Friday, May 22, 2015

Must-Watch Sci Fi / Fantasy Movies: Poltergeist (1982)

As the (unnecessary) remake of this movie hits the theaters today (and I have no intentions of watching it), I thought it was worth re-running my previous Must-Watch review of the original film. Go back and watch that one this weekend, your time will be better spent.  And also friendly warning: SPOILERS AHEAD!

Directed By: Tobe Hooper
Produced By: Frank Marshall, Steven Spielberg
Written By: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Beatrice Straight, Heather O'Rourke, Zelda Rubinstein
Original Release: 1982

Reviewed By: John J. Joex

Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars (Highest Rating)

Synopsis: The Freelings are a normal family living the suburban life in California in the 1980’s when they discover that the house they have lived in for several years has some odd quirks about it. Furniture starts to move by itself, the dog sees people who are not there, and their youngest daughter (Carol Anne played by the late Heather O'Rourke) hears voices on the television. At first this all seems mostly harmless, but then what looks like a storm ravages the house and Carol Anne disappears. When they hear her voice calling to them from the television, they know that something otherworldly has taken control of their house and they call in paranormal investigators to help them rescue their daughter. This leads to a descent into the bowels of the Freelings' possessed house and a journey into terror.

Review/Commentary: Poltergeist came out back in the early 80’s when the boom of sfx-laden blockbusters really began to kick into high gear and the film delivered a big budget, Hollywood-ized horror film that managed to beat the odds by actually being good. This was a Steven Spielberg film, though he only penned the story and produced, he did not direct (though allegedly Spielberg actually did do much of the directing but did not add his name to the credits because of a clause in his contract with Universal where he was directing E.T.). Tobe Hooper took the actual credit as the director for the film and brought some horror-movie cred with him as the writer and director of the cult slasher classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The marriage of these two talents (along with their supporting cast and crew) delivered a blockbuster-style film to appeal to the masses that never forgot its horror roots .

Poltergeist succeeds because it finds horror in the everyday world; horror that we all can relate to. Its menace does not live in a dilapidated haunted house or in the isolated backwoods. It’s in the suburbs, in our very bedrooms. It invokes the terror deep inside spurred by everyday things we find in our homes like that creepy toy we got for Christmas one year or that spooky old tree in the back yard or even from the television set. Those irrational fears that we are told to ignore actually prove themselves out in this movies as they manifest the latent horror we always knew resided in them.

The movie also works masterfully in the way that it draws the audience into its premise. It starts slow by introducing us to the Freelings who live in the “normal” house we will learn to dread. They seem like the typical, nuclear family of the 80’s living in a nice suburban home and carrying on the usual, over-stressed lifestyle with too little time to deal with all the necessary daily routines. But they discover something odd about their house—furniture moves by itself, the dog sees people who are not there—and at first it seems fun and exciting. Then it turns sinister and perhaps deadly as the youngest child is abducted by an unseen presence and can only communicate with her family as an eerie voice emitting from the television.

This is when the film turns the corner and begins to unfold as a horror movie. And it does so at a relentless pace as wave after wave of events bring the family (and the paranormal investigators they have called in) face to face with the sinister forces that have possessed the house. The film delivers some fairly horrific and at times graphic scenes, but it never descends into gratuitous gore. Instead, it treads that fine line that keeps it in the PG rating category, not by compromise but by judicious use of the horror elements. And the fact that the horror never seems to end, but instead just keeps building, emphasizes the terror that has overtaken the Freelings family. (MAJOR SPOILER: Skip to the next paragraph to avoid.) And just as you think the movie has reached a resolution, it provides its own version of the horror movie standard “bounce back” scene that again avoids the gratuitous and actually provides a final resolution for the film.

What really holds the film together, though, is the tangible love that the Feelings demonstrate for one another and their willingness to fight through anything to keep their family from harm. Their desperate pleas for Carol Anne’s safety when they hear her through the television demonstrates the family’s strong bond and keeps the audience routing for the young child to make it through her ordeal. And this is not accomplished with the typical child-in-jeopardy ploy (something that Speilberg would later resort to many times) but much more genuinely by portraying Carol Anne as a child who has become lost and now the family must pull together to help her. And the cast, which noticeably and refreshingly lacks big-name stars, pulls this off through their believable sincere performances. Plus, the movie gets the added bonus of the inclusion of the diminutive but always delightful Zelda Rubinstein, one the greatest character actresses of all time.

