sad, pensive, and memorable.
An entertaining, albeit dated, off-beat romantic comedy from the early 1970s
Following the sudden death of her quick-tempered husband ex-singer Alice Hyatt packs up her son and leaves New Mexico with the goal of starting a new life in Monetary, but fate and love intervene before she can get out of the south-west. Director Martin Scorsese gets excellent performances out of Ellen Burstyn as Alice and Diane Ladd as her 'gruff but lovable' waitress colleague Flo. Alfred Lutter is also good as her mouthy son Tommy (good enough to make the preteen boy quite unlikable at times), as is Scorsese perennial Harvey Keitel as a despicable low-life Alice briefly hooks up with, but Kris Kristofferson makes for a bland love interest. Much of the film rests on Burstyn's character, so if you don't really like Alice's parenting style and personality, you likely won't last out the story. The film begat a moderately successful sitcom ('Alice') in 1976 staring Linda Lavin with only diner-owner/cook Mel (Vic Tayback) carrying over from the original cast. A good film at the time and fine nostalgic entertainment today. Modern 'progressive' disciplinarians be warned: the film presents someone who'd spank an ill-behaved youth as still being a worthwhile person.
First Man (2018)
Good, reasonably accurate historical biopic
NASA plans to put a man on the moon by 1970 and Neil Armstrong ends up being mission commander and first man to stand on another celestial body. Well written and directed, the film manages to maintain a degree of tension despite the fact that there would be few people in the world who don't know how the story ends. Ryan Gosling is good as a steady, no-nonsense Armstrong and the fly-boy theatrics are kept at a minimum (in contrast to "The Right Stuff' (1983) for example). The special effects are outstanding and the film avoids Hollywood's usual distain for the facts when fiction would be more entertaining. I was surprised at how much I had forgotten about the 'space race' that I grew up during, so despite knowing the final outcome, I found the film educational (in a good way) as well as entertaining and nostalgic.
Batman Begins (2005)
Fun (albeit far-fetched) and visually striking bat-fantasy
Young Bruce Wayne, scarred by his parent's death, searches for meaning and redemption amongst the world's criminals and becomes a growling cowled vigilante, adopting mise en scène from his childhood chiroptophobia. The first of Christopher Nolan's popular bat-trilogy finding the caped-crusader (Christian Bale) battling his old teacher Ra's al Ghul for the fate of Gotham City. The film introduces the classic bat-characters, conflicted Commissioner (to be) Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Alfred the Butler (the always great Michael Caine) as well as Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) a love interest for Dark Knight's millionaire playboy alter-ego, and Lucius Fox, purveyor of cool, black bat-gadgets. There is lots of gritty, gravelly tough-guy talk punctuated by fights, high-speed chases, and acrobatics (all of which are physics-denying in the extreme). The story, while implausible, is entertaining enough and the script good (although some of the humour falls a bit flat). The only thing I really didn't like was the hero's ability to glide great distances using his temporarily rigid cape as wings - it made for a cool image the first time, but got silly-looking fast. The film closes with a set-up for the second, and best, entry in the trilogy, 2009's outstanding "The Dark Knight".
Nippon tanjô (1959)
Epic depiction of the mythical birth of Japan
I was unfamiliar with the story behind The Three Treasures and the legendary founding of Japan and Shintoism, and I found the film hard to follow, overly long, and ultimately a bit boring (even the fight between Susanoo (the great Toshiro Mifune) and the eight-headed dragon). Some of the imagery and special effects (from Toho Studios master Eiji Tsuburaya) were very good and the acting fine (for an action-fantasy film). Mifune is fine in the dual role of Prince Yamato Takeru and Susanoo, although I found the Prince's constant credulousness tiring (he is repeatedly lied to yet seems to believe everything he's told). I think I'd need more background in Japanese history and culture to really appreciate this film (fortunately not required to enjoy Toho's rollicking kaiju epics).
Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
More visually interesting then engaging
Hercule Poirot solves the titular crime in this lovely but somewhat bland version of Agatha Christie's famous story. The cast of A-listers are sumptuously dressed and bejewelled, and the luxurious train interiors nicely recreated, but the characters always seemed more like characters than like people, giving the film an artificial, stagy feeling. Having not read the Poirot books, I'm not familiar with the character, but Kenneth Branagh seemed OK as the somewhat obsessive-compulsive Belgian sleuth. Judy Dench, Derek Jacobi and Johnny Depp were as good as always, but I found Michelle Pfeiffer's portrayal of Caroline Hubbard unconvincing. The plot is interesting, if implausible, and the look of the film is fine, although the CGI images of the train moving through the Carpathian(?) Mountains were substandard (at least when viewed on my TV). OK, not great, and a reason for me to hunt down the 'star-studded' 1974 version for comparison.