Category: Science Fiction

Mar 04 2014

Videophiled: ‘12 Years a Slave’ from Oscar to Disc

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD), coming hot off an Oscar win for Best Picture as well as Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o, whose acceptance speech was a work of art) and Best Adapted Screenplay (by John Ridley), timed this release right. Still unavailable on VOD or On Demand, disc is the only way to see this at home.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the Solomon Northup, the free man who was kidnapped in the north and sold into slavery in the south where he survived for 12 years before he was able to return home, with Lupita Nyong’o as the young, abused female slave Patsey and a supporting cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Brad Pitt (who was also a producer).

What most impresses me about the film is the way it shows how slavery distorts humanity on all levels. When human beings are treated as property, it corrupts the owners as it takes away the self-worth of the captives. There is a vast gulf between the “bad master” played by Fassbender and the “good master” played by Cumberbatch, but he is a slave owner nonetheless and never considers another way.

Blu-ray and DVD with two featurettes, “The Team” and “The Score.” The Blu-ray offers an exclusive third featurette, “A Historical Portrait.” You’ll have to wait a couple of weeks for On Demand and VOD, which could spur even more sales for those not willing to wait. Or you could visit your local video store. They could use your business.

More at Cinephiled


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD, On Demand on Friday, March 7), the second film in the young adult dystopian series starring Jennifer Lawrence as Katnis Everdeen, a reluctant warrior and symbol of resistance, improves upon the original film in almost every way. Taking the same basic premise—a despotic government that keeps its citizens in poverty and reminds them of its power by drafting the young into a modern gladiatorial ring to kill or be killed on TV—this one digs deeper into the idea of power and control and the way media is used as a tool of oppression.

Director Francis Lawrence understands the novels better than previous director Gary Ross. Katnis’s District 12 doesn’t look like an ennobled patch of poverty in the majesty of the wilderness this time, it’s a rural slum caked in coal dust, and the districts are essentially open slave pens for people who will be worked to death without any hope of escape. The façade of the luxurious capitol is built within a veritable bunker. And Katniss is no selfless heroine, simply a young woman who acts on instinct to protect who she loves rather than simply protect herself.

More New Releases at Cinephiled

Feb 15 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Darkman’

Sam Raimi always wanted to make his own superhero movie. It was a natural fit for the director, as the Spider-Man films so clearly prove, but in 1990 no one was ready to trust him with a comic book hero on the strength of a couple of Evil Dead movies. So he created his own character: Darkman, a disfigured, damaged scientist who emerges from a fiery original story with one foot in the world of Gothic horror and the other in Hollywood action cinema.

Liam Neeson is Peyton Westlake, a scientist working on the experimental “liquid skin” in a laboratory built out of a waterfront warehouse. He lives with Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand), an attorney representing a shady developer (Colin Friels) whose trail of bribes starts to surface. When he sends his thug Durant (Larry Drake), a beady-eyed heavy with a jowly face, a posh sense of fashion, and a pocket cigar cutter that doubles as a portable guillotine for the fingers of his victims, to grab the incriminating documents, Peyton and his lab assistant become collateral damage.

Darkman was Raimi’s first studio film and, while hardly a big-budget project, he had more resources at his disposal than he had ever had before and he celebrates with a big, busy opening scene of gang warfare. Raimi lets us know exactly what kind of film we’re in for in the first scene, where a gang stand-off becomes a massacre after Durant’s men pull out a machine gun hidden in prosthetic limb.

Continue reading Turner Classic Movies

Feb 12 2014

‘RoboCop’: The Bionic Lawman Lacks Much Personality

The 1987 RoboCop was a perversely violent, savagely smart, and wickedly funny science-fiction action blast, laced with political and social satire. Twenty-five years later, it seems more prescient than ever, which puts the onus on this new RoboCop to justify itself: Just what does it have to say about a world where unmanned military drones are being drafted into stateside police work?