And while people today may not realize it, this movie has seeped into popular culture over the years since its release with infamous lines like “They’re Here!” and “Don’t go toward the light!” as well as the since clichéd idea of building on a burial site and perhaps even the menacing potential of the television set. However, the movie often gets overlooked when compiling best-of lists, probably in part because its slick, big budget look strays from the seedy, darker approach that pure Horror fans prefer and because it delves too far into the paranormal for the tastes of most Science Fiction and/or Fantasy fans. But this is not a movie to pass on. It is definitely a first rate Horror movie with a broader appeal making it a film that should be appreciated by anybody who enjoys a good, engaging story.

Buy the original Poltergeist on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com:

Monday, May 18, 2015

First Look at the New Sci Fi / Fantasy Shows for the 2015-16 Season: DC's Legends of Tomorrow and Lucifer Look Like Winners

Below are the official synopses for the new sci fi / fantasy shows that the broadcast networks announced at the upfronts for the coming 2015-16 seasons.  Interestingly, ABC has no new genre entries this time around despite being the one Big Four network that has championed sci fi / fantasy the most the last few seasons.  But then they are bringing back four shows from the current season (Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter, Once Upon A Time, and Galavant), and they do have another Marvel show in the works, though no word on when that one will hit (and the SHIELD spin-off is not completely dead).  Plus, ABC is bringing the Muppets back, and you can debate all you want on whether it is a genre show, but you should be watching it.  Also of interest, sci fi-averse CBS has three new entries on its schedule, which is the most it has had in years.  FOX has the most new shows with five (that's counting The X-Files revival as a "new" entry), whereas NBC has only one (if you count Heroes Reborn as new) plus Blindspot that may prove to have some genre elements.  And The CW only has two new sci fi shows on the way, but seeing as they are carrying over eight (!), I don't believe that we can complain too much.

Following is the info on each of the new genre shows (sorted by network) with my comments below each.  You can see the initial schedule for Fall 2015 at this link with my comments and I will be giving my cancellation predictions on these shows as its gets closer to the beginning of the Fall season.

The Muppets (ABC): The Muppets return to primetime with a contemporary, documentary-style show. For the first time ever, a series will explore the Muppets’ personal lives and relationships, both at home and at work, as well as romances, breakups, achievements, disappointments, wants and desires. This is a more adult Muppet show, for “kids” of all ages.

Johnny Jay Says: This looks like The Muppet Show meets The Office, which could be a ton of fun if done right (ABC, you better not mess this up!).  I would have preferred that they just bring back the old Muppet Show variety format (that could have worked great, and it already had a behind the scenes feel to it), but I will definitely be tuning in for this one.

Angel from Hell (CBS): Golden Globe and multiple Emmy Award winner Jane Lynch stars in a single-camera comedy about Amy (Lynch), a colorful, brassy woman who insinuates herself into Allison’s (Maggie Lawson) organized and seemingly perfect life, claiming to be her “guardian angel.” Allison is an intense, driven doctor who is sure that Amy is just an inebriated, outspoken nut, until every one of her warnings proves true. Cautioned by Amy not tell anyone about her, Allison can’t discuss this over-the-top oddball with her father and business partner, Marv (Kevin Pollak), a sunburned dermatologist who shares an office with Allison, or her younger brother, Brad (Kyle Bornheimer), a pharmaceutical sales rep who lives over her garage. As Allison tries to push Amy away, Amy makes her final pitch: her sole mission is to provide Allison with helpful guidance that nudges her in the right direction in life – and it’s her final chance to prove herself as an angel. With that, Allison agrees to this unlikely relationship because maybe a weird friend is exactly what she needs… and what if Amy really is her “guardian angel”?

Johnny Jay Says: The trailer for this supernatural comedy looks interesting and I enjoyed sci fi sitcom The Last Man on Earth a lot more than I expected.  I will give it a look.

