Last Update 8/31/12

 

Starship Troopers Invasion (2012) 

I would not have bought or watched this if I had known that it is a cartoon – pardon me, a CGI generated movie. With digital nudity! I enjoy some feature film cartoons but I find the form awkward and unconvincing for more serious stories - which is why I didn't enjoy Avatar nearly as much as I otherwise might have despite its silly story. In this one, human marines fight the oversized alien bugs in what feels more like a video game than a movie. Bad dialogue, bad plot, and bad concept scuttle this one early on. The special effects are all CGI, which isn’t particularly bad, but I never once thought I was actually watching anything real. And there’s almost no Heinlein in it at all, which isn’t really surprising. Don’t waste time or money on this one. 8/31/12

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) 

Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray star in this precursor to House of Wax, which is an excellent remake but which has unfairly eclipsed this classic original. The plot is very much the same and the makeup isn’t as good, but it’s really the same story in sometimes surprising detail, sometimes identical lines of dialogue. A businessman sets fire to the house of wax he sponsored in order to collect the insurance money and the designer is supposedly killed in the conflagration, although he survives to exact revenge. A feisty female reporter suspects that a murder suspect is innocent and that the theft of his supposed victim’s body is part of a pattern. I was struck by how rapidly all of the dialogue is delivered, so quickly that the viewer has to pay close attention. An overlooked classic. 8/30/12

House of Frankenstein (1944) 

Boris Karloff is a mad doctor, Glenn Strange the monster, John Carradine is Dracula, and Lon Chaney is the Wolf Man this time around, with J. Carroll Naish as the new hunchbacked assistant. The monster mashups rarely worked and this one is no exception. Karloff has a grudge against the people who put him in prison so he escapes and returns to exact revenge. There are plot holes – the newly awakened Dracula has a coach and coachman at his beck and call instantly. Dracula gets disposed of quickly in what is essentially a series of episodes rather than a single continuous story.  Ultimately this one is just boring. 8/29/12

The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) 

The mummy series deteriorated much more quickly than most of the other Universal monsters. George Zucco is the only returning character, with John Carradine taking over the lead role as his agent.  He is sent to retrieve the soul of the dead princess Ananka, who has possessed the body of an American woman. He is aided in his quest by Kharis, the mummy, who shambles more awkwardly than ever. Dull dialogue, okay but sometimes overdone acting, nothing special in the effects or the settings, and even more predictable than its predecessors. The occasional foreshadowing is sometimes actively funny. And why can’t anyone avoid the awkward, slow moving mummy when it comes after them? 8/28/12

Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) 

Graverobbers discover that the Wolf Man’s body has not deteriorated in his grave and in fact he comes back to life, much to their chagrin. He sets off to find a way to end his life, advised by a gypsy woman that Dr. Frankenstein might be able to help, but Frankenstein is dead. While running from the villagers, he ends up in a cave where the monster has been frozen in ice. With the help of Frankenstein’s daughter, he recovers the mad scientist’s diary and gives it to a doctor who promises to help him. Slow moving and a little disjointed, and Bela Lugosi makes a lousy monster. The two of them battle at the end and then are buried in a flood – until next time. The flood scene is nicely done. One of the lesser films in the series. 8/27/12

Son of Dracula (1943) 

The mysterious Count Alucard (Dracula spelled backward) comes to a small American town initially in the form of a bat, blinds a gypsy sorceress, and then presents himself to the local society as a visiting nobleman. Lon Chaney has the title role and does a pretty good job in a lukewarm screenplay that ignores the movie and draws its inspiration from the original novel instead. Chaney, who is actually supposed to be Dracula himself not some theoretical son, takes his first victim early, an elderly man, and spends much of the movie on the fringes of the action.  There’s an effective scene where the rejected suitor of Dracula’s new bride shoots him, and the bullets pass through the count and kill his wife. Dracula’s aggressive isolationism would not have fooled anyone, let alone the savvy investigator who already suspected his true nature.  Chaney is oddly low key in this one, which makes him less threatening. 8/21/12

The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) 

George Zucco returned for this sequel, which introduced Lon Chaney to the series. It also reuses several sequences from The Mummy’s Hand before launching into its own story after twelve minutes of recaps. Zucco the priest survived being shot and revived the mummy, which he now sends to England for revenge. Eventually the mummy starts killing members of the family that violated Ananka’s tomb and three of the four die quickly while the authorities refuse to believe the truth. The mummy’s keeper falls in love with the fiancé of the final victim and this causes him to veer from the path set for him and leads to his disaster. Has its moments, but not a lot of them. 8/20/12

Secret Agent/Danger Man Set 2 (1960-1961) 

Eight episodes from the popular British spy show.  The first  is “The Professionals.” Drake goes undercover as a minor diplomat in East Europe to find a missing colleague and promptly falls into the clutches of an espionage team specializing in blackmail. But they have bitten off more than they can chew this time. In “A Date With Doris” Drake has to help a friend who has been unjustly charged with murder in a country that is transparently Cuba. “The Mirror’s New” is very good. A diplomat claims to have lost a day to amnesia but Drake smells a rat. Some nice character actors in this one. “Colony Three” anticipates The Prisoner slightly. The Russians have built a duplicate of a British village as a training ground. Drake infiltrates, but then must escape. Drake goes to Greece to stop a defector and his family in “It’s Up to the Lady.”  Well written but quite low key, mostly involving his efforts to convince the wife not to risk exile. This is one of the episodes that sets up his resignation and move to The Prisoner.  The cynicism continues in “Whatever Happened to George Foster?” in which an influential English lord is sponsoring a fascist revolution in a South American country. His investigation into the lord’s past reveals a widespread conspiracy. A good episode with an unusually quiet ending. “The Galloping Major” is one of the best episodes in the series. While in Africa trying to undermine a coup, Drake finds that things are more complicated than they appear. “The Colonel’s Daughter” on the other hand is quite dull. That said, this is otherwise a very good selection. 8/19/12

Green Lantern: The Animated Series soundtrack, La-La-Land, 2012

The soundtrack for the animated series, composed by Frederik Wiedman, consists of three dozen tracks, many of them quite short, with a welcome variety of moods and instrumentation, although none of them individually stand out very far. As you might expect in an action series, there is lots of percussion and rapidly paced pieces, although a few are more laid back. "The Battle of Betrassus" is one of the more rousing pieces. "The Red Knight" is much more restrained as is "The Inconvenient Truth", one of the better pieces.  "Saint Walker" is my favorite cut, heavy on strings. "Rescue Mission", "Red Supremacy", and "Maelstrom Collapse" are also pretty good. There are moments of quite effective music which are sometimes overshadowed by the necessity to return to a more rousing theme. Overall this falls somewhere between those soundtracks that really can't stand on their own because they are so tied to the visual action (and some of it is repetitive) and those which stand as interesting music for their own sake. Which means some people should like this and others will not. 8/19/12

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) 

Great cast in this installment, with Lon Chaney as the monster, although the story really doesn’t measure up to the earlier films. Bela Lugosi/Ygor, didn’t die after all and he manages to restore the creature to freedom from the sulfur pits after the villagers dynamite the castle. There’s a good scene early on when the monster befriends a little girl but the quality drops a bit after that. The latest Dr. Frankenstein hopes to reform the monster by putting the brain of a recently deceased scientist into the body, despite Ygor’s protestations. Ygor wants his own brain transplanted instead. He gets his wish, but the monster’s body is now blind. Not bad, but inferior to its predecessors. 8/18/12

The Mummy’s Hand (1940) 

The first follow up to the Boris Karloff classic was something of a decline despite a good supporting cast and the fact that it actually has little to do with its predecessor.  It starts by recapitulating the story of the mummy’s origin, changing his name to Kharis and the lover to Ananka. George Zucco is an Egyptian priest who opposes the efforts by two not very competent and often annoying archaeologists to unearth ancient secrets.  Implausible throughout. At one point the female lead fires ten rounds from a six shooter without reloading. It’s also rather slow. The mummy doesn’t awaken until 43 minutes into the movie. 8/17/12

The Mummy (1932) 

Boris Karloff starred as the title character in this classic horror film.  Unlike the later shambling mummies, he is a sorcerer who, once freed from the tomb and his wrappings, looks pretty much normal, if a bit craggy. The opening sequence, set in 1921, covers Imhotep’s awakening and is my favorite part of the movie. The action then jumps forward to 1932. The mummy lacks the superstrength of the recent remakes but he has hypnotic powers and is a sorcerer who can kill from a distance. He wishes to awaken the reincarnation of his one-time love to self awareness. Karloff is impressive but the story is sometimes slow moving. 8/16/12

