REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

Posts Tagged ‘sci-fi’

AVATAR (2009)

In A, Action, Adventure, Epic, Motion Pictures, Romance, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on July 16, 2010 at 3:01 pm

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STUDIO – 20th Century Fox

CASTSam Worthington, Sigourney WeaverZoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Joel David Moore, Wes Studi

DIRECTORJames Cameron

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Following the success of Titanic, James Cameron took some time off from making movies. Oh, he produced an IMAX documentary about the doomed ocean liner, but when it came to his next dramatic film, he had an idea which he claimed would be ground-breaking. It would take place on a mysterious forest planet called Pandora, made with as-yet invented technologies in CGI and motion capture. It promised to be more expensive than Titanic, take years to complete, and it would do it all in 3-D. Finally, in December 2009, Avatar bowed. It was everything Cameron said it would be, and it eventually shattered box office records.

Sam Worthington stars as Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine veteran recruited to replace his late twin brother Tom, a scientist, on Pandora, a lush moon orbiting a gas giant light-years from Earth. On Pandora, a major corporation has set up a mining operation for a substance called unobtanium. But the indigenous population, a ten-foot tall humanoid species called the Na’vi, are intent on protecting their home, so a paramilitary defense presence, headed by Colonel Quatrich (Stepen Lang) is required. To provide a more diplomatic solution, exobiologist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has developed human-Na’vi hybrid bodies called “avatars”, which are “driven” via mnemonic transfer, in order to interact with the Na’vi more easily. Despite Augustine’s protests (she wanted a PhD and not a grunt), Jake becomes part of the team.

Jake Sully and Norm Spellman (Sam Worthington, Joel David Moore) on their first expedition in their avatar bodies

Now, just in case you are among the dozen or so people left on this planet who have yet to see this movie, I will stop here. Avatar is one of those movies that, no matter what you have heard about it, needs to be seen to believed. James Cameron spent over a decade developing this movie, and it shows. Visually, this is among most striking motion pictures ever released. It was filmed in 3-D from the word “Go”, but even in 2-D, it is a visual feast for the eyes. I had seen this movie in 3-D when it was released in December 2009, and I can tell you that there are few “3-D gimmicks” in the movie. This allows for fairly easy translation into the 2-D world upon which many of us still rely in our home entertainment systems. The CGI and motion-capture effects are so photorealistic, that it’s difficult to tell the difference between a physical set and a virtual one, even when you know which one you’re looking at.

True, James Cameron makes an eye-popping movie nearly every time out of the gate. His philosophy is that visual effects should enhance the story, not drive it. Here, however, the visual effects do both, but in such a way as to not be obvious. Does this mean it’s “the perfect movie”? No. There are flaws, some obvious, some subtle. For example, for a screenwriter, James Cameron is an excellent director. While the screenplay in this movie exceeds that of Titanic by leaps and bounds, it still has a few rough spots to stumble through in the telling of this story. For example, when Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) first encounters Sully’s avatar, her first instinct is to kill him (he is, after all, the enemy), but because of a “sign” from Eywa (the Na’vi deity), she takes him to her peoples’ village, instead. Overall, it was handled all right, but I feel this could’ve been written better.

Another weak point I noticed right away in this movie is its similarities with Dances With Wolves. Both feature a military man learning the culture of the indigenous people. Both have a romantic subplot between the military man and a prominent native woman (in the case of Dances With Wolves, she was a white woman adopted by the Sioux). Both have the military questioning the central character’s loyalties. And both feature Wes Studi (He was the “angry Pawnee” in Dances With Wolves, and in Avatar, he is the Na’vi leader and Neytiri’s father). These similarities were pointed out, by the way, prior to Avatar‘s release in this “South Park” episode (Caution: NSFW).

And what about the mining operation? I’m fairly certain more than a few people let out a snicker or two when they heard that the substance in question was called “unobtanium”. Well, as it turns out, as silly the name of this stuff is, this is not the first movie which uses the term (It was also used in 2003’s The Core). And it is based on the engineering term “unobtainium“, which was first coined in the 1950s. In Avatar, it’s a metallic grey substance that fetches “20 million a kilo”, and the largest deposit of it sits underneath the Na’vi village, known as Home Tree. Again, silly name, but it fits.