Limitless (CBS):  (Based on the feature film) A fast-paced drama about Brian Finch (Jake McDorman), who discovers the brain-boosting power of the mysterious drug NZT and is coerced by the FBI into using his extraordinary cognitive abilities to solve complex cases for them. Working closely with Brian in the major case squad in New York City is Special Agent Rebecca Harris (Jennifer Carpenter), a formidable investigator with a dark past, and Special Agent Boyle (Hill Harper), a former military officer and Rebecca’s confidante. They report to Special Agent in Charge Nasreen “Naz” Pouran (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a canny manipulator of the reins of power. Unbeknownst to the FBI, Brian also has a clandestine relationship with Senator Edward Mora (Academy Award nominee Bradley Cooper, recurring), a presidential hopeful and regular user of NZT who has plans of his own for his new protégé. Fueled now with a steady supply of NZT that enables him to use 100% of his brain capacity, Brian is more effective than all of the FBI agents combined, making him a criminal’s worst nightmare and the greatest asset the Bureau has ever possessed.

Johnny Jay Says: Never got around to seeing the movie, but the TV spin-off looks worth checking out.  Seems real close to 2014's Intelligence, though, with a drug enhancing the hero's brain this time around rather than a computer chip.  And it's getting the same timeslot that killed that show, so that is concerning (more on that at this link).

Supergirl (CBS):  An action-adventure drama based on the DC Comics character Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist), Superman’s (Kal-El) cousin who, after 12 years of keeping her powers a secret on Earth, decides to finally embrace her superhuman abilities and be the hero she was always meant to be. Twelve-year-old Kara escaped the doomed planet Krypton with her parents’ help at the same time as the infant Kal-El. Protected and raised on Earth by her foster family, the Danvers, Kara grew up in the shadow of her foster sister, Alex (Chyler Leigh), and learned to conceal the phenomenal powers she shares with her famous cousin in order to keep her identity a secret. Years later at 24, Kara lives in National City assisting media mogul and fierce taskmaster Cat Grant (Golden Globe Award winner Calista Flockhart), who just hired the Daily Planet’s former photographer, James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks), as her new art director. However, Kara’s days of keeping her talents a secret are over when Hank Henshaw (David Harewood), head of a super-secret agency where her sister also works, enlists her to help them protect the citizens of National City from sinister threats. Though Kara will need to find a way to manage her newfound empowerment with her very human relationships, her heart soars as she takes to the skies as Supergirl to fight crime.

Johnny Jay Says: The first trailer was more girl and less super in this superhero / Ally McBeal hybrid (okay, I never watched Ally McBeal, but Supergirl does have Calista Flockhart).  It should be worth checking out, but don't care for the scheduling (directly against FOX's Gotham), and I go into more detail on that at this link.

DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (CW): When heroes alone are not enough… the world needs legends. Having seen the future, one he will desperately try to prevent from happening, time-traveling rogue Rip Hunter is tasked with assembling a disparate group of both heroes and villains to confront an unstoppable threat – one in which not only is the planet at stake, but all of time itself. Can this ragtag team defeat an immortal threat unlike anything they have ever known?

Johnny Jay Says: This is the 2015-16 season show that I am most pumped about from the broadcast networks and looks like it could be the most expensive show that The CW has produced to date.  It appears to be bringing along more of the fun elements of The Flash and less of the dark-and-gritty of Arrow and could deliver a decent superhero team-up romp!

Containment (formerly Cordon) (CW):  When a mysterious and deadly epidemic breaks out in Atlanta, a vast urban quarantine is quickly enforced, forcing those stuck on the inside to fight for their lives while local and federal officials desperately search for a cure. Trying to keep the peace on the streets is police officer Lex Carnahan, who has quickly risen through the ranks of the Atlanta PD. But Lex’s job becomes even harder when he learns that his longtime girlfriend, Jana, and his best friend and fellow officer Jake, are trapped within the cordoned area.

Johnny Jay Says: I'm always a sucker for a good pandemic tale, though I wonder if TWD prequel series Fear the Walking Dead might cover the same territory much better.  The trailer makes it look like it has less of The CW's trademark soap opera diversions, but you have to wonder how they will pad this out into a thirteen episode season (it bows mid-year) and then into more seasons beyond that.  Still, I will have it on my watch list.

The Frankenstein Code (FOX): A modern reimagining of the Mary Shelley classic, about a man brought back to life by two scientists playing god. Seventy-five-year-old JIMMY PRITCHARD is a shell of his former self. A drinker, a womanizer and a father who always put work before family, Pritchard was forced to resign as L.A. County Sheriff for corrupt conduct more than a decade ago. Now, some 15 unkind years later, he is killed when he stumbles upon a robbery at the home of FBI Agent DUVAL PRITCHARD, one of his three children. But death is surprisingly short for Jimmy, who is brought back to life by billionaire tech-genius twins MARY GOODWIN and her brother, OTTO, founders of the social networking empire, Lookinglass. Resurrected as a younger version of himself, with physical abilities of which he never dreamed, a re-animated Pritchard is given a second chance at life. What will he do with it? Will he seek vengeance against those who killed him? Will he try to repair the damage he did to his family? Will he embrace a new sense of purpose or fall prey to old temptations?