The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944) 

The last of the original flurry of invisible people movies brings back John Hall from The Invisible Agent and adds John Carradine, Evelyn Ankers, and others. It’s the least interesting of the sequence. It constantly contradicts the earlier films. Hall has amnesia and has been in South Africa for several years, returning with paranoia. A little darker than its predecessor, but there is still little new or interesting in the script and the supporting cast is not strong enough to carry the weak plot. A disappointing end to the series – not counting the later encounter with Abbott & Costello. 8/15/12

The Invisible Agent (1942) 

Peter Lorre and Sir Cedric Hardwick have supporting roles in this continuation, sort of, of the series with Jon Hall (Ramar of the Jungle) in the main role. Hardwick is an agent of the Nazis who want the formula from the grandson of the original Invisible Man. Hall agrees to let the US take advantage of it but only if he is the only person made invisible. Tepid special effects – sometimes the wires are visible, substandard acting, and a generally silly plot doom this right from the outset other than a few scattered scenes. Inside Germany, our hero takes ridiculous chances to play pranks on the Nazis. He compromises his contact and she becomes a virtual prisoner, and he’s still treating it as a joke. Watchable, but just barely. 8/14/12

The Invisible Woman (1940) 

This one plays the invisibility thing for laughs and it’s really not horror although it is often packaged that way. A comical scientist searches for a volunteer to participate in his experiments with invisibility. The volunteer is a woman who works for a mean boss, so it’s not hard to figure out what’s coming. Excellent cast includes John Barrymore, John Howard, Charlie Ruggles, and Shemp Howard. A crook who wants the invisibility machine for himself sends three thugs to steal it while the scientist tries to prove his success to his patron – but the subject keeps regaining visibility at inopportune times. 8/9/12

The Invisible Man Returns (1940) 

Vincent Price, Sir Cedrick Hardwick, and a superb supporting cast help elevate this otherwise mediocre sequel. Another man takes the drug that induces invisibility after he is falsely accused of murdering his brother. Unfortunately, the side effect of the drug is megalomania and delusions, so the people helping him after he escapes from prison are actually in danger of becoming victims. This one is more murder mystery than horror story as Price tries to find the real killer before the insanity sets in, and his scientist friends tries to find an antidote for the same reasons. Good special effects help, but the story moves surprisingly slowly and doesn’t offer much that wasn’t done just as well in the first. 8/8/12

The Invisible Man (1933) 

The classic version of the H.G. Wells novel, with a screenplay by occasional SF writer R.C. Sheriff.  Claud Rains has the title role, although it seems inappropriate to say that he appeared in this as the invisible man. The crazed scientist, desperate to become invisible again, goes on a rampage when confronted at a rooming house. The special effects are quite good. The drugs that effected the change have also made the protagonist a homicidal megalomaniac determined to rule the world. Evading capture, the invisible man wrecks trains, assaults the police and others, and robs a bank. Predictably he is caught while trying to escape in a snow storm, leaving tracks in the fallen snow. 8/7/12

Son of Frankenstein (1939) 

The third Frankenstein movie brought back Karloff, replace Dwight Frye with Bela Lugosi as the assistant, now named Ygor, and cast Basil Rathbone as the son of Henry Frankenstein. Lionel Atwill is the local head of the police, and his artificial arm was spoofed in Young Frankenstein. The local people aren’t happy that a Frankenstein is returning to the neighborhood. He discovers that the monster didn’t die after all, although it’s in a coma, and you can pretty much guess what he decides to do next. The main conflict is between Frankenstein and Ygor, who have very different plans for the monster.  This was the last of the first rate series, although two more followed within a few years. 8/6/12

Bride of Frankenstein (1935) 

This sequel starts with a frame with Mary Shelley telling her husband and others the story of her unwritten follow up. Of course, this is to the movie version, not the actual novel. The monster is more violent this time around, having survived the fire that supposedly killed him at the end of the first movie. It isn’t entirely serious and changes the tone for the first half of the movie, but eventually Frankenstein, who also survived, tries to create a female partner for the monster to soothe its temper. Unfortunately, she rejects the creature and precipitates another disaster. Almost as good as the first, in a different way, and much less familiar. The monster’s encounter with the blind man is the high point, satirized brilliantly in Young Frankenstein.8/5/12

Frankenstein (1931) 

The original interpretation of Mary Shelley’s classic novel of a scientist who brings the dead back to life, with Boris Karloff as the monster. The doctor and his hunchbacked assistant start things off by robbing a grave, then cut down the body of a hanged thief. It shouldn’t be necessary to detail the story from here. Eventually he succeeds, after a fashion, but the monster was not meant to be and when a malformed brain is used, it results in a shambling but powerful creature that is doomed along with its maker. Excellent claustrophobic sets help a timeless story that remains watchable today. There have been improvements on Bela Lugosi’s Dracula but after the first three Frankenstein movies, no one ever approached them in quality. The lingering influence of the silent films shows with exaggerated body movements and facial gestures, but it's not as bad as in some I've seen. 8/4/12

Dracula’s Daughter (1936) 

Most of the classic Universal monsters were at least somewhat sympathetic, the put upon monster of Frankenstein, tormented wolf men, captured and mutilated creatures from the black lagoon, and so forth. This direct sequel to Dracula is no exception. Dracula’s daughter hopes that the death of her father will free her of the curse of vampirism, but that proves not to be the case. She pins her hopes on a psychiatrist, then becomes obsessed with him in time for a journey from London to Transylvania and a final confrontation. This is all very low key. The two vampire attacks take place off stage and we never even see a fang. The leads and supporting cast all do fine jobs and the sets and atmosphere are typically eerie and just slightly skewed from normality. Nothing here for those who like gore, action, shocks, or thrills, but a surprisingly resilient film that does what it does quite well. 8/3/12

Werewolf of London (1935)

Although werewolves are probably my least favorite classical horror monster, the early films involving them are still among my favorites. Almost every werewolf movie since 1950 has been a rehash of one or another of them. This one opens with a British expedition in the Himalayas which is looking for a legendary flower supposedly linked to the moon. They encounter a priest who warns them off, but naturally they ignore him. They find the flower, but during the course of their visit one of them is attacked and bitten by a wolf man. Back in London, the scientist studies the flower, unaware that he has been infected with lycanthropy. A rival botanist somehow knows about the bite and claims the flower is the only possible cure. The premise is that someone infected must kill someone on the night of each full moon to remain susceptible to the cure. While using a machine that mimics moonlight, our hero notices physical changes and realizes the legend is true. The acting is well above average, particularly the supporting cast. I've always prefer the intelligent werewolf in this one to the relatively mindless one created by Lon Chaney.  Given its venerable age, the movie holds up surprisingly well, and since it was black and white, there was no color to fade and the picture quality if nice and crisp. 8/2/12

Last Woman on Earth (1960) 

A cheaply made, simple minded, but better than I expected post apocalyptic thriller. A shifty businessman, his wife, and lawyer find themselves alone when a mysterious but temporary change in the atmosphere asphyxiates most of the world. They happened to be scuba diving at the right time to avoid it. The plot actually attempts to deal with the consequences seriously, but as a consequence not a lot actually happens. The two men have a falling out over the woman, but that oversimplifies a more complex interrelationship. Downbeat ending. One of Roger Corman’s best early films, although admittedly there’s not a lot of competition. 8/1/12

Assault on Precinct 13/Dark Star composed by John Carpenter, BSX, 2012

Carpenter wrote the music for these two early films, neither of which I've seen in years but both of which I liked. The theme for the first sounded familiar, so it must have made an impression at the time. A lot of the other music from this film consists of variations of the same theme, which is so powerful that it tends to make them sound a lot alike, which helps to create unity for the movie but which is less successful as a continuous piece of unaccompanied music. On the other hand, I like the theme, so it was far from being unpleasant. Some of the tracks are arguably just sound effects rather than music. The second film provides a less rousing soundtrack but more variation. "Pinback and the Mascot" is interesting, but probably because of the memories it conjures, "Pinback Playback" is quite good but very short. "Benson Arizona" is, however, worth the price of the CD all by itself. 8/1/12

A Bucket of Blood (1959)

