Monday, December 22, 2014

The Anti-Blockbusters: Grendel Grendel Grendel

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars

Depiction of Grendel from the film
This little-known Australian animated musical comedy based on John Gardner’s book Grendel came out in 1981 and was written, directed, and designed by Alexander Stitt.  The book and the movie give us a different perspective on the events of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, this time from the point of view of the monster that the warrior slays (a similar revisionist take on the poem can be found in the excellent 2005 film Beowulf & Grendel).  The book came out in 1971 and, as the introduction to the movie suggests, offered a counterculture look at a classic piece of literature.  Grendel is portrayed not as a mindless, homicidal monster, but as a creature who follows a very different path than the humans who have marked him as their enemy.  Grendel is seen as a loner, who even the beasts of the forest shun, with no one to talk to except his deranged mother and a dragon (ostensibly the one that Beowulf encounters later in his own tale), who offers some philosophical quandaries to Grendel, but not much in the way of useful advice.

I recall encountering Grendel Grendel Grendel (the repitition of the beast's name comes from the film's theme song) during the early days of VHS (link to Wikipedia provided for those unfamiliar with the term) as one of the few genre entries on the shelves in the rental stores.  I watched it then and it stuck with me for years, but I could never find it again because it disappeared from video shelves and didn’t receive the DVD treatment (until just recently). 

It's a very strange animated movie, and not one that audiences nurtured on the high-tech CGI of films like Toy Story, Shrek, and The Incredibles (or even the line drawings of the Disney films) will easily warm up to.  The drawings are done in a very simplistic, child-like manner, and the animation itself is quite choppy.  The whole thing, with its musical numbers included, appears to be targeted at very young viewers.  But the subject matter is far above the head of a pre-schooler audience and it has some rather graphic scenes such as Grendel biting the head off a warrior and Beowulf ripping the arm off the beast (it even has some brief nudity). 

In truth, the movie is definitely intended for an older audience, and genre fans should give this one a chance.  The crude graphics actually become quite endearing once you get used to them, and the childlike simplicity of it all actually provides a good contrast to some of the moral dilemmas raised in the story.  And the voice actors all do an excellent job with their characters, especially Peter Ustinov who lends his vocals to Grendel.  And it seems to follow the book pretty well, though it’s been years sense I read that, so it could diverge more than I remember.  Consider it a diamond in the rough, but still an excellent piece of fantasy story-telling with some existential, philosophical undertones to it (the same is true for Gardner’s novel).

The film has finally received a DVD release, though what you get is a DVD-ROM that by all appearances looks to be a transfer from VHS.  And it doesn’t come over too well, with the color contrast way too heavy and the picture blurry at times.  It’ll do for those of us who have been waiting eagerly for a chance to revisit this film, but may further frustrate modern-day viewers who are already put off by the rudimentary graphics of the film.   

A note of interest:  Grendel Grendel Grendel was only the second full length animated feature to come out of Australia.  The first was 1972’s Marco Polo Junior Versus the Red Dragon.

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Friday, December 19, 2014

TV Review: Ascension

Rating: 1 out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line:  This mini-series fails almost completely at delivering good science fiction and proves that Syfy still doesn't get it.

So Syfy has claimed that they want to move toward heavier science fiction oriented programming and away from the "genre-lite" scripted shows they have been delivering the last few years (you can read the interview with network president Dave Howe at this link).  They have recognized that they are missing out on the audience tuning into shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead (which are currently stomping even the broadcast networks), and their much-hyped mini-series Ascension was supposed to be the launching point for the much-maligned cable channel's new direction.  But if that was intended to sway sci fi fans back to the network in large numbers, it misfired in a big way as far as ratings and it was a big, dull dud of an "event" series.

Normally, I'm careful about revealing spoilers in reviews, but this time around I could really care less because I would just as soon save five plus hours of your time watching from this poor excuse for engaging television.  But if you choose not to heed my warnings (PLEASE, heed my warnings), I will warn you once: MAJOR SPOILERS ahead.