Johnny Jay Says: There were several Frankenstein pilots making the rounds across the networks (one starring Sean Bean), and this is the only one that stuck.  The premise seems rather tired, though, and it throws in the title of Mary Shelley's book to get some name recognition.  I'll check it out, but don't have high hopes.

Lucifer (FOX):  Based upon the characters created by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg for DC Entertainment’s Vertigo imprint, LUCIFER is the story of the original fallen angel. Bored and unhappy as the Lord of Hell, LUCIFER MORNINGSTAR has abandoned his throne and retired to L.A., where he owns Lux, an upscale nightclub. Charming, charismatic and devilishly handsome, Lucifer is enjoying his retirement, indulging in a few of his favorite things – wine, women and song – when a beautiful pop star is brutally murdered outside of Lux. For the first time in roughly 10 billion years, he feels something awaken deep within him as a result of this murder. Compassion? Sympathy? The very thought disturbs him – as well as his best friend and confidante, MAZIKEEN aka MAZE, a fierce demon in the form of a beautiful young woman.

Johnny Jay Says: I never read the Neil Gaiman comic book, but the trailer makes it look like a ton of fun!  Seems like it would have been a better fit on one of the cable channels (and a great pair up with Constantine), but hopefully FOX won't water it down too much.

Minority Report (FOX): Based on the international blockbuster film by executive producer Steven Spielberg and the first of his films to be adapted for television, MINORITY REPORT follows the unlikely partnership between a man haunted by the future and a cop haunted by her past, as they race to stop the worst crimes of the year 2065 before they happen. Set in Washington, D.C., it is 10 years after the demise of Precrime, a law enforcement agency tasked with identifying and eliminating criminals…before their crimes were committed. To carry out this brand of justice, the agency used three precogs – “precognitives” Dash, Arthur and Agatha – who were able to see the future. Now, in 2065, crime-solving is different, and justice leans more on sophisticated and trusted technology than on the instincts of the precogs.

Johnny Jay Says: There's a ton of potential with this one and maybe they could dive into the pre-crime moral quandaries that Person of Interest has only skirted around.  But I'm worried that this will turn into another procedural with a few sci fi twists.

Scream Queens (FOX): FOX has ordered SCREAM QUEENS, a new genre-bending comedy-horror anthology series.  The series, produced by 20th Century Fox Television, is from Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Ian Brennan and Dante Di Loreto, the executive producers of GLEE and “American Horror Story.” The first installment in the new anthology series revolves around a college campus which is rocked by a series of murders.

Johnny Jay Says: Not really sci fi, but genre fans may find something to like here.  The trailer sure makes it look fun.

The X-Files (FOX): Thirteen years after the original series run, FOX has ordered the next mind-bending chapter of THE X-FILES, a thrilling, six-episode event series which will be helmed by creator/executive producer Chris Carter, with stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson re-inhabiting their roles as iconic FBI Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. This marks the momentous return of the Emmy- and Golden Globe Award-winning pop culture phenomenon, which remains one of the longest-running sci-fi series in network television history.  (Premieres Jan 24, 2016)

Johnny Jay Says: Holding out hope that they will do justice to the original series.  That show really slipped in quality its last few years, but with just a few episodes (six total) the creative team can hopefully focus their energies and deliver a good addition to the show's legacy.

Blindspot (NBC): A vast international plot explodes when a beautiful Jane Doe is discovered naked in Times Square, completely covered in mysterious, intricate tattoos with no memory of who she is or how she got there. But there's one tattoo that is impossible to miss: the name of FBI agent Kurt Weller, emblazoned across her back. "Jane," Agent Weller and the rest of the FBI quickly realize that each mark on her body is a crime to solve, leading them closer to the truth about her identity and the mysteries to be revealed.

Johnny Jay Says: Another one of those shows with conspiracies and mysteries padding out each hour.  It may have some sci fi elements, but it will have to hook me quick to keep my attention.