Joel Kinnaman's cop meets his creator (Gary Oldman)

Give the film’s producers credit for drafting José Padilha, a Brazilian director who delivered both gritty, high-tension action and savvy social drama in Elite Squad. You get an idea where this movie might’ve gone in its unsettling prologue, as an American robot force patrols the streets of Tehran circa 2028.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Feb 12 2014

‘RoboCop’ reboots man vs. machine tale for the modern world

The original RoboCop was a classic of its kind which caught American viewers by surprise with a mix of ultra-violence, dark comedy and social commentary. Action fans were wowed — and underneath it all was a political subtext. With a reboot hitting theaters, it’s worth asking whether it can approach the ingenuity and edge of RoboCop 1.0.

In 1987, RoboCop delivered wicked satire masquerading as an action film. It was a sci-fi adventure about a dead policeman who is resurrected with an industrial operating system and an armored body that turns him into a walking tank. Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s American debut was a corporate “Frankenstein” tale dropped into a near future full of rampant crime. The filmmaker’s savage wit and penchant for pushing the envelope resulted in a vision so violent that he recut and resubmitted RoboCop 12 times before it was given an R-rating.

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Dec 26 2013

Blu-ray: ‘A Boy and His Dog’

A Boy and his Dog (1975), the directorial debut of longtime character actor and Sam Peckinpah regular L.Q. Jones, is not the first post-apocalyptic vision of America but it does offer a different approach to the empty streets and ghostly cities that previously stood in for the life after the end. Where films like Five (1951) and The World, The Flesh, and the Devil (1959) gave us future where the cities and streets and detritus of urban life remains like a ghost to haunt the sole survivors, A Boy and his Dog offers a savage world where the past is rubble, nature has been blasted to a desolate desert, and the survivors are mercenary gangs and parasites picking through the pockets of ruins and preying upon the weak.

Jones establishes the sheer barbarity of the marauder culture with roving gangs dressed in mismatched (and often flamboyant) clothes travelling the wasteland like rogue platoons or feudal lords (one scruffy leader is pulled on a coach as if he were an Egyptian king). George Miller surely took a cue from Jones for The Road Warrior. There’s no future in sight, no new community trying to rebuild or even farm, and no women, at least not out in the open. This is not just a man’s world, it is male brutality and misogyny at its worst, and women are treated like salvage to be used and discarded.

Vic (Don Johnson), a dim, feral kid running on attitude and impulse, survives this world because he’s teamed up with Blood, an erudite telepathic dog (the voice of Tim McIntire out of a mutt that looks like Benji on the skids) bred for war. Johnson was in his mid-twenties at the time but looks younger and he plays Vic as an uncivilized creature of pure testosterone and adolescent impulse, an idiot child who has survival skills without the smarts or the instinct. He’d likely be dead without the cynical, sarcastic Blood, whose job is to sniff out females for Vic but is also the brains of the partnership. The wisecracking from Blood at times borders on arrogant and disdainful, which is what makes the relationship so vivid. They are a true bickering couple who, like it or not, need each other.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Nov 23 2013

Videophiled TV on Disc: Another Season in the ‘Treme’


Treme: The Complete Third Season (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD) continues the complicated and sophisticated mix of cultural exploration, social drama, and political commentary of the HBO series about life in New Orleans after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina.

This season, which opens in the fall of 2007, takes on the rebuilding of the city and the influx of outside money and insider politics to shape the city in a different image against the interests of many of the citizens. It also continues the series-long investigation into the cover-up of police misconduct in the weeks following the hurricane with Melissa Leo’s attorney taking on the police department, which forms the most dramatic story of the season.

But as before, this is a grand quilt of a show embracing all aspects of New Orleans life and culture, and creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer continue to offer a complex, politically-relevant show that explores the city by engaging with the culture and the controversies of New Orleans through the experiences of characters at all levels of society. Music plays a defining role in the series, and along with the rich array of New Orleans music (old-style jazz, R&B, rock and roll, brass brand, traditional chanting, and more) and the stories of musicians trying to sustain careers in difficult times, there are guest appearances by Fats Domino and the Neville Brothers, among others. And New Orleans food and restaurant culture is explored through the story of a chef (played by Kim Dickens), who returns home from New York this season to open a new restaurant with a partner she doesn’t completely trust in a storyline that was developed with Anthony Bourdain, who joined the show as a contributing writer this season. The ensemble also includes Wendell Pierce, Clarke Peters, handi Alexander, Rob Brown, David Morse, Jon Seda, and Steve Zahn, among others. A short fourth and final season will run on HBO at the end of 2013.