There has also been a recent “3-D backlash” of sorts because of this movie. Several movies this year which were released in 3-D, including Clash of the Titans, Alice in Wonderland, and The Last Airbender, suffered from critical and popular derision, because these were originally regular (2-D) movies which were converted to 3-D in post-production. Interestingly enough, the 2-D versions of these movies fared better. These are just a few of the many cases of Hollywood trying to capitalize on a trend based on one very successful movie, and charging a higher admission for people to see it. But if too many of these “bad 3-D” movies come out, people will refuse to see all 3-D movies, even ones intended to be in 3-D, like Avatar. Are you listening, Hollywood? By changing the movie to take advantage of a trend, you are changing the director’s vision. Remember when you converted Gone With the Wind to CinemaScope in the 1960s? Yeah, that went over really well, too…

Avatar is a visual and aural feast, to be digested over and over. Even though it comes thisclose to being “Dances With Wolves in space”, it is still a ground-breaking motion picture, and one of the best science-fiction films to come along in years.

4 (out of 5)

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THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)

In Comedy, Horror, Motion Pictures, Musical, R, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on June 25, 2010 at 12:45 am

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STUDIO – 20th Century Fox

CASTSusan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Tim Curry, Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, “Little Nell” Campbell, Meat Loaf, Charles Gray, Peter Hinwood

DIRECTOR – Jim Sharman

MPAA Rating: R
(UK Version Not Rated)

A funny thing happened on September 26, 1975. A movie based on the musical “The Rocky Horror Show” opened in theatres nationwide. It tanked. But an even funnier thing happened a few months later. Those same movie theatres, who were obligated to keep prints of this musical disaster for a certain amount of time, relegated it to screenings at Midnight on the weekends. Over the next 15 years or so, The Rocky Horror Picture Show evolved into a cult phenomenon unlike anything else in cinematic history. In its heyday, millions of people the world over dressed in costumes, performed the movie in front of the screen in real time, talked back to characters, and threw items at the screen on cue. In essence, this was interactive cinema in its truest form, and (to my knowledge) the first known wide-spread case of it. I went to exactly one screening with a roommate in 1985; it was the singularly most bizarre experience of my life, and one of the most fun as well. On this occasion, with the movie’s 35th Anniversary upon us, I have decided to try to watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Normally, this is where I set up the plot for the movies that I see, but the plot to Rocky Horror is so incomprehensible, I can only try, so here goes: Love birds Brad Majors and Janet Weiss (Barry Bostwick, Susan Sarandon) have just left a friend’s wedding. On their way out of town, they get caught in a storm and find they have taken the wrong road. But when they try to turn around, the car gets a flat tire and (wouldn’t you know it?) the spare is no good. So, our intrepid vagabonds walk back up the road  to a castle they’d seen earlier, so they could borrow their phone. When they get there, they are greeted by a strange-looking handyman named Riff-Raff (Richard O’Brien) and his master, one Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry). From there, it gets… weird. The plot (such as it is) moves forward, courtesy of a Criminologist, aka “No-Neck” (Charles Gray), who tells the audience of Brad and Janet’s ordeal at Frank-N-Furter Castle as the movie plays out.

Brad and Janet (Barry Bostwick, Susan Sarandon) meet Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry)

This is one of those movies that, by itself, is confusing and convoluted. Riddled with so much camp and cheesiness, it is amazing to note that this movie was the launchpad for the careers Susan Sarandon, Brian Bostwick, Tim Curry, and Meat Loaf. Full of overt pansexual imagery, Rocky Horror is not for the uninitiated. It may not be Mary Poppins, but what makes this movie special is the audience participation. The DVD has two versions of the movie, US and UK (The UK version has one extra song). I strongly recommend that if you decide to screen this movie, you do so during a party, because the overall experience will play out better if the crowd is into it.