Heroes Reborn (NBC): The saga behind the 2006 breakout series "Heroes" will continue this fall as creator Tim Kring returns to the fold and develops new layers to his original superhero concept.  This highly anticipated 13-episode event series will reconnect with the basic elements of the show’s first season, where ordinary people were waking up to the fact that they had extraordinary abilities.

Johnny Jay Says: We're all hoping that the revival will be more Season 1 Heroes and less Seasons 2 thru 4.  This could be great continuation (that gives some resolution to the Season 4 cliffhanger) or it could be yet another derailment for that once-promising show.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Anti-Blockbusters: Mad Max 2 - The Road Warrior

With the upcoming Mad Max: Fury Road (the fourth film in the franchise) due out on May 15th, I though it would be worth pulling out this Anti-Blockbuster piece I previous did on The Road Warrior.

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars

The dystopian film Mad Max came out back in 1979 with a then unknown Mel Gibson in the lead role and garnered some attention for its bleak vision of the future and themes focusing on the breakdown of society. But it was the sequel to this low budget film, Mad Max 2 (known in the states as The Road Warrior) that marked a significant milestone in movie-making when it came out in 1981. And in so doing it managed to achieve that rare feat of producing a follow-up film superior to the original.

The second film gives us a post-apocalyptic, western style movie set after society has collapsed even further than what we saw in Mad Max. We follow the former cop Max (Gibson) as he treks through the desert searching for fuel to keep his car running and avoiding the marauders that want to steal what little petrol he has. He meets up with a man flying a make-shift gyro-copter (played by Bruce Spence) who tells him about a factory nearby that has as much gas as he could want. The two head to the location (with Max having taken the gyro-pilot as his prisoner) but find it under siege from a gang of desert marauders led by their hockey-mask clad leader Humongous. Max helps one of the people from the compound, thus gaining entry to their fort and he asks for fuel in return. He then learns of their plan to flee from the compound with as much fuel as they can take and he tells them of a rig that he knows of that will haul their tanker. He retrieves the rig for them (sustaining some pretty serious injuries in the process) and plans to leave with the fuel that they promised him once he returns. However, he eventually decides to help them in their flight and agrees to drive the rig hauling the tanker as a distraction so that the others in the compound can escape and head to a promised land they believe lies to the north.

The Road Warrior delivers a bare-bones plot with little in the way of character development and much in the way of mayhem and destruction, but it did manages to distinguish itself on two very important points. First and most obvious is its stylized approach that basically established the look for the post-apocalyptic world (much the way that Blade Runner did for the dystopic world) through the 80’s and beyond. The punk-rock / leather-bondage appearance of the characters in the film, that has since been dubbed the Road Warrior-look, immediately set this film apart and set the visual vocabulary for movies of this type that would follow. That along with the chop-shop, throw-together vehicles added much to the visual appeal and legacy of the film.

Road Warrior’s second distinguishing point is the message that can be found within its subtext. This film did not try to make a grand statement or shout any pedantic messages at those watching. It was a bleak action film with a threadbare plot, but it resonated with audiences for a reason. Beneath the carnage and demolition-derby antics lay an austere, ironic message: in this despondent future, life is cheap, fuel is worth much more. And that spoke to the psyche of the audience at that time and still today because if you look back over the last few decades you can see where this has played itself out in world affairs. This movie connected with its viewers on a sub-conscious level in a way that other films like 1956’s The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and 1988’s They Live, did by touching on the deeper, hidden anxieties of their times. The visual appeal of the film definitely helped draw the audience in, but that underlying message kept it alive and boiling beneath the surface well after the closing credits rolled.

The Road Warrior was definitely not a big budget production, though it had a healthy amount of funds for an Australian production (4 million Australian dollars, ten times what Mad Max cost). Still, most of that went into the scenes depicting vehicular destruction and the film does have somewhat of a cheesy feel to it. But that does not detract from it, and in fact it actually lends to the overall atmosphere. The same can be said for the sparse character development. We get little to help us understand what motivates the characters in the film beyond their base needs and urges. But the very adept cast fills in the blanks quite often with their performances. For example, we see this in the reactions from Max and the gyro-pilot when they watch the marauders attack a couple fleeing from the compound. Max may have drifted pretty far from the conventions of the civilized world, but we can see from his reactions to the violence he witnesses that he has not completely lost touch with his humanity. Little bits like this are peppered throughout the film, giving it a touch more depth than you might expect.

