Archive for the 'Film' Category

Humanity has an inauspicious introduction to an alien organism in the sci-fi/horror movie ‘Life’

May 17, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 17, 2017

The grandly named 2017 movie Life is a grimly efficient horror flick set aboard the International Space Station in the near future. I use the word flick advisedly: This is a B-movie premise mounted on a very respectable $58 million budget.

The space station’s six-person course — ah, I mean crew — is working on a project called Pilgrim, in which an automated probe is returning Martian rock and soil samples to near-Earth orbit for analysis and experimentation. Matters get off to a rocky start when the probe is damaged by debris, which leads to a hair-raising high-speed rendezvous.

But that’s nothing compared to what happens when exobiologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) discovers that one of the samples contains a dormant single-celled organism. Once Derry brings the laboratory chamber’s temperature and atmosphere to Earth-like conditions, the microscopic creature begins first moving and then multiplying.

Humanity is captivated by the discovery, and an overjoyed elementary-school student names the life form Calvin on a live broadcast. No one is happier than Derry — although he and his crewmates will soon come to regret their finding.

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Confessions of a lifelong fraidy-cat; or, Why I (mostly) can’t abide horror films

May 15, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 15, 2017

When I was a child, I would sometimes glimpse horror films on television. These brief exposures inevitably made my pulse race and usually left me terrified, regardless of whether the scene showed someone being harmed or even threatened.

Once when I was 10 years old, my family and I attended a family gathering at my Great-Uncle Paul and Great-Aunt Jesse’s apartment in Queens. (Or maybe I was 8 or 13. Who knows?) The apartment’s combined living room and dining room was full of people. But one moment, when I happened to be facing the TV, I saw something that made me feel completely alone and utterly vulnerable.

There was some old 1960s movie on; I remember it being in color, although I couldn’t even tell you if the scene I saw involved a Frankenstein’s monster coming to life or a vampiric woman awakening. In fact, I’m not even sure if the sound was on or off. But just watching a few seconds of this production frightened me to the core. I think one of my parents — my mother? — noticed that I was petrified and steered my attention somewhere else, or perhaps got someone to change the channel.

It’s a weird childhood trauma to remember, if trauma is indeed the right word for such a minor ordeal. And yet thinking back on that moment — muddled though my recall of it might be — I get terrified all over again.

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Death doesn’t get in the way of a good time, even years after I first watched ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’

May 11, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 11, 2017

A few years ago, as I wrote Wednesday, I re-watched The Black Hole, a science fiction movie that I’d enjoyed as a kid but which seemed severely lacking when viewed through my adult eyes. The other day, I revisited Weekend at Bernie’s, a 1989 comedy that had struck my adolescent self as hilarious, despite being poorly received by critics upon its release.

Reader, I must report the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth: I thought that Weekend at Bernie’s held up pretty well on my recent viewing.

The movie features a darkly hilarious setup. The two protagonists, young insurance-company employees played by Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman, get their holiday off to a rocky start when they discover that their boss and Labor Day weekend host, Bernie Lomax (Terry Kiser), has just died. Because the pair wants to enjoy a few days in Bernie’s opulent beach house, they manipulate the corpse so people think that he’s still alive — much to the consternation of Paulie (Don Calfa), the drug-addled hit man who keeps assassinating Lomax on behalf of a mafioso whom the profligate Lomax has angered.

Director Ted Kotcheff (The Apprenticeship of Duddy KravitzFirst Blood and Uncommon Valor) and screenwriter Robert Klane (National Lampoon’s European Vacation) embrace the corniness at the heart of this premise. The cast goes for broke, too, especially Calfa, whose eyes seem to bulge more and more with every passing moment.

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Return to outer space — recalling another not-so-terrific science-fiction adventure from the waning weeks of 1979

May 10, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 10, 2017

Occasionally, YouTube’s algorithms offer up something interesting. That happened the other week when I stumbled upon some video clips excerpted from The Black Hole, the poorly received 1979 film that was the first-ever Disney production to receive a PG rating.

When I looked up the film’s release date, I found that it came out on Dec. 21, 1979 — exactly two weeks after the premiere of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I went to see The Black Hole in the cinema during its initial theatrical run, which meant that that month was full of science fiction excitement and disappointment.