Ten episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, plus commentary on five episodes, select music commentary, and three featurettes. The Blu-ray includes two additional interactive features about the music and culture of New Orleans.


Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season 5 (Paramount, Blu-ray) opens with the conclusion of the Season Four cliffhanger that left the Klingon Empire hanging in the balance, brings back Denise Crosby as a cunning Romulan commander, guest stars Leonard Nimoy in the memorable two-part galaxy-threatening “Unification,” and concludes with another cliffhanger, this one involving Data’s decapitated head, Mark Twain, and a visit to 1890. Other highlights include the first appearance of the rebellious and angry loner “Ensign Ro”(Michelle Forbes), “The Game,” in which an addictive toy makes the Enterprise crew mind slaves but for Wesley and a guest starring Ashley Judd, and “I, Borg,” where the crew befriends an orphaned Borg soldier while plotting to infect the entire Borg colony with a virus. On the other hand, Worf’s son Alexander returns in this season (when will they learn: children and starships don’t mix!).

Continue reading at Cinephiled

Oct 03 2013

‘The Omega Man’ on TCM

In the 1970s, science fiction cinema took a turn to dystopian nightmares. Not that such things were unknown in earlier films — in the wake of the atomic bomb there were a number of nuclear Armageddon movies — but the increasing number of films (and causes for the end of the world) reflected a shift from optimism to pessimism. The world was coming to an end thanks to pollution (Silent Running, 1972), overpopulation (Soylent Green, 1973), ecological collapse (No Blade of Grass, 1970), and of course good old nuclear war (A Boy and His Dog, 1975), not to mention whatever disaster causes Night of the Living Dead (1968).

The Omega Man (1971), the second film based on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, is the story of the last human in a world decimated by plague. Charlton Heston read Matheson’s novel during a jet-set commute from Britain to America and thought there was a movie in it. He didn’t realize at the time it had previously been made as The Last Man on Earth (1964), an American-Italian coproduction starring Vincent Price as the title character, but decided to go ahead after screening the earlier version (“fortunately for us, though it starred my friend Vincent Price, it was a pretty torpid piece,” he recalled in his autobiography) and Warner Bros. signed on to produce. Heston was the man of action for dystopian science fiction of the day. He had previously taken on the simian rulers of Planet of the Apes (1968) and went on to star in Soylent Green, an adaptation of Harry Harrison’s grim overpopulation novel Make Room! Make Room!. The Omega Man, by contrast, would leave Heston alone on screen for much of the film. He is, after all, the last man on Earth, or so he believes.

In Matheson’s original story, a plague wipes out humanity but leaves a few survivors infected with vampire-like symptoms, an element that was preserved in The Last Man on Earth. In The Omega Man, the plague is germ warfare, a theme very much current in the early 1970s, and the victims aren’t nuclear-age vampires but albino night dwellers, a mutant breed by way of a religious cult that sees humanity as the real plague.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Nov 06 2012

Blu-ray Election Day Special: ‘They Live’ all over again!

You can argue that They Live: Collector’s Edition (Shout! Factory) would have been a perfect Halloween week release. And you’d be right, of course. John Carpenter’s skewed invasion movie is witty and weird and has the most extreme knock-down, drag-out fistfight ever.

But I have to say, it’s weirdly even more perfect as an election-day release. Because really, who are these economic invaders from outer space but… Mitt Romney and the 1%.

Before I get inundated with hate-mail from conservative-leaning readers, let me make clear that, although Romney was nowhere in John Carpenter’s mind back in 1988 when the film was released, the politics were always pointed in his direction. The story is science fiction but Carpenter was driven by the inequities in society where the rich were getting richer, the middle class was disappearing, and the economic game was rigged by those with money and power. It was timely then and looks even more prescient now.

