The Keep (1983, Michael Mann)

A movie about nazis being killed off by aliens should’ve been more entertaining – besides a really fantastic smoke-monster effect, this was only pretty good. It tries to be very serious and sets up many conflicts (good alien/bad alien, good nazi/bad nazi, nazis/jews, etc.) then doesn’t do anything wonderful with any of these things.

Trevor: “it fell apart for me when none of the story mattered… mystery invincible guy with glowing eyes walks in and defeats the beast, the worst execution of deus ex machina.”

Smoke Monster, de-smoked:

Okay, Nazis led by Jurgen Prochnow (Sutter Cane in In the Mouth of Madness, and I think Kyle’s dad in Dune) occupy a Romanian town and camp in an empty fortress watched over by a priest (Robert Prosky of Christine and Gremlins 2), who calls in his professor friend Ian McKellen with daughter Alberta Watson (Hedwig/Hansel‘s mom) to translate ancient writings after soldiers keep showing up dead. Prochnow isn’t murdering enough villagers, so the more ruthless Gabriel Byrne (three years before Gothic) is sent to take charge, later shoots Prochnow dead. Smoke Monster heals the formerly-crippled Ian McKellen, says he’s a golem-like Jewish avenger who will crush all nazis if Ian frees him. The priest gets all shitty and tells Ian he can burn in hell (admittedly all the nazis might be stressing him out), meanwhile Mystery Invincible Guy (top-billed Scott Glenn, Jodie Foster’s boss in Silence of the Lambs) has sex with Ian’s daughter until she notices he has no reflection. I think Invincible Guy and the nazis and Smoke Monster all kill each other at the end?

Alberta with sex alien:

Ian under Smoke Monster’s spell:

Second movie I’ve watched this Shocktober where the first death is by exploding head. TV veteran Mann’s second feature, which he has since disowned, based on a story by the guy who wrote Pelts. The actors act as big as possible (apparently Ian McKellen has mellowed with age) and the then-trendy Tangerine Dream soundtrack does the nazi-horror atmosphere no favors. But it’s a startlingly different movie, anyway.

Under The Skin (2013, Jonathan Glazer)

Whoa.

V. Rizov:

Shots begin as seemingly uninflected observation, then the music creeps in and a whole new emotional tone is set without a single cut or camera movement… I don’t really care what this is About (I suspect it’s stupid), but it really is dazzlingly unexpected throughout. Also, there are jokes! Who said maybe-cosmic statements had to be ponderous?

B. Williams in an excellent article for Cinema Scope:

Glazer has radically deconstructed his infilmable source material and reassembled the few fragments he has retained into a sociologically ambiguous mood piece. What was originally a bonkers and sententious parable about class, labour, and the horrors of the meat industry – run by a race of talking antelope-like beings from another planet – is now essentially an abstract coming-of-age picture.

Oblivion (2013, Joseph Kosinski)

March 2077: I’ll be on an airplane, so I grab the dumbest-looking movie I can find at work to watch through a dramamine haze. A Tom Cruise actioner from last year that I already have no recollection of: that’ll do nicely. I’m playing a feature-length game of “spot the reference,” as it seems to have been concocted from scraps of sci-fi thrillers past. It’s all a bit silly, but undeniably strong-looking, and its sleek production design (and the face of To The Wonder’s Olga Kurylenko) lingered in my mind afterwards.

Cruise plays a Wall-E type named Jack Reacher, left behind to clean up earth after everyone else has moved into space. But he’s also a Moon type, since it turns out Cruise is thousands of clones of himself (maybe that’s more Galactica), and it turns out humanity survives underground and the “people” in space are evil aliens (who blew up the moon in an obvious Mr. Show reference) using fake video images of Melissa Leo to interact with their clone slaves. But Cruise is not a slave, likes to read classic literature and builds a rustic nature shack and nurtures a potted plant and watches Hello Dolly on a creaky old tube TV. No he doesn’t, but it’s funny how the human stuff Cruise salvages for his shack is already old now – classic rock LPs and antique-looking refrigerators.

Clone Cruise has a Clone Wife (Andrea Riseborough of Happy-Go-Lucky) but dreams of Olga, and when she crash-lands after being in orbit for however-many years, they team up with the undergrounders (led by Morgan Freeman) to nuke the mothership, threatened by spherical alien drones with great bassy doom-growl voices (clearly the presence of flying death orbs in a film called OblIVion is a shout to the fourth Phantasm movie).

“Copy 4-0-9, tasking 1-8-5 to grid 2-2.” The movie likes saying numbers aloud, and its mix of all-knowing and easily-fooled technology is nearly plot-hole-worthy – for instance, after Cruise goes for a walk the robots can track his DNA from the air at speed, a light-up trail tracing his exact path, but they always take ten seconds of him yelling his name at them before they stop threatening him with guns. And the planet seems to be all mapped into robot-patrolled grids within alien-drawn neighborhoods, each manned by a Tom Cruise, but his entire Walden shack goes unnoticed for years, and when he follows a homing beacon all the way from base, he doesn’t even know what kind of structure the signal is coming from until he walks right up to it. So they’ve gotten both better and worse than google maps. But I like the all-white Apple-like alien tech with its triangular motif, and the effects are cool and the M83 music pretty great.