This is one of those movies people refer to as a cult classic, which in this case means it's amateurishly done, rather silly, but manages to be entertaining despite its many faults. Dick Miller is a young would be artist who isn't successful until he starts killing people and covering their bodies with clay. It's all very implausible, of course, but that's part of the fun. The pseudo-hippie poets and artists add to the dark comedy. Bert Convy also has a supporting role - the acting is actually pretty good, although it's hard to tell. This was remade as Death Artist, but the original is much better. 7/31/12

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

Even though I have never liked the ending, this is one of my favorite movies. The protagonist is exposed to a strange cloud which causes him to begin shrinking. Although the initial stages are manageable, an unfortunate encounter with the family cat when he is small enough for that to matter results in his being trapped in the basement of his house, presumed dead by all concerned. There he has to find a way to survive and outwit a predatory spider, among other things. The special effects for this, while simple, are quite well done. It's based very closely on the novel by Richard Matheson. The ending, as I said, is a bit disappointing. We are told that he will continue to shrink down into some mystical microscopic level, which doesn't make sense since his individual atoms can't get smaller than atoms, and it leaves things flat dramatically as well. But it's still a classic. 7/30/12

Monster on the Campus (1958) 

This is a low budget and not very interesting Jekyll and Hyde variation, with bogus science, silly dialogue, and minimal special effects. A scientist is inadvertently infected with plasma from a coelacanth, which causes him to revert evolutionarily to a primitive apeman who manages to kill three people before the end of the movie. He then realizes that he’s the killer and transforms deliberately in front of policemen so that they will kill him – even though he can prevent the transformations from happening. A dragonfly also reverts, becoming hundreds of times it previous mass in a matter of seconds. There’s a young Troy Donahue as one of his students. Not really worth your time. 7/29/12

The Monolith Monsters (1957) 

Despite the title there are really no monsters in this one. A meteor crashes in the desert made of a crystalline structure which reproduces when exposed to water. A rainstorm results in towering structures which topple over, shatter, and give rise to a new generation. The star is a geologist who has to find a way to contain them before they overrun a nearby town and spread out into the world at large. Quite an original concept, and the science isn’t as bad as you might expect. A good cast and some pretty decent special effects for the time. This has always been one of my favorites from that era. More of a disaster movie than monsters or horror. 7/28/12

The Mole People (1956)

A very formulaic lost world novel. Three archaeologists stumble into a Sumerian city that has been buried underground for 5000 years. The survivors have enslaved the mole people, humanoid and rather silly looking. The arrival of outsiders sets off a power struggle between the king and the high priest - doesn't it always? - and the intruders are only safe because they have a flashlight which blinds all the locals. There's a storm, two earthquakes, two avalanches, and a slave rebellion before the story ends with two of the scientists and one woman escaping. She dies shortly thereafter, the only variation from the usual pattern. Watchable but inferior to most of the other John Agar SF movies of this period. 7/27/12

The Dark Knight Rises, Soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, Water Tower Music, 2012

I haven't seen this movie because I can't stand Christian Bale, but I was willing to listen to the soundtrack composed by Hans Zimmer. I'm afraid much of the music falls into the category of illustrating the visual action but without being really interesting as standalone music. There's also a darker tone than in most action movies, which seems to be well suited to the movie, but  leaves it less lively that I would otherwise have expected. A few of the tracks stand out. "Underground Army" is pretty good, although it takes a while to get going. Parts of "The Fire Rises" are also good, but this track is very uneven. I also liked "Despair", "Rise," and "Imagine the Fire", but none of these are particularly memorable. Probably a good soundtrack but of limited interest as standalone music. 7/27/12

Tarantula (1955)

My favorite of the giant insect genre. A scientist attempting to create an artificial nutrient inadvertently releases an oversized tarantula that grows bigger than a house once it has been released into the Arizona desert. John Agar must save the day as it begins killing cattle, horses, and then people. This was Clint Eastwood's first movie - he's the fighter pilot who drops napalm. The spider is obviously superimposed on the landscape, but for its time, this was actually a pretty good special effect, and the scene where it perches on a hill above the horses is quite powerful. Leo G. Carroll is the scientist, whose staff succumbs to runaway acromegaly. This is still very watchable and is one of the best written of the 1950s SF/Horror movies. 7/26/12

Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961) 

Rampant low budget silliness. An inept American spy is aboard a ship owned by a criminal who is smuggling stolen gold out of Cuba. The crook fakes a sea monster attack in an attempt to get rid of the Cuban soldiers aboard the ship, but there’s a real sea monster lurking about. Pretty much everyone dies. Everything is way over the top and not really funny. Perhaps the best line is “It was dusk. I could tell because the sun was going down.”  That’s the best line; the rest is considerably less witty, including one character who talks in animal calls. The gangster’s girlfriend is the only one who can actually act, Betsy Jones-Moreland, who had a long career on television. Roger Corman did this as well as two other horror comedies that were more successful, and which are in the same set so I’ll probably watch them soon. 7/25/12

The Wasp Woman (1959)

An eccentric scientist develops an extract from the royal honey of wasps that restores youth. The head of a cosmetics firm insists that he experiment on her, and while the initial effect is as advertised, she periodically turns into a wasp headed woman driven to kill and eat males. This is a cheaply made film that included Anthony Eisley in the cast (as Fred Eisley) but it's surprisingly effective. One particularly funny sequence is when the scientist demonstrates how his serum makes aged guinea pigs younger. Instead of young guinea pigs, the cage now contains two active lab rats! The acting, however, is surprisingly good and the script is reasonably well done within the limitations of its premise. Low budget special effects that are laughable by today's standards, but I find it creepy enough when I was a kid.  Surprisingly little actually happens. the first transformation is 52 minutes into a 72 minute woman. One small caveat: I doubt very much you could hear a scream from eleven stories below the origin in a high rise office building. 7/24/12

Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959)

I was in a retro mood. This cheapo Roger Corman black and white scared the pants off me as a kid although the rubber suit giant leeches lurking at the bottom of a lake in Clearwater, Florida, look rather silly now. They keep their prey alive in caves under the water and the disbelieving park ranger is finally convinced that he should don scuba gear and take a look. Fuzzy picture, corny dialogue, stilted acting, no special effects, and a silly plot, but it's efficiently done and has a really creepy soundtrack which I believe Corman used more than once. Even with all its faults, it's better than a lot of direct to DVD horror films I've seen since. No one in the cast is a familiar name although some of them had long careers in small parts, particularly Yvette Vickers, the philandering wife who becomes an early victim. 7/22/12

Doomsday Prophecy (2011) 

Why don’t screen writers try to get little details right? Early in this disaster movie, there’s a significant earth tremor in Manhattan and no car alarms go off.  But then, the rest of the writing is so bad that this pales to insignificance.  A series of natural disasters are initiated because the solar system’s equator – bet you didn’t know the solar system had an equator – goes into sync with the equator of the entire galaxy.  Bet you didn’t know about that one either. A controversial author has predicted all this – it’s never explained how he learned about the equators except that he gets visions from touching a rod – and used them to predict exactly where and when the disasters would occur on Earth. Maybe he read an advance copy of the script. Anyway, he’s hiding in Canada and makes a deal to sell his new book to a New York City publisher on condition that they send a specific proofreader to pick it up. The sinister government agents are able to tap the call promptly even though they specifically say that the caller avoided all of the key words that would have enabled them to do so, but they cannot trace it because of mumbledy mumbledy technical reasons that are thrown out without explanation because the writers couldn’t be bothered. We also have an elderly Native American medicine man who has visions of the same disaster. The keystone cops evil government agents overact and overreact at every opportunity, and poor Jewel Staite gets to say “they look like government agents!” I didn’t know black tees and flak vests were exclusive to government agents. Unbelievable as it seems, the writers apparently think that British Columbia is part of the US!  The government agents, while searching a large stand of woods for two fugitives, stay bunched up for the entire search rather than spreading out. Even I could have gotten around them and back to the road without raising a sweat. Then a tape left by the dead man mentions that he started to get visions of the disasters a month earlier, but the agents are after him because he predicted them in his book, published ten years ago! The evil authorities announce that our two heroes murdered the prophet and, even though they have no way of knowing who the female half is, they know her name and even have a photograph of her wearing the proper clothing. There’s also a black star, except the writers don’t know what a star is, and sometimes they talk about it destroying the Earth and sometimes they say it will destroy the universe. It touches the Earth’s atmosphere without effect at one point. Judging by distance traveled, helicopters fly in excess of one thousand miles per hour. All of this wouldn’t have been completely awful if the effects had been halfway decent, but they weren’t. During the earthquakes, the limbs on the trees don’t move. There’s even an earthquake that chases a car! And most of the disasters are announced rather than shown. So if you’re contemplating buying or renting a movie, and you notice that it was written by either Jason Bourque or Shawn Linden, put it back on the shelf and save your money. And adding a final bit of insult, the sound and picture are out of sync. 7/21/12