Ascension follows the crew of a generation ship launched from Earth clandestinely in the 1960's during a time when it looked like nuclear war might lead to the extinction of the human race.  They are now in the 51st year of the their 100 year mission to travel to and colonize Alpha Centauri (which puts them in the present day by our perspective) and at the Rubicon or "point of no return" if they continue.  A murder on board (the first that has occurred during the journey) makes people question the mission, though, and prompts a ship-wide investigation.  And that ultimately leads to a surprise revelation to the viewers that the ship is not actually in space, but this whole thing is a social experiment being conducted on Earth, and the inhabitants of the spaceship are unaware of their true location.

Now, there are plenty of interesting concepts in all of this for the writers to work with.  On the ship, people are going through a crisis because their fate has been pre-determined and many of them will not be alive to see the mission fulfilled because of its length.  There's also the issue of the computer-controlled selection of mating on the ship which seeks the optimal pairing of couples, regardless of how they feel about each other.  And then that major twist that comes at the end of the first night opens many story opportunities with the Earth-side crew controlling and closely monitoring all the activities onboard the ship.  There are stories galore across these many threads, all with potentially strong sci fi elements.

But does Ascension stay on track with the science fiction heavy bent that Syfy claims it wants to follow?  NO!  Not at all!

The first two or three hours of the mini-series give us a crime drama in space (or sort of in space).  Because that's what science fiction fans are looking for on television!  And when it wasn't doing the crime drama thing, it was giving us soap opera side stories or a bunch of angsty people moping about.  The science fiction elements just acted as window dressing for mostly stock television stories.  They even failed to stick with the one interesting twist hinted at on the crime drama formula.  Nobody onboard was really trained for criminal investigations, so the ship's chief officer has to train himself from detective books and movies.  You could actually do something interesting with that, but this series didn't.  And that comes as no surprise as it shows a palpable lack of inspiration throughout its entire run.  There are definitely some good ideas floating around, but they were all squashed apparently by a budget-conscious network boardroom in favor of what looks like a hack-n-slash attempt to appeal to the "broad" audience.  

To Ascension's credit, the performances are competent or better and it doesn't have too much in the way of copy and paste dialogue (though it doesn't have too much in the way of engaging dialogue either).  But it falls short of making use of the interesting sci fi concepts that it introduces.  The stifling confinement and restrictions of the hundred year mission offers plenty of potential drama, but we get procedural and soap opera stories instead.  And the controlled, social experiment angle could deliver some intriguing Prisoner-esque plots.  But instead we get a tired conspiracy angle that could have been lifted from any of a number of better crafted shows.  And then the whole thing just spiraled into a big mess that ended with a huge wtf left turn that was probably supposed to leave viewers begging for more but likely had them throwing their remotes at the TV.

Syfy claims that they want to deliver the next Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, but unfortunately they are just watching the ratings results of those shows, not the actual episodes.  Those two shows (as well as top-flight non-genre entries like Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy) are drawing in large audiences by breaking away from the old television standards of playing it safe and trying to appeal to the "broader audience".  They are giving us challenging, engaging television and that's what's attracting viewers.  And when it comes to genre television, even The CW has been doing much better than Syfy the last few years (as they has essentially become the broadcast network sci fi channel).  What's more, Ascension does not even come close to the much-beloved previous output of the Sci Fi Channel that fans are really looking for like Battlestar: Galactica, Farscape, and Stargate.

To show how far out of touch Syfy is, they failed to even make good use of the stellar Tricia Helfer.  They obviously brought her onboard to give the show some BSG-cred, but all they asked her to do for the most part was vamp it up.  And while she can do that quite well, she has more of a range as an actress and we caught a brief glimpse of it when her character took charge at the end of the third installment.  That was a definite missed opportunity and clearly what they needed to do was jettison all the rest of the crap from this waisted mini-series and just put her in command of a starship with some decent supporting actors and good writers.  That's something that sci fi fans (and more) would tune in for, and that's the direction Syfy needs to go.  But if the mock space opera of Ascension is any indication, the network clearly does not understand that.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Sci Fi Trifles: Steven Spielberg Considered Adapting the Harry Potter Books as Animated Films in the Late 90’s

The Harry Potter movies, based on the uber-popular books by J.K. Rowling, are known and beloved the world over and the film franchise has grossed over $7.5 billion worldwide. But did you know that long before Christopher Columbus helmed the first movie--Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone--Steven Spielberg considered taking a stab at the books and he wanted to produce them as animated films?