We have the technology. The time is now. Science can wait no longer. Children are our future. America can, should, must and WILL blow up the moon! And we’ll be doing it during a full moon, so we make sure we get it all.

Pacific Rim (2013, Guillermo del Toro)

Aliens vs. Robots.

Robots win.

Stars Stringer as Stacker in Striker. Bland main guy is Charlie Hunnam, Ron Perlman’s Sons of Anarchy costar. Rinko Kikuchi was the newcomer who got all the buzz in Babel, later in The Brothers Bloom and Norwegian Wood. Stacker is father-figure to Rinko, who is soulmate bro-bot to Hunnam. Two scientists are racing for the bomb that is the prize: stuffy Brit is Burn Gorman of BBC’s Bleak House, excitable kaiju fan is Charlie Day of It’s Always Sunny. Lot of TV actors here. There are other foreign robot pilot teams, all dead, all dead. And Ron Perlman plays a huge badass. Obviously.

Dollman (1991, Albert Pyun)

I never especially wanted to see Dollman or Demonic Toys, but I definitely want to see Dollman vs. Demonic Toys, and you gotta start at the beginning. It’s a cheap and stupid little direct-to-video sci-fi flick, but it’s got its moments. The lead girl is introduced beating the hell out of a local drug dealer, and the hero is a tiny detective from another planet chasing down an evil disembodied head. And there are occasional moments of hilarity, some of them intentional (like the dialogue on Dollman’s home planet). Also, Dollman has angry violence issues, so there are bunches of bodies including an exploding henchman.

The floating head is Sproog, played by something called Frank Collision, the rogue alien doll man is Tim Thomerson, best known from the Trancers series, and the girl got a plum role in Born In East L.A. Jackie Earle Haley plays a henchman. Director Pyun has been “much vituperated against” according to his IMDB page.

Prometheus (2012, Ridley Scott)

A frustrating movie, because even while watching the two-hour theatrical version opening week, we knew that Ridley Scott has been talking up his extended director’s cut for blu-ray. But Ridley learned nothing from the Lord of the Rings model, cutting out really important stuff instead of fun but unnecessary scenes of hobbits singing, leaving the two-hour version full of plot holes, confusing explanations and out-of-character behavior. At least that’s what I generously assume to be the case, that the movie made perfect sense before the cuts, because otherwise how would a mega-expensive-looking star-studded major film arrive in theaters full of massive story problems that nobody noticed?

I admit the story problems and look forward to watching Ridley’s second (and third, and fourth) edit on my little laptop screen. But I still loved the theatrical version, unlike every single person I’ve heard mention it, because it’s simply the most amazing looking and sounding movie I’ve seen in theaters for a year or more. The picture (2D) is clear, with seamless effects, and I must’ve lucked out and got the only screen in Atlanta with properly calibrated surround sound. I’ve thought I was past the point of being impressed by massive explosions and outer-space action scenes, but I guess everyone else (looking at you, Michael Bay) has just been doing ‘em wrong.

Two archaeologists (Noomi Rapace of the Swedish Dragon Tattoo trilogy and Logan Marshall-Green of Devil) discover star maps in prehistoric cave paintings, so a mega-rich old man (played by Guy Pearce in distracting old-age makeup) sends a space exhibition led by a sleek, evil Charlize Theron to check it out. Logan is given black-oil sickness by android Michael Fassbender, impregnates Noomi with an alien. Also on board are pilot Idris Elba, punk miner Sean Harris (Ian Curtis in 24 Hour Party People) and other guys who will be killed in interesting ways.

There’s some religious mumbo, with secret (but easily predicted) stowaway Pearce wanting to confront our creators, the giant, pale muscular men, and ask why they created us. But I could’ve sworn the scientists said at least twice that they’re an “exact genetic match” with us – so they didn’t create us, they are us. Right? And if I got this straight, the planet to which the map led the Earth explorers isn’t the home planet of any race, but an outpost where they were creating biological alien weapons. And when the one living pale guy awakens from cryo-sleep, he sets to destroying Earth, as if that was his plan all along. Anyway, lot of questions, but ultimately I enjoyed the spectacle and think the movie is interesting enough to find the unanswered questions tantalizing, looking forward to sequels or deleted scenes, not blowing off the movie as badly written.

dissenting opinion from R. Brody in the New Yorker:

Scott is the perfect former TV commercial director: he doesn’t invent images but decorates them and lights them to set a consistent mood, which he then maintains, without surprises. He tells you what to feel, or not even—he tells you to admire his ability to get you to feel one thing, whether it’s worth feeling or, in this case, not. As in a TV commercial, the amount of money spent on production design is a part of the movie’s import; the sets and the effects might as well have their price tags dangling from them … he took the same laborious pompier style as fell flat in Robin Hood and attempted to justify it with a ponderous subject. The movie lacks any joyful sense of discovery, such as emerges (intermittently) through the vainglorious bombast of Alien.