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

It was too muggy to get much done today so I decided to treat myself to a movie. Although I enjoyed the previous Spider-Man movies, they were never among my favorites so I was somewhat diffident about seeing a reboot, particularly since I never thought the Lizard was a particularly interesting supervillain. The movie is actually okay, though a bit slow at times, despite some significant plot holes. A high school student would not have a responsible position in a biochemical company with access to very dangerous toxins. Nor would the company keep a very potent toxin dispersal device with no security in a lab open to the public. The Lizard also defies the conservation of mass and energy theory since he regenerates a large tail without accessing any raw materials.We never do find out who the Lizard's frightening superior is - presumably that waits for the sequel along with the mystery of Parker's parents' death - but that particular subplot is abandoned without explanation halfway through the movie. This is a reboot of the origin story so we are treated to having Peter's uncle murdered yet again. Not awful, but I'd rather watch either of the Iron Man movies again that see this a second time soon. 7/20/12

The Ward (2010)

Spoiler Alert. This John Carpenter film is nicely directed and photographed, has a good cast, but alas falls prey to an internal problem that keeps it from being good. The premise is that a young girl is sent to a psychiatric hospital after she burns down a farmhouse, where she and several other young girls are eliminated one by one at the hands of a vengeful ghost. The surprise, which I guessed halfway through, is that it is all an illusion and all the girls are the same person with multiple personalities who is imagining the whole thing. This format causes two major problems. The first is that until the viewer recognizes what's going on, the movie doesn't feel right. Electroshock therapy is not given to conscious subjects, individuals in a restricted ward cannot casually walk into the drug dispensary and they are certainly not left unsupervised for extended periods of time. As a consequence there is no sense of reality and therefore little suspense. Secondly, in order for us to understand what is going on, we have to see things that the character could not have witnessed and remains unaware of.  And finally, the cheap scare at the end is not only horribly overdone but is inconsistent with the rest of the plot. Carpenter has directed some of my favorite films. This isn't one of them. 7/11/12

Prince of Persia (2010)

The adopted son of the king of Persia must outwit his evil uncle, who plans to use a magic dagger that controls time to change history and make himself king. In order to do so, he has to outwit a band of assassins and the soldiers of his two brothers who believe him to be a murderous traitor. The acting is excellent as well as the special effects, and the action scenes - which are really the heart of the movie - are beautifully choreographed. The relationship between our hero and the princess is also nicely done. The comic relief entrepreneur could have been omitted. One minor plot glitch. If there was a place where the magical dagger was safe from all would be thieves, then why wasn't it kept there in the first place? 

Wrong Turn 4 (2011) 

Fourth and definitely least in this franchise about inbred cannibals. Three of them escape from an asylum using a hairpin as a key in the implausible opening to an implausible movie. Excessive gore plus nudity designed to replace plot. They rampage through a hospital without hindrance because no one bothers to call the police. They also know how to use sophisticated medical equipment even though they are uneducated and supposedly mentally deficient. Years later, a group of snowboarders get lost in a storm and you can pretty much fill in the rest of the plot yourself. They take shelter in the asylum, now abandoned, although the furniture and equipment is still there – and not even dusty – along with the patient records! As usual, most of the characters are idiots or delinquents or both, so as usual, I didn’t care if any of them survived. One good line: “They probably turned Porter into a Porterhouse by now.” The plot, such as it is, proceeds by assuming that in any situation, people will do the stupidest possible thing. 7/9/12

Beneath the Darkness (2011)

This story about a mortician who is also a psychopath might have been a horror movie if it hadn't been so laid back. Other than the beginning and ending, and a possibly hallucinogenic scene along the way, it's more of a study of the group of teenagers who know he's the killer but naturally cannot convince adults that they are telling the truth. A good cast and reasonably good performances but the plot is so leaden that I had trouble paying attention and kept finding excuses to pause it and do something else, never a good sign.

The Theater Bizarre (2011) 

A collection of six short horror films, with a sort of frame that is far inferior to the rest. The opening segment is a Lovecraftian pastiche set in France that starts well but becomes incoherent half way through. The scenery and camera work are gorgeous but the rest is forgettable. The second involves a woman breaking up with her paranoid husband, and the plot isn’t strong here either although the dialogue and acting were good. The third is a confusing and uninteresting bit about an unfaithful husband who is having frightening dreams. The fourth is a very short piece about a child's reaction to an accident on the road, not horror at all, but well done. The fifth is an okay story about a woman who steals people's memories by killing them and extracting something from their eyeballs. The last is grotesquely bad, about a fascination with sweet foods, sort of. Unwatchable. Good production values throughout but lackluster storytelling.7/6/12

Beyond the Wall of Sleep (2004) 

Unwatchable - I didn't make it to the end - nonsense supposedly based on the Lovecraft story. Filmed mostly in black and white, with silly acting, sillier dialogue, choppy editing, and virtually no continuity it involves a man institutionalized who becomes an obsession for one of the interns who thinks he’s a harbinger of some greater evil. Surprise! He is. I confess I didn’t pay a lot of attention after the first third, but I don’t think it would have made sense even if I had. Lots of bodies along the way, exposed brains, gore, and such, but shot in this artsy fartsy manner that eliminates any possible shock reaction. A contender for worst film of all time. 7/5/12

Absentia (2011) 

I had a mixed reaction to this one. There’s a tunnel in a community near which people have been disappearing over the years. Two sisters become involved and discover that it’s the lair of something from another reality – the whole story is a play on “Three Billy Goats Gruff”. Although the pace is sometimes glacial, there are some good ideas but the low budget really detracts from this. The sound quality, for example, is tinny and artificial. The picture quality varies but rarely becomes actually good. The dialogue is okay and the acting isn’t bad, but there’s no real bite to any of it. It’s not awful, but your attention is likely to wander. 7/4/12

Final Examination (2003) 

Good production values and a sprinkling of competent acting cannot overcome bad writing. This one starts with an unnecessary sequence apparently added simply to provide the rationale for a car chase – it has nothing to do with the rest of the story. The hero, a police officer, is in trouble because of the way he conducted a “drug bust”. Except that it wasn’t a drug bust; it could have been if he had made an effort to arrest the pushers, but he didn’t, and there was no one else around to do it. As a consequence, his lieutenant transfers him to Hawaii. Note to screenwriters: Local police cannot transfer an officer to another state. A sorority reunion is the basis for a serial killer with a grudge. The transplanted cop and his new partner investigate. Note to screenwriters: When questioning the person who found a body, police usually ask about the circumstances. They also generally conform to the chain of custody procedure with physical evidence rather than just passing it around. Lots of gratuitous nudity, most of it boring. 7/3/12

Shock Labyrinth (2009) 

A sometimes interesting but eventually failed Japanese horror movie, with subtitles. Four friends sneak into a haunted house attraction as children and one disappears. Years later, adults now, the foursome are shocked when an adult version of their lost friend returns, distracted and incoherent. She is injured accidentally and they take her to a hospital, which turns out to be a deserted complex mirroring the haunted house in many ways. The story appears to be about how they deal with their feelings about the earlier event, but everything is so confused and uncertain that it’s really not clear. Minimal suspense and sometimes some unintentional humor – the flying bunny for example – prevent this from being successful. 7/2/12

Wrath of the Titans (2011)

More proof, if we needed it, that great special effects cannot save a bad story. This one involves efforts by Ares - who for some reason is not a god this time around - and Hades to free Kronos because the disbelief of the humans has made the gods mortal. Perseus has to find the three parts of a magical weapon to slay Kronos, and along the way Zeus, Poseidon, Hephaestus, and Ares all die. The acting is barely acceptable and the plot is ridiculous. Worst of all is the dialogue, which made me cringe multiple times. Liam Neeson must have been very embarrassed. The rest of the cast and particularly the writers should be wearing bags over their heads. One of the worst high budget movies I've ever seen. 6/30/12

Sucker Punch (2011)