Roddy Piper’s working class hero John Nada, a man with no politics and a deep-seeded belief in the tenets of hard work and essential fairness, becomes a two-fisted activist when the veil is lifted (thanks to a pair of high-tech x-ray glasses). Piper is a brawny, broad presence, not much of an actor but spirited and likable, and Keith David is marvelous as his reluctant partner in rebellion, providing a moral grounding to Piper’s B-movie activism when the lie is revealed. Earth has become a third world colony for interstellar “free enterprisers” who preach the gospel of unregulated capitalism and the promise of advancement through hard work and perseverance while insidiously sabotaging all human efforts to get ahead. Their main took for control: subliminal messages, media control, and consumerist greed.

And two-fisted is the operative term here, as confirmed in the entertainingly interminable knock-down, drag-out alley brawl between Piper and Keith David. This is a classic example of genre filmmaking with a political punch, albeit in broad, sloganeering terms. “I’m here to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and I’m fresh out of bubblegum,” shouts Nada in blue-collar guerilla mode when he steps into a bank and starts blasting the skull-faced aliens. It’s a ridiculous line and, weirdly, has become something of a pop culture slogan among a certain breed of genre geek.

Continue reading at Videodrone

Nov 05 2012

New Release: ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’

The Amazing Spider-Man (Sony) – Street Date: Friday, November 9

Barely a decade after Sam Raimi first launched the “Spider-Man” film series and helped ignite the superhero big screen bonanza, the comic book hero’s story is rebooted and retold in a universe far from “The Avengers.”

Andrew Garfield takes on Peter Parker this time as a decidedly hipper high school nerd and Emma Stone is spunky girlfriend Gwen Stacy, a pair of bubbly personalities that help buoy this second run through the same basic origin story (high school boy bitten by radioactive spider, sudden powers, death of beloved Uncle Ben, yadda yadda yadda).

Director Marc Webb attempts to retool the whole thing with a more authentic (or at least contemporary) cliché of high school culture and the screenwriters add a conspiratorial twist to the death of Peter’s parents that leads to a potential ally, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), and the film’s new villain, The Lizard. (Fans of the comic book expected The Lizard to scramble out in the first series, what with Dylan Baker appearing as Connors back “Spider-Man 2,” but that’s another issue.)

None of this approaches the exhilaration of the first thrilling swings through New York City or the guilt, the rush, the angst, the responsibility, the teen emotional life that Raimi brought to the first “Spider-Man” origin. Webb brings momentum and splash to the film without actually pulling us into the charge of Peter’s new power and tosses us into yet another showdown between plucky misfit hero and monstrous supervillain with a personal stake in the fight.

Five years after Raimi closed the original trilogy, the superhero movie has changed the big screen landscape and it’s no longer enough to pretend it’s all happening for the first time in a world where superheroes don’t exist. Give Webb credit for the terrific chemistry between Garfield and Stone, but otherwise this rehash that adds nothing new to what is fast becoming a familiar formula.

Continue reading at Videodrone

Oct 23 2012

Blu-ray: ‘Blade Runner’ at 30

Blade Runner 30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition (Warner) – In 2007, 25 years after Ridley Scott’s visionary reworking of Philip K. Dick’s novel flopped at the box office (and was subsequently reborn as one of the preeminent cult movies of the past three decades), Scott delivered what he promises is his final take on the compromised classic.

The setting is the near future, where the only escape from a planet-wide urban blight is the promise of the off-world frontier advertised on ever-present floating billboards, but five Replicants (slave clones with genetically stamped short shelf lives) have returned to Earth in search of themselves. Harrison Ford is a throwback to the classic Hollywood P-I in a futuristic film noir, a rumpled loner detective sent to hunt down escaped Replicants in the polyglot cultural stew of the rain-slicked streets in the ground-level slums. Much of PKD’s original story is discarded, but the densely realized street subculture looks more prescient than ever, and Scott’s sensibility turns the pulp story into a dystopian odyssey.