And while the movie is fueled mostly by machismo and testosterone, it does not fall apart without that. There is more beneath the surface even if it does not try to belabor us with proselytizing or grand-standing. And because it was made outside of the Hollywood machine, it was not bound by the conventions expected from major studios. For that reason, it succeeded in traversing new ground and setting the bar for films similar to it, and ultimately the Hollywood juggernaut would follow the lead set by this small-time, indie outsider.

Buy the Mad Max Movies on Blu-ray from Amazon.com:

Friday, May 8, 2015

#DidYouKnow That You Can Read Tons of Archived Golden Age Comics at The Digital Comics Museum?

I believe I already knew about this site, but I recently re-stumbled upon The Digital Comics Museum which is a repository for scans of Golden Age comics now in the public domain.  There are plenty of books and characters there that have been long forgotten, and for good reason, but there is also a ton of good classic comics available as well.  There's quite a selection of the pre-code horror and sci fi books from publishers like American Comics Group, Holyoke, Ajax-Farrell, Charlton, and more.  You may remember that these were the much-maligned comics that were supposed to bring the juvenile-pocalypse to the 1950's and that lead to the rise of the Comics Code and the demise of EC comics (unfortunately, none of that publisher's works are here, though they are readily available in nicely collected volumes).  You can also find what looks like a nearly complete run of Fawcett's Captain Marvel (aka Shazam) and his many spin-offs.  Apparently even though DC won the rights to the character in the (rather ridiculous) lawsuit claiming Fawcett's Captain Marvel was a swipe of Superman, the winning company did not get the rights to the original stories and those have since slipped into the public domain.  Also of interest are the Airboy comics from Hillman, as many of those had the Heap as a backup character.  He was the first comic book swamp-monster and had a celebrated run during the Golden Age (and slightly beyond) even though he has been mostly forgotten by modern readers.  One other gem that I enjoyed uncovering was Atoman by Spark Publications, which came out in 1946.  That character offered a prototype of the nuclear radiation powered superhero that we would later see revived with the likes of Charlton's Captain Atom, Gold Key's Dr. Solar, and DC's Firestorm.  The first issue of Atoman delivers a solid origin story and looks like it could have turned into a fun comic.  Unfortunately, he disappeared after his second issue (not included on this site but one of the most requested), though since he is in the public domain now a return is always possible!

A warning that this site can be quite addictive as you find yourself drawn into its archives looking for (and finding plenty of) nuggets of comics lore.  Most of the scans I have seen thus far appear to come from original issues of the comics.  Some are a bit rough because of the condition of the issue, but they all seem readable.  You can either view them online or download the issues (you have to register first, and they do request a donation) and view them with a .cbr reader.  I haven't checked yet, but I'm sure you can find apps for your tablet that will let you read these files meaning that you can carry around quite a lot of Golden Age reading material with you quite easily!  For reading online, I have found that the Internet Archive has a lot of these issues and they are easier to read there.  So if you prefer to view them on your computer, you can search on the Digital Comics Museum site then click over to the Internet Archive to actually read them.  However you do it, though, there's plenty of Golden Age fun to keep you busy for hours!

Also of interest is the Public Domain Super Heroes site that has info on a ton of characters that have since had their copyrights lapse.  Surely we could come up with a few good (or enjoyably bad) superhero team ups from characters across these sites!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

25 Must-Watch Sci Fi Movies


25 Must-Watch Science Fiction and Fantasy Movies

So many science fiction and fantasy movies and so little time. Metropolis, King Kong, War of the Worlds, Fantastic Voyage, Star Wars, The Terminator, The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Inception . . . Plan 9 From Outer Space . . . and so many, many more. Where to start and which ones to watch? Well that's what this book is here to help you with. It may not cover all science fiction movies, and not even all of those mentioned above, but it gives you a heck of a good starting point. This book begins with 1927’s Metropolis and then treks through 24 more genre films ending with 2009's Moon to give you an extensive look at some of the best of the best of science fiction and fantasy cinema. Each entry includes a synopsis, review/commentary, cast and crew information, as well as a few nuggets of tidbits and trivia relating to the films. Whether you are new to the genre and trying to figure out where to get started or a grizzled veteran who has logged many hours in the cinema watching sci fi, 25 Must Watch Science Fiction and Fantasy Movies is sure to entertain. And even if you have already seen the movies covered in the book, there's a good chance you could walk away knowing a little bit (or maybe even a lot) more about these films than you did previously.