Since all of the fantasy sequences in this movie are delusions, it's technically a drama, but I'm putting it here anyway in large part because it's the fantastic sequences that are worth watching. A young woman gets illegally confined to a mental institution where she retreats into a fantasy world of many layers. In those sequences she battles giant ninjas, zombie warriors during World War I, a dragon, and a train full of robots. The special effects in these action sequences are spectacular and the zombie set is particularly well done, but the whore house delusions drag on far too long. I think the main problem for me was that the film never establishes a baseline of reality so that even though I knew what was happening, sort of, I couldn't relate it to the real world. A mixed bag, but the fantastic parts are really neat. 6/29/12

Secret Agent/Danger Man Set 1 

I used to watch this way back when, although I doubt I saw a lot of episodes. This set contains six of them rather than a full season and the order is weird. The first, “Battle of the Cameras”, is actually from the third season, I believe. It’s quite good, with Drake outwitting a group of international spies who are pretty sharp themselves. “A Room in the Basement” is about an effort to free a kidnapped agent held in an East European embassy. It also involves a very intricate and well constructed plot. Both of these are improved by the fact that things don’t go according to plan.  “Fair Exchange” has him trapping down a female agent who is possibly mentally disturbed and determined to assassinate the man who tortured her. In “Fish on the Hook” Drake has to smuggle an intelligence agent out of Egypt, but he doesn’t know the agent’s identity.  I guessed wrong. He poses as a butler to investigate an international con man in "No Marks for Servility" and uncovers a spy ring in "Yesterday's Enemies."  The quality of the writing is extremely good throughout all six episodes, and I'll be watching more of this show soon. 6/28/12

South Park Season 15 (2011) 

Despite some potentially interesting ideas, I found the first few episodes of this season to be relatively flat, although the bit about the Canadian royal family was quite funny. The human centipede, crack baby sporting events, a robot comedian built by the Germans, and the duel between Chinese and Japanese restaurants. The episode in which Stan contracts a case of cynicism is funny, and gross. It continues in a rather bland takeoff on the Matrix movies. Toward the end of the season, the quality picks up, with a good takeoff on the Occupy movement and an episode about the sexual subtext of Broadway musicals. The mashup of the History Channel, aliens at Thanksgiving, and the movie Thor is the best of the season, which ended with another good one involving an agnostic foster home. I suspect that part of the reason the last couple of seasons have been less entertaining is that I've grown too familiar with the formula after so many seasons, but I believe the writers are also struggling to find something new to say. 6/27/12

Seaquest  Season 1 (1994) 

This often silly submarine based SF series ran three seasons, although for some reason the third has never been released in DVD. The title refers to a super submarine commanded by Roy Scheider, who lent some dignity to the show, in a world that has politically jelled into some badly defined federations, presumably to avoid political issues. In the pilot, the previous captain gets relieved from command after acting against orders in a military confrontation (she’s also completely unbelievable), and manages to get control of another submarine (from a hostile power) with which she launches a duel against Scheider and the good guys.  There’s a kid and a pet dolphin among the cast, both of whom are occasionally too cute by a longshot. There’s also a hologram character.  The longish pilot is a bit tedious because it has to introduce so many characters and situations. There’s some gobbledegook about computer viruses that doesn’t make sense but the story holds together reasonably well otherwise. 

“The Devil’s Window” involves an obsessed scientist who wants to study thermal vents even if it means that the dolphin aboard the ship dies. The head of the scientific team utters some nonsense about meddling in things we’re not meant to know, which contradicts her character as previously established. It was nice to see Roscoe Lee Browne again. It’s a shameless tear jerker. The lost library of Alexandria is uncovered in “Treasure of the Mind”, forcing Scheider to mediate among the various individuals claiming right of possession. This is considerably contrived since it would obviously be in Egyptian waters. The main plot is actually about the psi empowered delegation that is supposed to be helping, but which has a hidden agenda. The archaeological procedures are, naturally, absurd, e.g. handling ancient scrolls barehanded.  

“Games” is less than great. An Arctic prison was built to hold one man, whom they keep frozen anyway. During an emergency, Seaquest has to evacuate him, and he has in his possession a dangerous toxin with which he threatens the crew. “Treasures of the Tonga Trench” is a pretty bad episode about the discovery of a giant sea creature and a potentially valuable cache of jewels and a plan by crew members to harvest them without anyone knowing. Right. “Brothers and Sisters” also lacks a villain but it’s better done. A presumed deserted undersea installation is occupied by a half dozen children who refuse to leave. “Give Me Liberte” involves a crashed space station with  a genetically altered virus aboard, which infects part of the crew of the Seaquest. How a space station could survive re-entry is never explained, and why no one noticed that an undersea lab with radio wasn’t communicating, but otherwise this isn’t an awful episode, though it’s not very good. 

“Knight of Shadows” introduces the supernatural aboard a sunken ocean liner. Ghosts use the hologram projector aboard ship to variously appeal to and threaten the captain. Although the supernatural elements clash a bit with the nature of the program, this was actually a very good episode until we reach the excessively sappy ending. “Bad Water” involves a hurricane and a trapped submarine. I didn’t find some of the complications plausible and I doubt a submarine can empty all of its ballast tanks in five seconds, but it’s not bad overall. “The Regulator” starts badly. When an air conditioner breaks down, the ships’s captain does not look on while the first and second officer carry out repairs. That’s what the maintenance people are for.  The problem causes overcrowding in the other parts of the ship, frayed tempers, and problems with the supply system that are not completely implausible. An hour I’ll never get back. “SeaWest” has the crew visiting a mining colony dominated by crooks, but the plot has gaping holes – like how does the female officer go aboard as an entertainer when there are no ships around except the Seaquest? 

“Photon Bullet” is an ambitious attempt to examine whether or not it is moral to break laws for
“good” reasons, but it never really deals with the issue and the computer science involved is nonsense. They rescue downed astronauts in “Better Than Martians” and outwit a radical environmentalist who seizes the ship in “Nothing But the Truth.”  Both of these are pretty good and both have villains, although in one case the villain acts for benevolent though warped reasons. The crew has to convince a party of treasure hunters to evacuate an island threatened by an imminent volcanic eruption in “Greed for a Pirate’s Dream”. This one’s scientifically illiterate. There’s a projectile that flies through the air even though it has no propulsive unit. The story line is full of silliness as well, with the crew assuming the others are terrorists before they even meet them. There’s also no reason why they can’t tell the civilians that there’s a volcano brewing despite the inadequate explanation offered. Radical environmentalists tangle with the ship in “Whale Song”, which does a fairly good job of setting up a legitimate ethical dilemma. 

“The Stinger” involves a competition to build a new submersible, and there’s industrial espionage and assorted complications. “Hide and Seek” is a dreadful mess about a fugitive dictator with an autistic son, dolphin mysticism, and unexplained plot elements. “The Last Lap of Luxury” isn’t much better, suggesting the last episode was more than a fluke. The leadership of the UEO is kidnapped to make them ratify a new constitution. Nonsense. “Abalon” is a little better, an encounter with a scientist who is modifying humans to live underwater.  “Such Great Patience” foreshadows what would dominate the second season, more overtly SF themes, in this case an alien ship, with a live occupant, uncovered by a seaquake. Silly story.  

“The Good Death” involves a ship believed to be smuggling which turns out to be rescuing people from death squads.  It’s a mix of good and bad. The evil dictator chews the scenery and acts like a child. “Higher Power” is about a plan to generate hydroelectric power that goes awry, threatening the world. It’s a pretty dreadful end to the season, with comical special effects, bad science, and an inferior plot. They even destroy the ship. Overall, the show started stronger than it finished, and while its earlier commitment to natural problems rather than villains was admirable, it was not likely to result in high ratings. 6/21/12

Seventh Moon (2008) 

An American couple – Amy Smart is the female half – are in China for their honeymoon when their guide marks them for sacrifice to the dead, who are allowed out of Hell once night per year. Alone and lost, they try to survive as the creatures stalk them. This might have been an okay setup but the camera work was probably the worst I’ve ever seen, though probably by design. The lighting is almost nonexistent and there were times when I had no idea what was going on. The camera is in almost constant motion, which makes every shot jerk and jump constantly, and there are numerous extreme close-ups that become almost silly as the movie progresses. It was so bad that I stopped halfway through and almost didn’t start it up again after a break to let my irritation dissipate. Clue to camera people – if this is intended to make things seem more chaotic or suspenseful – it doesn’t work! In fact, it’s so distracting that it throws the viewer out of the story. I was going to say that the director should have watched The Blair Witch Project to see why this was a bad choice but it turns out that it was the same director. Doesn’t learn from his mistakes, obviously. 6/20/12