The nearest art-house cinema to my current home is the Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham, N.C. The Carolina regularly shows old science fiction, horror and fantasy movies, and a few years ago, they brought in The Black Hole for a showing. Naturally, I went.

The film that had disappointed young me also disappointed adult me, albeit for somewhat different reasons. But that hasn’t stopped me from returning to movies (and occasionally books) that my younger self enjoyed. Which, not at all coincidentally, will be the topic of my next post…

Disappointed and thrilled: Memories from 1979’s premiere ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’

April 29, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 29, 2017

The original Star Trek series debuted on Sept. 8, 1966, some five years after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. On July 20, 1969, about six weeks after NBC aired the show’s final episode, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin became the first men to set foot on the moon. It would be more than 10 years before any further live-action Trek appeared, in the form of 1979’s beautiful but ponderous Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

The show did have some new on-screen life over this fallow decade. Twenty-two episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series featuring the original cast were broadcast over a 13-month period spanning September 1973 through September 1974.

But the franchise mainly flourished in other forms during the interregnum: Through print and reruns. A variety of comic books generally chronicled new adventures that hadn’t been produced for television, while a passel of prose books mixed adaptations of TV episodes with original stories. Reruns — aired in New York City and beyond by WPIX for years and years beginning shortly after Star Trek was canceled by NBC — presented the show more or less as it had been originally produced. (The “less” part came from two things — wear and tear on the film prints, which WPIX replaced with tapes in the 1980s, and editing to accommodate more commercials and other promotions.)

Information in 1979 wasn’t as easy to obtain as it is now, when lifetimes’ worth of video, audio and other content can be accessed nearly anywhere with a lap- or palmtop device. Still, newspapers, television and magazines — I particularly remember drooling over issues of Starlog — did an ample job of spreading the word about upcoming movies. And believe you me, I was very excited for the premiere of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in December 1979.

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The 2016 ‘Star Trek’ movie urged viewers to tolerate and embrace differences even as some Americans sought safety in homogeneity

April 28, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 28, 2017

Author’s note: I am once again on a bit of a Star Trek kick. Having just written, respectively, about the most recent and the first Trek movies, I now intend to discuss the cultural and political implications of the latest Star Trek and Star Wars features (that’s the purpose of this post). Be on the lookout for a vignette about going to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture in the movie theater, after which I’ll return to more varied subjects. MEM

The Star Wars franchise is a largely apolitical one. Creator George Lucas conceived of his space saga in largely black-and-white terms. The color lines were literal in some cases, as when the towering evil black-clad Sith Lord, Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones), menaced the elfin, virtuous white-clad rebel, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) in 1977’s Star Wars (retroactively retitled Star Wars: A New Hope).

Lucas later introduced some more nuance and ambiguity, with moody protagonist Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) donning dark-colored apparel for the latter half of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and most of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. And to his credit, Lucas attempted to explore what happens when peaceful societies are overtaken by complacency, greed and corruption in his prequel trilogy.

But even in the prequel trilogy, Lucas was pretty light on specificity; other than “Don’t vote to establish a standing army” or “Don’t entrust leadership of your enfeebled and embattled republic to a creepy politician who is also secretly a master manipulator and skilled warrior with awesome telekinetic powers who can shoot death lightning from his fingertips,” he offers no solid prescriptions for preserving peace and democracy. This is, perhaps, no surprise: The franchise is called Star Wars, after all, not Star Governance.

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The flawed but beautiful ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ successfully launched a pioneering TV show onto the silver screen

April 25, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 25, 2017

A strong case can be made that 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture is the most ambitious movie in the Trek franchise, as well as the one that holds truest to the science fiction tropes of peaceful exploration that were famously embodied by Gene Roddenberry’s original television series. And an equally strong case can be made that Star Trek: The Motion Picture is among the least watchable of all the Trek films, both on the franchise’s own terms as well as those of cinema in general.

(Reader beware: Mild spoilers ensure.)

Before I dive into either argument, a plot summary: An presmense and incredibly powerful energy field of unknown origin is flying toward Earth after having erased three Klingon battle cruisers without breaking sweat. Strangely, although Starfleet is headquartered on Earth, the organization has only one ship capable of intercepting this vast cloud, which we eventually learn calls itself V’ger. That vessel, naturally, is one U.S.S. Enterprise. She is fresh off a two and a half year long refit without having undergone a shakedown cruise, she’s assigned to an untested captain, and her crew is young and largely untried.