A great primer for science fiction and fantasy cinema and a fun read as well!

Available now on Kindle from Amazon.com. 

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Sunday, May 3, 2015

Movie Review: Avengers - Age of Ultron

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: The movie never succumbs to the weight of its extended cast and also avoids the temptation to go dark as it delivers another entertaining entry in the Marvel movie franchise.

By this point, there are probably at least a gozillion reviews of the latest Avengers movie on the internet (and it currently holds a 75% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes), but I thought I would go ahead and throw in my two cents as well, focusing on a few things that stood out to me.

As most people with even the slightest familiarity with the Marvel movies know, this is the second entry to team up multiple superheroes as the Avengers after the first film made over a billion dollars worldwide.  That one brought together Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Nick Fury, and SHIELD.  The sequel gives in to the typical trend among superhero movies to add even more characters with Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, Vision, Warbird, and the Falcon now jumping onboard the team.  But while this has typically lead to a bloatfest in the past with far too many superheroes to keep track of onscreen short of a scorecard in hand, director Joss Whedon finds the perfect balance with this expanded cast and it never becomes unwieldy.  Important to all of these characters working well together is the palpable chemistry that they demonstrate, with neither the major nor minor characters upstaging one another.  Some do get more beefed up parts, particularly those returning from the first film, but everybody holds their own with each making notable contributions to the film as a whole.  That's an amazing accomplishment, especially when you consider the star-powered egos involved, but perhaps this points to Whedon's talents as a director and ability to keep his extended cast happy and working well together.  Also important is the fact that Whedon manages to insert some short but poignant character development moments for the heroes like Black Widow and Hawkeye who have not had solo movies of there own (but who should have solo movies of their own).  Those sequences are not belabored, but they give us just enough insight to those characters to elevate them beyond cardboard, background padding to the cast.

And while the movie does expand the cast of heroes, it resists the temptation to add multiple villains to the second film (though with Ultron's ability keep multiplying himself, perhaps the creative team figured he could fill up the same space as several villains).  And we also get a first-rate voice and motion-capture performance from James Spader that helps elevate Ultron to more than just the cackling, one-dimensional villain so common in the comic book realm.  Focusing on the threat that Ultron presents alone, without too many side stories or non sequiturs, keeps this film on track and also allows it to make best use of its expanded cast.

Some of the early trailers for Avengers - Age of Ultron suggested it would veer toward the darker tone that the DC superheroes movies have preferred, and I felt that would be a mistep because the Marvel movies have succeeded by avoiding that murky, emo-ridden, grittiness.  But just a few minutes into this film proved it to stay the Marvel course with plenty of witty dialogue and good, fun superhero butt-kicking.  It still has that epic feel to it and there's a pretty good story carrying along the quips and comic mayhem, but the main goal here is to provide entertainment on a grand scale which it does without slipping into the Blockbuster Overload territory.  And its two hours and twenty minutes runs at a very brisk pace, never feeling drawn out nor getting off track (unlike DC's misguided dark reimagining of Superman in the slogfest that is Man of Steel).  Entertaining the audience remains the key focus, and this film does a first-rate job of that while also maneuvering past the mind-numbing CGI excesses that have become all to common in sci fi blockbusters these days.

After enjoying the first Avengers movie so much, I didn't believe that the sequel could top it, especially when you consider the expanded cast and the early indications that it would be going dark on us.  But having recently re-watched the first film and then seeing the sequel this weekend, I have to give the follow up the edge at this point.  Not by much, and they are both excellent sci fi / superhero movies, but I was pleasantly surprised by Age of Ultron and hope that they can continue to same level of quality with the upcoming Avengers movies (especially considering the fact the Joss Whedon is now bowing out).  And DC needs to take note with their upcoming attempts to build their own expanded movie franchise, toning down on the dark tendencies while amping up the entertainment value.

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Saturday, May 2, 2015

Audiobook Review: The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Tombs of Atuan

Book Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

Audiobook Ratings: 4 out of 5 Stars

The Farthest Shore

Book Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Audiobook Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: Both books are solid fantasy entries by Le Guin that expand on the Earthsea setting, though they don't quite attain the classic status of A Wizard of Earthsea.

The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore are the second and third books of the Earthsea Trilogy written by Ursula K. Le Guin in the late 60’s / early 70’s (she would later carry on the story starting with Tehanu in 1990).  Interestingly, this trilogy is very much a precursor to the Young Adult trend that has become all the rage the last decade or so as each of Le Guin's book focuses on a youthful character and delivers a coming of age story.  The first book in the trilogy, A Wizard of Earthsea, tells the story of a boy who becomes the apprentice to a mage and goes on to become a great wizard himself known as Sparrowhawk (and also by his true name of Ged).  That one ranks as one of my all-time favorite fantasy books and you can see my previous review of it at this link.  In the two subsequent books of the initial trilogy, Sparrowhawk becomes a supporting character who plays a crucial role in the coming of age of each of the new characters.

(MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD)

In The Tombs of Atuan, we are introduced to a girl who has been chosen to assume the position of the high priestess of the “Nameless Ones” because she was born on the same night that the previous priestess died (thus they believe that her immortal soul passed into its next body).  She is given the name Arha (meaning the “Eaten One” because she has been "consumed" by the Nameless Ones) and subjected to the rigid teachings and rituals of her order.  The gods she serves are dark ones and the Kargish empire the temple is part of is a warlike nation.  Arha is not bothered by this at first because she was brought up to believe in these ways, but as she matures she finds her life unsatisfying.  But one day a certain wizard attempts to infiltrate the labrynthe beneath the tombs and sets a sequence of events into place that eventually change the path that Arha has been forced upon.

In The Farthest Shore, Arren--the prince of Enland--comes to the island of Roke seeking the help of the mages to stave off a darkness that has begun to descend upon his lands.  He comes in contact with Sparrowhawk who is impressed by this boy on the cusp of manhood and agrees to help him seek out the source of this darkness that threatens the lands.  They travel--as the title suggests--to the farthest shores of Earthsea and confront a wizard who succumbed to the ambitions that nearly destroyed Sparrowhawk when he was young and first learning the extent of his magical powers.  This leads to a final confrontation that will decide the fate of all Earthsea and also provides a closure to Sparrowhawk's story arc that began with the first tale.

Both of these books are solid fantasy entries that expand on the Earthsea setting Le Guin first crafted in A Wizard of Earthsea.  The world is so named because it is comprised of many islands populated by a diverse selection of people, some possessing strong magical powers and some who have shunned magic and prefer the ways of war.  Each of the books builds upon the events of the other (beginning with the first) and each presents its own coming of age story for its focal character (first Sparrowhawk, then Arha, then Arren).  Though they are not so closely linked together that they could not work as standalone novels (but after you have read one, you will find yourself drawn into this world and will want to read more).  As I mentioned above, the first book is an all-time favorite of mine and I would argue that it deserves a place in the Top 5 best fantasy books (and at least Top 25 best sci fi / fantasy).  The second and third books of the trilogy don’t quite attain that status, but they are solid fantasy works.  In The Tombs of Atuan, I really wish Le Guin had developed Arha’s character better and built up to her sudden change of heart.  But it’s not anything that derailed the story and when I get around to Tehanu maybe I will find what I was looking for there.  I like The Farthest Shore better, but it never rose to the classic that A Wizard of Earthsea delivered.  But if you have read the first one (and you should read that one), by all means continue with the next two.  You will not be disappointed.

As for the audiobook versions, they are given excellent treatment by Rob Inglis (he also voiced A Wizard of Earthsea, but I listened to the version by Harlan Ellison).  Inglis ushered me through the audiobook versions of The Lord of the Rings (more on those at this link) and The Hobbit and did a first-rate job on all four of those books.  I have to admit, though. that I had struggled with his voice work on the Le Guin books at first as I kept drifting back to Middle Earth because I had become so accustomed to Inglis bringing that world to life.  Also, his somber and steady delivery is so far from the impassioned, frenetic reading that Ellison did for the first book that it is quite a different experience.  But I can’t fault Inglis for his familiarity or for not being Ellison and I have to admit that he is an excellent choice as narrator for these books.  Unfortunately, the audiobook version of A Wizard of Earthsea performed by Ellison is no longer readily available, but Inglis’ reading will surely suffice.  I highly recommend this entire trilogy and plan on catching up with the later Earthsea books (which I never got around to reading) at some point in the near future.