Mutant Girls Squad (2010) 

Well, I thought this was a Japanese superhero film, but it’s actually a vaguely pornographic spoof that is so silly that the story line is really irrelevant. Mutants secretly live among us and several of them – all but one of them young girls for some reason – have been recruited to launch terrorist attacks against humans. You can get some idea of the lack of seriousness when I tell you that one of the mutants has the power to extrude a chainsaw from her butt and the secret government troops use nose guns to fight them. Lots of fake blood, a small ocean of it in fact, over the top acting, constant fight sequences but none of them realistic, and it goes on far too long.  Actually, fifteen minutes was too long. 6/19/12

The Innkeepers (2011) 

This is a ghost story set in an inn that is about to go out of business. The last two employees are overseeing three final guests while also trying to investigate rumors of a ghost. Very little happens until the last twenty minutes, the special effects are minimal, and there’s essentially no gore. Sounds dull, right? Actually, I enjoyed this immensely. The long buildup would normally have lost my interest but the two clerks – Sara Paxton does a superb job – are so well done that I was interested in them even more than in the haunting. This is proof that you can do a great horror film with essentially one location, a small number of actors, and a small budget, if you know what you’re doing. I’ll watch this one again, even though I confess that I didn’t care for the ending. Recommended as an antidote to the mindless gore and bad scripts that plague the horror movie genre. 6/18/12

The Jerry Goldsmith Collection Volume 1: Rarities, Buysoundtrax Records, 2012 

Jerry Goldsmith did themes and soundtracks to a number of well known movies over the years. This is a collection of some of his lesser known pieces, which doesn’t mean they aren’t good ones. They come from movies as wide ranging as Judge Dredd, Chinatown, The List of Adrian Messenger, and Papillon. Some are quite unusual, e.g. Seven Days in May, which is an extended suite drawn from the movie. The mood ranges from adventurous to the lushness of Chinatown. There's a nice piano piece from The Detective and I really like Adrian Messenger and The Shamus, the latter of which I've never seen. I enjoyed several of the others, including The Sum of All Fears, Patch of Blue, Rio Conchos, Hollister, and Papillon, and there were only a couple that seemed relatively characterless. My favorite was Poltergeist. This is an exceptionally good collection of instrumental pieces. 6/18/12

The Woman in Black (2011)

Daniel Radcliffe leaves Harry Potter behind as he portrays a widowed lawyer in early 20th Century England who is sent to tidy up the estate of a woman who died alone in a remote house. The locals refuse to cooperate and with good reason. Whoever sees the ghost of the dead woman triggers the violent death of a nearby child. He unravels the mystery very slowly  - and while there are creepy scenes the story does not move along very well - but something doesn't make sense. If the woman only recently died, then how can there have been a history of children dying after her ghost was spotted? The acting is fine, the photography and general story line are okay, but the ending made no sense to me at all. An interesting but not particularly entertaining ghost story. 6/17/12

The Forsaken (2001)

Here we have a surprisingly good vampire movie, reminiscent of Near Dark or John Carpenter's Vampires. An unsuspecting young man picks up a hitchhiker who is trying to track a band of vampires led by one of the original eight of his kind. The driver becomes infected, which gives him a more vested interest in helping his new acquaintance succeed, which they do after several violent encounters. The acting in this is exceptionally good for a contemporary horror film and the photography is excellent. There's no real lags in the story line and no serious plot holes. My only technical complaint is that in a few scenes there seemed to be something wrong with the sound, which was flat or echoed. After watching a steady parade of inferior horror films, this was a breath of daylight, so to speak. 6/16/12

Prometheus (2012)

I'd been looking forward to this for a long time, and tried very hard not to let my expectations get too high. First of all, there had been stories that there were some minor nods to Alien. More like a heavy lean than a nod. One third of the movie takes place on the alien ship where the aliens were first encountered, the human ships looks internally and externally like the Nostromo, there's a robot with a secret agenda who ends up talking after being decapitated, the same sound effects and at least once the same music, and the final shot is of the familiar tubeheaded alien. There are some problems with the science. One cannot identity a single star system based on six reference points in a cave painting. Sorry, that just didn't work for me. And where did humans suddenly get a starship? Taking off one's helmet seconds after saying the air is okay worked in 1950s movies, but not today. And if a creature is still alive, how can it be organically sterile?  That said, this is a pretty riveting story of an expedition that encounters a ruined alien base full of what were intended to be biological weapons until they got out of control. Acting is good, special effects are great, the pacing only seemed off once and very briefly, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It's definitely the prequel though. 6/13/12

John Carter (2012)

I finally watched this adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel and I can see why it flopped despite excellent sets and special effects. The acting is competent but unremarkable, and the same is pretty much true of the script. There are times when the story slows to a near stop, conversations are occasionally a bit too long, several scenes are too dark, and there were a couple of times when I couldn't figure out what was going on, although it was always a minor point. It starts badly by giving us a history of Mars before we even meet Carter, and then it spends too much effort developing a back story for him on Earth. There are also major changes from ERB's story line, including another alien species that has invaded both Mars and Earth for purposes of their own. I thought Woola, the doglike Martian, was surprisingly well done, and the tharks are adequate, but for all practical purposes we never see a banth. Watchable but not riveting and certainly not something I would have seen in the theater more than once. 6/7/12

Modern Family Season 2 (2011) 

My favorite all time comedy returns for its second season. Sofia Vergara, Ed O’Neil, and Ty Burrell seemed to have most of the better bits during the first half of the season this time, but the good lines are spread around much more in the second half. It’s consistently well written and the cast is good without exception. There are lots of memorable skits –building the toy castle, getting the printer to work, showing up at the wrong Colombian party, the contest to see who can stay offline longest, the speeding neighbor, Phil at the beauty parlor, the grumpy neighbor, searching for the perfect burial plot. The episode with the repainted van that inadvertently sends an erotic message alternating with the school musical program is outstanding. Possibly because it wasn’t as new as a year ago, this didn’t seem as clever and original, although it was still frequently hilarious. I think they started repeating things occasionally, like the Valentine Day’s adventure. The last few episodes were the high point of the season. I particularly liked the way they quietly established that the dumb daughter isn't as dumb as she appears. There are some serious observations hidden behind the jokes. 6/2/12

Legend soundtrack by Tangerine Dream, Buysoundtracks Records, 2012

From Inside soundtrack by Brett Smith, Lakeshore Records, 2012 

Although I never cared for the 1985 movie Legend, a fantasy starring Tom Cruise, which was a strike against it right from the start, I always liked the music so I was glad to see what I believe is a sort of reissue of the soundtrack, with new performances of most of the original songs. Tangerine Dream wrote and peformed it, so it’s not surprising that it’s good, and their style is perfectly suited for the subject matter. I liked several of the cuts very actively, like “Cottage,” “Goblins,” “Kitchen Fight,” and “Loved by the Sun.” Don’t watch the movie; just buy the music. The second movie is from 2008 and I had never even heard of it before this turned up. Apparently it’s a kind of surrealistic piece about a woman on a train traveling through an apocalyptic landscape, but not having seen it, I had no preconceptions about the music. The opening cut, “Wasteland”, is appropriate bleak and moody.  The following tracks are generally quite similar, in some cases a bit monotonously so, although others are interesting, as is the case with “Red Rain,” “Leaving,” “Pain,” and “Empty Hands.”  Some of it sounds vaguely like church music.  I’d be far less likely to listen to the latter than the former, in large part because the mood is so relentlessly low key, but I might listen to a cut or two from time to time if it was readily available. 6/1/12

Battleship (2012)

Having watched the cheap ripoff, American Warships, I decided to try the original. Not surprisingly, there are far better special effects, better acting, and generally superior production values. The story line isn't much better, though. The alien invaders apparently are targeting Hawaii even before they lose their communication ship and realize that they need an alternate way to phone home. The aliens themselves are less interesting - they are basically just four fingered humans - but are more convincing. The science is terrible. Since radio signals do not exceed the speed of light, the aliens were already on their way to Earth before they received the message that supposedly alerted them to our existence. And there's that hoary old Hollywood device - all but one of the elements of which their equipment is made are "not on the periodic table".  Complete nonsense. It's mostly about the explosions and battle sequences, with occasional crisp lines buried in an otherwise forgettable set of dialogue. Fun, but in many ways not even as good as Independence Day, to which it bears more than a passing resemblance. 5/31/12

Priest (2011)