Enter one Admiral James Tiberius Kirk (the one and only William Shatner), who has (it is strongly implied) spent the interim period serving as chief of Starfleet operations. He persuades his boss (the unseen Admiral Nogura) to restore Enterprise to his command, usurping the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Capt. Willard Decker (Stephen Collins). As the crew struggles to prepare the starship for its upcoming encounter, and as Kirk comes to grips with the challenges of the situation, the starship finds itself facing a powerful entity that regards humanity as an infestation. Life on Earth could be exterminated unless Kirk and his top officers — Decker, a cranky Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) and an incredibly remote Spock (Leonard Nimoy) — find a way to work together and satisfy V’ger’s desire to unite with God.

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Two reporters search for truth in the nation’s capital in the taut 2009 thriller ‘State of Play’

April 18, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 18, 2017

State of Play, the 2009 feature starring Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams as Washington newspaper reporters, is a well-paced political thriller with some conventional notions about power and some curious notions about journalism.

The movie, co-written by Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War ZDeepwater Horizon), Tony Gilroy (Michael ClaytonDuplicity and Rogue One) and Billy Ray (BreachShattered Glass and Captain Phillips), is based on a 2003 British miniseries of the same name written by Paul Abbott. But it feels thoroughly American, despite having a New Zealander (Crowe) portraying a blue-collar Pittsburgh native and being directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland), a Scotsman who’s mainly helmed documentaries.

The film opens with a stone-faced man (Michael Berresse) pumping bullets into a teenage junkie (LaDell Preston) who had the misfortune of crossing him and a pizza delivery man (Dan Brown) who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Later that morning, as a Washington Globe crime reporter named Cal McAffrey (Crowe) begins investigating why an unknown single shooter has apparently attacked two very disparate targets, a young congressional aide named Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer) dies after being pushed into the path of an oncoming Metro train.

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The inventive comedy ‘Colossal’ shows what happens when a woman’s life becomes a disaster, both literally and figuratively

April 15, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 15, 2017

Minutes after the start of Colossal, Nacho Vigalondo’s quirky, entertaining new comedy, the protagonist’s life has crashed to a halt. Party girl Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is thrown out of her tony New York apartment by her exasperated boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens), who says he can no longer put up with her joblessness and drinking. The chronically directionless 30something woman, now suddenly homeless, retreats to the unfurnished vacation house her absent parents own in the small town of Mainhead, where she grew up.

Little does she know that her ordeal is about to get even worse. On the plus side, she reconnects with a solicitous old school friend, bar owner Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who offers her a job, jump-starts her interior decorating, and gives her a set of instant buddies in the form of his pals Garth (Tim Blake Nelson) and Joel (Austin Stowell). On the minus side, she soon realizes that her intoxicated early-morning forays through a local park are linked with the manifestation of an immense monster that has begun terrorizing Seoul.

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The Enterprise crew takes an entertaining but inessential voyage in ‘Star Trek Beyond’

April 13, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 13, 2017

Star Trek Beyond, the third entry in J.J. Abrams’s reboot of the venerable science fiction franchise, is a pleasant but ultimately inessential way to pass two hours.

As the picture begins, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and the intrepid crew of the starship Enterprise are roughly three years into their five-year mission. But Kirk has grown weary of deep-space exploration (there’s an amusing shot of him opening his closet to see several hangers displaying identical uniforms). Meanwhile, his first officer, Spock (Zachary Quinto), feels compelled to break off his relationship with the human communications officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana) because of his wish to help propagate the Vulcan species. This longing is only magnified when he learns of the death of Ambassador Spock (the late Leonard Nimoy, glimpsed in stills), his counterpart from and link to the original Star Trek TV series.

When Enterprise puts in for resupplying, rest and recreation at the remote (and oddly named) Starbase Yorktown after an unsuccessful attempt to broker peace between two warring alien races, there’s a distinct air of discontent about the ship. And yet Kirk remains up for a challenge; when the alien Kalara (Lydia Wilson) rockets toward Yorktown on an escape pod spinning a tale about how her crew has been marooned on an even more remote planet named Altamid, the captain gathers his crew for a voyage through an uncharted nebula.

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