Rowling’s first Harry Potter book hit the stores in 1997 in England (where it was known as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) and became an instant success. By 1998, it had made its way across the Atlantic and Warner Bros. studio had taken an immediate interest in the property. They paid $2 million for the rights to the first four books, and Steven Spielberg was the person pegged to helm this promising new franchise in its transition to the big screen. However, Spielberg envisioned the Harry Potter films as CGI-animated affairs. He had noted the phenomenal success that Pixar had with Toy Story in 1995, and he knew that the Harry Potter movies would require plenty of special effects scenes to bring the story to life. So he believed that CGI-animation was the best way to go with the property. He also planned on combining two of the books into a single movie instead of doing a separate film for each. The president of Warner Bros. did not see eye-to-eye with this approach, though, preferring live action films and a single movie per book. Spielberg eventually bowed out of the Harry Potter movies and would go on to do AI: Artificial Intelligence for Warner Bros. in 2001.

The names of several other directors were then tossed out including Terry Gilliam, Alan Parker, Wolfgang Petersen, Rob Reiner, Brad Silberling, Peter Weir and of course Christopher Columbus. This would be narrowed down to Gilliam, Parker, Silberling, and Columbus and Rowling would have preferred that Gilliam take up the director’s chair. But Warner Bros. would eventually award Columbus with the task of shepherding Harry Potter to the big screens. Based on the popularity of the movies, that must have been the right choice. But wouldn’t have been interesting to see the animated interpretation of the character that Spielberg would have created, or just think how differently it would have turned out in Terry Gilliam’s hands.

Source: LA Time Hero Complex and Wikipedia

Buy the Harry Potter Movies on Blu-ray and DVD from

Useless but essential pop culture tidbits and trivia from the worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror.

Did you know that Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski wrote a proposal for a Star Trek reboot years before the J.J. Abrams movies came out? Did you know that Han Solo was originally supposed to be a green-skinned alien and some of the early actors considered for the role included Billy Dee Williams, Al Pacino, and Chevy Chase? How about that FOX originally wanted someone more like Pamela Anderson to play the roll of Scully on The X-Files? Or that in 1974, science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke predicted the Internet? Ever hear of Varney the Vampire?

Find out the truths about these and more in Sci Fi Trifles.  Trivia, anecdotes, little known nuggets and more that present an addicting glimpse into the story behind the story of sci fi. Once you've started reading them you will wonder how you have managed to live so long without knowing them!

Available now for only $2.99 on Kindle from  

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

TV Review: Person of Interest Season 4

Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars (after six episodes)

Bottom Line: This continues to be a good show that flirts with being great but falls short of that mark largely because it is on the broadcast networks