This alternate world quasi-vampire - they're not really vampires - movie is a remake of the classic western, The Searchers, although it's supposedly based on a comic book series. A bitter older man and a younger one search for the daughter of settlers kidnapped by the vampires,  a secondary race on this world who were defeated by the humans by the development of the warrior priests. The older man is one of them, but the church has relegated them to obscurity and tries to pretend that the vampire threat is non-existent, that they are confined to reservations. Obviously that's not the case, and the logic of this whole set up is seriously flawed. Adding to the complication is that four other priests have been sent out to capture or kill the renegade by church officials, who don't want to disturb the status quo - a repressive religious dictatorship. There's a supervamp, a fight aboard a train, and an ending that suggests a sequel. Good special effects, fair acting, okay story, but not particularly memorable. 5/30/12

American Warships (2012)

Asylum has made a habit of providing cheap imitations of major films, and this one is an obvious takeoff of Battleship. The Iowa is on its last mission when an alien submersible disguised as a Korean/Chinese ship tries to provoke a nuclear war. The politics are primitive but the basic premise - the aliens knock out sophisticated electronics but the Iowa still has its1940s vintage operating systems intact (and fortunately some now obsolete ammunition). The special effects run from barely acceptable to laughing out loud funny but the acting - with the exception of the Admiral - is competent. There are some goofs. A woman with captain's bars is referred to as lieutenant and the 4 star general is sometimes a 3 star general. The writers obviously don't have much sense of time and distance because the navy refurbishes a fleet and sails it from Pearl Harbor to near the coast of North Korea in less than a day - only to have it promptly sunk. This is actually one of the better Asylum films, which gives you an idea how bad most of them are. 5/28/12

The Darkest Hour (2011)

This turns out to be a surprisingly watchable alien invasion movie. It reminded me a good deal of Skyline at first, which was not a good thing. The aliens wipe out most of the human race in the first few minutes. They're invisible most of the time, but they set off electrical items when they are nearby which makes for some interesting and suspenseful sequences. Four Americans are stranded in Moscow and have to make their way across the city, encountering other survivors in the process, before escaping on a Russian submarine. They find a way to kill some of the aliens in the process. Although the invaders are essentially invisible, there are very good special effects showing the wreckage of city. The actors were all unknown to me, although most are seasoned actors, so the performances are good and the script not awful. I'd watch this again, but not soon. 5/25/12

Pretty Little Liars (2010)

Someone described this to me as Twin Peaks for teens, and I read a review that said it was very well written (they lied) so I decided to give it a try.  A group of high school girls are traumatized when the head of their clique mysteriously disappears one night, the story picking up a year later when they are tormented by mysterious messages of various types, supposedly from their dead friend.  In general, the episodes are intermittently suspenseful despite repetition, bad writing, and occasional silliness. 

I was not favorably impressed with the characters, who are variously shoplifters, snobs, blackmailers, killers, embezzlers, adulterers, airheads, homophobes, child molesters, cruel, thoughtless, conniving, deceitful, and nasty. Three of the four main characters have multiple affairs/romances during the course of just a few months. One of them meets her new teacher for the first time in his restaurant and is kissing him in the men’s room within minutes. By the end of the pilot they’ve all been drinking and at least one has done drugs. Anyway, the girls start getting notes suggesting they are being watched all the time, each signed with the missing girl’s initial. Some of these events are clearly impossible, suggesting a possible supernatural influence. Or more likely bad writing. There’s lots of sexual tension, secret affairs, cheating spouses and couples, and corrupt policemen. When Alyson, the missing girl, turns up murdered, the messages continue. Even after one episode, I wondered why the four other girls considered her their friend, given the way she badly treated them on a consistent basis. 

Episode 2 hints about the Jenna Incident. Jenna is another girl in the town, who is blind as the result of a prank gone wrong. The writing gets into trouble here. The police cannot interrogate minors without the permission or presence of their parents. We also get shown that the dead girl, Alyson, was even worse than we thought. Episode three continues the nonsense, with impossible phone calls and police interviewing minors without the permission or knowledge of their parents. And police detectives don’t drive around in squad cars (let alone sleep with the mother of a suspect in a crime they’re investigating). Lots of angst, but no advancement of the story line. And is it necessary to show the very same flashback repeatedly? And while I accept that people often do stupid things, a story line that is based on everyone doing stupid things all the time is worthless. 

The pace picks up some in the next few of episodes, with infidelity revealed, and various breakups and reunions among the various romantic couples. Implausibilities abound, like the psychologist who not only fails to lock up his confidential files, but leaves his office open while two painters are working (and a nosy teenager can walk in later).  One of them gets a threatening note in a fortune cookie they picked up at a Chinese restaurant, so unless it’s one of the four girls who’s behind everything, it has to be either a supernatural explanation or colossally bad writing. There’s also a lot of repetition, confrontations repeated, and obvious filler. Characters do not act consistently even within individual episodes, and sometimes their stupidity exceeds plausibility. One does not dispose of a stack of papers that one wants destroyed by throwing them into a fast moving stream, otherwise undamaged, just after saying that burning them would look too suspicious. 

The story moves but rarely progresses, and there’s a steady string of searches without warrants and other police improprieties that no one thinks twice about. The writers retroactively create lesbian events in the life of one character even though we’ve previously been told that her recent discovery that she has that preference came as a complete shock to her. And of course various characters do really stupid things to make everything more complicated than it needs to be.  But finally someone does note that minors cannot be questioned in the absence of their guardian. The introduction of the FBI drops the level even lower. The FBI does not get involved in routine murder investigations and they, like the police, are not allowed to interrogate minors without the permission of their parents. Nor do they issue search warrants without reason, and if they did, they would certainly include the suspect’s computer. Also, murder suspects who are apprehended trying to escape the area are not likely to be let out on bail, particularly ones with little money, to say nothing of being allowed to attend high school classes. There’s also a broken leg that mends well enough for the victim to walk normally inside a week. The plot contradicts itself from day to day as well. The episode following the one in which we learn that Hannah’s mother has paid off all her debts, we are told that she is heavily in debt.  There are major errors in how estates are handled, how identities are checked when large sums of money are being handled, and so forth. We also have a character who went from being unemployed to a uniformed police officer to an assistant detective in less than a year. There is also some terrible continuity. Several episodes after we all know who planted the incriminating sweater on one of the characters, one of the characters says that she thinks Toby still suspects her, even though he is the one who told her who really did it. 

I was very impressed with the acting of Bianca Lawson (who was Kendra back on Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but at thirty two years of age, she just doesn’t look like a high school kid. The rest of the cast ranges from competent to good, considering the poor writing. The basic premise wasn’t bad, but the execution is atrocious, and after the first few episodes, they become very repetitive.  The assumption that the four girls would have continued to think highly of their dead friend despite the many examples provided of her cruelty and self centered attitude is not tenable and the other characters frequently act out of character or nonsensically. And none of them are likeable themselves, despite occasional selfless acts. Some of the plot complications are contrived so much that no one would have acted that way except to produce a plot complication. And other elements are similarly contrived, like why is the high school left unlocked and empty at night, particularly the day after they discover petty theft after hours? The omniscience of “A” is laughable. But oddly enough, despite its multiple and pervasive flaws, there’s a kind of momentum to this that kept me watching, so I guess it’s better than it seems. Or maybe I just have so much time invested at this point that I can’t quit without some resolution. 5/21/12

Sherlock Series 2 soundtrack by David Arnold & Michael Price, Silva Screen, 2012, $14.99

I recently picked up season one of this television show but haven't had time to watch it. This is the soundtrack from season 2 and the first word that comes to mind after listening to it is "sedate", or perhaps "restrained." The music is more atmospheric than exciting, sometimes having the feel of classical pieces. It's a full, traditional orchestra most of the time. I had the impression that the composers were trying not to distract the viewer from what was happening on the screen rather than attempting to add something to the production as a whole. On the other hand, if the scripts rely more heavily on the intellectual than the physical, that's probably the better strategy. The best tracks are "Status Symbols" and "Double Room." Probably effective while watching the show, but it's not something I would play just to listen to the music. 5/14/12

Nightmare of Eden (1979) 

Tom Baker is Doctor Who in this adventure which starts when he helps prevent a collision between two spaceships. Two starships materialize in the same space and are locked together in an overlapping fashion. The Doctor and Romana arrive on board shortly thereafter. “Of course we should interfere. Always do what you’re best at.” But something more than a simple accident is involved. One of the passengers is a scientist who has been capturing ecosystems and miniaturizing them. One of the crewmen is addicted to a highly dangerous drug. Creatures begin escaping from the miniaturization machine into the greater world, including some big headed monsters. One of the better Baker adventures and more serious in tone than many of them. 5/14/12