But then instead Brody praises the “exuberance” and lack of self-important seriousness of Benjamin Buttons. If he had more fun at The Ben Buttons than at Prometheus, we can learn nothing from each other.

The Lathe of Heaven (1980, Fred Barzyk & David Loxton)

“When I say the word Antwerp, you are going to have an effective dream about overpopulation.”

Opens with skinny Bruce Davison (xenophobic senator in X-Men, the original Willard) as George Orr, dreaming an atomic bomb. Takes himself into a psychotherapy clinic because he keeps having “effective” dreams which change reality – and history, so that nobody else remembers the original reality. Instead of focusing on the bomb, he tells them (via b/w flashback) how when he was a kid he kissed his Aunt Ethel, then out of embarrassment, wished her into the cornfield. No, he actually dreamed that she had never lived with him, and died far off in a car crash.

Orr’s case draws the attention of Dr. Haber (Kevin Conway, reminiscent of Oliver Reed), who hooks him up to dream-monitoring machines. It’s not clear if Haber can remember the shifting realities but he seems to believe in Orr’s effective dreams, and starts suggesting topics for him to dream about. He starts with just about the most dangerous subject you can suggest to someone with massive powers to alter reality: overpopulation.

Unsurprisingly, when Orr wakes up, there are considerably fewer people on earth thanks to the plague he dreamed up. Further experiments result in war with aliens, then peace with aliens (earth being colonized), all races being turned gray (no more racism!), not to mention Haber moving from a small office into the massive “Haber Institute”.

Not a bad alien, considering this was PBS’s first original movie:

Davison is nervous and unhappy for most of the movie, but adopts this carefree stance around the psychiatrist, making the exciteable Haber seem like the crazy one by proximity. And Davison turns out happier, hooks up with his lawyer (Margaret Avery, oscar-winning for The Color Purple) while Haber loses his mind trying to fix the world’s problems.

Haber with Avery:

Ursula says in interview that she was skeptical of the book’s filmic possibilities because “nothing happens in it”. On Haber: “He’s not evil. He means well all the way through the book. But he’s doing it wrong.” … “Of course this was a daoist book … Daoism says you do things by not doing things, and all attempt to do and to set things right and make things happen eventually backfires”

Remade with James Caan in the 2000’s. Not many of Le Guin’s stories have made it to the screen – just this and a couple recent adaptations of her dragons-and-sorcerors Earthsea stories. One of the screenwriters went on to create the celebrated hit series Murphy Brown; the other created Porky’s II. The co-directors had previously collaborated on a version of Vonnegut’s Between Time and Timbuktu.

Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City (2010, Takashi Miike)

In the original Zebraman, made in 2005, family man Sho Aikawa is obsessed with an old TV series that’s set in 2010, the year the film takes place. This one jumps ahead to 2025. The only recurring character is Asano, the young student who shared Sho’s love for the Zebraman series, who now provides care for refugees from Tokyo. Sho wakes up, can’t remember the last 15 years (his family is never mentioned), so Asano fills him in.

Oh, where to begin? The Governor of Tokyo (Guadalcanal Taka of Beat Takeshi’s Boiling Point and Zatoichi) has renamed it Zebra City and instituted the “Zebra Time” policy, by which for ten minutes a day, nothing is illegal (cue amusing montage of violence), and the Zebra Police walk the streets in poor neighborhoods killing everyone they see.

Where has Zebraman been all this time? He was in a centrifuge run by the governor’s mad midget doctor. After years of spinning, they succeed in separating black from white. So he is mostly white, and his dark side became the governor’s “daughter,” the Zebra Queen (Riisa Naka), who is also incidentally a pop star.

And what of the alien infestation from the first film? Well, the only remaining alien presence is inside a ten-year-old girl – actually she’s twenty-five, but the force required to imprison the alien has kept her from growing. Eventually she’s sent to the centrifuge and the alien is released to terrorize Tokyo again – part of the Zebra Queen’s plan to displace Zebraman as the legendary hero by saving the city.

Where does Asano fit in? Asano (Masahiro Inoue, star of a series called Kamen Rider) and his buddy Ichiba (Naoki Tanaka) help out victims of Zebra Time, are accumulating an army of the injured to overthrow the governor. Ichiba is a Zebraman obsessive (not Asano, strangely) and once played the title character in a revival of the show. Also there’s a dark fellow with bad-boy bangs named Nimi (Tsuyoshi Abe of Initial D) who’s in love with the Zebra Queen.

Action! The Z Queen kills her rival in the pop charts and her “father” during successive Zebra Times, but can’t defeat the giant alien. She also sort of kills Nimi, and he finishes himself off. Zebraman isn’t sure what to do about the giant alien, but Ichiba remembers the final episode of the rebooted series, instructs Z to eat the alien – which he does before floating balloon-like into space.

Weird movie, then. More nutso fun than the first one, with all subtlety out the window. We get a couple Zebra Queen music videos, clips from fake TV episodes, and a “Stop AIDS” advertisement.

There was a forty-minute direct-to-video spin-off called Vengeful Zebra Miniskirt Police – why oh why wasn’t it included on the blu-ray?

Buy from Amazon:
Zebraman 2 Blu-ray/DVD