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.

Buy from Amazon:
Prometheus blu-ray

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

Zebraman (2004, Takashi Miike)

Seems like an extremely good movie by about the halfway point, but it gets long and drags seriously through the second half. Still, I was excited enough about the sequel to rewatch the original.

Sho Aikawa (Scars of the Sun, Gozu) is unappreciated at home (especially by his young son, who’s bullied since his dad is the schoolteacher) and not too respected at work either, but he can escape into his hobby, which is watching the seven episodes of a quickly-cancelled TV series from his youth and making his own Zebraman costume.

TV’s original Zebraman:

A weird bit of animation:

Sho meets a mother (Kyoka Suzuki of Bullet Ballet) with a wheelchair-bound son, and bonds with the son over Zebraman. Meanwhile, a series of villains in funny costumes that seem straight out of the old episodes arrive in town. Whenever Sho faces one of them, he turns from a sad man in a silly suit into an actual superhero, culminating in a big fight against a green-slime alien overlord during which Sho can fly and briefly transforms into a pegasus zebra with a laser cannon.

Sho imagines Kyoka Suzuki as his sidekick Zebra Nurse:

Evil crab man:

Besides the long, drawn-out scenes where Sho connects with either the wheelchair kid or his own son, the movie pads its runtime with a couple of underequipped cops sent to track down the source of the alien invasion (I think they are Atsuro Watabe of Three Extremes and Koen Kondo of 13 Assassins), and a school principal (prof. Kyoto) who’s aware of the aliens and of the Zebraman connection, has copies of unfilmed show scripts that correspond to recent (and future) events.

Professor Kyoto:

Some cops:

From the writer of Ping Pong. The same year, Miike made Izo, part of Three Extremes (which I can’t remember at all) and a TV-movie sequel. Nice comic references to Ring (Zebraman fights the backflipping, well-dwelling Ring ghost in an episode) and Pulse (the principal tries to contain the aliens by sealing doors with red tape).

Buy from Amazon:
Zebraman DVD

Attack the Block (2011, Joe Cornish)

We open on five mumbly hoodie youths mugging a white woman – and the youths turn out to be the protagonists. So I was on the movie’s side from the start, but it only gets better. After an alien from a freshly-landed meteorite claws Moses, the mini-gang-leader, he kills it and takes it to Nick Frost’s weed room. But a hundred more meteors land, carrying far more dangerous creatures – pitch-black hairy wolf-bears with glowing teeth, looking for the slain female. So the kids mount a defense against rampaging aliens using knives, swords and fireworks, joined by the still-irritable white woman (Jodie Whittaker, title character in Venus) and opposed by cops and a mad drug dealer.

Despite all the bloody death, the movie is mostly an action/comedy – the rare successful one. It builds to one of the sweetest minutes of film I’ve seen all year, Moses carrying the group’s full arsenal racing towards a gas-filled apartment, leaping over the blind beasts under a shower of slow-motion sparks.

Luke Treadaway (one of the twins from Brothers of the Head) plays a stoner nature-channel enthusiast who helps figure out the aliens’ motivation. Writer/director Cornish goes way back with Edgar Wright and just cowrote Spielberg’s Tintin movie, so this is his big year.

Paul (2011, Greg Mottola)

Surprise – a comedy that I liked. Guess it’s not that much of a surprise, since it’s written by Nick Frost and Simon Pegg. The movie is one long chase, with them trying to help an alien return home. Biggest surprise is that the more action-packed second half is better than the first – the comedy doesn’t let up when the car chases and shootouts ramp up.

Agent Jason Bateman’s secret is that he’s Paul’s friend, was trying to get to him in order to help, which is why he’s a dick to agents Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio. The movie’s secret is that Sigourney Weaver plays the big boss, but she talks on the radio often enough that I figured it out from her voice. A defiantly anti-Christian movie, announcing its pro-evolution message early on (and repeatedly) then expanding that to a straight-up “god doesn’t exist” message. References most of Spielberg’s early movies. Maybe it’s because I watched on my little TV, but Paul may be the first CG creation that I accepted as a character instead of always thinking of it as an effect.

Buy from Amazon:
Paul (Blu-ray/DVD)