The special features of the DVD have the customary audio commentary, but there is also an audio track (which plays in the rear surround speakers) of an audience shouting out at the movie. It’s a bit chaotic, but entertaining nonetheless. Another feature that got my attention is the Multi-view feature; when activated, a set of lips will appear on screen, prompting you to see theatre audience members perform that scene live. Finally, there is the “Audience Participation” feature, which cues the audience to do something during the movie. For this, I recommend you lay down a sheet of plastic, or at least have a non-carpeted surface, for easy clean-up. Here are the items you’ll need to take part (Just be careful not to damage the video equipment):

  • Rice
  • Water pistols
  • Newspapers
  • Candles/Cigarette lighters
  • Party hats
  • Noise makers
  • Household cleaning gloves
  • Confetti
  • Toilet paper
  • Toast
  • Frankfurters

The Rocky Horror Picture Show essentially posits the question “What if Dr. Frankenstein was an alien drag queen who was trying to create a boy-toy of his own?” Oh, there are a few hints of “Frankenstein” here, including the requisite castle and thunderstorm, the fact that Rocky Horror, aka The Creation (Peter Hinwood), is afraid of fire, Riff-Raff has Igor’s hunched back, and Magenta (Patricia Quinn) appears in a Bride-of-Frankenstein wig in one scene. But where it is different from the Mary Shelley classic is… well, everywhere else! So, the next time you invite 20 of your closest friends to your home (At least that many, or it just won’t work), break this ol’ chestnut out and make it a real party!

3-1/2 (out of 5)

(Group Screening)

(Alone)

DISTRICT 9 (2009)

In Action, D, Motion Pictures, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on February 7, 2010 at 9:14 am

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STUDIO — TriStar

CAST — Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt, Sylvaine Strike

DIRECTOR —  Neill Blomkamp

MPAA Rating: R

In 2009, the science-fiction/fantasy genre made a generally strong impression upon moviegoers. Among the top-grossing films of the year were Star Trek, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Terminator: Salvation, and of course, a small little-known movie called Avatar. Maybe you’ve heard of it.

But not all sci-fi is big-budget tentpole films. Meet District 9, one of two movies in the sci-fi/fantasy genre to receive an Oscar™ nomination for Best Picture of 2009 (Avatar is the other). This movie, the cinematic directorial debut of Neill Blomkamp, made with a modest budget, and featuring a cast of unknowns, is one of the boldest and most eye-popping movies of 2009. It is also one of the most polarizing. This is one of those films that received both critical praise and derision, and sometimes both at the same time. On a personal note, I can say that more than a few of the people with whom I have spoken did not like this movie, and my brother hated the first half when I popped this movie into my DVD player (But he did love the second half). But this isn’t my brother’s review, nor my friends’, nor a recap of what the professional critics said.

HMU Manager Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) serves eviction notices in District 9.

District 9 is the story of an alien race who had been stranded in Johannesburg, South Africa, for over 20 years. Since their arrival, a series of incidents with the aliens (known derisively as “prawns”)  created tensions among the locals, leading to the formation of a designated colony in town known as District 9. Eventually, District 9 turned into little more than a shantytown under the jurisdiction of corporate giant Multi-National United (MNU). Finally, the locals demanded the aliens be dealt with once and for all, so MNU moved in to relocate them to a new settlement 200 kilometers away. Even though they are being served eviction notices, the move is mandatory. And the man placed in charge of the evictions is Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley).

Now that you know the premise, I won’t go any further into the story for the sake of spoilers, except to say that Wikus (pronounced “VEE-kus”) has an eye-opening experience which leads to his discovery that his employer is not as benevolent as he thought they were. The first half of District 9 was a chaotic mix of shooting styles to give a documentary feel, including news, corporate, file and security footage. This mix of mostly hand-held footage sets up the story in a rapid, if not unique, way. As the movie progresses, the camerawork evolves into a more cinematic feel, with some of the documentary footage mixed in to provide tension in key scenes. For example, now a wanted man, Wikus walks into a restaurant and tries to order food. A security camera shows him entering, then the cinematic storytelling takes over when the news splashes his face on the TV. It may be a gimic, but for the most part, it works with great effect.

This movie took advantage of parallels of South Africa’s own history (The title itself is a nearly direct reference to an area in Johannesburg once known as District 6 during the Apartheid era, and the alien settlement was once a real slum near Soweto). In the opinion of this writer, science-fiction is at its best when it makes social and political commentary based on either historical or current events (hence the appeal of the Star Trek franchise all these years), and the story of District 9 is both frightening and real in its examination of the human race, which fears the “prawns”. And we all know that people fear what they do not understand.

The choice to shoot this movie on location in South Africa, using a South African cast and a native South African director was both bold and visionary (I may be a little prejudiced – for lack of a better word – as my grandfather was born in Pretoria). District 9 is not for everyone, but it is gripping from start to finish.

4 out of 5