The Happiness Patrol (1988) 

This Doctor Who adventure is set on a colony world where unhappiness is illegal and people caught without a smile disappear mysteriously. The title refers to a group of puffy haired police who enforce the rules. Sylvester McCoy and Ace arrive and quickly realize that something is wrong. The acting is extraordinarily bad in this one even though the concept is actually a potentially interesting one. The Doctor contrives for them to be arrested as part of his plan to overthrow the regime. The Kandy Man creature is excessively silly. In fact, there’s excessive silliness all through this one. The show disappeared from the air not too long after this long, perhaps understandably given the decline in the scripts. 5/13/12

Dragonfire (1987)

A fairly complex story for Sylvester McCoy's version of Doctor Who, though still inferior to most of the earlier episodes. This marked the transition from Mel to Ace as his companion. On an ice covered planet, they help an old acquaintance to look for a supposed treasure, unaware that they are being manipulated by the local dictator, who has delusions of grandeur. The dictator also has an assistant who has plans of her own. Some of the sets are actually pretty good for this show, particularly given that their budget was already being squeezed at this point. There's one great scene with the Doctor bantering metaphysics with a security guard. There's a lot of running around in caves, a brainwashed crew with murderous intentions, and a mechanical dragon. An odd combination of interesting elements and bad acting. 5/12/12

The Avengers (2012)

The long awaited Marvel ensemble movie is finally here. I confess I've been looking forward to this for quite a while so my expectations were probably unrealistically elevated, particularly as I'm a fan of Joss Whedon's other work. The plot, if you haven't already heard it, involves an attempt by Loki, with an army of nasty looking aliens, to take over the Earth. Nick Fury organizes a bunch of superheroes to defend the Earth. It's not exactly the original complement of the Avengers in the comics, but it works. A good deal of the advance buzz was that the Hulk was actually done right this time, after a bad television series and two previous attempts on the big screen. I'd say it met my expectations without exceeding them. The dialogue is frequently crisp and witty, the special effects are spectacular, the battle scenes very well done although perhaps occasionally a bit hard to follow, and there's a pretty good balance of time spent on each of the main characters. Thumbs up. 5/9/12

Sapphire and Steel (1979-1982) 

I never saw a single episode of this program when it originally aired, so it was completely new to me when I started watching the first disc. There were six separate stories, each told by about eight episodes in much the fashion of the early Doctor Who. “Escape Through a Crack in Time” opens with the parents of two children suddenly disappearing. The title refers to two agents (Joanne Lumley and David McCallum) of a police force that patrols various realities to keep anomalies from happening and this is obviously an anomaly. They have unusual powers including telepathy and the ability to change elements of their appearance at will. In this case, a creature is trying to manipulate time for its own purposes. It’s rather claustrophobic – everything takes place in a rather dark house – and there’s almost no musical soundtrack, but the plot is rather creepy. Minimal special effects. The first serial seems more like a children’s show and is not representative of the rest, fortunately, because it’s pretty bad overall. The little girl, alas, is awful even for a child actor. 

“The Railway Station” is much better.  A man is investigating what he believes to be a ghost in an abandoned rail station when our two heroes appear and tell him it’s not what he thinks it is - although in a way he’s right. Sapphire senses memories of a past summer but Steel isn’t as affected as she is. The biggest shortcoming – which runs right through the series – is that by design we never really understand what is going on and have to take everything on faith, even though there’s no logical sequence of cause and effect.  The story has some interesting twists; the ghosts are being recruited not just because they died in war, but because they died “unfairly”, i.e. during a foolish experiment with a prototype submarine or days before they were to be discharged. Interestingly, the duo chooses to sacrifice an innocent human being against his will to complete their mission. 

“The Creature’s Revenge” is more SF. Two time travelers from the future are trapped in the 20th Century when the AI helping them becomes corrupted and starts performing unauthorized experiments. Supposedly they are conducting an experiment, but since they neither observe nor interact with the outside world, that makes no sense. It’s a bit silly at times – Steel is menaced by a levitating pillow at one point. Despite the trappings, it’s more or less another ghost story. It takes them a couple of episodes to get into the time capsule, and then four more to resolve things. Not bad, but it’s still impossible to figure out exactly what’s going on.  

The others follow the same pattern. “The Man Without a Face” abandons all attempt at rationality by presenting our heroes with a creature that can travel through time by moving from one photograph to another. It’s comparatively short but one of the creepiest. “Dr. McDee Must Die” is structured a bit like a murder mystery. A group of people are sent back in time by an entity that wants to kill them and provoke a terrible plague. Finally there is “The Trap”, a kind of way station where Sapphire & Steel are trapped with various people from different time periods. This ended with them still trapped but the show was cancelled (although revived as a radio show some years later).  An interesting but not particularly well done show overall. 5/8/12

Godsend (2004) 

Robert DeNiro is the headline name although not the star of this rationalized version of The Omen. He’s a scientist who creates a clone of a recently deceased child, to the initial delight of his parents. The key word here is, of course, “initial”.  Despite the good cast and a few good scenes, this is not a particularly good movie. It drags on endlessly at times, the plot is far too predictable, and as I suspected the writer and director had absolutely no idea how cloning actually works. They seem to believe clones would be the same person as opposed to physically identical persons; we are a product of environment as well as our chromosomes. Not awful but you might well fall asleep before the end. A rehash of misunderstood cliches. 5/7/12

Feast 3: The Happy Finish (2009) 

Third, last, and weakest of this trilogy, a send up of monster movies. The handful of survivors of the first two are joined by two newcomers, one of whom appears to have some kind of strange power over the mutants. The blood and gore continues to be over the top, the nudity gratuitous, and the characters despicable. In fact, the major problem the movie faces is that it repeats so much that has already been done that there’s really no reason for it to have been made in the first place, although if you haven’t seen the first two, it probably would seem better than it is. Much of the content is purposefully offensive so be warned. Deliberate schlock and I’m glad they ended it here. 5/6/12

Ring of Darkness (2004) 

When one member of a popular rock band tries to split one night and spill unspecified secrets, the others kill him, which pretty well tells us what the rest of the story is going to be about except for the payoff.  Not very good either, although surprisingly the music sung by the group is actually not bad, although I got pretty sick of the same song after a while.  During the auditions, they play the same tape every time, so all the contestants have the same voice. This was made for television, so I didn’t expect much. They claim the missing man has been taken to a drug treatment center – from a remote island – and no one bothers to investigate. They begin conducting auditions for a new lead singer. Not surprisingly, it turns out the band members are immortal undead who derive their energy from dead groupies. Adrienne Barbeau looks embarrassed. 5/5/12

Serious Sam 3 (2011) 

This is the first new computer game I’ve picked up in a long time. I am a big fan of this series of first person shooters from a Croatian game developer, Croteam. It’s in the tradition of Doom or Duke Nukem – you walk around through various landscapes shooting everything that moves with weapons and ammunition you find along the way. There are a few puzzles to solve but none of them are outrageously difficult and there are none of the simple coordination problems – jumping through mazes of lava, for example – that I find less than entertaining in other games. The graphics are better than ever, although this time we spend most of our time in a devastated modern Cairo, so there aren’t the beautiful landscapes of the earlier games. One annoying element is a giant crab monster that gobbles you up if you stray off the path; I prefer being able to wander around and look at the scenery. The new critters – creepy crawlies in particular – are nicely done.  On the easiest level I managed to complete the game in about 14 hours of gameplay; I could have shaved off some of that if I hadn’t spent so much time looking for secret areas.  I believe this can only be purchased digitally through Steam, which means you can’t play it unless you have a working internet connection, a restriction I dislike but which seems to be the wave of the future. 5/4/12

Study Hell (2007)

A direct to video slasher film about a teacher that goes nuts while conducting a detention session and begins killing his students. As usual, the students generally look to be in their twenties at least, and sometimes thirties. The acting is alternately leaden and ludicrously overdone, the picture quality stinks, the soundtrack is awful and sometimes inaudible, the dialogue is corny, the slasher effects are silly, and the plot makes no sense.  This one's terrible even for a made for video cheapie horror flick, and it's so relentlessly boring that it's not even inadvertently funny. I can't imagine anyone enjoying this, or taking pride in being part of the production. 5/3/12

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