The original release featured dreary voice-over narration and a happy ending that made hash of the whole polluted planet premise, and the original VHS home video release featured the longer, international cut of the film. A workprint discovered in 1990 (and briefly released before Scott pulled it back) inspired a 1991 “Director’s Cut” version, sans the narration and happy ending and featuring a unicorn dream. But that was still a compromise version, as far as Scott was concerned, and he came back one more time for “The Final Cut,” a definitive version full of minor adjustments (with subtle reverberations) and major corrections (Scott reshot the death of Zhora to get rid of a glaringly unconvincing body double), and the digital enhancements both refine the special effects and deliver a sparkling image. The remixed sound adds more density to the experience.

Continue reading at Videodrone

Oct 10 2012

Blu-ray: ‘E.T.: The Extraterrestrial’

E.T.: The Extraterrestrial – Anniversary Edition (Universal) – Steven Spielberg’s suburban fairy tale for kids who think they are too hip to believe in fairies debuts on Blu-ray in its original, uncut, untampered form.

Henry Thomas is Elliot, an emotionally bruised kid suffering under his parents’ separation who finds and bonds with another lonely, lost soul, a benevolent alien left behind when his spaceship leaves. “I’m keeping him,” says Elliot, but meanwhile an army of government men search for him. As E.T. grows homesick and just plain sick. Elliot and friends need to help get E.T. home.

It’s a fantastical adventure with a grounding in the modern suburbia of divorce and adolescent anxiety, and E.T. is the ultimate imaginary playmate come to life. Part pet, part best friend, part guardian angel with an emotionally symbiotic connection to Elliot, this funny looking stranger in a strange land (think of a squat, mutant teddy bear with lizard skin and monkey fingers and voice between a growl and a purr) is a wizened old grandfatherly being with the trust and playfulness of a child.

Steven Spielberg is a technical wizard without a doubt and he seamlessly brings actors and effects together, but none of the special effects have the charge of Henry Thomas laughing in joy as his bicycle takes flight over the forest and across the full moon. That image has since become the corporate logo for Amblin Entertainment and it’s a little tainted for it, but the excited, spontaneous shouts of pleasure are as genuine as ever.

Continue reading at Videodrone

Oct 08 2012

Blu-ray/DVD: The Cosmic Mysteries of ‘Prometheus’

Ridley Scott has taken pains to explain that Prometheus (Fox) is not a prequel to Alien, but a film that comes from the same DNA. That’s a bit disingenuous, considering how meticulously (and often very cleverly) it sets up the building blocks of Alien, but his pointed use of the term DNA is telling. It opens with a very different answer to Genesis, where Earth is seeded with alien genetic material, and then jumps ahead a few billion years to follow a crew of scientists (including Noomi Rapace) retracing an ancient trail through the stars left behind by the ancients.

Mirroring Alien, we have a colorful crew (this time mostly scientists), a corporate directive (monitored by Charlize Theron), and an android (Michael Fassbender, superb) on the bridge charged with completing that directive, but otherwise this is far from the gothic monster movie of the 1979 original. At its most ambitious, Prometheus plants suggestions of the extraterrestrial origins of life on Earth, a Godlike race sowing genetic seeds across galaxy, and even an Old Testament-like sense of retribution, or at the very least a feeling of failure that calls for a reboot.

With all this happening, I’m left with a nagging question: How can Ridley Scott have such a sophisticated visual intelligence, creating screen worlds engineered in such detail as to suggest entire cultures behind the designs and technology, and then fill those worlds with characters who are supposed to be scientists yet act like kids in a playroom? Seriously, the reason these supposedly top scientists of the late 21st century keep yelling “Don’t touch anything” to each other is because otherwise they’ll fingerpaint their way through the most important scientific discoveries since the mapping of the human genome.

The script fails to match its ambition, but at least give it credit for big ideas, unexpected conceptual turns, and a dense and dramatic visual experience. “Prometheus” hints at something bigger, more cosmic and philosophically daring, than what the characters actually manage to grapple with on screen. And for all its failures in the realm of human behavior, the cosmic mystery behind the story is enigmatic and remains so to the end. In leaving us with mysteries, it offers something far more satisfying than a reductive answer. It leaves us with possibilities.

Continue reading at Videodrone

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