For those unfamiliar with Person of Interest the basic premise is that Harold Finch (played by Lost's Michael Emerson) has created a supercomputer for the government designed to track terrorist activity, but it can also predict deadly crimes and he and his “associates” (John Reese played by Jim Caviezel and Sameen Shaw played by Sarah Shahi) try to prevent those because the government does not care about them.  The series has played out in a procedural format where each week this group gets a new “number” and they shadow that person to prevent the crime.  But there is also a background story arc about a secret cabal trying to take control of the machine, and this group eventually gets a machine of its own (Samaritan) that supplants Harold’s original computer.  At the end of the third season, the group had to go rogue and it looked like the show might be headed on a course change that would have it focus on more of its science fiction AI elements and less on the procedural routine.  But then this is network television, and they abhor change (thus the reason the Nielsens still lord over their renewal/cancellation decisions).  We still have the number-of-the-week stories, but the group tracks these down while maintaining their new cover identities (bringing it even closer to the superhero series format it has been toying with since it began).  We still get the occasional arc story episode that focuses on the AI concepts at the show’s core, but CBS has apparently set an allotment that only allows one of those per three or four procedural episodes.  And the number-of-the-week stories sometimes flirt with the moral ambiguities of the show’s pre-crime premise, but they almost always end up pulling their punches and resorting to a pat television wrap-up because network television prefers not to challenge its audience too much (meanwhile cable shows like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad continue to push the boundaries and top the audiences of many of the network shows).  I have been following Person of Interest since it started and have enjoyed it well enough, so I’m in for the long haul as long as it doesn’t jump the shark on me.  But I find myself regularly wishing they would take more chances with the procedural episodes and also delve more into the AI concepts.  But CBS is convinced that the CSI/NCIS format is the one its audience wants and won’t allow it dramas to veer to far beyond that (we saw a similar pattern with last year’s short-lived Intelligence which also pulled its punches and fell short of being great).  Person of Interest is still a decent show with good characters that we have become invested in.  But more often than not I feel rather unsatisfied by the episodes and wish this show (and the broadcast nets in general) would take the hint that audiences want more challenging programming and that watered down content is likely a significant factor in the ratings attrition those channels are experiencing.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

TV Review: The Flash

Rating: 3 out of 5 Star (after three episodes)

Bottom Line: So far The Flash has delivered a straight-forward superhero romp with a dose of fun.

So last season on The CW’s Arrow we were introduced to Barry Allen who every good comic book fan watching knew would eventually become the superhero the Flash.  And now this Fall the network has spun the character off into that expected Flash series which expands upon the DC Universe that has already been building up on the parent series (but which has no connection to the Smallville version of the DC milieu that we previously saw on the same network).  In this series, Barry becomes the Flash in a similar manner to the comics which involves a lightning strike and spilled chemicals.  But they throw an interesting twist at us with the lightning linked to a super-collider malfunction which is also responsible for creating other super humans like the Flash.  So thus you get the title character as well as an instant rogue’s gallery of super villains, and perhaps some superheroes to partner with as well.  Then you have the STAR labs team who we responsible for the super-collider malfunction who are helping Barry get up to speed (sorry, couldn’t resist) with his new powers and to use them judiciously.  This series also gives us a welcomed call-out to the much-loved 1990 Flash TV series that aired for one season on CBS as that show’s star John Wesley Shipp is onboard to play Barry’s father (and I understand that Amanda Pays will be making an appearance as well).  There is a side story with the senior Allen that looks like it will carry through much of the season, which is good because I like have Shipp around.  And so far this show has avoided going dark like the DC live action adaptations typically do, which is a nice change of pace.  Plus, there is very little in the way of the soap opera side steps that derail Arrow from time to time.  I’m not too thrilled with what they are doing with Professor Xavier stand-in Harrison Wells (played by Tom Cavanaugh while channeling Jeff Goldblum) as that could likely lead to plenty of unnecessary, copy-and-paste angst-filled stories at some point.  But for the most part the show has been a fun watch and I will keep tuning in for now.  I wouldn’t rank it above the 1990 Flash series just yet, but it has a much lower camp quotient and could develop into a fun little show.

Friday, October 17, 2014

TV Review: Forever

Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars (after four episodes)

Bottom Line: It's a fun little cop show with a fantasy twist, that's worth a look but hardcore genre fans may find it lacking.  

Forever gives us a show about a man stricken with a "curse" that he cannot die (why do people on TV shows always look these sort of things as bad) and has developed a fascination with death that has led him to studying it for the two hundred years he has been alive.  In the modern day, he is a medical examiner and also a very Sherlock Holmsey type of person who has a keen eye to detail.  And thus we get the case-of-the-week stories in which somebody dies and his expertise is called upon to solve the murder (and there's also the obligatory Highlander style flashbacks to his early age and some event that relates to the case he is working on).  I really didn't expect that I would like this show when I first heard the premise, yet found myself oddly drawn to it.  It borrows quite a number of elements from a wide variety of genre sources including of course the Highlander movies and TV series, but also The Immortal (a short-lived 1970 series starring Christopher George), New Amsterdam (a short-lived 2008 series starring Game of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Unbreakable (2000 M. Night Shyamalan film starring Bruce Willis and Samuel Jackson), and more.  On top of that, it gives us yet another procedural with a fantasy twist and and haven't those flashback sequences been done to death yet?  And yet, even as I processed these derivative factors while watching the pilot, I found myself enjoying it.  Maybe it was Ioan Gruffudd's excellent performance as Henry Morgan.  Maybe it was Judd Hirsch's presence in the cast (he's a particular favorite actor of mine and has been criminally underutilized on TV).  Maybe it was the ageless Sherlock Holmes-type character that Henry Morgan gives us (I've always loved Arthur Conan Doyles' SH tales).  Maybe it was the show's somewhat fun, light-hearted tone that was mixed in with its more dramatic elements. But I found that something just clicked for me.  I'm not saying it is a great series or a must-watch new entry on the schedule, but it's good fun and managed to keep my interest across subsequent episodes.  Of course there is a story arc of sorts in the background as someone who shares the same "affliction"  has been making cryptic calls to Henry.  But the Sherlock Holmes style case of the week is what this show is about and that side story is probably only there to appeal to genre fans who prefer a more ongoing tale.  But I'm not sure if it has done enough to distinguish itself as a cop show or a fantasy / sci fi show, and the genre blending could ultimately work against it as it may not quite grab enough fans on either side.  Still, I plan on keeping this show on my watch list, though it will be one that I catch up with as time allows as opposed to shows like The Walking Dead, Arrow, and The Originals that I usually watch right away.  And based on the current ratings, it looks like Forever will be anything but a Prime Time immortal, which is a shame because this fun little series deserves better.  But I will at least enjoy it while it is on.

Focus on Fall Sci Fi TV: Constantine

Constantine: NBC, New Series, Premieres Friday October 24th 10 PM EST.

constantine-nbc-cancelledHere is the official description of the show from its website:
Based on the wildly popular comic book series "Hellblazer" from DC Comics, seasoned demon hunter and master of the occult John Constantine (Matt Ryan, "Criminal Minds") is armed with a ferocious knowledge of the dark arts and a wickedly naughty wit. He fights the good fight - or at least he did. With his soul already damned to hell, he's decided to abandon his campaign against evil until a series of events thrusts him back into the fray, and he'll do whatever it takes to protect the innocent. With the balance of good and evil on the line‎, Constantine will use his skills to travel the country, find the supernatural terrors that threaten our world and send them back where they belong. After that, who knows... maybe there's hope for him and his soul after all.

What I have seen of this show looks interesting, but that is largely because Matt Ryan appears to be having so much fun chewing the scenery as the title character.  Apart from that, this looks like yet another supernatural series with a looming war between good and evil and apocalyptic overtones.  We already have that several times over across the television channels and for my money Supernatural has been doing it the best (as they add plenty of gallows humor to offset the darker themes).  Still, I'm intrigued enough by Constantine to give it a look.  I should note, though, that I have never followed the Hellblazer comic, and I hear that the show will be taking some liberties with the source material.  But maybe it will manage to hit the right buttons and give the other supernatural shows on television some competition.

As for its chances for survival, I have to say that the Friday 10 PM EST timeslot that NBC has this one scheduled in looks treacherous. Dracula did not do well enough in that hour last year to get a renewal (even though the show pulled relatively decent numbers for that low viewership slot). And I don’t know that Constantine will have as much draw from the comic book audience as FOX’s Gotham will. Plus, Constantine is not an international production like Dracula was, so it comes as a more expensive entry to its network.  NBC has ordered additional scripts for the show (only three), but that's not the same as a full season pickup and sometimes the nets do that just to stir up some buzz around the shows.  If this one pulls ratings similar to Dracula, then that angel visiting Constantine in the show may need to pull some strings from above to get this one a second season.

Here is the trailer for the show: